Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the book of Ruth in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This series is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

  • Zach Barnhart opened up our series by looking at Ruth 1:1-5
  • Today Mike Boling looks at Ruth 1:6-22.
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Ruth 1:6-22, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May 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 of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi;[a] call me Mara,[b] for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? 22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”

The initial five verses of Ruth leave the reader at a proverbial cliffhanger with Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, on the brink of starvation and disaster. Ruth 1:6 presents a massive shift, one that provides an element of hope with a large amount of God’s divine grace mixed in for good measure. While Ruth 1:6 seems to be a simple statement for the reader focused on noting that the famine had perhaps passed in Bethlehem, closer inspection reveals there is quite a bit of information to be had in this passage that both sets the stage for future events and continues to demonstrate the theme of this book, specifically the aspect of divine grace extended by God to Naomi and Ruth.

Old Testament scholar Daniel Block aptly notes some important points to consider in this passage, most notably in the notation of the provision of food by God:

“First, it was a gift from God that in the midst of her grief and pain Naomi was able to hear good news. Second, Naomi heard Yahweh had intervened on behalf of his people. The critical word in this clause is paqad, which bears a wide range of meanings. It occurs most often in military contexts, where it means “to assemble, count, and muster” men for battle. But it is also common in theological contexts, with God as the subject. In such cases it means generally “to attend to, to visit”, but this visitation may be either favorable or unfavorable. In negative contexts (usually expressed by paqad ‘al) it denotes “to intervene against”, that is, “to punish”, though always in keeping with the covenant stipulations. In positive contexts (expressed by paqad ‘et, as in our text), the word means “to intervene on behalf of, to come to the aid of.” The latter is certainly the case here. Third, the object of the divine favor is identified as ‘ammo, “his people”, the nation of Israel. The term expresses the normal covenant relationship between deity and his people. The return of the rains was a signal that God had not forgotten or rejected them. Fourth, Yahweh had given his people bread. The read of Hebrew will recognize the play on the name Bethlehem. The “house of bread” is being restocked.”[1]

So we have in this passage the reality that God had not forgotten his people and had once again provided them with their daily bread in keeping with His covenant promises. Given the cycle of rebellion and turning back to God that is found throughout the period of the Judges, it is likely the period noted in this passage is a time when the people returned to God, possibly finding deliverance from oppression or the lifting of the famine. Either approach was divinely provided, something this passage clearly notes.

Naomi leaves the plain of Moab where she had been living, departing that place with Orpah and Ruth, journeying back to Bethlehem on the road that leads back to Judah. Furthermore, the text notes Naomi urging her two daughters-in-law to return to their homeland, expressing the desire for the grace of God to be extended to them in the same manner as they extended grace to her by staying with her following the death of her husband and their husbands.

An interesting element of these two verses is found in the use of the Hebrew word hesed, a word most scholars note is very difficult to accurately translate fully into English. In this particular context, it can be averred that hesed “encompasses deeds of mercy performed by a more powerful party for the benefit of the weaker one.”[2] One must not forget that Orpah and Ruth could have left Naomi after their husbands died, given their young age and the potential to be re-married. At this juncture in the story, Naomi believes that both Orpah and Ruth would have a far better future and potential for success if they returned to their homeland.

Ruth 1:9 has some very interesting elements to it once the ANE elements of what being married meant for a woman in that culture and point in history. Huey saliently notes the word rest or security, the Hebrew word mĕnuwchah, refers to the security in the ancient Near Eastern culture that marriage gave a woman rather than describing freedom from work. Naomi expressed her blessing on Orpah and Ruth that Adonai would grant them the security and rest found in the covenant of marriage, an umbrella of protection they had sorely been lacking since the death of their husbands. This statement once again reflects on the idea of God’s hesed, this time grace extended towards two foreign women.

Following this declaration, Naomi kissed her daughters-in-law in the expectation they would be parting ways, however, both Orpah and Ruth began to weep. Naomi tries to talk a bit of sense to Orpah and Ruth. She begins by noting her own inability to produce children due to her age and a lack of a husband. Verhoef comments “Naomi based her persistent urging of Orpah and Ruth to return on the fact of her own advanced age. According to tradition (Gen. 38), or as stipulated in the law (Deut. 25:5-10; cf. Mt. 22:23-28), a levirate marriage was no longer possible (1:11-13).”[3]

Naomi continues her strong recommendation for them to return by noting what seems to be a rather obvious question, referring once again to her lack of ability to produce children. She asks them a somewhat rhetorical question, that of even if Naomi could bear children by some miracle, would Orpah and Ruth be willing to wait around until those children were reared to a sufficient enough age to wed? Even if that were possible, Orpah and Ruth would themselves be too old to marry any offspring of Naomi.

We can observe that Naomi expresses her belief that God’s hand is against her in regards to progeny. Huey aptly comments in regards to this belief, “the true bitterness of Naomi’s lot was that she believed the Lord was punishing her. Underlying the Book of Ruth and the theology of the entire OT is the belief that nothing happens by chance. God is sovereign and does whatever he desires. Naomi offered no explanation as to why she thought God was her enemy. Perhaps, like Job, she could not really understand the calamities that had struck her”[4] within the broader scope of God’s divine plan.

The reader of this passage, at least one familiar with the overall message and events of Ruth, will understand that God is setting the stage for a kinsman-redeemer to emerge, one that would provide the means for a Moabite woman to wed a man of Judah, a marriage that itself would set the stage for King David and the coming of the Messiah. What appeared at the time to Naomi to be God’s hand against her was in actually God’s sovereignty once again playing out in the grand flow of history.

Following Naomi’s recommendation for them to return home, all three wept aloud. At first, it appears the speech by Naomi had no impact as the weeping gives the impression that Orpah and Ruth both still desired to stay with Naomi rather than returning to their homeland. Instead what takes place is Orpah kissing Naomi goodbye with Ruth standing firm in her commitment to stick it out with her mother-in-law. There is no further mention of Orpah in the Book of Ruth so the reader is left to wonder if Naomi’s blessings of God’s favor upon her to find rest and security through marriage came to fruition. We perhaps will never know as the author begins to shift the focus of the story to Naomi and Ruth and their return to Bethlehem.

Some may feel compelled to cast shame on Orpah for not having faith in God or the desire to stay with Naomi. This is something the author does not do at all in the story, in fact, Orpah is not demeaned by the author for choosing to return home. Block suggests ‘Orpah “is not presented as a negative example of unbelief; the narrator interprets her role in the narrative as a foil for Ruth. Her actions also highlight the incredible fortitude and faith of this other Moabite, qualities that will become even more evident in the final interchange.”[5]

Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and then exists the scene and the overall story. What is of interest is the kiss extended by Orpah to Naomi. OT scholar Edward Campbell comments that in Ruth 1:9, “the order is kissing and lamenting; here it is reversed (chiasm). The effect is to bracket artistically the episode of persuasion. Notice also that the kiss in 1:14 goes from Orpah to Naomi, while in 1:9 it was Naomi who kissed the young woman. This is just the signal needed to say that the relationship between Orpah and Naomi is here terminated; we need no further words…to make clear that her Orpah takes her leave. A one-way kiss of farewell is usual in stories of the conclusion of intimate relationships.”[6]

In Ruth 1:15, we find Naomi trying once again to convince Ruth of the wisdom of returning to her homeland of Mo’av. An additional appeal is made that was absent from the previous encouragement provided by Naomi to both Orpah and Ruth. The extra element of persuasion from Naomi was the notation that Orpah had not only returned to her people, but that she had also returned to her god Chemosh, the god worshiped by the Moabites. Huey notes such a statement is significant because “In ancient times it was believed that a deity had power only in the geographical region occupied by his worshipers. Thus to leave one’s land meant separation from one’s god(s). Naomi, though a worshiper of Yahweh, encouraged Ruth to join her sister-in-law and return to her land and to her own “gods.”[7]

Essentially, Naomi after recognizing her previous appeals concerning rest and security found in marriage back in Moab, now attempts to persuade Ruth to return home by appealing to rest and security that Ruth might have believed would come from under the protection of her gods. Ruth’s response to Naomi’s attempt to persuade her return to Moab goes a long way to provide the reader with true insight into the character of Ruth. Block describes Ruth’s response as “among the most memorable in all of Scripture. Few utterances in the Bible match her speech for sheer poetic beauty, and the extraordinary courage and spirituality it expresses.”[8]

She begins her speech with the strong request for Naomi to stop trying to convince her to return to Mo’av with her sister Orpah. The Hebrew word Ruth uses that is often translated as “press” or “entreat” is the word paga. In this context, this word connotes the idea of assailing someone with petitions, something Naomi had certainly been feverishly attempting over the previous several verses. So we have Ruth asking Naomi to cease with the petitions for her to leave and to stop following her. What comes next in Ruth’s speech is truly an amazing statement. Ruth declares “for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die; and there I will be buried. May Adonai bring terrible curses on me, and worse ones as well, if anything but death separates you and me.”

At the surface, this may seem like a great statement of commitment based on the love Ruth had for her mother-in-law. While that is definitely true, there is much more going on in this statement which we will now explore in some detail. Block provides salient exposition as to what Ruth was declaring. He notes that Ruth

“answers Naomi’s final plea to join Orpah in returning to the people and the god of Moab. With radical self-sacrifice she abandons every base of security that any person, let alone a poor widow, in that cultural context would have clung to: her native homeland, her own people, even her own gods. Like any Near Easterner of her time, she realized that is she would commit herself to Naomi and go home with her, she must also commit herself to Naomi’s people (Israel) and to Naomi’s God (Yahweh).”[9]

This is truly a momentous decision and it presents a major shift in the overall story. No longer is Elimelech or Naomi the focus of the story with their two sons and two daughters-in-law as minor characters in the main plot. Ruth now jumps to the center stage, declaring her
commitment not just to stay with Naomi wherever that may lead, even unto death. Ruth also knowingly declares her commitment to the people of Israel and their God. A Gentile who formerly worshiped the pagan god Chemosh now expresses her faith, albeit small, in Yahweh. This is the definition of God’s hesed being extended to both Naomi and now Ruth. God in His divine sovereignty is paving the way for Ruth to be an important part of His plans, one that would result in the emergence of King David and most importantly, the coming of the Messiah.

Huey provides some additional insight into the manner in which Ruth responded to Naomi, stating “By first naming the people and then God, Ruth revealed that she could not relate to God apart from His people. Nothing but death would separate her from Naomi. She swore a solemn curse on herself if she did not keep her promise.”[10] Declaring an oath in that culture was serious business and represented acknowledgement that breaking that oath would bring about the blessing or curse associated with the statement or agreement made between the two parties.

Based on the nature of the oath declared by Ruth along with the request for Naomi to cease protesting Ruth accompanying her to Bethlehem, Naomi stopped her appeals. Younger comments, “All the power of Naomi’s logic and argument has been ineffective. Ruth’s faith defies human logic and wisdom.”[11] As faith often does, Ruth’s commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel defied all logic of the time. Instead of returning to a place where physical rest and security was likely awaiting her, Ruth placed her faith in the unknown, in a people she did not know and a God she did not know. This expression of faith by Ruth is reminiscent of how faith is defined in Hebrews 11:1 which states “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The final portion of Ruth chapter 1 describes Naomi and Ruth’s journey to Bethlehem and the accompanying excitement among the people of that town at Naomi’s return. A number of things are interesting about these three verses beginning with the question posed by the people of Bethlehem, specifically the question “Can this be Naomi?” It has been many years since Elimelekh, Naomi and their two sons departed from Bethlehem for the plains of Moab. The question posed by the people of the town is a rhetorical style question rather than asking whether the woman who had returned was indeed Naomi. Younger comments that the question “is not addressed by the women to Naomi but rather to one another, creating excited commotion.” We must remember that a town like Bethlehem, according to most scholars only had around 500600 people living there during the time of Christ so this was a relatively small town.

The response by Naomi to the commotion her return has caused is again rather telling of the mindset she had at this time. She continues to believe that God has moved against her, using a word play with her the meaning of her name and the Hebrew word marah. Naomi’s name means “pleasant”, so Naomi is purposely employing this comparison between pleasant and marah which means bitter to focus again on her perception that it was God who has made her life unpleasant and bitter.

Something else of interest is the shift from the use of the word Adonai to describe God to that of Shaddai which means “Almighty” or “most powerful”, another attempt to describe that it is God who has decided in His divine power to afflict her with the woe and suffering she has endured to this point. Some may assert that Naomi is blaming God for her lot in life, however, Huey rightly notes “She did not mean it as an accusation but as an acknowledgement of his total control of all things.”[12] While her life has by no means been a piece of cake, Naomi still recognizes the reality of her present situation, also noting that everything that has transpired is part of God’s plan, even though at the moment it seems to be very unpleasant.

Naomi also comments on the fact that she depart Bethlehem full but she came back empty which is again another method used by the author to drive home the underlying idea of provision, in this case the provision of family. While she acknowledges God’s sovereignty, she still cannot comprehend at this point in the story why she left with her family intact, a husband to provide for her and to provide her rest and security, sons to carry on the family, only to return to her homeland empty.

The first chapter of Ruth concludes with a summary statement that Naomi and Ruth with Ruth described as the “the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” Yet again the author mentions the idea of provision, this time returning to the idea of the provision of food that would come via the harvest. Huey notes that “according to the Gezer calendar – the oldest known calendar yet found in Palestine – barley harvest was the eighth month of the agricultural calendar (i.e., April/May).[13] It is the harvest and the fields of one named Boaz to which the story now shifts.

References:
[1] Daniel Block, The New American Commentary: Judges-Ruth (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1999), 631.
[2] F. B. Huey, Jr. “Commentary on Ruth” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol.3: Deuteronomy through 1&2 Samuel. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 521.
[3] P. A Verhoef. “Commentary on Ruth” in The Biblical Expositor Commentary, Vol.I: Genesis to Esther. Edited by Carl F. H. Henry. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 265.
[4] Huey, 522.
[5] Block, 638.
[6] Edward Campbell, Jr. Anchor Bible Commentary: Ruth (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 72.
Ruth 1:15-22
[7] Huey, 523.
[8] Block, 640.
[9] Ibid., 641.
[10] Huey, 524.
[11] K. Lawson Younger, Jr. NIV Application Commentary: Judges-Ruth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 424.
[12] Huey, 525.
[13] Ibid.