This is an odd story to find in the Old Testament, isn’t it? Or you might think so if you hadn’t read the emotional high notes when Jacob reunited with Esau and Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. The fast pace and gory action of Judges dies down, and the focus on great battles and important figures shifts to just one family.
Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, Chilion. They’re just a family from Bethlehem, looking for food. We leave our homelands looking for work now, don’t we? A lot more than maybe we want to. Every American ward you go to outside of Utah you’ll find plenty of people from elsewhere, who felt called there, or who chased a job there, or who just wanted some land and it was cheap there. Nowadays I know more people from my hometown in Utah than in my hometown. It’s a lonely thing, for everyone to be around people they didn’t grow up with. And the book of Ruth is a lonely story.
Elimelech dies. No less a tragic story for being common. You might imagine Naomi would come to hate the place that killed her husband, but she stays, I’d imagine for her sons, as they take wives of the Moabites. This land becomes a land of joy and sorrow both.
Then the sorrow overthrows the joy. Her beloved Mahlon and her beloved Chilion die. Naomi alone is left of that family that left Bethlehem.
There’s a lot of weeping in this book. It’s a humble story that hits you in the heart. It’s good to read, in the midst of all the action, all the adventure, all the smiting and killing and God schooling Israel with the famine and the sword, it’s good to read about ordinary people who just couldn’t stand to see each other be lonely.
Naomi doesn’t want her daughters-in-law to care for an old woman all their lives, one with no prospects for them, returning in rags to the place she was born. Neither of them want to see the mother of their beloved husband wander off to die alone. And at the culmination of the story, we find that Boaz can’t allow Ruth, a woman with virtue as bright as the sinners of the book of Judges were dark, to linger in mourning.
Elimelech doesn’t come back. Mahlon and Chilion don’t come back. We never see Orpah again – I hope she was able to make a visit. Grief is woven into the structure of this short story, which makes it more thematically appropriate, I think, than many other stories in the Bible. Our world is broken. Sin and death reign. Hope is fleeting but it exists and blessed be the name of our God for that.
I don’t know why or how the book of Ruth survived the millennia to come to us. There are explanations, for sure, but I don’t think it would be any less great of a story if David and Christ didn’t trace their ancestry to this Moabite woman, if Spear Carrier C were the most illustrious descendant of Naomi and Ruth. It’s a reminder not only of the fallen nature of the world we live in, but that sometimes, despite that, good things happen.