Ruth: Lesson One

Naomi’s Tragedies (Ruth 1:1-5)

NRSV: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

Thus begins the story of Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi. In the first paragraph, however, she is a minor character and the emphasis lies on Naomi.

Her story is located in a specific time, situation, and space.

“In the days when the Judges ruled” points us to the period described in the book of Judges—the book that precedes Ruth in the Protestant arrangement of biblical literature. Judges were both military leaders as well as, at times, judicial leaders. They were both political and religious leaders within Israelite culture. Yet, this was a time of moral degeneration within Israel’s culture. It was epitomized by the violent abuse of women (Judges 19:24-29; 21:20-24) and characterized as a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25). The period of history in which Ruth’s story is situated is a violent, chaotic, and disturbing world.

And “there was a famine in the land” of Judah. In addition to moral confusion, the land fails to bear fruit and people are going hungry. Life in Judah was a subsistent one; it was based on dry agriculture (that is, crops depended on rain rather than irrigation). Famine wrecked economy of Israel. Life was a struggle, and apparently it called for desperate measures on the part of Elimelech and Naomi.

One such desperate measure was to leave the inheritance of their ancestors to live in a foreign land. They abandoned their inheritance to live in the land of that God had not given them, the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 2:8). They left the land given to their fathers and grandfathers in Bethlehem to move to Moab. Elimelech may have come from a rather important family, probably from the clan associated with Ephrath. David belonged to that clan (1 Samuel 17:12).

Moreover, the two sons married Moabite women. Joshua warned Israel about the danger of marrying the women of other peoples (Joshua 23:12). Indeed, Moabites (as well as Ammonites, both were the descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, Genesis 19:31-39) were an excluded people—no Moabite for at least the first ten generations was permitted to participate in the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3) Further, the two sons and their wives did not conceive any children over a period of ten years. This, too, would have been interpreted as a tragic reality.

We might raise a few questions here. Was the famine a judgment against Judah? Was this part of the cycle of unfaithfulness that leads to judgment in the book of Judges? We are not told, though it is possible. Jewish tradition often interpreted this paragraph as a sign of divine judgment. Was the move to Moab an abandonment of God’s inheritance? Was the move a lack of faith in God’s providence and faithfulness to God’s own possession? Was the marriage of the sons to Moabite women an act of unfaithfulness? Perhaps, but we are not told any such thing in explicit terms, though one might argue that the narrator presumes it and assumes the reader will recognize it. Nevertheless, the emphasis lies on the tragic circumstances rather than interpreting divine action and meaning.

The narrator pictures a degenerative scenario that reflects the mileu of the book of Judges. It narrates a degenerative spiral: famine, movement to Moab, marriage to Moabite women, childlessness, and the death of the husband and sons. But perhaps this is not so much a moral degeneration but a spiral into tragedy as things go from bad to worse and the proverbial “other shoe” continually drops over and over again.

Most importantly, who is left? The women survive, and they are vulnerable. Without a living male in a foreign country, there is no inheritance and no means of support. The women are alone. Naomi, in particular, is alone in a foreign land without male support so important in ancient culture. She has the responsibility of two widowed daughter-in-laws. She has no resources.

If the family left Judah in desperation, Naomi finds herself in an even more desperate situation. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more desperate situation for an Israelite woman in the period of the Judges.

We might even say that Noami is the female Job of the Hebrew Bible. Or perhaps it is better to say that Job and Naomi share a similar losses and desperation, though her position as a woman in a patriarchal culture compounds it even more. Neither, however, seem to have a future worth living.

What would Naomi be thinking in this moment? How might she have viewed this unfolding tragedy? Fewell and Gunn, Compromising Redemption, pp. 26-27, offer a credible suggestion. Perhaps she was thinking something like this:

“She knew they should never have come. It had been wrong from the beginning. Leaving their own folk, their native place, to live among these foreigners. Elimelech’s death, the barrenness, now the deaths of her sons, both of them. They should all have gone back years ago when she had heard that the famine was over. The boys should never have married Moabite women. They should have gone back to find wives.”

Naomi probably lived with some significant regrets or perhaps some “what ifs” that would consume most people in her circumstance. Truly, it was a horrendous place to find oneself after living in Moab for at least ten years.

One Response to “Ruth: Lesson One”

  1.   Lyn Frankum Says:

    Thanks John Mark. Hated to miss class!

Leave a Reply