The story of Naomi and Ruth is set during the period before monarchs ruled in Israel.
The book opens with the verse, “In the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). This is a period in Israel’s history depicted as a state of continuous decline, where people did whatever was right in their own eyes because there was no king in Israel (Judges 21:25; ca. 1200-1025 B.C.E.). However, the notice that this was when the “judges judged” (Hebrew text) implies that the legal system was functioning the way it should.
In the Jewish Bible Ruth follows the Song of Songs (also Song of Solomon). The Christian Old Testament places Ruth after the books of Judges due to its contextual setting. There is an ongoing debate among scholars whether the book’s composition should be assigned to the monarchic period or the postexilic period (fifth century B.C.E.), given the book’s neutral portrayal of intermarriage between Israelites and non-Israelites.
Reminiscent of Abraham’s migration to Canaan, a famine has forced Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion to leave Bethlehem in Judah for Moab (Ruth 1:1). Bethlehem in Hebrew literally means “house of bread,” so it is ironic that there is no food there. The text says that they remained in Moab (v. 2), implying that they had settled in for the duration. The next verse reports that Elimelech has died, leaving Naomi “widowed” with her two sons. The work of Paula Hiebert is helpful here.1 Her analysis of biblical texts concluded that the Hebrew term for a woman who has lost her husband, almanah (widow) does not mean the same in ancient Israel as it does in Western society. In ancient Israel a woman is classified as a widow if her husband has died and she has no sons to provide her with economic support. By this definition Ruth was not considered widowed.
We are not given the age of the sons, but the narrator does not refer to her as a widow. Therefore, we can infer that they were of the age where they were able to contribute to Naomi’s care. We are also told that Mahlon and Chilion wed Moabite women, which further supports the perspective that the sons were older. The narrator states that the two women were named Orpah and Ruth, although we are not told which son is married to which woman.
The notice that Naomi’s sons took Moabite wives must have been troubling for the ancient audience. It was not enough that the Moabites are reproved by the biblical writer for failing to provide the Israelites with food and water as they departed from Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:3), but Deuteronomic law forbade intermarriage for fear that such unions would lead Israel to worship foreign gods (7:3), although the Moabites were not among the list of nations the Israelites were prohibited from marrying.
After they had dwelled in Moab ten years, Mahlon and Chilion died childless. Naomi, who had migrated to Moab with her husband and sons from a land that was lacking, is once again left empty with the loss of her husband and sons (Ruth 1:5).
The story takes a turn and we are told that Naomi arose and set out with her daughters-in-law (vv. 6-7) to return (Hebrew root: shub) to Bethlehem in Judah from Moab. The narrator explains that she is leaving Moab for Judah because she heard that God had visited God’s people there and given them bread, a reversal of verse 1. The question is: what will happen to these women? In ancient Israel women without the supervision of an adult male to care for and protect them were left vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.
The suspense is resolved by an intricately-woven-together series of first-person dialogue around the variations of the Hebrew verbs of motion shub, “to return” and halak, “to walk,” “to go”: “But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back’” (v. 8; Hebrew root: halak), an appeal for them to return to their mother’s home where they can find security and support and perhaps new husbands. They replied, “No, we will return (Hebrew root: shub) with you to your people” (v. 10). But Naomi insisted, “Turn back (Hebrew root: shub), my daughters, why will you go (Hebrew root: halak) with me?” (v. 11a) Ruth and Orpah have two options: be free of their obligations to her as daughters-in-law and return to their natal families or return to Judah with her.
There is a third implausible option: levirate marriage. Naomi asks rhetorically, “Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” (v. 11b) Levirate marriage was a custom where a childless widow could become the wife of her deceased husband’s brother, who would father an heir to carry on his deceased brother’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Naomi says as much when she tells them again to “turn back” (Hebrew root: shub) because there is no chance of this custom being enforced since she is not likely to remarry and bear sons, nor are the women likely to wait until the sons are of age to cohabit with them and produce heirs for their deceased husbands (vv. 12-13).
Orpah returns (Hebrew root: shub) to her people and her gods, and Naomi encourages Ruth to do the same (Hebrew root: shub; v. 15). Ruth pleads with Naomi not to force her to return (Hebrew root: shub), uttering the famous declaration:
Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge;your people shall be my people, and your God my God (v. 16).
Ruth has chosen not to return to her people and her culture in Moab; instead she will go with Naomi to Judah where she will remain with Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God.
1 Paula S. Hiebert, “’Whence Shall Help Come to Me?’: The Biblical Widow,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel” (ed. Peggy Day; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 125-41.
God of the people, your servant Ruth showed great love when she clung to Naomi. Teach us to show great compassion, and to turn to you when we are in need. Amen.
HYMNSI will trust in the Lord NCH 416, UMH 464, TFF 256Come, thou fount of every blessing ELW 807, H82 686, UMH 400, NCH 459
CHORAL Entreat me not to leave you, Dan Forrest