When we wade into the book of Ruth, which effectively functions as a bridge to David because Ruth is his great-grandmother, we should so while bearing in mind the kaleidoscopic montage of exile and exodus --- the ongoing theme of subjection and rescue from foreign oppression that is a dominant theme of the Word of God from Abraham onward. When we look into Ruth then, what is it that we immediately find?
In the first verse we read “During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live as a resident foreigner in the region of Moab, along with his wife and two sons” (1:1). Amazingly, and almost as if we have hit upon another important theme of Scripture, famine is present. If we took the time to trace this theme, we would see it with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, and with Joseph. The man in question here in Ruth, whose name was Elimelech, now stands in good company, walking the familiar path that has been previously trod by the patriarchs of the covenant people. Elimelech, like these men, has voluntarily removed himself from the land of God’s promise. He is now in a self-imposed exile. We should note that the Scripture offers no commentary on his departure from the promised land, but simply presents it as a matter of fact.
While in this state of exile from the land that represents God’s faithful promises to His people, Elimelech died. His death left his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) alone. Rather than return to the land of Judah, “her sons married Moabite women (Orpah and Ruth). And they continued to live there about ten years” (1:4). Here, we have echoes of Jacob’s first departure from his father’s house, coming on the heels of what he believed to be his father’s impending death (because of Isaac’s insistence on blessing Esau before he died), as we know that when Jacob was in the first of his exiles, in Haran, two women were married and there was an extended dwelling away from the land of promise. For Naomi, the pain of exile would grow, as her two sons went the way of their father, dying there in the land of Moab. With this, she is described as being “bereaved of her two children as well as her husband” (1:5b).
It was within this bereavement, that Naomi “decided to return home from the region of Moab, accompanied by her daughters-in-law” (1:6a). She decided to make this return journey “because while she was living in Moab she had heard that the Lord had shown concern for His people, reversing the famine by providing abundant crops” (1:6b). This statement reminds us of the opening statement of the book, and the famine mentioned therein “during the time of the judges.” Why would there have been a famine in Judah? Well, if we believe in a God that is faithful to His promises (according to Deuteronomy), and if we believe in the record of the book of Judges, the famine is a curse related to Israel’s idolatry (doing evil in the sight of the Lord). Famine points us to exile, while also informing us that Elimelech’s flight to Moab was most likely undertaken during one of the periods of subjugation to foreign power. The reversal of this famine, in turn, points us to another instance of exodus, as God has raised up a judge to deliver His people, rescuing them from the regime of oppression, and giving their land back to them, as they have turned from idolatry to God. The exile and exodus spoken to by the famine and the reversal of the famine stands in parallel to the exile and exodus that is being experienced by Naomi.
It would appear that the plan had been for Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to return to the land of Judah. To that end, we read “Now as she and her two daughters-in-law began to leave the place where she had been living to return to the land of Judah” (Ruth 1:7). This would indicate that all three were leaving their land of exile, and that all three were about to experience an exodus to the land of the covenant promise, even though both Ruth and Orpah were Moabites and had not previously left the region of Israel, and were not a part of God’s covenant people. Of course, in the Egyptian exodus, there were non-Israelites that went out of Egypt with Israel, so we are seeing a bit of a re-playing of this as Naomi and the two women leave Moab.