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Scene Two: Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22)

1:19 Compare this verse with the beginning of the act. In vv.6-7 the three ("she and her two daughters-in-law") "started to the land of Judah", now "the two of them went on till they came to Bethlehem."

"When they came to Bethlehem..." wayyehi ke- (cf. 1:1 wayyehi be- "When the Judges ruled...") does this phrase mark a new beginning? In a way, yes, for here at the start of a new scene we find an abstract of the story and a repetition of the theme of "emptiness" and of the motif "return" (vv.20-21). However this fact of summing up and the repetition of the motif "return" shows clearly that this scene forms part of the first act.

"The whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said" in fact in Hebrew the "women" are only signalled by the feminine form of the verb "they said" which seems to refer back to "the whole town" - the narrator frequently adopts the feminine point of view in this story!

1:20-21 "Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly (hemar) with me." First Noami puns on her name, or rather gives herself a new name - more like those of her sons. Then she repeats her complaint against the Almighty in verse:
"I went away full,
and the Adonai has brought me back empty.
Why call me Na'omi,
when the Adonai has afflicted me
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?"

At this point we cannot escape questioning Naomi's faith. Her language is strong and her complaint bitter. Both here and in v.13 she chooses expressions which suggest that she sees the Lord as her adversary. "The hand of the Lord has gone forth (turned NRSV) against me" cf. "the hand of the Lord was against" Ex 9:3; Dt 2:15; Judg 2:15 etc.) the expression Naomi uses is stronger for "to go out" is used of armies etc.. Even though at v.9 she asked Adonai's blessing for her Moabite daughters-in-law, presumably hoping for his grace to reach even foreigners, her honesty and good theology will not permit her to blame anyone else for her suffering. 

Although she does not explicitly say it we can assume that, like Job and Jeremiah, she can see no acts of hers which deserve the punishment, despite this it is God's doing. It is interesting too to compare 2:20 where she will speak of his faithfulness to the living and the dead (with no trace of irony). Ruth's faithfulness to her family-by-marriage is impressive, but so is Naomi's to her God. Perhaps it is this which permits Ruth to accept Adonai? 

"Empty" is another of those key-words which only occur twice (cf. 3:17). As in a way is shub, the leitwort in this passage. This verb is used frequently in this passage (meaning "return" etc) and as such we shall discuss it below. However apart from this verse shub only occurs once more in the "hiphil" (meaning something like "cause to return, bring back") at 4:15: 
here Naomi declares that the Lord has brought her back empty
there the women declare that the Lord (through the agency of Obed?) will "restore her to life". 
This contrast sums up the problem of the story and the fact of its solution. 
1:22 Gives a summary of the first act, and prepares the second. Using few words it: 
repeats the key-word shub twice, 
indicates that Naomi and Ruth are alone, 
that Ruth is a foreigner in a strange land and 
sets the scene for Act Two: 
"So Na'omi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest."

© Dr Tim Bulkeley, 2004.

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Tim teaches Hebrew Bible (First or Old Testament) at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and at Carey Baptist College his other sites include:
Amos - Postmodern Bible commentary
Study Notes on Jonah
Images of Archaeological Sites in Israel (Focusing on the Iron Age)