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The book of Ruth is the Bible's primary illustration of the law of sonship found in Deuteronomy 25. The story also illustrates the principles of New Covenant marriage as God set forth from the beginning. In addition, it is a natural sequel to the last five chapters of the book of Judges, showing the moral contrast between the home towns of Saul and David as a way of explaining the failure of Saul and the success of David.
Category - Bible Commentaries
Having decided to leave Moab, Noami and her two daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) took the road west toward the Jordan River crossing, where the Israelites had crossed in the days of Joshua. Ruth 1:6, 7 says,
6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food [lehem, “bread”]. 7 So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
Note that it is called “the land of Moab,” not the land of Israel or the land of Reuben or Gad. No doubt these Israelite tribes occupied portions of that area, but clearly, the Moabites still held considerable territory. They were so numerous, in fact, that they were able to bring Israel into captivity for 18 years in Israel’s second captivity (Judges 3:14).
The famine had ended, the rains had come, and God had given Judah barley and wheat for bread. Hence, they left Moab and traveled to the land of Judah.
As the women walked along the road, mile after mile, they had a lot of time to ponder the situation. While Naomi looked forward to returning to those she knew, the others were leaving all of their loved ones. To leave one’s family and start over in a country of unfamiliar faces and a new language was difficult. The prospect of becoming citizens of another country was also difficult, for they must have known how neighboring nations often go to war against each other. Would their children find themselves fighting their own Moabite kindred?
Naomi saw the tears in their eyes and did not want her daughters-in-law to regret their decision to come with her to the land of Judah. As they approached the Jordan River, Naomi finally spoke up and verbalized what was on their minds. Ruth 1:8 says,
8 And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
Giving them the opportunity to return released them from their obligation to go the distance. The Jordan River was probably the point of no return, and it was important that they follow their hearts. So also does God test our hearts, for His desire is not to force anyone to follow Him into the Kingdom but to win their hearts by love.
I have found that when I have made certain decisions in the past, He often gives me an opportunity later to reassess my discernment. Although He accepts my earlier decision, He also realizes that we often make decisions based on an incomplete understanding of the cost of our decisions. Therefore, after we know more about the implications of our decisions, we are often given the same choice again, based on greater understanding.
So we see this happening in the case of Naomi and her daughters-in-law. She could see their sadness and tears. and so she gave them the opportunity to return to their families. As for the prophetic meaning of this, note the wording in verse 9: “May the Lord grant that you may find rest,” not in the Promised Land, but back home in Moab.
The word “rest” comes from the Hebrew word menukha, “rest, or resting place.” This word has theological and prophetic significance, for in Num. 10:33 we read,
33 Thus they set out from the mount of the Lord three days’ journey with the ark of the covenant of the Lord journeying in front of them for the three days; to seek out a resting place [menukha] for them.
The Promised Land as a whole was supposed to be Israel’s resting place, the land of Sabbath. In a narrower sense, the Ark of the Covenant sought a resting place, where it would move no more. It was later placed in Shiloh, “peace, rest,” but as long as it was in a tent, the resting place was yet unfulfilled in the greatest sense.
This “rest” was fulfilled, as Solomon said, when the Ark was brought into the temple that he had built, for only then could the staves be retired (1 Kings 8:8, KJV). Presumably, the Ark would never again be moved. So Solomon prayed in 1 Kings 8:56,
56 Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest [menukha] to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses His servant.
Of course, we know that this “rest” was complete only in an Old Covenant sense, for the entire story was yet but a type and shadow of greater things to come. In the New Covenant, we have a greater Joshua (Yeshua), a greater inheritance, a greater temple, a greater Jerusalem, and a greater rest (menukha), as we learn in Heb. 4:8-11,
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. 9 There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. 11 Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.
We see, then, that Naomi gave her daughters-in-law the opportunity to discern the place where they might find true rest. Was it in Moab or Judah? Would they find rest by returning and marrying Moabite husbands and building homes and families in the wilderness? As then, so also now, we must all follow our hearts, but only if truly led by the Spirit will we make the right choice. The call of fleshly comforts and identification with one’s fleshly family and genealogy keeps most people from taking that leap of faith.
Both Ruth and Orpah had the desire to go with Naomi, but ultimately, only Ruth continued on, while Orpah turned back.
Ruth 1:10-13 continues,
10 And they said to her [Naomi], “No, but we will surely return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? 12 Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.”
Marriage was a big issue in Naomi’s mind. Her widowed daughters-in-law had no children, and in those days bearing children formed a large part of a woman’s purpose in life. While it is important today as well, it was considered absolutely essential in those days.
Naomi’s words provide us with the first reference to the law in Deut. 25:5,
5 When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.
This is the most important law on which the story of Ruth is based. It was the legal reason why Boaz later married Ruth. If Orpah had continued with Naomi, she too might have found a husband in Judah. But at this point in the story, Naomi knew nothing about Boaz. All she could see was that she had lost her husband and both of her sons.
Hypothetically, if only one of Naomi’s sons had died, the other would have taken his brother’s widow as a second wife in order that his dead brother would carry on the family name and inheritance. But with both of the brothers dead, that could not be done.
In an earlier case, we see this law being carried out by Judah’s sons. Judah’s wife, Shua, had borne three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but Er died childless. So Onan took Tamar as his wife but refused to bear her children, and so “the Lord took his life” (Gen. 38:7). The youngest son, Shelah, was yet too young to be married, so Tamar waited for a few years to be given to him in marriage. But Judah was reluctant to give his last son to her, perhaps not trusting him to do what was right and that God might take his life as well.
That is why Tamar finally dressed as a prostitute and had twin sons by Judah himself. Judah had committed incest unknowingly, yet this prevented his descendants from ascending the throne for ten generations (until David).
Just as Judah’s situation called upon the law in Deut. 25:5, so also did Noami’s situation with Ruth and Orpah. As widows, they normally would have married their dead husband’s brother in order “that his name may not be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:6).
Naomi felt responsible for her daughters-in-law. She loved them and did not want them to remain widows for the rest of their lives. She felt that their chances of remarriage were much greater in the land of Moab than in Judah. As Moabites in the land of Judah, the women would have been viewed with some suspicion as outsiders coming from idolatrous backgrounds.
Perhaps, too, most of the men of Judah would not have wanted to wait to the third generation for their children to be fully integrated into Judah. The law applies this principle to Edomites and Egyptians in Deut. 23:7, 8, and it is likely that the same principle applied also to those of other nationalities.
7 You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest and Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land. 8 The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.
We know, of course, that Ruth ultimately married Boaz of Bethlehem. Their son, Obed, was the first generation from Ruth the Moabitess, Jesse was the second, and David the third. Hence, not only was David the tenth from an incestuous relationship but also the third from a Moabitess. In both cases, the law was fulfilled.
We should also compare and contrast two laws regarding incest. First, it was unlawful for a man to marry his brother’s wife, for Lev. 18: 16 says,
16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.
Such was the sin of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Antipas had married Herodias, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, a half-brother of Antipas. John the Baptist condemned this marriage (Matt. 14:3, 4), and for this he was imprisoned and later beheaded.
Secondly, a brother’s wife was supposed to marry her husband’s brother if he died childless. These two laws play one against the other in the background of the story of Ruth. Both Judah and Lot were guilty of incest as defined by the laws in Leviticus 18. But the death of husbands made it both necessary and good for their widows to marry their husband’s brother.
The main point is that the law regulates marriages. Love in itself does not sanctify an unlawful marriage or sexual union. God retains the right to define and sanctify marriage, having created marriage in the first place. Understanding this is important when we see that the law is spiritual and that it forms the basis of the laws of Sonship.