Naomi and Ruth by James R. Coggins

Second in a Series

A common interpretation of Ruth 1:16 has often bothered me. In this verse, the Moabite woman Ruth said to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi, “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.” This verse has sometimes been presented as an exemplary model of a faith commitment to God. It has even been turned into worship songs.

But it is not an exemplary model of faith. Ruth was expressing her commitment to Naomi, not to God. Ruth was saying she would worship whomever Naomi worshiped. Did this mean Ruth would worship Yahweh or Baal or Molech or Rimmon or Chemosh if Naomi chose to go in that direction? It is far from a commitment to the true God. Ruth seemed to be abdicating her own spiritual responsibility in favor of letting Naomi decide for her.

What the verse does suggest, however, is an interesting model of witnessing to the reality of the true God.

In one sense, Ruth was saying that she would move to the land of Israel and accept its religious customs; this meant that she would worship the Israelite God Yahweh instead of the chief Moabite god Chemosh. The Moabites apparently believed there were several gods, each with power primarily in a certain geographic location, so the change would not have been that revolutionary in Ruth’s eyes—she would simply have been switching to the god who was in control of the area she was moving to.

However, the fact that Ruth mentioned any god at all shows an awareness of religion. Hers was not a secular mindset. And she might have been mentioning God because she was aware that God was important to Naomi, rather than that God was important to her. In fact, she mentioned Yahweh by name (Ruth 1:17), which indicates that she knew Naomi had a distinct belief in Yahweh.

What is more revealing is Naomi’s understanding of God. Consider these verses:

• 1:6: “When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD [Yahweh] had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.”

• 1:8-9: “May the LORD [Yahweh] show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD [Yahweh] grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

• 1:13: “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s [Yahweh’s] hand has turned against me!”

These verses reveal Naomi’s belief that God is real and active and powerful, that He is willing to bless people and reward them for their virtues, but also that He will sometimes punish people. Her understanding was that God was all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and morally just. We might take such a view for granted, but it was unique in Ruth’s world. Most of the gods worshiped by the people around Israel were understood to have limited power, to have limited knowledge, and to be vicious, capricious, and cruel.

It is likely that, over the years that they had known each other, Naomi had repeatedly revealed her understanding of the true God to her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. This is inferred from the number of times she mentioned God in the brief glimpses we have into her life.

While Ruth might not have been a committed follower of Yahweh at this point, she had grasped some of the concepts, as revealed in her statement in 1:17: “May the LORD [Yahweh] deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

Was Naomi deliberately trying to “witness” to Ruth, to convince her to become a follower of Yahweh? Perhaps. But Naomi also seems to have been somewhat distracted by her own problems. She attempted to send her daughters-in-law away and save them from sharing the suffering that Yahweh seemed to be inflicting on Naomi. Naomi still believed everything she had been taught about Yahweh, but she seemed discouraged and bewildered by the suffering she had been enduring for over a decade—famine, having to flee to a foreign country, the death of her husband and her two sons, and the prospect of poverty and suffering in her old age. Naomi still believed in God, but she was struggling with the fact that she did not have all the answers and she could not understand what God was doing. She still revealed her belief in God, to Ruth and others she encountered, even though He seemed to be punishing her and she didn’t know why.

When I was in university, I went through a severe depression that lasted most of a year. I desperately prayed to God for help, not knowing why God was allowing me to go through this experience. Toward the end of that year, my pagan roommate, impressed with my fervent prayer life, asked if he could come to church with me. Within a few months, he had become a Christian, and he later became a very effective evangelist. Somehow, he had seen the reality of God in the midst of my broken life.

Something similar happened with Naomi and Ruth. In the midst of her confusion and struggles, God used Naomi to reveal Himself to Ruth. Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Ruth 1:16 was not the end of God’s revelation to Ruth. When she reached the land of God’s people, she kept hearing talk about the living God from Naomi, Boaz, and others (Ruth 1:20-21, 2:4, 2:12, 2:20, 3:10, 3:13, 4:11, 4:12, 4:13, 4:14-15); their words revealed belief in a God who was continually active in human affairs. Ruth also discovered gleaning (a provision in God’s law for caring for the poor while encouraging them to find dignity in work). She discovered Boaz, a godly man who obeyed God’s law by leaving extra grain for the poor to glean and who, like God, thought it good to reward virtue. A poor refugee, she was blessed with marriage to a good and wealthy man. She saw God’s faithfulness in restoring blessing to Naomi. Most importantly, she was introduced to the concept of the kinsman redeemer, a picture of God’s ultimate Kinsman Redeemer, God’s Son Jesus, who redeemed humanity by joining the human family. She in fact became an ancestor of that Kinsman Redeemer and, as a foreigner, demonstrated that God’s love extends to all people.

Did Ruth become a devoted follower of the true God? We have little direct evidence. But God, through Naomi, Boaz, and the people of God, gave her every reason to do so.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is
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