Everyone I know is looking for hope right now. Yearning for a deeper meaning behind this pandemic, isolation, sickness, and these unprecedented moments. Some are reaching for the refrigerator door hoping food will calm them. Others are reaching for the counterfeit community through social media to be a surrogate for their human interaction. My poison of choice is avoidance, typical for an enneagram 9. In my avoiding, I’m hoping the reality of this will soon pass and life will return as frantic and normal as it was before it all began. However, two days ago I began to study Scripture with a beautiful new friend who is living in Israel as a writer and producer for an international mission organization. She decided on the book of Ruth for our time together. In my personal study of Scripture, I’ve read this book a few times. But, because scripture is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12), I’m reading it this time as if I am coming before it with new eyes and a new heart. Are you wondering how the book of Ruth, one threaded with love and romance, could relate to our world during a pandemic? It relates more than you would think.
Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, moved his family to Moab during a ravaging famine that overwhelmed Israel. Scripture suggests Elimelech and Naomi were “full” when they left Bethlehem (1:21). So, what would possess this man to move his wife and two sons outside of their hometown if they had no real needs during this famine? Although Scripture is not clear why they left, Elimelech would have known God would not have approved of their leaving, and more importantly, would not approve, according to Jewish law, of their two sons marrying Moabite women (Ruth 1:4, Deut 23:3). Elimelech willingly led his family into disobedience, but his sons would have also been taught Jewish law on marriage. This, they willingly entered into marriages with Moabite women. After Naomi’s husband and two sons passed away, she felt the weight of her and her husband’s disobedience. Thus Naomi began the journey back to Bethlehem, her first home. When she came back to Bethlehem with her daughter in law Ruth, “the whole town was stirred because of them” (1:19a). Keep in mind, before they headed on their journey back to Bethlehem, Ruth declared her allegiance to Naomi and her God, Yahweh. As Naomi and Ruth entered the city the people she once knew there could not even recognize her( 1:19b). Affliction and the weight of God’s discipline has a way of bringing us to a place of an unrecognizable countenance. We should look different, sound differently, act differently as a result of sanctification. However, we should not grow weary under the weight of God’s loving discipline, for we know in due time it will produce peaceable fruit (Hebrews 12:5). Naomi responds to the crowd’s questions with an honest and human answer: “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I 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?” She recognized how heavily her God’s hand of discipline was on her for trusting creature comforts and having fullness in the things of this earth: relationships (her husband and sons), ease, wealth, etc. With her response to the people in her hometown, you can hear her heart sing of repentance. She didn’t need to blame her husband for his lack of spiritual leadership, she didn’t need to blame her sons for going against the Jewish law for marriage, and she sure didn’t need to blame her God, who she admittedly sinned against. Naomi accepted the calamity brought on by sin. All of this seems so desperate and hopeless. This is not so as the story begins to reveal the beginning twinkles of hopeful redemption.
As God’s providence would have it, their return to Bethlehem was at the beginning of the barley harvest. The barley harvest happened before the feast of the Passover, which brought many people back into the city for celebration and festivities. Due to the overwhelming task of harvesting, the barley harvest also allowed for the farm owners to hire help without discriminating against race, gender, or religious background. Ruth and Naomi came back to Bethlehem at a time when work was available, not for Naomi as she was old and unable, but for Ruth. God provided work to glean from the fields (2:2), which would happen after the harvesters would complete the day’s work. This would be the time when the farm owners would walk their lands making sure the work would be complete. Isn’t it beautiful how God is always a million steps ahead of us? God provided work for Ruth, humble work, and work which would inevitably catch the eye of the farm owner: Boaz.
Boaz is a character in scripture who is a Christ-type figure. According to Jewish law, when a man died, a family member would be allowed to marry the widow in order to continue the family lineage and provide for the woman. For Ruth, this Kinsman-Redeemer was Boaz. Just as Boaz was the Kinsman-Redeemer for Ruth and Naomi, so too, is Christ the Kinsman-Redeemer for his people.
What if this pandemic (like the famine in Israel in the book of Ruth) was actually the beginning of a proverbial barley harvest God has prepared for those who are willing to turn from their sinful ways as Ruth and Naomi had done? We know God does incredibly more than we could ever ask or think in times of desperation and need. What if the work that needs to be done in the harvest would cause God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven through this slow season where we find the rest we need to be drawn to repentance by God’s providence and kindness just as it did for Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, a once barren woman for ten years, now gives birth to Obed after she marries Boaz. And, if you didn’t know Obed is the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. What if God is using this calamity to bring us to our knees in order to see the mighty and providential hand of his great power and works? Would our eyes be open to it otherwise? We see over and over in Scripture where hunger and need open up opportunities for God to move in eternal, Kingdom shaking ways. I want to be part of this barley harvest God is preparing. What do I need to be stripped of in order to be welcomed into the field to glean, humbly from God’s hand? What creature comforts do I need to ask God to weaken so I can work as unto him instead of man? This is hope. This is the hope we are longing for: God allows what he hates in order to achieve what he loves.
Here is my prayer for us: https://soundcloud.com/louisa-saylor/pandemic-prayers