Courage for life Blog

Naomi and Ruth: God’s Mercy in Action

April 24, 2024

What is your perspective of God? Do you view God as harsh or merciful? If you know God to be merciful, do you live a life that influences others to want God and to view God as real, active, and relevant to their everyday life?

God provides the account of a woman named Ruth in the Old Testament of the Bible as an example of how one committed life can influence others to believe in and follow God but also shows how merciful God truly is toward all people.

For context, Ruth’s life story appears in the Bible book entitled by her name Ruth, which is profound since Ruth is not a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel (i.e., God’s people), but rather is a Moabite. In this book, Ruth is esteemed as a follower and worshiper of God during a historical period when many of God’s people were disobedient, and their history is described as turbulent while judges ruled the land of Israel.

The last chapters of the book of Judges describe this period of wickedness, immorality, and spiritual decay when God’s people did whatever was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 18:11; 19:1; and 21:25). God’s people’s attitudes and behaviors resulted in many adverse conditions: civil strife, apostasy, disorganization, war, drought, and famine. God warned His people that these conditions would happen if they chose to reject their covenant with Him and live in rebellion and disobedience against God, but they did anyway.

During a famine, a man named Elimelech from the city of Bethlehem decided to leave God’s land, his place of worship, and his family/God’s people to travel to a distant land occupied by foreigners (i.e., the term used in the Old Testament to describe those who were not God’s people). This man’s family sojourned to Moab, meaning that they were planning to be temporary residents just until the conditions in their land changed to be more favorable to live in.

Elimelech’s decision to live in Moab seems unusual and potentially dangerous. First, the city of Bethlehem is called the “House of Bread” in the Bible and means “fruitful.” Why would a famine occur in Bethlehem, a fertile and fruitful land? In the Old Testament, God allowed enemies to overtake His people. Often a famine would occur in the land, which was God’s merciful discipline over a period in hopes that His people would repent and turn back to God instead of continuing in their rebellion and disobedience against Him (Leviticus 26:18-20; Deuteronomy 28:15, 23-24). During the time of the judges, God’s people repeatedly turned from God and worshiped the idols of the pagan nations around them (Judges 2:10-19). God would discipline them out of His mercy and love. However, both those seeking God and the ungodly (those rebelling against God; worshipers of pagan gods) would suffer the consequences of the ungodly people’s attitudes and behaviors toward God.

Second, why would God’s people in God’s land travel to a foreign land, Moab? The Moabites were descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his firstborn daughter (Genesis 19:30-38), and the Moabites had persecuted God’s people on their journey from Egypt, their exodus from slavery to God’s promised land (Deuteronomy 23:3-6; Numbers 22:1-25:18). The Moabites also oppressed God’s people for 18 years during the time of the judges (Judges 3:12-14).

Elimelech decided to move his family outside of God’s land to a land of people who worshiped pagan gods and had persecuted God’s people throughout history. Although Scripture indicates Elimelech planned to make Moab a temporary home, tragedy came to his family when he died, leaving his wife and two sons in Moab. Both sons marry Moabite women, and both sons die, leaving their mother, Naomi, with two Moabite daughters-in-law, named Ruth and Orpah.

Famine and death were the circumstances of these women’s lives. In fact, the mother, Naomi, calls her life circumstances “bitter” (Ruth 1:13b, 20), indicating the unpleasantness and harsh reality of her life. However, Naomi hears the famine is over in Bethlehem and acknowledges that God has provided (Ruth 1:6). Even in the unpleasant and harsh reality of her life, Naomi acknowledges God as her provider, all-powerful, and sovereign. Naomi maintained her relationship with God even during her sojourn for more than ten years in Moab.

When Naomi hears the famine is over, she makes plans to return to Bethlehem with her two daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:7). Early in the journey, Naomi requests that both her daughters-in-law return to the homes of their mothers (Ruth 1:8a).

This request is confusing because why would Naomi want her daughters-in-law to remain in a foreign land with foreign gods? Why would she not want her daughters-in-law to return with her to God’s land? Maybe Naomi had genuine compassion for the young women realizing neither would have a chance to marry again or ever bear children if they came with her. In fact, Naomi voices a prayer to God asking Him to bestow a blessing on her daughters-in-law.

And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage. Ruth 1:8b-9

Maybe Naomi remembered the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy about Moabites and knew the rejection her daughters-in-law would endure if they entered the land of Judah with Naomi.

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. … As long as you live, you must never promote the welfare and prosperity of the Ammonites or Moabites. Deuteronomy 23:3, 6

Naomi would have understood this law to mean exclusion from the assembly of God and that her daughters-in-law would have no future husbands among God’s people—at least, that’s what she thought this law meant. With this mindset, how could Naomi not plead with her daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s home?

Ruth and Orpah could not possibly comprehend the intense exclusion and rejection that they would face if they returned to God’s land. Still, Naomi knew from her own experience the past 10+ years in Moab what it was like to live in a foreign land. Ruth and Orpah responded by weeping and genuine mourning, but they refused to go back to their land (Ruth 1:10). Therefore, Naomi countered their emotions with a rational response. Naomi wanted them to think clearly about their decision to travel to God’s land and live among God’s people. Naomi functions from a worldview that God has chosen to have a covenant relationship with a specific people in a promised land and no one else.

But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD himself has raised his first against me.” Ruth 1:11-13

After Naomi presents her argument, Orpah decides to return to her mother’s home. Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye and departed, but Ruth clung to Naomi, determined to stay with her (Ruth 1:14). Again, Naomi begins to provide instructions to Ruth and tells her that Orpah has made a wise decision to go back to her people, her land, and her gods. Naomi tells Ruth she should do the same (Ruth 1:15), but Ruth gives a heartfelt, passionate declaration of her commitment to Naomi and to God, the God of Israel.

But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” Ruth 1:16-17

This declaration is not only about Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi but also about Ruth’s commitment to God, the God in whom Naomi believes and trusts, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel. In her declaration, Ruth uses the personal name for God, translated as “the LORD,” which indicates the depth of Ruth’s commitment to the one true God. Ruth has made a personal decision to choose God knowing full well her life journey will be completely different from this day forward. Her choice also confirms Ruth’s rejection of the pagan gods of her ancestry and land. After traveling to Bethlehem, Ruth eventually encounters a distant relative of Elimelech’s named Boaz. Boaz introduces himself to Ruth by acknowledging what he knows about her and then provides a prayer of blessing on her life. Boaz’s blessing/prayer takes the tone of God toward a faithful daughter.

“Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live her among complete strangers. May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.” Ruth 2:11-12

Boaz acknowledges the imagery of a covenant relationship between God and Ruth, like the imagery used by David in Psalm 17:7-8 and Psalm 57:1-2 and Moses in Psalm 91:4, 9-10. Ruth chose to embrace the God of Israel as her own. Although the term foreigner is used nine times in the book to describe Ruth, Boaz tells his household and his workers to provide for Ruth and treat Ruth as an Israelite, a member of God’s family, one of his family’s servants in the fields (Ruth 2:14-16). Boaz’s instructions ensure that Ruth was provided with

  • Work. Ruth no longer had to glean (get the leftovers); she worked alongside Boaz’s servant girls in the harvest (Ruth 2:8, 16).
  • Protection. Boaz instructs his men not to touch Ruth and for everyone to treat Ruth with respect; don’t embarrass or rebuke her (Ruth 2:9, 15-16).
  • Provisions. Boaz gives Ruth food and water during the workday and sends her home with a generous amount of food for her and Naomi (Ruth 2:9, 14).

Ruth fully embraced God as her own and accepted the customs of God’s people; she received full rights as a member of God’s family from God through Boaz’s actions. Ruth’s life teaches that the true people of God are any persons who choose to follow God, not solely members of a certain group that live in a specific land. God is merciful towards and accepting of all who desire to know Him. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah speaks about God’s inclusion of others in His covenant relationship.

I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord, who serve Him and love His name, who worship Him and do not desecrate the Sabbath day of rest, and who hold fast to My covenant. I will bring them to My holy mountain of Jerusalem and will fill them with joy in My house of prayer. I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices, because My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations. For the Sovereign Lord, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: “I will bring others, too, besides My people Israel.” Isaiah 56:6-8

God’s merciful care is not limited to certain groups of people. God receives all who choose to enter a relationship with Him. Previously, Moabites were excluded from the assembly of God because of their rejection and harsh treatment of God’s people (Deuteronomy 23:3), but Ruth was included in a covenant relationship with God.

Ruth had no “safety net” or “backup plan.” Ruth believed God to guide her when she obeyed Him and went to Boaz’s field to work. Ruth trusted God to provide protection from harm or insult and to give her food and water for herself and Naomi. There is no indication Ruth knows how God will meet her needs, but she trusts that God will. Did Ruth have fear and doubt? Probably at times because she is human, but she learned how to trust God based on who God says He is and not her circumstances.

When Ruth returns home with the provisions of her day’s labor, Naomi offers a prayer of blessing for the field owner who provided for them (Ruth 2:19). Then, when Naomi learns this field owner is a relative of hers, she offers a blessing for Boaz and a prayer of thanksgiving to God (Ruth 2:20).

Ruth is new to her faith in God, but Naomi can pass on teachings about God to Ruth. For example, Naomi can explain God’s mercy through the Old Testament teaching on “kinsman-redeemer.” Naomi shares how God makes provisions for widows in His written laws to ensure the opportunity of a future relationship within God’s people.

Throughout this short account of Ruth’s life, Naomi has prayed to God and Ruth is present to hear her mother-in-law’s prayers. While in Moab, Naomi acknowledges God’s sovereignty and provision amid tragedy. Along the journey to Bethlehem, Naomi requests God’s loving-kindness and provision of husbands for Ruth. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Naomi acknowledges God is almighty, sovereign to give and take away as God sees fit. During the harvest, Naomi praises God for the provision of food, protection, favor, and a kinsman-redeemer. Ruth knew Naomi had a relationship with God through Naomi’s consistent prayer life and her knowledge of God’s Law. Naomi instructs Ruth on how to request that Boaz take his rightful place as her kinsman-redeemer. Ruth’s response to Naomi is, “I will do whatever you say” (Ruth 3:5); complete allegiance to God and the way God orchestrates provision and merciful care of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth concludes with Boaz marrying Ruth, they have a son, and the women of the town praise God on behalf of Naomi. These same women who had a totally different perspective of Naomi and Ruth when they arrived in Bethlehem – look at these two homeless, sad, poverty-stricken widows – are now sharing how merciful God truly is to them.

Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” Ruth 4:14-15

These verses compare Ruth, a Moabite woman to “seven sons” which is a phrase used to indicate the “perfect, complete” work of God on a person’s behalf. Ruth is described as God’s perfect, complete work on Naomi’s behalf to demonstrate God’s blessing upon her life. During a time in Hebrew history where God’s people were doing what was right in their own eyes, God exalts a woman of foreign birth, a Moabite, an enemy of God’s people, as an example of loyalty and commitment to God and also God’s perfect work of blessing in another’s life.

What is your perspective of God? Does Ruth’s encounter with God provide a different perspective of God for you? Does Naomi’s prayer life and knowledge of God’s Word encourage you or convict you? Naomi takes her needs to God and views God as her helper, provider, bestower of blessings, all-powerful, and sovereign. Naomi interprets her life circumstances through who God is and what God’s Word says. God’s Word provides direction, wisdom, and assurance of God’s promises.

When adversity or tragedy come into your life, do you abandon your faith in God, or do you remain faithful in your allegiance to God? Do you consistently pray to God about your situation and your needs? When you are surrounded by idolatry and false worship, do you remain true in your worship of God alone? Do you believe and trust God and acknowledge who God is? Do you wait patiently as God prepares His blessings for you as you faithfully pass on God’s teaching to the next generation?

You could be experiencing similar life circumstances as the time of the judges—civil strife, apostasy, disorganization, war, drought, and famine—and facing challenges because everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. But how might you respond based on what you learned from Ruth and Naomi’s lives?

Consider the following:

  • Pray to God about your circumstances and needs.
  • Study God’s Word to know God, His character, and how He provides for you.
  • Pray to God for guidance from His Word and instructions for you to act.
  • Remain faithful to God in your worship of Him.
  • Bestow prayers of blessings on others’ lives according to God’s Word.
  • Exhibit unwavering trust in God while enduring adversity and tragedy, knowing God will respond to your prayers.
  • Allow God’s Word to help you interpret life circumstances and be assured of God’s promises.
  • Demonstrate God-given courage for life to positively influence others to believe in and enter a relationship with God.

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