Ruth 1

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Naomi's Family Falls on Hard Times (1-5)

Verse 1: In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. (NRSV)

  • This is a very vague time frame, somewhere during a 400 year period before the time of the kings.
    • The time of the judges was known to be very lawless and chaotic. The classic phrase from the book of Judges, which deals with that time period, is “and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
    • By calling attention to the time period, the author could be pointing out that this entire story is set in a time when nothing was really like it should be.
  • The wording here links this story with the stories of the Patriarchs, and brings anticipation that this story can be just as earth-shaking (Hubbard 85).
  • Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” Saying that the house of bread was suffering says that the entire nation was suffering.
  • This is the Bethlehem in Judah as opposed to the Zebulunite one. At this time it was a small town about five miles south from Jerusalem (Block 624).
  • Moab was a traditional enemy of Israel, and sometimes during the time of Judges Israel was even conquered and Moab rule Judges 3:14. To be forced to run to such an enemy was an act of desperation.
  • Literally, this is the “fields” of Moab, as opposed to the “land” or “country” of Moab.
    • This phrasing emphasizes the fertile nature of the land as opposed to their homeland at the time.
    • This term could also mean the plateau that Moab had, a fertile area about 25 miles wide along the Sea's East shore (Hubbard 85).
  • It is Elimelech's decision to leave, not Naomi's.
  • There is also a possible connotation that this famine was a result of God's judgment. This is not mentioned explicitly, but by putting it in the context of the Judges it calls up Deuteronomy 30:1-10 that repentance is the key to ending famine (Block 626), the cause of which is disobedience to God by the people.
  • This verse also seems to imply that only this one family left, or at least that it wasn't a mass exodus. This should probably be considered an act of disbelief, a lack of faith.
  • There is no time frame on the famine, but it is sometimes connected with Judges 6 as the time frame allows for this to have occurred alongside with Gideon's life (Keil-Delitzsch 470-471).

Verse 2: The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. (NRSV)

  • This is a great deal of detail, especially as the brothers so quickly leave the account.
  • Elimelech means “my God is king” (Block 624). And yet here, he was going against the trust that his name implies. His name subtly brings up the question of “where is God in all of this?” God is a subtle player in this story, but always present.
  • By mentioning Elimelech first, and Naomi second makes Elimelech the main character, if only for a bit. This emphasizes the loss that this would have been to Naomi. She was losing her primary character, so to speak.
  • The sons names are very interesting.
    • “Mahlon” probably mean “to be sick” and Chilion means “frailty, morality” (Block 624).
    • Their names not only speak to the poverty of the time and as a foreshadowing of what is to come.
  • The use of “remained there” instead of a time frame indicates that this should be seen as a permanent move (Hubbard 91).

Verse 3: But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. (NRSV)

  • Now the roles are reversed, and instead of Naomi being Elimelech's wife, he is her husband. She is now the focus.
  • The irony is that they left Israel to avoid hunger, but death found them in their refuge.
  • There is no sense of time here. This verse could be separated from both of the surrounding verses by years or merely months.
  • If Naomi's sons were young, then she would have had no way of taking care of herself other than begging or prostitution, as the rest of her family was in another country.

Verse 4: These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, (NRSV)

  • Marrying Moabites was not specifically prohibited, but as they were pagan, this shouldn't have happened.
    • Taking local wives should probably be considered another sign of a lack of faith.
    • Naomi sacrificed her beliefs in order to try and perpetuate her family.
    • ”Took wives” is not the normal way of saying marriage. This way can imply, but by this time probably indicates an illegitimate marriage, or one outside of the clan (Block 628).
  • Again, this is a vague time statement as we don't know how long it was from arriving to the sons getting married. The 10 years is about the time since marriage.
  • Orpah's name seems to be a generic name more about her role than anything that was used as a name. It means “turning the back/(neck)” (Keil-Delitzsch 472) and indicates how she left them.
  • The meaning of Ruth's name is uncertain. The best guess is that it means “female companion” but there are a wide range or other unlikely ideas (Campbell 56).

{{New Chapter |Verse Number=5 |Verse Text=both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. |Version=NRSV |Commentary=*Literally, this says “and even their two died”, highlighting that this is all that was left (Block 629).

  • Mahlon and Chilion are referred to her as her “children” instead of sons, and this is the only instance in the OT where the term is used of married men (Campbell 56).
  • That neither of the sons had children before dying indicates that the time between marriage and death was not very long.
  • Children to Naomi's sons are not mentioned here, presumably because there were no children. Children were a legacy, proof of God's blessing, and 10 years without children should be seen as another example of how God's blessing was definitely not on this family.
  • By referring to Naomi as “the woman” here, the writer is pointing out how with the loss of her family, she has also lost her identity, she is adrift (Hubbard 97).

Naomi Returns Home (6-22)

Verse 6: Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. (NRSV)

  • Leaving Moab would involve abandoning the graves of her husband and sons, leaving it all behind.
  • God taking care of the people in Israel is in contrast to how God had not apparently been taking care of Naomi and her family.

Verse 7: So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. (NRSV)

  • The term translated here as “went on their way” is more often used to talk about following the practice of someone before you (Campbell 63), like following the way of the teacher.
    • This could be a purposeful double meaning, that Naomi was returning to the way of her ancestors, the Israelites, as well as returning to their territory.

Verse 8: But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. (NRSV)

  • That the daughters-in-law stayed with Naomi at all after their husbands died is testament to how well they treated Naomi.
  • Returning to the mother's house instead of their father's is significant.
    • It is unlikely that both of their fathers were dead, so that is probably not what this is about.
    • It could be that Naomi is saying to return to their physical mother's house instead of staying with their mother-in-law, that they should have a greater connection with their mothers than with her.
    • It could also be an Israelite custom that in matters of marriage, and especially engagement, it is the mother's house that is important (Campbell 64).
  • There isn't any mention about the reasons for why Naomi was telling them to leave her. Naomi's blessing is very generous and optimistic, but verse 11 and her later statements indicate a deep bitterness and depression regarding her fortunes.
  • This is a use of God's name, used in a blessing to foreigners, presumably in a foreign land still. Apparently Naomi recognized God's power in other lands, though she also recognized other gods.
  • This is a formal releasing of her daughter-in-laws responsibility to her (Hubbard 103).

Verse 9: The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. (NRSV)

  • Naturally this is a prayer that they will get married again, a distant dream after 10 years of marriage already, but a hope none the less.
  • This kiss is a kiss of goodbye, one that is returned by Orpah in verse 14.

Verse 10: They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” (NRSV)

  • Orpah gets a bad reputation for leaving, but they both resisted Naomi's orders once.

Verse 11: But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? (NRSV)

  • Traditionally, if the husband died without children, his brother would father children on the dead man's wife so that his line would continue.
    • This was an Israelite custom, however, and might not be what these Moabites had in mind.
    • It could be that the ladies were just used to being in Naomi's family (Block 636).
  • The assumption Naomi seems to be working from is that marriage is the primary concern for her daughters-in-law. They needed support.

Verse 12: Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, (NRSV)

  • Naomi here expresses indirectly that she has lost all hope for herself.
  • This is a sequence of more and more improbable events.
    • That Naomi would find a husband, have multiple children, and at least two men, is extremely improbable.
    • At the same time, this sets the stage that future children are the way to secure Naomi's future, children that God would have to provide (Hubbard 111).

Verse 13: would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.” (NRSV)

  • Naomi is evidently, and understandably, taking this quite personally, and as a direct act of God, even though God has not been mentioned as a driving force in any of this yet.
  • The term “refrain” indicates that marriage is not just the expected, but the desired thing for these women.
  • ”It has been far more bitter for me than for you” is a difficult phrase to translate, and besides this way can also be taken to mean that Naomi is bitter for the ladies sake (Campbell 70).

Verse 14: Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. (NRSV)

  • This kiss is a goodbye, a response to Naomi's kiss in verse 9.
  • But this time it wasn't Naomi that was going to be separated from them, but Orpah that was leaving.
  • In light of the preceding verses, we must interpret Orpah leaving as her wanting another husband and security, while Ruth sacrifices her own well-being and future security for Naomi.
  • Orpah is not seen here in a negative light, her actions are normal, and are not condemned but used to showcase the amazing actions of Ruth (Block 638).
  • Ruth's decision here is one that goes against sense. She was abandoning her family and people to follow a destitute, bitter, hopeless old woman to a strange land.
  • As one commentator says, “One may understand Orpah; one must emulate Ruth” (Hubbard 116).

Verse 15: So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” (NRSV)

  • It is interesting that Naomi does not expect her daughter in law to maintain the Israelite religion when they return to Moab. Of course, this statement also sets up neatly Ruth's response of faith by creating a near opposite statement.
  • The Hebrew has “god”, it is the Greek Septuagint that makes this plural (Campbell 73).

Verse 16: But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (NRSV)

  • ”Do not press me” is an imperative, in this case a strong plea (Block 640).
  • ”Leave” is here a very strong verb meaning to forsake or abandon (Block 641).
  • This verse and the next one is very poetic, a set of five couplets in Hebrew, each couplet dealing with a topic and then repeating it with slightly different language.
  • Ruth does not take on The LORD as her God because of what God had done, but because of who Naomi was.

Verse 17: Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (NRSV)

  • This is not just a refusal to leave, but a commitment to stay with her mother-in-law and be part of her life.

Verse 18: When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. (NRSV)

  • This is not a statement about saying no more on this subject, but saying no more at all seems to be implied. This is indeed a deep depression that Naomi is I, she was completely preoccupied with her own problems.

Verse 19: So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (NRSV)

  • While Naomi has been gone for a number of years, apparently the years have not been kind because people do not really recognize her.

Verse 20: She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. (NRSV)

  • Naomi recognizes the changes in herself the people see, but instead of just making it about her physical changes, Naomi says that it goes even deeper, she is bitter.
  • Naomi's name change here reflects a profound depression and hopelessness about life. Instead of God making her life pleasant (Naomi), God made her life bitter and miserable (Mara).
  • There is never any acknowledgement of Naomi or her husband's actions that led to these events. It was their leaving that precipitated these actions, but Naomi only talks about God as being the cause, rightly or not.
  • ”Almighty” is a title for God, not the actual name, it is how “el Shaddai” or “the one of the mountain” (Block 645).

Verse 21: I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (NRSV)

  • Quite literally, a woman's life was expected to be filled by having male children and being married. She literally went away full and came back without anything that gave her standing.
  • ”Dealt Harshly” and “brought calamity” are legal terms. They refer to God testifying against her, and passing sentence (Campbell 77).
  • This is again a very selfish picture, because she is back home with a loving daughter-in-law who had just pledged her life basically, and yet none of this is mentioned.

Verse 22: So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. (NRSV)

  • This is a double use of “Moab” which is used to emphasize that Ruth was a foreigner.
  • There is no mention of how Ruth was accepted, or what Ruth thought of Naomi being so bitter. The focus of this verse is on Naomi's feelings, Ruth is secondary.

Message Ideas/Scripts/Liturgy That Use This Chapter

Big Actions, Little Actions19-21We can't do everything, but we can do enough with God's guidance.Depression
GeneralGeneralMessage Idea
What Love Can Do1-22God is at work in even the worst circumstances of our life, through the people around us and the seemingly ordinary things of life.Theodicy
AdultGeneralMessage Idea