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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Going from Being Empty to Being Full

Going from Being Empty to Being Full

Lessons from the Book of Ruth




Naomi had been away from home for a long time but now she was going back to Bethlehem.  And Ruth wanted to go with her. It was a long dangerous trip and the two women had no donkey and little food, but they had each other, so they started out.


Naomi and Ruth caused quite a stir when they arrived in Bethlehem.  Since Naomi had many relatives in Bethlehem – cousins, aunts and uncles- the whole town came out to greet her.  And to meet this foreign woman who was with her. Naomi and her family had been gone a long time and now she looked so tired and worn.  “Can this be the same Naomi?” the women gasped when they saw her. 


“‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ Naomi told them.  ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter..  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.  Why call me Naomi?’”  ((Ruth 1:20-21a)   In the ancient Near East a person’s name was supposed to describe the persons’ life.  The name “Naomi” means “no sorrow” or “a full life” and the word “Mara” means the opposite, “bitter” or “empty”.   


Naomi had lived in Bethlehem all her life surrounded by family and friends and Elimelech also was part of a big family in Bethlehem. So when the two fell in love and  married the whole town came to the wedding.  The newly weds settled in on their prosperous farm growing barley and livestock and life seemed complete (full) as good years passed and Naomi gave birth to their two boys, Mahlon and Chillion.


 For women in ancient times, having children meant everything, so Naomi’s life was full and happy. She loved those busy years on the farm as a young wife and mother and farmer and she thought the good times would last forever. 


 But her good years did not last long! The year was approximately 1,200 B.C. and bad times were on the way!  Scripture says that the crops failed in Bethlehem causing a famine in the land. (Ruth 1:1)  We are not told whether there was a drought or a plague of insects or disease that ruined the crops and brought on the famine. But as the famine continued and got worse and one by one the animals either starved in the fields or were killed and eaten.  Gloom and desperation hung over the town of Bethlehem. And many of the hungry townspeople slowly shriveled and died since they couldn’t find anything to eat.


Travelers coming by brought the news to Bethlehem that there was food in nearby Moab.  So Elimelech and Naomi took their two sons, Mahlon and Chillion and traveled to Moab on the other side of the Dead Sea (about 40 miles away) and bought land and settled in. The Moabite people and the Jewish people were generally not friendly to one another, but Scripture does not record anything about the Moabites being prejudiced against Naomi’s family while they were living there. 


But the family had other problems. Soon Elimelech got very sick and died, leaving Naomi all alone in a foreign land to raise her two boys without her beloved husband.  Her once full life was now being emptied. And when the boys grew up they married Moabite girls; Mahlon married Ruth and Chillion married Orpha.  And since the family line was all important to people in ancient times, Naomi hoped that she would be a grandmother and the family lineage would continue.  But it wasn’t meant to be.  First Chillion got sick and died and then Mahlon became ill and died too, leaving Naomi desolate with no family remaining. And even worse, now there would be no grandchildren – no hope of the family line continuing on. A tragedy in ancient times.


Her whole world had fallen apart. Her husband and both her boys were dead. Naomi felt as if she had lost everything.  Her life had been so full of hope and family and now it was empty and lonely.


 Travelers passed through Moab bringing news that the people in Bethlehem finally had bread to eat and the famine was gone. So Naomi told her two daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpha, that she would go back to Bethlehem and live there again.  Ruth and Orpha were sad to see Naomi go and they walked along with her as she was leaving holding her hands and crying. Finally at the edge of town the three widows stopped and Naomi hugged and kissed each daughter-in-law, prayed that each would find a new husband, and said her good-byes.


Orpha kissed Naomi one last time and turned to go back, crying as she left.  But Ruth stayed by Naomi’s side clinging to her.  Ruth knew that Naomi had very little food or money and she was too old to find another husband and too weak to work. And without a husband or son a woman would quickly slip into poverty.


 In ancient times a woman could not own property or work outside the home, so she had to depend on her husband or her sons for her welfare.  If a man died, his sons inherited the farm or home and his wife would hopefully be taken care of by a son.  But since Naomi had no husband or sons now she would have no means of support.  And being too old to work in the fields she might not have enough to eat.  Ruth loved her mother-in-law and hoped that maybe she could travel with her and be of some help to her.


When Ruth refused to leave, Naomi pushed her away insisting that she stay in Moab.  She fussed at Ruth: “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods: return after your sister-in-law.”  (Ruth 1:15) And that was when Ruth gave her amazing answer to Naomi that expressed her commitment and her loyalty.  Her words, spoken over 3,000 years ago, have been immortalized - written down in Scripture for all to read. 


These are Ruth’s beautiful words of self-giving love spoken to her mother-in-law Naomi so long ago as they stood on the road that led out of Moab and into the desert.


 “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.  Where you die, I will die.  And there will I be buried.  The Lord do so to me, and more also, If anything but death parts you and me.”  (Ruth 1:16-17)


After Ruth made this solemn vow of her friendship to her mother-in-law, Naomi just stood there speechless.  And I imagine even God was speechless. Such love perhaps reflects God’s caring love - a marvelous joining of a human’s actions with God’s.  Ruth had not only chosen to be with Naomi, but she had chosen to serve Naomi’s God, the God of Israel. Arm in arm the two women headed off together across the hot and arid desert on the long and dangerous journey back to Bethlehem.


And when the two finally arrived in Bethlehem the word quickly spread of how changed Naomi was after her years away.  Once she had been a radiant young wife and mother comfortable on the family farm and full of life.  But now she was empty - a grieving widow- with no way to support herself and no hope for her important family line and name to continue.


Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was beginning.  Since Ruth and Naomi had no food, Ruth suggested to Naomi that she go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind the workers.  God had given the Jewish people laws concerning how they were to take care of the poor and the strangers in their land.  (We Christians are given those commands also!)  And God’s law required that farmers leave the corners of their plots to be harvested by the poor.  (Lev.19:9: 23:22:  Deut. 24:19)  And according to Scripture the poor were entitled to gather the grain that fell from the hands of the reapers. (They weren’t to stop and pick up what they dropped.)  


While Ruth was gleaning she happened to come to part of the field that belonged to Boaz, a man who happened to be a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s dead husband.  Boaz noticed Ruth and asked his reapers who the young woman was and they told him that she was the Moabite who had come back to Bethlehem with Naomi.  So Boaz told his reapers to leave some of the barley in the field for Ruth to take to Naomi and then he introduced himself to Ruth and told her to drink from his well and eat bread with his workers. 


When Ruth got back that night she brought Naomi an ephah of barley. (about four gallons)  Naomi was glad to have some food and amazed that Ruth had gleaned so much. Boaz encouraged Ruth to glean in his field every day during the barley harvest and each day his workers were instructed to leave extra barley just for Ruth and Naomi. Naomi watched in amazement each night as Ruth came home with enough barley for both of them to eat for weeks to come. Naomi and Ruth would not go hungry for a few months now.


Finally the fields of barley had been cut and Boaz would be winnowing the barley at the threshing floor all day and sleeping there all night to keep his grain from being stolen. Naomi knew that Boaz would be sleeping on the threshing floor that night and she thought up a plan. She told Ruth to wash herself and put on perfume and wear her best dress and sneak down to the threshing floor late at night. (in other words put on lip stick and curl your hair!)  (Ruth 3:3 


And then she told Ruth that when she got to the threshing floor to hide (not let anyone see her) until the men got through eating and drinking.  Then to wait until the men left for the night and Boaz has drunk his wine.  And then wait a bit longer until Boaz lay down to sleep on the threshing floor and was feeling good from the wine. Then after he is alone and falling asleep, Naomi told Ruth to sneak over and uncover his feet and lay down under his cover at his feet. The ancient Middle Eastern world involved the practice of casting a cover over one being claimed for marriage.  (Ezek. 16:8)  So when Ruth lay under his cover, symbolically she was asking him to marry her.   


Naomi knew that her people, the Jews, had laws in the Old Testament that family members should be responsible for protecting the interests of any needy members of their extended family.  Family was supposed to redeem land that a poor relative had sold, if they were able. (Lev.15:15-18)  And if a male in the family had been married and died before he and his wife had a child to carry on his name, his brother or closest male relative was supposed to marry the dead brother’s widow and have the child with her that her dead husband never had.  This child would carry on the dead brother’s name and be considered the dead brother’s child!  (Deut.15:5-10)  It was the concern of the community that a family be preserved from extinction. 


Ruth hid in the bushes near the threshing floor and watched the men sitting around the fire while they ate and drank wine and laughed and talked. Finally one by one the men left and finally Boaz lay down by the fire and pulled his long coat over himself as a cover and went to sleep.  It was nearly midnight when Ruth quietly crept down to the threshing floor and crawled under Boaz’s coat and lay there trembling at his feet.


Shortly after midnight Boaz woke up - startled to find a woman lying at his feet.  “What, what,who are you?” he shouted.  “I am Ruth, your maidservant.  Take your maidservant under your cover, for you are a close relative.”  (Ruth 3:9)  Ruth was asking Boaz to marry her and have a child that would carry on her dead husband’s name.  And she was reminding Boaz of the Old Testament law that their people lived by. 


Boaz smiled and told Ruth that he would like to marry her (I think he was already falling for her!) - that he would gladly pay the money to buy back the land that had belonged to Elimelech so that Naomi would not live in poverty.  But he told Ruth that there was another relative that was closer to Mahlon, Ruth’s dead husband, and Boaz would have to first ask this other relative if he would allow Boaz to take over his responsibility.  He promised Ruth that he would take care of the matter as soon as possible and get back to her.  Ruth ran back to Naomi that night so that she would not be seen on the threshing floor with Boaz in the middle of the night and others would get the wrong idea.


The next day Boaz went to the gate of the city and sat down there.  In ancient times the gate of the city was the place where legal matters took place.  (2 Sam.15:2: 1 Kings 22:10, Amos 5:10)  The relative who was closer to Naomi’s family than Boaz just happened to walk by and Boaz asked him to sit down with him.  Then Boaz called ten other men who were elders of the city to come and sit down with them as witnesses.  (Decisions in ancient Israel were made by ten men - women were never allowed to decide important issues). 


When the elders were seated at the gate, Boaz asked the relative who was closer to Naomi’s family if he would buy back or redeem Elimelech’s land for Naomi and marry Ruth and perpetuate the name of the dead by having a son with her.  The relative said that he could buy the land but he couldn’t marry Ruth and have Mahlon’s child as it would mess up his own inheritance.  So the close relative took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz. (It was a custom in ancient Israel that a man would take off his sandal and give it to the other to confirm an agreement.)


 So Boaz announced to the elders and all of the people that were standing around that they were his witnesses, and they all agreed.  Then he promised that he would buy Elimelech’s land for Naomi and marry Ruth and hopefully have a child so that her dead husband’s name (Mahlon)would not be cut off and Naomi would have the hope that her’s and her dead son’s line would continue in Israel.  And everyone standing at the gate listening congratulated Boaz and wished him and Ruth many children!


So Boaz and Ruth were married and Ruth indeed became pregnant and had a baby boy.   And Naomi became the doting grandmother!  Naomi’s life was full again and she spent her days taking care of her beloved grandson and even nursing him.  And all of Naomi’s friends came around her and said:  “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you without a close relative, and may the baby’s name be famous in Israel!  And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age: for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, is better to you than seven sons.”  (Ruth 4:14-15)


Ruth and Boaz named their baby boy “Obed”.  And Obed would grow up and become the grandfather of King David, from whose line the Messiah-Redeemer, Jesus Christ would come – making Ruth the great great great and many more greats grandmother of Jesus Christ. The book of Ruth emphasizes that Ruth, the alien Moabitess, the foreigner became part of the lineage of the Messiah – Jesus Christ.  (Luke 3:31,32: Eph. 2:19). 


Some Biblical scholars believe that Boaz presents an imperfect picture centuries in advance of the redeeming work of Christ.  Boaz took on the role of the “kinsman-redeemer,” for Naomi’s family. Here is a silhouette of the Master, foreshadowing His redemptive grace since He becomes our “kinsman,” – He becomes flesh- comes to earth as a man (John1:14, Phil.2:5-8) Christ was willing to identify with the human family (as Boaz assumed the duties of his human family), Christ has worked a thorough redemption of our plight, bringing life out of death and giving us a hope and a future where there had been none.


Naomi was empty.  Her family (the line of Elimelech) was dead and there were no offspring to carry on the family name- a tragedy in her culture.  Her inability to do anything to change this typifies our human helplessness to save ourselves.  (Rom 5:6)  And Boaz’s willingness to pay the complete price (Ruth4:9) perhaps foreshadows Christ’s willingness to die for us and make the full payment for our salvation.  (1 Cor.6:20, Gal.3:13: 1 Pet. 1:18, 19)  


Ruth, Naomi and Boaz all cared about one another and love can do so much. God was and still is today able to work through us and bless us and those we touch more than we can imagine when we live caring and loving lives.  Ruth is a book of redemptive imagery. It reveals God’s will that human loss always be recoverable and that we work with Him in extending such possibilities to those in need.  Even death does not have the last word.


Do we ever walk in Naomi’s shoes – feel empty like she did?  Are there hopes and dreams that we have watched die, family members that we have given up on, troubles that we can’t overcome?  God calls us to wake up, take heart and care and love again, because He is with us! We have a Kinsman-Redeemer – Jesus Christ who has paid the price and restored our fortunes!  Being dead with no hope or a future now He has given us life.  Like with Naomi, God will also take us from being empty to being full!  “Now to Him (God) who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think,…to Him …be glory forever and ever. Amen.”  (Ephesians 3:20)    





















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