For the context for this passage, see the commentary on verse 1.
Also note these verses from Matthew: “Salmon became the father of Boaz by Rahab (the harlot). Boaz became the father of Obed by Ruth (the foreigner). Obed became the father of Jesse. Jesse became the father of King David. …Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:5-6, 16).
The incorporation of this foreigner into the lineage of David (and Jesus) reminds us of God’s original covenant with Abram, where God said, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3b). The reality went beyond that promise. Not only were the Moabites and other foreigners blessed by the birth of Jesus, this Moabite woman, Ruth, became one of those through whom the promise came. “Where Abraham became the father of a nation, Ruth will be the mother of its line of kings” (Farris, 162).
RUTH 1:1-5. NAOMI WAS BEREAVED OF HER CHILDREN AND HER HUSBAND
1 It happened in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. A certain man of Bethlehem Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. 2The 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 Bethlehem Judah. They came into the country of Moab, and continued there. 3Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. 4They took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they lived there about ten years. 5Mahlon and Chilion both died, and the woman was bereaved of her two children and of her husband.
“It happened in the days when the judges judged“ (v. 1a). In our Bibles, the book of Ruth comes after the book of Judges—the order established by the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures). The reason for this order is found in this verse, which begins, “In the days when the judges judged.”
The Hebrew word that is commonly translated “judge” in our Bibles is sopet, which has a range of meanings having to do with ruling, delivering, and judging. The judges ruled between the times that Joshua died and Saul became king. However, the judges tended to deal with specific threats, and were not constant in their leadership. This tended, therefore, to be a period in which “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)—which means not doing what was right in God’s eyes.
“that there was a famine in the land“ (v. 1b). In primitive cultures, famines occur naturally due to various causes: inadequate rainfall, pests, and war being chief among them. People feared famines above most natural disasters, because famines are both disruptive and lethal. People tended to think of famines as divine punishment for their sins—but there is no suggestion in our text that this famine represents God’s judgment.
“A certain man of Bethlehem Judah“ (v. 1c). This specifies Bethlehem in Judah, because there were also other towns named Bethlehem.
There is irony here, because Bethlehem means “house of bread,” but this man and his family have to leave Bethlehem due to a famine. There was no bread in the “house of bread.”
“went to live in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons“ (v. 1d). Moab is located on the east side (the far side) of the Dead Sea—toward the south end of the Dead Sea. Much of it is high plateau, so its high terrain may have helped it to escape the famine which struck Bethlehem—but the text offers no reason why this man chooses Moab for refuge.
Genesis says that the Moabites were descended from Moab, the product of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his eldest daughter, a truly flawed heritage (Genesis 19:30-38).
• Deuteronomy 23:3 says, “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh.”
• Moabites worshiped Chemosh, and were known as “people of Chemosh” (Numbers 21:29; Jeremiah 48:46). Later, when the prophet Ahijah announces that the kingdom will be divided, he will cite the worship of “Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the children of Ammon” as part of the reason for God’s judgment (the other part being the fact that Solomon has “not walked in my ways, to do that which is right in my eyes, and to keep my statutes and my ordinances, as David his father did”) (1 Kings 11:33).
• Moabites and Israelites were often enemies (Numbers 22; Judges 3:12-30; 1 Samuel 12:9; 14:47; 2 Samuel 8:11-12; 2 Kings 1:1; 3:5ff.).
• In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, intermarriage between Israelites and Moabites will be seen as a sin (Ezra 9:1-2; Nehemiah 13:23)—but there is no indication in our text that this man is committing a sin by fleeing to Moab with his family to escape the famine in Bethlehem.
• According to the prophet Zephaniah, God warned, “Moab will be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, a possession of nettles, and salt pits, and a perpetual desolation. The remnant of my people will plunder them, and the survivors of my nation will inherit them” (Zephaniah 2:9).
“The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion“ (v. 2a). Elimelech means “my God is king.” Naomi means “pleasant” or “joyful”—but soon she will say, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara (which means “bitter”); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (1:20). The names Mahlon and Chilion seem to have something to do with illness or mortality. As we will learn later, Mahlon is Ruth’s husband (4:10).
“Ephrathites of Bethlehem Judah“ (v. 2b). Rachel gave birth to Benjamin on the way to Ephrath. She died in childbirth, and she “was buried in the way to Ephrath (the same is Bethlehem) (Genesis 35:19). Jesse, King David’s father, will be identified as “that Ephrathite of Bethlehem Judah” (1 Samuel 17:12), and Micah will say, ” But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
Ephrathah may have been (1) synonymous with the name Bethlehem, (2) the name of a village in the vicinity of Bethlehem, (3) or the name of the region in which Bethlehem was located. Hubbard wonders if it might be “the clan within the tribe of Judah to which the family belonged” (Hubbard, 90-91).
“They came into the country of Moab, and continued there“ (v. 2c). Whether Elimelech intended to remain in Moab, we do not know. It was not unusual for people to go to a foreign land to escape a famine, and it was not unusual for them to remain in that land beyond the period of the famine. Consider the sons of Jacob/Israel, who went to Egypt to obtain food, and whose descendants remained in Egypt four hundred years.
“Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons“ (v. 3). In any society, the death of a spouse is a tragic event with emotional, social, and financial consequences. In a patriarchal society, where property tends to be passed from father to son and where women often have no property rights or access to jobs, the death of a husband can be financially ruinous. Unless the woman is fortunate enough to remarry or to have grown sons, she can easily find herself dependent on charity.
Jewish Law dealt with that problem by requiring that the brother of the deceased husband marry the widow—”the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed in the name of his brother who is dead, that his name not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). However, in this case, we have no idea if Elimelech had a brother. Naomi’s response to her husband’s death and her advice to her daughters-in-law suggest that she holds no hope that a brother-in-law will help her.
We have no idea how old Mahlon and Chilion were at the time of their father’s death, but it sounds as if they were grown or nearly so. If so, they would assume the responsibility for their mother’s welfare.
“They took them wives of the women of Moab“ (v. 4a). Jewish Law prohibited Israelites from marrying local women when they entered the Promised Land, lest the children of such unions turn away from following Yahweh (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). However, intermarriage continued to be a problem, and Jewish leaders continued to oppose it (Joshua 23:12-13; Ezra 9:1-4; Nehemiah 13:23-27). The Moabite god is Chemosh (Numbers 21:29).
However, our text doesn’t suggest that these men are being unfaithful to God by marrying these Moabite women—or that the subsequent deaths of these young men is God’s judgment on them for marrying foreign women.
“the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth“ (v. 4b). The name Orpah may have meant “neck.” “Though the biblical text does not condemn her—indeed, only praises her (v 8)—her behavior contrasts sharply with the devotion of Ruth. Thus in Jewish tradition the name Orpah acquired a negative meaning because of her action of turning her back on the Lord (Midr Ruth Rabbah ii.9)” (Allen, 616).
In an interesting side note, Oprah Winfrey’s mother intended to name her Orpah after this Biblical character. However, due to a misspelling on the birth certificate (or the family’s inability to pronounce Orpah), she became Oprah instead. One wonders why Oprah’s mother chose to name her after the lesser of these two characters (Orpah) instead of the greater character (Ruth). Perhaps it was an attempt to find a distinctive name.
We don’t know the meaning of the name Ruth.
“and they lived there about ten years“ (v. 4c). We don’t know whether this ten-year period is dated from the time Elimelech left Bethlehem or from the time that the young men married these Moabite women. If the former, these marriages would have been brief. If the latter, it would be unusual for two couples to be married for ten years and neither of them to have children. No mention is made in our text of the children of these unions.
“Mahlon and Chilion both died, and the woman was bereaved of her two children and of her husband“ (v. 5). If the death of Elimelech was a tragedy for Naomi, the deaths of her two sons is a catastrophe. As noted above, in a patriarchal society the fate of women is closely tied to their men, and Naomi now has no man—neither husband nor sons. Without sons, her family has no hope of descendants. It is doomed, and will soon die out—except that God has the power to reverse situations like this—and the fact that Ruth becomes one of the ancestors of David (and Jesus) is evidence of that.
RUTH 1:6-10. YAHWEH GRANT THAT YOU MAY FIND REST
6Then 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 Yahweh had visited (Hebrew: pa·qad) his people in giving them bread. 7She 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 to the land of Judah. 8Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house: Yahweh deal kindly (Hebrew: he·sed) with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me. 9Yahweh grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband.”
Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voice, and wept.
10They said to her, “No, but we will return with you to your people.”
“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 Yahweh had visited (pa·qad) his people in giving them bread. 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 to the land of Judah“ (vv. 6-7). Naomi hears that God has pa·qad her people. This word, pa·qad, is often translated “visited,” and can be used in a positive or negative sense. In this instance, it means that God has shown favor to his people by giving them food.
Leaving Moab for Bethlehem is hardly an opportunistic move for Naomi. There is no suggestion in the text that Moab is experiencing famine or other difficulty. Moab has surely come to feel like home to her, at least to some extent. Her daughters-in-law give her a connection to Moab.
Nevertheless, Naomi feels a call to return to her homeland, so she sets out to do so. Orpah and Ruth set out to go with her, even though their ties to their original families would usually supersede any ties that they might feel to Naomi.
“Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house‘” (v. 8a). Naomi knows how it feels to live in a foreign land—far from kith and kin—and she wants to spare Orpah and Ruth from experiencing that feeling. She wants them to remain in a place where they will feel at home—and where they will be accepted without the taint of foreign roots.
“to her mother’s house“ In a patriarchal society, a person would usually refer to the “father’s house” instead of the “mother’s house.”
Block looks at other occurrences of the phrase “mother’s house” in scripture (Genesis 24:28; Song of Solomon 3:4; 8:2), and concludes that each involves love and marriage— and therefore, by using this phrase, “your mother’s house,” “Naomi is releasing them to remarry” (Block, 631).
“Yahweh deal kindly (he·sed) with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me“ (v. 8b). The word he·sed has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Like the Greek word, agape, in the New Testament, he·sed is an action word. It involves more than kind feelings. It must be expressed through kind or loving actions.
Naomi is saying that Orpah and Ruth have dealt with their husbands and Naomi with he·sed—faithful and generous love. Now she prays that the Lord will repay Orpah and Ruth with the Lord’s he·sed love.
“Yahweh grant you that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband“ (v. 9a). Naomi has experienced insecurity on a massive scale: First, through the famine in Bethlehem and the move to a foreign land; second, through her husband’s death; third, through the deaths of her sons; and fourth, through this impending move back to Bethlehem, from which she has been gone for at least ten years. Her prayer is that Orpah and Ruth will not experience that kind of insecurity, but will instead remarry good men and enjoy the security of their husbands’ homes.
Implicit in Naomi’s request is her concern that, if Orpah and Naomi were to go to Bethlehem with her, they might be stigmatized as foreigners and find it impossible to find a husband.
“Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voice, and wept” (v. 9b). She kisses them goodbye, but they all weep. There is no sense here that this is pro forma weeping—weeping to satisfy a convention that they should express grief whether they feel it or not. Throughout this story, these women show genuine affection for each other, and we can be sure that the prospect of parting brought genuine tears to the eyes of all three.
“They said to her, ‘No, but we will return with you to your people‘” (v. 10). Both Orpah and Ruth insist on returning to Bethlehem with Naomi. It is astonishing that they would do so—that they would feel closer ties to Naomi than to their own families—that they would be willing to leave their homeland to become foreigners in a foreign land for no other reason than loyalty to Naomi.
RUTH 1:11-13. GO BACK, MY DAUGHTERS
11Naomi said, “Go back, my daughters. Why do you want to go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb (Hebrew: beme·’ay—in my intestines), that they may be your husbands? 12Go back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say, ‘I have hope,’ if I should even have a husband tonight, and should also bear sons; 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from having husbands? No, my daughters, for it grieves me much for your sakes, for the hand of Yahweh has gone out against me.”
“Naomi said, ‘Go back, my daughters. Why do you want to go with me?‘” (v. 11a). Naomi responds with straight talk expressed in blunt, harsh terms, not because she doesn’t love her daughters-in-law, but because she is determined to turn them back for their own good.
First, she tells them to turn back—to go back to their homes in Moab—to cease and desist in their plans to accompany her to Bethlehem. When she says, “Why will you go with me?” we should hear those words as having a sharp edge, as in “That idea makes no sense at all!”
“Do I still have sons in my womb (beme·’ay—in my intestines), that they may be your husbands?“(v. 11b). When she asks if these two women imagine that she is pregnant with sons who might grow up and marry them, Naomi doesn’t use the word for “womb” but the word for “intestines.” Again, it is sharp language intended to get their attention—a slap-in-the-face wake-up call in which Naomi floats a contrary-to-the-facts idea to try to show how ridiculous it is. She obviously is not going to be able to provide husbands for these two women. She wants to persuade them to face reality—to make decisions that will help rather than hinder them—to stay in Moab where there is a good chance that they can find husbands.
“Go back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say, ‘I have hope,’ if I should even have a husband tonight, and should also bear sons; would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from having husbands?“ (vv. 12-13a). Once more Naomi paints a ridiculous picture—one that Orpah and Ruth cannot help but understand as ridiculous. Naomi is old, and is unlikely to find a husband.
But even if Naomi were to get married this very day and to conceive a child this very night, what then? Would Orpah and Ruth take the chance that Naomi would bear two sons? Even if she did, would they wait for years without remarrying just to make themselves available to Naomi’s sons when the sons were ready for marriage—and when Orpah and Ruth had become old women, no longer able to bear children? Ridiculous!!! Go home!!! Get these ridiculous ideas out of your minds!!!
“No, my daughters, for it grieves me much for your sakes, for the hand of Yahweh has gone out against me“ (v. 13b). Naomi, who will soon ask Orpah and Ruth to call her Mara (the Hebrew word for bitter), reveals her bitterness for the first time in our story. She has held up amazingly well to this point, offering blessings to Orpah and Ruth—focusing on their well-being without dwelling on her own problems.
But now Naomi expresses her own pain—pain that stems not only from the loss of her husband and sons, but also from the fact that the Lord seems to have turned against her. Even in terrible circumstances, she might continue to hope that God would redeem her. But how can she maintain hope if God is the one behind her tragedies. How can she escape if God is determined to crush her?
RUTH 1:14-18.YOUR GOD SHALL BE MY GOD
14They lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth joined with her.
15She said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people, and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law.” 16Ruth said, “Don’t entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried. Yahweh do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”
18When she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking to her.
“They lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth joined with her“ (v. 14). Once again all three women grieve and weep. However, next we see the contrast between Orpah and Ruth. Orpah responds by kissing Naomi, signifying that she is leaving—but Ruth clings to Naomi. But there is no suggestion here that Orpah does anything wrong by saying goodbye to Naomi.
“She said, ‘Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people, and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law‘” (v. 15). Naomi uses Orpah as a positive example to influence Ruth. Orpah has done the wise thing by returning home. Naomi advises Ruth to do the same. Ruth must now face her decision without Orpah’s help. It is truly a major life-decision. Shall she leave her homeland and her family—everything that is familiar—to travel to Bethlehem with Naomi, who must face a bleak future with our without Ruth? Naomi, having nothing herself, has nothing to offer Ruth but a hard life.
The unusual thing about this verse is Naomi’s comment that Orpah has gone back to her gods. That is not an action that would usually be commended in Hebrew Scripture.
“Ruth said, “Don’t entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you” (v. 16a). Ruth opens with a plea that Naomi will stop trying to persuade Ruth not to follow her. Ruth is determined to do so, and has weathered all of Naomi’s arguments. She wants only for Naomi to accept her decision.
“for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; (v. 16b)
your people shall be my people, and your God my God; (v. 16c)
where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried“ (v. 17a).
This is one of the most beautiful passages in scripture—an example of he·sed in action (see comments on v. 8b for the meaning of he·sed). It represents Ruth’s six-part commitment to Naomi:
(1) Ruth will go where Naomi goes
(2) and lodge where Naomi lodges.
(3) Ruth will accept Naomi’s people as her own
(4) and Naomi’s God as her own.
(5) Not even death will part them, because where Naomi dies, Ruth pledges to die
(6) and to be buried where Naomi is buried.
“your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (v. 16c). This is both the center point of Ruth’s speech and the heart of the matter. In her commitment to go with Naomi, Ruth determines to take on a new identity as an adopted Israelite and a Yahweh-worshiper.
How much clearer could Ruth be? It reminds me of General Sherman’s response to the possibility that he might be nominated as a candidate for president. He said, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” Not much wiggle-room there! Nor was there much wiggle-room in Ruth’s commitment to Naomi.
“Yahweh do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me“ (v. 17b). This is a rather standard way to seal an oath. Ruth demonstrates her commitment to her oath by inviting God to punish her if she fails to live up to all that she has promised.
“When she saw that she was steadfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking to her“ (v. 18). Naomi, seeing the depth of Ruth’s affection and commitment, stops talking. She has exhausted her arguments. We can only wonder how she felt. One part of her must be afraid for Ruth—that Ruth is passing up a chance at a normal life to accompany her mother-in-law to a future that is uncertain at best. But another part of her must be rejoicing that she doesn’t have to set out on her journey by herself—that she is not faced with total loneliness in the years ahead.
AN OPINION: Some clergy use Ruth’s words, “Where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” in wedding ceremonies. Others claim that this is inappropriate, because they weren’t used originally in a wedding context. I, for one, am unwilling to confine these words so rigidly. I feel that they are beautiful words emblematic of deep commitment in any personal relationship.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, R.B., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three: K-P – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Block, Daniel I., New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
Bush, Frederic W., Word Biblical Commentary: Ruth, Esther, Vol. 9 (Dallas: Word Books, 1996)
Duguid, Iain M., Reformed Expository Commentary: Esther & Ruth (Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2005)
Farmer, Kathleen A. Robertson, The New Interpreters Bible: Ruth, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Farris, Lawrence W., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Hubbard, Robert L., Jr., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ruth(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
Jackman, David, The Preacher’s Commentary: Judges, Ruth, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991)
Moore, Michael S., in Harris, J. Gordon, Brown, Cheryl A., and Moore, Michael S., New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Morison, James, The Pulpit Commentary: Ruth, I & II Samuel, Vol. IV (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date)
Morris, Leon, in Cundall, Arthur E., & Morris, Leon, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Judges and Ruth, Vol. 7 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968).
Newsome, James, in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, Interpretation Commentary: Ruth (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Copyright 2009, 2019 Richard Niell Donovan