“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 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.
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.
- There were major trade routes passing through its borders which could facilitate commerce.
- Moab was polytheistic, as were many of Israel’s Semite neighbors, though its chief god was Chemosh. 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.)
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.) 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.
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.
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…)
 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.
 The Encyclopedia Britannica (1973) article on “Moab” mentions Moab’s fertility, and its wealth of wine and grain.
 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.
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ruth 1:3.
 (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.