A few years ago I realised a personal ambition in reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from cover to cover. It is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of fictional writing, stretching its paperback binding with its 1500+ pages, and stretching the mind of its readers with its content. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, focussing in particular on the events leading up to and following his invasion of Russia in 1812.
One of Tolstoy’s great skills as an author is his juxtaposition of the confusion and cacophony of the battlefield alongside everyday life with its 19th century social mores. With a deftness and keen ear for dialogue, Tolstoy succeeds in combining the dramatic and the domestic to great effect. Using a small cast of characters he manages to capture something universal about humanity and history, about war and peace.
The idea of a small group of people giving larger lessons for a watching world is at the heart of the Old Testament book of Ruth. This biblical short story speaks through a small group of people about the big things God has done, and by extension what he continues to do in our world by His power today. There is much in Ruth to attract the eye of the modern reader. Embedded in its carefully constructed narrative are the issues of recession and hardship, foreign immigration and mobility, love and romance.
Overarching all of this, however, is the big lesson that the book of Ruth seeks to teach. It is the story of a great God, who is in charge of small details for the glory of his name. Or to phrase things slightly differently it is the story of an extraordinary God working in extraordinary ways through the ordinary details of our lives. This short series of articles begins by looking at Ruth chapter 1, mining it for clues about what we can expect in the rest of the book, sounding the narrative for its context, plot and themes, and setting a framework for the treatments that will follow.
No food and no family
The book of Ruth will end with glorious things. It will treat the themes of kingship and ancestry, along with the line of the Messiah. But it begins with bread and butter issues. A major problem faces the people of Israel ‘there was a famine in the land’. The writer of Ruth wants this fact earthed in solid historical context, informing us that the famine took place ‘in the days when the Judges ruled’. A quick survey of the era of the Judges is depression-inducing. The people of God are marked by instability, moral calamity and political turmoil. The book of Judges depicts departure on an unprecedented scale, it is a survey of people turning their back on God, a time when moral certainty has been swallowed by cultural relativity, when ‘Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit’.
It is into this kind of world that recession comes. Ruth may not carry the rhetoric of ‘double-dip recession’ or the ‘squeezed middle’ but times are hard as the first chapter opens, famine has hit a country without faith, and a culture without moral foundations. For Israel this is a moment of importunity, with material things becoming scare, but it is also a moment of opportunity, to see the hand of God in their circumstances, and to return to him. One commentator helpfully notes that ‘the mention of famine…recalled the biblical pattern that famines, despite tragic appearances, often advance God’s plan for his people. What great destiny might this story portend?’.
With the range of Google Earth, the book begins with a broad focus which gradually narrows to one locality, Bethlehem, and to one family within it ‘a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab’. Names in this section of Scripture are hugely significant. This is a man from Bethlehem , the ‘House of Bread’ going to Moab for food. Elimelech whose name announces ‘God is King’ lives in a day when there is no king in the land, and when events seem random, irrational, uncontrolled. This man takes his wife Naomi, along with his two sons, on a journey to combat extremity, and they finally find themselves in Moab. This is a picture of God’s people seeking provision from God’s enemies, living as strangers, exiles, strangers, immigrants, with few rights, little resources. This is a family on the edge of survival, a family on the margins spiritually - far from home, and seemingly far from the help of God.
A friend once gave me a bookmark with a silhouetted figure of a person on a cliff edge. It was framed with the words ‘I am eagerly awaiting my next disappointment’. This might have made a good strapline for Naomi and her family in Ruth 1. Terrible bereavement visits the family home, Elimelech dies, and his demise is quickly followed by the deaths of his two sons Mahlon and Kilion. Naomi now finds herself a foreigner with no food and no family, and with little faith remaining. She forms one part of a trio of widows whose world has imploded and whose future looks doubtful.
This is a bleak and black picture, and yet this is what the Bible specialises in. With a starkness which can make Albert Camus’ corpus look like a work of side-splitting comedy, the Bible is adept at showing us the depths, and demonstrating the grim reality of life in all its shades. But the Bible also knows nothing of existential angst. Its concern is to teach that it is precisely between the spaces of such inauspicious events that God breathes, God works, God moves. Over the course of the book of Ruth the reader will witness the mighty way in which God will operate with prevenient and transforming grace, bringing beauty from ashes, granting harvest in the place of hardship.
But for now, for Naomi, all is futile, even if God’s sovereignty is the operating system which runs with constancy behind calamity.
This is where the Tolstoy factor is witnessed in full flow. The circumstances of Ruth chapter 1 are designed to show us the depths, so that in time we might grasp the heights of our God’s activity. This will be a story of God taking the most unpleasant, unpalatable, and impossible circumstances and using them for His glory. It is entirely possible that as modern readers we see something of ourselves in the terrible turn of events portrayed on the first page of this story. We too can come through experiences which are extreme, stressful, and present us with struggles which seem impossible to survive. As his people, God assures us through this story that he is at work, that he is having his way, and that our lives which are lived forwards with confusion, can be surveyed backwards with clarity. In short, his hand is engaged with, and in control of, what we face.
No famine and no faltering
Running parallel to the pain of Naomi’s experience, things in Israel have improved drastically. The message reaches Moab that God has moved, and that people are finding food again: the famine is over. The circumstances that prompted a family’s flight to foreign fields are past, there is bread again in Israel. In 1:22 the convergence of national and domestic concerns is complete: Naomi arrives back in Bethlehem just as the barley harvest is beginning.
These details draw a line under the book's depiction of human efforts at self-sufficiency. Naomi and her family in moving to Moab have faced worse than famine, but God’s grace has granted food again to his people, in his place. For Naomi the decision is simple - with no faltering she heads back to Bethlehem, bringing her two daughters-in-law with her. On the road, however, she rethinks. It seems unfair to drag two young women back to her home town, with no prospect of marriage or family. In an act of extraordinary selflessness Naomi counsels Ruth and Orpah to head back home and to set up new homes. Both foreign women offer protest, but only one makes a promise: Orpah returns and Ruth commits. 1:16 is a monumental moment for this Moabitess. Her decision is not just about where to live, but who to worship and how to live: ‘your people will be my people and your God will be my God’.
These are the first flickering signs of God’s good hand behind bad events. Ruth has come to faith, and in spite of the 'non-prosperity gospel' she has imbibed in Naomi’s household she doesn’t falter, but trusts in God. Ruth decides with a touching firmness of faith that she will live in God’s place among God’s people, under God’s rule.
As the pair arrives in Bethlehem, Naomi tells her story. With the somewhat skewed perspective which characterises many truly hurting people, she describes her journey as one from blessing to bitterness, with the city of Bethlehem serving as a bracket around the terrible things that have befallen her family.
But this is not Naomi’s story. More than the barley harvest is ripe in Bethlehem. The purposes of God are about to find full fruit as an obscure foreign national named Ruth takes up residence in backwater Bethlehem. The air is charged with the electric potential of an eternal God intersecting the temporal to achieve the unthinkable.
As readers at this point in the narrative we have here, in germ form, the components of the story which will bring its characters from hardship to harvest. We have the loose ends of pain, which God will use for his purpose, we have his mercy in the bud awaiting the bloom: there is a sense that something wonderful will come from such woe. And in a sense this is enough for now. In our own journey into hardship we may not yet be ready to hear of harvest, we might struggle with the ‘all things’ of Romans 8:28, finding ourselves content for now to believe that beyond our doubts and despairs there is merely a hint of a heavenly hand.
As the sun sets on Bethlehem, the barley heads waving lightly against a red sky, no one in the city could foresee the phenomenal work that God will do in the life of one foreign national and her spiritually broken mother in law. But sheltered in their meagre accommodation resides not just the potential of their story, but the nascent elements of God’s Great Story. These are the materials God will use, not just to show mercy to a family, but to give a Messiah to humanity.
This invisible God will work in visible ways, in the details of ordinary lives, to do extraordinary things.