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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Ruth 1

 

 

Verses 1-5

A. The deaths of Naomi"s husband and sons1:1-5

God had promised the Israelites that if they departed from Him He would discipline them by sending famine on the Promised Land ( Deuteronomy 28:17; Deuteronomy 28:23; Deuteronomy 28:38-40; Deuteronomy 28:42). [Note: See George M. Harton, "Fulfillment of Deuteronomy 28-30 in History and in Eschatology" (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981).] The famine on Israel at this time indicates God"s judgment for unfaithfulness. As Abram had migrated to Egypt as a result of a famine in his day ( Genesis 12:10), so Elimelech migrated to Moab to obtain food for his family. Compare also Lot"s migration in Genesis 13:1-13. There are many motifs that occur in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and reappear in Ruth. [Note: See Hubbard, pp39-41.] This repetition seems to indicate that one of the writer"s purposes was to present Ruth as another of Israel"s notable matriarchs who, despite many natural barriers, provided important leaders for the nation by God"s grace.

"The story is never delightful when a member of the chosen seed leaves the Land of Promise and goes into the far country. It makes no difference whether he is Abraham going into Egypt to escape the famine or the prodigal son going to the far country and into the face of a famine there; the results are negative and the ending tragic. Elimelech should not have gone into the land of Moab, regardless of the conditions in the Land of Promise." [Note: McGee, p48. ]

Jacob received a special revelation from God directing him to migrate from the Promised Land to Egypt ( Genesis 46:1-4). Another view is that since the writer did not draw attention to the famine, the migrations of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion to Moab, and their deaths, he did not intend the reader to read significance into these details. He only intended to present them as background for the story of Ruth. [Note: Frederic W. Bush, Ruth ,, Esther , p67.]

Famines, according to the biblical record, usually advanced God"s plans for His people, despite their tragic appearances (cf. Genesis 12:10; Genesis 26:1; Genesis 41-50; Exodus 1-20). [Note: Hubbard, p85.] The chapter opens with famine but closes with harvest ( Ruth 1:22). Likewise the whole book opens with a bad situation but ends with a good one. God was at work blessing His people in the times and events that this book recounts. The restoration of seed (food, husband, redeemer, and heir) is one of the main motifs in Ruth. [Note: See Barbara Green, "The Plot of the Biblical Story of Ruth ," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament23 (July1982):55-68.]

The fact that Elimelech (lit. my God is king, a theme of the book) was from Bethlehem (lit. house of bread, i.e, granary) is significant. "Elimelech" is a theophoric name, a name that combines a term for deity with another ascription. Elimelech"s parents probably gave him this name hoping that he would acknowledge God as his king, but he failed to do that when he moved from Israel to Moab.

Two stories make up the appendix to the Book of Judges. The first of these is the story of the grandson of Moses who left Bethlehem to lead the Danites into idolatry ( Judges 17-18). The second is the story of the concubine from Bethlehem who became the focus of discord in Israel that resulted in civil war and almost the obliteration of the tribe of Benjamin ( Judges 19-21). The Book of Ruth also features Bethlehem. God may have given us all three of these stories because David was from Bethlehem in Judah. In the two stories in Judges just referred to we can see that the Israelites would have looked down on Bethlehem after those incidents. However, Ruth reveals how God brought great blessing to Israel out of Bethlehem in the person of David. This is in harmony with God"s choice to bring blessing out of those things that people do not value highly naturally. Bethlehem in Ruth"s day did not have a good reputation. It was not the environment in which David grew up that made him great but his relationship with God. That relationship, we learn from Ruth , was a heritage passed down to him from his ancestors, godly Boaz and Ruth. [Note: For further study of the "Bethlehem trilogy," see Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp178-88; or idem, "The Book of Ruth: Narration and Shared Themes," Bibliotheca Sacra142:566 (April-June1985):131-33.]

The unusual association of Ephratah and Bethlehem here ( Ruth 1:2) recalls the first use of both names describing the same town, called Ephrath in Genesis 35:16-19. There Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin.

"Does this incident in which Benjamin is the occasion of the death of the patronymic"s favorite wife at Bethlehem anticipate in some way the Saul-David controversy in which the Benjaminite again proves antagonistic to one who has Bethlehem associations?" [Note: Ibid, p133.]

". . . it is best to understand Ephrathite as the name of a clan. If this clan descended from Caleb [which seems probable since Caleb settled near there], the author may have identified this family as Ephrathite to picture it as an aristocratic one-one of the "first families of Bethlehem." [Note: See W. Fuerst, The Books of Ruth ,, Esther ,, Ecclesiastes , the Song of Solomon ,, Lamentations , p10; Morris, p249; and A. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, p103.] He thereby underscored the humiliating tragedy involved: the Vanderbilts have suddenly become poor sharecroppers. Worse yet, he cleverly disallowed any hope of a temporary visit." [Note: Hubbard, p91.]

Ephrathah was probably also the name of an older settlement that stood near Bethlehem or that became Bethlehem (cf. Genesis 48:7). Some scholars believe it was the name of the district in which Bethlehem stood, or the name may reflect that Ephraimites had settled there. [Note: E.g, F. B. Huey Jeremiah , " Ruth ," in Deuteronomy -2Samuel, vol3of The Expositor"s Bible Commentary, p519.] This seems less likely to me. The unusual way of describing Bethlehem hints at connections to David that become clear at the end of the book ( Ruth 4:22), since this is the way Bethlehem became known after David"s appearance (cf. 1 Samuel 17:12). [Note: Bush, p67.]

It is also unusual in a patriarchal society that the writer described Elimelech as Naomi"s husband ( Ruth 1:3). This puts Naomi forward as the more important person of the two. Elimelech"s death may have been a punishment for leaving the land rather than trusting God (cf. Leviticus 26:38), though the text does not say so. It was not contrary to the Mosaic law for Israelite men to marry Moabite women ( Deuteronomy 7:3), but apparently they could not bring them into the congregation of Israel for public worship ( Deuteronomy 23:3-4). The unusual names of both Mahlon and Chilion seem to have been connected with circumstances of their births. Mahlon may have looked sickly when he was born, and Chilion probably looked as though he was failing.


Verses 6-14

B. Naomi"s inability to provide husbands for Ruth and Orpah1:6-14

God eventually withdrew the famine from Judah ( Ruth 1:6), probably in response to His people"s calling out to Him for deliverance (cf. Judges 3:9; Judges 3:15; Judges 4:3; Judges 6:6; Judges 10:10; Judges 16:28). This verse sounds one of the major themes of the story: Yahweh"s gracious intervention. [Note: K. Sacon, "The Book of Ruth -Its Literary Structure and Themes," Annual of the Japanese Biblical Institute4 (1978):5.]

"Here is a central theme in the Bible: all of life is traced directly to the hand of God. To concentrate primarily on second causes may encourage us to seek to be manipulators of the system. It is concentration on the Great Cause which teaches us to live by faith." [Note: David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth , pp40-41.]

Naomi"s words to her daughters-in-law are very important. Of the book"s85 verses, 56 report dialogue, indicating that dialogue is one of its dominant literary techniques. [Note: Hubbard, pp100-101.] She appealed to them to maintain their strongest earthly ties by returning to their mothers" families ( Ruth 1:8). "Return" in its various Hebrew forms is a key word in Ruth (e.g, Ruth 1:6-8; Ruth 1:10; Ruth 1:15-16; Ruth 1:22 [twice]; Ruth 2:6; Ruth 4:3). Ruth is a story of return to the Promised Land, blessing, and primarily return to the Lord. Naomi incorrectly believed that there was more hope for her daughters-in-law by staying in Moab than there was by going with her to God"s chosen people and land.

"Naomi should have said to them what Moses said to his father-in-law, "Come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the Lord has spoken good concerning Israel" ( Numbers 10:29, KJV)." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary/History, p181.]

"I may be wrong, but I get the impression that Naomi didn"t want to take Oprah and Ruth to Bethlehem because they were living proof that she and her husband had permitted their two sons to marry women from outside the covenant nation. In other words, Naomi was trying to cover up her disobedience." [Note: Ibid. Italics omitted.]

". . . the phrase "mother"s house" occurs in contexts having to do with love and marriage. It seems likely, then, that Naomi here referred to some custom according to which the "mother"s house"-probably her bedroom, not a separate building-was the place where marriages were arranged." [Note: Hubbard, pp102-3. Cf. E. F. Campbell Jeremiah ,, Ruth , pp64-65; and Huey, p521.]

Second, Naomi prayed that Yahweh would pay back loyal love ("deal kindly," Heb. hesed), to Ruth and Orpah since they had shown loyal love to their husbands and Naomi ( Ruth 1:8).

"Here emerges a key theological assumption of the book: the intimate link between human action and divine action. In this case, human kindness has earned the possibility (even likelihood) of a God-given reward." [Note: Hubbard, p104. "Kindly" or "kindness" (Heb. hesed) is also a key word in Ruth (cf2:20; 3:10).]

Third, Naomi wished "rest" (Heb. menuhah) for her daughters-in-law in the household of their next husbands ( Ruth 1:9). Rest was one of the great blessings God had promised the Israelites as they anticipated entrance into the Promised Land ( Exodus 33:14; Deuteronomy 3:20; Deuteronomy 12:9-10; Deuteronomy 25:19; Joshua 1:13; Joshua 1:15; Joshua 21:44; Joshua 22:4; Joshua 23:1; cf. Genesis 49:15; Exodus 16:23; Exodus 31:15; Exodus 35:2; Leviticus 16:31; Leviticus 23:3; Leviticus 23:32; Leviticus 25:4-5; Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11; Hebrews 3:18). It refers to security, which in this case marriage would give Ruth (lit. friendship) and Orpah (lit. neck), rather than freedom from work. Probably Ruth"s parents named her hoping that she would demonstrate friendship, which she did admirably. Perhaps Orpah"s parents thought she had an attractive neck when she was born. Ironically, some of the later rabbis referred to her as "she of the turned neck" since she turned back to Moab (cf. Lot"s wife).

After the two daughters-in-law refused to leave their mother-in-law ( Ruth 1:10), which in Orpah"s case was only a polite refusal but in Ruth"s a genuine one, Naomi urged them again. Here one reason for her counsel comes out. She was too old to remarry, bear sons, have those sons marry their brothers" (Mahlon"s and Chilion"s) widows, and raise up seed. That seed would perpetuate the families begun by Mahlon and Chilion with Ruth and Orpah. Levirate marriage was the practice of a single brother marrying his deceased brother"s widow to father children who would carry on the dead brother"s name and extend his branch of the family tree. It was common throughout the ancient Near East and in Israel (cf. Genesis 38:8-10; Deuteronomy 25:5-10). [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962ed, s.v. "Marriage," by J. S. Wright and J. A. Thompson; Dale W. Manor, "A Brief History of Levirate Marriage As It Relates to the Bible," Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin NS20 (Fall1982):33-52; Donald A. Leggett, The Levirate and Goel Institutions in the Old Testament with Special Attention to the Book of Ruth; and Atkinson, pp86-98.] The word "levir" comes from the Latin translation of the Hebrew term for brother-in-law. Naomi was too old to remarry and bear sons who could provide loyal love and rest for Ruth and Orpah. (Had she forgotten what God had done for Sarah by enabling her to bear a son at age90?) Consequently she urged her daughters-in-law to return home and start married life over with new Moabite husbands. She evidently did not even consider the possibility that God could provide for them if they sought refuge in Him. She was not presenting the God of Israel in a positive light or demonstrating much faith in Him.

It was harder for Naomi than for Ruth and Orpah ( Ruth 1:13), because while Ruth and Orpah had hope of marrying again and bearing children, Naomi did not, in view of her advanced age. She bitterly regarded her situation as a judgment from God ( Ruth 1:13; cf. Genesis 30:1-2; Genesis 42:36). Naomi was bitter rather than broken. Really her situation in life was the result of the decisions she and her husband and sons had made when they chose to leave the Promised Land. She did not realize that God would yet graciously bless her with a descendant through Boaz. Boaz would father a son who would carry on the name and lines of Ruth"s dead husband and Naomi"s dead husband.

"Ruth and Orpah demonstrate the two kinds of members in the church-the professors and the possessors. Orpah made only a profession of faith and failed at the climactic moment; Ruth possessed genuine faith, which produced fruit and works." [Note: McGee, p61.]

Ruth clung to Naomi. The Hebrew word for "clung to" is dabaq, which elsewhere refers to the ideal closeness that can be experienced in a marriage relationship (cf. Genesis 2:24). [Note: Huey, p522.] Ruth determined to stick to her mother-in-law as closely as a husband would cleave to his wife (cf. James 1:27).

"It is a mistake to make the purpose of raising an heir to the deceased head of the family the exclusive purpose of each of the protagonists at every point and so dismiss the equally valid and legitimate concern of these women to find for themselves the security of home and husband-the only identity their patriarchal world afforded them." [Note: Bush, p97.]


Verses 15-18

C. Ruth"s profession of faith in Yahweh1:15-18

Ruth concluded that her prospects for loyal love and rest ( Ruth 1:8-9) were better if she identified with Israel than if she continued to identify with Moab. She had come to admire Israel"s God, in spite of Naomi"s present lack of faith. Elimelech and his family had evidently earlier fulfilled God"s purpose for His people while living in Moab. They had so represented Yahweh that Ruth felt drawn to Him and now, faced with a decision of loyalty, she chose to trust and obey Him rather than the gods of Moab. Ruth the Moabitess exercised faith, but Naomi the Israelitess lived by sight. Ruth trusted God and obeyed the Mosaic Covenant, but Naomi did not. [Note: See Charles P. Baylis, "Naomi in the Book of Ruth in Light of the Mosaic Covenant," Bibliotheca Sacra161:644 (October-December2004):413-31.] Ruth was a descendant of Lot, who chose to leave the Promised Land because he thought he could do better for himself elsewhere ( Genesis 13:11-12). The "cities of the valley" ( Genesis 13:12), including Sodom and Gomorrah, lay outside (to the east of) the territory that God originally promised Abram ( Genesis 12:7). Later God revealed that He would give Abram"s descendants even more land including the Jordan Valley ( Genesis 13:14-15; Genesis 15:18; et al.). Ruth now reversed the decision of her ancestor and chose to identify with the promises of Yahweh that centered in the Promised Land. [Note: See Harold Fisch, "Ruth and the Structure of Covenant History," Vetus Testamentum32:4 (1982):427.] The ancients believed that a deity had power only in the locale occupied by its worshippers. Therefore to leave one"s land ( Ruth 1:15) meant to separate from one"s god. [Note: Huey, p523.]

The place of a person"s grave in ancient Near Eastern life was very significant (cf. Genesis 23; Genesis 25:9-10; Genesis 50:1-14; Genesis 50:24-25; Joshua 24:32). It identified the area he or she considered his or her true home. So when Ruth said she wanted to die and be buried where Naomi was ( Ruth 1:17), she was voicing her strong commitment to the people, land, and God of Naomi (cf. Luke 14:33). Naomi"s life may have influenced Ruth to trust in Naomi"s God. The name for God in Ruth 1:20, "the Almighty" (Heb. sadday, transliterated "Shaddai"), was the one God had used to reveal Himself to the patriarchs in Genesis ( Genesis 17:1; Genesis 28:3; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 43:14; Genesis 48:3; Genesis 49:25; cf. Exodus 6:3).

"Significantly, though the oath formula normally has Elohim, Ruth invoked the personal, covenantal name Yahweh-the only time in the book in which she does so. Since one appeals to one"s own deity to enforce an oath, she clearly implies that Yahweh, not Chemosh, is now her God, the guardian of her future. Hence, while the OT has no fully developed idea of conversion, Ruth 1:16-17 suggest a commitment tantamount to such a change. As a result, one expects the story subsequently to reveal some reward from Yahweh for this remarkable devotion....

". . . Ruth"s leap of faith even outdid Abraham"s. She acted with no promise in hand, with no divine blessing pronounced, without spouse, possessions, or supporting retinue. She gave up marriage to a man to devote herself to an old woman-and in a world dominated by men at that! Thematically, this allusion to Abraham sets this story in continuity with that one. Thus, a sense of similar destiny hangs over Ruth"s story. The audience wonders, May some larger plan emerge from it, too?" [Note: Hubbard, pp120-21.]

"There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel." [Note: P. Trible, "Two Women in a Man"s World: A Reading of the Book of Ruth ," Soundings59 (1976):258.]

God had always welcomed non-Israelites into the covenant community of Abraham"s believing seed. Even in Abraham"s day his servants who believed underwent circumcision as a sign of their participation in the Abrahamic Covenant ( Genesis 17). At Sinai, God explained again that the Israelites, as priests, were to bring other people to God ( Exodus 19:5-6). Ruth now confessed her commitment to Yahweh, Israel, and Naomi, a commitment based on her faith in Yahweh. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, "A Theology of Joshua ,, Judges , and Ruth ," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p110.]

Ruth 1:15-18 are a key to the book because they give the reason God blessed Ruth as He did.


Verses 19-21

D. Naomi"s weak faith1:19-21

Naomi had experienced both blessing and loss since she had left Bethlehem. When she returned home she chose to emphasize her hardships. She had forgotten God"s faithfulness and His promises to bless all Israel ( Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7), her tribe in particular ( Genesis 49:8-12), and all the godly in Israel ( Deuteronomy 5:7-10). But her emptiness ( Ruth 1:21) was only temporary. Her pessimism at this point contrasts with Ruth"s optimism ( Ruth 1:16-18).

"In Israel, names were not just labels of individuality but descriptions of inner character which in turn were presumed to influence the person"s conduct. ... Recall Jacob ("schemer"; Genesis 27:36); Nabal ("fool"; 1 Samuel 25:25); Jesus ("savior"; Matthew 1:21). Similarly, to receive a new name signified a change in character and destiny (i.e, Abram to Abraham, Genesis 17:5-8; Jacob to Israel, Genesis 32:29 [Eng28]; Simon to Peter, Matthew 16:17-18; Saul to Paul, Acts 19 [sic 13]:9)." [Note: Hubbard, p124 , and n19.]

"Naomi" means "my pleasantness." Her parents must have given her this character trait name hoping that she would become a pleasant person in God"s sight. "Mara" means "bitterness." Naomi regarded herself no longer as pleasant but bitter as a result of what had happened to her. One of the unique features of the Book of Ruth is that every person"s name that appears in it, and even the lack of a proper name ( Ruth 4:1), is significant.

Frederic Bush viewed Naomi"s faith differently.

"Naomi here does not evidence little faith; rather, with the freedom of a faith that ascribes full sovereignty to God, she takes God so seriously that, with Job and Jeremiah (and even Abraham, Genesis 15:2), she resolutely and openly voices her complaint. With this robust example of the honesty and forthrightness of the OT"s "theology of complaint," our author depicts in somber and expressive hues the desolation, despair, and emptiness of the life of a woman "left alone without her two boys and without her husband" ( Ruth 1:5) in a world where life depends upon men." [Note: Bush, pp95-96.]

The biblical writer highlighted Naomi and Ruth"s vulnerability by featuring women prominently in chapter1. There are no men to provide for and protect them in view. Women are the main characters throughout this chapter, including the women of Bethlehem who speak for the town ( Ruth 1:19). Naomi failed to see that Yahweh had not brought her back home empty ( Ruth 1:21). Ruth , who had pledged herself to care for Naomi as long as she lived, had returned with her ( Ruth 1:22). This was a tremendous blessing from the Lord. At this time Naomi considered Ruth insignificant, but the women of Bethlehem later corrected her faulty view of Ruth"s worth ( Ruth 4:15).


Verse 22

E. Hope for the future1:22

This summary sentence not only concludes chapter1but also prepares the reader for the remaining scenes of the story. Naomi had left Bethlehem pleasant (Heb. na"em) but returned bitter ( Ruth 1:20). She had left with Elimelech, one source of blessing in her life, but returned with Ruth , who would become another source of blessing for her. She had left during a famine, but she returned to Bethlehem (lit. house of bread, the place of blessing) at the beginning of harvest. This is probably a reference to the barley harvest, which began the harvest season in Israel. [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p476.]

Throughout the book the writer frequently referred to Ruth as "Ruth the Moabitess" ( Ruth 1:22; Ruth 2:2; Ruth 2:6; Ruth 2:21; Ruth 4:5; Ruth 4:10). This is one way in which he drew attention to the fact that God used even a non-Israelite, from an enemy nation, to bring blessing to Israel. The key to her being this source of blessing emerges in the first chapter. It was her faith in Yahweh and her commitment to His people. Throughout human history this has always been the key to God using people as His channels of blessing. It is not their origins or backgrounds but their faith in and commitment to Yahweh and others that make them usable.

Warren Wiersbe saw three common mistakes that people make in this chapter: trying to run from our problems ( Ruth 1:1-5), trying to hide our mistakes ( Ruth 1:6-18), and blaming God for our trials ( Ruth 1:19-22). [Note: Wiersbe, p182.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ruth 1:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ruth-1.html. 2012.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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