A Multi-Layered Reading of Ruth 1:1-5


I apologize in advance for the frenetic nature of this post. I was reading Ruth 1 this morning and my mind was spinning a mile a minute as the theological, figural, literary, and salvation historical significance of the book’s intro hit me like a hurricane. I was a tree bending beneath the weight of its wind and…(Nah…I can’t even pretend to be serious right now.)

For real though, read the opening five verses and join me below:

“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” -Ruth 1:1-5

Need for a King.

First off, the book of Ruth presents itself as the solution to Judges’s problem. The book of Judges sums itself up in its final sentence: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Turn the page, and Ruth 1:1, we find ourselves in same world: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land.” However, in verse 2 we are introduced to a man named “Elimelech”, which translates “God is King.”

The writer of Ruth introduces us to Elimelech for a few reasons. The issue in the book of Judges is not primarily that they lack a human king, but that the refuse to recognize the kingship of YHWH. This is rendered metaphorically by the death of the man Elimelech in verse 3. The concept that YHWH is King in the land is dead in the times of the Judges.

Moreover, in biblical times, the success or failure of a human king was intimately tied to the success or failure of that nation’s god. If the Babylonian king conquered other nations, or the Pharaoh ruled the world, it was assumed that their gods were most powerful. The lack of human king in Israel is a real problem. The visible human king acted as vice-regent of his invisible god. The book of Judges shows us how desperately Israel needs YHWH to become a visible king.

The death of Elimelech and his two sons leaves Naomi as an appropriate symbol of the Israelites in the Judges period. “Left without her two sons and her husband,” Naomi is without hope of producing a suitable heir. In a figural way, Naomi represents the Israel of the Judges period; all of her hopes dead of producing a royal heir. A Messianic king must be one of their brothers, but Israel has proved unable to produce a suitable king from within. As Ruth unfolds, we see that the solution is a kinsman redeemer.

Sickly and Annihilation.

The book of Judges is characterized by a failure to obey Deuteronomy 6: “And the people serve the Lord all the days of Joshua…And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord” (Judges 2:7,10). In the Judges period, fathers failed to pass down the testimonies to their children.

The book of Ruth shows us this generational disconnect. Elimelech–symbolizing the generation that honored the Lord–dies, then his two sons “took Moabite wives” (Ruth 1:3). The two sons, Machlon (meaning “sickly”) and Chilion (meaning “annihilation”) commit the cardinal sin of marrying foreign wives.

In the Old Testament, marrying foreign women and idolatry are two sides of the same coin. Elimelech and his sons are an archetype of Israelite failure to pass down the fear of the Lord in the days of the judges. After the first generation passes, another arises, sickly and destined for annihilation, that is quick to do the thing God warned against: assimilate with the nations through intermarriage and idolatry.

Moabite Women.

Let us also not overlook the significance that Naomi is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law. No one can forget how the line of Moab came into existence. Lot’s two daughters fled from Sodom with their father and found themselves husbandless and childless. The two sisters took matters into their own hands with an unsavory solution: incest. Each getting their father drunk, they slept with him and produced heirs: Moab and Ben-ammi.

As Orpah and Ruth stand looking at each other–both husbandless and childless–they are presented with much the same predicament. Will they go the way of their female progenitors or trust the Lord to produce an heir through some extraordinary means? Orpah returns to Moab. Ruth chooses to go to Bethlehem.

Naomi : Ruth : : Israel : New Israel

At this point, I’m going to introduce some literary analogies that begin to surface in the introduction to Ruth. First off, Naomi left without her two sons and her husband is a personification of Israel sans king. She is disenfranchised, living in Moab, with no hope of anyone redeeming her portion in the Promised Land. This is the state of the people of Israel in the book of Judges without a king. Every other decade, they fall into sin and are carried off into captivity in some foreign land. The judges all fail to effect permanent possession of the promised land.

However, Ruth represents the New Israel with Messianic hope. With a God-appointed king, the people have a renewed hope of subduing their enemies, returning to the promised land, and taking eternal possession of it. Pressed even further, one might even see in Naomi the result of Old Covenant and in Ruth the hope of the New Covenant.

Naomi : Ruth : : Eve : Mary

Consider the similarities between Naomi and Eve. Both were expelled from their good land with their husbands. Both lost their husbands and two sons to death. Eve lost Abel to murder and Cain to spiritual suicide. Naomi lost both Machlon and Chilion in their youth. Both were left without hope of reentering the land or gaining possession in the presence of the Lord. However, both received a third son who sparked new hope. Eve received Seth, saying, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel” (Gen. 4:25). Naomi similarly received a replacement son, “And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi'” (Ruth 4:17).

Ruth gives birth to a child that redeems what Naomi lost. Her son, born of a father from outside the direct family line, Boaz, is born into a position to collect the inheritance of Naomi’s dead sons. Ruth’s willing submission to Naomi’s plight, her people, and her God directly correlates to Mary’s humble submission: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary’s offspring redeems the shame and loss of Eve’s children much in the same way Ruth’s does Naomi. She also produces a child conceived from a Father outside the family line who comes to redeem the lost inheritance of Eve’s offspring.

Elimelech : Boaz : : Adam : Christ

What is more, Elimelech’s relationship to Boaz mirrors Adam’s to Jesus Christ. Elimelech is expelled from the promised land, sojourns in a foreign land during a period of famine. He produces “sickly” sons destined for “annihiliation”. He and his sons die outside the Promised Land. However, a man appears in the narrative who walks in the fields of the promised land, proclaiming the blessing of the Lord (2:4). Boaz produces a kingly line through redemption of the lineage of Elimelech.

Elimelech figurally renders the line of Adam, a man expelled from the Garden and forced to work a desolate land. He produces sickly sons destined for annihiliation. There is no hope that Adam will produce a son who will fulfill the hopes of Eve to crush the serpent. However, Christ enters the narrative of salvation history and fulfills the hopes of Eve through redemption. Through his redemption, he produces a lineage of kings and queens who march upon the head of the serpent.

(photo by Olga)