The story of Ruth opens with a condensed introduction of basic information, the kind that modern readers might easily pass over in their rush to get to the main action. Yet each component of the introduction is critical to an appreciation of the story that is to unfold.
“In the days when the judges ruled” provides specificity to the once-upon-a-time character of the tale to be told. In English Bibles, the story of Ruth is placed in its appropriate chronological context, immediately after the book of Judges. Although in the Hebrew Bible the story is gathered together with other festival scrolls (see Introduction), readers in the Jewish tradition have certainly also recognized the significance of its chronological setting. The book of Judges presents this era as one of repeated bloody battles between Israel and its Canaanite, Philistine, and other enemies, as well as of warfare among various Israelite tribes. It is also a time of repeated disobedience to God’s covenant stipulations, a time marked by a struggle to learn how to be faithful to God in the new setting of the promised land. The book of Judges concludes with a concern for the survival of the Benjaminite tribe, of whom only men are left alive; women are secured for these surviving men by intertribal warfare and by kidnapping. Then the narrator concludes the book as a whole: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The implication is that the absence of centralized, hereditary leadership contributed to the wrongdoing of the people.
The entire story in the book of Ruth serves as counterpoint to this picture of the era of the Judges. It moves from the tribal level to the familial; it moves from warfare to constructive and peaceful individual action; it provides examples of faithful obedience, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking attentively with God (Micah 6:8). Upright action by both Israelite and foreigner is displayed by contrast to the wrongdoing of the people in Judges. And this upright action sets in motion the emergence of the royal leadership whose absence is lamented by the concluding line of Judges. This counterpoint is heightened by the location “Bethlehem in Judah,” since two of the stories of violence toward the end of Judges open with characters setting out from Bethlehem in Judah (Judges 17; 19).
Having set the time frame with its cultural and theological ramifications, the author now presents the circumstance that sets the entire story in motion: famine in the land. Famine and migration because of famine are well known in the Old Testament tradition. Abraham goes to Egypt because of famine (Gen. 12:10), Isaac goes to Gerar (Gen. 26:1); Joseph’s managerial prudence in conserving grain for use during a regional famine leads eventually to the migration of his father and brothers from Canaan to Egypt (Genesis 43). Famine is the implication of some of the traditional covenant curses—drought (Deut. 28:23–24) and insect plague (Deut. 28:38–42). In a subsistence agrarian economy where the quantity of food production is barely adequate on an annual basis, even in a good year, where long-term storage and long-range transport of food are not practical realities, the prospect of famine was and still is terrifying. Contemporary news reports from around the globe serve as reminder that famine is not just a bygone terror; every year peoples migrate in search of food or starve and become victims of disease because they are unable to migrate or find other sources of food.
Thus readers should not be surprised that one Israelite man decides to migrate before it is too late. He is apparently an ordinary citizen; the narrator provides only his name, Elimelech, and the names of his wife and two sons. Yet the name of his hometown strikes a chord, both of dissonance and of anticipation, once the whole story is known. In Hebrew, “Bethlehem” means literally “house of bread” or “house of food,” so there is an immediate irony in the name of the man’s town, an irony that highlights the severity of the famine: even in “House of Bread” there was apparently no food, no prospect for food. At the same time, the reader familiar with the story of David, to be told in I–II Samuel, recognizes that Bethlehem of Judah is David’s town (I Samuel 16) and will think ahead to the genealogy of David that concludes the story of Ruth. As Judges ends with the notation that there was no king in Israel, so Ruth ends with the name of David, who will institute God’s divinely chosen dynasty ruling over Judah.
From Bethlehem, “house of bread/food” where there is no food, the man of Bethlehem migrates to Moab, across the Jordan River to the east of Bethlehem. Why the family goes to Moab rather than somewhere else is not explained. The climate of Moab varies from area to area, as does the climate in the land presumed to be occupied by Israel in the time of the Judges. The author refers regularly to the “country” of Moab (1:1, 2, 6, 22; 2:6; 4:3); possibly this phrase represents a specific sub-region of Moabite territory, but what area is involved can no longer be determined. It is possible that some region of Moab might not have been affected as severely by a given drought as the region around Bethlehem. Yet since the text claims that the famine encompassed “the land,” a much broader area than Bethlehem, a significant difference in circumstances in Moab is more difficult to explain.
Although the ancient hearers of the story may or may not have regarded Moab as a sensible place for a famine-stricken family to search for food, the wider biblical context makes clear that Moab would have been regarded as an undesirable destination on other grounds. Although there are some positive references to Moab, the larger picture is generally negative. Tradition remembered that Israelite men became sexually involved with Moabite women and that apostasy resulted from that involvement (Num. 25:1–2). The king of Moab hired the diviner Balaam to curse Israel and destroy them (Numbers 22–24); only God’s intervention caused Balaam to bless Israel rather than curse them. Moab was among the oppressors of Israel in the era of the Judges (Judges 3:12ff). Deuteronomy 23:3 forbids the presence of Moabites in the Israelite religious assembly; in the time of Nehemiah this law became the basis for separating from Israel “all those of foreign descent” (Neh. 13:1). Although neither the date of composition of Ruth nor the dates of these other traditions can be determined with certainty, the evidence points to Israel’s long-standing negative view of Moab and its people, and this perspective forms the backdrop for all that transpires in the story of Ruth: the deaths of the men of the family, the magnitude of Ruth’s decision to accompany Naomi, the negative attitude of the field workers toward Ruth, the refusal of the nearer redeemer to marry Ruth, the contrasting favorable attitude of Boaz toward Ruth, and the portrait of a Moabite woman as one who acts faithfully and loyally.
Some scholars have argued that both the possibility of food and a positive view of Moab would be required in order for the story to have plausibility for the ancient hearer. But that is not necessarily the case. The author may equally or even more probably have wanted hearers to be taken aback and thus drawn in by the very oddity of Elimelech’s choice of destination. A reader or hearer is even more quickly drawn in when the story’s character makes an improbable decision or takes improbable action in the very first line. The likelihood that the narrative presumes Moab to be an implausible destination is underscored by the continuing series of improbable turns of event as the story proceeds.
Having established this theologically evocative setting in time and place, the author introduces the names of the characters and something of their origin. Although many names of biblical characters have meanings, the meanings of the names in this story are not clear. It has been noted that the names of the two sons Mahlon and Chilion rhyme, a feature sometimes found in folk-tales. The name Naomi may refer to sweetness or pleasantness (by contrast to her request in 1:20 to be called Mara, which means “bitter”). The phrase “Bethlehem in Judah” appears for the second time, as specification of the origin of this Ephrathite family. The term Ephrathite has varying uses in the Old Testament, sometimes identifying persons from the area of Ephraim well to the north of Judah. Here it does not have that meaning, but identifies the geographical and/or sub-tribe unit to which Elimelech’s family belongs. Its mention serves to heighten the connection of the story with King David, who is described in I Samuel 17:12 as the son of “an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah,” the only other occurrence of this phrase apart from Ruth 1:2. In prophetic tradition, Micah 5:2 (Heb. v. 1) anticipates a new and upright ruler from the Davidic line; from Bethlehem of Ephrathah “shall come forth . . . one who is to rule in Israel.”
Elimelech dies in Moab, and subtly the narrator brings Naomi to the fore as “she was left with her two sons.” The sons marry Moabite women Orpah and Ruth. The sequence of names Orpah and Ruth, with Mahlon mentioned before Chilion in vv. 2 and 5, might suggest that Ruth was married to Chilion; but 4:10 specifies that Ruth was the wife of Mahlon. After ten years, the two sons die as well; again Naomi is the focus of the narrator, although she is not named by name: “the woman” was left bereft of the men of her family. The Hebrew does not make clear whether the ten years’ time refers to the entire period beginning with the family’s arrival in Moab, or whether the marriages had lasted ten years before the two sons died. In either case, but especially if one assumes ten years of marriage, Ruth is implicitly portrayed as a barren woman in this stage-setting introduction. The narrator’s comment toward the end of the story that “the Lord made her conceive” (4:13) suggests that Ruth should be viewed in the line of Sarah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife (Judges 13), and Hannah, each of whom bore a child of significance for Israel’s story after God removed her barrenness.
The narrator offers no explanation, natural or theological, for the death of Elimelech and his sons. Theorizing from the negative biblical view of the Moabites described above, some traditions of interpretation explain Elimelech’s death as divine punishment for taking his family to Moabite territory. In the same way, it is suggested that his sons died because they married Moabite wives. While this is certainly a possible interpretation, the narrator’s lack of attention to any reason suggests that the answer to the question is not central to the meaning of the story. The deaths of the three men serve to draw our attention to Naomi, whose life up to this point in her culture would have revolved around her husband and sons. What is to become of this Hebrew widow with no male support in a foreign land? As the story unfolds, the question of the foreign land receives an immediate but surprising resolution— Naomi will elect to return home, but accompanied by a Moabite woman. The matter of male support is not resolved until the conclusion of the story.