The Cast of Characters
The Book of Ruth begins by introducing us to the family of Elimelech and the reason for their sojourn in Moab. Ruth 1:1, 2 says,
1 Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. 2 And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.
The meaning of their names is as follows:
Elimelech means “my God is King.”
Naomi means “grace, favor.”
Mahlon means “sickness, worn down, weak.”
Chilion means “pining, wasting away.”
The Sovereignty of God
Elimelech’s name sets forth the testimony of the sovereignty of God, which sets the tone for the entire book. In light of the famine which drove him to take his family to Moab, it suggests that the famine was part of the divine plan and that he acted by faith, being directed by God, instead of being motivated by fear.
His wife’s name (“grace”) also shows that in spite of their outward circumstances, God’s grace was with them. Only by recognizing the sovereignty of God and the fact that all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28) can we understand the Book of Ruth.
The marriage of Elimelech and Naomi shows that grace is a sovereign act of God, as we see in in the example of Jacob and Esau. God chose Jacob before the children were even born (Rom. 9:10-12), in order to show that God’s “choice” (i.e., the act of choosing) remains in His sovereign hands by grace. It is not by the will of man but of God. So Paul goes on to tell us in Rom. 11:5, 6,
5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Many do not understand that grace is married to the sovereignty of God, and that this is a good marriage. Calvinism, which sets forth a sovereign God but who lacks genuine love for all, presents us with a tyrannical marriage. If he had understood the love of God in Romans 5, along with the divine plan to save all mankind in Rom. 5:18, he would have understood that God’s sovereign choices were not designed to choose a few for salvation and torture the rest in fire. Instead, he would have seen that God chose one man to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). In other words, God chooses the few to bring salvation to the many.
Scripture presents to us a sovereign God of Love, one who lacks neither the power nor the motive to save all men (1 Tim. 4:10) and reconcile all of His creation in the end (Col. 1:16, 20). “My God is King” implies that in the end all of creation will recognize Jesus Christ as King. This is the meaning of 1 Cor. 15:27, 28, where we see Christ ruling “all things” that He created at the beginning.
God’s sovereignty, then, is not something to be dreaded, nor should anyone fear that they might not be among the chosen. God’s sovereign power is rooted in His Love nature, and He also possesses the wisdom to win in the end, despite all opposition—which He Himself raised up.
Such is the lesson we learn through the marriage of Elimelech and Naomi.
Moab and Egypt
Elimelech’s move to Moab provided the same prophetic backdrop as in Jacob’s move to Egypt some centuries earlier (Gen. 47:11). Both moved in a time of famine, and both ultimately resulted in the pain of childbirth before delivery.
God’s grace is not negated by famine. The famine did not mean that God had brought judgment upon Elimelech for some sin in his life. By the time we reach the end of the book, we see that God had worked for many years to obtain and prepare a suitable wife for Boaz from among the nations. Ruth was a wife who would express the heart of God, bear a son (as a type of Christ), and prophesy of things to come.
So also, when Jacob moved to Egypt during the time of famine in the land of Canaan, God’s intent was, in essence, to marry Egypt in order to bring forth His first-born son, Israel. So when the time came for Israel to be delivered, God told Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, “Israel is My son, My first-born” (Exodus 4:22).
The prophet Hosea repeated this truth many centuries later, saying in Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called My son.” Still later, this applied also to Jesus, who was taken to Egypt for His protection, in order that He too might be called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:14, 15).
In all of these examples, we see the sovereignty of God in action. Each example was fulfilled under stressful circumstances, and yet all was necessary to bring forth a basic truth about the bride, the wife of God, who was to bear His sons.
We too, have the same right to be called sons of God (John 1:12). We too have been led to “Egypt” or “Moab” in our own way, in order that the overcoming body of Christ might have a heavenly Father and an earthly mother. Thereby, this corporate Son has authority in both realms, even as Jesus did (Matt. 28:18).
Further Law Studies on Motherhood
For those who want to delve deeper into this concept of Egypt being Israel’s mother, and the legal implications of this in the plan of salvation, one must study the law of sonship in Exodus 13:12, 13. Here God lays claim to all of the first-born, both man and beast. However, an unclean beast, such as a donkey, cannot be presented to God directly; a lamb must redeem the donkey and be its substitute. Lambs need not be redeemed, but donkeys must be redeemed.
The law (above) also states that “every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem.” In essence, God was calling all of the Israelites spiritual donkeys, who were in need of redemption. That is why they came out of Egypt at Passover, having been redeemed by the Lamb. That redemption legally (i.e., spiritually) transformed donkeys into lambs that were acceptable to God as His first-born sons.
In the big picture, Abraham married Hagar who brought forth Ishmael, whom the angel of God called pareh awdawm, “a wild donkey of a man” (Gen. 16:12). Hagar was the Egyptian mother of Ishmael. Hagar represented the Old Covenant, Paul said in Gal. 4:24, and this provided the prophetic pattern for the law about redeeming donkeys.
God later brought Israel into Egypt (“Hagar”), in order to set up the same pattern of marriage. God “married” Egypt and brought forth Israel. Had it not been for the redemption of the lamb at Passover, Israel would have been a spiritual donkey that was unacceptable to God.
Years later, the prophet compared the rebellious house of Israel with a wild donkey (Jer. 2:24). In other words, Israel had become as stiffnecked and stubborn as a wild donkey in their spiritual character. They were not the sheep of His pasture but were spiritual Ishmaelites and children of the Old Covenant (Hagar) by legal definition.
The apostle Paul later confirms this, telling us in Galatians 4 that Jerusalem was Hagar, and her “children” (of Judaism) were spiritual Ishmaelites, children of the flesh, and certainly not the inheritors of the promises of God (Gal. 4:25, 28-30). Such children were to be “cast out” along with their “mother” (Jerusalem) in favor of the New Jerusalem (Sarah) and her children (Isaac).
Egypt and Ruth
These truths give us the background to the Book of Ruth and to Ruth herself, as we will see. The story presents Ruth as a Moabitess, a foreigner, who marries Boaz, and ultimately gives birth to a son, Obed, who is a type of Christ. Moab is like Egypt, and Ruth is like Hagar. The main difference is that Hagar was cast out, while Ruth was accepted. Why? Because Hagar never fully accepted the fact that her son was not called to be the inheritor of the promise. Therefore, she could not fully submit to Sarah, as the angel had told her to do so (Gen. 16:9).
If Hagar had submitted to Sarah, she would have testified that the Old Covenant was subordinate to the New Covenant. Then she and her son could have shared in the blessings of the inheritance. Such a change of heart was seen later in the conversion of Saul to Paul and in everyone who follows his example. The key is ceasing to depend upon one’s own promise or vow and to base one’s salvation on the promise of God.
See my book, The Two Covenants.
Ruth obtained the inheritance, because God had changed her heart through the testimony of Naomi (“Grace”). God had spoken to her heart and she had responded by following Grace to the Promised Land. In doing so, she sets the example for the ultimate conversion of the nations and the world in the reconciliation of all things.
In the story of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, we find another example of truth. Just as Abraham had married Hagar to bring forth Ishmael, so also did God “marry” Egypt to bring forth His first-born son, Israel. God was Israel’s Father, while Egypt was Israel’s mother.
Because their “mother” was fleshly, the nation born out of Egypt had to be redeemed by the Passover lamb, because Israel, like Ishmael earlier, was a spiritual donkey. The lesson has universal application because we are all born fleshly and are spiritual donkeys apart from the redemption through the Passover Lamb of God. Israel’s redemption and transformation from donkeys to the sheep of His pasture is the same path that all of us must take to inherit the promise of God.
Ruth was cleansed by her faith in God prior to her marriage to Boaz. Her transformation from a donkey to a sheep took place prior to her marriage to Boaz. Spiritually speaking, she had been changed from a Hagar to a Sarah. Hence, after marrying Boaz, her son needed no redemption at birth but could be presented to God on the eighth day (Exodus 22:29, 30).
Mahlon and Chilion
Mahlon means “sickness, worn down, weak,” and Chilion means “pining, wasting away.” We wonder why they would be given such names, but it is obvious that their names spoke of their family situation while sojourning in Moab. Children do not normally name themselves, so we can say with reasonable confidence that their parents named them to express their own state of mind.
We know that the boys had been born in Bethlehem. Naomi spent only ten years in Moab (Ruth 1:4), and both sons married Moabite women during that time. Surely the boys had to be at least twenty when they married their wives. So if they received their names while in Bethlehem, it suggests that they were named on account of the famine in Judah. Elimelech must have felt like his life was wasting away in the famine. But their sojourn in Moab only brought utter disaster.
It may be that Elimelech was sick for some time, and the lack of food aggravated his situation. It appears that shortly after moving to Moab, he died, and only then did his sons marry Moabite women. Ruth 1:3, 4 suggests this, saying,
3 Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. 4 And they took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years.
The young men must have died soon after their marriage, perhaps by some contagious disease, because neither marriage produced any children. Ruth 1:5 says,
5 Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; and the woman [Naomi] was bereft of her two children and her husband.
At that point, we can imagine Naomi’s grief at being alone in a foreign land. This was the apex of her time of weakness, and I do not doubt that she now was “pining away” for her family and friends back in Bethlehem.
When people go through such trials, only seldom do they see the big picture. It seems that God intends for them to undergo such grief without understanding its meaning and purpose. The grief, fear, and uncertainty must be experienced in full to fit the type and shadow in the big picture. So also Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) He had to experience the grief of being despised by enemies, rejected by His people, abandoned by His disciples, and betrayed by His friend—all of which were portions of the payment that He made for the sin of the world.
But from the depths of despair, hope arose. From hope sprang life, and from life came joy.