Ruth 1 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries
THE AFFLICTIONS OF NAOMI AND HER RETURN TO BETHLEHEM
ELIMELECH FLEES THE FAMINE IN JUDAH TO SOJOURN IN MOAB (RUTH 1:1-5)
“And it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the 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. And they came into the country of Moab and continued there. And Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelt there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died, both of them, and the woman was left of her two children and of her husband.”
The scene for this narrative is the high plateau east of the Dead Sea and south of the Arnon river, some sixty miles from Bethlehem, and on a clear day it was visible from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was the birthplace of both King David and of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and is located only six or seven miles south of Jerusalem. Some believe that Elimelech was NOT justified in making this move. Matthew Henry labeled it as “unjustified.” And the Targum suggests that the death of all three of these men was due to their leaving the land of Israel in the case of Elimelech and because of their marrying strange women in that of the two sons.
Regarding the wives of the two sons, Josephus states that Elimelech arranged those marriages, but the text here does not support that assertion. From him, we also learn that Chilion married Orpah and that Mahlon married Ruth.
“Ephrathites” (Ruth 1:2). The fact of Elimelech and his family being called by this name seems to indicate some special honor, power, or ability that belonged to them when they departed from Bethlehem. Ephrathah was an ancient name of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and was also applied to the region in which Bethlehem was located, and the term seems to indicate some connection with the ancient aristocracy of the place. We have been unable to find out the basis of it, but Adam Clarke and others have suggested that the names Chilion and Mahlon are identified with the Joash and Saraph who are mentioned as having some kind of dominion in Moab (1 Chronicles 4:22). Naomi’s statement later in this chapter that the family went out “full” also seems to indicate their prominence and affluence.
THE MEANING OF THE THESE PERSONAL NAMES
One of the interesting features of this paragraph is the meanings which scholars have found in the personal names.
Elimelech means, `my God is king’; Naomi signifies `pleasant,' `my sweet one,' or `amiable.' Chilion and Mahlon are said to mean `sickness’ and `consumption' or `sickly’ and `wasting.' Orpah is said to mean `stiff-necked,' and Ruth has been assigned the meaning of `friend,' `refreshment,’ `satiation,’ or `comfort.' Very obviously, somebody is guessing.
Regarding the names of the Moabite wives and that of Elimelech’s two sons, perhaps the most dependable analysis is that of Joyce G. Baldwin who declares that, “The suggested meanings of Mahlon `weakly’ and Chilion `pining’ are merely conjectural, and the meanings of Orpah and Ruth are not known.” Hubbard agreed that in the case of Orpah, “The meaning remains an unsolved mystery.”
The critical allegation against the Book of Ruth that makes it a production of some post-exilic narrator bases their theory on the false proposition that the names of Elimelech’s sons are fictitious, invented for them centuries later and designed to fit what happened to them, but Leon Morris cites plenty of proof that the names Mahlon and Chilion, “Are actually good old Canaanite names.” This fact drives us to the conclusion that the usual meanings assigned to the names of these sons of Elimelech are not to be trusted. Since they indeed appear to be authentic Canaanite names, the usual meanings assigned by commentators could not possibly be correct, because, no parent in his right mind would fasten upon a helpless little child a name with the kind of meaning that “scholars” have assigned to the names Mahlon and Chilion.
Nothing but the stark and brutal facts of the disasters which befell this family in Moab are related here. We are not told why Elimelech or either of his sons died, merely that they died and left Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth widows in Moab with no visible means of support.
Speaking of the marriage of the two sons to Moabite women, this was NOT forbidden in the Law of Moses at the early period of this narrative, but severe restrictions against Moabite descendants were later imposed. The Moabites were descendants of Lot and his incestuous union with one of his daughters (Genesis 19). They accepted the pagan deity Chemosh as their god, and as a whole, the Moabites were perpetual enemies of Israel. However, there were notable instances of exceptions, as in that episode in which David’s parents were cordially received by the king of Moab (1 Samuel 22:3-4).
NAOMI DECIDES TO RETURN TO BETHLEHEM (Ruth 1:6-10)
“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 Jehovah had visited his people in giving them bread. And 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 unto the land of Judah. And Naomi said unto her two daughters-in-law, Go, return each of you to her mother’s house: Jehovah deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. Jehovah grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voice and wept. And they said unto her, Nay, but we will return with thee unto thy people.”
“Then she arose” (Ruth 1:6). “The verb here is used of rising from a prone position and also for the commencement of an action, such as the beginning of a journey.”
“Jehovah had visited his people giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6). When any people have bread it is because God has blessed them in providing it.
“And they went forth” (Ruth 1:7). The three widows went together on the way back to Judah, but at this point in the narrative, the matter of their going all the way to Bethlehem had not been decided. The widowed wives of her two sons, at this point, were merely extending the ancient oriental courtesy of going part of the way as an escort for their mother-in-law, a custom which ordinarily would have ended at the border of Moab.
“Jehovah deal kindly with you.” (Ruth 1:8). Naomi’s faith shines in these words. According to the usual thinking of that time, Chemosh was considered the God of Moab, but no such nonsense as that entered Naomi’s mind. She recognized Jehovah as the true God of all lands.
“As you have dealt with the dead.” (Ruth 1:8). “This means, `as you have dealt with my sons, your husbands, while they lived.'”
“Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.” (Ruth 1:9). This indicates that the little company had reached the border, or the turning point, from which the friendly escort might have turned back. The simple meaning here is that Naomi kissed her daughters-in-law goodbye.
This paragraph introduces us to the author’s characteristic device of using conversations to carry forward the thread of his narrative. Morris stated that, “Over fifty out of the total of eighty-five verses in the whole book are taken up with dialogue.”
“They lifted up their voice and wept.” (Ruth 1:9). This was the tearful prelude to the dialogue that followed. The moment of truth had come; it was time for the loving, courteous escort of Naomi on the way to Judah to be terminated, but the human emotions overflowed in a fountain of tears, the implication being that all three of them wept together.
“And they said, Nay, but we will return with thee unto thy people.” (Ruth 1:10). Both of the daughters-in-law, at first, decided to go with Naomi to Judah, but Naomi wisely tried to dissuade them. As Moabitesses, they might not have received any welcome whatever in Israel!
Before leaving this paragraph, there is a very important characteristic of it that we should note. Leon Morris tells us that there are some very unusual grammatical constructions here, a kind of confusion of masculine and feminine terms, as well as plural and singular terms. “These grammatical distinctions are not used with the precision required in later times.” This, of course, indicates a VERY EARLY PERIOD for the writing of Ruth, thus giving strong support for the date which we proposed in the introduction (which see). The critical effort to avoid the strength of this argument is the ridiculous supposition that, “Maybe the late narrator purposely copied the earlier style of writing”! Why would any writer have ever done a stupid thing like that?
“And Naomi said, Turn again my daughters: Why will ye go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, 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 ye therefore tarry till they were grown? would ye therefore stay from having a husband? nay, my daughters,; for it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of Jehovah hath gone forth against me. And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth clave unto her.”
One of the very important things in this paragraph is that Naomi spelled out for her daughters-in-law, that there was in their situation no prospect whatever of any such thing as a levirate marriage. “Naomi is saying that there is no prospect of such a marriage in this case.” Baldwin agreed with this, writing that, “Naomi argued that in their case the law of levirate marriage could not possibly apply.”
“My daughters – my daughters – my daughters” (Ruth 1:11,12,13). The powerful emotional thrust of these lines is evident. The manifest love which united the hearts of those grieving ladies is brilliantly portrayed by the sobbing words of Naomi.
“The hand of Jehovah is gone forth against me” (Ruth 1:13). “These words emphasize a conviction that underlies every word of this Book, namely, that things do not happen by chance. God is sovereign, and He brings to pass what He will.” Of course, some things do happen by chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11), but it is also true that the omnipotent God is ABLE to overrule every chance and happenstance in the achievement of His own sovereign will. Jehovah was not Naomi’s enemy here, despite her mistaken thoughts that God was against her. Such are the inscrutable and unfathomable mysteries of all life upon this earth, that all believers should learn to trust where they cannot see and say with the patriarch Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”
RUTH GOES WITH NAOMI
“And she said, Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto unto her god; return thou after thy sister-in-law. And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried; Jehovah do so to me and more also, if aught but death part thee and me. And when she saw that she was stedfastly minded to go with her, she left off speaking unto her.”
“Return thou after thy sister-in-law” (Ruth 1:15). Naomi was still entreating Ruth to return, but Ruth replied to that with a command of her own, “Entreat me not to leave thee”!
“Entreat me not to leave thee” (Ruth 1:16). These are the opening words of one of the most magnificent declarations of loving loyalty to be found anywhere in the literature of all mankind. This writer has heard them intoned on the occasion of a hundred weddings, 3,000 years after Ruth spoke them, and as Hubbard stated it, “These words tower as a majestic monument of faithfulness,” rising supremely above all of the prosaic platitudes of a thousand libraries.
“Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). “This means she will join in Naomi’s religion. She is determined to be hers “usque ad aras” – to the very altars. Thy God shall be my God, and farewell to all the gods of Moab, which are vanity and a lie.”
“Jehovah do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:17). The form of this ancient oath is found only in the books of Samuel and Kings (1 Samuel 14:44; 20:13; 1 Kings 19:2; 20:10). The great significance of it is that, “Ruth does not say [~’Elohiym] (God) as foreigners do, but [~Yahweh] (Jehovah), indicating that Ruth is the follower of the true God.” The Book of Ruth is so written that one naturally anticipates that the narrative will subsequently reveal some special reward from Jehovah for this most remarkable confession of faith and devotion. In this, we are not disappointed.
“One further word about Ruth’s immortal words. They encompassed both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of life. In geography, they covered all future locations. In chronology, they extended from the present into eternity. In theology, they embraced exclusively Jehovah the God of Israel. In genealogy, they merged the young Moabitess with Naomi’s family, securely sealing all exits with an oath.”
“The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.” (Ruth 1:17). Yes, indeed, Ruth honored this vow, and what a blessing she proved to be for Naomi. At the very moment when Naomi had been tempted to believe that God was against her, He was preparing wonderful things for her future. “In her old age, Naomi was honored and nourished in the house of the wealthy Boaz where she became the nurse of Ruth’s son, the grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:16).”
NAOMI AND RUTH ARRIVE IN BETHLEHEM
“So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass that when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and the women said, Is this Naomi? And she said unto them, call me not Naomi, call me Mara; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and Jehovah hath brought me home again empty; why call ye me Naomi? seeing Jehovah hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me. So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab; and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of the barley harvest.”
“All the city was moved” (Ruth 1:19). “It appears from this that Naomi was not only well known, but highly respected in Bethlehem. This is proof that Elimelech was of high consideration in that place.”
“And the women said, Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19). This emphasis upon the women came about, in all probability, because all of the able-bodied men were busy in the barley harvest.
“Call me not Naomi, call me Mara” (Ruth 1:20). Naomi (sweet) and Mara (bitter) were contrasting names that illustrated the disastrous changes that had come in the life of Naomi. Significantly, the bitter waters of Mara, encountered by Israel during the wilderness wanderings, were again brought into memory by the use of this name (Exodus 15:22ff). Naomi’s thoughts of what she believed that God had done unto her were by no means correct, but she knew of none other upon whom she could fasten the responsibility, and she had not learned the great lesson that Christ brought to mankind at a later time, namely, that the saints of God frequently SUFFER, sustained by the marvelous promise, that, “If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him.”
In the dramatic events of this Book, God was in the process of founding the family among the children of Israel who would eventually bring about the birth of the Holy Messiah unto the redemption of all mankind who would receive him. This family came from a BLENDING of both Jews and Gentiles – Ruth the Moabitess appearing here as one of its mothers, and her husband Boaz also having come of the Gentile Rahab, the harlot of Jericho!
“Jehovah hath testified against me” (Ruth 1:21). Joyce G. Baldwin has noted that the RSV rendition here, “The Lord has afflicted me” is, “an emendation that changes the construction and alters the form of the verb.” Like many other `emendations,’ which are merely human changes from what God’s Word says into what men think it SHOULD have said, this one also should be taken with a grain of salt!
“They came to Bethlehem in the beginning of the barley harvest.” (Ruth 1:22). The time indicated by this was “during the last of the month of April.” The skill of the narrator appears in the introduction of this fact just here in the story, because the barley harvest was the occasion for all of the dramatic developments that came quickly afterward.
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Ruth 1”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/ruth-1.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
Ruth 1 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries