Prologue:
Na’omi’s Misery and Emptiness

1: 1-5

DIG: What is the climate of the times for Na’omi? What personal disasters befall her? What has Na’omi lost during her time in Mo’av?

REFLECT: Can you think of a period in your life when you did “whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted?” What happened to you? Where are you living? In Beit-Lechem or Mo’av? How do you recover from a bad decision? What is an area in your life where you often see nothing but problems? What are some temporary solutions you often toss around in your mind? What “temporary stop” have you made in your life that has become permanent? Explain. What is an area you can see the Adversary trying to create a “permanent stop” in your life? What can you to do to prevent it?

The book begins: Back in the days of the judging of the judges (1:1a CJB). The Rabbis teach this was a lawless generation in which the judges committed more sins than the rest of the people, and a generation that judged its judges. This gives us the chronological period when the story occurred. It was about a century before the time of David, during the period of the judges and is a fitting appendix to the book of Judges. The rabbis teach that this occurred during the period of the judge Ibtzan of Beit-Lechem (Judges 12:8-10). And the reason his name is not mentioned here in verse one is out of respect because another rabbinic tradition says that Ibtzan was a relative of Elimelek.

At a time when there was a famine in the Land (1:1b CJB). This famine may have taken place in connection with the devastation of the Land by the Midianites in the days of Gideon. If that were true, it had to be a very serious one that extended over the whole Land. Otherwise one could just go to another part of the country to survive. Secondly, it had to last for several years to compel them to leave the Land and go to Mo’av. Thirdly, ten years passed until they would hear that the famine had ended. Fourthly, the Midianites oppressed the people for seven years and they ruined the crops and did not spare a living thing for Isra’el, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys (Judges 6:3-4). So it seems likely that the story of Ruth took place during the time of Gideon. The cause of the famine is not stated here, but drought and famine were among the judgments YHVH said would come upon the Land as a result of failure to keep the Torah (Leviticus 26:18-20; Deuteronomy 28:23-24). And the book of Judges gives us plenty of evidence of the failure to keep the Torah that brought about the famine during the days of Gideon. Furthermore, in this context the drought did not affect Mo’av, which is very close to Isra’el, separated only by the Dead Sea. So this was a local famine in Isra’el only, pointing to divine judgment.12

A certain man from Beit-Lechem in Judah went to live in the fields of Mo’av (1:1c CJB). The ultimate irony had occurred: Beit-Lechem, whose very name means house of bread, was a place with no food. In that situation, Elimelek had a choice to make, a road to choose. He could stay in Beit-Lechem, the empty breadbasket of Y’hudah, mourning the sin that surrounded him and trusting God to provide for him and his wife and two sons, or he could leave the Promised Land behind in search for greener fields, in this case the fields of Mo’av, where food was more abundant.13

The Hebrew word for went to live is ger, and is used of a resident alien. This shows that his purpose was to live in Mo’av temporarily, not permanently. The root meaning of the word means to live among people who are not blood relatives. The ger did not have civil rights but was dependent upon the hospitality of the natives. This played an important role in the culture of the ancient near east. In Isra’el the ger had certain guaranteed rights, but this was not true in Mo’av. The fields of Mo’av point to the 4,300 foot plateau of Mo’av, good for growing crops, not the rigorous mountainous region along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.

He (Elimelek), his, wife and his two sons went to live in Mo’av (1:1d CJB). The Jewish reader of Ruth would therefore be somewhat shocked and appalled by the fact that Elimelek moved his family from Beit-Lechem and sought refuge in Mo’av. But he was a devout Jew, so this showed the severity of the famine. The land of Isra’el was evidently both spiritually and physically parched, and times were desperate.

The relationship between the Hebrews and the Moabites was sometimes friendly, but often the reverse (see Ac – Introduction to the Book of Ruth: The Historical Background). At the time described in the book of Ruth it may be assumed to have been friendly. Yet it is no wonder that tradition looked with disapproval at Elimelek’s going. Mo’av was not a place filled with people who loved God. They worshiped a false god named Chemosh.

The man’s name was Elimelek, which means my God is king. It appears, however, that ADONAI was no more King in Elimelek’s heart than He was in the hearts of his fellow countrymen where there was no king and everyone did whatever seemed right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25 NLT). There was no king in Elimelek’s life, and therefore, like so many others in the days of the judging of the judges, he chose to do what was best in his own eyes. He chose a road to Mo’av.

His wife’s name was Na’omi, which means the pleasant one, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon, which means sickness, and Kilion, meaning wasting. So the names imply that the sons were not healthy from the time that they were born. They were Ephrathites from Beit-Lechem, Y’hudah, who traced their descent from Ephrath, wife of Caleb (First Chronicles 11:19). And they were driven from their home to the fields of Mo’av (1:2a). Now, either they were the only Jewish family to do this, or the only ones mentioned who did so.

But the journey to Mo’av was wrong for three reasons: First, Na’omi herself recognized that the death of her husband and her two sons was a judgment of God (1:13). Second, in Deut. 23:3-6, the Moabites were barred from participating in the life of Isra’el and Isra’el was forbidden to seek a treat of friendship with them. Third, if YHVH had wanted Elimelek to leave Isra’el He would have declared so as He did with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

And they lived there (1:2b). It was to be a temporary solution to a problem they had, but Elimelek couldn’t have imagined the permanent effect his decision would bring. That reality wasn’t immediately apparent, of course. It rarely is. It seemed like Elimelek had made a good choice. While his kinsmen back home were suffering and hungry, there was food in Mo’av. Like the story of the prodigal son that Yeshua told (see the commentary on The Life of Christ Hu – The Parable of the Lost Son and His Jealous Brother), Elimelek’s stay in a far country went well at the beginning. He was able to support his wife and two sons. Having arrived in Mo’av, they initially were only going to stay there temporarily, but unfortunately they continued to live there permanently. Perhaps there never was a conscious decision to settle there permanently, but after a while Mo’av became home, and like Lot (see the commentary on Genesis Dx – Abram Lived in the Land of Canaan, While Lot Pitched His Tents Near Sodom) they got comfortable in a land where they shouldn’t have been. They just existed there, drifting through life without a plan.

Husbands and fathers certainly want to provide for their wives and family, but they must not do it at the expense of losing the blessing of YHVH. When the Adversary met Yeshua in the wilderness, his first temptation was to suggest that Messiah satisfy His hunger rather than please His Father (Mt 4:1-4; John 4:34). One of the devil’s favorite lies is, “Well, you do have to live.” But it is in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), and He is willing and able to take care of us.

David’s witness is worth considering: I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging for bread (Psalm 37:25). As Rabbi Sha’ul faced a threatening future, he testified: But I consider my own life of no importance to me whatsoever (Acts 20:24a). In difficult times, if we can die to self and put the will of ADONAI first (Mattityahu 6:33), we can be sure that He will either take us out of trouble, or bring us through it.14

By going fifty miles to the neighboring land of Mo’av, Elimelek and his family abandoned God’s Land and God’s people for the land and people of the enemy. Tragedy quickly mounted. Then Elimelek, Na’omi’s husband died, not from old age or infirmity, but as the result of divine punishment and the sovereignty of YHVH. How long this happened after entering Mo’av we simply don’t know.But however long it was, she was left with her two sons (1:3). But that too will soon change.

The Torah did not specifically forbid the marriage to Moabites as it did forbid marriage to Canaanite women lest they worship other gods (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). However, common sense suggests that for similar reasons, marriage to a Moabite was just as sinful. So the sons sinned even more grievously than their father because they married Moabite women, one named Orpah, meaning stubborn, and the other Ruth, meaning friendship. No doubt Na’omi and her sons must have felt trapped by their desperate circumstances, and Na’omi seems to have graciously accepted her daughters-in-law. Ruth married Mahlon (4:10), who was apparently the elder of the two sons. Orpah, then, would have been the wife of Kilion.

Na’omi and her sons lived there about ten years. This fits the situation of Gideon (Judges 6:2-5). That is probably the total time they spent in Mo’av rather than the amount of time that passed after the young men were married, because neither of the couples had any children. That would have been very unusual, even in a time of famine, and barrenness was considered a punishment of YHVH (Deuteronomy 28:18).

Meanwhile, circumstances did not appear to be improving for Na’omi. In fact, matters took a turn for the worse. Both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Na’omi was left without her two sons and her husband (1:4-5). Wow, five verses, two weddings and three funerals! Elimelek and his family fled Judah to escape death, but the three men met death just the same.15 In that culture, this was a nearly impossible situation. Three widows, with no children and no responsible relatives, in a time of famine, could not hope to survive for long, even if they pooled their meager resources. We’re not told what caused any of the husbands to die, but the fact that all three perished is a measure of how hard life was in the adversity of those days. Both Mahlon and Kilion seem to have died in quick succession, suggesting they perhaps fell victim to disease, very likely related to the famine.16

We can’t run away from our problems. We can’t avoid taking with us the basic cause of most of our problems, which is an unbelieving and disobedient heart. But this story will show us that YHVH is a God who restores, rebuilds, and renews . . . all things.

 

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