A Series of Unfortunate Events
Reading: Ruth 1:1-18
Understanding What You Read:
- When did this story take place?
- What caused Elimelech and his family to move to Moab?
- What does “Ephrathites” mean?
- Who were the Moabites? (Genesis 19:30-37)
- Was marriage to someone from Moab allowed? (Deuteronomy 23:3; Nehemiah 13:23-25)
- How long did they stay in Moab?
- Why did Naomi decide to return to Judah?
- Who went with Naomi? Why?
- Why did Naomi say the women should return to their homes?
- What was the reaction of each of the women?
- What is the significance of Ruth’s declaration in Ruth 1:16-17?
Our story begins with a family driven from their home town of Bethlehem because of famine. Their home town is called “Bethlehem in Judah” to distinguish it from another town of Bethlehem that was located in Zebulun (Joshua 19:10,15). They are also called Ephrathites because the old name for the region was Ephrath (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). Elimelech moves to Moab with his wife and two sons. Elimelech’s name means “God is my king.” His wife Naomi’s name means “beautiful or pleasant.” But their children’s names are unusual. The name Mahlon means “infirmity or weak” and the name Chilion means “weary or failing strength.” This has led commentators to wonder if the young men were sickly when born and their ill-health is what caused their early deaths. It is also possible that their names reflect that the boys were born in the time of famine and their names merely reflected the circumstances in which they were born.
Initially, they did not intend to stay long. “Sojourn” indicates this was supposed to be a temporary relocation. Sometime during that stay, Elimelech died. Notice that at his death, Elimelech is referred to as Naomi’s husband. It is an unusual phrasing since usually the woman is referred to as the husband’s wife. The boys then marry two women from Moab, which would be in violation of the law (Deuteronomy 23:3; Nehemiah 13:23-25), but it appears that the women had converted to the Israelite religion because when Orpah leaves Naomi, she is said to have returned to her family and her gods (Ruth 1:15). Orpah married Chilion and Ruth married Mahlon (Ruth 4:10). Eventually, they stayed ten years in Moab, but there is not enough information to conclude when Elimelech died or how long the boys were married before their deaths.
After her sons died, Naomi decides to return to her hometown of Bethlehem. She had heard that the famine had ended through God’s intervention. Her daughters-in-law dutifully go with her, but Naomi decides she is better off returning alone. Naomi sends off her daughters-in-law with a blessing (Ruth 1:8-9). She asks that God deals with them in chedsedh, a Hebrew word that “combines the warmth of God’s fellowship with the security of God’s faithfulness” [J. A. Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name, 1959]. The women cry, showing that there is love between them. Both daughters-in-law insist that they would surely go with Naomi to her people.
But Naomi, calling them her daughters, declines. She can’t offer them another husband (Ruth 1:11-12) because she is too old to have more children. Even if she could find a husband and have children soon, it wasn’t reasonable for them to wait until they were grown. Besides, Naomi is certain that God is against her (Ruth 1:13, 20-21). Like many, Naomi had decided she was better off alone in her misery.
Again the women weep, perhaps understanding the difficulty of the situation. Eventually, Orpah heeds Naomi’s advice and returns, but Ruth refused to go and hangs on to Naomi. Naomi again urges her to go back, pointing out that her sister-in-law was going, perhaps to point out that she would not be alone. Naomi’s God appears to have abandoned Naomi, but perhaps Orpah and Ruth would find comfort in their former religion.
However, Ruth firmly rejects the idea of returning and leaving Naomi. She makes an oath before Naomi’s God that she will not leave Naomi. Her people and her God would become Ruth’s people and Ruth’s God. She would stay with Naomi until death parts them. Ruth had chosen to become an Israelite, leaving behind her family, her nation, and her gods. It is an expression of a covenant vow and a rejection of her past life.
Seeing that Ruth was firm in her decision, Naomi stopped trying to talk her into leaving.
Choices can be crucial. Elimelech made a choice to leave Israel. It appeared to be a good business decision, but it left Elimelech and his sons dead and their wives widowed. Ruth made a choice to leave Moab and its false religion for a new country and the true God (Mark 10:29-30). That choice, while hard at first, brings about new hope as the story progresses.