Commentary on Ruth 1:1-17
The passage begins with disaster—there is a famine in the land—leading to dislocation as “a certain man … and his wife and two sons” leave their home in Bethlehem, cross a river and a border, and seek refuge in a foreign country.
News reports and photos of contemporary villages, countries and peoples fleeing from famine—perhaps the experiences of our own families or neighbors—make clear the desperation that propels them.
This family from Bethlehem is part of a long line of biblical, historical, and contemporary households facing food insecurity. Those persons with no way and nowhere to flee witness their land turn barren (see also Jeremiah 14:2-6), and have few options in the midst of famine (e.g., 1 Kings 17:12). Some walk miles, take risks, and cross into unfamiliar lands, attempting to survive the dangerous present and daring to hope there might be a future. Abraham and Sarah and their household flee to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan (Genesis 12: 10-20). During a later famine in Canaan, Jacob, his wives, his children, and his grandchildren relocate to Egypt (Genesis 45:9-11; 17-20).
The Ruth text does not indicate how long there had been a famine, or how many other Ephrathites left their homes. The text focuses our attention on one particular household and their decision to seek refuge in the country of Moab. The decision to flee famine is completely understandable. The decision to seek refuge in Moab is—in the biblical context—totally shocking. The dominant biblical tradition regarding the Moabites depicts them as shameful, inhospitable, and dangerous.
- The Moabites are distant kin to the Israelites; the result of an incestuous relationship. (Details in Genesis 19:30-37)
- After escaping slavery in Egypt the Israelites pass through the kingdom of Moab in their final approach to Canaan. The Moabites attempt to curse the Israelites. (See in Numbers 22-24)
- Before departing Moab, some of Israelite men became sexually involved with some of the Moabite women. Some of the men joined in worshiping the Moabite god Baal of Peor. (See in Numbers 25)
- The Book of Deuteronomy instructs: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam … to curse you … You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live” (Deuteronomy 23:3-4, 6).
The biblical tradition regarding the Moabites prepares us as readers to question Elimelech and Naomi’s choice of refuge, and to anticipate that they will encounter hostility from the Moabites. The focus of the text, however, is on this family’s survival.
Why should we, as readers, care about this particular family? There is nothing to distinguish this household in terms of lineage, prominence, righteousness, or promise. Nevertheless, it is their life as famine refugees that the text sets before us.
Relocation to Moab provides relief from famine, but it does not protect against other disasters. Elimelech dies. The sons marry Moabite women, but after living in the land ten years the sons also die. The text emphasizes “the woman was left without her two sons and her husband” (verse 5). Sadly, Naomi is not unique among ancient or contemporary refugee women in having their lives turned upside down by emotional, social, and economic loss, and having to figure out how to continue to live.
It is not unsurprising that Naomi, having heard that the famine was over in her homeland, would decide to return to Bethlehem. What is startling is that “she started to return with her daughters-in-law” (verse 6). The text repeats this notice: “So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah” (verse 7). Nothing in the previous verses in the Book of Ruth and nothing in the biblical accounts of the Moabites prepares us for the decision of these women to travel together into an unknown future. Nor is there any prior indication of the devotion and concern these women have for one another.
The text does not indicate how far the three women traveled together toward the land of Judah before Naomi directs her daughters-in-law to “Go back … to your mother’s house.” Naomi indicates her concern is for their “security” which rests “in the house of your husband” (verse 9), and which Naomi, who has no living sons, cannot provide.
What Naomi cannot provide is contrasted to what her “daughters” (verse 11) have provided. Naomi prays that these two Moabite women will be treated by the LORD (YHWH) with the same loyalty and devotion (?esed) that they have extended to “the dead” and to her (verse 8). Like the Samaritan traveler in Luke 10, the models of compassion and mercy in the Book of Ruth upend and exceed all expectations.
Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth “wept aloud” when Naomi instructs them to “Go back” (verse 8), and after she acknowledges the bitterness of her own life (verse 13). Orpah is dutiful to Naomi’s command (verses 14-15). Ruth is resistant to Naomi’s command (verses 16-17). Both daughters-in-law face uncertain futures. Both are presented as acting out of devotion to Naomi.
In this reading, Ruth makes a stunning pledge to link her life to Naomi, to Naomi’s homeland, her people, and her God. As a foreigner (a Moabite!) and as a widow without property, will she find welcome support for this commitment? Will there be ways in the economic and social structure of her new homeland for her to find security for Naomi and her future well-being?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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.
Entreat me not to leave you, Dan Forrest