Ruth 1—Questions and Observations

by Glenn on July 1, 2021

The next step in my process of trying to understand the book of Ruth better is to formulate questions and make observations as I read the text and compare two different translations. I will be using the New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation. At this point I am not using commentaries, just trying to see what I notice.

Before we get to the story we have to comment on the name of the book—Ruth. Here within the larger story of God’s dealing with the ancient Hebrew people—God’s people—is this story of someone who is not one of those people, at least not at the beginning. Ruth is an outsider who will become an insider who will give birth to the ancestor of David the king.

Ruth Chapter One

New Revised Standard Version

New Living Translation

Verses 1–2

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Interesting that the NLT wants to make it clear we are in Israel. I assume that’s not in the original. Also the NLT wants to note that it is a “severe” famine. Is the NRSV leaving something out or is the NLT putting something in?

There is irony here. Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and there is no bread in the house of bread. The promised land is lacking in what had been promised. A person who is part of the nation to whom God has made promises decides he needs to live outside the land of promise and away from that nation to stay alive.

Hebrew names are often full of meaning. I need to learn what all these names mean. I think Elimelek means God is king, but I can’t remember what Mahlon and Kilion mean. I know they have rather sad meanings.

I have heard sermons where Elimelek is criticized severely for leaving the promised land and going to Moab. The text here is merely descriptive. It says what happened but doesn’t make judgments about that. It’s not in my head, but I know there is significance to the country of Moab as it relates to the Israelites. There is a back story there that could be part of this story. I need to get that clear. I suspect to talk about the book of Ruth, you need to understand the relationship of the Jewish people to the Moabite people.

I wonder what we should associate with “In the days when the judges ruled . . .”? Is that simply context? Something we know of that time was that “everyone did what was right in their eyes.” Is that set a tone for what follows? Is it something like, “In the time when everyone did what was right in their eyes, here is a story of three people who are acting in the best interests of others and working against their own self-interest.”

Verses 3–5

Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

In messages I’ve heard, there are those who want to make much of the death of Elimelek. They consider his death divine judgment, but again, that is something you have to read into the text. The story itself is rather factual at this point. And the timeline is super-compressed and super-tragic. In three years we have three deaths. And all the deaths are of the men in the story.

I think it is safe to say that the culture of ancient Israel was a patriarchy and here is a story about women. What does it mean to be an Israelite widow?

Related to the patriarchy is the description of marriage as presented in Genesis 2:24, where “a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” (NRSV) But in this story, women have left their homes to be with the men. Is there something significant about that, or something that should be made about that at this point?

Verses 6–10

When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.

10 “No,” they said. “We want to go with you to your people.”

I think we can assume this famine went on for a while, but finally the word gets out that it has ended. How have things gone for Naomi in Moab financially? We don’t really get any sort of description of how Naomi and her two daughters have done. Ahead of them lies poverty. Will that be a step up or a step down?

You wonder why Naomi tells the girls to go home after they have started the journey. Why not figure this out before she leaves? Is there something to making this decision along the way?

Naomi seems to want the best for her daughters-in-law. It seems to me the words of verse 8 could be taken formally—this is something one says—or this is an honest expression of Naomi of her feelings toward her daughters-in-law. In other words, is Naomi being polite or is this how she feels? Regardless, verse 9 feels real. It seems like that has to be taken as a sincere hope as evidenced by the weeping. It must be something they all feel toward each other.

The LORD is among the characters in this story, although it is a non-speaking role, if I recall correctly. The LORD will be referred to and people will act in his name, but the LORD won’t actually do anything in this story. Yet because of the LORD, characters will act in a certain way.

It’s interesting to me that English translations use this title and not the actual name of God. In fairness, we don’t actually know exactly how to say that name. And so maybe this is the safe play. But it feels like something gets lost when as here, someone refers to God by name, but this isn’t reflected in the translation.

Verses 11–13

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? 12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? 13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.”

This is the second attempt Naomi makes to send the girls away. There’s something about this line of reasoning Naomi offers that I wonder about. I guess it’s the idea that Naomi believes the girls are connected to her because of her sons and the only way they can be connected to each other going forward would be if she had more sons, which she says will not (cannot) happen. And then how Naomi thinks this all out to its logical conclusion, noting that the girls would have to wait until her sons grew up and that they will not want to do that. Is this a polite way of saying, “You girls will be too old.”

Verses 14–18

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 15 “Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.

Both Orpah and Ruth express deep emotions toward Naomi, but with Ruth there is this added physical element of Ruth clinging to Naomi.

Ruth has a conversion experience, although we are not told how this came about. Naomi has stressed that her two daughters-in-law should go back to their gods. And she has pointed out to Ruth that Orpah has gone back to her gods. Naomi seems against trying to convert Ruth outright. There is no reaction from Naomi about this conversion, either. But Ruth’s commitment is total and to the death.

Verses 19–22

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.

So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”

22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman. They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest

A lot of time has passed since Naomi left. She left with a husband and two sons and returns with a daughter-in-law. The NRSV says Bethlehem was “stirred,” while the NLT says it was “excited.” Clearly it caused a reaction. I feel like these words are different, but I don’t know if it is a difference that matters. Were people stirred up or were they excited to see Naomi.

Regardless, when Naomi is addressed by her name, she wants nothing to do with her name. She wants to be called Mara, bitter. Fascinating to think about Ruth’s commitment to Naomi in light of Naomi’s emotional state right now. Is she regretting her decision?

Naomi attributes her state to God’s doing. To what extent is she right? Has God afflicted her? Is he to be blamed for her circumstances? Again, God is referenced. Naomi is confident in her assertion, but God neither confirms nor denies her accusation.

One difference in the translation is that the NLT establishes when the Barley harvest begins—”late spring.” I assume this is not in the original but the translators wanted to make it clear where this harvest figures in terms of the seasons.