We are studying Ruth 1:6-11, 14-18 for Sunday, August 11. This text is part of the opening chapter of the story of Ruth, the foreign woman who pledges loyalty to her Israelite mother-in-law, and after one thing leads to another becomes the great-grandmother of the Great King David. Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The first words of the story tell us that it happens in the time of the judges. [In Western Civ terms, “the Iron Age.”] This isn’t the best of times in ancient Israel in the best of times, and the beginning of Ruth is much closer to the worst of times because there is a famine in the land of Judah. This sets the events of the story in motion. A man named Elimelech [maybe, “my God is king” although rabbinical etymology comes up with something different, more along the lines of “I want to be king”] leaves for Moab because of it. He takes his family: wife Naomi [“my delight, pleasantness”] and sons Mahlon [“sick”] and Chilion [“pining” – again, the rabbis interpret these names even more disastrously]. The sons marry Moabite gals Orpah [“gazelle” – so, an analog of Dorcas/Tabitha from Acts 9:36-43] and Ruth [apparently, just a name, although it’s possible to make something out of it]. Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chilion die. Which brings us up to verse 6, which is where we pick up the story.
According to the rabbis, the famine in Ruth is one of ten famines in the [scriptural] world. A modern take on famine points out that famine is not simply a natural disaster. Famines are seldom a problem of an absolute shortage of food, but a problem of food not being available to people who need it, for whatever reason. The fact that Elimelech moves his family to Moab – where the food was – underscores that point. The rabbis themselves ruled that leaving the land of Israel during a famine was lawful, recognizing the same point. However, in the Iron Age world the precariousness of the food supply probably had something to do with the narrow margins of surplus generated by the subsistence agricultural economy of the day. In the time of the judges, even “rich people” were only relatively well off.
Elimelech’s choice of Moab as a destination may have been a little questionable [unless it was mysteriously providential]. Moab’s bad reputation in the scriptural world begins in Genesis 19 with the story of the incestuous origins of the Moabites. Then Balak, king of Moab, tries to get Balaam to curse the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land [Numbers 22 ff]. Unsuccessfully, but still.
Then there was the problem of fraternizing with Moabite women in Numbers 25, which had a significantly bad outcome. This might have been a problem in the first place because the Israelites seem to have camped on “the plains of Moab” for some time; it’s the site of the closing census in Numbers (Numbers 26) and of the transmission of some additional commandments (for instance, concerning the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36).
And there is the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22 on including Moabites in “the assembly of YHWH.” This last prohibition, again according to the rabbis, does not apply to Moabite women, however. This is technically obvious, and convenient considering that Ruth’s son and grandson and great-grandson will definitely be seen as legitimate members of Israelite society.
Maybe it is also worth mentioning that most of Deuteronomy takes place on the plains of Moab.
Then, in the time of the judges – possibly the time of the story of Ruth – Eglon of Moab oppresses Israel for 18 years [Judges 3]. Midrash, in fact, has it that Orpah and Ruth are daughters of Eglon. So “Moab” is not exactly a name with positive associations at this point.
The barley harvest, when the women return to Bethlehem, is in the spring, usually April by our calendar. Ritually, the barley harvest is the time between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost). Barley doesn’t figure in many recipes these days (and it isn’t gluten-free, so that probably won’t change), but it was a staple crop in ancient Israel: it ripens faster than wheat, does better with less rainfall, and can flourish on marginal land.
The story of Ruth will unfold as a self-contained and very short unified narrative, with a complete structure. From the beginning we are studying this week, it will unfold a plot that centers around the tension of how Ruth and Naomi will possibly be provided for, which will then be resolved by Boaz’s marriage to Ruth, followed by the birth of Obed.
But although the story of Ruth is an aesthetic whole, and a masterpiece of storytelling, it has a special position in the unfolding narrative of the Biblical canon. The narrative points forward to the house of David. For Christian readers, that means it points forward to the lineage of Jesus.
CLOSER READING: Once the verb return is introduced in verse 6, it repeats eleven more times, an even twelve times in all. Twelve is one of those symbolic Biblical numbers. This could simply be a coincidence.
Naomi’s return to Bethlehem is a literal return – she came from there.
There’s an irony with respect to Bethlehem, for that matter, since the name Bethlehem means, literally, house of bread, where there was a famine – i.e., a shortage of bread – when the story opens. So when Naomi hears that God has given bread to his people in v6, it makes sense to return to the house of that bread.
Naomi urges Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s house, which puts an unusual emphasis on the mother in this story.
That return would, also, be a literal return – where they’ve been before. So, when Orpah does, in fact return to her people and her gods, that, again, is a literal return: to somewhere she has been before.
The return that Ruth resists is the one that would involve turning back from [following] after Naomi (v16). We might want to notice here that the verb being used here is a really very common, garden variety, ordinary verb. It can be translated various ways in context. Sometimes we translate it “repent” or “change your mind.” Ruth does not want to repent of or change her mind about returning with Naomi.
Naomi urges Ruth to turn back three separate times. This provides the textual basis for the Jewish practice of rejecting a prospective convert’s petition three times, before accepting it.
In v17, the construction in Hebrew is well represented by “if even death parts me from you”; that is its conversational sense. But literally, it’s “if death parts me from you,” and we might note that there is a slight suggestion that death has tried to part Ruth and Naomi – that is, with the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, and with this consequent return of Naomi to Bethlehem – and that Ruth is not having any of it.
So when they returned to Bethlehem, Naomi’s return is one thing, and Ruth’s is another. The people of Bethlehem think they recognize Naomi (v19), but Ruth will always be that woman from Moab (v22), who has never been in Bethlehem before. At least not as far as we know, in any ordinary sense.