Ancient History, History, King of Hopelessness: A Study of Ruth, Series

King of Hopelessness, pt 1 (Ruth 1:1-2)


This morning, I am beginning a new series on the blog, studying probably my favorite book in the Scriptures, Ruth. In many ways, Ruth is something of a preface to the books of Samuel and Kings. It offers a slightly off beat look into the origins of David, the keystone of the entire narrative of Hebrew Scripture.

Ruth is a little book. You can read the entire thing in about fifteen minutes, but within it is the key to David’s family’s right to rule over Judah and therefore over all of Israel. It is a key piece of framing narrative that has often been relegated to the realm of “nice stories”.

Let me first lay out the reasons that Ruth is so vital:

  • As I already mentioned, it frames the rise of the House of David, which is possibly the single most important event of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • It establishes the realities of life in Late Bronze Age Palestine which then help us understand, interpret and date so much of the other Scriptures (chief among the the books of Deuteronomy-Judges, but more on that later).
  • It is an exceptional example of the type of narrative style we find in various states and forms in the rest of the pre-Monarchy Scriptures.

The way we are about to read Ruth may very well be at odds with what you are familiar with, especially if you were taught the book in Sunday School. Ruth is a very adult book, so I beg your indulgence when you see what some of the interesting English translations actually mean in Hebrew.

Origins (1:1-2)

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִ‍בֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו׃
וְשֵׁם הָאִישׁ אֱלִימֶלֶךְ וְשֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ נָעֳמִי וְשֵׁם שְׁנֵי־בָנָיו מַחְלוֹן וְכִלְיוֹן אֶפְרָתִים מִ‍בֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׂדֵי־מוֹאָב

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. (ESV)

The Time of the Judges. Ruth opens in the days of שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים (shefōt ha-shōfatēym, “the judges judged”). In Hebrew and other Semitic languages, this kind of doubling is meant to create a strengthening and abstraction. It also appears in terms like “thousands upon thousands” and “king of kings.”

While the book of Judges gives the appearance to modern eyes of a series of rules without overlap, this may be an inaccurate, over-literal way of reading the book. It is far more likely that there were often several judges (singular shafat, plural shōfetēym) were operating at the same time in different regions. The only region that was not subject to judges was the Judean highlands, which is where the book of Ruth is set.

The Town of Ephrath/Bethlehem. This premise is born out by archaeology. If we date David’s reign as king around the year 1000 BCE, then we can rather safely place the narrative of Ruth in the late 12th century to early 11th century BCE. This was a period of tremendous upheaval in Canaan, but the Judean highlands seemed relatively untouched. There were no major cities in the region and the people lived in simple homes based on tent structures.

The region itself was largely pastoral, dotted with villages and settlements but not very densely populated. At the time, the village of Bethlehem was probably no more than a few hundred people, but most of them would have been itinerant shepherds spread out over the countryside. The town would have served as a central watering place and place of gathering. They were sited in locations where you could plan the semi-annual crops of barley and the annual crop of emmer wheat.

The region itself was called Efrath (commonly spelled Ephrath) which means “fertile place” in both Hebrew and the early Canaanite languages in use. It is very likely that Bethlehem was a Hebrew settlement in the midst of Canaanite pastoral lands. All indications indicate a peaceful coexistence.

This of course is does not line up with the book of Joshua, which teems with animosity between the Hebrews and the Canaanites. How do we reconcile these two competing notions?

Judah and Ephraim. I apologize in advance for the similarity of the words Ephraim and Efrath. It is this unfortunate similarity that prompted me to spell Efrath with an f to make the distinction more clear.

In the last part of the Genesis narrative, there is considerable division between the families of Joseph and Judah. Both were sons of Israel and Judah was appointed to be the chief of all the tribes after the failures of his elder brothers Reuben, Simeon and Levi (Genesis 49:8-12).

But, if you are familiar with the story of Joseph, you also know that Israel preferred Joseph and had given him the כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים (kathēneth pasēym), usually translated as “coat of many colors.” This garment was a mark of election demonstrating that Israel had selected Joseph, as the son of the favored wife, to be his successor as leader of the clan.

Ephraim was Joseph’s second son by his Egyptian wife Asenath (Genesis 41:50-52), but when Joseph brought his sons to Israel for blessing, Israel chose to give the greater blessing to Ephraim (Genesis 48:8-22).

These portions of the Genesis narrative set up the conflict that existed in Palestine for most of the time the Hebrews lived there. The history of Israel is very much the history of the rivalry between Ephraim, as the chosen son of Joseph, and Judah as the eldest qualified son of Jacob.

This division runs very deep, and is even seen in the division between the northern kingdom of Israel, centered at Samaria and led by the House of Omri; and the southern kingdom of Judah, centered at Jerusalem and led by the House of David. If we had the time, we could trace this rivalry and the intentional contrast made throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. But for the sake of time, let’s just compare the books of Joshua and Judges.

Not surprisingly, Joshua is of the tribe of Ephraim. As such, the book bearing his name is the record of the nature of the conquest led by the tribes that followed Ephraim. Most of the events of the book take place in the northern part of the region and are violent and chaotic.

In contrast, Judges looks down from the hills of Judea and sees this chaos as the time when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Judah is, of course, exempt from this chaos. So while both books were retained by the kingdom of Judah, it is clear that there is an intentional difference between them. They overlap each other archaeologically and historically, although traditionally they have been taught as being sequential (due largely to the interpolation of the statement “after the death of Joshua” at the beginning of Judges 1:1).

NOTE: Interestingly, 1 Chronicles attempts to reconcile the Efrathite connection by making the Efrathites descendants of Judah through Caleb ben Hur (1 Chronicles 4:5). Even there though the Chroniclers is forced to make the name matronymic, which is (in my opinion) a bit of stretch.

Moab. The highlands of Judah abut the Jordan River Valley, which forms the border of modern day Israel and Jordan. The valley is itself part of a much larger trench caused by the separation or two continental plates that are drifting slowly apart. The trench stretches from Syria to Mozambique and is responsible for not only the Jordan River and the Dead Sea but also the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula.

The people of Moab were largely nomadic shepherds and goatherds in the Late Bronze Age. They occupied a large, flat plateau on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Because the plateau lay far inland and was shielded by the Judean mountains, most of which are significantly higher than the Moabite plateau, famine was less frequent.

It would be anachronistic to refer to them as a kingdom or even as a unified people. In reality, a lot of the people of Moab drifted back and forth across the river, and they apparently shared a relatively close relationship with the people of the Judean highlands, both the Canaanites and Hebrews.

The Moabites were not, however, followers of YHWH. In Genesis, they are depicted as the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot and so they are considered relatives of the Hebrews. Unfortunately, they are the offspring of Lot having sexual intercourse with his own daughter. This was a practice the Judahites abhorred, and was used to explain the reasons that the Moabites had abandoned YHWH.

The Moabites’ chief god was Chemosh, who the Hebrews also called baal-peor, “the lord of the gap”. This is an interesting name and was probably an intentional slur against Chemosh and the sexual practices associated with him. (Use your imagination.)

The Moabites followed the common practice of worshiping a deity and his female consort. Their worship practices apparently included ritual prostitution (Numbers 25), which again was an abomination to the Hebrews. Ultimately, Solomon would erect an altar to Chemosh in Jerusalem that would stand until the days of Josiah, and which will provide us some clues later on.

This concept of a god and his female consort will actually leak into the book of Ruth, particularly in the words of Naomi, which we will get to when we have opportunity. But suffice that Naomi appears to perceive YHWH as having a consort named SHDA’, a word translated as “Almighty” in most English translations but also means “breasts” in cognate languages.

The name of Elimelech’s family. The last bit of information I want to provide today is the meaning of the names of people we encounter here. They are important because many times, a narrative like this does not report people’s actual birth names but rather titles that are used within the narrative.

This is not misleading or deceptive. Ancient people often had many names. It was not until relatively recently that we humans started giving a person a name and making them stick with it for life. The Pharaoh Ramesses II was born Ramses Meryamun but actually reigned as Usermaatre Setepenre. It would have been a heresy to call him Ramesses in his own lifetime. When he was enthroned, he became (quite literally) Usermaatre Setepenre.

We see the same thing happen with Joseph in the Genesis narrative. Although born Yosef ben Itzra’el in Palestine, when he was elevated to the tjati (vizier) in Pharaoh’s rule, he was renamed Zaphenath-paneah (Genesis 41:45), which may very well mean “the gods speak and give life.”

So powerful was the concept of renaming that in the Genesis narrative, his own brothers do not recognize Joseph until he declares himself. This is not just literary license. This was an Egyptian belief that one who became pharaoh or was appointed tjati by Pharaoh became someone else, was divinely transformed.

Names have tremendous meaning in ancient literature, and they reveal a great deal to us about the nature of the story, so let us consider the names of the people we have encountered so far:

  • Elimelech (אֱלִימֶלֶךְ) means “god is king” or possibly “the powerful one rules”
  • Naomi (נָעֳמִי) is “the delight” or “my joy”
  • Mahlon (מַחְלֹון) translates as “disease”
  • Chilion (כִּלְיׄון) means “mourning” or “longing”

Even if Elimelech and Naomi are their birth names, it is very doubtful that Mahlon and Chilion are birth names. One might name infants who were sure to die by these names, but the rest of the narrative reveals that these two sons grow to adulthood and marry, so the names are nonsensical as birth names.

Were they Hebrews? There is no indication at all that Elimelech’s family were Hebrews in the “came out of Egypt” sense. In fact, they are called Efrathites which would indicate that they might come from Canaanite stock since this was the name of the region before the Hebrews settled Bethlehem.

If they were indeed of Canaanite stock, we should carefully consider what it meant to be a Hebrew in the Late Bronze Age. The Canaanites and Hebrews were possibly quite close to one another genetically and it is entirely possible that they were not distinguished from one another in Judah, although the distinction was made quite distinct in the lowlands dominated by Ephraim and the other tribes.

That is not to say that Elimelech were not followers of YHWH. Every indication is that they had adopted the worship of YHWH, such as it was in the region at the time. It was not very clearly delineated from Canaanite practices and only distantly resembles the worship that would later develop in Jerusalem during the Monarchy. As I already mentioned, Naomi seems to believe that YHWH had a female consort.

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