On the receiving end of a 1-2-3 punch, Naomi found herself in an unenviable and very tenuous position; you might even call it a serious predicament. It seems from how the story develops that during her ten-plus years of living as a resident alien in Moab, Naomi made no strong personal connections with anyone. Except perhaps Ruth. But Ruth had the same problem Naomi did – widowhood. Being a widow and alone during the Iron Age in ancient Israel or surrounding countries was almost always equivalent to poverty. It was the rare widow who possessed sufficient resources to live independently and well.
While Elimelech had sufficient resources to get his family to Moab and see them established there, those resources had been used up. The only thing Naomi had left was the right to redeem the portion of land Elimelech had inherited and then sold to fund their trip. But the field was near Bethlehem and Naomi needed some assurance she could survive long enough to get there and settle her future. Time was running out; she had no income, only expenses and two daughters-in-law who needed provision as well.
Naomi had to make a decision – would she stay in Moab and hope against hope for a miracle, that Orpah or Ruth would remarry (soon) and provide a home for her also? Or would she risk returning to Bethlehem, an area that had suffered much at the hands of Midianite raiders, a place not necessarily hospitable to someone in great need? To leave or not to leave, that was the question! As the drama unfolds, the next thing we see is three women, walking up the road, carrying all their earthly possessions. Homeless, bag ladies, faces marked by obvious signs of grief, comforting one another as they travel.
A. departure v.6-10
reason for hope 6-7
word had traveled to Moab – the famine had ended, there would be a harvest, God had relaxed his hand of discipline
reason for which Elimelech and Naomi had left home no longer existed, at least the stated reason; given behavior by Mahlon & Chilion, early deaths of the three men, perhaps they were running from God as much as from hardship – would be consistent with Naomi’s take on the situation per v.13 & 21, that God reached out even to Moab to express his displeasure with their sinful behavior – lack of trust, following their own ideas for a solution to their dilemma, marrying outside the covenant community
If God was no longer angry with his people in a national sense, perhaps there was hope for Naomi also, that she could manage to live out her days surrounded by familiar faces and places and with minimal hardship
kind benediction 8-9a
Thinking the best counsel she could give would be to encourage Orpah and Ruth to return to their mothers rather than stay with their mother-in-law, Naomi offers them a blessing: May Yahweh return the kindness you have showed to us; may he show that kindness by providing each with a husband. Naomi believed the best hope, the surest security for daughters-in-law would be found in Moab, happily married again with new husbands.
Naomi’s benediction given from temporal perspective only; at this point in time and grieving process, Naomi not much of an “evangelist”, didn’t seem to recognize spiritual benefit for Orpah & Ruth to go with her to Bethlehem; didn’t understand that for her benediction to be fully realized, would require godly husbands, right belief and worship. Naomi didn’t seem to get the connection – if God’s blessing on his people would be good/advantageous for her, likewise or even more so for Orpah and Ruth.
fond parting (attempted) 9b-10
Author’s understanding of human nature, relationship between Naomi and daughters-in-law shows in these verses. All other things aside, at level of human affection, very strong bond between Naomi, Ruth & Orpah. Two younger women genuinely loved mother-in-law, got really emotional at thought of permanent separation.
Initial response to idea of parting – No way! We’ll never do that. Response powered mainly by emotions without further thought given to all the consequences. It’s an absolutely predictable human way of dealing with this sort of situation – having already experienced separation from husband, the thought of further separation was too much to bear.
B. dissuasion v.11-13
Even though Naomi had experienced by far the greatest loss, her experience and maturity meant she could keep a clearer head. She also had benefit of knowing from her own past just how big a deal immigration would be for Orpah and Ruth. Culture, spoken accent, food, traditions, religion, ethnic tension, shame of singleness and perhaps barrenness, national holidays, family practice – all would be significantly different and require great effort to “fit in” and be accepted. But in seeking to dissuade Orpah and Ruth, what came first to Naomi’s mind was their mutual loss and consequent mutual need – husbands.
practical reasons 11-13a
Naomi’s inability – from her point of view, was too old and had experienced too much hardship to attract a husband. Having already had two sons who suffered from poor health, she didn’t have great hopes of future success, especially given her age. These sorts of ideas are often self-fulfilling; starting out defeated often rules out any opportunity for success. If she thought herself undesirable and hopeless, Naomi would be likely to act in a way consistent with that and not respond positively even if a fellow were genuinely interested.
Orpah and Ruth’s impatience – the biological clock was ticking for all three women. A primary reason for marriage was inheritance – not friendship or convenience or simply pleasure but the need for a son who would carry on the family name and be responsible for the family inheritance. Orpah and Ruth’s chances for happy married life were directly proportional to their being viewed as good potential mothers. Waiting 20 years for Naomi to produce two more sons, even if that were possible, was out of the question.
spiritual reasons 13b
the Lord had turned against her – Naomi saved the best and strongest argument for last. Practical reasons were important, probably they were sufficient from human perspective for Orpah and Ruth to stay in Moab. Plus, how can you argue with “God is against me”? If God truly were against Naomi, who in their right mind would want to be around her? Any of her close associates risked God’s displeasure as well, simply by their connection with her and whatever it was that God didn’t like.
At this point in her history (and to some degree never) Naomi could not understand the specifics of how and for what purpose God was moving among his people. Knowing how the rest of the story turns out, it seems God at this time was not against Naomi in a punitive way but rather in a directive way. His purpose was to move Naomi along with Ruth from Moab to Bethlehem so the next act in this divine drama would begin. It still remains true, however, that while Naomi may not have gotten the specifics right, she was correct in seeing God as the unseen Mover behind her circumstances.
C. decision v.14-18
Having heard Naomi’s argument, some sort of reply from Orpah and Ruth was in order. As we see from the text, Naomi received
return to former life 14-15
too much change, too big a risk, too difficult a commitment – we don’t know which it was that prompted Orpah’s decision to remain in Moab. It is safe to see in her decision a rejection of Jewish customs and religion and a return to her former pagan way of life and worship. While Naomi was talking, Orpah likely considered all that it would mean for her to immigrate and concluded that, as fond as she was of her mother-in-law, staying in Moab would be her best choice.
commitment to change 16-18
Like Orpah, Ruth was strongly attached to Naomi by an affection that had developed during her marriage to Mahlon. But there was more happening here than simply affection for her mother-in-law; changes were in progress on the spiritual front as well. Where Ruth was in her understanding and acceptance of truth about Yahweh is not clear from the text. Yet a few things are plain.
After expressing her undying loyalty to Naomi and commitment to Naomi’s culture and way of life, Ruth makes some powerful statements. “Your people shall be my people”, “Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried” – contrary to her sister-in-law, Ruth by these declarations affirms her complete rejection of Moabite culture and heritage. “Your God will be my God”, “Yahweh do so to me” further indicate Ruth’s rejection of pagan idol-worship and acknowledgment of Yahweh as the true God, her God. To bind herself by an oath in this way was the strongest possible declaration of Ruth’s intent to remain loyal to Naomi and faithful to Yahweh.
Here we see some attributes of the virtuous woman in Ruth’s character:
loyalty – expressed both toward Naomi and toward God, a determination to remain true regardless of what happens
beginnings of piety – a genuine faith even though probably immature; while Naomi’s perspective of God at that time was predominantly negative, Ruth understood enough to trust her future and her life to his care.
Naomi had prayed that both Orpah and Ruth would experience God’s blessing and find security; judging by how they each responded, it is apparent that Ruth had already begun to experience blessing. As her story continues to unfold, the hand of God will be evident in how she and her mother-in-law both find the security for which Naomi prayed.