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.