If Julie Andrews had asked me to list "a few of my favorite things," shortcuts would have been included. I dearly love to try shortcuts, especially when driving. Unfortunately, not all my shortcuts work out. Quite a few of my sincere attempts to save time or distance turn out to be longer scenic routes... even dead ends.
Some of my failed shortcuts are quite laughable, but others are not funny at all. They're irritating and wasteful of time and fuel. Needless to say, I've become famous (perhaps "infamous" is more accurate) among family and friends for these impromptu voyages where, seemingly, no (sane) man has gone before (apologies to Star Trek fans).
Recently, however, I've begun to see the error of my ways. A significant moment of realization came when, hurriedly ferrying my children from one scheduled activity to the next, I turned a corner a bit faster than was entirely safe. From the back seat one of my daughters yelled, "Oh, no! Dad, is this one of your shortcuts? We'll never get there!"
As starkly candid as those words were, I needed to hear them. Shortcuts do frequently lead to dead ends, not just on the highway. Many of life's crucial decisions are made with the short-sighted choice being to take a shortcut or the easy way out. Many who make such decisions live to regret such choices when the longer-term consequences become clear. Sometimes, unfortunately, that is too late.
When you approach the opening paragraph of the beautiful narrative of Ruth, you rapidly notice that the family of Elimelech (into which Ruth marries) plows into just such a disastrous dead end. Their choice to attempt what appeared to be a logical shortcut ended in tragedy. The supposed ticket out of difficult circumstances in their hometown of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2) carried them only as far as a graveyard in Moab (1:3-5).
This painful reality in the experience of Naomi and Ruth demonstrates a timeless scriptural principle that could have a timely influence in your life. Ruth 1:1-5 teaches that a decision to take a spiritual shortcut could bring you to a disastrous dead end before the Lord.
Before considering the details and movement of the initial portion of Ruth, it is helpful to understand how it fits into, and functions within, the whole book. To grasp anything more than just the beauty or grandeur of individual trees, you need a map of the forest. Similarly, the overall map of Ruth sheds considerable light on the role of 1:1-5 within the wider narrative of Ruth.
Ruth is an exquisitely crafted short story with six scenes and a unique concluding family tree serving as an epilogue (4:18-22). Both the introductory scene before us (1:1-5) and the concluding one (4:13-17) contain about seventy words in Hebrew and also balance each other perfectly as thematic book-ends for the whole narrative. It is also exceedingly likely that 1:6-22 and 4:1-12 mirror each other even more extensively, as do chapters 2 and 3. Further, the movement of the story of Ruth hinges on a middle pivot point: the realization that Boaz is a legitimate kinsman-redeemer (goel) for the imperiled heroines, Ruth and Naomi (2:18-23; 3:1-5). This center-facing (chiastic) effect cinches the overall symmetrical design of Ruth:
Epilogue (4:18-22): A family's past, present, and future fit for a king This structural diagram will be assumed throughout the exposition of Ruth in order to keep in balance the telescopic and microscopic perspectives on its marvelous contents. Keeping the big picture of Ruth in mind also helps the reader to see the unseen providence of God at every bend and turn of the narrative. The divine Name is mentioned directly in the text thirteen times (1:6, 8, 13, 16, 17, 20, 21; 2:12, 20; 3:10, 13; 4:11, 13), but many other factors also point to the Lord's powerful, but caring, activity.
The initial scene of Ruth (1:1-5) subdivides into two parts. In 1:1-2 Elimelech's family relocates from Bethlehem to keep from bottoming out in a famine. But in 1:3-5 the bottom drops out anyway while the family is living in Moab. Sadly, 1:1-5 is the only scene in the narrative in which the Lord's name is not found.
While Ruth 1:3-5 makes the journey undertaken in 1:1-2 look like a bad move, we do well not to judge harshly without putting ourselves in the shoes of Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons. They may have decided to go where the grass is greener for plausible reasons.
For example, there may have been major political considerations. These events took place "in the days when the judges governed" (Ruth 1:1 NASB). That entire era of Israel's history was notably unstable politically. Israel as yet had no king and, as a result, almost everyone did as they pleased (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
In Judges 2:11-19 a cycle of instability that occurred over and over throughout the period of the judges is described. First, Israel's sin, which provoked the Lord, is discussed (2:11-13). Second, Israel is defeated by one of its enemies and placed in servitude (2:14-15). Third, the people of Israel "groan" in their oppression and affliction (2:18), and cry out in supplication to the Lord (e.g., 3:9, 15; 4:3). God then hears and grants his people salvation from their captors through one of the various judges he raises up (2:16, 18). Soon the cycle would begin again, for the people of Israel "did not listen to their judges" (2:17).
In the midst of such ongoing political uncertainty, it is difficult at best to know what to do. A contemporary parallel may be seen in Hong Kong. In 1997 that great city will cease to be a British crown colony and will be under the control of communist China. Far-reaching assurances have been made by the Chinese that they will not disturb the general state of affairs in Hong Kong. However, in the bloody wake of the tragedy in Tienanmen Square and other restrictions, it is difficult for residents of Hong Kong to view the future with other than alarm and uncertainty. As a result, many are leaving, or preparing to leave, while that is still possible. And, with no clear sense of what the future holds, can they be blamed for going where the grass is greener?
Attempting to determine where the story of Ruth fits into the narrative of the Book of Judges is, at best, guesswork. But, wherever it fits into the wider period, the lack of central leadership in Israel (Judg. 21:25) made for foundational instability from a political standpoint. Could the family of Elimelech be blamed for considering a move under such shaky circumstances?
There also were highly plausible economic considerations for relocating. At that time, "there was a famine in the land" (Ruth 1:1 NASB). In an agriculturally based economy, obviously, a famine is devastating. Also, it is not known if this particular famine was a curse from God (Deut. 28:18, 24), in keeping with a defeat by one of Israel's surrounding enemies (Deut. 28:25). In earlier times, several famines are recorded in which there is no indication of God's hand of judgment (e.g., Gen. 12, 26, and 46). For the purposes of the Book of Ruth, only the fact of economic hardship, not the why behind the scene, is in play.
In making the choice to move, Elimelech finds himself in good company. In similar straits, Abraham had gone to Egypt (Gen. 12). Isaac chose to go to Philistia (Gen. 26). Then, a generation later, Jacob and his family are clearly led by God to go down to Egypt (Gen. 46:2-4). With the extensive precedent of such choices by the patriarchs of Israel, cutting your losses economically by temporarily relocating to where the grass is greener could not be ruled out.
Regional and national economic downturns in recent years also caused many families to relocate across the United States. Perhaps they preferred not to, but the reality was that they had to migrate where job opportunities provided a means for them to support their families.
Some of the more extreme stories of economic famine happened in connection with the oil industry in the mid-1980s. One of the saddest of these instances took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, home base of Phillips Petroleum Corporation. A friend of mine was pastoring a church in Bartlesville during the oil boom, and things were developing well. Then came the unforeseen bust, called Black Wednesday in Bartlesville. Almost overnight the vast majority of people in the church who worked for Phillips, or related industries, were laid off. So, with all those workers scurrying for any kind of jobs they could find anywhere, the church suddenly became a ghost town and the pastor also was forced to leave in a short time.
Suffice it to say that economic deprivation can make what would otherwise be a highly undesirable move look much more attractive. But there is also a touch of irony in the statement that "there was a famine in the land" (Ruth 1:1). Elimelech and his family lived in Bethlehem-Judah (1:1), and Bethlehem means "house of bread" in Hebrew. In other words, the bread basket of Judah was empty, and Bethlehem's residents were looking elsewhere for sustenance.
The writer's play on words on the meaning of Bethlehem might be better understood by some puns on the name of cities closer to home. Think about these: gang warfare in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, or demonic activity in Los Angeles, the City of Angels. Granted, neither Philadelphia nor Los Angeles lives up to its name in any full sense, and probably Bethlehem didn't either. However, the force of the pun still stands, and the Jewish reader chuckled under his breath even as he read of Elimelech and his loved ones packing to avoid the long-term effects of the famine.
Additionally, there were significant social considerations in such a choice. Elimelech and his family were "Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah" (Ruth 1:2). While this may merely speak of a clan that settled in Bethlehem, there is good reason to think that the Ephrathites were the aristocracy of Bethlehem.
In the television mini-series "The Kennedys of Massachusetts," empire-builder Joseph Kennedy Sr. was portrayed as hating the blue-bloods, the old-money families of the Boston social register, because he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and was an Irish Catholic. In Bethlehem, it is likely that Ephrathites were the blue-bloods, and the name Elimelech, meaning "God is my King" in Hebrew, may also indicate the upper-class background of his family, since the name's ending was associated with power.
In times of reversal, "when you've got nothin', you've got nothin' to lose." But when you're on top of the heap, it's a long way down to hit bottom. Apparently, Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons came to feel that there was more risk to their social status in standing pat in Bethlehem than in chancing an adventure in Moab.
Finally, there was a basic practical aspect of such a decision to go where the grass is greener. On a clear day, "the fields of Moab" (Ruth 1:1) could be seen from the ridges outside of Bethlehem. In this case, the green fields of Moab seen in the distance across the Dead Sea would have been a marked contrast to the brown and dusty fields of Bethlehem and its surrounding area. Day after day, that fertile, watered environment beckoned to Elimelech and became more and more of a plausible getaway option. Less than fifty miles away by the shortest available route, it made perfectly good sense to spell relief M-O-A-B.
We often reason that the best route is the shortest one between two points. It would appear that Elimelech was thinking the same way: the shortest trip equals the best choice. Such a deal! The quickest, easiest plausible option also gets you where the grass is greener.
But beware of making decisions strictly from the consideration of such factors! As Erma Bombeck has sagely (and hilariously) observed, "the grass is always greener over the septic tank." The green grass, which is attractive at a distance, may turn out to be loco weed. Even shortcut decisions made for plausible, logical reasons can run into dead ends. Those reasons often do not tell the whole story.
The deafening silence in regard to the name of God in Ruth 1:1-2 may well hold the key to understanding what happens in 1:3-5. The failure to consult the Lord (i.e., there is no evidence that Elimelech's family did so) appears to be the missing link in heir decision.
Ruth 1:3-5 shows the outworking of Naomi's family decision to flee the forbidding circumstances in Bethlehem. They begin to get more comfortable in Moab, only to be made incredibly uncomfortable in the ensuing tragedies. Here we see the principle that deciding to get comfortable without God granting permission can have deadly consequences. These consequences can be both immediate (1:3-4a) and long-term (1:4b-5).
The most immediate problem that arose after the trek from Bethlehem to Moab was the death of Elimelech (1:3a). Surely this was a great shock! Had Elimelech been having any significant physical problems, undoubtedly he would not have undertaken such a trip and the stress of relocation, learning a new culture, and the like. Perhaps there were few, if any, warning signs... and then he was dead. The head of the clan, the father in that patriarchal society, was gone!
How often as a pastor I was called to deal with individuals who had taken the vocational shortcut: early retirement in order to live it up while they were still young enough to enjoy it. For six years I pastored a church in a where-the-grass-is-greener locale in the central Texas hill country, and watched the retirees come and go, often with deadly rapidity. It was incredible how often a seemingly healthy, even vigorous, person in his or her mid-fifties to early sixties would die within a few years, even a few months, after retirement.
Well, Elimelech obviously had not retired in the modern sense. But he had taken the easy way out of the famine back in Bethlehem and headed for where the grass at least looked greener. What did he accomplish? He crashed into a literal dead end. His attempted shortcut proved to be his last round-up.
After such relatively immediate grief (1:3b), the remaining family members might normally be expected to quickly move back to Bethlehem. After all, the thought of burying Elimelech on foreign soil would not have been a congenial idea. But, for whatever reasons, that move did not transpire. Perhaps Elimelech's and Naomi's sons, Mahlon and Chilion (1:2), were even more comfortable after such a short period of time than might be normally suspected. They both marry quickly (1:4a); perhaps the marriages were arranged by their father before his death.
It is quite well known that Jews considered all Gentiles to be dogs. However, if anything, Moabites occupied an even lower position in Jewish thinking. Going back to the way that Moab treated Israel on the way to the Promised Land (Deut. 23:4), Moabites, along with the Ammonites, were relegated to an ongoing religious outcast status, if they lived among Israel. They could forget participation in "the assembly of the Lord" (23:3) until the tenth generation.
Admittedly, this stipulation is not an out-and-out forbidding of Jews to marry Moabites. But, it is asking to be looked down on by other Israelites, and to be prohibited from participating in Jewish worship and fellowship as a family. The Moabite spouse and the children were not welcome (Deut. 23:3). This was a big and painful price to pay for such a mixed marriage.
Even today mixed marriages, whether racial or religious, often result in a lack of acceptance by either race or group. That can be painful, especially to a couple whose love is color-blind. Yet, there are still many instances of open bigotry against such couples, and especially toward their children. Not infrequently, partners in mixed marriages feel more comfortable living in certain parts of the country than others because of the degree of acceptance in an area.
Probably Mahlon and Chilion would have felt more at home in Moab after marrying Moabite wives (1:4a). But such a short-term decision proves to have terrible long-term consequences. They were fighting the losing battle of old roots versus new roots. Their historic family roots back in Israel, specifically Bethlehem (1:2), were insistently beckoning them to return home. But the longer they stayed, especially now that they had married into Moabite society, the deeper their roots were going down into Moabite soil.
This progressive rooting into Moab is seen in the subtle wording in several places in this paragraph. In Ruth 1:1 they went to "sojourn" (stay only temporarily) in Moab. In 1:2 they "entered... Moab and remained there." In 1:4 we are astounded to read that these refugees "lived there about ten years."
What happened? How did the short stay of 1:1 become the long-term lease of 1:4? Perhaps something that frequently happens to me can serve to illustrate the progression in this case. When I'm studying or writing at home, sometimes I'll take a break and walk into the room where our television is and sit down to watch for a moment. I'll start out on the edge of the couch. But, if I'm not careful, I'll stay and start to get comfortable. A lot of times I'll wake up some time later, having fallen asleep on the couch, even though all I initially intended to do was to sit down for a minute and relax.
I wonder if the family started off to sit on the edge of the couch ("sojourn") in Moab, if you will. But they got more and more comfortable ("remained"). Then, they finally fell asleep ("lived there about ten years") and, in a real sense, never woke up until it was too late.
That's the next, and most devastating, long-term consequence. In rapid succession Mahlon and Chilion also both died (1:5). The women who mourned the tragic loss of sons and husbands were in a hopeless situation. Naomi was now left without husband, children, descendants, or provision for her basic needs. Her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah (1:4), were little better off. Yes, they were younger, still of marriageable age. But they had been barren for many years (1:4). Since ten years of childless marriage were considered grounds for divorce under rabbinic law, it is doubtful how many takers there would be in the remarriage market.
What a rude awakening! It looked like the plausible shortcut that became a painful dead end had no way out. Could the end be far away?
Similar emotions are evident as you read the dialogue of Gerald Healy's play, The Black Stranger. During the Irish potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century, the government put starving men to work digging roads. Though it is back-breaking labor, there is some dignity in such an occupation. However, it is not long before a character named Michael finds out that the roadwork has no ultimate purpose or destination. In poignant wonder he states the obvious, They're makin' roads that lead to nowhere."
The trip that Naomi, her husband, and sons had begun ten years before (1:1-2), that Ruth had joined for the ride (1:4), led nowhere. It wasn't just that it was a wild goose chase. It was much worse: their goose was cooked!
Was it really all over but the crying? That's definitely the hopeless impression left by Ruth 1:5: two funerals and no visible means of support.
But, it was not time to give up! When circumstances are hopeless, God specializes in turning dead ends into doorways to glorify himself. That's what the remainder of the beautiful story of Ruth is about: the comeback from the depths of despair through the door of the Lord's providential guidance and provision.
Naomi and Ruth perhaps could have wept over the graves of their loved ones indefinitely. But it wasn't a realistic option in their destitute circumstances. So, they quit traveling the road to nowhere, that road to where the grass looks greener but which exacts such a terrible toll. As will be seen in the next chapter, they started on the long road back. Every step would bring them closer to God's blessing and hope for the continuance of their seemingly "as good as dead" family name.
The 1994 National Football League playoffs saw big-name quarterbacks Joe Montana and Troy Aikman both go down with serious concussions. Interestingly, a person with a concussion may look fine on the outside, but have scrambled eggs between his or her ears. If there is any possibility that their understanding is fuzzy, they should not be allowed to go on to the next phase of what they are involved in.
Before continuing on through the Book of Ruth, this complementary inside-out (i.e., chiastic or center-facing) look at Ruth 1:1-5 will make sure that there is no mental fuzziness in getting the point of this foundational passage and how it parallels material in the second half of the narrative.
Naomi's life has been traumatically emptied through the devastating deaths of her husband and two sons. It will not be joyfully refilled until the last scene of the narrative in Ruth 4:13-17.