Reflections on Ruth: The Famine

The Book of Ruth is about a family that is unremarkable and, therefore, relatable. There’s a husband, a wife, and their two sons. They live in Israel, in a town about thirty miles from where God’s ark sat in a tent. But it’s hard to say how often they visited the tabernacle. We know how often they should have, according to Jewish law, but in those days, God’s people were led by a nearly continuous line of corrupt rulers who didn’t seem serious about promoting or enforcing God’s ways. But we’re given no reason to think that this family was particularly holy or particularly nasty. They’re just ordinary people trying to live decent lives.

Then a famine strikes. We’re not told about this famine in the sweeping historical overview books preceding the book of Ruth, so we don’t know how disastrous it was, overall. But it was disastrous enough to this family that they left the country and moved to Moab in search of food. They stayed there ten years, which was long enough for both sons to marry Moabite women and for all the men in the family to die. This left the wife and mother, Naomi, alone with her two new daughters-in-law, who were from this foreign country where she had just buried her husband and sons. And to make matters worse, the famine kept raging. 

When the famine finally stopped, Naomi returned to Bethlehem with one daughter-in-law, Ruth. They were in tears as they left the other daughter-in-law behind, and I doubt that’s the first time everyone broke down crying since their misfortunes began. They likely knew well the feeling of their eyes getting puffy and red from tears. 

Naomi and Ruth had just lost their husbands, and in a patriarchal society to boot. Widows in those days were doomed to depend upon the mercy of the men around them, so it’s likely they didn’t feel whole and happy as they journeyed to Israel. There’s really nothing they could have been looking forward to, after all. Though the disaster had passed and society had gone “back to normal,” Ruth and Naomi had little reason to hope for feeling normal, or even just okay, ever again.

This is rock bottom, and it’s also where God bursts onto the scene. Ruth is gathering the crumbs left behind by barley harvesters near Bethlehem and she stumbles upon Naomi’s distant relative, Boaz, who owns the field. Ruth returns to Naomi that evening carrying leftovers from lunch and thirty pounds of barley.

Extra food is a blessing we pretty easily take for granted because we haven’t lived through a famine. Most Americans haven’t known this sort of constant, hopeless hunger. But Naomi had. Her life had been completely uprooted and ruined because of hunger. In fact, hunger had devastated her so much, she changed her name to “Mara,” which means “Bitter.”

So when Ruth comes home to Naomi with thirty pounds of barley, it’s as if she brings a blessing that’s tailor-made and personally addressed. God saw the famine-induced suffering of this ordinary woman and met her with a gift that perfectly complements and fully recognizes her past pain. Could anything have meant more to Naomi in that moment than extra food? 

This is just the beginning of God’s blessings for Ruth and Naomi. But I’ll save that for another post.

I don’t think I need to explain how the story of Ruth, Naomi, and the famine relates to us today. The catastrophe is different, but the feelings of devastation are much the same, and the damage seems just as permanent. Our world is forever changed, and we’ll never be back to “normal” in certain ways. 

But is there hope for a new normal and a life that’s better than okay in the post-pandemic world? I think so, because we have this story to claim as precedent as we approach the throne of grace, and through Jesus we are the children of God. So in this extended time of chaos and brokenness, we can ask God to pursue us ordinary people with his extraordinarily personal love. We can ask our Father to meet us and others who have suffered with individualized healing and blessing. If we draw near to God and seek His face, we can expect to find thirty pounds of barley in His hands.