There’s a running joke in my family that I don’t know what it is to be hungry. As the youngest and a late-in-life child, I came along after my parents had accomplished some things—unlike my oldest sister who remembers having to hold the top of the convertible down to keep it above them as they rode down the street.
Thankfully, though my parents were by no means “well off” or wealthy, I never lacked. And though I’ve never been hungry, I was raised by people who had. Both of my parents lived through the depression.
So, I’ve heard stories of waiting in long lines just to receive a bag of onions and a canister of salt, then having nothing but onion soup for days. Stories like this one have me convinced that though I’ve fasted, my family is right. I’ve no idea what it is to be hungry—not really. And truth be told, I don’t want to know either.
Part 6 of How to Respond When Life Happens
The life that happened at the beginning of the Book of Ruth was a famine (Ruth 1:1). Consequently, in today’s post, we’ll define famine and explore its spiritual aspects—because everything in the Bible has a spiritual aspect. This article exploring famines is Part 6 of our deep dive into the Book of Ruth called How to Respond When Life Happens. I hope it blesses you.
Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.
~ Ruth 1:2a
The Definition of Famine in the Bible
The Hebrew word translated “famine” in Ruth 1:1 is ra’ab, which means “to be hungry, suffer famine, and starve.” Today, we define a famine a little differently. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a famine as “an extreme shortage of food.”
Do you see a difference?
Today’s definition focuses on the incident—what happened. The biblical definition focuses on the effect—how it affected people.
I think that’s intentional—both then and now.
The enemy—we wrestle not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12)—doesn’t want us to focus on the effect of situations like famines. The enemy doesn’t want to see positive change; he wants to keep the status quo—the famine and hungry people. Since focusing on the effect moves most of us to make positive changes, in an attempt to keep the status quo, the enemy would rather we not notice the effect events like famines have on people.The enemy wants us to believe helping people will lessen what we have; that our power is finite, even though the source of our power—God—has infinite power. Click To Tweet
One way he does this is through language. The enemy either changes the meaning of words—as is the case with famine. Or he uses different words altogether to convey a different meaning. He does this all in an attempt to keep us from changing—from growing.
Instead, the enemy wants to keep us ignorant. He wants us to believe helping people will lessen what we have. Specifically, he wants us to see power as finite even though the source of all our power—God—has infinite power. Once we see power as finite, we begin to think helping others gain power somehow diminishes our power.
God increases power, opportunity, and resources.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. The parable of the talents explains that God increases power, opportunity, and resources based on our use of what He has already given us (Matthew 25:14-30).
Therefore, if you want more power, rather than change the meanings of words from God’s definition, be faithful in using the power He’s already given you. By faithful, I mean following God’s commands, which—of course—includes blessing others.
That being said, I bring us back to what the Bible says about famines.
The Spiritual Cause of Famines in the Bible
In the Bible, the spiritual cause of famines was disobedience. Leviticus 26:1-5 says if the children of Israel were obedient, God promised to send rain. As a result, the land would yield its produce—so much so that they would eat “bread to the full.” More than that, verses 6-7 include peace with and victory over their enemies as additional blessings—all if they were obedient.
Have you ever felt like a gerbil on a wheel—expending lots of energy, but going nowhere?
However, verses 13-16 state Israel’s disobedience would lead to the opposite—primarily famine. Specifically, verse 16 says they would sow their seed “in vain.” Literally, “in vain” means “void or emptiness,” meaning they would sow into the void. Instead of good ground that reaps 30-, 60-, 100-fold, they would sow into emptiness and reap emptiness.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; I have broken the bands of your yoke and made you walk upright. But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, so that you do not perform all My commandments, but break My covenant, I also will do this to you: I will even appoint terror over you, wasting disease and fever which shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.
~ Leviticus 26:13-16
Therefore, Israel’s and Naomi’s felt need of emptiness extended to their efforts and agricultural work as well. Have you ever felt like a gerbil on a wheel—expending lots of energy, but going nowhere? That’s how it was for Israel and Naomi’s family during famines—and it explains why Naomi’s emptiness got worse before it got better.
So, the cause of the famine Ruth’s family experienced was her family’s—Israel’s—disobedience. The cause of Ruth’s family’s suffering was Ruth’s family. They caused it through their disobedience.
Famines are Signs from God
In the Bible, famines are not just natural occurrences. Since God warned Israel He’d send a famine in response to their disobedience, one could call the famine a punishment—a consequence for an offense. However, I prefer to see a famine as a sign—a sign from God I’ve gotten off track and need to course correct. Either way, God used famines to get Israel’s attention—“in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1) and today.
This aligns with the biblical definition of famine I shared above—”to be hungry, suffer famine, and starve,” which focuses on the effect of the event and not just the event. If we see a famine and its effect as a sign, then the famine gets our attention and the effect moves us towards what action to take. In this case, the action God wants us to take is to repent.
Basically, God sends famines to get our attention, so we will repent.
I use “sends”—a present tense verb—because in addition to the historical reference of a famine in Ruth, the Bible prophesizes famines will be one of the signs of The End Times—the period leading up to Judgment Day (Matthew 24:7). So, God sending famines to get our attention is not just a thing of the past.
Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. … For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.
~ Matthew 24:3-4, 7
This is particularly noteworthy considering all the supply chain issue causing extreme food shortages, like the shortage of baby formula. These could all be signs from God calling us to repentance. And considering the current environment in the USA—and other parts of the world—is very akin to “the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1) in that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6), God could very well be trying to get our attention. Or, at the very least, God could be trying to get the attention of those affected.
The Effect of Famines in the Bible
As noted above, the effect God wants as the result of a famine is repentance. The most common Hebrew word in the Old Testament used to express the concept of repentance is the verb sabu, which means “to turn.”
Sabu gives the imagery of walking with the Lord—as Adam did in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). At some point on their journey, the Israelites during “the days when the judges ruled” turned away from God and sinned. Consequently, God sent signs like the famine in the Book of Ruth to motivate them to repent or turn back to Him.
As with any journey, there comes rough patches, hills, and other challenging terrain. Sometimes, those challenges come in the form of famines. The goal is to stay connected—to not turn away—during the journey. But if/when we do, God has tools—signs—for getting us back on track.Catastrophic events can get us off track. They can knock us off course or cause us to wander away from God. The goal is to stay connected—to not turn away—during the journey. Click To Tweet
Catastrophic events, like the death of my husband Reggie, can get us off track. They can knock us off course or cause us to wander away from God—sometimes without even realizing it, which is what happened to me.
One day after Reggie died, I realized I was off course. I was angry at God over Reggie’s death. We—God and I—were out of sync.
Thankfully, God sent a famine in my finances that got my attention, and I made a conscious shift. I turned and got back on track. I repented for allowing my anger to get me off course and began creating my new life.
Thus, with repentance comes the opportunity to create a new life.
And sometimes, like with Naomi, God motivates us to create that new life using a famine.
The “How to Respond When Life Happens” Series:
- Part 1 – How to Respond When Life Happens
- Part 2 – The Freedom to Do You
- Part 3 – The Purpose of Chaos
- Part 4 – The Difference Between Felt Needs and Real Needs
- Part 5 – Who’s Ruling You? An Article about Submission
- Part 6 – Famines in the Bible
- Part 7 – The Differences Between Famines, Fasts and Feasts
- Part 8 – Famine in the Community
- Part 9 – The Meaning of the Land as Israel’s Possession
- Part 10 – What’s Important about Naomi’s Opening Situation in the Book of Ruth?
- Part 11 – Three Locations in the Book of Ruth
- Part 12 – Traveling in the Book of Ruth vs. Now
- Part 13 – Naomi’s Family’s Names in the Book of Ruth