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Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

  ***

 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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The Story of Ruth: Choices

Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took 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. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:3-5).

Naomi had arrived in Moab never suspecting the twists and turns her life would take during the next ten years. Now she found herself robbed of the emotional and physical support of not only her husband, but her two sons as well. In her homeland this would have been difficult enough, but finding herself bereft in a foreign land left her vulnerable, facing a uncertain future. It was only natural that she should think of home—Bethlehem in Judah.

She was not entirely alone—her daughters-in-law were quite devoted to her, and she still had her God, although Naomi agonized that perhaps she had fallen from His favor in light of her sad circumstances. Ruth and Orpah were well aware of her dedication to Israel’s God, as they must have seen it demonstrated numerous times over their years together as a family.

Weighing her options

By her own admission, Naomi was past the time of child-bearing. She knew that chances of remarriage, especially in Moab (and likely in her country as well), had she been so inclined, were virtually non-existent. If she went back to Judah, her husband had extended family there, so potentially she could have emotional support and even, perhaps, some rights of inheritance; she would be back in the land of her God; and if worse came to worse, there were provisions in Israel’s law to take care of widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-21).

Decisions. How to close down her home, and arrange for travel. Then there was the matter of Ruth and Orpah, both of whom felt a responsibility for her welfare, and she, for theirs. What should she do? What should they do?

A parting of the ways

News from home gave her the answer. By God’s grace, the famine had finally ended, and there was no real reason to remain in Moab. Informing Orpah and Ruth of her decision was no doubt emotional, but still they insisted on going with her. And so it was that the three widows found themselves on the road to Bethlehem, embarking on a journey not only fraught with potential dangers from roving bandits and miscreants along the way, but one which also posed many unknowns concerning what lay ahead.

That, however, is not what troubled Naomi most. She was quite concerned for the futures of her daughters-in-law. They would be foreigners in Judah, widows without any means of support or probable prospects for marriage—the plight she herself was fleeing.

She pleaded with them, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband…” (1:8-9).

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to t...

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She kissed them and wept.

They cried in protest.

She reasoned, “Turn back…are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?”

Naomi cherished them both—they were like her very own daughters (1:11-13). They loved her in return, each in her own way.

Eventually a tearful Orpah[1] conceded, kissed Naomi one last time, and  returned to the sanctuary of her parents’ home.

Ruth, however, was another matter.

To be continued….

[1] Orpah, Chilion’s wife, is only mentioned in a few verses in Ruth 1, and then she disappears from the pages of the Bible. People have tried to “flesh” her out, but there is little to go on. The Woman’s Study Bible, in its Topic titled “Orpah, the Daughter-in-Law with a Wavering Faith,” says her name has several meanings: fawn, double-minded, nape of the neck (interpreted to indicate stubbornness or being self-willed). Hence, to some, her actions reflected the negatives attached to her name—she left Naomi for entirely selfish reasons. Even the title of the Topic on Orpah presents a definite bias with regard to her actions. However, as mentioned in the introductory post on The Story of Ruth, depending on names and their meanings is quite subjective.

Some draw attention to the statement that Orpah kissed Naomi, whereas Ruth clung to her, inferring a difference of the depth of attachment. The manner in which Orpah returned is in itself viewed subjectively: She was either obediently complying with Naomi’s urging, or she was selfishly looking out for her own future, as well as returning to the religion of her people.

Since there is no definitive statement as to her motive, people continue to construct arguments supporting their particular interpretation.

 

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The Story of Ruth: The Beginning

“Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man from Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).

Famine. A word that had major implications for the land of Israel. Usually it started with a period of drought. If that condition lasted three years or more, the prospect of famine loomed large, bringing with it a dwindling and depletion of food supplies for both man and livestock, as well as affecting commercial ventures. It was a word that evoked great dread. Famine.

Elimelech and Naomi had undoubtedly lived through such regional natural disasters[1] before and perhaps had even grown accustomed to them, but this famine evidently affected the whole land. Even though they were from Bethlehem, the city of bread (normally a fertile area), they, too, were faced with the specter of impending want. Elimelech made a pragmatic decision: He would relocate his wife and two teenaged sons, Mahlon and Chilion, in Moab until the cycle broke, in hopes they would soon be reunited back in their homeland with family, clan, and Israel’s God.

The journey was not especially long, perhaps under a hundred miles, and possibly took less than a week to complete, depending on how many relocation necessities they took with them, whether they had any livestock to care for along the way, and their mode of travel. Though their final location in Moab can’t be determined, it can be assumed that their new home offered potential for subsistence for the foreseeable future.

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that ...

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that of Israel and Judah to the east, with disputed territories such as Nebo and Baal-meon shown here to the north. The map shows Atarot and Dibon, the site where the Mesha Stele was discovered, due east of the Dead Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Moab?

One might ask, why Moab? Possibly because:

  • Travel to Moab was evidently unrestricted, indicating a peaceful relationship, at least for the moment.
  • It was relatively close geographically.
  • The languages were similar.
  • It was generally a fertile land which received adequate rainfall much of the time, and was evidently unaffected by the famine afflicting Israel.[2]
  • There were major trade routes passing through its borders which could facilitate commerce.[3]
  • Moab was polytheistic, as were many of Israel’s Semite neighbors, though its chief god was Chemosh.[4] As such, it seems possible to me that the family (or at least Naomi) could still worship Israel’s God without consequence.
  • This choice, along with other events related in the book of Ruth, is often attributed to the guidance of the unseen hand of God. (See Ruth, “Background Information” in The Woman’s Study Bible.)

Three widows

There is no time frame given for Elimelech’s death, nor a reason. (However a later rabbinic tradition says that Elimelech was punished because of greed or because he forsook his homeland.[5]) The same is true of his sons. What the Bible records is that Mahlon and Kilian took Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, seemingly after their father’s death, and at some time in the next few years they, too, died, leaving two widows and no heirs.

Why?

Studious Bible readers are usually not easily satisfied when there are blanks in Bible narratives, such as why these men all died, and often try to fill them in various ways. For instance, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary mentions one such attempt looks for hints hidden in the meanings of the names of Mahlon and Chilion: Mahlon, linked to the root “to be sterile,” “to be weak, ill,” and Chilion, linked to a Hebrew root word which means “to be finished,” “at an end,” or perhaps, “weakening” or “pining.” The commentary then wisely concludes that “in the face of etymological uncertainties, however, it is best not to read too much hidden significance into the names of Elimelech’s family” (comment on Ruth 1:2). Whether they were generally weak and sickly is just not known.[6]

Desperate circumstances again

After Elimelech’s death, Naomi would naturally have depended on her sons for her survival. When both of them married Moabite women, she would have worked into that context, and still have had a measure of security. But when all the males in her immediate family died she was left with few options. It had been ten years since she first came to Moab, and now her eyes turned back to her homeland.

(to be continued…)

[1] The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, regarding Ruth 1:1-5, posits that this famine could have been due to devastations brought on by the seven-year oppression of Israel by the Midianites in Judges 6.

Scripture records that Midianites and their cohorts would “encamp against them [Israel] and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor donkey….So Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD” (vv. 4-6).

This might also be the reason Naomi was in Moab ten years before she heard that prosperity had returned to Bethlehem. Matthew Henry’s Commentary mentions this as a possibility as does The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

There are, however, differing opinions, and the Bible itself does not speak specifically to the causes of the famine.

[2] The Encyclopedia Britannica (1973) article on “Moab” mentions Moab’s fertility, and its wealth of wine and grain.

[3] See http://www.bible-history.com/maps/ancient-roads-in-israel.html . While nothing is said to indicate Elimelech’s source of livelihood, I feel it is within the realm of possibility that he could have been a tradesman of some sort, and as such, could provide for his family in this foreign land.

[4] See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10898-moab .

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ruth 1:3.

[6] (Ibid) Rabbinic tradition says their deaths were punishment for leaving Judah and for marrying non-Jews, a view that one can still find on the Internet. Other sources mention there was no prohibition to such a marriage, so the controversy continues. See Expositor’s note on Ruth 1:4a and the Critical and Experimental Commentary as examples.

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