Ruth Part 1: Under a Curse (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings: 

Genesis 12:10-20
Deuteronomy 30:1-9
Ruth 1:1-5

For the next 7-8 weeks I will be preaching through the book of Ruth.  Ruth is a great story and the timing of our series could not be better.   In ancient Israel the start of the year began in spring with Passover which coincided with the start of the barley harvest.  For the next 7 weeks barley and then wheat would be harvested.  At the end of the wheat harvest was a festival called the Feast of Weeks.  Today we celebrate these holidays as Easter and then 7 weeks later as Pentecost.  The story of Ruth is set during the 7 weeks of the wheat and barley harvest and the book of Ruth is typically read during the Feast of Weeks even among Jews today.  So in a kind of neat way our lives will parallel the story of Ruth as we study Ruth for the next few weeks.

Ruth opens with the phrase “Now it happened in the time...”  This is a common way the Bible introduces a book similar to how a fairy tale might begin with “Once upon a time..”  or better yet “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  However, the point of the phrase is to connect the book it opens with an earlier work.  For example, Leviticus begins the same way because it wants us to connect the Levitical law with the ending of Exodus which covers the building of the tabernacle so that we connect the book of Leviticus to the tabernacle.

Now we are told that the setting of Ruth is during the time the judges were judging.  So the author wants us to understand that is set during the time of the judges.  The judges were a series of tribal chieftains who were raised up by God in response to various threats the Israelites faced.  The time period the of judges followed Moses and Joshua and the Exodus when Israel began to establish themselves in the land of Canaan and before the monarchy which began with Saul and David.  If you like dates, this would place Ruth sometime between 1300 and 1050 B.C.  

The purpose of this phrase in Ruth is not to satisfy later historically minded reader’s curiosity.  The Old Testament historians did not write history the way we think of it.  History was meant to do more than communicate facts, but rather was written to make a theological point.  If you know anything about the book of Judges, you know it is generally a negative, depressing, and violent book.  It was a period of anarchy where those with power did whatever they wished without regard to any sort of ethics or morality.  This was exactly the situation the law of Moses was meant to remedy.  The book of Judges ends with these words, “There was no king in Israel.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Not only does Judges end with these words, but this refrain was repeated throughout the book.  

Here is how Moses in Deuteronomy describes God’s purpose for His selecting Israel from among the nations and for the purpose of giving them the law.  “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land you are entering to take possession of it.  Keep them and do them for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the people, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon Him?  And what great nation is there, that statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”  

If you remember way back in Genesis 12, God’s plan for Abraham was to make his descendants a great people with a great land and that through them all the nations of the earth were to be blessed.   They were to be the shining city on the hill.  What Judges wants us to see is that Israel has failed to live up to this ideal.  Instead they are just like every other nation where the only rule is power brought about by violence.  

In light of this background we are to read the famine as no ordinary natural occurrence.  The text hints at this - famine is the subject not the object of the verb.  The proper force of the words are not that there was a famine in the land, but that literally famine stalked the land as if famine were personified.  This should not come as surprise since famine was one of the curses outlined in Deuteronomy if Israel did not live up to their part of the bargain and instead rejected YHWH as king by rejecting his laws.

Here is what Deuteronomy says will happen if Israel breaks the covenant YHWH had made with them:  “And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron.  YHWH will make the rain of your land powder.  From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.”  So what Ruth wants us to understand is that Israel is not suffering a series of unfortunate events.  The people are in effect under a curse.      

Now I feel I should stop here and say something about the concept of famine as punishment.  Namely are we today supposed to see the hand of God in places afflicted by famine?  Can we look back at Ethiopia and the 1980s or Biafra in the 1960s or China in the 1930s as under a curse sent by God.  My answer, despite many Christian teachers who have said so, is no we cannot say that.  Here is the reason why.  The curse of famine here is a result of the breaking of the covenant established with Israel at Mount Sinai. That covenant has been broken, the Israelites were removed from their land by the Babylonians and has been replaced by a New Covenant established by Christ by His death and resurrection.  Rejection of this covenant carries its own penalties.  Hebrews tell us there will be no sacrifice for sin and that we can expect judgment and the fury of fire that will consume adversaries of Christ.  

At this point in the the passage our attention shifts to a particular family suffering under the curse.  We are giving very few details about them.  All we know is that it is a man, his wife and their two children.  What we are told is that the family is from Bethlehem of Judah.  Many of you know that Bethlehem can be translated house of bread because it is a very fertile area.  The irony of the family leaving the house of bread for what is called the fields of Moab once again lets us know that there is an reversal of the natural order.  More importantly for the story of Ruth as a whole, this family is from Judah.

The way the text flows, their location is more important than even their names.  You see Judah is significant because according to Genesis 49, the king of Israel will come from the tribe of Judah.  Remember a lack of a king that would lead the people as a loyal vassal of YHWH is what the book of Judges identifies as the problem in Israel.  The violence, oppression, and depression of Israel at the time of Ruth is because there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes.  

However, this king to come from Judah was no ordinary ruler.  Genesis 49 says this the king who in the last days will rule not just Israel but the whole world.  This king will bring prosperity to Israel.  The book of Numbers takes this and elaborates further and says this king will bring the blessing to all the nations.  This is a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him.  

By leaving the promised land and his people, Elimelech is showing his disbelief and rejection of this promise.  Like Lot and Esau, Elimelech shows no interest in God’s promise and rejects his role in God’s plan to bring blessing to the world.  The pattern in the Bible is sin leading to exile from God’s presence.  Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden to live east of Eden.  Later Israel would be conquered by the Babylonians and marched into captivity.  I can list other examples because one of the ways the Old Testament makes its point is through repetition and one of the points it wants to make is the rejection of God’s law and promise leads to exile from His provision and presence.  

However, not only does Elimelech leave the promised land, he goes to Moab.  The Moabites were the product of an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters.  They opposed the Israelites entrance into Canaan and even hired the pagan sorcerer Balaam to curse the Israelites.  At the time of Ruth, Israel was forced to pay tribute to King Eglon of Moab.  So Moab was not just a foreign land but an enemy of Israel.  Here is what Deuteronomy has to say about the Moabites, “No Moabite may enter the assembly of YHWH.  Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of YHWH forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia to curse you.”  

Moab worshipped a pagan called Chemosh and we know from 2 Kings that a king of Moab actually sacrificed his child to Chemosh.  However, not only did Elimelech and his family move to Moab, his sons took Moabite women as wife.  The action of taking Moabite wives is also forbidden by Deuteronomy.  The text lets us know it disapproves of this action by using not the normal verb for marry but an unusual verb that means to lift or carry.  In the rest of the Old Testament this expression always has negative associations.  

The result of all of these choices is that instead of finding prosperity and life, they find death.  Over the course of their ten years in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons die.  Also notice that since the family spent ten years in Moab it is likely that there was an issue with barrenness or sterility since Chilion and Mahlon die without producing children.

The picture presented here in these five verses is of a people under a curse.  Elimelech has rejected God’s law but ultimately God’s promise.  He and his sons are dead and buried outside their family lands.  Remember in this culture being buried in the land of your fathers was of supreme importance.  Jacob will make his sons promise that they would one day return his bones to the land of his fathers.  

The children died childless meaning there was no one left to continue Elimelech’s legacy.  This is another terrible result in the culture of the ancient world.  It is made worse because Elimelech was from Judah and specifically Bethlehem.  The text mentions Bethlehem specifically twice in these verses and in verse 2 we are told that Elimelech’s family were Ephrathites.  We are told this because there were two cities named Bethlehem and Ruth wants us to know that this is the Bethlehem in Judah which is the one King David comes from and which Micah tells us the messiah will come from.   We know Elimelech’s family had royal aspirations as evidenced by his name which contains the word king.  

However, the situation for the women is even worse.  Without children their lives are failures.  Without husbands their situation is dire.  The ancient world was no place for widows.  Since barrenness in the ancient world was always viewed as the problem of the woman no man would marry Orpah and Ruth since they had demonstrated they were incapable of bearing a child.  They are refugees, belonging neither to Moab or Israel and with no hope of Canada welcoming them in.  

The situation is bleak, but there are some hints that God is at work even in this story where His kingship, His law, His promise, and His plan has been rejected.  There is hope and we will conclude today by looking at two places where can see this hope and also two points of applications.  

First, you will remember earlier that I said that one of the ways the Old Testament makes its point is by repeating patterns.  So an ancient Israelite hearing the story of a man facing a famine would instantly recall a series of similar stories involving the great fathers of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.  Each of their stories starts with a famine.  Instantly, the Israelite hearers of this story would have drawn the connection to those stories and begin to speculate as to Elimelech’s role and what God was beginning to do to advance his people.  This is why our first reading was from the passage in Genesis 12.  

In the story, Abraham goes to Egypt, lets Pharaoh think his hot wife Sarai is really his sister, Pharaoh would give Abraham a bunch of stuff sheep, oxen, donkeys, and camels.  However Pharaoh is afflicted with plagues and sends Abraham away with all the loot.  Something similar happens to Isaac again as Isaac tries to pass off his wife as his sister.  This time the Philistine king Abimelech makes a peace treaty with him after seeing how YHWH continues to bless him despite Abimelech’s opposition.   The third time occurs after Jacob’s sons sell Joseph into slavery, Joseph becomes the vizier of the Pharaoh, saves his family from the famine and they become prosperous in the land of Egypt.  Each story begins with a moral failure on the part of the family of Abraham and ends in blessing as God’s promise for this chosen family is made more and more manifest.  

God’s kingdom is going to be built often in spite of His people rather than because of His people.  So the story of Ruth is not without hope and we are not without hope.  No matter what we have done and no matter the mistakes and despite all negative appearances -  despite ISIS, despite Putin, despite the Presidential race, despite all the world’s problems, God will build His kingdom. 

Second, after the book of Deuteronomy details the curses that will befall Israel if they break the covenant in Deuteronomy 28, a remedy is provided.  If Israel will repent God will restore his people.  Here is how Deuteronomy 30 puts it:  

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then theLord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Notice the first verse actually anticipates that the covenant will be broken and the curses will come upon the people of Israel.  However, the story does not end their.  Just as their fathers were blessed despite their morally questionable behavior, YHWH will not abandon His program of bringing prosperity to His people.  

The reader of these verse would then be reminded that despite the dire circumstance of God’s people, God will not abandon them.  The king is coming to establish God’s kingdom whose goal is to bring YHWH’s blessing not just to Israel but the whole world.  The blessing of the king would bring prosperity to all. 

Entrance into this kingdom would require a repudiation of all previous plans and schemes and instead would require loyalty to YHWH’s plan.  The word the Bible uses for this process is repentance.  The solution to the curse is not the solution of Elimelech.  Elimelech ignored the words of Deuteronomy and sought his own solution to the problem of famine.  He left the promised land and the house of bread and instead of life and prosperity found death.  

When we come to the New Testament we hear Jesus preaching the fulfillment of these promises given in Deuteronomy and anticipated by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The gospels repeatedly sum up the teaching of Jesus in one sentence.  Jesus came preaching repentance and the kingdom of God.  

Like Elimelech we are people living in exile.  We are a people under a curse who left to our schemes will find nothing but despair and death.  We are people surrounded by a world ruled by power and violence.  The crazy thing about the story of Ruth and the crazy thing about the passage in Deuteronomy is that despite our efforts to solve the existential problems of life on our own, is that God is still at work.  As we saw in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God will redeem His people.  We will see the way this works out in Ruth as we continue our study.  For us, just as much as for Elimelech, for Naomi and Ruth, for the Israelites, for those who would hear the teaching of believers the solution is to repent and hold fast to the promise of God’s kingdom that despite all appearance He will bring blessing to the whole world.