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Category Archives: Orpah

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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