A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Three Funerals and a Wedding
In this edition of METConnexion, we begin a new series of four Bible studies, looking at the book of Ruth. Let’s, by way of introduction, note some points about its setting. We can locate its date of composition within a two-hundred year period, somewhere between 1250 and 1050 BC. The book opens by stating that these events are set ‘in the days when the judges ruled’ (v. 1), days described in the previous book of the Bible, the book of Judges. They were disastrous years for the Israelites. It was as if they were living on a roller coaster. As there was no king, there was anarchy. The book of Judges closes with the words, ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judges 21:25). In other words, everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes. Very soon, it becomes clear that when people do what is right in their own eyes, very often they end up doing what is wrong in the eyes of the Lord: ‘Another generation grew up, who neither knew the Lord, nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (Judges 2:10). A pattern of events, a repeated cycle, soon emerges: the nation would descend into greater and greater depths of evil. Judgment would come; they would be invaded by a foreign army. In desperation they would cry out to the Lord who would raise up a deliverer, or a Judge, to rescue them. They would be safe once more, until the whole process began again. They were spiraling into greater and greater evil. So this book of Ruth is set within a time of the nation’s great unfaithfulness to God. How wonderful it is then to read the story of the great faithfulness of one woman, a foreigner!
The other point about the book’s setting is the place. We begin in Bethlehem. ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘House of Bread’, but we are told that ‘there was a famine in the land’ (v. 1) and so the action very quickly moves to Moab as Elimelech and his family move there in search of food. The Israelites hated the Moabites because they had invaded Israel and oppressed them for eighteen years. By the end of chapter one, over a decade has passed and the story has taken us back to Bethlehem where we remain for the rest of the book. Bearing in mind that the story is set in this time of rebellion against the Lord, as the nation repeatedly walks away from him, perhaps we can also see that theme echoed in the book of Ruth as Naomi, with her husband, travels away from the Promised Land, into an oppressive foreign nation, and then later returns, though she returns not with her husband, but with Ruth, a Moabitess who has become her daughter-in-law. Interestingly, Hebrew (the language in which the book was written) uses the same word for ‘return’ and ‘repent’.
Let’s look at chapter one in more detail. There are three stages in the story-line of this chapter which we’ll call disaster, deliverance and devotion. So firstly, disaster strikes. Remembering that these events are set against the backdrop of the great darkness of the nation’s unfaithfulness to God, we read, first of all, that a famine falls upon the land and suddenly in Bethlehem, ‘the House of Bread’, there’s no food to eat (v. 1). So Elimelech takes his wife Naomi and his two sons and they travel to Moab, the hated foreign nation, in search of food and there they settle (v. 2). They end up a long way from home in a strange place, surrounded by strange customs and where, we presume, they don’t know anyone. That would be bad enough, but then disaster strikes again. Naomi’s husband dies (v. 3) and so she is left without a husband, in a strange place, suffering grief, heartache and loneliness. It must have been an awful experience, but then she’s plunged into even greater disaster: both her sons die (v. 4-5) and Naomi is left in almost unimaginable sorrow – a long way from home, in a strange place and all alone, save for her daughters-in-law, two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.
The downward spiral into greater and greater disaster finally stops. Deliverance comes, and so we reach the second point in the story-line of this chapter. Naomi hears ‘in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them’ (v. 6). I’ve entitled this section ‘deliverance’ so that all our headings begin with the letter ‘D’, but really we ought to think here about providence. Isn’t it interesting that, though she was experiencing such great suffering, Naomi hadn’t lost her faith? She was able to look at all the events in the world around her and see the hand of the Lord at work. When she heard that the famine in Bethlehem was over and there was food to eat once more, she saw with the eye of faith that the Lord had come to the aid of his people. It’s a wonderful perspective.
Naomi was able to look at the good events in the world and see behind them the hand of the Lord. What is, perhaps, even more surprising is the way that she viewed the tragic events. Even in those she is able to see that the Lord is at work. She says to her daughters-in-law, ‘It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!’ (v. 13). Later she says to them, ‘Don’t call me Naomi [which means ‘sweetness’ or ‘pleasant’]… Call me Mara [which means ‘bitter’], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me’ (v. 20 - 21). We have to be careful here because there is an important distinction between deliberately and, perhaps, vindictively inflicting suffering upon someone on the one hand and, on the other, permitting suffering to come because, through it, it is possible to bring about greater good. The latter is, I believe, much closer to the way the Lord works. The Bible is, however, very clear that God is Sovereign, all-powerful and in control of all that happens in the world. Take Isaiah 45:6-7, for instance: ‘I am the Lord and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.’
There may have been people who looked at all that happened to Naomi and said, ‘I can’t believe in a God who allows such dreadful things to happen’ and, of course, there are many people today who say the same sort of thing. I regularly hear such sentiments expressed in conversations at the school I serve as chaplain. A pupil sat in my office a short while ago and said, ‘I believe in God and I believe he is wholly good, but I cannot believe he is all-powerful’. Yet, as we read the book of Ruth, we meet two people in the heart of dark days and suffering, who, despite their suffering, can tell us exactly where God is. They experience the goodness and grace of God in an extraordinary way. The same is true today. All around the world, in the midst of darkness, there are people who can tell us exactly where God is and they will speak of experiences of his goodness and his grace. We would do well to follow Naomi’s example and trust that the Lord is indeed at work in all the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it may be that we can’t make sense of things and all we can do is trust. In such times, it’s worth remembering something Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher, once said, ‘When we cannot trace God’s hand, we can trust his heart’.
Our final ‘D’ for the chapter: ‘Devotion’. Of course, we’re referring to Ruth’s devotion to Naomi. When Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, she urged her daughters-in-law to go back to their homes and stay in Moab (v. 8-13). Orpah did just that, but Ruth clung to Naomi (v. 14), making that wonderful promise of devotion, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back. Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me’ (v. 16-17). They are wonderful words of devotion and faithfulness. What a contrast they were to Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Israel was ‘shown up’ by a foreigner from a nation they hated. Of course, the author who recorded these words hopes that we will follow Ruth’s example and be as comprehensively devoted to God, not only in our words, but also by our actions.
So Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth at her side (v. 19). Each of these chapters, except the last, ends with a ‘cliff-hanger’ and with a hint of hope. Chapter one ends, ‘So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning’ (v. 22). In the land of famine, a harvest was beginning.