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Verse by verse comments (Ruth 1:1-5)

Verse One:

"In the days when judges ruled" 
- Note that the temporal information is not very precise, commentators try to make it more so by, for example, supposing that it must have been at a time when Israel was dominant over Moab, but this is merely supposition. 
- The author is concerned with a period known to his hearers, rather than with dating the events. 
- The phrase chosen also suggests a long time has passed between events and telling - since the period pointed to is long and not clearly defined. (The genealogy at the end of the book also suggests this since David is 3 generations from the events, and seems himself to be a past figure.)
In this first verse the text begins to use contrasts:
"the land" (which for the Hebrew hearer means the promised land) opposes living as "resident alien") in a foreign land. (NRSV renders the verb gor "live as a resident alien" by "live".)
"famine" and the name "Bethlehem" (in Hebrew = "house of bread") contrast ironically. 

These contrasts already, in the first verse, signal "emptying" and "filling" as a theme of this book.

Early Jewish commentators, reading from diaspora, found it difficult that Elimelek chose to leave the promised land, and some saw this as the cause of the series of deaths which strike his family in the succeeding verses. This negative attitude is strongly expressed by Rashi who says "He left the Land of Israel for regions outside the Land out of stinginess, for he resented the poor who came to press him; therefore he was punished."

Verse Two:

Inevitably discussion of this verse centres on the names, and their meaning and origins have been greatly discussed. The only safe conclusion is that there can be no firm conclusion yet!

The two boys' names do seem to suggest their weakness, with possible meanings like "failing or pining, or even annihilation"! Naomi ("my graceful"?) will later make her own pun on her name (v.20). 

"They remained there" as a short closing phrase, is also ironic, for the men will soon die.

Verse Three:

After famine and emigration comes death. The emptying of this family continues.

"the husband of Naomi", as Elimelek is now called, is unheard of, men are not identified with respect to their wives in the OT. Rashi saw this unusual phrasing as a clue, Elimelek is called "the husband of Naomi" to draw attention to the fact that Naomi is not punished since she was under Elimelek's authority. Since this is the only textual clue to support this reading it seems better to simply notice here a first hint of the place of women in this book, the book of Ruth is often told from a woman's perspective, Scripture otherwise almost always portrays male points of view.

Verse Four:

"These took Moabite wives" already in the orientation the story begins to suggest false hopes of solution. (Even though the problem has not yet been posed!) The boys marry, one supposes they will soon father children, though sadly (cf. Dt 23:3) with foreign mothers. No sooner suggested than disposed of, "about ten years" and still no sign of offspring - what a contrast will meet us at 4:13, there Boaz and Ruth marry, "know one another", Adonai gives them a child and the child is born, all in the space of 13 words!

Verse Five:

"they died also both Mahlon and Chilion" (as the opening words read literally) the verse begins with death. 

"so that the woman" (note that the word is singular, as yet neither Ruth nor Orpah matter!) "was left" as indeed she was in v. 3 where the same Hebrew word is used. Naomi, the only remaining "true" representative of this Judean family, is "left" in a foreign land with no men and two dependant foreign daughters-in-law.

"sons" in Hebrew the gender neutral word "children" is used, it will recur in 4:16 where Naomi will take "the child" to her bosom.

© Dr Tim Bulkeley, 2004.

You may quote and use these study notes, subject to the usual provsions of fair use - like giving proper credit e.g.
Tim Bulkeley, "Ruth: Genre" in Study Notes on Ruth http://www.hypertextbible.org/ruth/genre.htm [downloaded today's date].

If you want to reproduce large sections you should contact Tim. (tim at bible.gen.nz)

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)