RUTH walked beside Naomi on a road that stretched across the high, windswept plains of Moab. They were alone now, two tiny figures in a vast landscape. Imagine Ruth noticing that the afternoon shadows had lengthened, then looking at her mother-in-law and wondering if it was time to find a place to rest for the night. She loved Naomi dearly and would do all she could to care for her.
Each woman bore a heavy burden of grief. Naomi had been a widow for years now, but she was mourning more recent losses—the death of her two sons, Chilion and Mahlon. Ruth too was grieving. Mahlon was her husband. She and Naomi were heading to the same destination, the town of Bethlehem in Israel. In a way, though, their journeys differed. Naomi was going home. Ruth was venturing into the unknown, leaving her own kin, her homeland, and all its customs—including its gods—behind her.—Ruth 1:3-6.
What would move a young woman to make such a drastic change? How would Ruth find the strength to make a new life for herself and to take care of Naomi? In learning the answers, we will find much to imitate in the faith of Ruth the Moabitess. First, let us see how those two women came to be on that long road to Bethlehem.
A Family Torn Apart by Tragedy
Ruth grew up in Moab, a small country that lay to the east of the Dead Sea. The region consisted mostly of high, sparsely wooded tablelands cut through by deep ravines. “The fields of Moab” often proved to be fertile farmland, even when famine stalked Israel. That, in fact, was why Ruth first came into contact with Mahlon and his family.—Ruth 1:1.
A famine in Israel convinced Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, that he must move his wife and two sons away from their homeland and take up living in Moab as aliens. The move must have presented challenges to the faith of each family member, for Israelites needed to worship regularly at the sacred place Jehovah designated. (Deuteronomy 16:16, 17) Naomi managed to keep her faith alive. Still, she was grief-stricken when her husband died.—Ruth 1:2, 3.
She might well have suffered again later when her sons married Moabite women. (Ruth 1:4) Naomi knew that her nation’s forefather, Abraham, went to great lengths to procure a wife for his son, Isaac, among his own people, who worshipped Jehovah. (Genesis 24:3, 4) Later, the Mosaic Law warned the Israelites not to let their sons and daughters marry foreigners, for fear that God’s people would be led into idolatry.—Deuteronomy 7:3, 4.*
Nevertheless, Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite women. If Naomi was concerned or disappointed, she evidently made sure that she showed her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, genuine kindness and love. Perhaps she hoped that they too would someday come to worship Jehovah as she did. At any rate, both Ruth and Orpah were fond of Naomi. The good relationship they had helped them when tragedy struck. Before either of the young women had borne children, both became widows.—Ruth 1:5.
Did Ruth’s religious background prepare her for such a tragedy? It is hard to see how it could have. The Moabites worshipped many gods, the chief among them being Chemosh. (Numbers 21:29) It seems that the Moabite religion was not exempt from the brutality and horrors common in those times, including the sacrifice of children. Anything Ruth learned from Mahlon or Naomi about the loving and merciful God of Israel, Jehovah, surely struck her as a marked contrast. Jehovah ruled through love, not terror! (Deuteronomy 6:5) In the wake of her devastating loss, Ruth may have drawn even closer to Naomi and listened willingly to the older woman as she spoke about the almighty God, Jehovah, his wonderful works, and the loving, merciful way he dealt with his people.
Naomi, for her part, was eager for news of her homeland. One day she heard, perhaps from a traveling merchant, that the famine in Israel was over. Jehovah had turned his attention to his people. Bethlehem was again living up to its name, which means “House of Bread.” Naomi decided to return home.—Ruth 1:6.
What would Ruth and Orpah do? (Ruth 1:7) They had grown close to Naomi through their shared ordeal. Ruth in particular, it seems, was drawn to Naomi’s kindness and her steadfast faith in Jehovah. The three widows set off for Judah together.
The account of Ruth reminds us that tragedy and loss beset good, honest people as well as bad. (Ecclesiastes 9:2, 11) It shows us too that in the face of unbearable loss, we are wise to seek comfort and solace in others—especially those who seek refuge in Jehovah, the God whom Naomi worshipped.—Proverbs 17:17.
The Loyal Love of Ruth
As the miles stretched out behind the three widows, another concern began weighing on Naomi. She thought of the two young women at her side and of the love they had shown to her and her sons. She could not bear the thought of adding to their burdens now. If they left their homeland and came with her, what could she do for them in Bethlehem?
Finally, Naomi spoke up: “Go, return each one to the house of her mother. May Jehovah exercise loving-kindness toward you, just as you have exercised it toward the men now dead and toward me.” She also expressed a hope that Jehovah would reward them with new husbands and new lives. “Then she kissed them,” the account says, “and they began to raise their voices and weep.” It is not hard to see why Ruth and Orpah felt so attached to this kindhearted and unselfish woman. Both of them kept insisting: “No, but with you we shall return to your people.”—Ruth 1:8-10.
Naomi was not so easily persuaded, though. She reasoned forcefully that there was little that she could do for them in Israel, since she had no husband to provide for her, no sons for them to marry, and no prospects of either. She revealed that her inability to care for them was a source of real bitterness to her.—Ruth 1:11-13.
With Orpah, Naomi’s words hit home. She had family there in Moab, a mother, and a home that was waiting for her. It really did seem more practical to remain in Moab. So, with a heavy heart, she kissed Naomi good-bye and turned away.—Ruth 1:14.
What about Ruth? Naomi’s arguments applied to her as well. Yet, we read: “As for Ruth, she stuck with her.” Perhaps Naomi had resumed walking on the road but noticed that Ruth was trailing behind her. She remonstrated: “Look! Your widowed sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Return with your widowed sister-in-law.” (Ruth 1:15) Naomi’s words reveal a vital detail to the reader. Orpah had returned not only to her people but also to “her gods.” She was content to remain a worshipper of Chemosh and other false gods. Was that how Ruth felt?
As she faced Naomi on that lonely road, Ruth’s heart was sure and clear. It swelled with love for Naomi—and for the God Naomi served. So she spoke: “Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you.”—Ruth 1:16, 17.
Ruth’s words are remarkable—so much so that they have long outlived her, echoing down through some 30 centuries. They perfectly reveal a precious quality, loyal love. The love that Ruth felt was so strong and so loyal that she would stick with Naomi wherever she went. Only death could separate them. Naomi’s people would become her own people, for Ruth was ready to leave behind everything she knew in Moab—even the Moabite gods. Unlike Orpah, Ruth could wholeheartedly say that she wanted Naomi’s God, Jehovah, to be her own God as well.*
So they traveled on, just the two of them now, on the long road to Bethlehem. By one estimate, the journey might have taken as long as a week. Surely, though, each found in the company of the other some measure of comfort in the face of grief.
There is no shortage of grief in this world. In our own times, which the Bible calls “critical times hard to deal with,” we face all manner of losses as well as grief. (2 Timothy 3:1) So the quality we find in Ruth has become more important than ever. Loyal love—the kind of love that holds on to its object and simply refuses to let go—is a powerful force for good in this darkening world. We need it in marriage, we need it in family relations, we need it in friendships, we need it in the Christian congregation. As we cultivate that kind of love, we are imitating the sterling example of Ruth.
Ruth and Naomi in Bethlehem
It is, of course, one thing to put loyal love into words; it is quite another to prove the quality in action. Ruth had before her the opportunity to show her loyal love not only to Naomi but also to the God she chose as her own, Jehovah.
The two women finally reached Bethlehem, a village about six miles (10 km) south of Jerusalem. Naomi and her family, it seems, had once been quite prominent in that little town, for the whole place was buzzing with the news of Naomi’s return. The women there would peer at her and say, “Is this Naomi?” Evidently, her sojourn in Moab had left her much changed; her countenance and bearing showed the mark of years of hardship and grief.—Ruth 1:19.
To those kinswomen and neighbors of years past, Naomi revealed how bitter her life had become to her. She even felt that her name should be changed from Naomi, which means “My Pleasantness,” to Mara, which means “Bitter.” Poor Naomi! Much like Job before her, she believed that Jehovah God had brought her hardships on her.—Ruth 1:20, 21; Job 2:10; 13:24-26.
As the two women settled into life in Bethlehem, Ruth began thinking about how best to take care of herself and Naomi. She learned that the Law that Jehovah had given to his people in Israel included a loving provision for the poor. They were allowed to go into the fields at harvesttime and follow the reapers, gleaning what was left behind as well as what grew at the edges and corners of the fields.*—Leviticus 19:9, 10; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.
It was the time of the barley harvest, likely in April by our modern calendar, and Ruth went to the fields to see who would let her work under the provision for gleaners. She chanced upon the fields of a man named Boaz, a wealthy landowner and a relative of Naomi’s dead husband, Elimelech. Though the Law gave her the right to glean, she did not take it for granted; she asked the young man in charge of the harvesters for permission to work. He granted it, and then Ruth got right to work.—Ruth 1:22–2:3, 7.
Imagine Ruth following the harvesters. As they cut through the barley with their flint sickles, she stooped to pick up what they dropped or left behind, bundled the stalks into sheaves, and carried them off to a spot where she could beat out the grain later. It was slow, tiring work, and it got harder as the morning wore on. Yet, Ruth kept at it, stopping only to wipe the sweat from her brow and to eat a simple lunch in “the house”—likely a shelter set up to provide shade for the workers.
Ruth probably neither hoped nor expected to be noticed—but she was. Boaz saw her and asked the young foreman who she was. A remarkable man of faith, Boaz greeted his workers—some of whom may have been day laborers or even foreigners—with the words: “Jehovah be with you.” And they responded in kind. This spiritually-minded older man took a fatherly interest in Ruth.—Ruth 2:4-7.
Calling her “daughter,” Boaz advised Ruth to keep coming to his fields to glean and to stay near the young women of his household to avoid being harassed by any of the workmen. He made sure that she had food to eat at lunchtime. Above all, though, he sought to commend and encourage her. How so?—Ruth 2:8, 9, 14.
When Ruth asked Boaz what she, a foreigner, had done to deserve his kind favor, he replied that he had heard about all that she had done for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Likely Naomi had praised her beloved Ruth among the women of Bethlehem, and word had reached Boaz. He knew, too, that Ruth had turned to the worship of Jehovah, for he said: “May Jehovah reward the way you act, and may there come to be a perfect wage for you from Jehovah the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.”—Ruth 2:12.
How those words must have encouraged Ruth! She had, indeed, decided to take refuge under the wings of Jehovah God, like a young bird securely nestled against a protective parent. She thanked Boaz for speaking to her so reassuringly. And she kept on working until evening fell.—Ruth 2:13, 17.
Ruth’s faith in action is a sterling example to all of us today who struggle in these difficult economic times. She did not think that others owed her anything, so she appreciated everything that was offered her. She felt no shame in working long and hard to care for one she loved, even though it was humble work. She gratefully accepted and applied wise advice about how to work safely and in good company. Most important, she never lost sight of where her true refuge lay—with her protective Father, Jehovah God.
If we show loyal love as Ruth did and follow her example in humility, industriousness, and appreciation, we will find that our faith too will become a sterling example for others. How, though, did Jehovah provide for Ruth and Naomi? We will discuss the matter in a future article in this series.
See the article “Our Readers Ask—Why Did God Require That His Worshippers Marry Only Fellow Believers?” on page 29.
It is noteworthy that Ruth did not use only the impersonal title “God” as many foreigners might; she also used God’s personal name, Jehovah. The Interpreter’s Bible comments: “The writer thus emphasizes that this foreigner is a follower of the true God.”
It was a remarkable law, surely unlike anything Ruth knew in her homeland. In the ancient Near East in those days, widows were treated poorly. Notes one reference work: “After her husband’s death, normally a widow had to rely on her sons for support; if she had none, she might have to sell herself into slavery, resort to prostitution, or die.”
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A Masterpiece in Miniature
The book of Ruth has been described as a small gem, a masterpiece in miniature. Granted, the book has neither the sweep nor the scope of the book of Judges, which precedes it and provides the time setting for Ruth. (Ruth 1:1) Both books were evidently written by the prophet Samuel. Yet, as you read through the Bible, you may agree that the book of Ruth is beautifully placed in the Bible canon. After reading of the wars, raids, and counterraids recorded in the book of Judges, you come to this little book that reminds us that Jehovah never loses sight of peaceful folk struggling with everyday problems. This simple domestic drama offers profound lessons about love, loss, faith, and loyalty that can benefit us all.
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Ruth wisely drew close to Naomi during a time of grief and loss
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“Your people will be my people, and your God my God”
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Ruth was willing to do hard, humble work to provide for herself and Naomi