A famine (verse 11Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.) in the land of which God has said that His people would not lack anything there (Deu 8:9a9a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.), must have a certain cause. That cause is that the people have become unfaithful to God. Because of this unfaithfulness God sends a famine. His goal is that His people turn back, repent, and serve Him faithfully again. He would like His people to be happy and that can only be in relationship with Him. The faithful, they are those who remain faithful to Him in the midst of general unfaithfulness, share in the famine. The famine serves as a trial for them to continue to trust in Him, even if the blessing associated with faithfulness is withheld.
“The days when the judges governed” Israel, are days when stability in society is far from being achieved. There is no king in Israel and “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17:66In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.; 18:11In those days there was no king of Israel; and in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking an inheritance for themselves to live in, for until that day an inheritance had not been allotted to them as a possession among the tribes of Israel.; 19:11Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem in Judah.; 21:2525In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.). In such an uncertain time of crisis, it is not easy to know what to do. Without asking the LORD for permission, “a man of Bethlehem in Judah” on his own initiative flees his residence, with his wife and both his sons. The goal of his journey is the plains of Moab.
We do not have to look down on him because he took this arbitrary decision. Abraham and Isaac also tapped wells in another land when hunger came into the land God promised them. Abraham goes to Egypt (Gen 12:1010Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.) and Isaac to the land of the Philistines (Gen 26:11Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines.). Elimelech may not have remembered these histories, and he left as they did. Have we always been warned by examples of believers who have deviated?
Elimelech doesn’t intend to stay there all the time, because he wants to sojourn there i.e. to stay there as a stranger. He doesn’t go that far either, only about forty or fifty kilometers. After all, he is not going all the way to Egypt either, but stays close to the country. ‘I can just go back’, he must have thought. But things run differently. The place of which he thinks the grass there is greener, becomes a cemetery.
In verse 22The name of the man [was] Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons [were] Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there., the author mentions the names of the members of the family who are moving away. The meaning of these names prepare us. The name of the LORD, which appears more than ten times in this little book, does not appear in verses 1-51Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.2The name of the man [was] Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; and the names of his two sons [were] Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there.3Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left with her two sons.4They took for themselves Moabite women [as] wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years.5Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.. The LORD is the great Absent One at this departure. The first name is Elimelech. He is responsible for this move. Elimelech does not honor his name. In his name the name of God does occur, because his name means ‘my God is King’. He confesses God as King with the meaning of his name, but does not acknowledge Him as King in the practice of his life.
Then the name of his wife is called; Naomi. This name means ‘my lovely one’. She must have been a radiant woman. Everything she will experience will dramatically change that. She later lets herself be called “Mara” because of the bitterness she experienced on her way of life (verse 2020She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.). Mara means ‘bitterness’.
The names of his sons are also mentioned and have a meaning. Mahlon means ‘sick’ and Chilion means ‘languishing away’. Is there anything to be learned from this about Elimelech’s spiritual state when the young people are born? Giving a name shows something of the parents’ faith. It seems that Elimelech sees God as Someone Who only gives trouble and sorrow. Seen in that light, it is understandable that he runs away when hunger starts to gnaw.
It does not seem that he is part of a large group that, like him, is driven by hunger, and leaves Bethlehem in search of food. There is an indication that he is not yet hungry when he leaves. Naomi says later, when she returns, that she has left “full” (verse 2121I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”). In any case, the run to Moab is not motivated by faith, but by calculation. If all had reasoned like this, there would have been no one left in Bethlehem. Throughout this history, it is clear how much this family has lost. Everything lost through its arbitrary actions, so that every blessing it still receives, clearly comes as a proof of God’s grace.
Just as Elimelech no longer recognizes the meaning of his name in practice, he no longer recognizes the meaning of the names Bethlehem and Judah. Bethlehem means ‘bread house’. Judah means ‘praise’. Instead of asking the LORD why He does not give bread, Elimelech goes with his family to Moab. As if he could in this way escape the discipline of God. Because he does not ask the LORD why there is famine, he does not ask the LORD where he can best go. His departure also means that his praise disappears.
Moab is the land of his own choice. In this choice he was only guided by the question of where there is bread. He moves to the plains of Moab because he thinks he finds there what he misses in Bethlehem. He exchanges the LORD’s discipline for Moab’s bread.
Moab is known for his pride and laziness (Isa 16:66We have heard of the pride of Moab, an excessive pride;
[Even] of his arrogance, pride, and fury;
His idle boasts are false.
; Jer 48:1111“Moab has been at ease since his youth;
He has also been undisturbed, [like wine] on its dregs,
And he has not been emptied from vessel to vessel,
Nor has he gone into exile.
Therefore he retains his flavor,
And his aroma has not changed.
). Moab is an enemy of God’s people who has tried to bring a curse upon God’s people (Num 22:1-71Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan [opposite] Jericho.2Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.3So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel.4Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.5So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, [in] the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me.6Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”7So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the [fees for] divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.). Elimelech seeks refuge with such an enemy. By this he brings shame upon God’s Name. He who does not stand to his confession, disgraces God’s Name.
But how do we react to trials, illnesses, difficulties and the like? Do we want to escape from them or do we wonder what lesson the Lord wants us to learn with them? In case of illness, do we resort to a medicine or a doctor rather than to God? We may certainly use a medicine or a doctor, but what is our first action? And when we are financially tight? Do we think first of the Lord or are we looking for ways to solve this problem ourselves?
When we come into trials, our first action should be an examination of our own heart. Then we are in God’s light and see what solution He gives. If His blessing is withheld, do we want to get it through our own efforts or do we go to the Lord to ask Him if there are any thing that is stopping His blessing? We tend to avoid the difficulties and look for the shortest route to happiness.
From a spiritual point of view, we can see in Bethlehem a picture of a local church where the Lord Jesus as the bread of life is central. It can happen sometimes that in a local church the spiritual life is languishing away. Every member of the church is responsible for this, because all members together form the church. The blame should not be put too quickly on someone else. Leaving is the way of the least resistance. And if you leave anyway, where do you end up? Not in Egypt, a picture of the world. No, you don’t give up your faith. You end up in Moab. That is not the world, but an area between the world and the church.
Moab spiritually represents an area where you can be a Christian in a relaxed way – Moab is a picture of laziness! – without worrying about your responsibilities in the church. Sometimes it is about Jesus, but His authority is difficult to be found. He is a good example, but He should not come any closer and be presented as Someone who has all authority over your life. More and more often you only hear about ‘God’. God’ sounds nice and general. Everyone is free to fill in who or what you mean by God.
Whoever really knows God as Father loves the Lord Jesus (Jn 8:42a42Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.) and honors Him. It is actually impossible to honor God if the Son is not honored: “He that does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (Jn 5:23b23so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.). In ‘Moab’, it is not the Son who is the central focus of faith life, but whether you get a good feeling from something. You don’t get that in ‘Bethlehem’ but you get it in ‘Moab’.