Ruth 1:1-5 (📖)

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelek and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelek, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Kilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

The start of the book here is like the ‘back story’ in a film, which describe the characters and give us a context for the rest of the film. So what is the back story for Ruth? What is the context of the book?

In the days when Judges ruled (v1)

When I was younger, I found it odd that that so many commentaries handled Judges and Ruth together. I understood when the ‘1&2 books’ (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Corinthians, Thessalonians) were handled together, or even the gospels, especially the synoptics, but Judges and Ruth?

The opening line of Ruth places the narrative into the Judges period in the history of the people of God. We are told in v1 that this narrative happens during the time of the Judges (1200-1000BC). This means we have a whole book which gives us bags of context about the culture in which Elimelek and Naomi lived. The events described in Judges and Ruth both take place during the same period in history. This is a time where the book of Judges tells us that ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). It is REALLY important I think to keep this in mind during this series because Ruth’s faith in God and commitment to Him stands in stark contrast to this attitude. At no time does Ruth EVER do what is right in her eyes.

This is a foundational issue for us and for our faith. The desire to be in charge of one’s own life is VERY strong in the world around us. The phrase ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’, is a very accurate description of the culture we live in today—a good 3,000 years later. Watch the arguments on the media about lifestyle choices, and you will very quickly see people entrenching themselves into an attitude which demands others allow them to live their lives in a way which seems ‘right in their own eyes’. Accusations or attacks along the lines of ‘how dare you tell me how to live my life/who to have sex with/whether I can take this drug/ what gender I am?!!’, are all too common.

What is it that determines your world view? Are your values and assessment of the right way to live based on God’s word? Or are they based on something entirely less definable? Are they based on the truth of Scripture, or are they based on the ‘truth’ (and I use the quotes deliberately) of emotion and feeling or ‘what I feel like in my own heart?’

Illustration: Not so long ago, in a discussion with someone who claimed to be a Christian, we were talking about some of the modern problems of our society’s take on lifestyle and sexuality. I was making an argument from Scripture, and the person said, ‘I don’t believe or agree with everything Scripture teaches’. I asked HOW they determine which bits they follow and which they reject. The answer boiled down to this: ‘my own internal sense of what is right and what is wrong’. In short, it was simply cherry-picking the Scriptures. Taking on board those things I agree with and rejecting those I do not. In short, I am determining what is right or wrong, not the Scriptures, and this puts me in the place of God. Bluntly, this is merely a spiritualising of the attitude we read about the time of the Judges—people following their own desires.

Jesus told a parable about two builders. It’s really quite well-known. You will find it in Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:46-49. This is Luke’s version: ‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well-built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great’.

Do we base our lives in God’s word? Or on Man’s word? How we answer that one question may even determine whether we even have a faith at all. It will certainly determine the efficacy of it. This parable will prove to be quite pertinent as we read through the book of Ruth.

“A man of Bethlehem, an Ephrathite” (v1,2)

The book of Ruth starts in the promised land, Bethlehem. With a man from Bethlehem, an Ephrathite and his family. These snippets of information may on the face of it not be any more than an interesting fact in the account of Ruth.

But what this information does is place the book in a specific time frame (the days that judges ruled), and in a particular geographical location.

It actually happened in a place you can go and visit today. We can go to Bethlehem today – in fact many tourists do. Moab no longer exists in that name, it is the other side of the Dead Sea, as you can see on the map.

It is placed in a time period, the time of the Judges, which is about 1,000-1,200 years BC (approx 3,000 years ago). We have archaeological evidence from that time. For example:

  1. The AMARNA TABLETS, which are a collection of diplomatic correspondence tablets between Canaanite kings and Egypt during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenatan. Amongst other things, they describe the Israelite attacks on some Canaanite cities and ask for military help.
  2. Archaeologists have discovered Eglon’s palace in Jericho (fat Eglon, who was killed by Ehud).
  3. There is pottery discovered with the name Jerubbaal inscribed on it (the name given to Gideon). Because of the rarity of the name, and the fact that the inscription dates to the period of the Judges, many believe this to be a reference to Gideon. We must be careful to note that this is not certain, though.
  4. The Tower of Shekel has been found and excavated.

There are other artefacts, but you get the point. The evidence confirms much of the narrative we read in the Bible. Neither Judges, nor Ruth, are a story, they are history. This is actually true for great swathes of Biblical narrative. Archaeological evidence is found regularly which confirm details in the Bible people have previously dismissed as false. For example: Liberal theologians have historically questioned the existence of both Caiaphas and pilate, saying there is no evidence for them anywhere but the Bible, so they are clearly made up characters. We now have Caiaphas’s bones – his ossuary has been found. We have also found communications between Pilate and Caesar, which show that the Gospels were right all along.

This is important because it adds weight to the accuracy and integrity of the biblical text. Which means:


“Went to sojourn in the country of Moab” (v1) / “they lived there about 10 years” (v4)

Elimelek and his wife Naomi move to Moab to live because of a famine. The word sojourn is not one which is used in modern parlance. Many will kind of know what it means, but few people would use it in conversation.

Just to establish, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sojourn means ‘to stay somewhere temporarily’. Elimelek didn’t intend to live there very long. My guess is that he intended to return when the famine was over. This echoes the brothers of Joseph who, we read in Genesis 47:3, 4 asked Pharaoh if they could live ‘a while’ in Egypt:

‘Pharaoh asked the brothers, “What is your occupation?”
“Your servants are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “just as our fathers were.” They also said to him, “We have come to live here for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan and your servants’ flocks have no pasture. So now, please let your servants settle in Goshen”.’

In both cases, something which is intended to be temporary doesn’t turn out as expected. For Elimelek, his story ends in Moab. He dies. I studied a book when I was at school which quoted Robbie Burns. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The Robbie Burns quote is this:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The point being, we often make our plans and they frequently seem to completely go to pot. How many of us are now in the place we thought we would be, doing the things we thought we would do when we were young, at school and our whole life stretched before us?

I have met loads of people who took a job as a temporary measure while they waited for something else, yet for some reason it didn’t work out that way.

Illustration: Wendy moving to Bristol when she was 19 because she was told she had to wait until her 21st birthday before she could apply to work on a cruise ship. She only intended to be in Bristol for 2 years. Wendy’s problem was I came along! She married a foreigner!!

We make plans and life happens. One of the lessons of Ruth is that even in the midst of life throwing us curveballs, we can still remain people of faith and courage.

Naomi’s sons “took Moabite wives” (v4)

This is unusual because the Moabites were enemies of the Israelites. Gideon, for example, defends Israel from the king of Moab, Ruth, the subject of this account is NOT an Israelite, she is a Moabitess. She is a foreign woman and culturally she is an enemy of Israel, the fact that she married one of the sons of Elimelek shows how far from the will of God the family had gone. They really were infected by the spirit of the age and rather than obeying God, they ‘did what was right in their own eyes’.

The Lord had expressly forbidden the Israelites from marrying Canaanites:

Deuteronomy 7:1-3 says: ‘When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons’.

Joshua 23:9-13, likewise says: ‘The LORD has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day, no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the LORD your God fights for you, just as he promised. So be very careful to love the LORD your God. But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the LORD your God has given you’.

Although not specified in the Deuteronomy list of forbidden nations, Moabites in particular were excluded from the congregation of Israel:

No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever (Deuteronomy 23:3).

I think the most obvious candidate to look at to show us WHY the Israelites were not to marry foreign wives comes from the description of Solomon in 1 Kings 11:1-2. For all of his legendary wisdom, Solomon’s main weakness was his taking of foreign wives: ‘King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love’.

The text tells us why. It quotes instructions given to Moses by God in Exodus: ‘because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods’. It comes from Exodus 34:11-16, which records God saying:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

This is not Xenophobia! The purpose of the instruction about foreign wives has nothing to do with ethnicity or ancestry, and everything to do with religion and faith. It is NOT about maintaining racial purity – it is about guarding SPIRITUAL purity. And spiritual purity starts and is nurtured in the home. The marriage is the bedrock on which the home and the family is built. If we are not spiritually pure in our homes, we will not be spiritually pure elsewhere. This is not just an Old Testament law the people of God had to follow, it is echoed in the New. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, Paul tells the Corinthians to be careful that they are not ‘unequally yoked’ with unbelievers: ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?’. This particular instruction from Paul is often quoted and used in churches when people are thinking about romantic relationships with non-believers, and it does include that, but I don’t think we should limit it to that. We should be careful in ALL of our dealings with unbelievers that we don’t fall into this trap of aligning ourselves formally or too tightly with unbelievers. If we do, sooner or later we will come a cropper.

The book ‘one blood, one race’ points out (correctly in my view) that humanity is divided into just two races. Differences in skin colour, eye shape and other physical characteristics are merely physical and NOT racial, every single human being on this planet is descended from Adam. Black, white, oriental, aboriginal, or whatever our ancestry, we are all related and we all need Christ. The only thing which truly separates us is how we respond to the message of the gospel. The racial divide every human on the planet should b e concerned about is this one:

So … are you: dead in sin? — or born again?

OK, so HOW do we apply this today? Clearly you will have anticipated that I am saying VERY strongly that our ethnicity, our skin colour, what language we speak, or any other ethnic identifiers are irrelevant in the church. Sometimes I actually think we make things worse in churches. I hear of black churches or gypsy churches or Indian churches, youth churches, family churches and so on. Are they really helping us to show the world that Christ breaks down the barriers which divide us? Aren’t they rather perpetuating them? If you’ve ever been in a church where you feel unwelcome, you will know what I am talking about. Any Christian should be able to walk into any church in any part of the world and feel like they are home. THIS church should feel like home for any Christian. Regardless of where they are from.

Galatians 3:26-29 (ESV): ‘for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’.


  1. Neither Jew, nor Greek – Ethnic divisions are meaningless in Christ.
  2. Slave nor Free – economic/social divisions are meaningless in Christ.
  3. Male nor Female – sex / gender divisions are meaningless in Christ.

All divisions and barriers between people are broken down, done away with in Christ Jesus. We are ALL Abraham’s offspring and heirs to the promise of God.

We leave this week with Naomi and her two daughters-in-law facing destitution. No husband for any of them, no hope of provision. And in a foreign land, what is Naomi to do? We leave them this morning with a hopeless outlook. What will happen to them?

I really encourage you to read the whole book this week. It will only take about 15-20 minutes. I was going to do it this morning, but ultimately decided against it.