Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
The Greatest of These Is Love
The Bible talks a lot about love. Love for enemies, love for foreigners, neighbors, and strangers. It explains how one spouse should love the other, it describes God’s love to us, and it even speaks of the deep love that friends can feel for one another. In Genesis, God said that “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), so he created a helpmate for Adam. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote in chapter 4:9,10 that "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: if one falls down his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” Romantic and parental love are nice, but one shouldn’t neglect friendship. The Bible gives us clear examples of true friendship, among them, Ruth and Naomi.
In pop culture, especially in the post-feminist western world, women sell. The idea of two strong, independent women against a male-dominated world pervades movies, television, and literature. “Thelma and Louise” remains a beloved classic nearly thirty years after its release. It hammers home the notion that real friends stick together no matter what.
If strong female protagonists is a Hollywood cliché, I’d be remiss not to mention another one: the dreaded mother-in-law. Often portrayed as insufferable, overbearing, and to be avoided at all cost, the mother-in-law trope is as much a part of Hollywood as the white sign high atop Hollywood Hills.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: if one falls down his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
— Ecclesiastes 4:9,10
Naomi and Her Family in Moab
The Bible, however, rejects both those notions, or at least, the Book of Ruth does. The Book of Ruth opens in the days when the “judges ruled.” From other Biblical books, we can piece together a timeline that puts Ruth before the kingship of Saul and after the Eglon oppression, approximately 1302-1284 BC. We known from the Book of Ruth, and other sources, that there was a famine in Bethlehem. A man from there named, Elimelech, and his wife, Naomi, moved to Moab with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to escape the famine.
While in Moab, Elimelech died and left Naomi with their two sons, who over the course of time had married a couple of local women; Orpah and Ruth. In those days life was harsh. There was no modern day sanitation, doctors weren’t the same as today, and work related accidents were very common. Ten years after Elimelech passed, Mahlon and Kilion also died. If life was rough for the men, who often died young, it was doubly harsh for the women, who were often left without any means of support after her husbands died. The Bible, in many places, lies down the laws for the care of orphans and widows. Often they were at the bottom of society’s ladder; reduced to begging, or if they were able, gleaning the fields.
In Deuteronomy and Leviticus, God had commanded many welfare programs for the poor. Leviticus 19:9-10 commands farmers not to reap the very edges of their field or gather the gleanings of the harvest, nor are they to go over the vineyard a second time or pick up fallen grapes. All those they are to leave to the poor and foreigners. Gleaning allowed the disadvantaged to work for their food, and demonstrated God’s concern for those less fortunate. While such welfare programs are beneficial, it’s still humiliating and backbreaking work. Not exactly the kind of life a young widow would look forward to, yet a likely fate for Orpah and Ruth.
Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.
Meanwhile, back in Moab, Naomi had heard that the the famine had ended in Bethlehem. So she set out to return to her homeland and turned to her two daughters -in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Naomi loved Orpah and Ruth. She knew that the life ahead of her would be harsh, she did not wish that for the two young ladies. But they wept alongside her and refused to leave her saying, “We will go back with you, to your people.”
This was a sweet thing for the girls to say, and even sweeter given the cultural context. Orpah and Ruth were Moabitesses, sworn enemies of the Israelites. By returning to Judah with Naomi they would have been despised foreigners, daughters of a country where tensions had gone back generations to the time of Esau and Jacob. Tensions which quite often erupted into periods of violence. It would have been a risk and sacrifice for the women to travel back with Naomi, yet they were willing to do so. Technically, their ties to her could have ended with the deaths of her sons, but their friendship seems to have only grown stronger. Not only that, but Naomi was older than them, yet the generational age-gap made no difference to their friendship. They three ladies were closer than ever. But with age comes wisdom. Naomi knew she had nothing to offer the two ladies.
“Return home, my daughters.” Naomi again insisted. “Why would you come with me? Am I going to have more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”
Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.
May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.
Naomi and Ruth, BFFs
Orpah and Ruth cried at Naomi’s words, they knew the truth behind the words; going with Naomi would mean a life of poverty and hardship, and in a land that wasn’t their own. Orpah, weeping, kissed her aged friend good -bye, but Ruth held tight. She bravely told Naomi that where Naomi went, she would follow, “Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” So Ruth followed Naomi into, what was for her, a foreign land, and took her place in the fields, gleaning for food. She was more than ready to accept the mantle of hardship for the sake of her dear friend.
Of course, anybody familiar with the story knows that it ended quite well for Ruth. She ended up meeting Boaz, whom she eventually married. She was able to provide for Naomi, and the ladies remained close friends throughout their days. Ruth eventually became the grandmother of King David, and an ancestor of Jesus the Christ. But she had no way of knowing that beforehand. For her friend, she was willing to endure anything, and for her loyalty, she was blessed.
© 2018 Anna Watson
GospelDevotionals on January 17, 2018:
Ruth was indeed a shining example of Christs love for us, and showed how we are called to love one another. This was an excellent read, thank you for sharing.
Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on January 10, 2018:
Excellent point. It can certainly be difficult to discern God's will, much prayer and meditation are needed. Many people, I believe, have mistaken their own will for God's and gone down the wrong path. A mistake I've made myself. In Ruth's case, whether she knew it or not, she was definitely being led by God. He used her loyalty for a far greater good.
As a side note, I can only hope things worked out well for Orpah too. She made the more seemingly practical decision to remain behind, but that doesn't mean she still wasn't a good friend to the two ladies.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 09, 2018:
I really like this work. Very strong lessons to be learned. Sometimes hard to know what is loyalty and what is obedience to God.