The Mother-in-Law—Naomi*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell

“And Ruth did according to all that her mother-in-law told her” (Ruth 3:6).

It is thoroughly refreshing to come upon this exquisite bit of literature called Ruth. It follows, as you know, immediately after the bloodstained stories we read in Judges. It shows that while there was war and confusion and hate, there was also friendship and love and romance. It is a bit of exquisite beauty elbowed on either side by ugliness. This delightful story comes to us like a glad surprise. It is like finding a spring bubbling up in the desert. It is like plucking roses in the middle of icebergs. It is like finding a violet in the very crater of a volcano.

I hope you have read the Book of Ruth and are familiar with it. If you haven’t, you have slighted one of the sweetest and tenderest stories ever told. If you haven’t, you have neglected about the most delicate and winsome idyll to be found in ancient or modern literature. I have read some good literature, first and last. I have read poetry that lifted the heart and set the soul to dreaming. I have read prose strong as granite and songful as a mountain brook. But I confess to you, if I wanted to find a finer piece of literature than the Book of Ruth, I would be at a great loss to know where to search.

The author sets you down at once in strange scenery. And the characters, while genuinely human, are also full of the magic of romance and poetry.

Here is the story. The rains have failed in Bethlehem, Judah, and the harvests have been exceedingly meager. A certain little family, composed of husband, wife, and two sons, is having a hard fight to keep the wolf from the door. Elimelech, the husband, can find no work and Naomi, the wife and mother, “kneads hunger in an empty bread tray” (Thomas DeWitt Talmage) and goes through the daily torture of being asked for bread that she is not able to supply.

Then one dark day the husband comes home utterly discouraged. He takes up the discussion where it was left off the day before. “Yes,” he says, “there is nothing else to do. There is no bread in the land. There has been rain in Moab. We can go there. I do not know how they will receive us; but at any rate, they can only kill us and that is better than starvation.”

And Naomi’s sad face becomes a shade sadder and she says, “The will of the Lord be done. But I had so hoped that we might be able to remain in the land of our fathers. You see, my dear, it is not of myself that I am thinking. We have two boys. We do not want to rear them in Moab. Moab, I know, is not far off physically, but it is a long way morally. If we go there, we may lose our children. The time may even come when one or both of them will break the law of Moses and marry a Moabite.”

But, hard as it was for her to consent, at last Naomi was driven to it by sheer starvation. And we see the pathetic little family scourged by hollow-eyed hunger from the land of their fathers into the land of the heathen Moabites. Just what their reception was there we are not told. However, I am quite sure that they were received more kindly than they had expected. Their want and their own kindness seemed to have opened the hearts of the strangers among whom they went to live. Certain it is that the husband and father was able to find sufficient work to keep from actual starvation. By and by times grew better. The pinch of poverty let up, and they began to feel somewhat at home in the land of their adoption.

But the boys were playing with the children of the Moabites. Of course, they were. All children are alike. They know no barrier of kindred, of class, or of religion. A child is the true democrat. Sad to say, we soon train him out of this. But he is a thorough democrat by nature. He plays as gladly with the son of a scrub woman as with the son of a queen. He lavishes his love as freely on a pickaninny as upon a prince. So these Jewish boys, Mahlon and Chilion, were playing with the heathen children.

Then a few years went by, and the pious father and mother came to realize with horror that their two boys were in love with two Moabite girls. Not only did they love them, but they wanted to marry them. This was a calamity indeed. I can hear the protests of the father and mother. They warn them of the danger of such marriages. They plead the law of Moses. But all in vain. And we are not surprised. You might as well stand in front of Niagara Falls and say “Boo!” and expect it to flow back the other way, as to try to reason with the average young fellow who is in love. Both young men, Mahlon and Chilion, married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.

And, then, what did this wise and godly father and mother do? They did not do what is so usual in cases of an unwelcomed marriage. Our boy or our girl makes what seems to us a foolish and ruinous marriage. Then what do we do? We declare that we will never speak to them again, that they will never darken our doors. And we thereby help on a disaster that might never have come. Naomi and her husband had better sense. They took the wives of their two sons, heathen though they were, into their home and into their hearts. They felt sure that that was the one way that promised a remedy.

Then one day disaster came to the little home of the strangers. The husband and father Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with the whole responsibility of the family on her lone shoulders. Her daughters-in-law had seen her in her joy. They marked her also in her sorrow. They were impressed, no doubt, by her calmness and her strength. She walked with the sure and quiet step of one who felt underneath her and round about her “the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).

Then the final disaster came. Both sons died. Now Naomi was not only a widow, but childless. There was now no bond that held her longer from the land of her fathers. She decided, therefore, to return. Her two daughters-in-law were to accompany her as far as the border of Moab. There they were to bid her farewell, and then each go her own way.

So, they made the journey, these three women, to the borders of Moab. Here Orpah told Naomi good-bye. She parted from her with real grief and regret, for she genuinely loved her. I think I can hear her sobbing as she takes her lone way back to her own people.

Then it is Ruth’s time to say good-bye. I see her as she flings her arms about the neck of Naomi and there she clings. “There, there,” says the older woman, “you must be gone now. Your sister is going. She will turn the bend of the road in a minute. Go after her, and God grant that you may find rest each in the house of her husband.”

But Ruth clings only the tighter. And then she makes a confession. It is a confession of love. And nothing finer in point of tenderness and beauty was ever uttered by human lips.

I hope you are not too old to thrill over a love story. John Ridd’s devotion to Lorna Doone still stirs my heart. And there is the confession of a heroine in another story that we can never forget. “Tell him I never nursed a thought that was not his; that daily and nightly on his wandering way pour a woman’s tears. Tell him that even now I’d rather work for him, beg with him, walk by his side as an outcast, live on the light of one kind smile from him, than wear the crown that Bourbon lost.”

That is a beautiful confession. It is made by a woman to a man. But this one I am talking about today was made by a woman to a woman. And strangest of all, it was made by a daughter-in-law to a mother-in-law. Ruth had this distinction, if none other, that she loved her mother-in-law—mother-in-law, mind you, that creature who has been the butt of evil jokes in all languages, the one who has proved the dynamite for wrecking not a few homes. This confession is the confession of a daughter-in-law to a mother-in-law.

It is the confession of youth to age. It is spring-time clinging to winter. It is June flinging its arms in a passionate tenderness around the neck of November.

“It is time you were going,” said Naomi.

And Ruth’s arms clung all the closer, while this exquisite bit of poetry fell from her lips, “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you: for where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me” (Ruth 1:16, 17).

You cannot beat that. No confession of love has ever surpassed it. But it is more than a confession of love. It is also a confession of faith. It is the declaration of a strong woman’s choice. As Ruth clings to the woman she loves, she announces her decision, a decision to which she remained true through all the future years. “Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

And the people of the little village of Bethlehem, Judah, had something interesting to talk about a few days later. Two strange women had come their way, women who were poverty-stricken and homeless. One of them was a Jewess; the other, a Gentile. Naomi had lost her place in the life of the community. Ruth, the Moabitess had never had a place.

The days that immediately followed their arrival were sad and bitter. But the younger woman, with a fine courage, refuses to be a burden. Instead, she will be the support of the mother of her dead husband. So she takes on herself the menial task of a gleaner. It is harvest-time, and she goes into the fields to glean.

Now, it happens in the good providence of God, that the field in which she went to glean belonged to a rich and prosperous man named Boaz. And to that very field where Ruth was gleaning Boaz came that day. We can imagine that he was a young, vigorous, and positive man, accustomed to command. There was a dignity about him that made him seem older than his years. Everybody respected him. He was just and generous and religious.

No sooner was he among the workers than his attention was attracted by the winsome young stranger from Moab. I do not know why he should notice her at once, but I have a fancy that Ruth was attractive, that she had personality and charm. I feel confident that she had that superior beauty that is born of superior character. Anyway, the great landlord saw her and was interested. He spoke kindly to her; and when Ruth came home that evening, she had an interesting story to tell.

And Naomi—wasn’t she interested? I can see the flush of her face and the sparkle of her eye across the centuries. She is a woman, too, every ounce of her. And being a woman, she is by instinct and by nature a matchmaker. She guesses at once what is going on in the hearts of these two young people. And she sets about with delicate good sense to help them to understand each other. By her wise advice things turn out as they ought to turn out, and … “they lived happily ever after.”

Who is the heroine of this exquisite story? I know that first place is given to Ruth. And I am in no sense disposed to try to put her in an inferior position. She cannot be honored too highly. She is so absolutely lovable. But I am going to give first place to Naomi. I do not do this because she is more winsome than Ruth. I do it because she accounts for Ruth. If it had not have been for Naomi, Ruth would have lived and died a heathen in the land of Moab.

Now, what are some of the lessons that we learn from the beautiful life of this ancient woman, Naomi? Were we privileged to sit down beside her in the Father’s house today, she could teach us many wonderful lessons. One truth she would impress on us would be this: that life’s greatest losses may, through the grace of God, become its richest gains. She would tell you, then, of the black despair of those days when she was being driven from her home by the cruel hand of poverty. She would not hesitate to say that it was difficult for her to maintain her faith in God in those dark days. “But the Lord was sending me then to find Ruth. You know, He had to have her. The world could not keep house without her at all. Yet I would never have found her but for my terrible poverty.”

Then, I think she would tell how she was beginning to feel at home in Moab. “My life was taking root in that foreign soil. I was about making up my mind to live my life there. Then death came. One by one I buried my loved ones till not one of my own flesh and blood was left. Then it was that I resolved to come back home. It was my bitter loss that sent me back. I would never have come back but for that. And if I had not come back, the marriage of Ruth with its blessed outcome would never have been possible.”

This woman learned the fine art of capitalizing on her calamities. In the middle of all her poverty and heartache she kept firm her faith in God. And she came thus to realize the sufficiency of His grace. She came to know, even in that distant day, the truth of Paul’s great word, “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). There are times, I know, that it is hard for us to believe this, as there were times when it was hard for Naomi to believe it. But there came a day when she was privileged to know the truth of it in her own experience. And if you cling to your faith you, too, will come to know, if not here, then by and by.

Then, we learn from Naomi, as another has pointed out, the power for blessing that may be in one consecrated life. Naomi was a hidden and obscure figure. If you had walked by her side as, hunger driven, she left her native land, she would not have told you anything of the great destiny that was ahead. She never dreamed of enriching the world as she did. It never occurred to her that she was to be one of the great light-bringers of all the centuries. And yet, such was to be the case. The world simply could not get on without Naomi. It could not for the simple reason that Naomi led Ruth to the knowledge of God and to the fellowship of the people of God.

“Your people will be my people and your God my God.” That was Ruth’s confession of faith. How did she come to make it? How did this lovely heathen ever come to fall in love with Naomi’s people? She had never even seen them. She made up her mind, however, that they were the people, of all others, that were most worth knowing. She made up her mind that they must be winsome and lovable people. How did she come to that conclusion? Answer: By association with her mother-in-law. That was also how she came to fall in love with God. She was led to the realization of His charm through the God-possessed personality of Naomi.

So it was Naomi who won Ruth to God. It was Naomi who made possible Ruth’s successful marriage. Then one day the sweet angel of suffering came to the home where the one-time stranger lived, and Ruth held her firstborn in her arms. And the years went by, and there was another child born among the Judean hills and the sunshine was tangled in his hair and countless songs were pent up in his heart. And he so sang and battled and sinned and repented that everybody loved him, and we thank God still for David. And David was Ruth’s great-grandson (Ruth 4:13-22; Matthew 1:5, 6).

Then, other years went by, and there was a burst of light on those Judean hills. And there was music from a choir that came from that country where everybody sings. “There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And the angel of the Lord came on them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were afraid. And the angel said, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you glad 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 Savior who is Christ the Lord'” (Luke 2:8-11). And that Savior was another one of Ruth’s great-grandbabies, generations removed.

But in the purpose of God, neither David nor David’s greater Son would have been possible without Naomi. And so, one woman remaining true to God became a roadway along which the Almighty walked to the accomplishment of His great purpose, even the salvation of the world (cf John 3:16; Romans 1:16; 1 John 2:2).

“Let the aged women … teach the young women to be sober-minded, to love their husband and their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, and obedient to their husband” (Titus 2:3-5).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Fields

*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 12. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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