House of Bread: To Stay or to Go

[Part Two:  House of Bread: What is Love? ]

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In the ancient Near East, for a woman to loose her husband and her sons meant her life had come to an end, at least life with meaning. This was the plight of Naomi. She had no grandsons so her family had no future. Her hopes and dreams descended into the ground with the bodies of her sons. Have you ever experienced a deep loss—the death of a loved one, the breakup of your marriage, some financial catastrophe—where you simply wanted to check out? If so, then you have a window into Naomi’s heart. Life no longer made sense. Why should she pretend otherwise?

We received a call one evening from Ross, a close friend, who told us he had come home only to find the door locks changed and his clothing scattered around the front yard, a not so subtle message from his wife Cynthia that their marriage was over. I attempted to phone Cynthia but instead found myself talking to a psychologist from Ross and Cynthia’s church. The conversation proved to be strained as well as strange. As it turned out, the psychologist—who had emotional problems herself— had befriended Cynthia and led her down an unbiblical path of marriage analysis and deconstruction.

Ross was devastated. He loved his wife. Yes, he had made many mistakes in their marriage prior to becoming a Christian—such as dealing drugs— but he had repented and was following Jesus. In a matter of minutes, Ross had fallen off the top of the U and crashed into the crucible of suffering. Now all he possessed was a shattered heart and little hope of a reconciled future. He felt alone and abandoned by God as well as his wife.

A Choice of Futures

But Naomi didn’t find herself totally alone in Moab. She had been living in the home of her sons and their Moabite wives ever since Elimelech had died. Orpah and Ruth grieved the death of their husbands as well. Circumstances, however, dictated that a decision must be made. Thankfully, some good news had been spreading through the fields of Moab—good news for Naomi, that is. The famine had lifted in Israel; God was blessing His people again after their apparent rebellion and subsequent repentance.

So Naomi packed her belongings and prepared to return to the home of her ancestors. Interestingly, Orpah and Ruth also packed their possessions. This tells us that Naomi and her daughters-in-law were quite fond of each other, which wasn’t always the case in these cultures. How’s your relationship with your in-laws? Orpah and Ruth were willing to leave their families behind and travel to a country where all they could look forward to was discrimination and singleness. Yet, out the door they went, turning west and beginning the 70-mile trek to Bethlehem with their mother-in-law.

Naomi knew her future looked grim. What would a middle-aged widow with no sons do back in Bethlehem? Who would protect her and care for her? And what about her Moabite daughters-in-law? How was she to care for them when she couldn’t even care for herself? Suddenly, Naomi stopped in her tracks and fixed her gaze on Oprah and Ruth.

“Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Naomi spoke these words, truly desiring the best for these two young women. But she may also have had mixed motives in speaking this way. Did she really want a reminder of Moab living under her roof in Bethlehem? And what would her neighbors think?

Making Sense of it All

Then the tears flowed, but Orpah and Ruth remained firm their decision. “No, we will return with you to your people.”

As the resolve of Orpah and Ruth became apparent to Naomi, her own resolve ticked up a notch. “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”

Naomi and her Daughters exhibited 1804 by George Dawe 1781-1829
George Dawe, Naomi and Her Daughters, Tate Collection, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

In the contest of wills, Orpah blinked. Naomi’s words made sense to her. Why should she forfeit her future on such a risky undertaking? Wasn’t her mother-in-law correct in pointing out the impossibility of ever acquiring a husband in Israel?

Finally, Orpah responded to the voice of reason. Just like Elimelech and Naomi, who had earlier reasoned that Moab was the place to be when the House of Bread was empty, Orpah now kissed her mother-in-law goodbye and returned to her people and to their gods, never to be heard of again.

But Ruth clung to Naomi.

The word clung is the same word as in Genesis 2:24, where a man shall hold fast to his wife. Ruth saw herself as covenantally bound to Naomi. Naomi, on the other hand, didn’t share the same level of commitment, so she tried once more to talk sense to Ruth.

“See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”

Naomi should have known that Ruth wasn’t Orpah. Ruth’s character had to have been evident way before they started on this journey together. Like it or not, Ruth had staked her ground in love for Naomi and nothing could tear her away. Ruth loved Naomi with steadfast love, love that demanded nothing in return.

Ross also staked his ground in love for his wife. He spent a lot of time in our home over the following months. We prayed together and cried together and read the Word together. The word love weaved its way into our conversations frequently, giving us many opportunities to explore its true biblical meaning with Ross. Looking back, I can see how the event impacted all of us spiritually, not just our friend.

God also orchestrated change in Cynthia’s heart. Very soon after their separation, God removed the psychologist from the picture and started the healing process in their marriage. Cynthia’s confusion lifted as she spent more time in prayer and Bible study. I still remember the day Ross moved back home and the grand celebration that followed.

Ross and Cynthia came to understand the meaning of God’s covenantal love for them and how this kind of love–the love Christ has for His church– was to be the model for love in their marriage.  The crucible of suffering had reshaped their lives and propelled them upward on the other side of the U.

Of course, that’s a shortened version of Ross and Cynthia’s story, but the point of it all is this—God is mighty to save, even when we take the wrong path and end up in an empty and barren place such as Moab.

[Names changed to protect privacy.]

 

[Part Four:  House of Bread: The Road Less Traveled ]

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