Here are exegetical/theological/homiletical notes on Ruth 1:8-18.
The book of the Ruth is a story of community, commitment, and faithfulness. The book of Ruth is set during the time of the Judges. As we’ve witnessed the past five weeks, the days of the Judges were marked by disobedience, idolatry, oppression, and chaos. The book of Ruth offers us a contrasting portrait to that of the book of Judges. The book of Ruth demonstrates that authentic community and faith can endure and triumph even in times of chaos and uncertainty.
The immediate background to our Scripture lesson is the decision of a couple from Judah, Elimelech and Naomi, to migrate to the land of Moab due to a famine in the land of Israel. While in Moab, Elimelech died and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. This cross-cultural dimension of the book of Ruth adds richness and depth to the story. In the biblical narrative, the Moabites were descendants of Lot (Gen 19:30-38). Moab and Israel were often adversaries, but there was no law against intermarriage between Israelites and Moabites. The presence of a Moabite heroine in Israel’s Scriptures demonstrates an openness to outsiders on the part of God’s people. We saw this earlier this Summer in the case of Rahab of Jericho.
During their ten years in Moab, Malon and Chilion also die without producing any children through their marriages. Naomi is now alone with her two daughters-in-law. She takes the decision to migrate back to Judah because news has reached her that the LORD is providing food to relieve the famine. Orpah and Ruth choose to accompany Naomi.
1:8-9 Naomi Releases Her Daughters-in-Law
Our printed lesson begins with Naomi’s attempt to persuade Orpah and Ruth to return the homes of their mothers. Interpreters debate the significance of Naomi exhortation to return to the mother’s home versus the father’s home, but this does not seem significant to the story as Boaz will later commend Ruth for leaving the house of her father and mother (2:12). The best explanation for the reference to the mother’s house is that this is a wish for them to remarry. The house of the mother thus refers to the practice of arranging marriages in the tent or sleeping area of the mother. Naomi is not sending Orpah and Ruth out of any malice. Rather she is attempting to extend kindness and generosity to them given her own marginalized and destitute state as an elderly widow living in a foreign land. She has nothing to offer these young women. There are no other sons of hers for Orpah and Ruth to marry.
In verses 8b-9, Naomi extends a word of blessing to Orpah and Ruth. This is a blessing offered in the name of the LORD. We have already heard that the LORD was again providing food in Judah, but this is the first time in the book of Ruth that we have a sense of the personal faith of a character. Clearly Naomi continues to recognize the LORD as her God even though she has resided in Moab for a decade. This is significant, especially in contrast to the repeated cycles of idolatry practiced in Israel during the days of the Judges. In this respect, Naomi is exemplary in her generation.
The core of Naomi’s blessing is a wish that the LORD “deal kindly” with Orpah and Ruth. The Hebrew word translated “kindly” is hesed. It occurs three times in Ruth (1:8, 2:20, and 3:10). In each case, it is associated with the LORD. Hesed is one the core attributes of the LORD. It means more than simply “acting nicely.” It captures a whole host of ideas such as “steadfast love, reliability, loyalty, and faithful commitment.” It is a relational term. It is a key theological term that expresses the extent of God’s commitment to God’s people. When God’s people celebrate the LORD’s goodness and saving power in Ps 136, the repeated refrain is “his steadfast love [hesed] endures forever.”
It is crucial to recognize that Naomi’s blessing is on behalf of two outsiders to Israel–the Moabite women Orpah and Ruth. The people of God do not have a monopoly on God’s grace nor can they alone exhaust its supply. Moreover it is a wish for the LORD to show his hesed to them in Moab. Naomi demonstrates an expansive understanding of the LORD’s love that extends it beyond the borders of Israel. Her blessing reminds us that God is indeed Lord of the nations. God’s love and grace is available to all persons everywhere. Ps 36 captures this aspect powerfully: Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens (36:5)…How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings (36:7).
Naomi offers this blessing for Orpah and Ruth because they have exhibited this same kindness to her and her deceased husband and sons. This is a remarkable statement about experiencing grace and kindness from outsiders to our faith traditions. Orpah and Ruth, Moabite women, have lived lives of committed love in their dealings with Naomi and her family.
Verse 9 give specifics to Naomi’s blessing for Orpah and Ruth. She desires for both women to return to their families of origin so that they may remarry. Presumably such unions would produce sons and daughters—the very elements missing from their marriages to Naomi’s sons. In other words, Naomi is offering Orpah and Ruth a tangible future as well as security when they reach her age. She seals her blessing of Orpah and Ruth with a kiss.
1:10 Orpah and Ruth Refuse to Leave
Orpah and Ruth respond with weeping. They do not want to leave Naomi. In verse 10, they proclaim their desire to follow Naomi back to Judah to reside with her people.
1:11-14 Naomi Persuades Orpah
Naomi responds to her daughters-in-law by forcing them to confront the seriousness of their situation. There is no viable reason for Orpah and Ruth to accompany her. She has nothing of value to offer them. In verse 11, Naomi reminds them that she does not have any more sons for them to marry. In ancient Israel, there was a custom known as Levirate Marriage (Deut 25:5-10) that entitled a widowed woman whose marriage produced no sons to marry the brother of her deceased husband in order to produce sons to carry on the name of the deceased. This is not an option for Orpah and Ruth—there are no more sons. In verses 12-13, Naomi draws out her point more fully. It is not simply a matter of not currently having any more sons. It is that she herself is too old to remarry so it is not even theoretically possible for Naomi to have additional sons down the road. Furthermore, as Naomi continues to force Orpah and Ruth to draw the inevitable conclusion that they should return to their families, Naomi reminds them that even if she could find a husband and have a son in her old age it would be years and years before they would be ready for marriage. They must not waste the intervening years waiting for a husband whom she will never be able to provide.
In the second half of verse 13, Naomi ends her appeal by expressing her sense of forlornness and forsakenness. Her life has taken a profound turn for the worse. She is a stranger in a foreign territory. She is a widow. She is elderly. She has lost both of her sons. And now she recognizes that she will lose her daughters-in-law because she is unable to care for them. Life has become bitter. When she returns home to Bethlehem, she will tell the women who greet her that her name is no longer “Naomi” which means “sweet” or “pleasant” but instead her name is now “Mara” which means “bitter” (see 1:19-20). Moreover she sees this tragic turn of events to be the LORD’s doing. Given the reality that Naomi believes that God is acting against her, there is absolutely no reason for Orpah and Ruth to stay with her. She is bad news.
Naomi’s second appeal produces more weeping. But this time the force of her arguments appear to carry the day as Orpah departs with a kiss. But shockingly Ruth clings to her. She hangs on to Naomi and steadfastly refuses to let go. Notice that our narrator says nothing bad about Orpah. She left with the emphatic blessing and affirmation of Naomi. Her leaving simply highlights the radical level of Ruth’s commitment.
1:15 Naomi’s Final Appeal to Ruth
Naomi attempts a final time to send Ruth back to her own people. Orpah has departed so Ruth has even less reason to stay with Naomi. She should follow the example of her sister-in-law and rejoin her own people and her own gods. This is an appeal for Ruth to embrace her origins as a Moabite. Naomi’s suggestion to return to her own gods must have seemed an appealing one given that Naomi herself believes that the LORD is against her.
1:16-18 Ruth Clings to Naomi
It is now Ruth’s turn to speak. What follows is one of the most powerful statements of unconditional commitment to another person in the Scriptures. Ruth steadfastly casts her lot with Naomi.
In the first half of verse 16, Ruth rebukes Naomi and implores her to stop trying to send her away. The language is stronger than our translation suggests. “Leave you” elsewhere is rendered “forsake you.” This is the same language that we encountered in Josh 1:5 when the LORD promised, “I will never forsake you.” Ruth is as fully committed to Naomi as the LORD was to Joshua. She will not break fellowship with her mother-in-law.
In verses 16b-17, Ruth describes the extent of her commitment to Naomi. It is extraordinary. She fully commits herself to the person of Naomi. She promises to stay with her until death separates them. She is willing to forsake her homeland, her ethnicity, and her religion to stay with Naomi. This is a complete conversion on the part of Ruth. She essentially declares herself to be an Israelite and accepts an uncertain future by casting her lot with Naomi. She aligns herself fully with the LORD by concluding her pledge with an oath taken in the name of the LORD.
Ruth’s act of faith is stunning. She commits to following Naomi and forsaking all that she knew without any tangible promises of a new or even a better life. She accepts the LORD as her God even though Naomi has expressed her belief that the LORD is against her. She chooses to stay with a widowed old woman when she had been encouraged to return home and take a new husband among her own people.
Naomi must have been deeply moved. Who wouldn’t be? Verse 18 simply notes that Naomi recognized Ruth’s determination to stay with her and ended the debate.