Hello my name is Elimelech and I am angry. You need to listen because my name should tell you something about my character; Eli (My God) Melech (King) together implies, ‘My God is King’. While living during difficult times, my named inferred that I was faithful to God, because after all, God was my King, wasn’t he? You may not truly understand the complexity of the times in which I lived. It seemed the totality of the Hebrew nation did what was right in their own eyes. As you should understand when things are tough, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Even in the Promise Land there were famines. Worse yet, I lived in Bethlehem, which is translated ‘House of Bread’. I know as you read this you, there is potential that you are being judgmental. There seems to be a precedence set for me to leave for easier (or so I thought) circumstances. After all, Abram went to Egypt during a famine. Joseph’s brothers were sent to Egypt during a famine. Now that I think about it, when a Hebrew left the Promised Land for bread, especially one who was born and raised in Bethlehem, it never turned out well. I am angry, but I am angry at myself, because my human reasoning trumped my faith.
Remember that the language of Hebrew is a vocative language. Because of this, when it was read to a crowd, the first five verses would have caused much perplexity. Elimelech ‘My God is King’ leaving Bethlehem ‘The House of Bread’ to leave the Promise Land to go to Moab (Descendants of Lot) because there was a famine (no bread). This was nothing short of an Old Testament Twilight Zone episode. My decision to leave in difficult times cost my life along with the lives of my two precious sons. I widowed my wife and my two daughter-in-law’s. You see, leaving seemed easy enough…
Now back to 2021…My name is not actually Elimelech. I am a pastor and I am angry and I feel justified being so. The sad reality seems to be that congregants think that their pastors don’t understand ‘regular’ life. I affirm that leaving one location for another is part of life on this big blue sphere called Earth. Relocating can be good and beneficial. However, it depends upon where you are leaving from and what your intention is in leaving. The tragedy of the book of Ruth is rather easy to grasp in the midst of complex times. The period of the Judges were bracketed with the mindset of, “…doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” 2:11 and, “…doing what was right in his own eyes.” 21:25. The Hebrew’s identity during this time was associated with YHWH, but their practice was rooted in pragmatic expediency. They were all about physical and spiritual shortcuts, never weighing in the balance the possibility of disaster.
The texts implies that Elimelech probably thought that this trip would be nothing less than a short excursion. Yet Ruth 1:2 stated, “…and remained there”. Things are never what they seem. Sin not only takes you where you don’t want to go, but it has a tendency to keep you far longer than you intended to stay. Sin also costs you far more than you ever intended to pay. The book of Ruth is a quick read and we get caught up in the graciousness of how Ruth treated her mother-in-law. What you may quickly overlook is the redundancy of the Hebrew word (שׁ֖וּב) pronounced shoov, and translated as return or turn back. In the small book of Ruth, it is used no less than fifteen times. I know, I know that the bitterness of Naomi is turned to joy by the covenant-keeping man of integrity named Boaz. I am equally sure that to Naomi, Ruth was probably better than both sons combined; especially if they were a chip off the ol’ block. However, I want you to grasp the weight of the underlying sub-plot; leaving a place of blessing because of perceived difficulties does not guarantee an immediate return. A set of parents and their boys left, an embittered wife and a widowed daughter-in-law returned! This by all definitions is nothing short of tragic.
How many faithful followers of Christ lose their spiritual focus and faithfulness in corporate worship and leave (for whatever reason) for supposedly a short time? Does not the implication of walking in the light imply persistence of obedience in the same direction? Congregational worship is the best family time. The greatest parental duty is to bring up their children in the, “…way they should go,” (Prov. 22:6b). What a travesty for Christian parents to neglect their primary duty. Worse yet is the common thread of church families becoming less faithful to congregational worship because they are investing in good things like family time. Trust me vacations and weekend excursions (Mondays and Tuesdays if you’re in the ministry) can help rejuvenate the soul, but there seems to be a greater precedence for family time than corporate worship these days.
Remember Elimelech. He was a man whose name implied that God was King over his life. Out of all the places to live where divine providential care seemed to be almost guaranteed was the little town of Bethlehem. Yet, his planned “short-term excursion” to get over the difficult hump proved to be a recipe for disaster. Once they left, they unintentionally remained longer than expected. In the end, only one made it home. It is true God still worked His providential will through their poor choices, and in time brought forth Obed, King David’s grandfather. However, this came at a great cost. I live in the same American culture as you do. We are controlled by the public school yearly schedule. We know that from the end of one school year to the next is a short three months. We save and plan and hope to enjoy life to the highest possible degree our schedules and personal finances allow. Yet remember that in the busyness of vacation and ‘family time’ your absence from your church family is noticed. Justifying weekend excursions to relax is unwittingly being taught to your children. It is one thing to leave the place of provision, but there is no guarantee that everyone will return to it, and the difficulties of the trip can easily embitter loved ones and have long-term devastating results.
Elimelech’s folly has been repeated countless times since the time the Judges ruled Canaan. If you fall victim to the dangerous subplot of Ruth and you experience casualties because of excess family time, or a slow-fade away from God, don’t think for a moment that somehow the problem is rooted in the church, church life, or even problems with a disconnected pastor that doesn’t understand ‘real life’. Don’t go there, that just might make me angry.