God Brings Bread to Bethlehem
Topic: Advent Passage: Ruth 1
Ruth is a great little story. Like any good story, it has its main characters—Naomi, Ruth, Boaz. It has rising tensions in the plot, a love story developing on the side, its own knight in shining armor. But Ruth is more than just a story; it’s revelation. It’s God’s self-revelation. In and through this story, we come to know the divine Author and Director of history. The Lord God himself guides everything in the story to his desired end, an end that displays his kindness to sinners, an end that advances his purpose in Christ for the world, and therefore an end that affects you and me.
Unlike other stories in Scripture, there are no miraculous interventions in Ruth—a Red Sea splitting, a wall in Jericho falling. The focus also isn’t on Israel as an entire nation and events showing their rise and fall. Rather, Ruth is a simple story—just normal, everyday occurrences in the life of one family in Israel. Of course, we’ll also see how this family’s story fits within God’s bigger story. It’s no accident that Ruth begins with the days of the judges and ends with God’s faithfulness to David. But one thing to note is that God is working his wise purposes all the time. He’s at work not only through the great and the miraculous, but also through the small and the ordinary.
Today’s message I titled, God Brings Bread to Bethlehem. That’s the movement of chapter one. It begins with a famine in verse 1, but it ends with a harvest in verse 22. Such a movement characterizes the whole book. God brings fullness to those who are empty. Ruth is written for people who are spiritually empty and needing fullness, a fullness that only the Lord can give us.
Scene 1: From Bethlehem to Moab in a Dark & Empty Time
Ruth begins with one family moving from Bethlehem to Moab during a dark and empty time. The story begins in verse 1.
1In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Verse 1 provides important history: the story takes place in the days when the judges ruled. But that’s way more than a historical statement; it’s also a theological one. The days when the judges ruled were very, very dark days, spiritually speaking. God had brought Israel into the Promised Land; and they were supposed to drive out the inhabitants and not give-in to their idolatry. But they didn’t do it. Instead, the nation was led astray, and they spiraled into greater and greater and greater spiritual darkness. Eventually they were no spiritually different than the pagan nations around them. The book of Judges closes with a fitting description: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 21:25).
Verse 1 also tells of a famine in the land, and of all places, a famine in Bethlehem. Beth-lehem means “house of bread.” No bread in the house of bread. What are we to make of this—especially since God had promised to bring Israel into the land of plenty, a land flowing with milk and honey (e.g., Exod 3:8)?
Since we’ve already noted the spiritually dark days of the judges, it seems safe to say that the famine came as a result of God’s covenant curse. If Israel refused to obey God’s covenant once they were in the land, God promised to curse them. One of the curses involved shutting up the skies so the land produced no fruit (Lev 26:26; Deut 11:10; 28:23-24, 38-40). This was God’s way of warning Israel to return to covenant faithfulness. Anyone reading the book of Ruth under the Mosaic covenant knew that physical famine in the land signaled a spiritual famine in people’s hearts.
This spiritual famine becomes evident in Elimelech’s move to Moab. Sometimes, when we’re forced to make decisions for our family, we’re presented with equal choices: you could glorify God by moving to New York as much as you could by moving to Dallas. That’s not the case here for an Israelite. God rescued Israel to bring them into the land of his choice and his provision and his rule. Running off to Moab for greener grass was like forsaking God’s people, God’s place, and God’s rule.
Moab was a marked enemy of God and his people. Numbers 24:17 promised a ruler to rise up within Israel to crush the forehead of Moab. In Numbers 25:1, Moab led Israel into idolatry. Deuteronomy 23:3-4 forbid any Moabite from entering the Lord’s assembly, even to the tenth generation, because they treated Israel so poorly. And closer to Elimelech’s day, Moab and their king Eglon had oppressed Israel (Judg 3:15-30). Not a wise move by Elimelech.
To make the situation worse, this family runs to Moab for life but all they encounter is death. Naomi loses her husband and is left a widow in a foreign land. Within a span of ten years Naomi also loses both of her sons and is left with two daughters-in-law from Moab. To lose your husband and sons was to lose everything in ancient Israel. Marrying and having children was the way to maintain inheritance in the land and to perpetuate your name (cf. Exod 32:13; Num 27:1-11). It was worse than death itself to lose your name (cf. Deut 25:6 with 29:20).
Besides, your husband and your children are the dearest people to you.Talk about a dark and empty time: her people were spiritually destitute; she was alienated from her homeland; the house of bread had no bread; her husband was now gone; the sons she nursed and raised were dead; Naomi was alone with no name, no home, no inheritance, and seemingly without any future hope.
But anybody acquainted with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been here before. In Genesis 12:10 there was a famine in the land, and Abraham went down to sojourn in Egypt. In Genesis 26:1 there was a famine in the land, and Isaac went to Gerar to the Philistines. Later in Genesis, it’s Jacob who ends up taking his family to Egypt because of famine. Whether sin was involved or not in these circumstances, they were all situations for sovereign grace to prove triumphant.
God’s plans to save his people were never frustrated. Rather, in every case it was in and through the famine that God was still working his salvation, still working to redeem his people, still working to bring them true fullness, still working to make his name famous among the nations. God was always doing a thousand times more than what any of the characters could discern for themselves.
Scene 2: From Moab to Bethlehem Because God Brings Bread
Little did Naomi know that God was still working for her salvation, and not only hers but Ruth the Moabite’s as well. That leads us to the next scene where Naomi returns to Bethlehem because God had brought bread. Verse 6:
6Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and [or in order to] given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
Here we find a ray of hope for Naomi. God “visiting” his people was an expression of hope, deliverance, provision. In Genesis 21:1, God “visited” Sarah in her barrenness and gave her a son. In Exodus 4:31, God “visited” Israel in Egypt so he could deliver them from slavery. So also here, the Holy Spirit uses the same language to clue us in to the hope of God’s deliverance. The Lord “visits” his people once again. Notice, the story says nothing of the people’s repentance in Judah. It’s not that they repent and then he provides the bread. He simply chooses, out of sheer mercy, to provide them bread. Despite what they deserved, he shows kindness by sending bread.
Naomi’s Return/Repentance to the Lord
Romans 2:4 says that God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. And that’s what we observe in Naomi. She “returns” to the land of Judah. Note the word “return.” This idea of “returning” is the most common verb in the Old Testament to describe repentance.[i] Repentance is an internal ‘180,’ wherein you leave the things separating you from God to return to God. Naomi is like a prodigal returning home to the Father of mercy. His kindness has led her to return and dwell in his place under his rule and with his people. The Lord who sends bread to Bethlehem is her only hope.
The Lord is our only hope too, brothers and sisters. Naomi’s soul was empty, but she heard of the Lord providing bread in Bethlehem. In the same way, are not we empty creatures without him? Are not we often driven to despair by our own sinfulness? Have we not encountered bitter providences ourselves that have stripped us of the ones we love? We have encountered circumstances that have felt like daggers to the heart? That have left us undone, weary, cynical, confused…bitter?
Apart from God’s merciful provision we are empty too. But the good news is that our kind Father has sent bread to Bethlehem. True Bread. A far greater Bread than he sent in Naomi’s day. Not just the bread that gives life for a little while, but the Bread that endures to eternal life. There’s a reason the events in Ruth center on Bethlehem and end with a genealogy referring to David. Bethlehem is the city of the great King David. And David is the king who foreshadows Jesus Christ.
Matthew 2 says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. He was Immanuel, God with us. He is the one whom God sent to take away our sins. John says the Bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world; and the bread that Jesus gave for the life of the world was his own flesh. Jesus is God’s ultimate provision for all our emptiness. In him we find life and hope and grace in times of need. He is our link to heaven’s fullness, to a new name, to an eternal inheritance, to a forever family and a forever home.
Our response to God’s kind provision in Bethlehem, whatever we might be facing, is to return to the Lord. It’s to repent and place our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:51). As you celebrate the Savior’s birth this Advent season, how might he be leading you to repent, to return? Surrounding the birth narrative of Jesus was a message of repentance: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” How is his kindness toward you in Christ leading to repentance? The question for us this season is, Are we returning to our loving and merciful Father who sent us bread in Bethlehem?
The Return/Conversion of Ruth to the Lord
The story of repentance and return continues in verses 8-18. But now we see it playing out in Ruth, a foreigner who remains firm in her commitment to Naomi and thus proves her inclusion within the Lord’s covenant people. Verse 8…
8But 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. 9The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me. 14Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
One of the key themes running throughout the book of Ruth is kindness. Naomi introduces this theme of “kindness” in her blessing upon Orpah and Ruth—“May the LORD deal kindly with you.” The Hebrew word behind kindness is a very significant one in Scripture—hesed. Hesed is translated in our Bibles various ways such as “mercy,” “kindness,” “steadfast love.” It’s a love that remains steadfast even when the other person can’t offer anything in return. It includes the idea of help for the helpless.
In Exodus 34:6, we see that hesed is something that characterizes the Lord: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in [hesed] steadfast love…” The Lord is a God who provides help for the helpless. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of our Father being merciful—he causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. And we are to imitate our Father’s mercy. The way we do this is not simply by loving those who love us back—the world can show that kind of love—but by loving those who cannot love us back. This is hesed…
These three women are in a helpless situation. They’re now widows and have joined the poorer ranks of society. But it’s Naomi’s helplessness that gets emphasized. Naomi sees that she can do absolutely nothing for Orpah and Ruth. Without a husband, she has no economic support in Israelite society. She’d have to sell her inheritance to someone else in the clan. She has no sons for them to marry. She’s past the age to have any sons they would marry. She’s helpless and can give nothing.
So, Naomi looks to the Lord for the kindness—“May the LORD deal kindly with you.” So far, so good. Naomi knows that God’s kindness has no ethnic boundaries. But as Naomi keeps talking, you get the sense that her faith is incomplete. Instead of inviting her daughters-in-law to the land where the Lord provides, she urges them back to Moab. There’s a tension we’re meant to feel in Naomi’s imperfect faith…
Keep that in mind while we note something else. The whole dialogue between these women, provides an occasion for both Orpah and Ruth to count the cost of showing hesed, kindness. They’ve already been showing kindness—that’s clear in verse 8. But their perseverance in kindness is getting tested right here. How steadfast would their love truly be once reality sinks in that Naomi won’t be able to give them anything in Israel?
At that point, Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye. But Ruth clings to her. Orpha does what anybody would expect her to do. Naomi can’t give her a husband and name and an inheritance; so why bother loving anymore? But Orpah isn’t the example of the Lord’s hesed. Ruth is. Ruth does the unexpected. Ruth remains loyal in her love to Naomi even when she knows the risks involved, even when she knows that Naomi has nothing to give her in return. That’s true hesed. That’s true kindness. And that’s proof that this foreigner has come to know the true God of Israel.
That’s the whole point of the dialogue, it seems—to emphasize the Lord’s kindness working through Ruth toward Naomi. The same gets emphasized as the dialogue continues in verse 15. Naomi says, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” Again, we’re going, “What are you doing, Naomi?! Shut up and bring her back with you. Why would you encourage Ruth back to her foreign gods?!” Naomi’s faith is weak at best.
But again, the dialogue continues to emphasize something peculiar about Ruth’s kindness. In Orpah’s case, she was more committed to her idols than to showing the Lord’s kindness. Idolatry will always hinder kindness. If you only love those who can love you back, then you might ask yourself, “What false gods have I returned to? What people do I really belong to?” Those who know the one true God will show relentless kindness; they will love even when the world least expects it.
That’s proof that we’ve come to know the true God of Israel through Jesus Christ. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We show mercy and kindness because God has shown us mercy and kindness in Christ (Eph 4:32). Those who truly know God will love others (1 John 4:8), and love them especially when that same love isn’t reciprocated (Matt 5:45-48).
And that’s what Ruth does here. Despite Naomi’s relentless arguments for her to return, Ruth’s kindness prevails. She even voices her commitment with terms that God normally uses for his own covenant with Israel. In verse 16,
16But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
That’s covenant commitment! “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Don’t those words ring a bell? How many times throughout the Old Testament does God say, “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (e.g., Gen 17:8; Lev 26:12; Ezek 36:28)? Those words belong to Yahweh when he makes a covenant.
But here Ruth, a foreigner, has made the confession her own—even in the face of an Israelite’s imperfect faith. Ruth is committed to the Lord and his people even to the point of death. The way that commitment is playing out in her life is by forsaking her land and her people and her gods to help the helpless—to be a channel of the Lord’s kindness to others even while knowing that she may get nothing in return.
So, if we zoom out for just a minute, what do we see the Lord doing here? One is that Ruth is the Lord’s kindness to Naomi. As we noted from Naomi’s prayer in verse 8, kindness is ultimately something that comes from the Lord. If Ruth is now reflecting that same kindness to Naomi, she becomes the Lord’s kindness to Naomi. She is the tangible manifestation of the Lord’s kindness to Naomi.
Another thing that’s transpiring is that God just saved a foreigner in the midst of one of the darkest times in Israel’s history. Even through his hard dealings with Naomi, he won for himself another daughter in the faith. More than that, he saved an enemy. Under the law, Moabites were not welcome in the Lord’s assembly. Before the law Ruth should’ve been condemned; but here she finds herself included within the people of God. Like Rahab, Ruth is another case of God helping the helpless (cf. Ruth 2:12), of God showing kindness even to his enemies.
The way things are worded even reveals Ruth to be a true child of Abraham. Abraham was told to go from his country and his kindred and his father’s house, and here we find Ruth doing the same thing (cf. Ruth 1:15, 22; 2:11). In other words, even in the midst of Israel’s spiritual depravity, even in the midst of the bitterest of providences, even in the midst of Naomi’s imperfect faith, God was still working out his promise to Abraham to bless all nations.
I find that tremendously encouraging. God is always working to win us and the nations to himself even in dark times and even when our faith is imperfect. I find that encouraging because I see spiritual depravity all around us. I also know how often I sin and mess up. I can look back and point out times when my counsel to others was like Naomi’s and came from imperfect faith. I can look back and see mistakes that I’ve made as a husband and a pastor. And yet never once was the Lord’s purpose in Christ thwarted. That doesn’t give us permission to treat sin lightly. But it does keep us looking to the Lord for rest when we do sin and when we see others sinning.
Don’t we see this with Jesus’ disciples, too? They’re faith is fragile, they’re always saying the wrong things, they’re sleeping while Jesus is sweating drops of blood, they forsake him in his most crucial hour—and yet God was still accomplishing their salvation. Jesus never ceased in his love for them, even to the point of taking our place on the cross. Even through the darkest hour of history when the Son of God was crucified, the Lord was still making every promise for us Yes and Amen in Christ. God is always working to win us and the nations to himself even through dark times.
Scene 3: Naomi Misses the Lord’s Kindnesses…for now
Naomi struggles to see this, of course, which brings us to the last scene: Naomi misses the Lord’s kindnesses…at least for now. Verse 19…
19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them [i.e., the town was buzzing with excitement to see her]. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? 22So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
So we began with a famine; we end with harvest. We began with Bethlehem empty; we end with Bethlehem full. But not everybody feels so full. Naomi says she’s still empty. They are words of a woman who is not only grieving, but words of a woman who knows God is sovereign over her losses. From her limited, human perspective, it feels like God is against her—“the Lord has brought me back empty…the Lord has testified against me…the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”
Perhaps, we can identify with Naomi’s perspective and grief. Have there been days when you have thought Naomi’s words or said things similar? “Why are you so against me, Lord? Why are you doing this to me? Why have you allowed this tragedy in my life, this loss in my life? Where are you?” The Bible is real life with real people. It walks you right into the heart of grief…but then, it lifts our eyes to the answer in Christ.
Naomi’s grief has blinded her to the Lord’s kind provision. She’s not seeing the full picture, is she? It was the Lord who brought the bread to Bethlehem; the Lord who turned her back home; the Lord who saved a Moabite through her; the Lord who gave her a loyal daughter-in-law; the Lord was with her. She wasn’t “empty.” But Naomi still says that the Lord brought her back “empty.” Can you imagine what that made Ruth feel like? Ruth just gave up everything for Naomi. And all she can say is, “I came back empty”—as if to say, “What’s this foreigner to me?”
Naomi saw herself as “empty” because she was interpreting God’s kindness through a very narrow lens. She would only see herself full if God gave her what she wanted, namely, her husband and her sons. It’s through that narrow lens that Naomi misses God’s kindnesses. We hardly ever see God’s kindnesses while we’re walking through grief like this—which should make us very patient with those grieving. It should also make those of us who are grieving slow to charge God with being against us…
God wasn’t against Naomi. God was working out a plan that was for Naomi, as well as for Ruth, and for the whole world! Naomi viewed her childlessness as emptiness. But the truth was that the Lord had given her a daughter-in-law who was “better than seven sons,” 4:15 will say. Naomi interpreted her sojourn in Moab merely by what the Lord had stripped from her. But the Lord had used the whole situation to convert a Gentile and make Ruth a child of Abraham. Naomi wanted to define her future as bitter. But the Lord was filling her future with hope.
And at the same time, he was filling our future with hope. Have you ever noticed that Matthew includes Ruth’s name in the genealogy of Jesus? Matthew’s birth narrative begins with a genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Within that family tree is Ruth (Matt 1:5-6). The point is that God’s kindness in sending Jesus Christ extends not only to Israel but to all nations. The incorporation of people like Ruth into Jesus’ family tree was a way that God was signaling his kindness to save both Israel and the nations, even during Naomi’s day.
Naomi’s people were walking in spiritual darkness without a king, but God was working a plan to bring a covenant-keeping King, Jesus. Naomi was mourning the death of her husband and sons, but God was working a plan to bring forth a Son who would defeat death altogether with resurrection power. Naomi didn’t think much of this Moabite daughter-in-law, but God was working a plan to incorporate people from all nations who would come and worship Christ and be full of his kindness. Naomi didn’t have much of an inheritance anymore, but God was working a plan to bring her an eternal inheritance in Christ. Naomi could only describe her life as bitter, but God was working a plan for his Son to enter the world and drink the true cup of bitterness under the wrath of God in her place.
God’s kindnesses are truly there, even when our grief makes them difficult to see. A lot of times when we face life’s hardships—whether it’s due to our own sin or the sins of others; whether it’s due to a physical ailment or a family tragedy; whether an estranged spouse or a wayward child; some of them come at us all at once. When we encounter the Lord’s bitter providence, we can get so focused on what God has taken away from us that we miss the kindnesses he has given us in Christ.
The book of Ruth is in our Bibles to keep our arms tight around the neck of our Savior even when we can’t see what he’s doing. It’s written so that when your feet are giving way amid life’s bitter experiences, you can be reminded that God is still on the throne and he is still at work and he will bring his good purpose in Christ for you to pass.
God’s story in Christ gives meaning to our present suffering and fills our future with hope. Our present sufferings shouldn’t be overlooked or ignored; but they have to be seen within a greater context. They were written into God’s greater story, and at the center of that story is a Savior who bears the world’s sin through the agony of a cross. But in and through that cross, God brings forth life for the world, peace for mankind, and the hope of a new heaven and earth. God’s story has accounted for all our problems and all our brokenness and provides the answers in Jesus Christ.
You may wrestle like Naomi did. It may be that in times of grief we can’t see his kindnesses. Like Naomi, we may even feel like the Lord is against us. But in our grief, let us also remember the answers he provides in Jesus. The Lord is not against those who love him. He is working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. That was true for Naomi and for Ruth. And it’s especially true for us who know God’s revelation in Christ. God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him now risen from the dead, freely give us all things?
Trust him, dear friends. Return to him. Hold on to him. He is able to bring fullness from emptiness. He sent the true Bread to Bethlehem, Jesus Christ. Feed on Jesus Christ when your world meets emptiness. Look to his word and grace.
[i]E.g., Isa 6:10; Hos 3:5; Ps 78:34; Lam 5:21; Zech 1:1-6.