No Bread in Bethlehem?

She gleaned. Much more than grain.

Hamilton Williams

The biblical story of Ruth is one of compassion, courage, boldness, and integrity. We certainly need these virtues displayed and portrayed and illustrated for us. Their opposite, a slew of negative traits, seems to be on exhibition today.


Ruth’s book may have only four chapters, but the legacy of her story endures, and still inspires both men and women.

Ruth was a Moabite woman, a foreigner. Israel’s rules and traditions did not encourage intermarriage with foreigners. But this does not stop God from using a foreigner as a part of His plan. Sacred Scripture often shows the God of heaven using individuals whose qualification is a heart open to the divine promptings of the Holy Ghost, rather than belonging to the correct ethnic grouping and family, or subscribing to the appropriate religious persuasion. It is the will and desire of our innermost soul that counts. For God does not see or count as humans do (1 Sam. 16:7). And if He sees that within us is a longing to know and serve Him (2 Chron. 16:9), He finds and engages us as participants in His plans. There is none like Him (Deut. 4:35; 33:26; 1 Sam. 2:2).

Ruth’s story takes place in less-than-ideal times. This makes it a story for our own times. There was a famine (Ruth 1:1). Famines come in various ways. And not all famines represent a shortage of material goods, food, and drink: “ ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord God, ‘that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water but of hearing the words of the Lord’ ” (Amos 8:11). Those deprived will wander everywhere, “from sea to sea,” and, in the desperation that inspires false leads and fake news, “they shall run to and fro,” in search of what they once had in easy abundance; they will search with craving for what they miss only now that it is too late. Theirs will be unrewarded desperation: they won’t find it (verse 12).

The unrewarded search may be for a word of saving grace because “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer. 8:20); or it may be a longing for justice; or a famine of decency and respect. It may be a famine of facts and truth; or of integrity and selfless service. All these may be public shortages, societal deficiency in areas crucial to the functioning of a truly free society.

But there may also be other droughts, shortages of which no other has ever heard—famine in your personal life, something you absolutely need to fill a hole, a great void in your soul!


The question is one of absurdity, a dramatic irony: why should there be famine in Bethlehem, when Bethlehem (bet-lechem [bait-LEH-hem]) means “house of bread”? Why should it be? How could they speak to us of lack of bread in the house of bread, indeed, the house of food? For throughout the Hebrew Bible lechem, being so fundamental, such a staple of meals, comes to stand for far more than the standard products of barley and wheat and other grains. Lechem comes to stand for everything that makes the meal: lechem is the word for food. Yet in the very place one would expect an abundance of good food there is no bread? It is akin to speaking of food insecurity or starvation in the United States of America, richest country in the world.

And there are more famines of which we may speak: for how often have you been disappointed by a failure of leadership? When you looked for encouragement, direction, protection, help, or simply support, and there was none? You found yourself starving! What do you do then?

One man, of the name Elimelech, took his wife, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, with him, saying to himself, We need to get out of here before we die. So Elimelech took his family to Moab. To escape famine and death.

Leaving home was traumatic. But their comfort was the assurance that they were going to greener grass. Perhaps you, my reader, sometime hauled up your anchorage, to launch out into the deep for something superior, only to find yourself lunging and flailing in a storm fiercer than anything you would ever have experienced if you had stayed close to the shore. You leave Bethlehem’s famine and arrive in Moab to have to cope with experiences more dreadful than any you ever encountered in your entire life in Bethlehem!

Now we fathom, somewhat better, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching us to say, “Our Father!”

Granted, you have come to Moab for only a temporary stay, sitting out the famine in Moab, intending to return home when things look up again in Bethlehem. And by the way, have you consulted with your God about your very sensible move? I hope these parents did, but we aren’t told that.

Sometimes the move we want to make seems so logical, so reasonable, that we are already sure of God’s response without asking Him: we don’t need to ask God; we know what He’ll say. Big mistake! Life is complicated enough to completely surprise—or shock—you around the next bend! How dare we try to do our living without consultation with and submission to the one who sees the future! Sometimes God just says to us, “If that is what you want to do, I’ll need to let you dance, for only a little while, to the music you create.”

Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, stepped out to Moab, intending to step back into Bethlehem soon enough. But things didn’t go according to plan. Because you don’t come and go, step out of and back into the will of God for your life, stepping back and forth all on your own terms. Our gracious God always wants us back in when we step out. Sometimes He gets to draw us back in, but we come limping, bruised, battered, and bleeding because there is an enemy out there just waiting to have us for lunch.

Elimelech never made it back to the House of Bread! Nor did either of his sons. But one day Naomi and Mahlon’s wife (Ruth 4:10) show up in Bethlehem, confirming Ruth’s determination to serve Naomi’s God, as expressed in Ruth 1:16.


It’s barley harvest time. The God of all compassion, the God of second chances, receives His children back with a party: harvest time is party time, and Ruth, the newbie, will give her dear mother-in-law the dance of her life at this party! She goes out to pick up food left by the combined teams of human harvesters. The law is that they not do a thorough job: they don’t harvest the corners; they don’t pick up what falls (Lev. 23:22), because there are people with no flourishing field who are willing to work for food; who will follow them to glean the leavings, to clean up the corners and fallen stalks, take them home, separate chaff from barley and wheat grain; pound and winnow, and save good grain to make themselves good bread, good food.

Ruth turns out to be a “super clean-upper.” Naomi is amazed at the gleanings and the story she brings home: “Where did you work? Blessed be the one who took notice of you” (Ruth 2:19).

Ruth named her answer “chance”: she had “happened to come” to a field belonging to a Mr. Boaz (verse 3). And the man had told her to stay and work—glean—in his field (verse 8); his laborers would be looking out for her, the men had been “commanded . . . not to touch” her; she could drink from the water they had if she felt thirsty (verse 9).

She couldn’t know it, but with all that providence, her gleaning had only just begun. And Mr. Boaz would turn out to be the reason for the rest of it, his initial kindness apparently unrelated to any potential final gleaning that featured in Naomi’s dreams. Boaz, it appears, was kind to Ruth because Boaz was kind.

Gleaning , Bread, and Boaz

But Boaz was also unmarried, and a relative of Elimelech’s, lost to death in Moab, a fact that held consequences. Elimelech had no son to inherit and pass on his legacy: Mahlon and Chi
lion were as dead as he. But there was an inheritance rule to take care of that, because the God of Israel “is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him” (Luke 20:38), meaning that all God’s children, breathing or unconscious, will always matter to Him—“red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” He does not forget His children as we, His children, do! He remembers us when we forget ourselves. And He remembers Elimelech when we forget him because he had the misfortune to die. If death were to be the end of remembrance, what human history would there be? By way of response, you recommend chiseled stone. But you know, even as you stutter your answer, that were marble memorials to be the measure of our yesterday, there would be precious few, and many of the few most bitterly contested because of what they mean to whom. Either we forget, or we fight over what we remember.

Mostly, though, for humans, mortality’s impenetrable wall blights everything with its termination: we die and we have perished.

But God so loved Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion, you and me, that Father and Son arranged a pact already standing when the world’s foundations were laid, to pay with His innocence for the mess of human guilt not yet accrued, to establish a provision of life through the eternal Son who would take the oblivion we would choose, so “that whoever believes in Him should not perish” (John 3:16; Matt. 25:34; 1 Peter 1:18-20). The rule was that in the absence of children, brothers—or the closest relative available—should symbolically live the life of the deceased and secure his future by marrying his widow and rearing children who would carry their brother’s name into the future.

There was a name for this noble soul: kinsman-redeemer (Hebrew go-’el [go-El]) (Ruth 3:11-13; 4:1-12). And reading Ruth and meeting Boaz forces our reluctant heads to recognize the facts we have been so blind to! Now we fathom, somewhat better, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching us to say, “Our Father!” “Our Father!” That is what we ought to say (Matt. 6:9). Because God our Father sends us His Son to be our Kinsman-Redeemer. We are dead and have no future. But we are family, and He, the dedicated Brother, comes to resurrect our name and guarantee a future inheritance. And He will do everything it takes.

So does Boaz, while teaching us one more compelling lesson: There is a rule. And he obeys the rule. But there is no grudging obedience here, only a heart of love. Before the matter of a go’el arose, Boaz was gracious. He was kind to Ruth because he is kind. The rules he followed explained his behavior, even the strange behaviors of that night at the threshing floor.* And so it is with the God who is our Father. His rules are our guide, explaining the behavior a loving God expects and in which He Himself engages. We may understand later, but we’re safe obeying all along. Things may vary from time to time in Bethlehem, but in God’s Bethlehem there will always be great gleanings and a Kinsman-Redeemer—if we will have it on our Father’s terms.

* As laid out in the book of Ruth’s third chapter.

Hamilton Williams pastors the Beacon Light Seventh-day Adventist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, United States.

Hamilton Williams