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Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Ruth
By Judy Fentress-Williams
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A Dialogue of Determination
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16b)
With these words, Ruth the Moabite states her intention to stay with Naomi her mother-in-law, even as Naomi tries to send her away. There is something unfathomable about Ruth's pledge. It is unexpected and lacks reasonable motivation. Her words reflect an undeterred faithfulness that stands out against their dire circumstances of barrenness and widowhood. That is why Ruth's expression of fidelity composes one of the most beloved portions of Scripture and has secured a place in the Christian tradition, most notably in the marriage ceremony, to express a lifelong commitment.
Ruth said these words to Naomi "on their way to go back to the land of Judah" (v. 7). It is the pivotal moment in the first chapter. It takes place when Ruth and Naomi are between their respective homelands, moving from Ruth's land to Naomi's home. It is when neither one is "at home" that Ruth makes a vow to Naomi that will demand a new understanding of family and home, changing both of their identities forever.
"In the days that the judges ruled ..." (1:1-5)
The story of Ruth begins "in the days that the judges ruled," with a man named Elimelech and his family, which includes his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. The family lives in Bethlehem, but a famine forces their migration to Moab. While there, Elimelech dies. The two sons take Moabite wives named Orpah and Ruth. Sometime later, both Mahlon and Chilion die. In the wake of these losses, Naomi receives word that there is now food in Bethlehem and she embarks on her return journey with her two daughters-in-law.
The introductory verses of this narrative present the characters, setting, and action of the story. In verse 1, the reader is introduced to a "certain man" who is of Bethlehem in Judah. In this same verse we learn he has a wife and two sons. In addition to their names, this introduction tells us about their geographic location and their family ties. They belong to the tribe of Judah and they are further identified as Ephrathites from Bethlehem. Ephrathah is an established region in Judah. In much the same way we identify ourselves with a first name, a surname, and then a geographic location, this "certain man" comes into focus with each additional bit of information.
Once the main players are identified, the narrative moves quickly and unceremoniously changes the setting. This established family encounters a series of tragedies, beginning with a famine. The crisis of the famine leads to other losses. The family moves because of the famine, and Elimelech dies. The sons marry and then also die. The deaths of the men, who provide for their family, create another type of famine. Now the narrative shifts its attention to Naomi, Elimelech's widow, who will begin the return home.
The setting and action in the first five verses are wonderful examples of the way Scripture functions on a number of levels. We begin with the setting (time and location) that provides the backdrop for the action. The chapter begins with a temporal reference, "In the days when the judges ruled," approximately thirteenth to twelfth century BCE, before the monarchy. This time marker, along with the concluding genealogy, means the narrative takes place toward the end of Israel's time without a king and anticipates the advent of the monarchy, thus providing a geographical and political setting. In the days of the judges, Israel lived in tension with her surrounding neighbors. A sojourner would be at the mercy of the citizens of the land in which he or she traveled.
It is also the case that "in the days when the judges ruled" there was a pattern of narrative action that is established in the book of Judges. This pattern connected the political life of Israel to its relationship with God. In Judges, the Israelites would forget YHWH and begin worshiping the other gods of the people who surrounded them (2:10b-19). In response to their disobedience, God would "hand them over" to their enemies who oppressed them. The people would cry out to God, who would raise up a judge to deliver them, establishing peace in the land for a period of time, usually a generation, forty years. At the end of that time, the people would forget and pursue other gods, and the cycle would begin again.
In the book of Ruth, there is no mention of a judge, and oppression comes not from another nation but from a famine. Is this a punishment from God because of Israel's disobedience? The famine and the resulting movement into the territory of Moab seem to go against the pattern in Judges where disobedience results in outsider incursion and oppression. Whereas the action in Judges takes place so that Israel will correct her disobedient behavior and worship YHWH only, here the narrative action forces an Israelite family out of its homeland only to return with a Moabite who will become one of the people of Israel.
The action begins in Bethlehem (house of bread). Location takes the foreground as it will be an interpretive lens throughout the narrative. Bethlehem is significant in the history of Israel. Here are a few examples:
1. Bethlehem was taken by the Philistines for a period of time until it was reclaimed by David and made the capital city.
2. In the fifth century BCE, Bethlehem was reoccupied by the returning exiles.
3. Bethlehem is referred to by the prophet Micah as the birthplace of the anointed one or Messiah (Mic 5:2).
The location of the family in a significant city creates some anticipation on the part of the reader. Ephrathah is a name associated with the area around Bethlehem, and it means "fruitful." The additional designation as Ephrathites may serve to strengthen the connection to Bethlehem. Ephrathah is a territory in Judah, and in this context it could refer to a city, district, tribal, or kinship group (Campbell 1975, 55). So the first reference to Elimelech as "a certain man of Bethlehem" suggests this is very likely a well-established Bethlehemite family. And this family, both by virtue of its location and the subsequent action of the narrative, will play a vital role in the story of Israel.
The strong ties to Bethlehem make Elimelech's sojourn to Moab more of a trauma because someone with strong ties to home does not leave easily. The famine is a powerful force, one with the power to uproot and create sojourners out of the well established. Elimelech's sojourn places him in the company of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who became sojourners because of famine. In the cases of Abraham and Isaac, there was a very real threat to their families on account of the wives who could have been taken from the husbands (Gen 12; 20; 26). For Abraham, Sarai was twice taken by the ruling monarch because of her beauty, to be saved by some supernatural act of God on her behalf. Jacob and his family settled in Goshen to avoid famine (Gen 46), and his descendents became slaves in that land. In Ruth, the family will move and the family will be in jeopardy, albeit not at the hand of an earthly monarch.
The second location that creates a setting is Moab. Moab is the region of land east of Judah, just on the opposite side of the Dead Sea. The geographic proximity between Israel and Moab speaks to its shared history. Moab is the setting for the book of Deuteronomy—it is where the wandering Israelites camped as they waited to enter the promised land. It is the place where Moses died and was buried.
In spite of its location, the people of Moab are referred to as belonging to "the nations," that is, people who are not Israelites. Although Moab falls into the category of "other," their origins reveal that these people are related to the Israelites. Genesis 19:30-38 chronicles the origins of Moab and Ammon, the sons of Lot, Abraham's nephew. Moab is begotten out the shameful act of incest in Gen 19 between Lot and his daughters. Even though it is close, the land of Moab is not an ideal location to resettle. Either the famine is terrible, or there is something terribly wrong with Elimelech's decision to travel there.
What then are the reasons for Elimelech's journey? The text does not supply one and we are left to come up with our own answers. One solution comes from the genre of the material. An essential element of the comedic plot is movement "from one social center to another" (Frye 1957, 166). So one possibility is that this type of story depends on a shift in location. Another set of possibilities comes from Midrash, the fifth-sixth-century commentary of Ruth called the Ruth Rabbah, which speculates that Elimelech's stature in the community left a void, or perhaps he left to avoid the many requests for help he would have received. This selfish reason for leaving could then be used to justify his untimely death (Nielsen 1997, 18). For postexilic readers, Elimelech's departure from the land would evoke the exile. The Babylonian exile was a selective one. Political leaders, priests, community leaders, and the aristocracy—people like Elimelech—were removed from the land. The extended time in exile meant that many Israelites intermarried and many never returned. All of these possibilities share a basic understanding of leaving the land as undesirable.
The idea that leaving the homeland is a bad idea is supported by its very name. Bethlehem, "house of bread," connotes abundance, not famine. Ephrathah, the region from which Elimelech and his family come, means "fruitful" not barren. Thus for the reader who had no historical knowledge of Bethlehem, its very name signals the audience that leaving the house of bread would only happen under dire circumstances.
Just as the locations in the narrative have names that are replete with meaing, so too do the names of the family introduce a host of narrative possibilities. The name of the patriarch in this family, Elimelech ("my God is king"), can be seen as having meaning not only for the character but also for the entire narrative. God's role as monarch suggests God is in control of the narrative events. It also can be seen as a message that reminds readers that, despite Israel's political status, God is, always and ultimately, king. Naomi ("pleasant") is an appropriate name for a wife and mother of sons in a culture where husbands and sons are the conduits of security and blessing for women. Conversely, with names that mean "sickly" and "destruction," respectively, Mahlon and Chilion will not last long. Orpah's name ("back of neck") will be most appropriate in the narrative action of chapter 1. The names of Ruth ("friend" or "to saturate") and Shaddai ("strength, breast") invite an extended dialogue to determine meaning, and to these we will return. All of the elements that define the characters are subject to the transition of the "sojourn" to the land of Moab where they "remained" (vv. 1-2).
Against the established setting of time, place, and names, the action takes place. Elimelech's move to Moab is the act that precedes tragedy. The text informs us of Elimelech's death with no details on the circumstances regarding his death, stating simply that Naomi was left with her two sons who marry Moabite women (v. 4). Again, there is no detail on the circumstances surrounding these marriages, but the word used for taking a wife is surprising. Usually, the verb used for marrying, literally, "taking a wife" is (lakah). In Ruth 1:4, the verb used to describe the marriages of Mahlon and Chilion is not (lakah) but (nasa') to "lift up." This verb (nasa') is used to describe the "taking" of wives in Judg 21. In that story, the tribe of Benjamin is judged for its deplorable behavior and a civil war ensues resulting in Benjamin's defeat. None of the tribes of Israel wanted its daughters to marry men from Benjamin. In order to keep Benjamin from dying out, the people decided Benjamin should have wives from Shiloh. The men of Benjamin were instructed to lie in wait, until the young women of Shiloh came out to dance at the yearly festival. The men "carried off" (nasa') virgins to be their wives, thus preventing the line of Benjamin from dying out. Does the use of this verb in Ruth suggest that the marriages between Mahlon, Chilion, and their Moabite wives were less than acceptable? Is it intimating that Orpah and Ruth were "kidnap brides," married to these men against their will, or perhaps that the customs of the Moabites were not regarded in the contracting of these marriages?
In streamlined, determined form, the narrative moves from the death of Elimelech to the marriage of his sons to their death. This is tragedy on a grand scale. Elimelech's death is preceded by leaving the homeland, and his sons' deaths are preceded by marrying foreign women. In Israel's religion, these two acts are major violations of one's core identity, so that the deaths of the men function on literal and symbolic levels.
It is noteworthy that Mahlon and Chilion were married for approximately ten years, because it is plenty of time to have a child. The mention of ten years' time informs us that before the brothers die, there is barrenness. In the ancient world, a woman without sons was in a precarious position. Women inherited property through the men in their lives. A woman without sons had no means of provision if her husband died before she did. From the perspective of the text, it is Naomi (not the Moabite widows) who is bereft.
The book of Ruth reflects a cultural construct of identity that is rooted in family, kinship group, tribe, and land. Israel's identity is not simply cultural. It is a theological matter. The Israelites are the family of Abraham, but their covenant with God means that the Israelites are the people of God. Thus the descendants of Abraham use family language and the metaphors of marriage and adoption to describe their relationship with God. This means that whenever something happens to threaten Israel's well-being, there are immediate theological questions that arise. In the book of Ruth, the first five verses are characterized by a famine that results in a sojourn. The movement away from the homeland strips Elimelech and his family of the markers of their identity: land, family ties, and regulations. For the people of God, these events are not simply historical or narrative events. They are theological events that are concerned with what it means to be God's people in dire circumstances.
The famine is the first in the "series of unfortunate events" that strip Naomi of land, husband, continued lineage, and name. Famine is a literal agricultural death and a harbinger of sickness and death for the inhabitants of the land. In the agrarian societies of the ancient Near East, famine had religious connotations. Many cultures (including those surrounding Israel during the time of the judges) believed in deities whose roles were to ensure the production of a crop. The male storm god Baal caused the rain to come in the spring and fertilize the earth, the female deity, allowing the earth to produce grain. A famine would mean that the gods had been unwilling to perform their duties, thus requiring some response from the people who had somehow erred (Robertson 2010, 99-101). This earlier understanding of famine continues to have a symbolic meaning that simply means things are not right.
For Israel, famine was the direct result of YHWH's hand, as it was YHWH who brought rain and harvest. In short, famine was a clear sign that things were not as they should be. In the stories of the ancestors, famine caused Abraham and Isaac to sojourn to other lands where their families faced potential danger because of their wives' beauty. Because this famine is set in the context of the book of Judges, where there is a pattern of sin followed by punishment, a question arises as to whether the famine is punishment for the sin of the people.
In the story of Ruth, the famine forces Elimelech and his family from the ancestral land. In this family- and lineage-based culture, being "cut off" from the land is a type of death. The family is the stronghold against death and the family is rooted to the land. In this sense, the removal from the land is more than a precursor of tragedy, it is a tragedy in itself. Seen in this light, the ensuing deaths of the men can be understood as a direct result of being separated from the land. The land anchors the family and apart from the land there is no safety. An ancient Near Eastern worldview would consider leaving the homeland the equivalent of death, so Elimelech is dead before he dies in the land of Moab. The famine forces Naomi's family out of the land and makes her a widow. Naomi's dilemma is the result of a forced exile and a return many years later. The forced separation from the land and subsequent events left Naomi without markers of her identity structure. With famine comes the loss of life, livelihood, family, and identity. It is easy to see how this catastrophe evokes the experience of the exile for those who return.
A theological reading of these opening verses understands the famine to be both a historical event and something more. Famine evokes a spiritual time of separation. Verse 1 informs the reader that it is the time or season of famine. Thus in this first chapter the reader is reminded of the pain of separation. Inherent in the story of Judah's exile is the longing for restoration. This spiritual separation is effectively conveyed in the language of famine. The devastation of a famine evokes the cognitive dissonance of exile or any experience of separation from God.
Mahlon and Chilion were married for ten years before their deaths, implying barrenness. Like famine, barrenness suggests a lack of God's presence or favor. The fact that the text makes specific mention of ten years as the length of Mahlon's and Chilion's marriages calls to mind the prohibition against the Moabites in Deut 23:3. Does the ten years of childless marriage allude to the exclusion of Moab from the congregation of Israel until the tenth generation? If so, a theological reading may open up the possibility that the ten generations has passed and it is now time to bring Moab back.
"Then she started to return ..." (1:6-18)
In this section, Naomi hears that the famine is over and she leaves for home with her two daughters-in-law. On the way back, she has a change of heart and attempts to sends her daughters-in-law back to their Moabite families. She is only partially successful. Orpah returns home, but Ruth is undeterred in her decision to stay with Naomi. Ruth expresses her determination to stay in the vow that binds her to Naomi and renews the family ties.
Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Ruth by Judy Fentress-Williams. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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