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Leaving Bethlehem for Moab (Ruth #1)

Leaving Bethlehem for Moab (Ruth #1)

Ruth, the eighth book in the Bible, is relatively short, consisting of just four chapters. Named after a female character, Ruth could be described as a romantic book, for it begins with several tragedies and it contains a courtship (of a sort) which issues in a marriage (between Ruth and Boaz) and the birth of their son (Obed). A very happy ending!

Considering the book theologically, Ruth is significant for four main reasons that have been widely recognized by God’s people. 

The first concerns our Lord Jesus Christ. Ruth provides us with a vital part of our Saviour’s genealogy, for she was the great-grandmother of King David from whom came the Messiah, according to His human nature. The book also presents a kinsman redeemer (Boaz) who buys back or redeems his deceased relative’s wife (Ruth). The incarnate Son of God redeems His elect people through His cross for He is our blood relative who makes us flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone spiritually. 

Second, this book points ahead to the New Testament days of the catholic or universal church, for Ruth is a Moabitess, a Gentile who is grafted into Israel. For 2,000 years, millions of elect, believing Jews and Gentiles from around the world have become one body in Jesus Christ.

Third, this book records remarkable instances of God’s providence. To develop this point, I would have to summarize the four chapters of Ruth, but you can read the book for yourself to trace Jehovah’s sovereign decree and hand guiding the various characters.

Fourth, this book is significant because it presents the godly examples of Ruth herself, Naomi and Boaz, people whose virtues we would do well to emulate.
But there is another important theological and practical lesson from the book of Ruth, especially chapter 1, that is often unnoticed or underdeveloped in sermons and writings on the eighth book of the Bible. Ruth is very significant as regards church membership, departing from the church and joining the church. 

Dispensationalism misses this because it denies that Israel is the Old Testament form of God’s church (and the church is the New Testament form of Israel). Some are so focused on courtship and romance in Ruth that they overlook its instruction on joining, staying in and never leaving God’s church. 

Others fail to see this teaching on church membership in Ruth because they have not fully grasped the robust biblical and Reformed doctrine of the church, as summarized, for example, in Belgic Confession 28: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and  out of it there is no salvation, that no person, of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.”

At first blush, Ruth 1:1-5 records a very simple human story, involving a family of four, consisting of a man and his wife, Elimelech and Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion (2). They lived in the town of Bethlehem in the tribe of Judah in the land of Israel, in the days of the judges (1), that is, after the deaths of the elders who outlived Joshua and before the reign of King Saul.
But famine struck the promised land, including Judah and Bethlehem (1). There was a shortage of bread in Bethlehem, which town’s name means “house of bread.” So what did Elimelech and his family do? They emigrated from famine-stricken Israel to Moab (1-2). 

Then grief befell them in Moab! Elimelech died (of what, we are not told), leaving Naomi a widow, and Mahlon and Chilion orphans, in a foreign land (3). 

Later, things seemed to look up for the bereaved family. The two sons married: Mahlon was joined to Ruth and Chilion wedded Orpah (4).

However, the two marriages remained childless and worse was to follow. Mahlon, the older son, died. Chilion, the only remaining son, also expired (5).

Of the four who had left Bethlehem, only Naomi remained. She had left her country and lost her husband and both her sons. You can easily imagine the many tears she shed, tears which were all stored in God’s bottle (Ps. 56:8)!

Naomi had been through a lot in the last few years: famine, emigration, two weddings and three funerals. Now she had no husband and no children. 

These three widows, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, were in a difficult and sad situation. The lot of widows was especially hard in those days, but for a widow in a foreign land, like Naomi, it was even more difficult.

We are not altogether unfamiliar with stories like this. We know about people emigrating, often because of economic reasons, like famine or unemployment, and out of a desire for a more prosperous life in another land. For some who emigrated, it worked out well, but for others it did not. They struggled to find employment or they never really settled in their new environment or they experienced tragedy in their families (though few had it as hard as Naomi). Some returned to the land of their birth.

Is this what we have here in Ruth 1:1-5? Is this merely a sad story of a family fleeing famine in Israel, only for most of them to end up in a graveyard in Moab? If so, perhaps the minister can moralize a little on the problems and dangers of emigration. But is this really all that the first five verses of Ruth contain? No! To this we shall return in our next article in the News, DV.  Rev. Angus Stewart

Last modified on 26 October 2013
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Additional Info

  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 17
Stewart, Angus

Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)

Ordained - 2001

Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001


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