Mourning: Death of the Family (Ruth 1)

The Death of the Men of the Family (1.1-5)

The phrase “In the days when the judges ruled” would place the timeline of this historical narrative near the beginning of the judges’ period based on the Matthean genealogy: Boaz is the son of Salmon and Rahab. Assuming this is the same Rahab from Joshua 6, these events would be very early in the period of the judges chronologically speaking, perhaps even in the years immediately following Joshua’s death (Judg 2.16). “Famine” was typically a sign of the judgment of God upon His people for faithlessness to the covenant (Lev 26.18-20; Deut 28.23-24).

There is irony in the starting place for this narrative and the circumstances which have come upon that place. Bethlehem is literally “the house of bread” reflecting the fertility of the land. Yet even the house of bread has no bread during the famine. The severity of the famine is what drove the family of Elimelech (whose names means “God is King”) to the country of Moab. Moab was the washbasin of the God of Israel (Psa 60.8; 108.9). The washbasin was used for washing feet. Therefore, Moab is where Yahweh washed His feet. Yet this is where Ruth and Orpah are from.

Sometime after the family arrives in Moab tragedy strikes: Elimelech dies from an unspecified cause. Naomi (whose name means “pleasant”) is left with her two sons: Mahlon and Chilion. Some have speculated that their names mean “sickly” and “frailty” respectively, though there remains uncertainty as to their exact meaning. They both take Moabite wives, something expressly forbidden by the Law (Deut 7.3; cf. Exodus 34.16). While unclear initially which brother takes which woman, 4.10 makes it clear that Mahlon married Ruth.

In verses 1-5 a shift in the narrative takes place as Naomi goes from being a support character (“his wife Naomi,” v.2) to the main character (Elimelech becomes “the husband of Naomi” [v.3] and “her husband” [v.5]). In addition, Mahlon and Chilion similarly go from being “his two sons” (v.1, 2) to being “her two sons” (v.3, 5). This is the narrator’s subtle way of shifting the focus of the narrative onto Naomi.

The Response of the Widows (1.6-22)

God is introduced for the first time in verse 6. Yahweh is introduced into the story as the merciful and gracious God He is (cf. Exodus 34.6-7). He has visited His people to give them food. The “house of bread” has bread once again. Naomi will “return” to Bethlehem and, in this way, she repents, changing her mind.

At some point along the way Naomi began a conversation with her daughters-in-law concerning their return to their home country of Moab. Naomi is sending her daughters-in-law back to their “mother’s house” with the intent that they would remarry. She prays Yahweh’s kindness (Heb. hesed) and rest be upon them. Yahweh’s “kindness” or “faithful love” (HCSB) is his covenantal love. So Naomi understands that Yahweh is interested in the nations, even the well-being of two foreign widows. Ruth and Orpah have shown faithful covenant love and so Naomi invokes the blessing of Yahweh’s faithful covenant love upon them. “Rest” or “security” (NRSV) is likewise invoked as a blessing up Ruth and Orpah. By finding new husbands they would be spared a nomadic life of wandering and enjoy peace in their husband’s house. The women then give vent to their emotions when they “wept loudly” (NIV, translated as a hendiadys). The women will not go home, choosing to “return” to Naomi’s people.

Once again Naomi pleads with her daughters to “turn back” (same word for “return” throughout this chapter). While phrased as a question in most translations, her words to Ruth and Orpah can also be translated as a rebuke: “There is no reason for you to return to Judah with me!” (NET) She wants Ruth and Orpah to repent, as it were, of their folly in following her. Her reasoning is three-fold: 1) she is past childbearing age; 2) she is beyond marrying age; 3) even if she married and had sons, it would take years before they would be old enough for Ruth and Orpah to have as husbands. We are also introduced to a recurring theme for Naomi: her bitter situation. She is a widow without the prospect of relief from these circumstances. She does not want her daughters-in-law to experience what she did in Moab – being a widow in a foreign land. Therefore, she pleads with them for a second time to return to their homeland.

In a stunning twist, Naomi blames Yahweh for the calamity which has befallen her. While Yahweh had visited His people with bread, Naomi believes He has visited her with tragedy. This is her theological assessment of the deaths of her husband a decade ago as well more recently her two sons and having no children from her daughters-in-law to carry on the family lineage.  Block sums up Naomi’s perspective: “Naomi is a bitter old woman who blames God for her crisis. Naomi feels that she is the target of God’s overwhelming power and wrath.”[1] So God is to blame for her bitterness.

The reaction of Ruth and Orpah is virtually identical to verse 9: loud weeping. This time, though, the outcome is different. Orpah leaves after kissing Naomi goodbye. We never hear of her again. Ruth yet again refuses to leave. In fact, Ruth “clung” to Naomi as a husband is to “hold fast” to his wife (Gen 2.24).

Naomi tries a third time to dissuade Ruth from going with her (15). Ruth, however, refuses to “abandon” (NET)[2] Naomi. She makes a three-fold commitment. First, Ruth will live wherever Naomi lives. Second, what Naomi has (people and God) Ruth will likewise share. Third, Ruth will be buried wherever Naomi is buried. Ruth is promising to be with Naomi the rest of her life. To show her full loyalty she binds herself with an oath to Yahweh that nothing short of death will separate them (17b). Seeing Ruth’s determination Naomi says no more.

The women arrive back in Bethlehem which causes an uproar among the citizens. After a decade Naomi, the pleasant one, has returned marked by the grief, pain, and trouble of those years in her physical appearance it would seem for the women ask, “Is this Naomi?” The women asking this question implies Naomi is unrecognizable. Naomi has become embittered by the calamity which has befallen her. She invokes a self-imposed name change; she is now Mara or “bitter.” Once again we see that she blames “the Almighty…Yahweh” for the calamity. She claims, somewhat paradoxically, to have been “full” when she left during the famine a decade ago. There is no hint that Naomi credits Yahweh for her fullness when she left. However, Yahweh, in her mind, is certainly to blame for her emptiness in her return. The Almighty has “testified” in the divine council against Naomi, declaring her guilty and deserving of the bitter calamity which has befallen her. This is why she should be called Mara. Yet despite the name change, the narrator never calls Naomi Mara; she remains Naomi throughout the narrative. Perhaps 1.22 is why the name change does not stick: Naomi still has “Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her.” She is not really empty after all. Also, the famine is over and the barley harvest has arrived.

[1] Block, 637

[2] Most English translations have “leave.” The NET translates ozbek (Heb. עזב) as “abandon.” This agrees with the primary definition found in the Dictionary of Biblical Languages.