A Tale that Had to be Told
6 May 2006, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
A TALE THAT HAD TO BE TOLD
Most of us, whether we are old or young, enjoy a good story, particularly biographical stories that outline the lives and adventures of people in history. Oft times these stories can help us gain new ideas and receive values and directions adding to our own life experiences.
The Scriptures make good use of this narrative approach and many of the stories we find within its pages are ones we have often been exposed to from early childhood. Not only in our homes, but also at school and at church.
This morning I want to share with you a tale that just had to be told. A story that was originally seen as an appendix to one of the books found in the Old Testament. In one of the oldest versions of the Scriptures called the Septuagint or LXX, so named after its seventy translators, is found this Hebrew epic or tale. It was to be incorporated at the end of a document we now call the book of Judges. At the time it was written there was no separate title given to it (Nichol, 1972: 424). However, the position of this small book within the Old Testament writings was to remain the same as that now found in the KJV and all modern translations. This document, situated between the book of Judges and the book we call 1 Samuel, is only four chapters in length.
Today, bible scholars can only guess as to who the author was.
However, because of its position in the later Hebrew Scriptures and its original attachment to the book of Judges written by the prophet Samuel, many commentators today, with the support of Jewish tradition, claim Samuel as the writer (Ibid).
If this is true, then this story about a young Moabite woman called Ruth was written by one of the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets. This quiet story about an ordinary life was to contrast with the war and strife of that period and was believed to be a tale that had to be told.
Why was it necessary for this story to be shared with us? Why was it that the author of this book was to step aside from the barbaric and lawless times in Israel to tell us this beautiful epic of an ordinary life?
Our tale is mainly about three women who, in human terms, become objects of pity, finding themselves dependent on charity. We need to recognise that in the society of the time, women were to be wholly dependent on their fathers and husbands for provision. They could inherit property only in exceptional circumstances and under very strict rules.
The story of these women goes on to reveal some astonishing information. In a world where religion was to mean power, we find God's special concern for 'the helpless' (Alexander, 1999: 251).
Here we find God intimately concerned about the humble affairs of life. It shows that He is the one who orders all the circumstances of daily life, even for those who seem to be unimportant. It is here we see the new found faith of a Moabite girl, and her sacrificial love for her mother-in-law, woven into the great tapestry of God's plan of Salvation. We know all this to be true, because descended from Ruth is King David, and from the line of David comes the Messiah himself (Ibid). This is a link in the genealogy of Jesus Christ that we otherwise would not have had, and it is this book that provides the missing piece of the puzzle.
This story also establishes that among the ancestors of Jesus are four women of extraordinary backgrounds and reputation. They are Tamar, the daughter-in-law and wife of Judah, Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho; Ruth from the heathen nation of Moab; and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite and then of David. Regardless of the unusual and often shameful circumstances of each of their lives, both Gentile and Jew are to be found in the bloodline of the coming Messiah. In this revelation there is a lesson for everyone about God's all encompassing love, about His forgiveness, and about His desire, one day, to have us all in His Kingdom. If God was prepared to work through these women and the circumstances of their lives, He can work through you and I.
While it would seem that the chief purpose behind the book of Ruth is to establish the linage of the Messiah, it also provides for us an amazing insight into God's dealings with all mankind and shows His wonderful overruling providence. We are told that God chooses a beautiful heathen girl, led her to Bethlehem and made her the bride of a godly man called Boaz - a man whose heritage, interestingly enough, is half Jew and half Canaanite.
It is in this story that we are provided with a picture of God's amazing grace (Mears, 1983: 108).
Someone has beautifully said that the book of Ruth '…lies like a pearl between the ermine of the judges and the purple of the kings' (Dept of Education, GC of SDA, 1957: 280).
This is a precious book. It reminds us that always there are some unpretentious individuals who love and serve God, and that the Lord knows who they are, and cares for them in a very special way. Math 6: 8 tells us that 'Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.'
Well, what do we know about the times in which this story unfolds?
In an opening statement, Ruth 1: 1 tells us that the story takes place during the 'dark days' of the Judges and this history is accounted for in the book of the same name. Let me tell you this morning that the book of Judges is a most disturbing book and makes for very sad reading.
In Judges 2: 11; 17: 6 we see God's people succumbing to apostasy, depravity, strife, hatred and every possible perversion or distortion of His plan for them. Judges 21: 25 describes these days when Israel had no king, and when '…every man did that which was right in his own eyes'.
This was a time of trouble for the nation of Israel
Even the worship of God had become a mere formality and the leading priests had become corrupt. For example, we read in Judges 18 and 19 of a Levite priest who hired himself out to the highest bidder, and another who cuts his concubine into twelve pieces and sends them out to all the tribes of Israel.
These people did not live according to the law, but according to their own impulses and inclinations. This was an age of barbarism and lawlessness.
However, we need to recognise that even in the worst of times people must still continue to live out their lives. In the chaos of this particular period of history, people were still required to make decisions that would eventually result in either serving God or turning from Him. We can never escape that responsibility and we are left without excuse for not doing God's will (Wheeler, 1987: 8)
We need to remember that it is possible to live a godly life at any time if we but respond to God's leading whenever He calls (Ibid).
It was out of this dark and evil period of Israel's history that we find there were still a small number of people who followed God.
Well what do we know about the Moabite nation where Ruth was born and where was it located in relation to Israel?
Moab was a small kingdom that was believed to have existed from 2500-600 BC. It was situated on a high plateau immediately east of the Dead Sea in an area once called the Transjordan and was situated between the Waddies Arnon and Zered. The huge rift valley encompassing the Dead Sea at its base was to form an effective western boundary between themselves and Judah, and then to the East we find the Arabian Desert. Even at the height of its power, ancient Moab encompassed a relatively small territory. It was approximately 57 kilometres or 35 miles long and 40 kilometres or 25 mile wide and while the plateau was relatively high it was dissected with many deep and rugged gorges. In-between these ravines were areas of gently rolling land that were well known for their abundant pastureland (2 Kings 3: 4). The soil and good climate made it quite suitable for growing wheat and barley and it was this ability during the times of severe drought affecting surrounding areas that was to make it so attractive to some of the neighbouring tribes.
Running through the heart of Moab was a major trade route from Syria to the Gulf of Aquabah called 'The King's Highway'. It was this important piece of infrastructure that brought much of the wealth, prosperity and culture to Moab from as early as 2500 BC.
It was to be from the heights of Mount Nebo in the land of Moab that Moses first glimpsed the Promised Land and where he was to be buried after his death (Num 27: 12-23). It was also the refusal of King Balak of Moab to allow the Israelites to travel through their land on 'The King's Highway' that brought about some of the more notable military campaigns against them during that period (Joshua 24: 9). While God's chosen people were not instructed to annihilate them, or forbidden to marry them, the Moabites, as a result of this original refusal, were forbidden to enter into the tabernacle of God until the tenth generation (Deut 20: 10-20; 21: 10-14; 23: 3).
What then were their connections with Israel and what type of people were they?
Although the Moabites were of mixed ethnic background, Genesis 19: 30-38 tells us that most of them were descendants of a man called Moab who was the son of a sinful union between Lot and his eldest daughter. This incestuous relationship was to be the base on which this race of people was to grow. Because Lot was the nephew of Abraham the Moabites were, in one sense, relatives of the Israelites.
Ruth was a Moabite, and as such, was a member of a nation that had consistently plotted to destroy Israel. In Numbers 22: 1-6 we read how they used the incantations of a prophet called Balaam to bring about their enemy's destruction. After this failed we read in Numbers 25: 1-9, 16-18 of their partial success in using the Moabite women to entice the young men of Israel into a form of idolatry that involved ritual sexual immorality.
Well, what do we know about their religion?
While the Moabites were not Canaanites, their religion tended to be very similar, but it eventually developed into a more distinct system during the second and third millennia BC (Ilumina Gold Encyclopaedia, 2004). While they had a number of deities, Chemosh was to become their national God and was often referred to as 'The God of War'. This idol was worshipped by the sacrificing of children as burnt offerings and this sad state of affairs is recorded in 2 kings 3: 26,27 where King Mesha, after his defeat by the Israelites, offered his eldest son as a burnt offering on the wall of Kir Hareseth, capital of Moab (Ibid).
The despicable influence of this God was to extend its evil tentacles right down to the time of Solomon This King, who included Moabite women in his harem, built a special high place for Chemosh so these heathen women could worship there.
The nation of Israel was relatively weak during the period of the judges, which allowed Moab to encroach on new territories east of the Jordan River as far as Jericho. This nation was to remain an enemy for a long period of time and it was this situation that provided the background to the story of Ruth.
Even though Moab was a pagan nation and was hostile to its Israelite neighbour, this was the place that an Ephrathite man from Bethlehem called Elimalech was to take his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, during a time of severe famine. While it would seem that Elimelech was prepared to take the law into his own hands, disobeying God's requirement to only inhabit the land of Palestine, the book of Ruth, neither condemns or approves of the family's flight to Moab. It would seem that God always begins to work with people where they are, seeking to bring good out of any situation (Rom 8: 28).
It is not surprising then that their two boys, growing up among these heathen people, would sooner or later choose to marry out of the faith. While marriage to a non-believer was forbidden by God because of the possible compromise of beliefs, both boys fell in love with two beautiful girls who were called Orpah and Ruth.
You know the story as told in Ruth chapter 1.
We read here that after living in this pagan country for a short time Elimelech dies leaving Naomi a widow. This situation was devastating enough, but to lose her two sons as well would have been traumatic. According to the customs of the time, a women's value and her sense of self-worth largely rested in her relationship to the men in her life, whether they were her father, a husband or sons. There was almost nothing worse than being a widow in the ancient world where they were usually poverty stricken, taken advantage of, or totally ignored. For her to lose all her male support at this time would have been overwhelming. However, Naomi served a God who cared and through a strange set of providences He would bring her to her people again.
Naomi now finds herself having to make some important decisions while living in a strange land with two foreign daughters-in-law at a time when society did not provide for circumstances such as this.
Hearing reports from Bethlehem that the famine had now ended, Naomi prepares to go home. Ruth 1: 6 tells us that the Lord had granted His people bread.
While ancient Near Eastern custom now called for the two girls to return to the families of their fathers until they could remarry (Gen 38: 11, Lev 22: 13), and while urged by Naomi to do the same, both Orpha and Ruth at that time choose to stay with their mother-in-law. This meant returning with her to a foreign and perhaps hostile land and mixing with people who held different customs and traditions.
Why did they make this unexpected decision? - A decision that seemed to go against all reason and common sense.
It would seem that Naomi's unselfish life had been one that reflected an intricate knowledge of the true God of heaven. We need to recognise that God often reveals Himself to others by a demonstration of His love through sinful human beings.
However, after Naomi had explained what their decision would entail, Orpha is persuaded to return home. On the other hand, Ruth 1: 18 tells us emphatically that her other daughter-in-law 'clung to her'.
What was Ruth's response? Let's read Ruth 1: 16. NKJV
'But Ruth said:
Entreat me not to leave you, OR to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.'
This response, apart from being a literary masterpiece, was one of the finest personal testimonies ever recorded in the Bible.
'Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.'
In this response Ruth was renouncing her former life in order to gain a new life that she considered of greater value. She had discovered that it was Naomi's faith that made her such a special person and she was now willing to be joined to Naomi's people and to her God, both in life and death.
The cord that drew Ruth was twisted in two strands and represented both her love to Naomi and her love for Naomi's god.
This decision, which was not only to revolutionise her life, was also to change the history of the world.
God's wonderful power of mercy and grace now allows this one-time heathen woman to enter the linage of David and consequently that of the coming Messiah.
Ruth and Naomi's return to Bethlehem was certainly part of God's overruling providence because in this town, surrounded by lush fields and olive groves, the shepherd boy David would eventually be born (1Sam 16: 1). We are also told in Micah 5: 2 that a prediction made by the resident prophet made clear that Jesus Christ would also be born there.
This move to Bethlehem then, was to be more than a mere coincidence because it was to lead to the fulfilment of Scripture.
It was in Bethlehem that providence was further to guide Ruth to the field of a man called Boaz, one of her deceased husband's near relatives.
You know the story very well as told in Chapter 2,3, and 4.
Ruth volunteers to glean the fields by following the reapers and picking up the small amounts left behind. This generous provision for the poor was part of the welfare laws given to Israel by God and had a three-fold purpose.
Let's read Deut 24: 17-19. NIV
'Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of a widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
V19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back and get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord God may bless you in all the work of your hands.'
First, these laws were to teach the landholders to exercise generosity and prevent the hoarding of produce. Second, they enabled the needy to develop some initiative. Third, they were to bring honour and gratitude to the name of God because of His making of this provision.
It is while working in the fields that Ruth comes to the attention of Boaz who becomes attracted to her, not only because of her industry and initiative, but because of her loyalty and devotion to Naomi. Boaz also recognises her spiritual insight, which led her to seek after Israel's God '…under whose wings', he says, 'you have come to take refuge' (Ruth 1: 12). We need to remember that a good reputation is formed by the people who watch you at work and at home and it comes about by consistently living out the values you believe in no matter where you are.
As a result, Ruth is allowed to return to the fields, this time to reap from the unharvested grain. This unorthodox treatment of a foreigner shows Boaz' desire to go well beyond the intent of the gleaners law and to provide for her out of his great wealth and abundance.
It was at this time that Naomi, after discovering the identity of Boaz, remembers 'the law of redemption' as described in Deut. 25: 5-10. According to Jewish custom, the nearest relative to the deceased husband could, if they were willing, become a kinsman redeemer and marry the widow. This required Ruth, according to custom, to approach Boaz by lying at his feet and even share a part of his garment. By observing this custom Ruth would be able to inform Boaz that he could be her family redeemer. In essence, this was basically a proposal for marriage and was to take place while Boaz was spending the night at the threshing floor, guarding the harvest (Ruth 3: 7-11).
While this whole procedure seemed to be a businesslike arrangement, Boaz had already lost his heart to this young girl and the story later shows that their relationship was to blossom into an unselfish love and a deep respect for each other.
The implications of this situation for Ruth were enormous. If Boaz agreed to marry her, she would not only have a home of her own, but would also be able to perpetuate the name and preserve the heritage of her deceased husband. Under Israel's laws the child, if a boy, would be reckoned as Naomi's child and heir.
However, because there is another kinsman closer than himself Boaz tells Ruth in Chap 3: 11-13 not to be afraid and that he would settle the matter that very next day at the city gates. Knowing he would suffer some financial loss, the nearer kinsman was unwilling to marry Ruth and thus relinquished his rights by the custom of taking off the shoe and giving it to the new owner. This action was symbolic of the land rights associated with the inheritance.
Boaz now assumes all responsibilities and this leaves the way open for him to marry Ruth. This marriage was to result in the birth of a little boy called Obed, the father of Jesse who was to be the father of David and through David to our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.
Boaz gives us a picture of God and more particularly that of Jesus who, like him, welcomes Gentiles into the family of faith. He is our Kinsman-redeemer. Ruth discovered that the God of Israel welcomes all who are willing to put their trust in Him and so it was with confidence that she could take refuge under 'His mighty wings'.
What have we really learnt from this beautiful story of an ordinary life?
We learn that the God of heaven accepts all who worship Him and He will work through people regardless of their race, sex, or nationality.
This book is a perfect example of God's impartiality.
In it we also learn of God's sovereignty and His kindness and compassion to an undeserving people. While it was an era of great lawlessness and unfaithfulness, God still sustained and blessed His people.
We learn that God was able to bring great blessings out of Naomi's tragedy, even greater than 'seven sons', or an abundance of heirs (Ruth 4: 15).
This book displays the providence of God, the hidden way in which God works out His purpose, even through the most difficult and bewildering circumstances of life. In this we find God's special concern for the helpless and He still does this for us today.
When God steps into the ordinary events of life they can take on extraordinary significance and produce, in this case, a real happy-ever-after ending to a story that initially began in the 'darkest of times'. We need to remember that no matter how dark the days may be, God always preserves a remnant. God knows who loves Him, regardless of who they are and where they are, and He cares for them in a very special way.
This book also provides us with a wonderful insight into the role of the Gentile world in God's 'unfolding drama of redemption'. We need to remember that it was through God's mercy for all mankind that He permitted a woman from a heathen background to enter the bloodline of the Messiah giving us an authentication of the line of David. Had the Jewish nation understood the lessons in this book, they should have been looking for a Messiah who was to save all people from their sins.
From this story we also learn and are reminded that our actions good or bad can have a major impact on future generations. The godly lives of Ruth and Boaz were not only a blessing to Naomi, but they were a blessing to all subsequent generations. The love that Ruth had for her mother-in-law, Naomi, provides a pattern of devotion for all people in every age. If we would but practice love and sympathy toward our fellow men it is possible that they, in turn, could say as Ruth to Naomi that 'Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.'
This was a tale that just had to be told.
Alexander, P & D (1999) The New Lion Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing plc.
Dept of Education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1957) Life and Times of the Old Testament. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Ilumina Gold - Digitally Animated Bible and Encyclopedia Suite. (2004) Life Application Commentary/Concise and Comprehensive Commentaries, Tyndale.
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is all About. Ventura, California: Regal Books
Nichols, F. D. (1972) The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 2. Washington DC: review & Herald Publishing Association.
Wheeler, G. (1987) Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. Washington DC: Pacific Press Publishing Association
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