Before we look at the book of Ruth we need to sort out some of the background, but I do recommend that you read the whole book before you start!
Historically, it was a time after the Israelites had taken over the Promised Land, when ‘Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judges 21:24-25).
Judges 2:10-19 graphically describes the poor spiritual state of the nation and the reason that the Lord raised up Judges to lead them.
In Ruth Chapter 1 verses 1-2 we read:
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
What or where were Moab, Ephrathites and Judah?
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s two daughters got him drunk and lay with him. They had two sons: the elder daughter had Moab, the younger Ammon – so their descendants were referred to as Moabites and Ammonites.
The Moabites settled on the east side of the Dead Sea. When the Israelites approached, preparing to enter the Promised Land from the east, the Lord said to Moses “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.” (Deuteronomy 2:9).
The Moabites for their part were ‘filled with dread because of the Israelites’ (Numbers 22:3). They were afraid they would be attacked, so they tried to have them cursed.
Once the Israelites had settled in the land, we read that the Moabites came and retook Jericho, holding it for 18 years before Ehud killed the King of Moab and regained control (Judges 3:12-30). Besides that, there is no mention of trouble with Moab in the book of Judges so we can assume that following that there were fairly friendly relations between the two countries for many years.
The next group of people involved in the story are the tribe of Judah (or Judahites)
Judah was the fourth son of Jacob (who had been renamed Israel) and his tribe became the largest, and settled in the major part of the south of Canaan. Their land ran to the western edge of the Jordan River, just opposite the border with Moab.
Ephrathites are a little more complicated. People were referred to by their Tribe, or Clan name, but sometimes they were named after the town they lived in instead. But then towns were sometimes named (or re-named) after an important person who lived there.
A long time before Ruth, in the time of Jacob (Israel) (Genesis 48:7) there was a town in Canaan, 25 miles inland from the fords of the Jordan river, called Ephrath meaning ‘fruitful’. So the people who came from the town could also be referred to as Ephrathites.
Apart from Ruth herself, the important characters in the story are all from the tribe of Judah and we will first of all look at some of Judah’s family tree to see just where they fit in (Chart003 may help).
When you read the book of Psalms you will notice that several are referred to as being ‘of the sons of Korah’ (42-49, 84-88).
What do we mean by that expression? (Not his literal sons - just descendants).
As we look at some lists of names we are going to have to make the same assumptions. Where to assume gaps can be difficult so we’ll start with what is known.
During the Exodus, each group of people was referred to as a tribe, and within that clans, then families. Numbers 26:20-22 tells us of five clans within Judah and the total number of men of military age was 76,500. 1 Chronicles 2 also contains the Judah family tree.
Our interest is with the descendants of Hezron: they were Jerahmeel, Ram and Caleb.
Note: this is Caleb son of Hezron, not Caleb the spy, son of Jephunneh, but obviously a good name to call a son born in the desert, shortly after the spying episode while spy Caleb was still alive – and famous!
As Jerahmeel was also a clan leader, his clan was referred to as the Jerahmeelites (1 Samuel 30:29). (Just to make things more confusing, Jerahmeel also had a son called Ram. 1 Chronicles 2:25)
All three were born during the desert wanderings and were at least of military age, maybe married, perhaps with children of their own. They headed up the Hezron Clan as they entered the Promised Land; Ram was to be in the direct line to King David. (Hezron their father must also have been born after the Exodus from Egypt, because apart from Joshua and spy Caleb, all those who had left Egypt died in the wilderness: Numbers 14:30).
Imagine the time just after the battles of Jericho and Ai, and the war against the five Amorite kings. The Israelite army swept through the southern part of Canaan where the original inhabitants were either killed, or fled as fast as they could, leaving fields, towns and villages deserted.
Judah was the largest of the tribes and had been allocated most of that part of Canaan. Within that, it was up to the individual clan leaders where they chose to settle.
It seems that Caleb chose one of the first towns they encountered coming from Gilgal, and settled his family and father Hezron there. The town was Ephrath – co-incidentally it had the same name as (one of) his wife(s). I am sure his family were very grateful to be able to settle in a town with houses, fields, and crops and animals which had just been vacated by its inhabitants.
When Hezron died, the town he had died in was referred to as Caleb Ephratha (1 Chronicles 2:24). After his great-great-grandson Bethlehem had been born, it became known as Bethlehem. As there was already a Bethlehem in the north of the country (in Zebulun), this one was referred to as Bethlehem Judah or Bethlehem Ephratha to distinguish it.
The fields, vineyards, orchards etc. surrounding each town was divided up amongst the original families who settled there. Once you had been allocated land, it was to remain in your family for all time. To reinforce that, if you were compelled to sell any land because of hardship, in the year of Jubilee it had to be returned to you (Leviticus 25:23).
So we come to the problem with Elimelek. He was forced to sell up and move to Moab because of the famine, but he confidently expected that his sons would be able to return to the ancestral lands when their fortunes improved. Unfortunately both he and his sons died in Moab leaving no male heir.
The law provided for this and it was the duty of a brother to marry the widow and provide a son for her. This firstborn son would be treated as if he was actually the dead brother’s son, taking his name and his lands and carrying on the family line.
If there was no brother then the responsibility passed on to the next nearest male relative. This could also raise a problem. If you are a Kinsman redeemer with no sons yet of your own, when you produce one for your relative’s wife he, as ‘firstborn’, could legitimately claim your own lands as his inheritance as well.
5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandalled.
The next thing to look at was where in the family tree Elimelek figures. We have no Idea, other than that he was close to Boaz, but not that close (not brother or cousin). He lived in Bethlehem (referred to as an Ephaphraite) so he may have been descended from Caleb.
It is more likely though, that he was descended from Ram through either Amminadab or his son Nahshon. In Ruth 2:1 Boaz is referred to as ‘from the clan of Elimelek’ – meaning the same clan as Elimelek – i.e. the Ram clan.
That is the setting for the book of Ruth, but what is its message?
Israel generally was in a state of moral and spiritual decline – the book of Ruth shines a bright light of hope and faith for those who have been depressed reading Judges!
Ruth and Boaz tell a story of those who through love, sacrifice and devotion fulfil God’s law in their lives (even though Ruth was not an Israelite); and as she enters the line of descendants of Jesus, Ruth reflects the theme of redemption in her and her family’s life.
It also demonstrates the sovereignty of God played out in the lives of ordinary people. Even though we may encounter great hardship and sadness in our lives, even then God will be fitting us into his wonderful plan and purposes.