Two Kinds of Famine
Preached by Jason Abbott, senior pastor
1 In 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. 2 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. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
1. A famine sends this family into exile (vv. 1-2).
We get a picture here of life during the time of the judges. This would have been between Joshua’s leading of the nation of Israel into the Promised Land (1400ish B.C.) and the birth of Samuel who would anoint Israel’s first king (1050ish B.C.). At some time, during this period, we are told very matter of fact-ly by the narrator that a famine took place.
This famine displaces an Israelite family. But, it is worth noting that today, as throughout history, families are still driven from their homes because of famines (e.g. Somalia now or North Korea in the 1990s). Consequently, situations like this one in Ruth have been, and continue to be, a real problem in the fallen world in which we live.
Let me say, in application, that we must not take this problem lightly as Christians. We are called to be a people of compassion for those who suffer. Yet, especially in the U.S., we have the tendency to insulate ourselves from the poverties of the outside world.
- How much do we spend on food while the rest of the world starves?
- How much do we do to learn about and pray for those in need in order to soften our hearts toward them as those created equally in God’s image?
There are many good Christian organizations doing this kind of work! International Needs Network, Samaritan’s Purse, International Justice Mission, and Compassion International are but a few. Participate with one of these organizations if you aren’t already! You are not called to do everything, but you are called to do something! Why? Because: without Christ we were destitute; without Christ we were starving; without Christ we were homeless; but now in Christ we have infinite wealth; in Christ we have been eternally satisfied; in Christ we have an everlasting home! We’re called to do something because everything has been done for us who are in Jesus.
Let’s get back to this wandering family. They have been forced to flee all that is familiar and safe because of this very real famine. They are on the search for food and a future. They are looking for safety and security.
Their story is a “riches to rags” story. We are meant to see it as such. The clue to this is found in the second verse. The narrator records:
They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah (v. 2b)
There are two ways you could understand this verse:
- We could read Ephrathites as a way of telling us the place the family was from “since Bethlehem was called Ephrath in patriarchal times (Genesis 35:16, 19; 48:7).” 1However, if this were the case then why would the narrator add the qualifier “from Bethlehem”? This would be like saying they were Bethlehemites from Bethlehem; they were New Yorkers from New York; they were Harrisburgers from Harrisburg.
- We could alternatively read Ephrathites as a way of telling us the clan name. In this case, “the clan name may ultimately derive from Ephrath, the wife of Caleb, whose descendants… [are credited] with settling in Bethlehem (1 Chronicles 2:19, 50-51; 4:4).” 2
If this second option is the case (which seems the more logical reading), then we have a rags to riches story being pictured here. One commentator explains:
If this clan descended from Caleb, the author may have identified this family as Ephrathite to picture it as an aristocratic one—one of the “first families of Bethlehem.” He thereby underscored the humiliating tragedy involved: the Vanderbilts have suddenly become poor sharecroppers.3
This theme seems to fit well with the history of Israel during the time of the judges. And it leads us naturally into point two of today’s sermon.
2. A spiritual famine sends this family into exile (vv. 1-2).
The period of the judges was a time of spiritual feast or spiritual famine; it was an up and down time for Israel, a spiritual rollercoaster for God’s covenant community. There is a guiding refrain in the book of Judges:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
This refrain isn’t only given propositionally; it is again and again pictured throughout the actions of the narrative itself!
- They mix the worship of idols with the worship of Yahweh.
- They lie to one another and struggle for power amongst each other.
- They exact vicious revenge on their fellow Israelites.
- They make ridiculous, unrighteous vows that do not honor God.
- They sleep around indiscriminately.
- They intermarry with the idolatrous nations around them.
- They rape and murder and perpetrate genocide against their fellow Israelites.
- They do what is right in their own eyes because they have no king.
This is the pitiable state of Israel during the time of the judges. People provide their own individual authority, and so life goes on lawlessly and unchecked. This principle remains true. Without an ultimate standard Giver, we are forced to determine what is individually right and wrong for ourselves.
Let me illustrate what I mean. People sometimes say that there is no ultimate truth. What they usually mean, however, isn’t that there is no ultimate truth, but that there is no ultimate truth Giver. No one truly believes that all truth is relative. What they believe is that, for the most part, they should get to decide what is right and what is wrong.
The problem, with this, is that ideas of right and wrong change. Individual standards and values change; social standards and values change; governmental standards and values change. Even human contexts change. The human heart consequently moves here and there and everywhere. Because of this, there is no certainty that what is reprehensible today won’t become acceptable tomorrow. What is wrong today becomes right tomorrow with a simple change in public opinion—or in one’s context.
For example: in the AMC show The Walking Dead, the world has been completely altered by a viral outbreak which transforms people into zombies. The government collapses, society crumbles, and people are left to survive however they can. What’s interesting is watching the characters, who are quote-unquote good people, change in their views of ultimate right and ultimate wrong. It’s interesting to watch them do what, before the outbreak, they would have said was unequivocally wrong.
Yet, let me argue, if we have an ultimate standard-Giver, a good and eternal King—who cannot be deposed and does not change—then even if the world changes drastically, even when the world does change drastically, we will not be moved! We will have ultimate right and ultimate wrong; we will have an ultimate right and good purpose!
But Israel, in the current narrative, has no such king. Thus, the nation (this Ephrathite family included) finds itself in the midst of a spiritual famine. The family’s lack of spiritual food is depicted in many ways.
- They are not occupying the Promised Land but are fleeing it (v. 1).
- They go from sojourning (v. 1) to remaining (v. 2) to apparent assimilation by intermarrying with the Moabites (v. 4).
- The addition of 10 more years passing (v. 4) suggests that the possibility of ever returning to God’s Promised Land is growing progressively less likely for this family. Have they given up on God’s covenant promises?
Certainly for this family and their nation, there is a spiritual famine taking place. However—as with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—God is able to work famines and, as we’re going to see, personal tragedies for the eternally good purposes of his chosen people.
This brings us to the last movement of today’s passage.
3. Naomi loses her family while in exile (vv. 3-5).
The narrator communicates first Naomi’s husband’s death and then the deaths of both of her sons in the most matter of fact way.
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died… (v. 3).
And both Mahlon and Chilion died… (v. 5).
We might think the narrator unfeeling or even cruel in his reporting. However, by doing it in this way, he is enabling us to feel the abrupt and harsh reality of Naomi’s situation. We become emotionally attached to this narrative.
Furthermore, we are encouraged to ask questions to which we find no satisfactory answers. How did Elimelech and his sons die? Why would God allow this Israelite family to suffer so much? Is this God’s punishment being visited on this family for some kind of sin?
Why are we so apt, in the face of tragedies, to ask why and how questions? I suppose it is a defense mechanism of sorts. We hope to pin-down tragic events by providing some reason they happened in order to convince ourselves that they won’t happen to us. But, Christians shouldn’t invest in such insurance policies!
Let me illustrate. There is a show on the National Geographic channel called Doomsday Preppers. It’s a reality show in which real people invite “doomsday experts” to help them prepare for the most heinous end-of-the-world events. They stockpile weapons and food and defensively booby-trap their homes. It is amazing and disturbing to watch.
I was drawn into this show the other night. It was like watching a train wreck!!! I began to puff myself up: “I’m not that paranoid! I’m so much more stable than these kooks!” But am I really? Are we really?
We all do doomsday prepping, I think:
- If we live in this neighborhood, we’ll be safe.
- If my kids go to these schools, they will be prepared for the future.
- If I have this much money saved, I’ll live happily ever after.
But it doesn’t work this way! Tragedy will find us in this fallen world no matter what neighborhood we live in, what schools our kids go to, or what amount of money we have saved! No amount of anything in this world can save us from death.
Naomi and her family sought food and safety among the Moabites, yet tragedy found them anyway. No amount of reasoning or preparing or justifying could have provided safety from this final enemy for them, or for us! Death reigns in a fallen world.
However—though Naomi’s story is in a very dark place—there is still a glimmer of hope. The refrain of Judges should be echoing in our minds:
In those days there was no king… In those days there was no king….
Why, you might ask, should that provide hope? What good would a king do? How would a king help Naomi?
Well, I would ask in return: What was God’s purpose of his kings? Israel’s kings were to follow God and protect and lead God’s people! God’s kings were to rule by God’s laws and establish God’s justice!
But, what about sin and death? God would provide a king for that too!