I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old. Psalm 78:2.
Seasons come and go, and birds and animals are known to change locations in response to changing fortunes in their environment. It is called migration. Sometimes the migration is over very long distances, through many, many dangers. They have no pastor that tells them, “Hang it out; it will soon be over here.” Like animals and birds, humans sometimes also change locations from drying pastures to ‘greener pastures.’ Sometimes it turns out fine; sometimes not. That is the story I am about to tell, of one promising rural family that migrated from famine to what had promised to be a lifetime fortune, but turned out a disaster that took from them even the little they had had.
Mr and Mrs Elimelech (the name meant “my God is King”) lived in a city the name of which meant “house of bread.” Unfortunately, there came an unusual (and therefore unexpected) famine in that land of bread, and its name suddenly became an irony and a mockery. Thereupon, the man (so the story says) took his wife and two sons and migrated from that house-of-bread suddenly turned house-of-famine, into a promising (though forbidden) land founded on incest. That didn’t matter in the present circumstances. After all, the land had bread to offer, which their barren ‘promise land’ couldn’t provide anymore(Genesis 19:30-38).
When the family set out on that trip, they had meant it as a brief survivalist vacation - “for a while,” but, given the baited enticements of that place, at last, according to the story, they already “lived there” (Ruth 1:1-2, NIV). The ‘brief stay’ eventually lasted ten years; ten years of unforeseen unforgettable grave consequences. Moab, to which they migrated, faithfully gave them the bread with which it had enticed them while their ‘house’ was going through its brief spell of unusual shortage of bread; but they were to find out only too late that the bread had not been free. Moab never gives free bread to strangers.
In that popular land of bread that had seduced them from their house of waning bread, death began to crop the family tree of Elimelech from the top. First, the head of the family, the man who had initiated the move, died in that strange land and was buried there far from home. Next, the first son died, followed by the other and only surviving male (vv.3,5). Moab was collecting its tax in its own way for the bread it had given. No one had envisaged this, at least the powers in Moab did not sign such a pact with them. Mrs Elimelech was the only survivor; spared to tell their woes. She had been stripped bare, like a lonely dry tree in the harmattan. That had not been her dream when they crossed carpets and sailed merrily from the camp of the holy into the land of the abominable, chasing bread.
After all had been lost in Moab, she heard the news: bread had returned again to Bethlehem-Judah, and she “prepared to return home from there” (v.6, NIV). Bread chasers. She did return. Her people received her back, even though they hadn’t missed her. She returned, but it was not the same sweet lady that had decamped ten years before. She came back anunrecognisable bitter old and childless lonely widow, in the company of a younger widow seeking a fresh start.
Moab had forced a change of name upon her. According to her, whereas her previous name was Naomi, which meant sweetness, Moab made her into Marah, which meant bitterness (v.20). No one knew it at the time that a journey towards Moab was a journey away from God. It had merely been an adventure in search of legitimate daily bread. Mrs Naomi Marah Elimelech confessed tearfully at last that her denuded state was the outcome of “the LORD’S hand” that they had been up against when they embarked on that adventure (v.13); in fact, it was the “the Almighty” Himself that had been opposed to her (vv. 20,21). Who dares fight the All-Mighty and wins? Which prophet would have been heard if he had preached that what that family was about to do was an opposition against the Almighty?
Mrs Elimelech had a farewell party with the Moabite widows of her sons whom Moab had bitten to death. There, she urged the younger widows to stay back and endure the rest of their lives in that land of Moab that bites and eats men; that bites even husbands of Moabites. The elder widow obliged and went back, then Mrs Elimelech remarked very significantly that she had gone “back to her people and her gods” (v.15). However, Ruth, the younger lady, insisted on the forward journey with Naomi, swearing, “Your God my God” (v.16). In other words, a journey into Moab was a journey to “gods,” whereas a journey in the opposite direction back to Bethlehem-Judah was a journey to “God.” Now we see where the Elimelech family had missed it. Moab had flagged bread, not idols, when it ‘invited’ them. Moab, when it offered its bread, did not say that they would be stopped from serving their own God, yet, at last, we see better. Moab’s sweet bread had not carried any apparent idol logos, but that bread had been hallowed idol bread all the same. The logos had lied.
Perplexing paradox: the little party had fled because there had been a sudden famine. When Madam Elimelech returned,“harvest was beginning” (v.22). The family had run into a greater famine, fleeing a famine, yet the ‘famine’ from which they had fled had not killed those they had left behind. They left in famine, she returned at the beginning of harvest, to pick the crumbs from the harvest of those who had stayed back to sow in the famine they had fled (Ruth 2:1-25).
Seasons come and seasons go, and birds and animals are known to migrate from place to place, seeking better fortunes. In politics, they call it carpet crossing. Not everyone returns whole who crosses, because Moab never gives its bread for free, especially not to one from the land that condemns it traditions and labels it with a history of abomination. Every famine is not a season for migration. Some carpets are ensnared with slime that the crossers never see until they trip and are stripped bare by Moab.
In that day shall one take up a parable against you, and lament with a doleful lamentation, and say, We be utterly spoiled: he hath changed the portion of my people: how hath he removed it from me! turning away he hath divided our fields (Micah 2:4, KJV).
From The Preacher’s diary,
April 6, 2015.