The Prodigal Daughters
Ruth 1:6-22- The Prodigal Daughters
When telling a story, you can often tell what is important to the writer based on the amount of time that is given to a particular aspect of the story. This is true in Ruth; the first five verses of the book explain a vast amount of time (over ten years) in very few words. There is no dialogue, no explanation, no details about Mahlon and Chilion’s wedding. However, we come to a brief moment in history, a conversation that is minutes long, yet it has 17 verses compared to the first five. Interestingly, this passage has no men in it but is about three women. We will be looking at the three women and what happens somewhere along to way between the fields of Moab and the land of Judah.
Setting the Scene (6-7)
The first two verses (Ruth 1:6-7) give us some information about the placement of the conversation between these three women. The text begins with the statement, “then she arose,” the narrative particularly focuses on Naomi, and maybe the book would be better titled Naomi. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law seek to return to Judah, from the fields of Moab. The text explains why she sets out to return to Judah because she heard in a field that “the Lord had visited his people and given them food.” The famine, which was the cause of the Elimelech Family leaving Bethlehem, was over. However, if you remember the period this book is written, during Judges, and is a dark time for the people of Israel, one where they turn away from serving the one true living God and turn to serve other false gods. However, even in the midst of this time of unfaithfulness, the Lord still calls them HIS people. This is the glorious truth of 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, He remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” God promised that He would be their God, and they would be his people (Gen 17:8, Jer 32:38). The Lord visited his people, as he did with Sarah (Gen 21:1). He provided Sarah with a son and the people of Bethlehem with bread. The Hebrew actually reads that he provided them with bread bread. Not only did God visit them and give them a portion of bread but ample amounts of bread. This makes me believe this would be in one of the fourth cycles in the book of Judges, that God had raised up a judge to rule and deliver them from their enemies. Most likely set towards the end of the book of Judges, around Samson.
Naomi had heard that no longer Judah was in famine, but now they have an abundance of food. They all seek to return to Judah. The word return is a keyword in this passage that appears 12 times in these 17 verses. As they set out from the fields of Moab to the land of Judah, they stop and have a conversation. This is where the majority of this text is set, on the side of a road between Moab and Judah, with three widows.
Naomi’s Return, Part I (8-9)
Often the Bible does not give us all the details that we want to know. We would like to know if Naomi had tried to speak to Elimelech about moving to Moab, if she was waiting for the moment to be able to say, “I told you so.” Or was she pro-move. However, on the road to Judah, she turns to her daughters in law and tells them to return back to Moab. She also explains that the Lord (Yahweh), the covenant God of Israel, would deal kindly with you. The word Naomi uses is ‘hesed‘ which speaks of the Lord’s covenant faithfulness with his people. This word is used in Psalm 136, 26 times, and is translated, “His steadfast love.” This promise comes from Genesis 12:3, when God speaks to Abram and says, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The Lord will bless Orpah and Ruth because they have blessed one of His people, Naomi. She then explains that the Lord would grant these two gentiles, Moabite women, rest in their husband’s household. The word for rest is the same word that is translated as still waters in Psalm 23:2, “He leads me by still waters.”
Naomi then turns to Orpah and Ruth and kisses them. Their response is lifting up their voices and weeping. Naomi lives up to her name of lovely or pleasant. Both Orpah and Ruth are very fond of Naomi. At this moment, the two daughters-in-law are to make a choice, do they stay with Naomi, who cannot provide for them, or go back to their home country and find a husband. It would be very unlikely that they would find a husband in Judah because they are from Moab and widowed. However, if they return home, they would leave Naomi alone. They know what Naomi is asking them to do. However, they explain that they will return with her to her people. I often point out the importance of personal pronouns in the Bible. This text is a great example of this truth. Both Ruth and Orpah are willing to go to Judah, with Naomi to HER people. They do not see themselves as returning to our people, but Naomi’s. This will be important as we move forward.
Orpah’s Return (11-14)
However, Naomi is grateful for their loyalty to her. She does not want to drag them along on false pretenses. She does not want them to come because she has nothing she can provide for them. She asks a series of questions, encouraging them to turn back or return home (turn back is the same Hebrew word for return). She logically spells out her case, that she doesn’t have any more sons. Even if she was to get married on that day and bear children, she might not be able to because of her age, they might not be sons, and even if that was the case would you wait around 20 years so that you could marry them? Are you going to wait and refrain from marrying? Naomi then explains that the Lord has dealt with her bitterly. Why should you have to suffer on my own calamities?
We need to understand that we sometimes can live in a bubble and not quite comprehend the extent of what is happening. There was no social security or welfare systems set up, no section 8 or any types of support. The eco-system of Israel was the family unit; however, Naomi had no family that she knew of. All three of them had ‘marks’ against their names. Naomi was old (Naomi calls herself old vs. 12) and widowed, and Orpah and Ruth were Moabite women who were also widowed. Widows were often taken advantage of and abused. Returning to Judah with Naomi was unsafe, uncertain, and most likely unfruitful. We see a similar response to Naomi’s previous plea. On the side of the road on the way to Judah, the three women lift up their voices and weep. However, Orpah kisses Naomi, but Ruth clings to her. Orpah begins to return back home. She turns back as Naomi had told her.
Ruth’s Return (15-18)
Ruth clung to Naomi. This word is used as a man holds on tight to his sword (2 Sam 23:10), or the Leviathan keeps his teeth together (Job 41:17). Naomi pleads with Ruth a third time to return back to Moab as Orpah did. Orpah had returned home, why don’t you. Now I mentioned before the importance of personal pronouns. Naomi pleads with Ruth explaining that Orpah went back to HER people and HER gods. You would think that Naomi would say return to YOUR people and YOUR gods. At this point in history, I am not sure if Ruth is a believer. I tend to think it happened somewhere on the way to Judah. Yet, at this point, Ruth is not a worshiper of Moabite gods. Maybe you could say Ruth is a skeptic or a seeker.
Ruth responds to Naomi with her first recorded words. They are beautifully profound, emotional, and theological.
“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.
For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.
May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Ruth clung to Naomi, not only physically, but she was willing to follow her. Here on the side of the road between Moab and Judah, Ruth, a Moabite, outside the people of God, becomes a worshipper of God. She confesses her loyalty to Naomi, which shows her character. Previously Ruth and Orpah said, “we will return with you to YOUR people.” Now Ruth calls them MY people. But she also professes her devotion to God, “Your God, MY God.” She cannot turn back to the false gods of Moab, but she devotes herself to the worship of YHWH. The same God as Abraham, but this is just why God called Abram, not only to be blessed but that all the families of the earth would be blessed by the Lord (Gen 12:1-3). She is no longer going to the land of Judah to be with Naomi. She is going to the promised land to be with her God. You could see the similarities between Naomi and the parable of the prodigal Son; however, Naomi is the prodigal who returns home. However, Tim Keller rightly explains it is not about the sons at all but the Prodigal God:
“God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done… The younger brother knew that in his father’s house, there was abundant “food to spare,” but he also discovered that there was grace to spare.”
There is enough grace to spare even for Ruth, who didn’t even grow up in the house, to begin with. The Moabite woman who worshipped false gods was welcomed into the people of God with wide arms. Maybe you are like Ruth moments before you are not sure what you think of God, you are happy to call him their God but not your God, but you also are not willing to leave just yet. We invite you to stay. There is plenty of grace to spare.
It is also interesting in verse 22 that explains that Ruth returned… Ruth had never set foot on the ground at Israel, and yet the author writes that she returned. Ruth was home for the first time in her life. She finally knew where her family was, where she belonged, where she would spend her life. There is a famous song that is one of Australia’s unofficial national anthems. It is called “I still call Australia Home.” One of the stanzas says,
“Someday we’ll all be together once more
When all of the ships come back to the shore
I realize something I’ve always known
I still call Australia home.”
For Ruth, she realized that she was, finally, home, she finally had a family, she finally had a home to return to.
Naomi’s Return, Part II (19-22)
Naomi and Ruth finally return to Israel, to Bethlehem, at the beginning of the barley harvest. When they get there, the gossip begins to spread around the town, and the people ask the question, “Is this Naomi?” Naomi speaks and explains that they should not call her Naomi (Lovely or Pleasant), but Mara, which means bitter. Naomi understands the providence of God at work even in the past years living in Moab. She understands that it was at the Lord’s hand. The Almighty, Shaddai, dealt bitterly with her. She went away full but has come back empty. The prodigal daughter who left the promised land to move to the fields of Moab. She sees God’s hand at work. Although the Lord was not mentioned in the first five verses, Naomi knows he was the one bringing calamity upon her. She clearly sees leaving was a sinful action that the Lord dealt with her bitterly. But he also brought her back. She explains in verse 21, “The Lord has brought me back empty.” She came back bitter and empty, but she came back. And maybe you are more like Naomi, who has been in the people of God and have turned away, sought your own way, tried to escape and wander, yet you see you need to return home. It is never too late to come home. Whether you are like Ruth, who has never come to Church or like Naomi grew up in Church and wandered for years, you can always come home.
The great thing about this passage is that God merely doesn’t know everything in the present (dealing with problems as they arise), but he has ordained everything that shall come to pass. That at this time on the road between Moab and Judah, Ruth and Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem. However, God knew that years later that his Son would be born of a woman, under the law that would save his people from their sins. Jesus Christ came from the line of Abraham, which included Ruth, a gentile. We also should note the importance of coming home. We all have rebelled against God turn against him as our creator, committed Cosmic treason. Yet the message is still the same, come home. Come home to the Prodigal God who has the grace to spare. Come to me all who are weary and heavenly laden, and I will give you rest.