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Ruth i. 1-13.
Leaving the Book of Judges and opening the story of Ruth we pass from vehement out-door life, from tempest and trouble into quiet domestic scenes. After an exhibition of the greater movements of a people we are brought, as it were, to a cottage interior in the soft light of an autumn evening, to obscure lives passing through the cycles of loss and comfort, affection and sorrow. We have seen the ebb and flow of a nation's fidelity and fortune, a few leaders appearing clearly on the stage and behind them a multitude indefinite, indiscriminate, the thousands who form the ranks of battle and die on the field, who sway together from Jehovah to Baal and back to Jehovah again. What the Hebrews were at home, how they lived in the villages of Judah or on the slopes of Tabor the narrative has not paused to speak of with detail. Now there is leisure after the strife and the historian can describe old customs and family events, can show us the toiling flockmaster, the busy reapers, the women with their cares and uncertainties, the love and labour of simple life. Thunderclouds of sin and judgment have rolled over the scene; but they have cleared away and we see human nature in examples that364 become familiar to us, no longer in weird shadow or vivid lightning flash, but as we commonly know it, homely, erring, enduring, imperfect, not unblest.
Bethlehem is the scene, quiet and lonely on its high ridge overlooking the Judæan wilderness. The little city never had much part in the eager life of the Hebrew people, yet age after age some event notable in history, some death or birth or some prophetic word drew the eyes of Israel to it in affection or in hope; and to us the Saviour's birth there has so distinguished it as one of the most sacred spots on earth that each incident in the fields or at the gate appears charged with predictive meaning, each reference in psalm or prophecy has tender significance. We see the company of Jacob on a journey through Canaan halt by the way near Ephrath, which is Bethlehem, and from the tents there comes a sound of wailing. The beloved Rachel is dead. Yet she lives in a child new-born, the mother's Son of Sorrow, who becomes to the father Benjamin, Son of the Right Hand. The sword pierces a loving heart, but hope springs out of pain and life out of death. Generations pass and in these fields of Bethlehem we see Ruth gleaning, Ruth the Moabitess, a stranger and foreigner who has sought refuge under the shadow of Jehovah's wings; and at yonder gate she is saved from want and widowhood, finding in Boaz her goël and menuchah, her redeemer and rest. Later, another birth, this time within the walls, the birth of one long despised by his brethren, gives to Israel a poet and a king, the sweet singer of divine psalms, the hero of a hundred fights. And here again we see the three mighty men of David's troop breaking through the Philistine host to fetch for their chief a draught from the cool spring by the gate. Prophecy, too, leaves365 Israel looking to the city on the hill. Micah seems to grasp the secret of the ages when he exclaims, "But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be the ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting." For centuries there is suspense, and then over the quiet plain below the hill is heard the evangel: "Be not afraid: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." Remembering this glory of Bethlehem we turn to the story of humble life there in the days when the judges ruled, with deep interest in the people of the ancient city, the race from which David sprang, of which Mary was born.
Jephthah had scattered Ammon behind the hills and the Hebrews dwelt in comparative peace and security. The sanctuary at Shiloh was at length recognised as the centre of religious influence; Eli was in the beginning of his priesthood, and orderly worship was maintained before the ark. People could live quietly about Bethlehem, although Samson, fitfully acting the part of champion on the Philistine border, had his work in restraining the enemy from an advance. Yet all was not well in the homesteads of Judah, for drought is as terrible a foe to the flockmaster as the Arab hordes, and all the south lands were parched and unfruitful.
We are to follow the story of Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons Mahlon and Chilion whose home at Bethlehem is about to be broken up. The sheep are dying in the bare glens, the cattle in the fields. From the soil usually so fertile little corn has been366 reaped. Elimelech, seeing his possessions melt away, has decided to leave Judah for a time so as to save what remains to him till the famine is over, and he chooses the nearest refuge, the watered Field of Moab beyond the Salt Sea. It was not far; he could imagine himself returning soon to resume the accustomed life in the old home. True Hebrews, these Ephrathites were not seeking an opportunity to cast off pious duty and break with Jehovah in leaving His land. Doubtless they hoped that God would bless their going, prosper them in Moab and bring them back in good time. It was a trial to go, but what else could they do, life itself, as they believed, being at hazard?
With thoughts like these men often leave the land of their birth, the scenes of early faith, and oftener still without any pressure of necessity or any purpose of returning. Emigration appears to be forced upon many in these times, the compulsion coming not from Providence but from man and man's law. It is also an outlet for the spirit of adventure which characterizes some races and has made them the heirs of continents. Against emigration it would be folly to speak, but great is the responsibility of those by whose action or want of action it is forced upon others. May it not be said that in every European land there are persons in power whose existence is like a famine to a whole country-side? Emigration is talked of glibly as if it were no loss but always gain, as if to the mass of men the traditions and customs of their native land were mere rags well parted with. But it is clear from innumerable examples that many lose what they never find again, of honour, seriousness and faith.
The last thing thought of by those who compel emigration and many who undertake it of their own367 accord is the moral result. That which should be first considered is often not considered at all. Granting the advantages of going from a land that is over-populated to some fertile region as yet lying waste, allowing what cannot be denied that material progress and personal freedom result from these movements of population, yet the risk to individuals is just in proportion to the worldly attraction. It is certain that in many regions to which the stream of migration is flowing the conditions of life are better and the natural environment purer than they are in the heart of large European cities. But this does not satisfy the religious thinker. Modern colonies have indeed done marvels for political independence, for education and comfort. Their success here is splendid. But do they see the danger? So much achieved in short time for the secular life tends to withdraw attention from the root of spiritual growth—simplicity and moral earnestness. The pious emigrant has to ask himself whether his children will have the same thought for religion beyond the sea as they would have at home, whether he himself is strong enough to maintain his testimony while he seeks his fortune.
We may believe that the Bethlehemite if he made a mistake in removing to Moab acted in good faith and did not lose his hope of the divine blessing. Probably he would have said that Moab was just like home. The people spoke a language similar to Hebrew, and like the tribes of Israel they were partly husbandmen partly keepers of cattle. In the "Field of Moab," that is the upland canton bounded by the Arnon on the north, the mountains on the east and the Dead Sea precipices on the west, people lived very much as they did about Bethlehem, only more safely and in greater368 comfort. But the worship was of Chemosh, and Elimelech must soon have discovered how great a difference that made in thought and social custom and in the feeling of men toward himself and his family. The rites of the god of Moab included festivals in which humanity was disgraced. Standing apart from these he must have found his prosperity hindered, for Chemosh was lord in everything. An alien who had come for his own advantage yet refused the national customs would be scorned at least if not persecuted. Life in Moab became an exile, the Bethlehemites saw that hardship in their own land would have been as easy to endure as the disdain of the heathen and constant temptations to vile conformity. The family had a hard struggle, not holding their own and yet ashamed to return to Judah.
Already we have a picture of wayworn human lives tried on one side by the rigour of nature, on the other by unsympathetic fellow-creatures, and the picture becomes more pathetic as new touches are added to it. Elimelech died; the young men married women of Moab; and in ten years only Naomi was left, a widow with her widowed daughters-in-law. The narrative adds shadow to shadow. The Hebrew woman in her bereavement, with the care of two lads who were somewhat indifferent to the religion she cherished, touches our sympathies. We feel for her when she has to consent to the marriage of her sons with heathen women, for it seems to close all hope of return to her own land and, sore as this trial is, there is a deeper trouble. She is left childless in the country of exile. Yet all is not shadow. Life never is entirely dark unless with those who have ceased to trust in God and care for man. While we have compassion on Naomi369 we must also admire her. An Israelite among heathen she keeps her Hebrew ways, not in bitterness but in gentle fidelity. Loving her native place more warmly than ever she so speaks of it and praises it as to make her daughters-in-law think of settling there with her. The influence of her religion is upon them both, and one at least is inspired with faith and tenderness equal to her own. Naomi has her compensations, we see. Instead of proving a trouble to her as she feared, the foreign women in her house have become her friends. She finds occupation and reward in teaching them the religion of Jehovah, and thus, so far as usefulness of the highest kind is concerned, Naomi is more blessed in Moab than she might have been in Bethlehem.
Far better the service of others in spiritual things than a life of mere personal ease and comfort. We count up our pleasures, our possessions and gains and think that in these we have the evidence of the divine favour. Do we as often reckon the opportunities given us of helping our neighbours to believe in God, of showing patience and fidelity, of having a place among those who labour and wait for the eternal kingdom? It is here that we ought to trace the gracious hand of God preparing our way, opening for us the gates of life. When shall we understand that circumstances which remove us from the experience of poverty and pain remove us also from precious means of spiritual service and profit? To be in close personal touch with the poor, the ignorant and burdened is to have simple every-day openings into the region of highest power and gladness. We do something enduring, something that engages and increases our best powers when we guide, enlighten and comfort even a few souls and plant370 but a few flowers in some dull corner of the world. Naomi did not know how blest she had been in Moab. She said afterwards that she had gone out full and the Lord had brought her home again empty. She even imagined that Jehovah had testified against her and cast her from Him in rejection. Yet she had been finding the true power, winning the true riches. Did she return empty when the convert Ruth, the devoted Ruth went back with her?
Her two sons taken away, Naomi felt no tie binding her to Moab. Moreover in Judah the fields were green again and life was prosperous. She might hope to dispose of her land and realize something for her old age. It seemed therefore her interest and duty to return to her own country; and the next picture of the poem shows Naomi and her daughters-in-law travelling along the northward highway towards the ford of Jordan, she on her way home, they accompanying her. The two young widows are almost decided when they leave the desolate dwelling in Moab to go all the way to Bethlehem. Naomi's account of the life there, the purer faith and better customs attract them, and they love her well. But the matter is not settled; on the bank of Jordan the final choice will be made.
There are hours which bring a heavy burden of responsibility to those who advise and guide, and such an hour came now to Naomi. It was in poverty she was returning to the home of her youth. She could promise to her daughters-in-law no comfortable easy life there, for, as she well knew, the enmity of Hebrews against Moabites was apt to be bitter and they might be scorned as aliens from Jehovah. So far as she was concerned nothing could have been more desirable than their company. A woman in poverty and past middle life371 could not wish to separate herself from young and affectionate companions who would be a help to her in her old age. To throw off the thought of personal comfort natural to one in her circumstances and look at things from an unselfish point of view was very difficult. In reading her story let us remember how apt we are to colour advice half unconsciously with our own wishes, our own seeming needs.
Naomi's advantage lay in securing the companionship of Ruth and Orpah, and religious considerations added their weight to her own desire. Her very regard and care for these young women seemed to urge as the highest service she could do them to draw them out of the paganism of Moab and settle them in the country of Jehovah. So while she herself would find reward for her patient efforts these two would be rescued from the darkness, bound in the bundle of life. Here, perhaps, was her strongest temptation; and to some it may appear that it was her duty to use every argument to this end, that she was bound as one who watched for the souls of Ruth and Orpah to set every fear, every doubt aside and to persuade them that their salvation depended on going with her to Bethlehem. Was this not her sacred opportunity, her last opportunity of making sure that the teaching she had given them should have its fruit?
Strange it may seem that the author of the Book of Ruth is not chiefly concerned with this aspect of the case, that he does not blame Naomi for failing to set spiritual considerations in the front. The narrative indeed afterwards makes it clear that Ruth chose the good part and prospered by choosing it, but here the writer calmly states without any question the very temporal and secular reasons which Naomi pressed on372 the two widows. He seems to allow that home and country—though they were under the shadow of heathenism—home and country and worldly prospects were rightly taken account of even as compared with a place in Hebrew life and faith. But the underlying fact is a social pressure clearly before the Oriental mind. The customs of the time were overmastering, and women had no resource but to submit to them. Naomi accepts the facts and ordinances of the age; the inspired author has nothing to say against her.
"The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband." That the two young widows should return each to her mother's house and marry again in Moab is Naomi's urgent advice to them. The times were rude and wild. A woman could be safe and respected only under the protection of a husband. Not only was there the old-world contempt for unmarried women, but, we may say, they were an impossibility; there was no place for them in the social life. People did not see how there could be a home without some man at the head of it, the house-band in whom all family arrangements centred. It had not been strange that in Moab Hebrew men should marry women of the land; but was it likely Ruth and Orpah would find favour at Bethlehem? Their speech and manners would be despised and dislike once incurred prove hard to overcome. Besides, they had no property to commend them.
Evidently the two were very inexperienced. They had little thought of the difficulties, and Naomi, therefore, had to speak very strongly. In the grief of bereavement and the desire for a change of scene they had formed the hope of going where there were good men and women like the Hebrews they knew, and373 placing themselves under the protection of the gracious God of Israel. Unless they did so life seemed practically at an end. But Naomi could not take upon herself the responsibility of letting them drift into a hazardous position, and she forced a decision of their own in full view of the facts. It was true kindness no less than wisdom. The age had not dawned in which women could attempt to shape or dare to defy the customs of society, nor was any advantage to be sought at the risk of moral compromise. These things Naomi understood, though afterwards, in extremity, she made Ruth venture unwisely to obtain a prize.
Looking around us now we see multitudes of women for whom there appears to be no room, no vocation. Up to a certain point, while they were young, they had no thought of failure. Then came a time when Providence appointed a task; there were parents to care for, daily occupations in the house. But calls for their service have ceased and they feel no responsibility sufficient to give interest and strength. The world has moved on and the movement has done much for women, yet all do not find themselves supplied with a task and a place. Around the occupied and the distinguished circles perpetually a crowd of the helpless, the aimless, the disappointed, to whom life is a blank, offering no path to a ford of Jordan and a new future. Yet half the needful work is done for these when they are made to feel that among the possible ways they must choose one for themselves and follow it; and all is done when they are shown that in the service of God, which is the service also of mankind, a task waits them fitted to engage their highest powers. Across into the region of religious faith and energy they may decide to pass, there is room in it for every life. Disappointment will374 end when selfish thoughts are forgotten; helplessness will cease when the heart is resolved to help. Even to the very poor and ignorant deliverance would come with a religious thought of life and the first step in personal duty.
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