Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

27. Ruth and Naomi - Journey to Bethlehem - Ruth 1

The date of the book of Ruth cannot be fixed precisely but this does not matter greatly. It is sufficient to know that it was during the period of the judges. The genealogy at the end of chapter 4, if clear of omissions, suggests the time of Samson or maybe earlier when the growing Philistine oppression made itself felt against the southern tribes of Israel.

Possibly the famine in Israel which occasioned the rest of the story was brought about by Philistine depredation of the crops, for it would be a most unusual kind of famine that would afflict the land of Judah for so great a period as ten years and yet leave untouched the land of Moab less than thirty miles away. The fact too, that food and plenty were sought in Moab and not in Egypt, the traditional refuge in time of famine, suggests that the roads to Egypt were in the hands of unfriendly people. But these conclusions are at best tentative.

Whatever the cause of the famine, there can be little doubt that no bread in Bethlehem, the house of bread, was another indication of divine displeasure. Famine is a heavier punishment than pestilence (2 Sam. 24:14). God was chastening this people beloved for their fathers’ sakes (Lev. 26:19; Dt. 28:18; 1 Kgs. 8:37).

But one, Elimelech, chose not to endure the chastisement but to evade it. As in Abraham’s experience (Gen. 12:10), leaving the Land was a mistake to be paid for. Yet, by an impressive paradox, this was God’s way of seeking out Ruth the Moabitess, to add her to the family of His Beloved.

With his family, Elimelech migrated to safety and plenty in Moab, exchanging the land of God’s choice for a land of idols and ignorance. This was, who can doubt, a reprehensible policy and one which brought in its train a further danger of heathen marriages and their risk of idolatry. It has been surmised that the name Elimelech was originally Elimoloch — Moloch is my god — given to this child in Israel by a Moabite mother (Num. 25:1). Such an explanation, by no means impossible, makes the move to Moab easier to understand.

The Moabite marriages for Mahlon and Chilion actually took place in direct contravention of a divine commandment: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly” (Dt. 7:3).

And so it came about, for Elimelech did not survive for long. An old tree transplanted does not thrive. Thus, once again, the Word of truth re-emphasizes the folly of seeking marriages with those who do not share one’s faith in Christ. The fact that Orpah and Ruth proved to be vastly superior to the average Moabitish wife is only a further demonstration of the way in which God so very often shows his grace to men by bringing good out of their folly. “Let us do evil, that good may come” is a policy rightly and vigorously repudiated by the apostle Paul.

It is worth noticing that, although the marriages took place soon after the arrival in Moab and the death of Elimelech, there was no child to either marriage during the next 10 years (contrast 4:13). Then came the deaths of Mahlon and Chilion. Says one old writer: “Elimelech, like ripe fruit, fell down of his own accord; they, like green apples, were cudgelled off the tree.” Were these experiences a further sign of God’s displeasure?

It is a marvellous tribute to the character of Naomi that she was not very speedily forsaken by her sons’ wives, especially when the traditional relations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are considered. She had apparently inspired in the hearts of these two young women such a genuine affection that they were prepared not only to live their married lives in the same house, but to go on living with her after the loss of their husbands.

Return home!

News came that God was once again blessing Israel with plenty; and since Naomi herself had no roots in Moab there was nothing to hinder her return. Orpah and Ruth were bent on going with her; but soon, in words of thanks for past kindnesses, and with benediction for the future, Naomi bade them return. Then, as now in many countries, a young woman without family ties or a home of her own was a prey to all kinds of evil. So Naomi exhorted them to stay on in their own land with their own kith and kin so that in due time they might marry again.

The levirate law (Dt. 25:5-10) required that, when a man died without issue, his brother should take the widow and raise up children to bear his name. But Naomi urged that she herself was old and without husband. So, even if she were to re-marry and bear other sons, how grotesque it would be for Ruth and Orpah to wait for them until they were of marriageable age!

Thus she applied every possible discouragement. By this means she provided a none-too-easy problem for Bible readers ever since, as to whether she did well to urge her daughters-in-law to return home, or whether she ought not rather to have influenced them for their own good, to come with her to Israel and become good Israelites.

It was a big undertaking for these Moabite young women to venture into a land of strangers with no help other than what an aged and poverty-stricken mother-in-law could provide. And so they wept together.

Said Naomi: “It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord (and not just bad luck; 1 Sam. 6:9) is gone out against me.”

Orpah, not so impressed with the religious issues as Ruth was, or maybe seeing the practical difficulties more clearly, at length chose to return, albeit with increased sadness at the parting.

Naomi now renewed her exhortation to Ruth, yet at the same time hoping that the advice would not be heeded. It was Elijah’s discouragement of Elisha over again, and Jesus’s calculated coldness to the Canaanite woman. “Return thou!” The words were spoken unselfishly, and perhaps to prove Ruth’s constancy, yet doubtless Naomi’s strong affection hoped fervently that this lovely daughter-in-law would hold to her purpose.

A true loyalty

And she did. Ruth was emphatic. In words of love and fidelity that will last for ever, she set aside every hardship and difficulty that might be mentioned:

“Intreat 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: where 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.”

Never was more eloquent repetition! And (she might have added): “Where thou risest, I will rise”. Not even death will part these two.

Dominant in this resolve to be with Naomi was a determination to be a woman of Israel with her. Whereas Orpah was gone back to her Moabite people and to her Moabite god, Ruth insisted: “Thy God shall be my God.” And she meant it, for she sealed it by an oath sworn on the covenant name of the God of Israel: “The Lord do so to me and more also if ought but death part thee and me.” And Naomi was content that it should be so.

But how could Ruth declare with truth: “Thy God shall be my God”? Did not the Law lay it down that “a Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation....” (Dt. 23:3)? Some have speculated that Ruth was the very first proselyte from Moab after the ten generations. However, the chronology hardly allows of this. More likely, that Mosaic prohibition applied only to males, for it is not certain that the masculine “Moabite” covered the womenfolk as well. It is even possible that the Lord was ready to make an exception to His law for such a one as Ruth. Parallel examples are not wanting.

Back in Bethlehem

Naomi’s arrival in Bethlehem caused a sensation. The women of the place were aghast at the change both in Naomi and her circumstances. Maybe there was something of ‘I told you so’ about the ejaculation: “Is this Naomi?”

Or perhaps what they said was: ‘This is Naomi!’ She had gone forth a prosperous woman, happy in her husband and two grown sons. The family had been one of some importance, for they were Ephrathites of Bethlehem-Judah, that is, they belonged to the distinguished family that sprang from Salmon, the prince of Judah who had married Rahab after the fall of Jericho. The family was closely connected with the hero Caleb after whose wife Bethlehem-Ephratah was named.

The name of Elimelech might also suggest prosperity, for practically every individual in the Bible whose name is compounded with the Hebrew word melech, king, is a person of some consequence.

But now Naomi was alone, apart from this comely stranger, and quite destitute. She had gone out full, so she declared, and returned empty. But how could she say so when she had Ruth by her side? Even so, she did well to speak no complaint against her dead husband. “Call me not Naomi (my pretty, my sweetie), call me Mara (bitter): for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” And she told how her three-fold cord of comfort, not easily broken, was her stay no longer. Instead, only misery, “pressed down, shaken together, and running over”.

The divine name Shaddai, by which she chose to acknowledge the rebuke of God, may have been used in ironic allusion to its meaning in the promises to the Fathers about a multitudinous seed (Gen. 17:1,2; 28:3; 35:11; etc.). But in the poetical books “Shaddai” also means “Destroyer”. Perhaps that is what Naomi meant.

There is a marvellous dramatic irony about this, for, had she but known it, Naomi returned more full than when she went out. How could she realise that every word of God’s glorious promises to Abraham was going to be fulfilled through this helpless but devoted stranger returning with her from Moab? At this moment she saw herself only as an undefended prisoner-at-the-bar, with the powers of the universe arrayed against her both as counsel for the prosecution and as a judge on the bench: “The Lord testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me!” But before very long she was to marvel at the work of God on her behalf.


The Hebrew Bible sets the Book of Ruth quite apart from Judges, but the LXX joins them together. So too does that first word: “And” (not “Now”).

Ruled may mean “began to judge” (as in 2 Sam. 15:10). In which case, like Judges 17-21, Ruth belongs to the generation after Joshua.

Went to sojourn. Would this be possible after Jud. 3:29,30? The early part of Jud. 3:14 has been suggested.
The rabbis refer the curse in Ps. 109:14 to this verse.
Visited his people. Referred to in Lk. 1:68.
Find rest. This puts point to 3:1.
It grieves me. Hebrew: mar; cp. v. 20.
Her gods: Baal-Peor, Chemosh! (Josh. 24:15) — and the prospect of a husband.
The Lord do so to me.... Reference to the sacrifice over which an oath is taken?
Testified against me, by hard circumstance: Job 10:17.

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