When Naomi tells Ruth to leave, Ruth’s defiance is blatant. She will not leave. But what are we supposed to take away from this first chapter of Ruth? Read this exegetical study from the Kregel Exegetical Library Series. And, at the end, you’ll find a resourceful “Message and Application” section.

A RELUCTANCE TO LEAVE

Naomi’s argument had the intended effect on Orpah, who kissed her mother-in-law goodbye and returned to Moab. But Ruth hugged Naomi, communicating her reluctance to leave (v. 14c). Elsewhere the idiom -דּבק בְּ means

  1. cling to, stay close to, stick to (Gen. 2:24; Num. 36:7, 9; Deut. 13:17; 28:60; Ruth 2:23; 2 Kings 5:27; Job 19:20; 31:7; Ps. 101:3; Ezek. 29:4),
  2. be bound to emotionally (Gen. 34:3),
  3. be loyal to (Deut. 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Josh. 22:5; 23:8; 2 Sam. 20:2; 1 Kings 11:2; 2 Kings 18:6; Pss. 63:8; 119:31),
  4. form alliances with (Josh. 23:12).

In verse 14 Ruth’s action contrasts with Orpah’s goodbye kiss, so a hug is apparently in view (hence our translation “hugged her tightly”). Of course, this hug was an expression of her deep emotional attachment and loyalty to Naomi.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ORPAH

Orpah, as a mere agent in the story, serves as a foil for Ruth. Orpah did what one expects. In the face of Naomi’s logic, she said goodbye and went home. But Ruth’s love for Naomi caused her to stay with her mother-in-law, even when such devotion seemed illogical and downright foolish. Orpah was not a bad person; on the contrary she was a good daughter-in-law who had treated Naomi well. She deserved and received Naomi’s blessing (v. 8). But Ruth was beyond good; her love for Naomi transcended the norm. The contrast between the two girls should not be expressed as a polarity (bad versus good) but in terms of degree (good versus great). The narrator’s purpose in mentioning and describing Orpah is not to criticize her, but to highlight Ruth (Hubbard 1988b, 115–16; Berlin 1983, 85; Sakenfeld 1999c, 11, 30).

Ruth’s persistence prompted another exhortation from Naomi (v. 15). She urged Ruth to follow Orpah’s example and return to her own people and her own god(s). Naomi strengthened her argument here by appealing to common sense, as exemplified by Orpah, and to cold reality. Ruth really had no place in Judah. Like Orpah, she was a Moabite and she would do well to go back to her native land and its god(s).

FOREIGN GODS

The form אֱלֹהֶיהָ may be translated “her gods” (since Orpah was probably a polytheist) or “her god,” since the Moabites worshiped Chemosh as their national patron deity (Block 1999, 639; Mattingly 1994, 329). The suffixed form of אֱלֹהִים can be used as a plural of respect for foreign gods (see, for example, Judg. 9:27; 1 Sam. 5:7; 1 Kings 18:24), including Chemosh (Judg. 11:24; cf also 1 Kings 11:33).

In a recent study of אֱלֹהִים Burnett argues that the plural form should be understood as a “concretized abstract plural, according to which the nominal plural form expresses an abstraction in reference to an individual or thing that holds a particular status named by the abstract category in question. Thus the plural of the noun ‘god’ occurs with the meaning ‘deity’” (2001, 53). He states: “In connection with the concept of the patron deity, ‘ĕlōhîm designates the god who stands in special relationship to a particular individual, group, territory, or nation” 2001, 66).

RUTH’S DEFIANCE

Four times Naomi urged Ruth to “return” to her native land (vv. 8, 11–12, 15). Ruth countered by telling her mother-in-law, “Do not urge me to abandon you by returning from after you” (v. 16, literal translation). The collocation of the verb עזב, “abandon,” with the verb שׁוב, “return,” was a powerful rhetorical move on Ruth’s part. Its inclusion reflects Ruth’s perspective. As far as she was concerned, to return to Moab would mean abandoning Naomi and leaving her even more vulnerable than she already was.

Ruth declared in no uncertain terms that she intended to stay with Naomi. She announced she would follow Naomi and live with her. For Naomi’s sake, Ruth was willing to renounce her native land and god(s) and to identify with Naomi’s people and God. She promised she would stay with Naomi for the rest of her life and even be buried in the same place as her mother-in-law.

Ruth capped off her promise with a self-imprecation (v. 17) in which she used Yahweh’s name, as if to show that she was indeed serious about identifying with Naomi’s God (Prinsloo 1977–78, 115; Bush 1996a, 87; and Ziegler 2007, 78–80). Ruth’s oath transformed her hortatory-predictive discourse into a performative declaration. This silenced Naomi, for she understood the implications of such a radical promise. Within chapter one there is an interesting interplay between speech-acts. Naomi’s blessing (vv. 8–9) seemingly released Ruth and assured her of God’s blessing, but Ruth’s self-imposed curse (v. 17) counterbalanced and trumped the blessing. Ironically, Ruth’s oath validated Naomi’s blessing, for it provided proof of her loyal love and worthiness of divine favor.

THE STRUCTURE OF RUTH’S PROMISE

The structure of Ruth’s oath requires closer examination to appreciate its meaning.

The first part of the oath consists of two clauses, each introduced by כֹּה, “thus,” and describes the punishment for breaking the promise.

The second part of the oath, introduced by כִּי, “indeed, certainly,” gives the condition of the oath. This structure is formulaic, appearing with slight variations in 1 Samuel 14:44; 20:13; 2 Samuel 3:9; 1 Kings 2:23; 19:2. The description of the punishment is vague and stereotypical. It reads literally, “Thus will the Lord do to me, and thus will he add.” The presence of כֹּה seems to assume the presence of a more specific form of punishment, but this element is implied, rather than stated.

One may paraphrase the formula as follows: “The Lord will punish me severely.” Based on the usage of כִּי in the other examples of this oath formula, it appears that the final clause, introduced by כִּי, affirms what will or must happen for the punishment to be averted. Consequently כִּי may be understood as an emphasizer and translated “indeed, certainly” (Bush 1996a, 83; Block 1999, 642–43).

“IF EVEN DEATH”

The NRSV, “if even death,” understands כִּי in the sense of “certainly not, if even,” but this would require כִּי־אִם, as 2 Samuel 3:35 indicates. Nevertheless, some commentators support this position. Hubbard argues that the preceding statement (“Wherever you die I will die and I will be buried there”) indicates that death would not separate Naomi and Ruth, for Ruth was determined to live with Naomi’s people and to be buried in the same place as her mother-in-law (1988b, 119–20). Campbell argues the same point, appealing for additional support to archaeological evidence for the practice of common burial (1975, 74–75).

The noun מָוֶת, “death,” is collocated with the verb פּרד, “separate,” in only one other text, 2 Samuel 1:23. Regarding Saul and Jonathan, David stated, “not even in their deaths [literally, death] were they separated.” Saul and Jonathan died together on the battlefield; so it could be said that they were not separated in death. However, in Ruth’s case, she undoubtedly anticipated Naomi’s death preceding her own. Though Ruth would stay as close as possible to Naomi’s grave and eventually be buried with her, death would, at least for a time, separate them, for it cuts the deceased off from the land of the living (Ps. 52:5 [Hebrew, v. 7]; Isa. 38:11; 53:8; Jer. 11:19; Ezek. 26:20, cf. 1 Sam. 12:25; Job 7:21).

MESSAGE AND APPLICATION: RUTH CH 1

Thematic Emphases

Naomi’s husband and sons died, leaving her in a vulnerable position as a widow living in a foreign land. Naomi attempted to convince Ruth to return to her Moabite family, arguing that God had made her a target of his judgment and that her suffering was too much for Ruth to have to endure. She even pronounced a blessing upon Ruth for her kindness. But Ruth refused to take her blessing and return to the relative security of her own people and family. She sealed her commitment to Naomi with an oath. Sensing Ruth’s resolve, Naomi finally gave in, but, upon returning to Bethlehem, she lamented that she had returned empty-handed, even though ever-loyal Ruth stood by her side.

Exegetical idea: Naomi experienced tragic loss and felt rejected by God, but Ruth vowed to stay with her, even though such sacrificial love may have seemed risky and been unappreciated.

Theological Principles

The only action attributed to God by the narrator is a gracious one—God came to the aid of his people and reversed the effects of the famine (1:6). Naomi viewed God as the one who rewards those who are worthy (1:8–9), yet she also depicted him as her adversary who had afflicted her by killing her husband and sons (1:13, 20–21). However, neither this chapter nor the story as a whole suggests Naomi’s perspective is correct. Contrary to Naomi, the narrator portrays God as one who is predisposed to intervene on behalf of the afflicted.

Sacrificial love, as exemplified by Ruth, is at the heart of the biblical message. Jesus says the whole Law can be summed up in two commands: to love the Lord God with all one’s being, and to love one’s neighbors as oneself (Matt. 22:37–39). As he commands his disciples to love one another, he reminds them that the greatest expression of love is to give one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:12–13). The implication is that genuine love may have its risks and even demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Theological idea: People may experience tragedy and feel rejected by God, but followers of Christ should reach out to them in sacrificial love, even though such love may seem risky and unappreciated.

Homiletical Trajectories

(1) One trajectory will focus on Naomi’s experience and her faulty perception of the Lord. In this chapter we see that personal tragedy and pain can overwhelm those who live in the fallen world. Yet in the midst of such suffering, we should not necessarily attribute our pain directly to God or cast him in the role of an enemy. If we look carefully we can detect his gracious hand, bringing relief from famine, as it were. We can take comfort in the fact that God is the ally of his people, not their enemy. Though he may not insulate us from the tragic realities of the fallen world, he cares for the needy and is predisposed to intervene on their behalf.

(2) A second trajectory will focus on Ruth and her example of self-sacrificial love. When we encounter people who feel as if they are targets of God’s anger, we should reach out to them in sacrificial love, as Ruth did to Naomi. Such love demands great moral courage and commitment, for it can be risky and unappreciated.

(3) The book’s third theme—that God rewards those who love sacrificially—is only hinted at in chapter one, when Naomi pronounces a blessing upon Ruth (1:8–9). However, Ruth’s self-imprecation appears to trump the blessing (1:17) and creates tension in the plot. Given the seemingly risky task Ruth has taken up, one wonders if her loyalty will really pay off, especially when Naomi disregards her allegiance.

Preaching idea: When people experience tragedy and feel rejected by God, we must reach out to them in Christlike sacrificial love, even though such love may seem risky and unappreciated.

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