I. Act 1: The Crisis for the Royal Line (1:1–21)

Act 1 of the Book of Ruth begins and ends in Bethlehem. Meanwhile the narrator takes the reader through a series of tragic scenes that climax in Naomi's woeful declaration to the women of Bethlehem.

1. Scene 1: The Setting for the Crisis (1:1–2)

1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

1:1–2 The author sets the stage for the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz by describing the context in which the events will occur. Chronologically the time is described as “in the days when the judges ruled.” Usually in the Old Testament the word špṭ relates to internal administration, that is, the maintenance of internal harmony by settling disputes. However, the author betrays his familiarity with the Book of Judges by using the expression in its relatively rare (in Hb.) but original sense, “to govern.” The “judges,” namely, “governors,” were local chieftains called up by Yahweh to deliver the people from foreign oppressors. The opening line reflects the narrator's determination to place the events of the book in a truly historical context. The use of the phrase “in the days when judges ruled” indicates the premonarchic period was recognized as a clearly identifiable phase in Israel's history, between the death of Joshua and the crowning of Saul as the nation's first king. Any attempt to narrow the particular time of the events recorded in this book is speculative.

Historically, the events of the book are precipitated by a famine that struck the land, apparently the entire land of Israel. The cause of the famine is not indicated. From a natural meteorological perspective it seems that the rains, so critical for the growing season in the land of Israel, had failed to fall, presumably for several successive years. From a theological perspective, however, this famine may be explained as a judgmental act of God. According to the covenant curses outlined in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, if Yahweh's people would go after other gods and persist in rebelling against their covenant Lord, he would respond not only by sending in enemies to destroy their crops and occupy the land (as in the Book of Judges), but also by cutting off the rains and sending famine. This consequence is specifically predicted in Lev 26:18–20 and Deut 28:23–24.

Geographically, the story begins in Bethlehem of Judah. The irony of crisis is apparent. Bethlehem, which means “house, granary of bread,” has no food for this family. The qualifier “of Judah” distinguishes this Bethlehem from the Zebulunite town where Ibzan lived and was buried according to Judg 12:8–10. However, it links this story geographically with the account in Judg 17:7–8 of the wandering Levite who ends up in the apostate Micah's home. In the premonarchic period Bethlehem was an insignificant town located five miles south of Jerusalem (cf. Mic 5:2[Hb. 5:1]).

Personally, the story involves a certain man from Bethlehem, his wife, and their two sons. The narrator's temporary withholding of their names invites the reader for the moment to generalize the problem of the famine to the rest of the population. But not for long, for the author interrupts the narrative in v. 2a to identify the characters by name: Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, and Chilion (kilyōn; pronounced in Hb. machlōn). Although the narrator makes no attempt to play on the men's names, they do sound ominous if not portentous. Elimelech appears to be a sentence name meaning either “My God is king” or “El is Milku,” expressing the faith of the one who gave and/ or bore the name. Elimelech's departure for Moab may reflect his own doubts about the truth his name declared. Naomi is mentioned secondarily to her husband, but she will turn out to be the key character in this chapter. As the explanation in vv. 20–21 suggests, her name derives from a root, n‘m, “to be pleasant.” This may be an abbreviated name, missing the theophoric element and thereby suppressing the role of God. The meaning of Mahlon is uncertain. If it is related to Mahlat or Mahalat, the names of Esau's and Rehoboam's wives respectively, a connection with ḥălî or ḥelyâ, “jewelry, adornment,” is possible. It seems more likely to be derived from ḥāla. “to be sick,” in which case it is related semantically to Chilion. Chilion is constructed from the root kālâ, “to be finished, come to an end,” hence “frailty, mortality.” Each of these names functions as a nomen omen (“ominous name”), implicitly pointing to the intensification of the crisis about to strike Naomi. The entire family is identified ethnically as “Ephrathites.” Unlike Judg 12:15 (as well as 1 Sam 1:1 and 1 Kgs 11:26), where the singular gentilic denotes membership in the tribe of Ephraim, here the term derives from a place name, Ephrathah, which seems to have represented the region around Bethlehem.

In the first two verses Elimelech is clearly the focus of attention. He is the one who leaves (hālak min, lit. “to go from”) Bethlehem of Judah to live for a while (gûr, “to sojourn”) in the field of Moab, and he is the one who comes to (bô’, “to enter”) the field of Moab and lives (hāyâ, “to be”) there. The syntax of these two verses suggests that the initiative for the trip to Moab was Elimelech's and the participation of his wife and sons a secondary issue. The thematic links with the story of Abraham, particularly Gen 12:10, reinforce this interpretation, leading the reader to expect an Abraham-like character. Naomi and the sons are presented as tagalongs.

Whereas Abraham sought relief from the famine in Egypt, Elimelech headed for Moab. His destination is identified specifically twice as śĕdê mô’āb, “the field of Moab.” Since national territory is usually referred to as the ’ereṣ, “land,” of a nation, one would have expected Elimelech to head for ’ereṣ mô’āb, “the land of Moab,” a form found elsewhere in the Old Testament. Fundamentally śādeh refers to land as a field that has been wrested from an original wild state and brought under human occupation and cultivation. Specifically it may refer to unoccupied territory, in contrast to môšāb, “inhabited land”; the region surrounding a city, in contrast to ‘ir, “walled town”; or a field, in contrast to bayit, “house.” Although elsewhere śādeh only rarely denotes a tribal or national territory, in at least five instances śĕdēh mô’āb functions as an alternate to ’ereṣ mô’āb, “land of Moab.” The present author's preference for the former may have arisen from the book's focus on the fields to be harvested and Boaz's efforts to redeem the “field” of Naomi (4:3, 5).

The fact that Elimelech headed across the Jordan to Moab east of the Dead Sea suggests the famine was localized in the land of Israel. The narrator does not tell us how to interpret the move. Was it an act of faith or unbelief? The parallels with the account of Abraham's sojourn in Egypt in Genesis 12 suggest the latter. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, if the people would repent, Yahweh would withdraw his anger and lift the famine. It seems, however, that Elimelech designed his own solution instead of calling on God for mercy and repenting of the sins that plagued the nation during the dark days of the judges. The narrator's choice of verb, gûr, “to sojourn,” suggests that he intended to wait out the famine in the land of Moab and to return to Bethlehem when it was over. Not that this was an easy choice. The move to Moab must be interpreted in light of the general Israelite disposition toward the Moabites. That disposition seems to have been colored by five factors in their history: (1) the Moabites’ contemptible origins in the incestuous relationship of Lot and his daughter (Gen 19:30–38); (2) the Moabites’ resistance to Israelite passage through their territory when they came from Egypt (Numbers 22–24); (3) the Moabite women's seduction of the Israelites and the latter's subsequent punishment (Num 25:1–9); (4) Israel's constitutional exclusion of Moab from the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:3–6); and (5) the recent oppression of the Israelites by Eglon the king of Moab (Judg 3:15–30). This combination of factors may explain the impression created by the narrator that of the Bethlehemites only Elimelech's family sought refuge from the famine in Moab. They also render even more remarkable the whole-hearted acceptance of Ruth successively by Naomi, Boaz, and the people of Bethlehem.

2. Scene 2: The Nature of the Crisis (1:3–5)

3Now Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

1:3–5 How different from the dream were the experiences of this Israelite family in Moab! Figuratively speaking, having escaped Rā‘āb, the divine agent of famine, they walked right into the clutches of Môt, the even more fearful agent of death. Soon after arriving in Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow and her sons fatherless. The narrator adds poignancy to the statement by the choice of the verb, šā’ar (niphal), “to be left over, to remain,” which often speaks of bereavement at the death of another and often refers to those who have survived the wrath and judgment of God. Furthermore, to be buried in an unclean foreign land was considered the ultimate punishment (Amos 7:17). Naomi's new position as the head of this household is reflected in the reversal of roles in the text; she is no longer Elimelech's wife (v. 2); he is her husband (v. 3). And the sons are no longer Elimelech's children but hers. From here on she will be the center of attention, and contrary to the expectations raised by vv. 1–2, Elimelech is out of the picture. But all is not lost. The line may still be saved, for the marriage of both sons raises the hopes of all for progeny through whom Elimelech and Naomi will live on.

The meanings of the names of the women Naomi's sons marry are unclear. Orpah is often associated with ‘ōrep, “neck,” from which is derived the Jewish midrashic explanation that she turned her neck/nape on her mother-in-law. Today the name is commonly treated as fictitious, created to suit her role in the story. Ruth (rût) is the most obscure name in the book. Syriac renders it rĕ‘ût, “female companion,” as if from rēa‘, “friend,” but the assumed disappearance of the middle consonant (‘ayin) is unlikely. A derivation from a root rwh, “to soak, irrigate, refresh,” hence “refreshment, satiation,” is more likely. Although it is not clear at the moment which of the sons married which woman, in 4:10 we will learn that Ruth was the wife of Mahlon.

How is this marriage to Moabites to be evaluated? The narrator does not declare his own opinion, but several features of the account may be telling. First, he employs an unusual expression to announce their marriages, nāśā’ ’iššâ, literally “to lift/carry a woman,” instead of lāqaḥ ’iššâ, “to take a woman,” the more common idiom for “to marry.” Although lexicons tend to treat these expressions as virtually synonymous, closer examination of the latter reveals a phrase loaded with negative connotations. The present idiom occurs only nine times in the Old Testament. As we have seen, in Judg 21:23 it speaks of marriage by abduction: with the consent of the rest of the Israelites, the Benjamites forcibly seized the dancers at Shiloh and took them as wives. It appears that because most marriages by abduction would be exogamous (outside the clan), in later usage this idiom came to be used mainly of illegitimate marriages, especially with non-Israelites, whether by kings or laymen. The present usage fits the latter class. Second, these marriages must be interpreted in light of Mosaic prohibitions against marriage with pagans, particularly Deut 7:3–4. The Moabites are not listed with these Canaanite nations, but since they were the people of Chemosh, a foreign God, the spirit of the law would have them included. As the new head of this household, Naomi should have forestalled these marriages. Third, like Elimelech's movement to Moab in the first place, according to the covenant curses, marriage to foreigners in the land of exile was considered the judgment of God (Deut 28:32). Fourth, Naomi's sons lived in their married state for ten years but without fathering any children. The barrenness of Ruth and Orpah too must be interpreted as evidence of the punitive though hidden hand of God (Deut 28:18). Indeed later it would take an act of God to enable Ruth, who had been barren, to conceive and bear a son for Boaz (4:13). Fifth, the climactic blow is struck when both Mahlon and Chilion die (1:5), leaving Naomi with no male remnant, neither husband nor children. The poignancy of the situation is highlighted by the construction of v. 5 (lit. “and even their two died—Mahlon and Chilion”) and the designation of the sons as yĕlādîm, “children,” rather than the conventional bānîm, “sons” (vv. 1–3, 11–12). The choice of this word here creates an inclusio with hayyeled in 4:16 and highlights the issue of progeny as a key theme in the book.

—New American Commentary