“Don’t ask me to leave and turn back. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
“I will die where you die and will be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
These words were spoken by a woman named Ruth living during the time of Judges, approximately 1070 BC. Her story has great biblical significance for it demonstrates the redeeming work of Christ exampled by Boaz, the kinsmen-redeemer, and Ruth, who portrays those entering a new life through trust in Christ.
I have often read her words, “I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live, etc,” but I have never really paused to consider the depths of their significance, until now.
So I find myself asking a few questions such as;
Are they simply words that reflect a young woman’s love for her mother-in-law demonstrated by acts of devotion, obedience, and loyalty? If so, why, based solely on that, does she, a Moabite, earn a place in biblical history where an entire book in the Bible is dedicated to her, as well as be chosen by God to be in the Messianic genealogy?
These few questions have created a desire to probe beyond the surface of the words, and seek for the story behind the story. So to coin the phrase, “inquiring minds want to know,” I have decided to take a walk with Ruth. Not so much through the territory of Israel or the gleaming fields of Boaz, but rather through the mountainous land of Moab and the culture in which Ruth lived.
So put on your walking shoes and grab the backpack, we’re going on a hike.
The starting place for our journey will launch from the pages of the Bible. My goal will not be to share every nook and cranny that my feet journeyed over, but rather, to give an overview of my discoveries expressed as Knowledge Nuggets. So lets get started.
Filling the backpack…
Knowledge Nugget #1 – The Book of Ruth
Ruth, the eighth book in the Bible, is located between Judges and 1 Samuel. It is not long or extensive, in fact it only consist of four chapters. However, it occupies an important place in biblical history, not only pertaining to King David (Ruth 4:18-22), but also to the ancestral lineage of Jesus (Mt 1:1,5).
Knowledge Nugget #2 – Time-line
As mentioned earlier, the time-line for Ruth takes place in the days of Judges around 1070 BC. This was a turbulent time in biblical history filled with apostasy (desertion of ones religion), oppression, inter-tribal jealousy, and civil war.
We read in Ruth 1:1-2 that there was a famine in the land of Israel which caused Elimelech (of the tribe of Judah) to gather his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and leave Bethlehem and travel to Moab most likely in search for food and water. Due to this relocation the stage is set for the eventual meeting between Mahlon and Ruth, which results in marriage.
Knowledge Nugget #3 – The Land of Moab
Ancient Moab (now Jordan) was a mountainous strip running along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and the southern section of the Jordan River. Ammon (now northwest Jordan) and the Arabian desert was located on the eastern borders with Edom (now southern Israel) located to its south.
The northern boundary varied, but in general it may have been represented by a line drawn some miles above the northern extremity of the Dead Sea, just below Jerusalem and Jericho.
The limestone enriched hills and salt from the Dead Sea proved to be valuable commodities for the Moabites who occupied a vital place along the King’s Highway. This “highway” was a ancient trade route between Egypt with Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia. Trade along this route gave the Moabites considerable revenue.
Knowledge Nugget #4 – The Moabite People
The Moabites were the descendants of Moab, the son produced from Lot’s incestuous relations with his oldest daughter after they fled the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:30-37).
The “Lot” connection makes the Moabites and Israelites relatives because they shared a common ancestor, Terah.
- Terah was the father of Abraham and Haran.
- Haran was the father of Lot.
- Lot was the father, as previously mentioned, of Moab.
For the most part the Moabites were known to be rich in possessions, peaceful in character but not afraid to defend their territory. They dealt heavily in trade, and was friendly with the countries that bordered their territory including Egypt.
Knowledge Nugget #5 – The Moabites Worshiped, but who?
Most Moabites were polytheist (idolaters) who worshiped many gods and goddesses, but they were widely referred to by the Israelites as “the people of Chemosh” (Numbers 21:29, Judges 11:24).
Chemosh, most likely means, destroyer, subduer, or fish god, and was the Moabites national deity which they honored with horribly cruel rites much like those of Molech, to whom children were sacrificed in fire (2 Kings 3:26-27).
- Did You Know? Human sacrifice was commonplace in the various Canaanite religions. Scholars suggest that this may be due to the fact that Chemosh and other Canaanite gods such as the Baals, Moloch, Thammuz, and Baalzebub were all personifications of the sun, or of the sun’s rays. This meant that they represented the fierce, inescapable, and often consuming heat of the summer sun, a necessary but dangerous element in life. (information gathered from About.com Ancient/Classical History).
The Moabites were such devoted followers of Chemosh that they developed a common practice which was to send their daughters out to cultivate friendly relations with the Israelites in order to entice them to join their idolatrous services (Numbers 25:2).
Moab and Israel
Knowledge Nugget #6 – Moab and Israels relationship
Both the Israelites and Moabites spoke Hebrew and shared many of the same customs, but Biblical history records that they were often in conflict, a sort of “on again – off again” relationship.
During the time of Judges, (Ruth’s period in history) Moab oppressed the people of Israel for 18 years (Judges 3: 12-13) mainly due to their objections of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. However, their borders appeared to remain friendly towards the Israelites living in Bethlehem (evident by the story of Ruth) and allowed them passage, occupation and trade.
Marriage Customs in Ruth’s time
There were two conditions imposed on marriage that both the Israelites and Moabites followed. One was the Mosaic Law and the other was the Levirate Marriage.
Knowledge Nugget #7 – Mosaic Law
Under Mosaic law the only restraint imposed upon intermarriages (Israelite and a foreigner) was that they were prohibited to marry Canaanites.
Marriage to Edomites and Egyptians were permitted if those from those nations entered full citizenship in the third generation of proselytism, which basically meant that they were required to convert to Judaism (both men and women).
The Ammonites and the Moabites strictly forbade their men to marry Israelite women, but permitted their women to marry Israelite men. In other words, their women were allowed to convert to Judaism, but their men were not.
Levirate Marriage was a Hebrew custom that when a married male Israelite died without leaving a male heir, his nearest relative was obligated to marry the widow, and the widow was obligated to marry her deceased husband’s nearest relative.
This was to continue the family of the deceased Israelite through the first-born son of such a union. This son would then become the heir of the former husband.
Key points in understanding the Moabites.
- Decedents of Moab-the son of incestuous union of Lot and his daughter.
- Moabites relatively peaceful people, but can be warlike if need be.
- Moabites prospered through trade on the Kings Highway.
- Moabites related to the Israelites but not part of their community.
- Moabites and Israelites shared common language and some customs.
- Moabites were idolaters and worshipers of Chemosh – practicing human sacrifice.
- Moabites and Israelites often in conflict – “on again, off again” relationship.
- Moabites during the time of Judges oppressed Israel for 18 years.
- Moabites friendly towards Israelites from Bethlehem.
- Moabite men forbidden to marry Israelite women.
- Moabite women permitted to marry Israelite men.
- Moabites observed Mosaic Law.
- Moabites observed Levirate Marriage.
Snap shots of Ruth, the Moabite
As my walk with Ruth rounds the turn, and I begin to make my way back towards Israel, and the town of Bethlehem, I recognize that I have gained greater insight into the culture, religion, and people of Moab. In so doing, I am also beginning to understand who Ruth may have been prior to her involvement with Elimelech, Naomi, and her husband Mahlon.
Here are just a few snap shots that I’ve put together.
Snap shot #1
- I find that Ruth grew up in a fairly prosperous country that dealt heavily in trade and enjoyed congenial relationships with the surrounding countries bordering its territory. This no doubt exposed her to a vast array of people, from Ammonites to Egyptians, Syrians and Edomites. All diverse and all bringing their own countries influences into the land of Moab.
Snap shot #2
- As a Moabite, Ruth was aware of her country’s oppression towards their Israelite relatives and perhaps grew up knowing nothing different.
Snap shot #3
- She was born into a religious culture that was widely different from that of the Israelites. It was thick in idolatry and heavy in the worship of Chemosh. She may in fact have lived under the fear, and rightly so, of becoming an object of human sacrifice. After all the king of the Moab himself did not have any remorse in sacrificing his own son as a burnt offering (2 Kings 3:27).
Snap shot #4
- As a woman in her culture, Ruth would have known of the restrictions of Mosaic Law as well as the guidelines of the Levirate Marriage.
Heading back to Israel
Ruth the Convert
Under Mosaic Law, when Ruth married Mahlon (an Israelite) she was required to convert to Judaism. This meant that she willingly gave up polytheism, the practice of idolatry and the worship of Chemosh. She then became a monotheist, the worship of one God, in particular the Hebrew God, Jehovah.
Also by converting to Judaism, she exchanged her Moabite culture, which was everything that she had ever known, and embraced the lifestyle and culture of the Israelites.
I am not sure how long Ruth was married before becoming a widow, but her devotion to Naomi conjures thoughts that it was long enough for her to developed a deep level of love and commitment, but not long enough to have produced a child.
So let’s look over those famous words again and see if they contain a deeper meaning.
“Don’t ask me to leave and turn back. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. I will die where you die and be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us.”
- “Don’t ask me to leave and turn back. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live.”
These statements speak volumes. Ruth was pleading to remain, but also not to “turn back.” Turn back to what we might ask? My guess is to say, to turn back to the ways of the Moabite culture and religion. It is evident that this was not her desire and to stay meant exactly that.
- “Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”
It appears that she not only embraced her mother-in-law, but also the ways of the Israelites and Judaism. She is declaring that she has forever forsaken the Moabite culture, their ways of idolatry, and has chosen to be a follower of the one true God.
- “I will die where you die and be buried there.”
Here Ruth announces her total commitment. For her there is no going back. She again declares that she is forever giving up everything that she has ever known as a Moabite, which by the way, she could choose to return to since the death of her husband released her from the Mosaic Law. Instead she is electing to venture into a foreign land, and to a future of unknowns.
- “May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us.”
The fact that Ruth referred to God as “Lord” tells us exactly where she is in her spiritual development. He is not just a god to her, but rather, she has developed a personal relationship with Him and correctly recognizes His Lordship over her life. I believe that the seriousness of her desire was communicated to Naomi by her expressed desire for God’s “punishment” if she were not able to go with her.
Summing it up
Understanding the ways of the Moabites has brought a deeper understanding of Ruth prior to her journey through the fields of Boaz. My admiration, which was already great, has increased exceedingly as I realize what degree of sacrifice Ruth made long before we are ever introduced to her.
So as Ruth packed up all her belongings and set her feet towards Bethlehem, she was taking conscience steps away from comfort, love of family, familiarity, and security. Not to mention the risk of possibly never remarrying, which for a women of her time was huge, to the point that their lives depended on it. For this is the reason why Naomi so strongly opposed for her daughter-in-laws to join her (Ruth 1: 12-13).
So by faith Ruth sets out on a journey to a people that she did not know, and a land that was foreign to her, with no promise of remarriage in sight. She took only three things, her love for Naomi, her faith in her Lord, and contentment to be in a land to where she could worship Him and no other.
Last of the Nuggets
- Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son named Obed.
- Obed has a son named Jesse.
- Jesse has a son named David who kills a bear, a lion, a giant, and becomes the King of Israel.
- Jesus comes from the line of David and was born in…you guessed it….Bethlehem, the town where it all began with Ruth.
- Moses was buried in the land of Moab.
- Elimelech’s name means (God is king) – He was from the tribe of Judah and lived in Bethlehem-judah. Died in Moab
- Naomi means (pleasant) – from Bethlehem-judah. Later requested to be called Mara (bitter) for she said that her time in Moab brought such grief into her life that she could no longer bear the name Naomi (Ruth 1: 20-21)
- Mahlon means (sickly)-from Bethlehem-died in Moab. Ruth’s first husband.
- Chilion means (wasting)-from Bethlehem-died in Moab. Husband to Orpha who returned to Moab.
- Ruth means (a female friend) -from Moab-married to Mahlon, then to Boaz, became the great-grandmother to King David and was in the ancestry line of Jesus.
- Boaz means (to be nimble)- from Bethlehem. A wealthy bethlehemite, kinsman to Elimelech, husband to Ruth, great-grandfather to King David.
Hanging up the Backpack and unlacing my shoes.
Thanks for joining me on my walk with Ruth. I hope you found it fun, interesting, and knowledgeable.
If you have or know of any knowledge nuggets that I might have overlooked, please feel free to share them. I would love to add them to my “rock/nugget” collection. 😉