The challenge to return

“Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab” (Ruth 1:6). These words indicate what is a powerful secondary theme of this book. The word ‘return’ (Heb shuwb) is used in various forms fifteen times within the four chapters of the book (see box over page). In Naomi’s return we have the triumph of faith over failure and the great mercy of God in restoring her to favour. Naomi is a wonderful example of a ‘lost sheep’ whom ‘the shepherd’ sought out and restored to the flock with great rejoicing. Her story is one of assurance and hope.

The first thing we note about the return is that both her daughters -in-law declare their determination to return all the way to the land of Judah (Ruth 1:10). It is Naomi’s insistence that they should leave her and return to their Moabite origins that breaks down Orpah’s weaker resolve. Clearly both girls had some understanding of Naomi’s God and a bond of affection with the gentle, ageing widow who had shared their lives for the last ten years. What a tribute to Naomi’s character!

But it is not only Orpah’s faith that was weak. Naomi too was struggling to believe in the fullness of the Father’s mercy. She recognises that it was right for her to return to her own people; that forgiveness was possible, in principle. But would it apply in her case? And what of these Gentile girls? Surely God would not have a purpose with them! For them she could see only rejection and poverty. She could not see any hope for another husband for each of them, unless she herself provided the man, and that was an impossibility. No-one else would accept them and it was not to be thought that God would care for these young widows.

Naomi’s faith was going to be stretched and her understanding and appreciation of God’s wider purpose would grow wonderfully in the ensuing days. Do we sometimes doubt that God will show us the mercy we know we need? Doubt not, but instead remember the words of Exodus 34:6: “Yahweh, Yahweh God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” This is the wonderful character of our God!

So Naomi and Ruth come to Bethlehem, where they are greeted with much amazement by the women of the town. Naomi displays courage, humility and honesty as she meets the goggling curiosity of her former neighbours with bitter candour: “Call me not Naomi; call me Mara.”

Naomi in the background

As we turn to chapter 2, the spotlight moves to Ruth and Boaz. Three things come to mind regarding Naomi, however. Firstly, we realise that Naomi is either very old, or ill, or both. She takes no part in the gleaning, presumably because she was unable to do so. Seen in this light, her journey of something like 60km back to Bethlehem, was a remarkable example of faith, courage and determination. It was not easy to return home.

The second point is that Ruth suggests that she will go and glean. Where did she learn about that? We can be sure that such a law did not exist in Moab. Clearly she had been instructed in the Law of Moses (Lev 19:9–10; Deut 24:19) by her mother-in-law. Sisters, are we taking every opportunity to teach our daughters and others the wonderful ways of God?

And third, we note how God was working with Naomi, increasing her faith. She thought there was no hope for Ruth! God would gently develop faith and trust and hope through the work of providence performed in the fields of Bethlehem. With what anxiety Naomi would have spent that first day at home, while Ruth sought a way to provide for them both. With what relief and gratitude she received the news that Ruth had been kindly treated by a near kinsman. Hope was kindled, and as the days of harvest proceeded we can be sure Naomi was praying and planning for the possible redemption of herself and her Moabitish daughter-in-law. And God heard her prayer: “He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer” (Psa 102:17).

Naomi trusts in God’s compassionate laws

As the weeks of harvest drew to an end, it becomes evident that despite a heroic effort by Ruth, and a generous spirit on the part of Boaz, the two widows would still not have enough to sustain them till the next harvest. Naomi sought a solution for the immediate provision of their needs and for the future security of Ruth. Pondering the problem, she found two possible solutions in the Law of Moses. She determined to take positive action and combine two compassionate laws God had given through Moses.

The first was the law of redemption of family land (Lev 25:23–25). Greed and selfishness prevail in our world today, but such is not God’s way. His law inculcates care for others, generosity and kindness. Naomi sought this benevolence now at the hand of Boaz her kinsman.

But even more, she sought help for her dear daughter-in-law. The kindness of Boaz through the weeks of harvest had encouraged Naomi to hope for ‘rest’ for Ruth. The word relates to the home, and the protection of a husband. How Naomi’s faith had grown! She dared to apply a second law, the levirate law, whereby a brother-in-law was to take his dead brother’s widow to wife, and raise up seed to his dead brother’s name (Deut 25:5–6).

We know the outcome of these requests. Note how Naomi sought answers to the problems of life in the only place where they can be truly found. She knew what the Law of Moses had to say regarding her situation, and she faithfully sought to apply those laws to relieve their desperate circumstances. We can do no better than to follow her example and to search the Word diligently for answers to our problems, and unhesitatingly apply the solutions we find! Of course, as with Naomi, this may involve asking others for assistance. May we have the honesty, humility and trust of Naomi to seek and find help in time of need.

Hope and confidence for the future

The marriage of Ruth and Boaz removed from Naomi the great weight of responsibility she had been carrying. We can be sure, that just as Naomi had seen God’s hand in the tragedies that occurred in Moab, so she would be deeply grateful for God’s blessing to her now.

And God had more in store for Naomi, a crowning blessing. As a type of national Israel, God would do for Naomi what He later promised to the nation: “For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land, and I will build them, and not pull them down … and I will give them an heart to know me, that I am Yahweh; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart” (Jer 24:6–7).

In time, a son was born to Ruth and Boaz and this boy became “a restorer of life” to his aged grandmother. No doubt the joy of a baby brought new life to Naomi as she took on the role of nurse to this little one. But perhaps there is a greater, spiritual sense in which her life was restored or ‘returned’ to her, for Obed’s grandson was to pick up this exact phrase in Psalm 23, “He restoreth my soul” (v 3). David was not merely contemplating the refreshing influence of God in our mortal life, but surely also the resurrection, when he would “dwell in the house of Yahweh forever”. So we see not just a source of delight in Naomi’s final years, but an expression of hope and confidence in the life of the age to come.

Could there be a more complete reversal of circumstances than that we find in the story of Naomi? How beautiful to see God’s unerring hand working through this otherwise obscure woman, giving all who follow great confidence in His wisdom and mercy. And looking further we see Jew and Gentile intertwined in the great redemption in Christ. Naomi’s story, no less than Ruth’s, is an inspiration to trust God, to walk in His ways, and, despite our failures, to wait in faith, hope and love for our redemption.

Occurrences of the Hebrew shuwb, ‘return’, in Ruth

19_ 3 women