Posts Tagged israel
I have mentioned before that our Sunday School ideals of David’s kingdom are painfully mistaken. David formed an uneasy alliance between Judah and Ephraim, which Ephraim often tried to violate. The Ephraimites claimed that they were meant to rule because Israel (Jacob) had chosen Joseph to lead and had specifically blessed Joseph’s younger son Ephraim (Genesis 48). This claim was in conflict with David’s claim to rule which came from both Israel’s proclamation (Genesis 49) and Samuel’s anointing (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
In the wake of Absalom’s failed coup, David returned to Jerusalem to the acclaim of his fellow Judahites but the Israelites, led by Ephraim, complained about the way that Judah welcomed him home. (2 Samuel 19) This led to a rebellion by a man named Sheba b. Bichri (שבע בנ-בכרי) who is initially referred to as being from the tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 20:1) but then later Joab says he is from the country of Ephraim (2 Samuel 20:21). Both Benjamin and Ephraim were troubled regions under David, and Joab seemed to be more than willing to equate them.
Regardless where Sheba was from, he led Ephraim and the other ten tribes in a rebellion against Judah and David.
David’s Cousin Amasa
In response, David sent his new commander Amasa to gather the Judahite soldiers. The first time we encounter Amasa in the narrative, he is leading Absalom’s armies in rebellion against David.
How did he manage to switch sides? And who was Amasa, and what was his relationship to David and Joab?
Amasa was David’s nephew through David’s sister Abigail. According to 1 Chronicles 2:13-17, David had six brothers and two sisters – Zeruiah and Abigail. The two sisters were the daughters of Jesse’s wife Nahash, and the fact that she is identified this way probably indicates that she was not the mother of David and his brothers.
Zeruiah mothered Joab, Abishai and Asahel. These three sons of Zeruiah, which is how they are always referred to in the narrative, were some of David’s closest friends and most ferocious warriors. Abigail and her husband Ithra had one son we know of, Amasa, who first appears in the narrative as the commander of Absalom’s armies.
This would make Zeruiah and Abigail David’s half-sisters and Joab, his brothers, and their cousin Amasa David’s nephews. Easily the most dangerous of this group of cousins was Joab.
Keeping track of who everybody is in the David narrative is tough, especially when they keep killing each other! In reality, it is pretty simple. Just remember that Joab kills pretty much EVERYBODY.
Joab’s brother Asahel was killed by Saul’s uncle Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-23). When Abner turned on the House of Saul and joined David, Joab took revenge upon him. (2 Samuel 3:26-30).
Then, when Joab led David’s armies against David’s son Absalom, Joab defied David and killed Absalom despite the fact that Absalom was helpless and could have been captured easily. (2 Samuel 18:9-15)
Joab’s brother Abishai recommended killing all the leaders of the factions that opposed David, which drew David’s scorn. (2 Samuel 19:22)
Because he had killed Absalom against orders, David replaced Joab with Amasa – who had been commanding Absalom’s armies. David sent Amasa out to put together an army to stop Sheba’s rebellion, but Amasa faieds to appear at the appointed time. Due to the press of time, David dispatched Joab to find the army and route Sheba.
When Joab found Amasa and stabbed him in the gut, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road. The spectacle was so gruesome that eventually, someone dragged Amasa off the road and covered him with a cloak.
Joab then led the combined army against Sheba, who had holed up in the town of Beth-Maacah or “The house of Maacah.” The name Maacah should sound familiar. She was Absalom’s mother, and this may very well have been a stronghold with affinities to her and her father, the king of Geshur.
An old woman inside the city talks with Joab, the population dispatches Sheba and sends his head to Joab. That rebellion ends a bit abruptly.
Joab is a paradox. He is both David’s closest friend and often the only person to tell him the truth in the midst of tragedy, but he also kills people with an almost psychotic fervor. He is a strange character indeed - loyal to David but also absolutely ruthless in his own interpretation of what that loyalty means.
Because of Joab’s reckless method of dispatching enemies – both real and perceived – he severely handicaps David’s influence over the tribes of Israel. He kills a number of men who could have proven worthwhile allies – Abner and Amasa are the ones we know about – which puts David in difficult straits. Eventually, Joab will even try to subvert David’s succession in favor of David’s fourth and oldest remaining son, Adonijah.
It is hard to judge Joab in light of history. In one sense, he was the strong arm that made David’s pre-eminence possible. But his actions also weakened that pre-eminence. History is full of these confusing characters with multiple dimensions. When we try to make them two dimensional, we lose the complicated interactions that make them so important.
As David is fleeing east from Jerusalem because of his son Absalom’s betrayal, he meets an old friend Ittai the Gittite. Ittai is planning to come with David, and the following conversation occurs:
DAVID: Why would you come with us? Go back and stay with Absalom. You’re a guest here. You just got here yesterday. I can’t drag you into this. Why don’t you just stay here?
ITTAI: As YHWH lives, wherever you go, that’s where ITTAI goes. If you die, I die. If you live, I live.
DAVID: Oh, you’re definitely coming then! (2 Samuel 15:19-22, my paraphrase)
Gittite means “from Gath”, the same Philistine city that Goliath was from. We all know that David had a long history with Gath. Beside the fact that he killed Goliath, David also spent quite a bit of time working as a mercenary general for the Gittites. Apparently, Ittai had become David’s friend during his service in Gath, and as the Philistines were fading from power, Ittai had brought his 600 man unit over to David in Jerusalem.
So here is a Philistine working for David, commanding other Philistines. And then we read the most fascinating thing about Ittai in a little tag that the chronicler throws in at the end of verse 22: So Ittai the Gittite passed on with all his men and all the little ones who were with him. (Emphasis mine)
“All the little ones”?
That obviously doesn’t mean children, so what is the chronicler getting at?
Ittai was a giant, like Goliath. He was a mighty man who commanded a contingent of “little ones”. This might even be a little joke, like calling a 6’6″ man “tiny” and the entire unit might have been giants OR Ittai commanded a contingent of both giants (“all his men”) and regular sized men (“all the little ones”).
One way or the other, one of David’s closest confidants and allies was a giant Philistine from Gath. In fact, during the battle with Absalom, Ittai will hold a command equal to Joab and Abishai, David’s cousins. (2 Samuel 18:2)
Can things get any more ironic in David’s life? As a shepherd boy, he brought down the giant of Gath in a contest of champions. As an exiled king, he is depending on a giant of Gath to protect him.
And people wonder why I spend so much time studying David.
For bedtime reading, our family has been reading through the David cycle in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, this part of the Scriptures is my bread-and-butter. One day, I will write a book on David and it will sell like five copies – AT LEAST.
But I digress.
The other night, we started reading about Absalom, David’s third son, in 2 Samuel 13-15. Without getting into details you can read for yourself, David’s oldest son Amnon raped and shamed his Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom waited for years for an opportunity, then he tricked and killed Amnon. To escape David’s retribution, Absalom fled into exile in the city-state of Geshur and stayed there until David’s cousin and counselor Joab talked David into recalling him.
Once Absalom was back home, he patiently planned and executed a coup and drove David into exile. Ultimately Joab killed Absalom and reinstalled David as king. The whole story spans over six chapters of 2 Samuel and involves quite a bit of intrigue – some real cloak and dagger stuff.
It is like an episode of Jersey Shore: Iron Age.
The Geshur Connection
Absalom was David’s son through a woman named Maacah, the daughter of the king (Hebrew MLK) of Geshur, which was probably a neo-Hittite city-state in what was known as Bashan. This was the region north of Israel in what is today the Golan Heights. During the time of Solomon, the region was absorbed into Israel’s domain, but appears to have broken free shortly thereafter and was absorbed into the kingdom Aram (or Syria).
Last week, I posted some thoughts about Uriah the Hittite and the relationship between the Hebrews and the neo-Hittites. After considering Absalom and his mother, I have a feeling that the relationship between these two people groups was stronger than I originally supposed.
A Little Bit about the Name
Absalom is not strictly a Hebrew name. It arises from two root words: Av or “father” and Shalom or “peace.” It could mean “my father is peace” or “my father’s peace.” The second is more likely, as Absalom was born from the treaty marriage of David and Maacah.
Hebrew writers love irony, and while shalom means peace a very similar word shilluwm means “revenge”. In ancient Hebrew, there are no written vowels so both words appear as שלום. Consider that the Absalom cycle is preceded by the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and that Absalom’s life was defined by killing his own half-brother in retribution for his sister’s rape.
The idea that someone named “my father’s peace” would attempt to usurp his father’s kingdom as retribution for his treatment of others was something worth writing about. The literary value of the entire cycle is enormous.
Absalom Had Like SIX Stepmothers!
If I read the book of Ruth right, David himself was descended from some powerful chieftains in Moab. A number of David’s first wive’s came from powerful people as well.
- Ahinoam, his first wife, was relatively insignificant and he probably married her before ascending the throne. (Amnon’s mother)
- His second wife, Abigail, was the widow (and we assume the successor) of Nabal – a powerful man in Carmel, which is in northwestern Palestine.
- Absalom’s mother was the daughter of the MLK of Geshur, which I have already noted.
- His fourth and fifth wives, Haggith and Abital are unknown; and his sixth wife, Eglah, is simply called “David’s wife. (2 Samuel 3:2-5)
- He also recalled Michal, Saul’s daughter who had been betrothed to him, but married another man. David reclaimed him as a wife, although whether he ever consummated that relationship could be a matter of discussion. (2 Samuel 3:12-16, 6:21-23)
Out of his first seven wives, David married at least three women of influence in the region. He married a number of other women, bedded even more concubines and had many other children. David was a playah.
His marriages were primarily about treaties with neighboring powers, consolidating strength in the vacuum left by the weakness of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the collapse of the Hittite state, and the disorganized but rising threat of the Assyrians to the northeast. David was attempting to build a significant power in the Levant, and you did that by extending peace to your neighboring city-states.
We often read and translate the Hebrew word מלכ or MLK as king, and rightly so. King is the closest English word that we have for it, but we should be aware that MLK was applied to the rulers of great empires as well as the chieftains of small people groups and essentially the mayors of city-states.
When Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon, he was making a move to claim David’s throne. Amnon was the oldest brother son. That Amnon was an incestuous scumbag who raped his own sister and then abused her simply gave Absalom an excuse to act. (I think most translations handle this passage badly, but no matter how you read it, raping your sister was considered a detestable thing then just as it is now.)
There is no absolute indication that Amnon was David’s chosen successor, in fact the text of 2 Samuel seems to indicate that David had already chosen Bathseba’s young son Solomon (or Jedidiah as Nathan the prophet called him) as successor. But if you were going to seize power in a household with as many royal sons as David had, you started with the oldest son; and it is worth noting that when Absalom kills Amnon, David fears that Absalom has killed all of his sons (2 Samuel 13:30).
Today, we think of monarchy through the lens of the European idea of primogeniture - the oldest son inherits everything. It is a bit shocking to discover that this practice is a relatively recent innovation. In ancient Palestine, a son would be chosen to receive the BECHORAH, which is often translated as “birthright” in English translations. This was not necessarily the oldest son. It could be the oldest son of a chosen wife (as in the case of Joseph and Isaac), or the youngest son even (as in the case of David). It could also be bought and sold (as in the case of Esau and Jacob).
BECHORAH was a place of honor, but it was not necessarily for the first son. We could translate it as “made first among” and we would not be far off from the meaning.
If you were going to attempt to take the BECHORAH by force, you would have to start with your oldest brother. Killing the chosen successor (Solomon) would just bring down the king’s wrath and guarantee that one of your other brothers would take the throne. But if you killed your oldest brother with a valid excuse, you would be allowed to live and continue your work. This is exactly what happens with Absalom.
He kills Amnon and then claims he was acting as Tamar’s kinsman redeemer (which technically was David’s job as her father). That gives him the moral high ground against David, at least in the eyes of the people. Absalom then leveraged his position to solidify his place as a “righteous” man and overthrows his father who the people perceive as somewhat unrighteous.
This is hard for us to grasp because we think of David as this fantastic guy. In reality, his personal life was erratic at best. In this particular situation, it is pretty obvious that he has lost his grip on what is happening, and he is practically allowing Joab to run the kingdom for him.
Why Include This Narrative?
The narrative is far from flattering to David, and we must pause to realize that there is no religious reason to include it in the text. It certainly does not cast David in a positive light. So, why include it?
This is not a case of the righteous suffering for righteousness’ sake, but rather a king weakened by his own personal sins being ousted by a man who believed he was doing what was right. Absalom was not acting wickedly when he ousted David – not in his mind at any rate. David had failed the kingdom, and even he realizes that perhaps this is judgment upon him for his failures (2 Samuel 15:25-26).
Set aside all moralistic and religious interpretations, and you realize that this narrative serves a vital purpose in the story of God’s people. This narrative as well as the later Adonijah narrative (1 Kings 1-2) serve to explain why Israel was not a dominant nation at the time of its foundation. The alliances that could have ultimately created a strong nation with allies at its borders fell apart. Instead, Israel was the plump fruit waiting for the right usurper to pluck it, and this is exactly what happens in Israel and Judah. The nation divides after Solomon and remains two competing principalities for most of the next two centuries.
Judah particularly would struggle to find a foothold in the international scene until several centuries later. This would not have happened if the internal strife of David and his sons had not occurred. Although Solomon sought out other alliances (like his alliance with Egypt) to compensate, they ultimately failed him.
וַיִּקַּח בֹּעַז אֶת־רוּת וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לָהּ הֵרָיוֹן וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן׃
וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הַנָּשִׁים אֶל־נָעֳמִי בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁבִּית לָךְ גֹּאֵל הַיּוֹם וְיִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל׃
וְהָיָה לָךְ לְמֵשִׁיב נֶפֶשׁ וּלְכַלְכֵּל אֶת־שֵׂיבָתֵךְ כִּי כַלָּתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר־אֲהֵבַתֶךְ יְלָדַתּוּ אֲשֶׁר־הִיא טוֹבָה לָךְ מִשִּׁבְעָה בָּנִים׃
וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת׃
וַתִּקְרֶאנָה לוֹ הַשְּׁכֵנוֹת שֵׁם לֵאמֹר יֻלַּד־בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי וַתִּקְרֶאנָה שְׁמוֹ עוֹבֵד הוּא אֲבִי־יִשַׁי אֲבִי דָוִד׃ פ
וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדוֹת פָּרֶץ פֶּרֶץ הוֹלִיד אֶת־חֶצְרוֹן׃
וְחֶצְרוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת־רָם וְרָם הוֹלִיד אֶת־עַמִּינָדָב׃
וְעַמִּינָדָב הוֹלִיד אֶת־נַחְשׁוֹן וְנַחְשׁוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת־שַׂלְמָה׃
וְשַׂלְמוֹן הוֹלִיד אֶת־בֹּעַז וּבֹעַז הוֹלִיד אֶת־עוֹבֵד׃
וְעֹבֵד הוֹלִיד אֶת־יִשָׁי וְיִשַׁי הוֹלִיד אֶת־דָּוִד׃
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. (4:13-22, ESV)
Boaz took Ruth. Nothing echoes back to the semi-nomadic, clan-based culture of Bronze Age Canaan like terms like “took” (קָח, qar) in reference to marriage. It is the idea of being carried away and it ties back to the ancient and probably prehistoric practice of snatching a woman from another clan. It is so engrained in the consciousness of Mediterranean peoples that it even appears in much later Roman mythology recounted by Livy and Plutarch as the way the first Romans acquired their Sabine wives.
The idea is simple and very old. Men would sweep down on a neighboring village or tribe and snatch the woman (or women), carry them off which is the core of the word qar. Once they were safely back in their own village, the men would pair off with the women. While this is sometimes called “rape” in Renaissance materials, this was just how you got a wife and perpetuated your line.
The modern wedding ceremonies have echoes of this potentially violent method of marriage in that the bride’s father presents her to him. This is a more peaceful and amicable response to the “taking” although the phrase “Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife” still appears in most ceremonies.
The LORD gave her conception. The Hebrews took the divine aspect of conception very seriously. If a woman was barren, it was because YHWH had chosen to deny her children. This is typified in the patriarch’s wives (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) but is present even into the time of David and beyond. Marriage might be an act of man, but children were the work of God.
In our society where one of the political shibboleths is still your view of an unborn child and abortion, it is worth a bit of a sidetrack to explore this concept in the Hebrew Scriptures.
To the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, conception was an act of God (as were most natural processes, including fermentation of malted grain – but I digress.) Thus, to cause a woman to lose a child carried a stiff penalty (Exodus 21:22-25). Likewise, refusing to impregnate your wife had some pretty stiff consequences, extending even to death (Genesis 39:9-10). During their slavery in Egypt, the hallmark of the Hebrew midwives was that they would not abort a child or inform the authorities (Exodus 1:17).
In the Hebrew worldview, God took pregnancy and childbirth very seriously. It was a sacred thing that happened in the mundane, and to interfere with pregnancy was to violate the will of God. Hebrews adored children, even when the children were unexpected.
Often the arguments around being pro-life or pro-choice revolve about who’s right it is to control the pregnancy. They usually boil down to who’s life is more important – the mother or the child. To the Hebrews, such an argument would have made no sense. They believed pregnancy, even illegitimate ones and the product of rape, was YHWH’s act. He caused the sperm and egg to join and the life to begin. To countermand his will would be an act of divine treason.
The question of whether our greater knowledge of biology and medicine changes our perspective of God’s work in pregnancy is something that has been argued endlessly, but the fact remains that the earliest followers of YHWH revered life in the womb, and to argue for aborting that life even in the most extreme situations requires dealing with this fact.
Blessed be the LORD. Notice the absence of YHWH’s consort SHDY in the women’s pronouncement. Earlier in this series of posts, I noted that Naomi seems to have believed that YHWH was not a single deity but had a female consort. Now, Naomi makes no mention of her? The author of the book may very well have done this on purpose. The birth of the ancestor of David confirms the superiority and uniqueness of YHWH among the other “gods” of people. We may actually have the record of the emergence (or more appropriately, re-emergence) of monotheism in the lineage of the House of David.
There has been a lot of discussion of YHWH’s female consort in more recent scholarship, and as I have noted before, there is no denying that there are hints of such a belief in the ancient Hebrew’s worldview. But it is equally true that the Hebrew Scriptures seem to intentionally point the reader away from this status quo belief in a consort deity to a singular monotheism. Each place that the female consort appears, there is literary evidence that this view is erroneous in the author’s mind. The Scriptures report reality of people’s beliefs as well as the reality of what the author knows to be true. Naomi might have embraced a dual deity, but the House of David did not so Naomi does not make the pronouncement. Instead, the people of Bethlehem do.
וַיַּעַן בֹּעַז וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הֻגֵּד הֻגַּד לִי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂית אֶת־חֲמוֹתֵךְ אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אִישֵׁךְ וַתַּעַזְבִי אָבִיךְ וְאִמֵּךְ וְאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֵּךְ וַתֵּלְכִי אֶל־עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַעַתְּ תְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם׃
יְשַׁלֵּם יְהוָה פָּעֳלֵךְ וּתְהִי מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּךְ שְׁלֵמָה מֵעִם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר־בָּאת לַחֲסוֹת תַּחַת־כְּנָפָיו׃
וַתֹּאמֶר אֶמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנִי כִּי נִחַמְתָּנִי וְכִי דִבַּרְתָּ עַל־לֵב שִׁפְחָתֶךָ וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶהְיֶה כְּאַחַת שִׁפְחֹתֶיךָ׃
But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.” (ESV)
A People You Did Not Know. There is a bit of significance here and something that we have hinted at before. In the ancient world, your identity was determined by family and not by nationality. In our modern world, we tend to think of our identity nationally. You are an American or you are French. Even within a larger category, we tend to specify like Italian-American or French-Canadian.
Certainly there was a sense of linguistic or religious identity that bound people together as Hebrews or Moabites, but there was also a sense in which one became a different people group by joining that people group. Thus, many of the people who made up Late Iron Age Judah might very well have been the descendants of the Canaanites living there before the Hebrews arrive. When the Hebrews arrived with their worship of YHWH and a slightly different language, they became Hebrews by joining with the Hebrew clans.
This accounts for the relative absence of conquest layers in the archaeology of the region. The conquest did not take place violently in many regions. In most areas, the Hebrews simply moved in and the region became a Hebrew region. By the same token, people from other people groups would migrate to the Hebrew areas, but the Hebrews absorbed them rather than the other way around.
Under His Wings. Take careful note of Boaz’s words to Ruth. They will appear again later in the story and have tremendous significance. This is a Hebrew metaphor, drawn from the image of a bird nestling her chicks under her wings. The metaphor extended both to God’s protection of those in need and the use of a man’s garments to cover someone under his protection. In the first place, this was a sense of adoption by YHWH. He gathered those who were not necessarily born as his own, and it is one of the earliest foreshadowings of the Church.
In the second sense, the metaphor was usually a potential spouse. For a man to place a woman “under his wings” was to wrap her in his garments. A woman who took warmth inside a man’s robes was “under his wings” and this therefore became a metaphor for the potentially sexual relationship of betrothal.
In a communal society, privacy is at a premium. Even in the houses of the Late Bronze Age, entire families and even clans would live in large house complexes. While there were often several rooms in these houses, everyone appears to have slept in large rooms around fire pits. (Nights in the highlands can be quite chilly.) Since there would be a number of married couples in these rooms, and they obviously produced children, we must ask what they did for sexual congress.
Public nudity was absolutely prohibited in Hebrew culture. Because the foundational story of their entire worldview was that of Adam and Eve, it is easy to see their shame with nudity. To commit an adulterous act was to לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָה (la-galōth ‘erawah), literally “expose nakedness.” Within the bounds of marriage, nakedness was celebrated because this was seen as a restoration of Eden, a glimmer of the original state of relationship; but outside of marriage, nudity was prohibited rather strongly. It was associated with sex, and sex was only for marriage.
The nakedness of marriage was usually a personal one, nakedness together – even among others. When a couple was alone, they would obviously not have worried about covering their nakedness from others; but often they were with others. How did that work? The husband would “cover” his wife with his robes, enfolding her “under his wings” as it were.
It is easy to see how multi-textured Boaz’s blessing was. We might even consider this flirtatious in the way that he phrases things.
Not One of Your Servants. Ruth responds cautiously, thanking Boaz for his kindness but also making clear that she is “not one of your servants.” We can’t be absolutely certain, but it appears that Ruth is cautious with Boaz because, as I mentioned yesterday, she doesn’t know who he is. Perhaps she is aware that a kinsman can marry her and thereby provide for Naomi. If so, then she is not about to give it up to someone else.
The term servant can be easily misunderstood, so let me just share some thoughts on that before closing. A servant is not a slave or even an employee. The term used here (שִׁפְחָה, shēpchah) literally means “female extended family” and implies all the females, married and unmarried, who were in Boaz’s clan. In a very real sense, to be one of Boaz’s servants was to be a part of his family.
Interestingly enough, the Romans also had this kind of relationship between clan leaders and their extended families. In Rome, a clan leader like Boaz was called pater familias – the family father. He had the power of life and death within his familia. The same may have been true in the Hebrew culture, although the Hebrews predate the Romans by at least five centuries.
While Ruth accepts Boaz’s hospitality, she also reminds him that she is not a part of his clan. Ironically, she actually is but she is unaware of it. Boaz, however, is completely aware. He knows who she is, even though she does not know who he is. The readiness with which she approaches him once Naomi tells her (in the coming chapter) makes you wonder if she found him attractive but valued her role as Naomi’s protector more highly than her own happiness. The way Boaz never reveals what he clearly already knows indicates that he was somehow testing Ruth, but from the beginning has every intention of marrying her.
This is one of the more amusing interchanges to read in the book of Ruth. One wonders if when it was being told if the listeners did not giggle at their flirtatious exchanges.
וּלְנָעֳמִי מוֹדַע לְאִישָׁהּ אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ וּשְׁמוֹ בֹּעַז׃
וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל־נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָה־נָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִּׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי׃
וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתָּבוֹא וַתְּלַקֵּט בַּשָּׂדֶה אַחֲרֵי הַקֹּצְרִים וַיִּקֶר מִקְרֶהָ חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה לְבֹעַז אֲשֶׁר מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ׃
Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.
Clans. If you went to Sunday School, then you have heard about the tribes of Israel. Unfortunately, the term tribe has taken on a meaning that it did not have when that phrase was coined. The Hebrew word translated as tribe is שֵׁבֶט (shebet) and it is borrowed from the Egyptian word sepat, their primary system of government. The tribe was primarily a geographic designation, although it also seems to have had something to do with the way language was used. For example, the Judahites believed the Ephraimites could not pronounce the Hebrew word shibboleth correctly (Judges 12:1-6).
Within the tribe, various family clans (מִשְׁפָּחָה, mēshpachah) emerged. It was the clan leaders who led the tribes by assembling and acting together. This is actually demonstrated all through Judges and 1 Samuel. Therefore, the fact that Boaz is called a worthy man (אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל, ēsh gēbbor chēl) or perhaps more correctly a mighty man of his clan is significant. We do not know Elimelech’s lot in life, but it is clear that Boaz would have been higher up in the clan.
Gleaning. In later Hebrew law, harvesters were commanded not to pick over their fields twice. They were allowed one pass, and the remainder was left behind for the poor. (Deuteronomy 24:19) It is very likely that this passage in Ruth provides the support for this practice. Although most English translations have glean here, the underlying word is simply gather (לָקַט , laqat) and is used throughout Genesis and other books to simply indicate the act of gathering. It is used in Exodus for the gathering of Mannah (Exodus 16).
Ruth decides that the best way to provide for herself and Naomi is to try to pick through the stubble for grain. It is important to realize that what Ruth was looking for was not whole stalks of ripe, waving wheat. She would have probably been on her hands and knees gathering individual, loose spikes of barley.
One of the technological advances of the Bronze Age was the development of barley that did not release its seeds. The trait is recessive, which meant that without genetic engineering the best they could do was to plant fields of barley that mostly did not release their seeds. That meant probably as much as 10% of the barley wound up on the ground. Ruth was gathering these loose grains, probably in the folds of her skirt and then piling them (אָסַף, asaf) somewhere until she could take them home.
This gleaning was distinct from the reaping (קָצַר , qatzar) which involved cutting down the stalks and binding them into sheaves. It was tiring, hard work, and we find out later that she set to it with a will.
Fields. Without knowing it, Ruth gleans into the fields owned by Boaz. The property lines of ancient Palestine were not as clear or as sacred as we treat our lines today. According to the book of Joshua, each clan had designated lands but how those lands were divided among the clans is a bit hazy. Most likely, there were landmarks – rocks and trees, hills, etc. – that the landowners used to distinguish. But when harvest time came, everyone worked everyone’s fields.
Small communities still operate this way. Families helped their neighbors and were helped in turn. It was a matter of survival. Remember that Bethlehem was only a couple hundred people, and many of them were shepherds. The planters would have left their fields to help with the lambing, and now the shepherds would have left their flocks with the youngest sons to help with the harvest. (That little bit of information is helpful in understanding David’s story.)
וַתֵּלַכְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶם עַד־בֹּאָנָה בֵּית לָחֶם וַיְהִי כְּבֹאָנָה בֵּית לֶחֶם וַתֵּהֹם כָּל־הָעִיר עֲלֵיהֶן וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הֲזֹאת נָעֳמִי׃
וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן אַל־תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי־הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד׃
אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְהוָה לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי וַיהוָה עָנָה בִי וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי׃
וַתָּשָׁב נָעֳמִי וְרוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה כַלָּתָהּ עִמָּהּ הַשָּׁבָה מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב וְהֵמָּה בָּאוּ בֵּית לֶחֶם בִּתְחִלַּת קְצִיר שְׂעֹרִים׃
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?”
She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?”
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. (ESV)
Name change. Here Naomi chooses to adopt a new name. Where Naomi means “celebration”, Mara means “bitterness.” She accepts that she has been handed a bad hand in life and wants to wallow in it. Of course at her side is a Moabite woman named Ruth, which means “friend.”
The Almighty. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that Naomi seems to believe that YHWH has a female consort. Here is where I first suspected it. Every time that Ruth speaks about her suffering, she does so in a couplet. She speaks of the LORD (יהוה, YHWH) and the Almighty (שַׁדַּי, SHDY). Most Christians have been taught that “The Almighty” is just another name for God, but Naomi does not seem to agree. The actions she speaks of are reciprocal, as in a partnership. SHDY does something, and then YHWH completes the action.
- SHDY has dealt very bitterly with me…YHWH has brought me back empty.
- YHWH testified against me and SHDY has brought calamity upon me.
Of course, there is nothing definitive about this, but archaeology has demonstrated quite plainly that the inhabitants of the Judean highlands believed that YHWH had a female consort, whether Torah allowed for it or not. This does not make their belief correct or normative, but it would not be out of keeping with what we now know. There is no reason why Naomi would not have believed this.
At this point, I need to take a bit of a rabbit trail. I have written elsewhere that David is the keystone of the Hebrew Scriptures, and I need to emphasize the point again. While the Genesis narratives, most of Torah and the Joshua/Judges stories existed in some form before David, the Hebrew language as a literary language did not. David’s reign is vital not just because of his rule but also because he unifies a Hebrew ideology. If you read David and the Monarchy first (1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) and then go back and read Genesis-Numbers, Joshua and Judges, you will realize that those narratives took form during the Monarchy period. They contain in them the seeds of the Monarchy, of the claims of the House of David and the reasons why Ephraim rebels against them. (Sorry, spoilers.)
Therefore, it is not surprising in the least that early Israelites did not worship YHWH according to Torah. While Torah existed and many of its laws and customs are representative of cultural behavior, there is no reason to assume that they were monotheistic. This is especially true if we consider Deuteronomy to date from the time of Josiah (7th century BCE) instead of pre-dating the Monarchy. (It is called Deuteronomy, after all, which is Greek for “second law”.) But I digress, back to Ruth.
Barley Harvest. It might shock many readers to realize that barley in all its forms was a key component of the Judahite diet. Barley is not a fun grain to eat, and it does not make very good bread. Emmer wheat is far better for that. Barley is, however, good for feeding livestock and for making beer.
We possess cuneiform tablets dating to before 2500 BCE detailing the process of turning barley into beer. The Egyptians did it. The Sumerians did it. Everyone did it.
Beer is a great way to store carbohydrates for winter. The fermentation process produces alcohol which keeps the brew from going bad. Whereas grain can rot relatively quickly during the rainy season (which is all winter is in Judah), beer can last for months if stored underground or in caves where it is cool.
Beer actually features prominently in the story of Ruth. We know from archaeological research that the first beers were made from the spring harvest of the winter barley, which is when Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem.
Emmer wheat, which was the domesticated wheat available in Late Bronze Age Palestine, does not grow in the winter. It requires relatively dry conditions. Barley on the other hand sprouts quickly and grows well under wet conditions. Therefore, it was planted in the winter and harvested in the spring.
Not everyone finds the idea of the Hebrews drinking beer to be something they approve of. The simple question is, “What did the Hebrews offer to YHWH in their drink offerings? Kool-Aid?” A drink offering, or more appropriately a “poured offering” (נָסַךְ, nasak) was given in connection with the wave offering or sheaf offering (תְּנוּפָה, tanuwphah). When taken with the grain/bread offering (מִנְחָה, minchah), it is pretty clear that there is a lot of emphasis on the derivatives of grains. While the drink offerings could be of wine, they were often of beer as well.
Hebrew Feast Days. In fact, the Hebrew religious calendar revolves around three important harvests: the lambing, the barley harvest and the wheat harvest.
The Pesach or Passover is celebrate in the early spring. This was when the lambs are born, and this is why the passover meal revolved around a lamb.
After Pesach, the Israelites were commanded to go home, harvest their barley, lay down their beer and then plant their emmer wheat. Then they were commanded to return and observe a festival of first fruits called Shavuot. This was the celebration of the barley harvest, and it figures prominently in Ruth.
The first in-gathering of barley was threshed then malted in the wetness of the early spring. Then, the malt was turned into loaves which were crumbled into water, boiled and then allowed to ferment. At the end of the harvest, the fermented beer was drunk as a celebration.
Pesach and Shavuot were the important spring festivals of the calendar. They were the first two of the Shalosh Regalim, the holiest days of the year that required the entire nation to gather. The last is Sukkot or Tabernacles, which is observed at the end of the wheat harvest.
It isn’t hard to see the natural rhythms that dictated both spiritual and physical cycles in this agrarian world.
Don’t think, however, that the Hebrews were drunken slobs. Beer was a necessary item for them. Without it, they could not survive from harvest to harvest. The celebrations held at the festivals were not drunken orgies. The mood was not artificially created by alcohol and loss of inhibitions as many modern partiers seem to think is necessary. The harvest was cause for celebration, but the drunkard was still considered a fool.
Back to the Barley. So it is that we find Naomi and Ruth arriving in Bethlehem during the barley harvest. This meant they arrived at the perfect time for eligible bachelors to be looking for a wife. It also meant they arrived too late to plant Elimelech’s fields which had lain fallow for at least ten years.
We cannot be certain that Naomi was leveraging for a new husband for Ruth, but certainly she must have been aware of the presence of kinsman who could marry Ruth and continue the line. This particular arrangement is known as levirate marriage, and it was very common in the region. A man’s close male relation could marry his widow and their first child would inherit the dead man’s property. If they had only one child, then that child would inherit both men’s property. This fact is significant when we get to the end of the book. (No looking ahead!)
וַתָּקָם הִיא וְכַלֹּתֶיהָ וַתָּשָׁב מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב כִּי שָׁמְעָה בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב כִּי־פָקַד יְהוָה אֶת־עַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם לָחֶם׃
וַתֵּצֵא מִן־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה־שָׁמָּה וּשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ עִמָּהּ וַתֵּלַכְנָה בַדֶּרֶךְ לָשׁוּב אֶל־אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה׃
וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לִשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ לֵכְנָה שֹּׁבְנָה אִשָּׁה לְבֵית אִמָּהּ יַעַשׂ
יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם חֶסֶד כַּאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם עִם־הַמֵּתִים וְעִמָּדִי׃
יִתֵּן יְהוָה לָכֶם וּמְצֶאןָ מְנוּחָה אִשָּׁה בֵּית אִישָׁהּ וַתִּשַּׁק לָהֶן וַתִּשֶּׂאנָה קוֹלָן וַתִּבְכֶּינָה׃
וַתֹּאמַרְנָה־לָּהּ כִּי־אִתָּךְ נָשׁוּב לְעַמֵּךְ׃
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. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” (ESV)
YHWH’s People. There are a few distinctions worth noting right at the beginning here. First of all, note how YHWH (the LORD) visited his people. Moab already had food. Naomi and her family have lived in Moab for ten years. She has probably been living off the generosity of her daughters-in-law’s families.
It is not impossible, by the way, that Ruth’s family was influential in the Moabite sphere. In the David narrative, there is a moment when David sends his parents to the town of Mizpeh in Moab where the king grants them asylum (1 Samuel 22:3-5). Although this king was probably nothing more than a tribal chieftain or clan leader, he apparently was still a man of some influence.
Still, the people of Judah are considered YHWH’s people. This does not, by the way, necessarily extend to all of Israel. There is considerable evidence in the David narrative that most of Israel did not follow YHWH. We often forget that even Samuel (the priest who appointed David as king) was himself an Efrathite like Elimelech and Naomi (1 Samuel 1:1-2) even though he lived in the region of Ephraim. Time and again we notice that the entire narrative revolves around the hill country of Judah.
When the narrative says that YHWH visited his people, this is an accurate translation of the Hebrew פֶּקֶר (paqad). It means literally that YHWH came and changed things, that he walked among the people. Of course, this is a metaphor but it is not without precedence. The people of this day believed that a divinity very often walked among them, often in human form. This is why Abraham has no problem sitting down to a meal with YHWH (Genesis 18), and why Deuteronomy (again, a late reiteration of the Torah) commands that the Israelites’ camps be sanitary lest YHWH step in a toilet ditch (Deuteronomy 23:12).
וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לָמָּה תֵלַכְנָה עִמִּי הַעוֹד־לִי בָנִים בְּמֵעַי וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים׃
שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לֵכְןָ כִּי זָקַנְתִּי מִהְיוֹת לְאִישׁ כִּי אָמַרְתִּי יֶשׁ־לִי תִקְוָה גַּם הָיִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה לְאִישׁ וְגַם יָלַדְתִּי בָנִים׃
הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ אַל בְּנֹתַי כִּי־מַר־לִי מְאֹד מִכֶּם כִּי־יָצְאָה בִי יַד־יְהוָה׃
וַתִּשֶּׂנָה קוֹלָן וַתִּבְכֶּינָה עוֹד וַתִּשַּׁק עָרְפָּה לַחֲמוֹתָהּ וְרוּת דָּבְקָה בָּהּ׃
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? 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, 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.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. (1:11-14, ESV)
Daughters-in-law. The difficult Hebrew word כַּלָּה (kallah) is here translated as “daughter-in-law” but is also translated as “spouse”. Again we see the Hebrew view of marriage. The word derives from the idea of completion or perfecting. These are women who were united to their respective husbands and as such their union was completed, as was the duty of their father’s house to them. They have come under Naomi’s provision because there simply is no alternative for them.
The next few verses of Ruth are a formalized call and response. Naomi tells them to return to their mother’s house, and not their father’s. There are several possible reasons for this, the probably the easiest being what I just pointed out – that their fathers’ obligation to them was at an end and so they would go to the harem, the house of women which was overseen by the chief wife of the household. It might also be that Moab had a matriarchal society and women ruled the homes, even if men were the chieftains and such.
Of course the mother’s house would only be a waypoint on their way to new husbands. I say this is a formalized call and response because it appears to be very formal. The structures of what Naomi and the two daughters-in-law say all feel formal, although it might also have that feel because of the nature of how story telling works. Either way, it is clear that Naomi is releases Ruth and Orpah from their obligation to her.
Their first refusal to leave Naomi may indeed be a formal thing, a necessary refusal to conform to cultural norms. After the initial protest and Naomi’s insistence, Orpah accepts the release and leaves.
וַתֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה שָׁבָה יְבִמְתֵּךְ אֶל־עַמָּהּ וְאֶל־אֱלֹהֶיהָ שׁוּבִי אַחֲרֵי יְבִמְתֵּךְ׃
וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִי לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ כִּי אֶל־אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי׃
בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְהוָה לִי וְכֹה יֹסִיף כִּי הַמָּוֶת יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ׃
וַתֵּרֶא כִּי־מִתְאַמֶּצֶת הִיא לָלֶכֶת אִתָּהּ וַתֶּחְדַּל לְדַבֵּר אֵלֶיהָ׃
And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 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.
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.”
And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. (1:15-18, ESV)
Ruth’s Declaration. It is after Naomi’s third release that Ruth makes a formal declaration, which lends to the feeling that this is a formal act. Ruth has twice renounced her rights as a member of the Moabite tribes. Now she makes a formal declaration that she has taken on an identity as a Judahite.
This is, in many ways an example of how someone makes the transition (conversion?) to being a follower of the God of the Bible. Ruth adopts Naomi’s identity as her own. Notice the movement of the covenant:
- I will go where you go: Ruth determines to follow Naomi somewhere she has never been.
- Where you lodge, I will lodge: Ruth will remain in intimate contact with Naomi. She adopts her as her family.
- Your people will be my people: this is not a racial people but rather familial. Ruth is abandoning her own tribal identity in favor of Naomi’s.
- Your God my God: Ruth abandons the Moabite gods without a thought. To be with Naomi is to follow YHWH.
- Where you die, I will die: This is a lifetime commitment, with no reversals.
Among other things, notice the importance of location to the worship of YHWH. In the ancient mind, gods were associated with locations. Sometimes this had to do with the location of a temple or cultic center. Often, it was because of the natural limitations of a people group. People are, by nature, bordered by other people. Where a people who worships one god live, the god is said to live there. Where people worship another god, that god lives there.
At this period of development, the worship of YHWH was still bound by this very natural human limitation. People thought of YHWH as Judah’s god, and the people of Judah lived in the highlands. Therefore, YHWH only lived in the highlands. Outside of the mountains, he was powerless. This idea carried well into the Monarchy period and was repeated by Aramean armies when they attacked Ephraim during the reign of Ahab (1 Kings 20:23).
The concept of YHWH being the supreme God and ultimately the sole God would have an ongoing development throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The people of Palestine routinely vacillated between YHWH and whatever god seemed to be the most powerful at the moment.
Thus, Ruth does not profess that she will adopt the God of Judah while she is still in Moab. To her thinking, Chemosh was god of the Moabite plateau and YHWH ruled in Judah. She would not bring the worship of Chemosh to Judah but rather would accept Judah’s God as her own.
Accepting YHWH as her god and Judah as her land, will, however, be a a lifetime commitment for Ruth. She surrenders everything to remain Naomi’s daughter-in-law. This is a significant, life-altering decision that she cannot reverse. Her words indicate that the decision was already made long before she was confronted with the choice.
The Exodus Motif. Of course, the entire theme of the book revolves around YHWH’s sovereign guidance even bringing Naomi and Ruth out of Moab. This is a reiteration of a dominant theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, namely the Exodus Motif. This is the idea that God’s people must be led out of captivity and into redemption. Naomi is in captivity to death in Moab, just as the children of Israel were in captivity in Egypt. The children of Israel had to come out of Egypt and Naomi had to come out of Moab.
Likewise, the Exodus motif will be played out when Judah is taken into exile four hundred years later. In order to be YHWH’s people, they must come out of Babylon. But in so doing, the narrative illustrates that YHWH is God even in Babylon. This is an echo of the realization that he was also God in Egypt and Moab. The circle of revelation gradually widens, revealing YHWH as the one true God. While we can see this, it was not as visible for those who journey through the circles. So, we must be patient with Ruth and Naomi, just as we must be patient with the children of Israel in Exodus.
וַיָּמָת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ אִישׁ נָעֳמִי וַתִּשָּׁאֵר הִיא וּשְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ׃
וַיִּשְׂאוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מֹאֲבִיּוֹת שֵׁם הָאַחַת עָרְפָּה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית רוּת וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם כְּעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים׃
וַיָּמוּתוּ גַם־שְׁנֵיהֶם מַחְלוֹן וְכִלְיוֹן וַתִּשָּׁאֵר הָאִשָּׁה מִשְּׁנֵי יְלָדֶיהָ וּמֵאִישָׁהּ׃
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. (ESV)
There is something ironic about the fact that Elimelech and his family fled from Bethlehem to Moab to escape a famine (רָעָב) which usually implies starvation and death, and in the prosperity of the Moabite plain, they find only death.
Marriage. It is difficult to convey a lot of Hebrew thinking and language in English, but there is an important point I need to make here before proceeding. In Hebrew, “the husband of Naomi” is ‘ēsh-na’amēy, quite literally “husband Naomi.”
In the same vein, what is translated as “took Moabite wives” is actually na-ēshēym na-mō’abēōth, quite literally “they wived female Moabites.” The Hebrew word ēsh means “man” and the female form ēshah means woman, but in the sexual sense. It is the capacity to form a union between them that makes them man and woman. Once that union is formed, they are part of a single being.
Unlike many of their neighbors, the Hebrews did not distinguish between sexual intercourse and marriage. They were one and the same thing, which would ultimately give rise to monogamy in later Judaism (an idea that is not explicit or even implicit in the Hebrew Scriptures but is taken very seriously in the Christian testament.) To them, to join in sexual union was to unite as a single being.
Before sexual union, a female was not ēshah. After puberty, a female was considered a נַעֲרָה (na’arah). Although translated as young woman or damsel, it derives from the verb נָעַר (na’ar) which means “to shake.” We cannot be certain of the etymological connection, but this might have to do with male verility (the “shaking” of the testes after they have dropped) or something to do with the changes in the body that are occasioned by puberty. Both males and females were referred to by derivatives of this verb.
The transition from na’arah to ēshah could be a very simple one, as denoted by this later law in Deuteronomy:
But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days. (Deuteronomy 22:25-29, ESV)
It was as simple as that. If a young man and woman had intercourse, they were considered no longer na’ar and na’arah but ēsh and ēshah. He was required to compensate her father for the inconvenience of not allowing the proper wedding ceremony (and more than likely the fifty shekels of silver would be used to finance a wedding ceremony), but they were united and unable to divorce or separate.
Of course, this law was instituted long after the stories of Ruth (probably around 650 BCE) but it reflects a reality of custom that might easily date from this period.
The words open country translate the Hebrew שָׂדַי (saday) which means “the spread out place” and is usually translated as field. Part of the springtime harvest was the choosing of wives. It was quite common for young men and women to participate in the early barley harvest and in the vigor and celebration of that season to “discover” one another. This practice appears later in Ruth, and we will address it when we get there.
The Death of the Sons. Probably shortly after their father’s death, Naomi’s two sons are joined to women of Moab. We do not know the circumstances of their marriages, but it is reasonable to assume that they were all young and virile, and with their father dead, it was important that the sons perpetuate their line.
There is no prohibition against marrying Moabites in the early Torah. The prohibitions that do exist are in Deuteronomy (23:3), which as I have already noted is a later reiteration of the Torah. Even in the Numbers passage in which the Moabites draw the Hebrews into cultic prostitution (Numbers 25), there is no prohibition. In fact, most of the latter half of Numbers takes place on the plains of Moab and there is plenty of opportunity to make such a prohibition. The absence of such a thing should tell us something, and even the prohibition that does exist in Deuteronomy is mitigated by a declaration of Moab’s uniqueness before God (Deuteronomy 2:9).
It was actually fairly common in their pastoral, rural cultures to occasionally bring in women from other groups to ensure the depth of the gene pool. Although Mahlon and Chilion live with their wives for ten years, they have no children. This is interesting in itself, but we can only speculate as to the cause. For whatever reason, they die childless.
Lineage and Land. But notice that the story does not say that the two Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, are left childless. The focus instead is on Naomi and the emptiness of her life. Why?
Here is where the narrative begins to gain dimension and depth. In the Hebrew system, a widow could manage her dead husband’s property in the absence of male heirs, but if she did not remarry, the rights would pass to the next of kin and her family would essentially cease to exist.
Naomi therefore is put in a difficult position. She is childless, so she is a lame duck. She is probably still virile, but the odds of finding a man willing to marry her and give up his own potential for heirs are slim indeed. The house of Elimelech will end with her.
Ultimately, the book of Ruth will bring a legitimization of David through the way that Elimelech’s lands pass through Naomi to Ruth, but once again this is something we will see in due time.