We remain in the days of the judges for the story of Ruth. In that time, a famine drove the Ephrathite Elimelech out of his home in Bethlehem (which is in the territory of Judah). He found his greener pastures in Moab and settled there with his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

The detail of the famine driving out the family is an interesting one, and it connects Elimelech to patriarchs like Abraham (who went to Egypt while there was a famine in Israel in Genesis 12) and Jacob (who also goes to Egypt during a famine in Canaan in Genesis 42). I can see three possibilities for the inclusion of this detail here:

  1. The story in this book is the literal, historical truth and this is how it began.
  2. Famines happened often enough for this to be a plausible literary device to get the family into Moab.
  3. There is a deliberate literary attempt to connect the book of Ruth to the stories of the patriarchs.

Given some later details that I’ll talk about when I get to them, I think that some combination of #2 and #3 is most likely.

Elimelech died in Moab, and his sons took Moabite wives – Orpah and Ruth. After about ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died, apparently without having had any surviving children.

Thus our scene is set.

The Return

With nothing left for her in Moab and having heard that the hard times are over in Israel, Naomi decides to return to her own natal lands. Before she leaves, she urges her daughters-in-law to return to their own natal homes, there to hopefully start again in new marriages:

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find a home, each of you in the house of her husband! (Ruth 1:8-9)

It’s interesting that she talks of their mother’s home, not their father’s. Ruth seems to me a very feminine story, one that is focused on the domestic sphere concerns of finding a secure place for one’s own family, rather than with the grander political concerns of the past books we’ve read.

Ruth 1 - Naomi entreating Ruth, by William Blake, 1795

Naomi entreating Ruth, by William Blake, 1795

Even Genesis, which focused on households rather than nations, was preoccupied with who begat whom, and how much livestock was owned, and which wells were owned by whom. What mattered about the household was who owned it, who was its patriarch.

Here, however, what matters is who will care for the women when they return, who will fuss over them, who will try to find them new husbands. Naomi does not send the younger women back to the homes of their fathers, but to the arms of their mothers.

The daughters-in-law initially refuse, but Naomi emphasises that she has nothing to offer them, she has no more sons to give them in a Levirate marriage. “Would you therefore refrain from marrying?” (Ruth 1:13). Over and over again, she calls them “daughters” – not “daughters-in-law,” but “daughters.” It’s sweet, and it shows the depth of the relationship between the three women. Even though Naomi is old and would have no one to care for her if the younger women should leave her, she sends them away for their own benefit, calling them her “daughters” as she does so.

They weep, and Orpah kisses Naomi, complying with her request. Ruth, however, “clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). When Naomi tries once again to encourage Ruth to return to her family, she replies:

Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. (Ruth 1:16-17).

In researching this chapter, I saw Ruth’s speech here used to hold her up as an exemplar because she – a foreigner – converts to the worship of God. But that’s not how I read it at all. To me, the god she is agreeing to worship is irrelevant, she is following Naomi. If Naomi worshipped Baal, Ruth would convert to the worship of Baal.

This is not a story about one woman’s steadfast faith in God, it is a story of two women who love each other and who will care for each other even when they are cut off from all social protection and support. This isn’t a religious story, it’s a human story.

The two women arrive in Bethlehem. While the “whole town” (Ruth 1:19) is stirred by their return, it seems that only the women greet them. “Is this Naomi?” they ask.

Naomi, grieving for her lost family and poor fortunes, tells them not to call her Naomi. Rather, she says, “call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).

Background Information

Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic points out that the names of these characters seem to have been carefully chosen:

The names of the characters in this book are symbolic. Mahlon means “sick” and Chilion means “failing.” These two die just five verses into the first chapter. Their father’s name, Elimelech, means “God is king” and is fitting for the book’s premonarchical setting. Naomi means “pleasant” but when she falls on hard times she renames herself Mara, meaning “bitter.” Orpah’s name means “the back of the neck;” she turns away from Naomi. Ruth, on the other hand, means “friend” and she proves a true friend to her mother-in-law. Finally the name Boaz means something like “in him is strength.”

This use of names leads me to think that the book of Ruth is a work of  historical fiction. That does not mean that all of the characters and events in the story are fictional. Even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter includes historical people and events.

Also, when Naomi tries to encourage her daughters-in-law to return to their families, she argues that she has no more sons to give them. This would refer to the Levirate marriage, outlined in Deut. 25:5-6. Essentially, if a man dies without kids, his widow should marry one of his brothers. Her firstborn is then counted as the child of her first husband, able to carry on that line. We saw this kind of marriage in action in Genesis 38.

According to Collins:

This law prevented the widow from marrying outside the family, thereby alienating the family property, but it also was a way of ensuring that the widow would be taken care of. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.269)

It meant that she would have a new protector/home in patriarchal society. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, however, no brothers exist. By remaining with Naomi, Ruth can only expect to live on the margins as a beggar, since without a relative to marry she would – as Naomi puts it – have to “refrain from marrying” (Ruth 1:13).

It’s also important that Ruth is a Moabite. Women like her are said to have tempted Jewish men away from YHWH in Numbers 25, and in Deut. 23:3, we are told that they are absolutely never ever to be allowed into the assembly of the Lord “even into the tenth generation.”

Those books were about politics, and their concern was about the threats of miscegenation to existing power structures. The book of Ruth, however, is about ordinary people, people who find love and support where they can.