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.