American Journal of Biblical Theology
Copyright © 2017, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter Scripture quotes from KJV
It is encouraging when we witness examples of selfless and sacrificial commitment that people demonstrate to other people, to a noble cause, or commonly to both. Often when we observe the fallen state of man, it is easy to forget that as evil as the vast majority of world culture has always been, two truths remain: (1) there is and always has been a remnant of people who have a true, sincere, and saving faith in the LORD, and (2) the LORD continues to work through the lives of the faithful to touch this world with His love. Certainly, the powerful emotions that are generated by phileo love, the worldly and brotherly love that the world knows, can inspire great acts of service and sacrifice. However, such love is conditional and will always at some point fail each of the definitions of love recorded in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, whereas truly expressed agape love never breaks any of them. When emotions are inspired by agape love, that unconditional love that God demonstrates towards us and empowers the faithful to share, the resulting attitudes and actions include the LORD in all that takes place. This moves the blessing found in the expression of love to a whole new level when the LORD steps in and empowers that blessing. This empowerment is never experienced in any acts that are based upon the worldly phileo love.
The Apostle, John writes that those who are faithful to the LORD will be known by their agape love. Even in the worst of times, true agape love shines brightly like a beacon in the darkness as the LORD works through people to encourage, to build up, and to bring positive change into people’s lives. The Old Testament Book of Ruth contains the true story of a family that maintained their faith in the LORD through extremely difficult times and demonstrated that faith in their love towards one another. “it is a story dealing with the providence of God as manifested in the changing identity of the young widow who accepts a new people, a new God, a new country, and a new husband when she follows her mother-in-law back home to Bethlehem.”
A FAMILY OF FAITH
Ruth 1:1a. Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land.
The writer introduces us to the setting of the story in the first two verses of the book; a single Hebrew sentence of only nineteen words. Translation to English requires nearly eighty words. This serves as a reminder of the challenges inherent to the translation of the Hebrew language that uses fewer words that can each have a wide variety of meanings that are determined by their context, their modifiers, and the ways that they are combined.
The timeline of the events that are recorded in this book is established as the days when judges ruled, placing it in the earlier period between the death of Joshua and the anointing of King Saul. This was a time when the apostasy, the “Canaanization” of Israel, was taking place as the nation turned from faith in the LORD to embrace the culture of the pagan society it became immersed in.
When one reads the biblical history of this period as recorded in the book of Judges one might come away thinking that the nation had entirely turned away from God, and as a nation they did. However, we may be reminded that there remained a remnant of faithful people who loved the LORD and sought to be obedient to Him in the activities of their daily lives. As is typically true even today, their numbers were small enough that they did not significantly influence the direction of the nation. Still, this narrative gives us a glimpse into the life-situation and experiences of those who were part of the faithful remnant, and the blessings that they found when they lived in obedience to the LORD while immersed in an ungodly, secular, and pagan culture.
The condition of the nation of Israel is also described in this passage as one of drought. The arid middle-east was dependent upon annual rains for the growing of crops, as well as heavy showers that would cause the Jordan River to overflow its banks and irrigate the soil. When those needed annual rains did not come, the nation could experience a year of agricultural stress. This story starts during one of those years.
Ruth 1:1b-2. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. 2And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.
We are introduced to the family of Elimelech and Naomi. Their names reflect their faith as Elimelech means, “My God is King” and Naomi means, “pleasant” or “delightful.” Little can be inferred from the names of their two sons, though in the Hebrew text their names rhyme with one another. Elimelech will be revealed as a close relative of Boaz who is a wealthy Hebrew landowner in the region around Bethlehem of Judea, implying that Elimelech was not. The largess of an inheritance was traditionally given to the first-born son with smaller portions, if any, given to the others. Consequently, a later son of a later son, after several generations would be landless. Faced with the difficulties of the famine, Elimelech, who owned only a small parcel of land, took his small family to Moab, east of the Jordan, where the climate had been more moderate. Elimelech settled there with his wife and two sons.
Our modern culture often thinks little of packing one’s bags and traveling to another place that may have more opportunities. However in ancient cultures, such movements were critical. With a lack of bread in Bethlehem (which means, literally, “house of bread,” Elimelech chose to leave Israel for the pagan land of Moab. Ancient culture held to the geographical influence of their gods, so not only was Elimilech leaving his family, but to their understanding, He was also leaving the land of His God, to immerse himself in the land of a foreign God, in this case the Moabite god, Chemosh. “The narrator may want to present an irony that God is no longer Elimelek's king, as his name declared, because he went to live his life under other gods who are Baal and Chemosh, the gods who people claimed could help his life and family from the famine. In addition, we need to be reminded that these gods were believed to have a role of providing food. The name of Moab, which may refer to the picture of water, also gives us the picture of food as well.”
A FAMILY IN CRISIS
Ruth 1:3. And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons. 4And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. 5And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.
Shortly after their move to Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two sons. If the chronology matches the grammar, it was after Elimelech died that the two sons took Moabite wives. Intermarriages with Moabites was allowed under Mosaic Law. Mahlon took Ruth as a wife, and Chilion took Orpah. The five of these lived together until Mahlon and Chilion both died, leaving the three women: an Israelite mother with two Moabite daughters-in-law. Many would attempt to formulate a reason for the three deaths and the impending suffering of the women. However, “the book of Ruth wisely avoids such judgments. Suffering happens; there is no underlying reason given. The deaths are reported, not explained. Maybe Naomi expected them all along; her sons' names may indicate that they were not stalwart physical specimens. (Mahlon means "weak, ill" and Chilion "finished, spent.") Because of their names, many students of the biblical narrative hold that Elimelech and Naomi were quite aware that their two sons suffered from some chronic illness or condition that would characterize them as “sickly,” and their condition would only be exacerbated by the famine in Israel. The sons could not survive in their weakened state.
As three widows, their situation was extremely desperate. “Because Naomi's husband and sons have died and she is too old to take a new husband and bear more sons, she, too, is barren, in a sense, just as her homeland had been during the grip of the famine that had driven her family to Moab. She has no life to claim for herself or offer her daughters-in-law. She is in the throes of grief. She has lost everything.” It had been ten years since Naomi left Bethlehem of Judea, so she had no family in Moab to support her. With the death of their husbands, Ruth and Orpah also had no means of support, and would be forced to return to their families. The only real possibility for survival for these three was for each to go their three separate ways, each returning to the families of their youth.
Ruth 1:6-9. Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread. 7Wherefore she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters in law with her; and they went on the way to return unto the land of Judah. 8And Naomi said unto her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother’s house: the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. 9The LORD grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept. 10And they said unto her, Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.
The sincerity of the love that the three of these shared is evident in the depths of sorrow that they faced in their impending separation, even when they believed that their separation was their only chance for survival. When Naomi speaks of the LORD, Elohim, she is referring to Jehovah, not Chemosh, the mythical god of the Moabites. It is evident from this passage and those that follow that, under the leadership of Elimelech and Naomi, and through the training of Mahlon and Chilion, theirs was a pleasant and godly home. We are not certain how soon the sons took wives when they came to Moab, but it is evident that these two Moabite women were taken into this godly home and learned of the one true and living LORD. Consequently, as they are parting, Naomi’s statements to the daughters-in-law are entirely immersed in expressions of her faith in God, a faith shared by her daughters.
A home that is centered around the true and sincere faith of its members will find all its experience blessed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Their love for the LORD will be evident in their love for each other, as well as the way they treat one another, and even in the language that they use when they communicate. As one reads the spoken words of Naomi throughout this narrative, the sincerity of her faith is always evident.
From this short passage, we can understand that this was a godly family where the LORD was the center of the home. Though the two sons took pagan wives from Moab, these wives had learned of the faith of their in-law parents and their husbands, though there is no actual evidence that they both turned their hearts to the LORD with the depth and sincerity that is evident in the family of Elimelech.
The significance of the crisis that the three women faced is evident in Naomi’s choices. First, she is intending to send her daughters-in-law back into their pagan families, away from the godly fellowship they had known in their family. “None of Naomi’s questions suggest that the LORD “will assist her daughters-in-law in finding rest in the house of a new husband. Instead, she convinces Orpah to return to Moab by challenging her to think through the practical realities of trying to find a husband in Bethlehem.”
The ancients held that the influence of their gods was geographically limited to the regions that contained their worshippers. The Moabites would consider the LORD Jehovah to be the god of Israel, and limited to that region. However, Naomi’s understanding of the nature of the LORD is evident as she implies that the LORD will go with them as they return home. However, maintaining their “new” faith in the LORD would be difficult when they are surrounded by their pagan families who do not know, and do not care to know the LORD. So, Naomi stated a prayer that they will be strengthened and guided by the LORD when they return. Naomi reminded them of the kindness that they have shown towards her, particularly when all three went through the very difficult experiences of losing their husbands and their livelihoods and prayed that they will continue to receive a similar reward of kindness from the LORD. Their lives were now steeped in uncertainty and turmoil, so her prayer for them was that they would find peace when and acceptance when they returned to the homes of their husbands, a true and lasting peace that comes from the LORD. This form of peace only comes from the LORD to those who have faith in Him.
Finally, the dedication of the daughters-in-law to Naomi is evident by their vocal disagreement with Naomi’s insistence that they leave her. Both women state that they would prefer to travel with Naomi to her homeland in Israel. The significance of such a choice cannot be understated. “After telling them to turn back and wishing them well, she kissed them goodbye. She directed them to begin a new life in Moab by finding husbands from their own families because a woman's role in society derives from that of her husband.” The disparate cultures between Israel and Moab would not serve to provide opportunities for support for them as they would always be considered strangers in the land of Judah. Some of this is revealed in Naomi’s counter arguments.
A FATEFUL DECISION
Ruth 1:11-13. And Naomi said, Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? 12Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons; 13Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me.
Naomi’s faithful Israelite background is evident in her description of the only Hebrew opportunity for support that was available to the women: Levirate marriage. According to the Hebrew Law, a man was obligated to take as his own wife the wife of a deceased brother. This was one of the ways in which Hebrew culture would care for their young widows and keep the land in the ownership of the traditional family. Since both of her sons are dead, the only source of husbands for the daughters-in-law under Levirate marriage would be for her to have two more sons whom they could (and would) eventually marry. Naomi is simply reinforcing her argument that the only hope these two women have for survival is to return to their own homeland where they can be cared for by their own families while they are still young enough to find husbands to support them.
Naomi’s last statement should not be taken to imply a lack of faith. Ancient culture maintained a belief in a close correlation between blessing and behavior. They often attributed suffering to a form of punishment from the LORD for their sins, and attributed blessings as a form of reward for obedient behavior. Though there are certainly correlations between suffering and sin, particularly when the consequences of sin in and of itself produces suffering, not all bad things happen to an individual because of their own sin. The nature of the situation that they are experiencing is leading the faithful Naomi to believe that she is experiencing some form of rejection by the LORD. However, we will find that the LORD is working in her at this very time to work through the experience in a way that is so significant that the story is forever written in canonized Hebrew scripture.
A FRIEND FOR A LIFETIME
Ruth 1:14-15. And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her. 15And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law.
The two daughters-in-law responded differently to Naomi’s argument. Orpah relented, gave Naomi a final gesture of love, and left to return to her family in hopes of finding some means of survival. This the final record of Orpah in scripture. We may assume that she returned home to her pagan family, found a Moabite husband, and a new life that was bereft of any godly fellowship. Orpah’s return to her homeland should not be understood as having abandoned Naomi as some would argue. Her return only highlights the extraordinary choice made by Ruth of Moab.
Ruth, knowing that to return to her family was to return to her pagan upbringing, literally clung to Naomi. She could not bring herself to let go of the relationship she had with her godly mother-in-law and the evidence of the true and living LORD that is in her home. Ruth’s adamancy only emboldened Naomi’s directive for Ruth to return to her own family.
Ruth 1:16-17, And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: 17Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
This may be one of the most often quoted biblical passages by people both within and outside of the family of faith because of its testimony of devotion and commitment of one individual towards another. Much understanding of the context of Ruth’s decision could be lost in our modern mobile community where few people today live their entire lives in the same place.
Ruth’s commitment to Naomi was based upon a pure and unconditional love that transcends any form of sacrifice. Naomi did have the authority to demand that Ruth return to her homeland, and Naomi’s last statement was made in the form of a command rather than a suggestion. This left Ruth to simply say, “please do not make me leave.” She then described her devotion to Naomi using specific statements that serve to illustrate her sincere break from her people and their Moabite gods.
1. Where you go, I will go. Ruth was committed to leave her own family behind and follow Naomi wherever she might go. Ancient family ties were tribal in nature and rivalries often were expressed in violence. Funerals would often be held for those who broke away from the tribal community to live elsewhere. Ruth’s decision to go with Naomi was a declaration of permanent divorce from her own people. A public statement to this effect would have made the subsequent return to her home difficult to impossible. Following Naomi would also take Ruth from her community and family gods, leaving her, according to their pagan beliefs, “unprotected” and vulnerable.
2. Where you lodge I will lodge. Ruth was making a commitment to stay with Naomi regardless of the hardships that they might face. Though she has the opportunity to return to her family and find a home, her commitment to Naomi was greater than her own need for security. If Naomi would become destitute on the streets, Ruth would stay with her and share in her suffering.
3. Your people will be my people. Not only was she leaving her family behind, she was making a commitment to make Naomi’s family her own. This could present quite a challenge since she would enter as a foreigner, and such “Gentiles” were not readily accepted in Israel. Where she would have great potential of finding a husband in Moab, it would be literally impossible to do so in Israel where, though legal, marriage outside of Judah was highly discouraged. She was willing to turn away from her family and embrace Naomi’s family without any assurance that they would accept her.
4. Thy god, my god. Ruth was ready to leave behind her Moabite identity and embrace the faith that she had seen in Naomi and in the family of Elimelech.
5. Where you die, I will die and be buried. Because of the tie to their tribes and land, the ancients held that to be buried outside their homeland was to be eternally separated from their people and the influence of their gods. Consequently, the return of a dead body to its ancestral home was common. Ruth was ready to make a complete break with her past, with no prospect of her return.
Ruth’s commitment to Naomi should also be understood in the context of their situation. Orpah’s decision to return to her family offered some promise and hope of security. Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi could have been a death sentence as neither woman had any promise or hope of any security. Hungry and destitute, Ruth was ready to die with Naomi.
Ruth counted the cost of her choice, yet her commitment to Naomi remained. Few people today are as willing to follow through on their commitments. These words are often repeated as part of a modern wedding ceremony as a vow of commitment from one to another, yet most such weddings now end in separation and divorce when the vow of commitment is quickly forgotten. Many people will express great words of promise, but fail in their commitment at the first experience of stress. Ruth’s sincere commitment is an example of a true vow that is based upon love and faith, and though her faith in the LORD at this point is in its youth, we will find in the remaining narrative that her faith was real as was her love for Naomi.
Though it may escape our modern understanding, Ruth’s commitment was stated in the form of a covenant that was used to establish relationships between tribes and nations. “It often escapes scholarly attention that covenantal relations could take place at all levels of society and not only in the settings most conspicuous from newly discovered texts, namely, the international relations among royal courts. Covenant is a mechanism useful for family life, to extend relations beyond the family, or even to intensify relations within family life.” We find other examples of covenants used between individuals, such as David’s covenant with Abner, Rahab’s covenant with Joshua’s scouts, and probably the most well-known is David’s covenant with Jonathan.
Ruth 1:18. When she saw that she was stedfastly minded to go with her, then she left speaking unto her.
The narrative states little about Naomi’s response to Ruth’s extraordinary vow of commitment. It is evident that Ruth’s vow was sincere, and after Naomi did all in her power to convince Ruth to return safely home, they were now free to return together to Israel. Naomi fully knew the blessing that Ruth was to her,
Ruth 1:19-22. So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? 20And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. 21I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me? 22So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter in law, with her, which returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest.
Ancient Bethlehem was a very small village, and its families are well-known. The return of Naomi created on outflow of compassion and concern from its people as they had heard of the death of Elimelech and his two sons. Apparently, those ten years of stress took its toll on Naomi as her change in appearance was evident to all. Ancient names were used to describe an individual’s character, and her name no longer described her assessment of her current state. She left Bethlehem with her family intact, and returned with her husband and sons lost. Instead of being referred to as “delightful,” she chose a name that means its opposite, often translated as “bitter.”
The first chapter of the book of Ruth introduces us to the life experience of a faithful Hebrew family who both love the LORD and know the love of the LORD. When one has faith in the LORD, and is faithful in their expression of that faith, they place themselves into a position to be blessed by Him. It’s now time for Naomi and Ruth to find some of that blessing.
 John 13:35.
 Hyman, Ronald T. Questions and changing identity in the Book of Ruth. Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 39 no 3 1984, p 189-201.
 Ruth 4:3.
 Phanon, Panthakan. Double hesed of God in Naomi's life (Ruth 1:19-22). Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, 13 no 1 Jan 2010, p 29.
 Howell, James C. Ruth 1:1-18. Interpretation, 51 no 3 Jul 1997, p 283.
 Baylis, Charles P. Naomi in the book of Ruth in light of the Mosaic covenant. Bibliotheca sacra, 161 no 644 Oct - Dec 2004, p 415.
 Tate, Jessica. Ruth 1:6-22. Interpretation, 64 no 2 Apr 2010, p 170.
 1 Kings 11:33.
 Schipper, Jeremy. The syntax and rhetoric of Ruth 1:9a. Vetus testamentum, 62 no 4 2012, p 645.
 Hyman, Ronald T. Questions and changing identity in the Book of Ruth. Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 39 no 3 1984, p 190..
 Smith, Mark S. 'Your people shall be my people': family and covenant in Ruth 1:16_17. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 69 no 2 Apr 2007, p 254.
 2 Samuel 3:12-13.
 Joshua 2:12-14.
 1 Sam 18:3; 20:8; 23:18.