In our journey through the Book of Ruth, we come to the pivotal move to Moab. On January 16, we saw that “there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” Now we learn a little more, “The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.” (Ruth 1:2-4)
In what we may think is our familiarity with the story of Ruth-how she was faithful and left her homeland of Moab to come to Bethlehem with Naomi-we might skip over the surprising, perhaps even shocking implications of Elimelech’s decision to uproot his family and move to Moab. If you look at an Old Testament map, you will see that Moab is located on the east side of the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea as it was called in ancient times). To get to Moab from Bethlehem would have been at least a 30-mile trek to the Jordan and then a river crossing. Once in Moab, this Hebrew man and his family would have needed to find a place to live. We are not told what town in Moab Elimelich settled in, so we don’t know how far into this foreign country they went.
It can be difficult to determine how to live in the midst of a culture that is not like you are accustomed to. While it does not compare to moving to a foreign country, I moved many times as a child. Each new home was a chance not only for new friends, but also to experience a slightly different lifestyle. The big city school and friends gave way to a small-town grade school where it was hard to make new friends because everyone knew everyone already. By the time I entered High School, 3 schools later, I had to make the conscious effort to be outgoing and try to meet new friends. I’m glad I did because one of those new friends had a brother, who I later married.
Changes in our life circumstances can affect our faith and relationship with God. In my book Naomi’s Joy, Naomi is concerned that they are sinning by leaving Bethlehem. Eventually she becomes content with the new life she and her family have found in Moab. It is strange in some ways, but the longer they live there the more familiar it becomes. The family works hard to maintain the ways taught by Moses. There is real soul searching when her sons want to marry Moabite girls. Elimelech struggles with the reality of their new life far from other Jews.
“Naomi, I must think,” the man held up a hand before I spoke. “I have to consider the future of my sons and my heritage. Our possessions have multiplied. Mahlon is right to say that unless he marries a Moabite the lineage of Elimelech will die.”
“The god of Jacob has blessed us. You have said that is proof of blessing.” I sought to ease the torment by reminding the man of his own words.
“Dare I disobey the word of Moses?” A big hand ran through his hair until it stood up in front instead of lying in neat square bangs similar to all the men of Moab.
“My husband,” kneeling beside the man I tried to smooth the hair. He pushed me away. “Ruth wants to know more of our ways and leave the gods of this land.”
“Do you know that?” Hopeful eyes looked at me across the short distance.
“Yes,” I did not know if he could see my nod in the meager light of the sliver of a moon rising in the east.
The man made no reply.
“She has prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I hoped the girl would forgive any breach of confidence. “It was Ruth who helped with the Passover. She hung on every word of the story.”
“I will think on it,” still my husband did not sound convinced.
“Moses himself wed a foreigner,” I whispered softly as a final argument.
“Be silent,” Elimelech flung himself onto the pallet with his back to me.
As we know from the Biblical citation, the sons of Naomi and Elimelech do marry Moabite girls. In my novel, Naomi prays that they will bear children.
“Truly we are the chosen of God,” I marveled, at peace with the Holy One. “I see that you do bless us here. You heard my prayers and have brought wives into my sons’ homes. My daughter will find a husband and I will hold grandchildren in my arms. May Ruth and Orpah be fruitful in your eyes.”
Naomi’s prayer does come true, but certainly not in the way she expected, as we will see as we venture deeper into the story of the family and Ruth’s faithfulness to her mother-in-law.
As you look back over your life and faith journey, are you able to see the Hand of God in the various changes along the way?
Have you ever had to stand up for your faith?
How can we remain true to the faith we have been taught and believe when our neighbors do not believe and the world belittles religion?
Next time, we’ll see how Naomi fares when God seems to strike at her heart in the death of those she loves.