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Category Archives: Drought

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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Facing famine

Now

In 2011, the world agonized over pictures of starving mothers and their children in the African country of Somalia. The reason? Prolonged drought and eventual famine. The videos and photos from international news agencies put faces, gaunt and grim, with haunting, hungry eyes, to the statistics. While humanitarian efforts poured into the stricken area, thousands continued to die—many of them children.

Recent reports say the drought cycle has broken in Somalia, as predicted by meteorologists and others. “But conditions are still precarious, United Nations officials warned, with many Somalis dying of hunger and more than two million still needing emergency rations to survive.”

A  July 20, 2012 UN report remained guarded: “In spite of the progress made one year after the declaration of famine in parts of southern Somalia, some 3.8 million people there are still in need of assistance, the United Nations said today, appealing to countries to provide funding for humanitarian aid.

‘Last year, we were able to halt the downward spiral into starvation for hundreds of thousands of people. Famine conditions have not been present since January,’ said the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, in a news release.

‘However, the humanitarian situation in Somalia remains critical with 2.51 million people in urgent need of aid and a further 1.29 million at risk of sliding back into crisis,’ he added.”

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old...

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old daughter and an infant son at a MSF aide centre during the 2005 famine, Maradi Niger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the same deadly specter hovers over other African countries like Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso, reportedly the poorest region on the continent.

Recognizing the cycle

It’s not difficult to trace events leading to famine: first, no rain for several growing seasons; crops diminish and eventually fail; stockpiles dwindle; money becomes non-existent; and finally there is no food.[i] The grim result: death by starvation and disease, unless, that is, aid comes from some outside source, or, if one relocates to find sustenance elsewhere.

Then

Drought and famine were all too familiar to people of the Old Testament. Sarai, for instance, faced such conditions during her lifetime. She and Abram had the means to relocate to Egypt until the rains returned (Genesis 12:10). Later Rebekah traveled with Isaac to Gerar for the same reason (Genesis 26:1-7). Probably the best-known survivor is Naomi, who, with her husband and two sons, journeyed to Moab, and plenty (Ruth 1:1-2).

However, there was one mother—a widow, undoubtedly poor—who found herself caught in the deadly cycle, apparently with no option to leave. Resigned to a morbid outcome, she prepared to feed her child one last meager meal and wait for the end of their miseries. With a miraculous turn of events, her life changed forever. We’ll revisit her story in the next post.


[i] For a fascinating Bible account of this cycle playing out during the life of Joseph, please read Genesis 41-47.

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