Barbara Booker
Ruth - A Love Story

Chapter 1

Naomi had told me that the trip from Bethlehem, in the land of Israel, to the country of Moab had been a long and arduous journey. They had been a family of four in those days: Elimelech, Naomi and two sons, Chilion and Mahlon. Times had been bad in Israel —there had been drought followed by famine, and disease and death had come close behind. Bethlehem in Judah, known as “the house of bread” in the past, had become as dried up as an old crust of bread. Men sat at the city gate discussing the situation, day after day. No longer did they spend busy days in the shops or the fields. Women went to the well, once filled with cold, pure water, and returned home with just a small quantity of the precious liquid. The children, too, were changed by the conditions — there were no longer joyful, noisy trips to the fields to help with the planting or harvesting; they didn’t seem to have the energy to play very long in the streets any more. The old and the very young were the first to die. The rest lingered on — growing thinner and weaker by the day. Parents saved their meager portions of bread and water or dried fruit for the children. And after a while they remembered Moses’ words:

For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands... then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. I will set my face against you... I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.

Had not every man and woman been doing that which was right in his or her own eyes? And now God was doing what was right in His eyes. But He did not leave His people without hope. He constantly called to them to return to Him so that He would return to them. If only they would listen! Yes, life in Bethlehem was coming to a halt, just as it was in other parts of the land. There was no joy and gladness, nor voices of bride and bridegroom, nor grinding of the millstones here.

So, the family of Elimelech did as many other Israelites had done. They packed a few belongings, said goodbye to friends and family, and left their comfortable home for the unknown life in neighboring Moab. Israel had been warned of God through the great prophet and leader Moses that they were to have no friendship with the surrounding nations when Israel gained their homeland.

But now people in Israel were starving. Travelers brought the news that other countries to the east of the Jordan River had bountiful crops, fast-flowing streams, and work. Elimelech and Naomi had spent many restless nights in the muggy heat discussing the problem. The land of Israel was where they belonged... but the land of Israel was now struck down by drought and famine. What should they do? Where should they go? Indeed, should they go? Had not father Abram gone to Egypt during famine? And Jacob? He too, had moved all his family to Egypt during another time of famine. Sleep brought little refreshment and each day the problems grew worse.

And so, eventually, the near empty vessels in the house and two hungry, growing boys forced Elimelech’s decision: they would leave for Moab immediately.

As I’ve told you, the trip was long. The sun beat down from a cloudless blue sky. Villages lay shimmering in endless heat, with few sounds of life. Crops were blasted with desert winds. The earth was parched and cracked. Vultures circled on hot, dry wind currents — black, forbidding prophets of doom. They, of all God’s creatures, could always find food. The family trudged northeast and down to the Jordan River where they easily crossed the shallow waters. Here where once Joshua and Israel had seen the deep waters rolled back by God’s power, they now walked with the trickle of water splashing at their ankles. On through the arid Israelite territories of Gad and Reuben, then south into lush Moab, which seemed now to be the true land of milk and honey.

It didn’t take long for them to settle into a new village with a new house and friends. They did miss the trips to Shiloh, to the Tabernacle with its feasts and sacrifices. The Moabites also worshipped one god — but it was the idol Chemosh. The God of Israel was unknown to them except for “legends” they had heard long ago — about the Mighty God who had brought Israel out of Egyptian slavery after sending terrible plagues upon the Egyptians, about the crossing of the Red Sea and of various wilderness happenings —“legends”, of course. The Moabites could see no problem: Moab and Israel had one god each; it wasn’t important which one was worshiped — life was to be enjoyed!

There were more than a few Israelites in the area, and they would meet and talk about the old days in their homeland. Feast days were kept as best they could be... but it was not like the former days. Word spread about continued hard times in the land of Israel. People no longer talked of returning. They were comfortable in Moab. Some had new, prospering businesses; some built larger homes and barns; crops and water were plentiful; babies were born; and older children turned into young men and women. There were weddings, feasts and happy times for Israelite and Moabite together.

It was at one of these weddings that I met the Israelite family of Elimelech. My friend, Orpah, was marrying Elimelech and Naomi’s son, Chilion. The festivities and the ceremony were conducted after the Israelite way of life....and an interesting service it was! The bridegroom was compared to the God of Israel, and His people — the whole of Israel! — were His bride! The young couple were reminded several times of the importance of their vows and of faithfulness till death alone should part them. How old-fashioned, I first. But later I could reflect upon the beauty and depth of such attitudes and instructions.

But let me continue with my story: The bridegroom’s brother, Mahlon, was plainly enjoying the music, dancing and companionship, but he also took time to serve the many guests. As I reached for a piece of sweet raisin bread from the tray which he carried, our eyes met for the first time. His arm brushed lightly against my own. I, Ruth a Moabitess, and this man, Mahlon, son of Israel, were suddenly and instantly drawn together. Throughout the festivities our eyes would meet time after time, and in unspoken words we knew that one day there would be another such wedding. How does one know such things? Even now, after so many years, I cannot really explain it.

And so it was that, from week to week, he would come to visit my brothers — but he always found more time to spend with me. We would talk about his family, his dreams, his work and his beliefs — for he was very devoted to the special God of Israel. He told me much about what he called the “One True God”, and about His covenant with Abram. He told me also of the serious decision his parents had made some years before to leave his homeland and how they yearned for the time to return, when Israel once more would receive the blessings of rain and produce the food they needed. Yes, all these things and more Mahlon told me, and to my amazement I discovered how reasonable the Israelites’ worship and way of life really was.

Then the day came that we had dreamed and talked of: Mahlon and his father came to speak to my father and brothers to ask for me in marriage. The dowry was paid, announcements made, and I, Ruth, was betrothed to Mahlon!

Preparations began. The groom-to-be and his father built a house and the furnishings. When the house was finished, Mahlon took me to see it. It was an ordinary one-room home, made of sun-baked brick. On the outside a stairway led up to a flat roof, which had a railing around the edge, in accordance with God’s laws. This “upper room”, as we called it, could be used for many things: cooking, sleeping and visiting.

The furnishings in the lower room were simple but adequate: there was a table with bowls, spoons and clay lamps upon it. A water jug stand contained two large jars and a small drinking vessel. One of the large jars was the “vessel of honor” — it would hold pure, fresh water; the other large jar was the “vessel of dishonor” — its contents would be the stale, used household water. Rolled up in a corner were several woven mats for sleeping. One large earthenware container held a gift of precious olive oil for our lamps and for cooking. In the center of the room was a grinding mill and a cooking pit. Pegs on a wall held baskets and new skin bottles filled with new wine. Everything was in readiness for a new couple. And best of all: we would soon be moving in!

Meanwhile my mother and sisters spent extra time weaving, spinning and sewing my special wedding garments. The months passed in a whirlwind of activities, daydreams, laughter and the usual wedding worries and concerns. We were young, my Mahlon and I, but we were deeply in love, and after our wedding we would be together always. Ours would be a happy home, filled with the laughter of many children. Our little ones would be a godly seed, raised in a loving home, raised under the laws and love of the God of Israel. We would teach our children about His ways as we sat with them in our house, and when we walked along the village paths. We would say our morning and evening prayers together.

Yes, it was our prayer too that we could teach others, especially my family, of His ways. Not for us, Mahlon and me, were the ways of Chemosh. Our children would not be sacrificed to the huge fiery idol, Chemosh. I had first seen this done when I was a young girl, and the horror of the sight, and the wails of the baby and the cheers of the crowd haunt me yet. Mahlon had told me that God had promised a special son, one who would heal all the hurts brought on in the garden of Eden....a son who would bring life. Some of the old Hebrew writings indicated that God would choose the tribe of Judah, Mahlon’s tribe, to be the royal tribe. Would it be (what a glorious thought!) that Mahlon and I might be the parents of this spe-cial one: the one destined to be king of all Israel?

Our wedding day dawned with the pale orange and gold light of the sun. Doves cooed softly in nearby olive groves. Somewhere a dog barked, and our village slowly came to life. Before the sun would rise again I would be Ruth — wife of Mahlon, son of Elimelech and Naomi, children of Israel. Meanwhile there was work to be done and, as the day progressed, the noise and bustle increased. The house had to be tidied; the last of my belongings had to be packed; my dress needed some final stitches; supplies of food and wine should be checked; and arriving friends and family had to be greeted. Then suddenly it was evening....and time — time for the bridegroom and his friends to arrive. Near midnight the cries were heard:

“Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

The glow of their lamps brightened the dark night. The bridegroom’s procession arrived at my parents’ home and I was presented in my bridal array to my husband.

All accompanied us to our new home where there was feasting long into the night. Our life as husband and wife had begun. The days flowed together in endless happiness and joy. All was well: spring and fall rains arrived as expected, harvests were rich and plentiful, and I was content in my new life.

I was also blessed to have such a mother-in-law as Naomi — she was always available to listen and to work with me. And she spoke of many beliefs, beliefs which I now treasured also. Over and over she told me of God’s great plans and miracles. Stories of creation, of the flood in Noah’s days, of the sign of the rainbow, of the call of Abram and Sarai and of their names being changed to Abraham and Sarah.

Naomi told me again and again of God’s covenant with His friend Abraham — and of special promises of the land of Canaan for an everlasting inheritance to Abraham and his children (and all this when Abraham and Sarah had no sons or daughters!). She told me that God had promised to Abraham and Sarah their own child, and also a special “son” or descendant in future years. She told me that from Abraham and Sarah kings would come and that one day, through Abraham, all families of the earth (even the idolatrous Moabites) would be blessed.

And in those few years we had together as husband and wife, Mahlon and I hoped for a son or daughter to be born to us. But month after month passed and no baby filled our empty arms. Naomi was a comfort here, too, because she would remind me of how Sarah and Rebekah had waited for many years. So we waited too — confident that our Father would bless us in His own time.

Then one day our real troubles began. Mahlon came home from the fields to tell me that Elimelech had been taken home ill; he was complaining of dizziness and a severe headache. Supper was for-gotten. We ran the short distance to Naomi and Elimelech’s home. Naomi’s eyes were filled with concern. We sat there with her for long hours (there was little else we could do), and, as the evening deepened into night, our Elimelech’s sleep deepened into death.

In the hours and days that followed, we, his children, went about our tasks with unfeeling bodies. Our family head had been taken from us so quickly, and without any warning. Naomi alone was a pillar of strength. She fully believed that God’s people would sleep the sleep of death for awhile and that one day He would awaken them in a resurrection, at the last day. She knew that the righteous were taken away from the evil to come....and so we wondered what the future held for us, the living.

Naomi filled her hours with tasks at Orpah and Chilion’s home and at our place. She knew she could live at either house, but chose to remain in her own home, her memories of Elimelech surrounding her. As the year came to a close, sorrow and calamity struck us again. This time it was an accident. Chilion was buried under heaps of rubble as an old barn collapsed while repairs were being made. Our grief was felt by our entire village. Why had this happened to us? First Elimelech and now Chilion — Mahlon only was left to carry the family name. Somehow we survived another funeral.

The new year brought little joy or hope. Of late I had noticed changes in Mahlon and I was secretly alarmed. But who could I tell? I watched him grow weaker until finally he could no longer attend to his work. As his condition became known, our neighbors helped us with crops and chores. Naomi was with us, constantly hovering over her only son. She would talk of their home in Bethlehem, and of happier times they had had there. She talked also of how our God had given Israel a good land — a land of springs and hills; a land with wheat, barley, fig trees, and honey....a rich land.

News was beginning to reach our village of better times in Israel and some families talked of returning. But for us returning was impossible. Mahlon was much worse, despite rest and medication. His were long pain-filled days, and nights spent tossing in feverish sleep. I lay beside him, wondering how much longer his suffering would last and remembering him in other, healthier days. I wondered too how I would live without him. How would Naomi, Orpah and I live without our men?

Finally, the inevitable end came. It was a farewell I had never, ever expected to say. But at the very last it was almost a relief. Now we three were left....alone. Once so full, happy and content, we were now so empty, dressed in widow’s clothing, and near-ly destitute. The God of Israel had given....and had taken away. I clung to this thought and therefore I had hope: because of the Lord’s great love we had not been consumed, for His compassions never fail. They were new every morning, in many little ways. So I said to myself: The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for Him. The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him. And so I encouraged myself: Why are you downcast, my soul? Why are you so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.

Mahlon’s last days, as I told you, had been long, painful ones. Now my days were long....and my nights even longer. At morning I wished for evening. At evening I wished for morning. Sounds would revive happy moments: the barking of a dog, as on my wedding morn; the crying of a baby, which reminded me of the little ones we had hoped for, but never had. A sunrise or sunset would stir up sweet memories....and for a fleeting moment I would find happiness. I longed for Mahlon’s strong arms to hold me and to assure me that all was well....that I had just had a bad dream. But there was no Mahlon... only the bad dreams... and so much emptiness in my life.

Naomi, too, seemed crushed with the three losses. As for Orpah, she was withdrawn and spent much time with her own family. Bit by bit she was drawn back to her old way of worship. Neighbors were well meaning, but the kind invitations to visit and the gifts of food soon stopped. People had their own, more immediate concerns and problems, and no one could blame them. We were forced to sell as much of our property and possessions as possible, in order to live. Naomi and Orpah moved into my home. The joyful women’s conversations at the well grew quiet when any of us approached. And there was always silence... too much silence....for grieving, remembering and wondering ... what if... or... if only... or.....

One evening around a humble meal we three came to a decision: we would go to Naomi’s homeland. She had been longing for her former home, her friends, her own life in her own land — the land promised to the fathers. And so we began to bring to a close our lives in our village. My home would be taken over by newlyweds. Mine and Mahlon’s first and only home (so carefully and lovingly built by him, Chilion and Elimelech), once filled with so much happiness and hope, now awaited a final parting from me, and another newly-married life would begin within its walls.

The morning of our departure arrived, and a gray, dismal day it was, perfectly in tune with our aching hearts. We had joined a small group of families who were returning to Israel, but we hardly noticed their presence. Our minds were heavy with memories and grief. Our bodies were heavy with personal belongings over our shoulders. Silent tears streamed down our faces. All our goodbyes had been said. Ours was a lonely farewell. As we left our town a light rain began to fall. The village was still quiet... it was a good morning to stay snuggled in a blanket, with family securely settled within a warm house. But off we started, unmindful of the rain and unmindful too when it stopped.

The sun rose slowly and faintly in the eastern sky. As we passed an unknown town we could see and hear the familiar sounds of nature and households waking up. Birds began to chirp; roosters crowed and dogs barked at us in passing. Women followed by sleepy girls walked barefoot to a well; men and boys, bread in hand, walked along time-worn paths to the shops and fields. Ah, yes, life was returning to this village. But none of this for us, Naomi, Orpah and Ruth, widows and travelers. Onward we trudged. Suddenly Naomi stopped, put her burdens down and turned to us. Her face and body seemed weary and her words came slowly:

“Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then, with tears streaming down her face she kissed us... and we, widows of Israel, wept together. We would not leave her — not Orpah and me. We loved each other — we were family — in happy times, in sad times... in all times. But she persisted:

“Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me — even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”

And we all wept again. But then something strange happened: Orpah kissed Naomi... and left! She left her widowed mother-in-law and me... and walked back along the pathway we had just traveled — back to her family and their gods.

Then it was Naomi and me... alone. Then Naomi spoke:

“Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But I would not leave this mother-in-law of mine — this, my only family — to return to the ways of Moab, to the worship of Chemosh. So I told her what my heart felt, the words tumbling out in a quiet desperation:

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

When she saw that I was steadfastly minded to go with her, Naomi stopped asking. And as we picked up our possessions to rejoin the caravan, we looked back to see Orpah disappearing over a hill. Then we turned, and faced forward to unknown pathways, to an uncertain future.

Then we saw it... a rainbow arching across the blue-gray clouds in the fresh morning air. At the sight of it, Naomi and I were filled with joy at the reminder of our Father’s love and concern for all of His creation. The weight of the past months, the pain and sorrow, seemed lifted and our hearts rejoiced in the God of Israel. For indeed He would never leave us. He had walked with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and now He would lead us onward to a safe and secure dwelling place. He had restored our souls. Gone now were the heavy hearts, the silent tears of despair and the slow steps. Now our spirits were lifted high with hope and trust, and our feet were eager to stand in the Promised Land. We started off once more.

It took us several days to travel north to the Jordan River. The children in our group chattered constantly: “Are we there yet?”... “When will we get there?”... and then “I’m tired”, or, “I’m hungry”, or, “I’m thirsty.” Our route was along the king’s highway — where once Moses and Israel had walked. Our minds traveled back in time to the wanderings of the children of Israel: of their complaints....of their hunger... of their thirst and of our Heavenly Father’s blessings. Even though it was springtime the air blowing across the Salt Sea was hot and dry, with a peculiar odor. It was here that Naomi told me the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — a destruction which had changed the area around the sea from a veritable garden of Eden to a scene of total desolation, and the sea itself from life to death. In contrast, Moab’s countryside was fresh, green and alive with crops.

Onward we walked, step after step, village after village, across fields, through vineyards and over streams. Travel was always dangerous: besides the unpredictable spring weather there was the possibility of robbers. But we believed the hand of our God was upon us for good and He would go with us through all situations. Nights were spent in the open fields, under the twinkling stars, listening to the sounds of the awakening earth. We could lie down and sleep, for the angel of the Lord encamped around us.

Daily now, Naomi seemed renewed. She spoke again of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — of God’s covenant to them, of the sufferings of Joseph, of Moses the mighty prophet and lawgiver, and of the hope of a Savior to come. As we trekked northward through the plains and mountains of Moab we passed Mount Nebo, where Moses had viewed the promised land. With what mixed emotions we passed that lonely mountain! Moses had viewed God’s special land, but we, Naomi and I, were entering it. We rejoiced that one day, Moses would live again, this time to enter the land promised to the fathers and to all who loved and obeyed the God of Israel.

So, onward our little band of travelers went — up through Moab’s mountains and down a steep road to the Jordan River. Naomi talked of years ago, when as a family of four they had crossed this way. For a moment she withdrew into her memories. I wiped tears from her cheeks and reminded her: I was with her and the God of Israel was with us. We would find rest in her town of Bethlehem, and God’s goodness and mercy would follow us.

As we approached the Jordan I was aware that we were leaving an old way of life, the way of Moab with its idol worship. All that I had ever known was now behind me. I had a new life, new situations and a renewed faith ahead of me. For this was truly the beginning of all things — this was the Passover season. Israel, also, had crossed here and had its first Passover in the Promised Land.

Now we two hurried along, for Naomi had hoped to be in Bethlehem for my first “real” Passover. I felt like a small child just starting on life’s great journey. It was exciting, it was thrilling... it was also, I must admit, a little frightening. Just as Joshua the new leader and a renewed Israel had entered the Promised Land in this same territory many years ago, so now we, Naomi and I, crossed over in faith. We must be strong and of good courage, for our God would never leave us. I knew He would maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor.

It was in this area that our caravan divided. Some went north, some west and yet others turned southward. But they all were going home. As we passed Jericho’s ruins Naomi recounted how God had given the city to Joshua and Israel. Once again I heard of the faith of the woman Rahab, and how she had married into Elimelech’s family.

We continued up the steep incline, onward to the southwest. We must go by the larger city of Salem or Jebus. Some now call it Jerusalem — “city of peace”. But it has never been peaceful around Jerusalem. Naomi says that when the special son, promised to Abraham and Sarah, comes, he will bring peace, not only to Jerusalem, but to all the world! After what seemed like an endless climb that left Naomi panting for breath, we did see Jebus. It stood high on a series of valleys and rocky heights — a city of Canaanites in a land of Israelites. No wonder the Israelites had had difficulties conquering such a fortress!

Naomi told me that long ago father Abram had visited with the great king-priest of this city. Indeed the king, Melchizedek (Naomi said his name meant “king of righteousness”), had been so impressed with the character of Abram that he, Melchizedek, had blessed Abram. But that was long ago. And the God whom Melchizedek worshiped was now forgotten by these Jebusites.

Now we had to turn south past Jebus towards Bethlehem. It was springtime, the time of harvest for the barley and wheat crops. The fields yielded one hundred fold — and Naomi marveled at the contrast to previous crops when drought had ravished the land. New life was all around us, and the very sights and sounds urged our weary footsteps onwards. At last the end of our journey was in sight. The sun was setting like a crimson ball in the western sky as we slowly walked into Bethlehem.

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