A LONG the hot dusty road that led from the country of Moab to the fair land of Judah three women were walking with bowed heads and weary, halting steps. Their sorrowful, heavy eyes took no pleasure in the summer beauty of the harvest fields, the shimmering silver of the olive trees, and the rich promise of the vineyards which bordered their way. The whole world looked sad to them, seen through a mist of tears.
Ruth and Naomi
There behind them, in the land of Moab, each of these women had left green graves, which held all they loved best. Naomi, the eldest, was perhaps the most desolate. Her thoughts went back to the time when she was as young and fair as the two daughters-in-law who walked at her side—when, with her husband and her two boys, she had trod that very road, seeking a home in a strange country to escape the famine which threatened them in her own land. Now she was returning to her native town of Bethlehem a childless, lonely widow.
The younger women, who were the wives of those two dead sons, were very sorrowful too, but for them there might yet be happiness in the world. They still had near and dear relatives and many friends in Moab, which was their native land. They had come far enough now, and it was time for them to return.
"Turn again, my daughters," said Naomi, "and go your way."
Their homes lay behind, and she must journey on alone to the little hill town which she had not seen for so many long years. They had kindly come so far to see her on her way, but they must come no farther.
So the little party halted, and one of the young women, weeping bitterly, kissed her mother-in-law and turned to go back. But the other one, whose name was Ruth, clung to Naomi, and would not leave her.
In vain the elder woman urged her to return, and pointed out that Orpah had gone, that home and friends and happiness awaited her there, while in front was only poverty and loneliness. Ruth only clung the closer as she sobbed out her tender, loving words.
"Intreat me not to leave thee," she said, "or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."
The tender words brought comfort to the heart of Naomi, as soft rain brings refreshment to the hard, dry earth. After all, she was not quite alone; she still had some one to love and care for. So together they journeyed on again, and at last came to the winding road which led up to the town of Bethlehem, nestling like a white bird upon the long ridge of hills.
Naomi knew every step of the way. It seemed almost like a dream to tread once more that winding road, to pass through the city gates and find her way to the little house she knew so well. Although she had been gone so many years there were still people who remembered her, and these came running out to greet her.
"Is this Naomi?" they asked wonderingly.
They could scarcely believe that this sad, broken-down woman could be the pleasant-faced, happy girl who had gone away with her husband and boys in the year of the great famine. But as they listened to her story they did not wonder that she seemed so old and talked so bitterly. It made them look very kindly upon the beautiful girl who kept so close to her mother-in-law, who had given up everything rather than leave her alone.
Naomi had been quite right when she had told Ruth that poverty lay before them. She had come back quite empty-handed, and it was necessary to find some work at once which would at least provide them with daily bread. Ruth, looking out over the fields where already the barley was being cut, made up her mind to go and work there. The poor were always allowed to follow the reapers and glean the stray ears of corn that fell unnoticed. She might at least gather enough to feed her mother-in-law and herself.
Very happily, then, Ruth set out, and found her way into the harvest field, which belonged to a rich man called Boaz. The reapers treated her kindly when she timidly asked for permission to glean there, and when the master arrived to see how the harvest went, he too noticed her at once, for she was very beautiful.
"Whose damsel is this?" he asked.
There were many people ready to tell him her name, and also to tell him how she had left her land and her people to come with Naomi, her mother-in-law. The story had been repeated all through the town.
Boaz listened with interest. Naomi was his kinswoman, and it was only right that he should help her. He would begin by helping the sweet-faced daughter-in-law who had chanced to come gleaning upon his land. So he went and spoke very kindly to the beautiful Ruth, and told her to come every day to his harvest field and share the reapers' food, and he would see that no one troubled her. He even told the reapers to let some handfuls of corn fall in her way, on purpose, so that there might be plenty for her to glean.
So each day Ruth went back and worked in the harvest fields, and each day as Boaz watched her he grew to love the gentle, loving-hearted woman more and more. And when at last the harvest days were over, he went to Naomi and asked that Ruth might become his wife.
There was no more poverty or hard work now for Ruth or Naomi, no anxious days of wondering how long their flour and oil would last. Boaz was very rich, and nothing was too good for his fair young wife, whom he had first seen humbly gleaning in his harvest field.
Happiness, too, began to steal back into the life of Naomi. Winter and spring passed, and when harvest time came round once more, all the sorrow and bitterness faded from her heart, for God sent a little child to comfort her. A baby son was born to Ruth, and the whole world seemed full of sunshine and happiness as she laid him in his grandmother's arms, and the two loving hearts rejoiced in their happiness, just as they had clung together in their sorrow.
Of course, they dreamed many happy dreams over the little downy head, and planned a splendid future for the baby, as all mothers and grandmothers will do. But even their dreams never touched the golden reality, for they did not know that he was to be the grandfather of King David, that in this same little town of Bethlehem there was to be born of his line a greater King yet, the King of Heaven.