The book of Ruth is the only book in the Bible named after a non-Israelite. She was a foreigner and not even the only main character. Her actions are so amazing, though, that she has rightfully been given the place of honor. Unlike Boaz and Naomi, her choices shape the book’s events, and she is the vehicle of God’s blessings to the other characters.
The book of Ruth is placed after the book of Judges in our Bible because it occurs during that time period. This placement is an old and traditional arrangement. The Hebrew Bible, though, puts it right after the book of Proverbs. Ruth would then immediately follow Proverbs 31 in which the virtues of a virtuous woman is praised. This placement also makes sense for the character of Ruth since she is probably one of the most righteous women in the Bible.
1) In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.
During the time of Ruth and Judges, there was no king of Israel, so everyone did what seemed right to them. Local order was often kept by the priests, prophets, and leaders of the various tribes. Judges kept Israel as a nation on course and free from invaders. In general, though, everyone had to care for themselves. In times of hardship, they had to hope for the kindness of friends and family since there were no government safety nets.
Our story follows a small, poor family unit that did not have enough resources to make it through this famine, unlike their neighbors. Bethlehem was just 5 miles south of Jerusalem, which was on the Dead Sea’s west side. Its primary source of income was farming. The land of Moab was just on the southeast side of the Dead Sea. The closeness of the two nations means the famine must have been a small local famine.
The people of Moab were descendants of Lot, who often had a bad relationship with Israel. They worshiped the god Chemosh and even oppressed Israel at times. At the same time, they were seen as relatives of Israel and not as bad as entirely unconnected nations like the Philistines. It seems odd that this family would not have traveled with a larger family unit of cousins and relatives. It also seems strange that they would have traveled such a short distance to a hostile country instead of other parts of Israel. The story leaves the details of their struggles out. We are left pondering why they alone in their community had to travel because of the famine. The verse does not give judgment on whether this man made the right choice or not.
If you are like me, you may have grown up hearing about a “perfect” will of God and the implied “less perfect” will of God that happens when we don’t get things right. The Bible does not support this. Instead, it talks about all things working together for the good of those who are called to his purpose. Sometimes there isn’t a perfect choice. Sometimes God lets us make whatever choice without clear direction, knowing that his purpose will be accomplished either way.
2) The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
Elimelek’s name means “God is King.” Naomi’s name means “pleasant.” Mahlon means “sickly,” and Kilion means “deathly.” The sons’ names may have been distorted from their original form because of this story. The morphing of names to describe the character of the person happens at other times in biblical storytelling. I do find it interesting that Elimelek’s name still means “God is King.” Had the story wanted to pass judgment of him for his choices, they could have changed his name.
3) Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons.
To die in a foreign land was often seen in the Bible as a huge tragedy. It was far better to die near one’s family and in one’s homeland and at peace. This family experienced one hardship after another! The death of Elimelek seems to have happened soon after they had moved since nothing had happened between moving and his death. The unexpected death may have been the reason that Naomi did not move immediately back to Israel. As a widow, she was left in the care of her sons, who liked it there in Moab.
4) They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years,
5) both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Marrying foreigners was strictly prohibited in the Bible. The commentary I was using said the particular word for marriage in this verse has a negative vibe such as to abduct. It is typically only used for illegitimate marriages or marriages to foreigners. Israelites would have seen God’s judgment on the union in the fact that both sons have no children in ten years of marriage.
Then she loses her sons.
The tragedy for Naomi is intense here. She has lost everything. In ancient times, she could not just get a job and support herself. She was doomed to a life of poverty without any men in her life to care for her. She is utterly alone in a foreign land and has lost everyone she loves. She has gone through one hardship after another. At this point, she may have lost hope in the future since there were very few options left to her.
Ruth and Orpah also, have lost a lot. Not as much as Naomi, but still a lot. They both probably married in their teenage years, 15-18 years old, but had no children after ten years. Even though they would still be young enough to marry again and continue to try to have children, whoever married them would be taking a significant risk of not having any children considering their track record. At a time in history when children were the whole point of marriage, wealth was seen as how many children you had. These girls were terrible marriage material. While still only in their twenties, their futures also seemed to be over, and doomed to poverty. At least they may have family or friends in their communities to care for them. It doesn’t look like their husbands left them any fortune to act as a dowry or as a support to live on.
Naomi and Ruth Return to Bethlehem
6) When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.
Remarkably, both girls decide to go with Naomi. This loyalty shows that they all must have had a good relationship. Naomi seemed to have loved and accepted her daughters-in-law even though they were foreigners.
7) With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8) Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.
9) May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them goodbye, and they wept aloud.
I imagine that as they were traveling, Naomi was thinking over the difficulties she faced as a foreigner and the problems her daughters-in-law would face in Israel. Living in a different culture, even a closely related one, is full of social embarrassments, feelings of isolation, confusion about customs, and constant changes to every part of your life. I have done this numerous times. I went from living among Cuban American cousins to moving to the rural mid-west American culture, then residing in Scottish, French, and German cultures, then back to America again. Once you become a foreigner, you will always be a foreigner. It changes you. You can never go back to the way things were. Every time you move, you have to start over again in making friends and learning how to live in that new situation.
Also, Naomi knew that there was no future for her daughter-in-law in Israel. No one would take care of them. They had no friends. No one would marry a penniless widow from a foreign land who could not have children. There was nothing in Israel for these girls. Not one hope existed for anything good to happen to them in Naomi’s mind. Throughout history, dying from poverty and starvation was always a real possibility.
10) and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11) But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?
12) Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—
13) would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
14) At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15) “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
This argument is ridiculous on purpose. Naomi is probably around 50 years old. Even if she were interested in marrying again, she wouldn’t be able to have children. Naomi also uses the Hebrew word for guts instead of the traditional term for womb. She presents the silliness of her daughters-in-law’s potential situation if they continue to travel with her in obvious hyperbole.
The bitterness at her plight and blame on God for her troubles seems through this speech. These negative emotions are not a lack of faith in God. Because of her faith in God, she sees that God is involved in her life. In many ways, Naomi reflects here that same kind of bitterness and faithfulness as the book of Job. She sees God has a reason for everything, even if she doesn’t understand it. She acknowledges that God is in control of these events and let it all happen.
Commentaries like to criticize her for her honest view of the world. They say she should have been more optimistic or less bitter. I think that is silly. She is still grieving, and she sees things as being difficult because they are. She has a plan to improve her situation, but she isn’t sugar-coating anything. You deal with life as it is, not the way you hope it will be. God doesn’t need us to pretend that bad things don’t happen.
This speech also shows that Naomi really does love her daughters-in-law. This tough love of telling them to go home was probably harder for her than them. Naomi spoke truth and wisdom in urging them to return home because they had no future with her. She could not provide for their needs, and she saw no chance that any Israelite man would take even a second look at poor foreign women. She was urging them to have a comfortable life being taken care of by family members. Her daughters-in-law could stay at home in their communities and with their friends. There is nothing in her urging them to leave that was the least bit selfish.
Naomi was probably planning on just going home to Isreal to die. She has lost hope in the future, and she knew that starvation maybe what laid ahead. She may not even know who still lived in her home town who could even help her. Unlike her husband, she would rather die in her homeland than on foreign soil. That would have been enough to go home to in the worst-case scenario. The best case would be that she could live off of her friends and relatives’ leftover abundance. She would be a beggar or servant in her own home.
16) But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.
17) Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
18) When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
Ruth is making a very foolish choice from the world’s point of view. She is decreeing her own poverty and doom in her loyalty to Naomi. This determination goes beyond just love for a person. She makes a vow to follow Naomi’s God even though that isn’t part of the discussion. What she is saying is that she is going to completely embrace the culture of Naomi’s people. She has found something about Naomi’s faith in God through hardship compelling. The word for loving-kindness (“hesed” in Hebrew) is used repeatedly in the book of Ruth and is often seen as a theme.
It is possible that Ruth first saw this divine loving-kindness in Naomi’s acceptance of her. Naomi was not a mean prudish follower of God, nor was she unfaithful to God in loving the foreign women her sons married. Life is very messy. People make mistakes or sin. It isn’t our duty to punish them for it. Life consequences and God will do that enough. We have to share the love of God with everyone. Ruth’s response to this love was to show love back. Ruth wants to care for Naomi. She probably sees that Naomi is going home to die, but Ruth wants to do what she can for her to live. She ties her fate to Naomi’s so that Naomi won’t be alone.
19) So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20) “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.
21) I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
22) So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
The city of Bethlehem was built on a hill in the mountainous region of Judah. On a clear day, a person could see all the way into the land of Moab from there. The city itself was a small village of about 300 people. One can imagine that anything new happening would cause quite a stir.
This Bible passage uses terms that describe explicitly that the town’s women were gathering and speaking to Naomi about what happened to her. In this time in history, the houses of the community, where the women would be cooking and caring for children, would have all been in the center of town. The fields would have been outside of town. Many of the men would have been out in the fields during the day. It would have been mostly women who would have greeted Naomi as she came home.
Naomi’s summary of her ten years away from home is that of sorrow and bitterness. She has come home for comfort, and it looks like for a little while, she is getting this emotional support she needs. For now, Ruth fades into the background and allows Naomi to take the lead.
There is a little hope for provision for Naomi and Ruth because it is a time of harvest. This is when food would be most abundant. We are given a tiny glimmer of optimistic foretelling that Ruth and Naomi will not starve to death. If you have read the end of this story, we know, though, that God often has bigger plans than we do.
In the end, our choices all boils down to one: will we trust God or not.