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Chapter 1. Driven By A Severe Famine Elimelech And His Family Seek Refuge In Moab Only To Suffer The Consequences Of Forsaking The Sphere Of The Covenant. He And His Sons Die And His Wife Naomi Returns To The Land Of Judah Empty.
As we know from the ending to the story Elimelech could trace his ancestry back to Judah through Perez (Ruth 4:18-22; compare 1 Chronicles 2:4). He would thus be highly respected as one of the minority who could do so. And he lived, and had land, in and around Bethelehem-judah. But a severe famine appears to have smitten the land and, probably for the sake of his sons, he determined to seek refuge in Moab, which was across the Jordan to the east of Israel, on the other side of the Dead Sea. However, tragedy was the consequence of his decision as YHWH ‘testified against them’ (Ruth 1:21). The writer clearly intends his readers to see this tragedy as resulting from his desertion of the land of Promise. The one named ‘My God is king’ had gone to another land where God was not seen as king, in order to find refuge. He had virtually exposed YHWH to ridicule. Yet out of that tragedy YHWH intends to bring triumph. What will then follow is a revelation of the unmerited favour of God in the face of disobedience.
The chapter follows the chiastic pattern which had been a feature of the Law of Moses:
A There was famine in the land (Ruth 1:1)
B Elimelech and Naomi emigrated from Bethlehem and came into the country of Moab (Ruth 1:2)
C Naomi’s husband and sons died (Ruth 1:3-5).
D Naomi and Ruth left Moab for Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6-7).
E Naomi made a speech calling on her daughters-in-law to leave her (Ruth 1:8-9 a).
F Naomi kissed Orpah and Ruth goodbye (Ruth 1:9).
G All wept loudly (Ruth 1:9)
H Naomi could offer her daughters-in-law no sons (Ruth 1:11)
I Naomi was too old to have a husband (Ruth 1:12).
H' Naomi could offer her daughters-in-law no viable sons (Ruth 1:13)
G' All wept loudly (Ruth 1:14)
F' Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye (Ruth 1:14-15)
E' Ruth made a speech refusing to leave Naomi (Ruth 1:16-18)
D' They came to Bethlehem from Moab (Ruth 1:19)
C' Naomi was no longer pleasant but bitter for she had returned empty (Ruth 1:20-21)
B' Naomi left the country of Moab and returned to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:22)
A' It was the beginning of the barley harvest (Ruth 1:22).
Note in A the emphasis on the fact that the initial phase of the story began with famine, and ended with harvest. Central to the chiasmus in I is that hope has gone because Naomi is too old to bear children. Thus while they might return to the land of Judah, their cause would be hopeless. The emphasis all the way through is on the tragedy of Naomi’s situation, only alleviated by the loyalty of Ruth.
‘ And it came about in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.’
The famine occurred in the days of ‘the Judges’ (local rulers), each of whom at various times ruled a part of Israel. There were many periods under the Judges when the land was peaceful (see Judges 3:11; Judges 3:30 etc.), and this would appear to have been one of them. If there are no gaps in the genealogy in Ruth 4:18-22 it suggests that it was probably late in that period, possibly in the time of Samuel, although some (accepting gaps in the genealogy) relate it to the famines caused by the predators in the time of Gideon (Judges 6:0). Whichever period we accept the famine was of sufficient severity to cause a man of Bethlehem-judah to seek refuge, with his family, in neighbouring Moab. This would involve crossing the Jordan, possibly at Jericho, and moving southwards into Moab.
“Went to sojourn --.” That is, semi-permanently as a resident alien. His intention would be to remain there until the famine was over.
“He, and his wife, and his two sons.” It was probably the need of his sons that he had in mind when he made the move, especially if, as their names suggest, they were weak and sickly. They would be in no condition to withstand famine. But one whose name declared that ‘My God is king’ should never have been seeking refuge in a land that was submissive to another god (Chemosh). He was belying his name.
‘ And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Beth-lehem-judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.’
Detailed names are now given of the family. The family consisted of Elimelech (‘my God is king’), his wife Naomi (‘my delight’ or ‘my sweetness’), and their two growing sons Mahlon (‘sickness’) and Chilion (‘wasting’). ‘Sickness’ and ‘wasting’ probably refers to how they were seen when born, as they struggled to survive, but it may well be that they had continued to experience such problems. Having ‘gone to sojourn in the country of Moab’ (Ruth 1:1), they ‘came into the country of Moab and continued there’. The double emphasis may have been bringing out the disapproval of the writer. They had left God’s land.
Ephrath(ah) is closely connected with Bethlehem, possibly as the region in which it was found, or possibly as the ancient name of Bethlehem itself (Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7). In Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7 ‘the way to Ephrath’ leads to Bethlehem. Compare Micah 5:2. Thus Ephrathites in this context may simply be the name by which Bethlehemites were called. Bethlehem-judah is so called in order to distinguish it from Bethlehem (house of bread) in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15).
‘ And Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left, and her two sons.’
We are not told how long they had been in Moab before Elimelech died, but his death must have been a cruel blow to the family. The impression given is that the sons were at the time in no position to provide the support that Naomi needed. Many would see his death and its consequence as an indication of God’s disapproval of what he had done.
‘ And they took for themselves wives of the women of Moab, the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth, and they dwelt there about ten years.’
But gradually the sons would grow up, and it was at that point that they took Midianite wives for themselves. These were named Orpah and Ruth. There is no certainty as to the significance of the names, which would be Moabite names. While there appears to have been good relations between Israel and Moab at the time, their taking of foreign wives might well have been seen by many as a downward step, a consequence of Elimelech’s initial mistake. Compare how associating with surrounding nations is disapproved of in Judges 1:0, although admittedly there it was because they were Canaanites. But the Moabites were disapproved of almost as much, as Deuteronomy 23:1 ff makes clear. And then ‘about ten years’ passed by while they continued to dwell among the Moabites. ‘Ten’ regularly means ‘a good number’. There may be a hint in this that they remained there overlong. That may have been seen as the reason why the sons also died.
We note that during those ten years neither son had fathered an heir. Both marriages were barren, a further sign of YHWH’s disapproval. It would have been seen as signifying YHWH’s disapproval of their presence in Moab. And it meant that Orpah and Ruth had no one to act as their protector in the future. They shared in Naomi’s desolation, three poor women with no male protector.
‘ And Mahlon and Chilion died both of them, and the woman was left by her two children and by her husband.’
The two sons also died. This may have been as a result of some pestilence or illness, the effect of which was possibly exacerbated by their weakly condition, or it may have been at the hands of brigands. That they apparently died around the same time would suggest some such thing. But it resulted in the consequence that Naomi found herself alone in a foreign country, with no sons and no husband, something which she had not foreseen.
‘ Then she arose with her daughters-in-law, so that she might return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab how YHWH had visited his people in giving them bread.’
News meanwhile reached her that the famine in Israel had come to an end, because ‘YHWH had visited his people in giving them bread.’ Note how the famine, and its ending, were thus both laid at God’s door. YHWH was seen as the withholder of food and the provider of food. To Naomi at least there was no doubt as to Who had been responsible for the famine, and Who was now responsible for it having ended. And she may well have asked herself why she had not been there when God acted in deliverance. It would bring home to her the sinfulness of her position. She may also have felt that this same YHWH was the One Who could visit her and fill the emptiness that was in her heart. However that may be the news made her determine to return to Israel, and she arose with her daughters-in-law in order to set out for home, where she could once again enjoy the provision of YHWH.
‘ And she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.’
The three of them left the place where they had been residing, and took the road to the land of Judah. For the description ‘the land of Judah’ compare Deuteronomy 34:2; 1Sa 22:5 ; 1 Samuel 30:16. ‘They went on the way.’ The two young widows probably assumed that they would be going with Naomi, but it is clear from what follows that this was not Naomi’s intention. She wanted their company thus far until the time came for a leave-taking, but her intention was that the two young widows should remain in Moab and return to their family homes.
‘ And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house YHWH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me. May YHWH grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voice, and wept.’
When they had reach a certain point, possibly at the crossing of the Arnon which divided Moab from the territory of Reuben, Naomi encouraged her two daughters-in-law to return to their family homes. She prayed that in view of the loyalty they had shown to her and her dead sons, YHWH would deal kindly with them. But she was well aware that in returning to their homes they would also be returning to their national god, Chemosh (Ruth 1:15). There would now be no one to lead them in the way of YHWH. Nevertheless she prayed that YHWH may provide them with good husbands, so that they would find contentment in their new homes.
“Return each of you to her mother” s house.’ Normally we would expect reference to be made to ‘her father’s house’. The emphasis may be on the fact that they are again to take shelter in the women’s quarters, which would be presided over by their mothers, thereby demonstrating that they were once more available. This would often be where marriages were initially arranged and where the future bridegroom came to discuss the wedding, which may by tradition have been mainly the responsibility of the mother (compare Genesis 24:28; Song of Solomon 3:4; Song of Solomon 8:2).
‘ And they said to her, “No, but we will return with you to your people.’
Both women felt a genuine duty and love towards Naomi. And recognising her loneliness they insisted that they should rather accompany her as she returned to her own people. It was not the kind of journey that an old woman should make alone.
‘ And Naomi said, “Turn again, my daughters. Why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?”
But Naomi recognised that she now had nothing to offer them. To women of those days almost nothing was more important than having a husband and producing children. And her problem was, how could she provide them with husbands, for she had no sons in her womb. In other words she was too old to bear children. And where would Moabite women otherwise find husbands in Israel apart from in the family?
“ Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight, and should also bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from having husbands? No, my daughters, for it grieves me much for your sakes, for the hand of YHWH is gone forth against me.”
Furthermore even if there had been a chance that she could produce children, and was able immediately to marry, would they really want to wait until any sons so born would grow up? By that time the women too would be almost beyond childbearing. No it was better for them that they left her and returned to their families and sought husbands in Moab. She assured them of the grief that she felt that YHWH had so dealt with her that she could offer them nothing, because His hand had ‘gone forth against her’. The whole move to Moab, although seeming a good idea at the time, was now seen as a disaster. YHWH had not been in it for good.
‘ And they lifted up their voice, and wept again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clove to her.’
Then they all again wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and returned to her home as Naomi had suggested. We must in this recognise the strong pressure that Naomi had put on both of them. It was not that Orpah had not really been willing to go with Naomi. She had been willing. But she had paid heed to the word of Naomi. Ruth, however, was having none of it. She was determined to remain with her mother-in-law. The word ‘clove’ is a strong one.
‘ And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people, and to her god. Return you after your sister-in-law.’
Naomi pointed out to Ruth that her sister-in-law had taken her advice and had gone back to her people ‘and to her god’ (the Moabite god Chemosh). And she urges Ruth to do the same. Naomi recognised that she had sent Orpah back to the worship of Chemosh, and it is clear that the writer wants us to see that Naomi was in a poor spiritual condition. Her concern was for the physical needs of her daughters-in-law not their spiritual needs. Both Orpah and Ruth might have been lost to Yahwism.
‘ And Ruth said, “Do not entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God, where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. YHWH do so to me, and more also (literally ‘and so may He add to do’), if anything but death parts you and me.”
Ruth firmly sets aside Naomi’s arguments. She begs Naomi not to entreat her to leave her. Rather she wishes to share in all that Naomi will face in the future. She will go where she goes. She will lodge where she lodges. Naomi’s people will be her people, and Naomi’s God will be her God. She will die where Naomi dies, so much is she committed to Naomi’s Israelite background. And she will be buried in the same land in which Naomi will be buried. The place where a person wished to be buried was a sign of the place that they saw as ‘home’. Thus this was thus a total commitment to being an Israelite. It was a reasonable position to take. By marrying a Yahwist she had already had to conform to Yahwism. And she would be looked on by many as an Israelite, because she had been incorporated into an Israelite family. The continued stress on the fact that she was a Moabite is mainly the author’s, for to all intents and purposes to marry an Israelite and to commence worshipping YHWH and observing the Feasts was to become an Israelite (Exodus 12:48 - as a woman she would not require circumcision). It was happening all the time. Compare how Moses had married, first a Midianite, and then an Egyptian. The author is concerned to bring out that David had within him Moabite blood, but having said that, that it was the blood of someone who had chosen to be an Israelite and a Yahwist. It would be an encouragement to all foreigners (apart from Canaanites) who were considering becoming Yahwists, and would indicate to them that YHWH would accept them on equal terms and equally bless them.
Once again we have emphasis laid on the fact that by her decision Ruth, like her sister-in-law, was choosing which god she served. Indeed Ruth could have gone back with Naomi but have demanded to serve the god of Moab. But she committed herself to serving Naomi’s God. This could only be because she had come truly to believe in YHWH. She wanted to be included in YHWH’s covenant. As a wife she would have been expected to conform to the worship of her husband’s God, even if she had retained aspects of her old religious life. But she could now have chosen to renege on her commitment to YHWH. Thus we see in Ruth a true believer to whom YHWH was very real, to such an extent that she was not willing to turn her back on Him..
‘ And when she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she ceased speaking to her.’
When Naomi saw how determined Ruth was to go with her she refrained from urging her any further. Possibly she felt ashamed at having had so little regard for Orpah’s spiritual status.
‘ So they two went until they came to Beth-lehem. And it came about, when they were come to Beth-lehem, that all the city was moved about them, and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
The impression given is that they now proceeded alone (they two went) as they made their way towards Bethlehem. It would not be a pleasant journey for two women on their own. And when they arrived in the small town of Bethlehem word got around that Naomi was coming. Workers in the fields would have seen these two helpless women and had seemingly thought that they recognised Naomi. The result was that when the women entered the town the majority of its inhabitants were showing a deep interest in them, and were indeed asking whether this could possibly be Naomi, who had been away for so long.
‘ And she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty (Shaddai) has dealt very bitterly with me.”
But as Naomi heard her name being spoken it brought home to her the significance of her name, ‘sweetness’ or ‘delight’. And it made her feel very bitter. She called on them not to speak of her as Naomi, but as Mara (bitterness), because Shaddai had dealt very bitterly with her. Note the use of Shaddai rather than YHWH. LXX translates as ‘the Almighty’. It was not the covenant name, but more a title which indicated His world-wide rule as God of the nations (Genesis 17:1 with Genesis 17:4-5, ‘a multitude of nations’; Genesis 28:3, ‘a company of peoples’; Genesis 35:11, a company of peoples). Naomi recognised that it was God in His world-wide sovereignty who had so dealt with her as she had, as it were, ‘dwelt among the nations’. Compare how it was as ‘El Shaddai’ that God had ‘made Himself known to the patriarchs’ (Exodus 6:3), that is, brought out the fullness of what the name signified by means of His activity as Lord over all nations, as he watched over them among the nations in a land that was not theirs, whereas it was not until His deliverance of His people at the Exodus that He had demonstrated the full significance of His Name as YHWH their covenant God and thus ‘made known’ His Name to them by what He accomplished. His making known of Himself essentially as YHWH by means of His activity is a theme of Exodus. See Exodus 5:2; Exodus 6:3; Exodus 6:7; Exodus 7:5; Exodus 7:17; Exodus 8:22; Exodus 10:2; Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:18; Exodus 16:12; Exodus 29:46; Exodus 31:13; compare Exodus 9:14; Exodus 9:29. Note also Deuteronomy 29:6; Joshua 24:31; 1 Samuel 3:7).
“ I went out full, and YHWH has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, seeing that YHWH has testified against me, and Shaddai (the Almighty) has afflicted me?”
And now God had made Himself know to Naomi as YHWH. While in the foreign land He had acted towards her as Shaddai, but He was now acting towards her as YHWH. She had gone out full (having a husband and two sons) into a foreign land, and there God had afflicted her as Shaddai and by that means, as the covenant God YHWH, had testified against her as one who had departed from the sphere of the covenant, but it was as YHWH that He had now brought her home again empty (having no husband and no sons) because she had previously removed herself from within the sphere of the covenant.
Note how Naomi equates Shaddai with YHWH in the Hebrew parallelism. It was as Shaddai that He had afflicted her in a foreign land, but it was as YHWH that he had testified against her by this action because with her husband she had removed herself from within the sphere of the covenant. And it was as YHWH, the covenant God, that He had brought her home within the sphere of the covenant, into the land where He had ‘visited His people by giving them bread’ (Ruth 1:6). By His affliction in the foreign land she had ‘known Him’ as Shaddai; by His bringing of her home within the sphere of the covenant she now ‘knew Him’ as YHWH; and she recognised that that it was because of what they had done by leaving the sphere of the covenant that she and her family had suffered.
‘ So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab, and they came to Beth-lehem in the beginning of the barley harvest.’
Naomi had, with her husband, deserted from within the sphere of the covenant, because there had been famine in the land, But now when she returned it was to discover a plentiful barley harvest, while she herself was empty. No wonder that in the bitterness of the experience she wanted to change her name. But what she did not as yet realise was the treasure that she had brought with her, Ruth the Moabitess from whose descendants would be born Israel’s greatest king, (and whose even greater ‘son’ would be the Saviour of the world).
“Ruth the Moabitess.” This is the first time that this description has been applied to Ruth and it will occur fairly regularly from now on (Ruth 2:2; Ruth 2:21; Ruth 4:5; Ruth 4:10. Compare also Ruth 2:6; Ruth 2:11). The author is stressing her Moabite ancestry in spite of the fact that she had become a part of an Israelite family and a Yahwist. This suggests that one of his aims is to bring out how such a foreigner who converts to YHWH can find acceptance in the covenant community to such an extent that YHWH will use her to produce Israel’s great king, David.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ruth 1". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13