What does Ruth 1 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
It is the time of the judges, and the Israelites live in a volatile cycle of their own making (Judges 2:16–19). Times of peace are followed by a loss of zeal for God and a turn to pagan idols. God responds with famine and conquering enemies. When the people reach their limit of suffering, they cry out in repentance and beg for mercy. God sends a judge, like Deborah (Judges 4:4–5), Gideon (Judges 6:11), or Samson (Judges 13:24–25), to beat back the conquerors and return the rebel hearts to their God. But with peace brings complacency, and the people have short memories.

Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion find themselves in a season of judgment. The territory of Judah around Bethlehem is in such a severe famine the family flees to Moab. This was a nation founded by a man conceived through an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter (Genesis 19:30–38). Moab was the culture which hired a prophet to curse the non-threatening Israelites; when that failed, Moab sent its women to seduce the men into adultery and idolatry (Numbers 22—24; 25:1–5; 31:16). Elimelech and Naomi's time in Moab is no kinder; within ten years, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion are dead, and Naomi is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:1–5).

Meanwhile, God has blessed Bethlehem again. Naomi hears the famine is over. She would rather live out her heartbroken and destitute days among her own people than in Moab, so she plans to return home. Her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, insist on coming with her, showing a level of love and faithfulness uncommon even in Israel. Naomi cannot bear it. She can give the two women nothing in Israel. In Moab, at least they have a chance to find new husbands and new lives. Orpah reluctantly agrees and returns home. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi's side (Ruth 1:6–14).

Naomi tries to persuade her stubborn daughter-in-law, but Ruth will have none of it. Naomi is her family, so the Israelites must be her people and the Israelite God must be her God. Despite Naomi's inconsolable bitterness, Ruth sees something in her that makes leaving everything behind an easy decision. Only their deaths will separate them (Ruth 1:15–18).

When the women reach Bethlehem, Naomi's old friends are delighted to see her. Naomi cannot reciprocate. She left Bethlehem empty of food but full of family. She returns empty of everything that matters. She insists the women call her "Mara," or "Bitterness." As she sees it, no one whom God has cursed should be called "Pleasant" (Ruth 1:19–21).

The skilled narrator ends the chapter with a hint of things to come: the famine is over and the barley is ripe (Ruth 1:22).

Ruth will use this to her advantage as she goes to a field and requests permission to scavenge after the harvesters are done with their work (Ruth 2:1–2). It so happens the landowner, Boaz, is one of Elimelech's kinsman-redeemers who is obliged to buy Elimelech's land which will give Naomi a living. Yet Naomi has grander plans; if Boaz can give them money to live on, why can't he give her an heir—and provide security for Ruth, as well (Ruth 3:1)?
Verse Context:
Ruth 1:1–5 opens Naomi's story with a short but devastating account of tragedy. The era of the judges was a period of lawlessness and idolatry in Israel (Judges 2:16–19). In one response to Israel's sin, at least around Bethlehem, God sends a famine in judgment. Elimelech and Naomi take their two sons to Moab where the sons marry Moabite wives. Sadly, within ten years all three men are dead, leaving a Jewish woman and two Moabite daughters-in-law forced to fend for themselves.
Ruth 1:6–14 records Naomi receiving good news: the famine in Bethlehem is over. She and her family fled to Moab ten years prior. Now, her husband and sons are gone, but she has two loving daughters-in-law. At first, they accompany her. Yet Naomi becomes convinced their arrangement cannot work. Orpah and Ruth can live with her in poverty, or they can find rest in a new family. After a persuasive argument, Orpah tearfully agrees to leave, but Ruth stays. Naomi is bitter now, but Ruth will prove to be everything the mourning widow needs.
Ruth 1:15–18 records Ruth's vow to Naomi. Naomi had insisted Ruth return to her parents and start a new family. Ruth explains that Naomi is her family. No matter where Naomi lives or dies, or who she worships, Ruth will be with her. Naomi is suffering under the belief that God intentionally singled her out for tragedy (Ruth 1:13). She doesn't quite realize that God can show up in the heart of a Moabite widow.
Ruth 1:19–22 describes Naomi's return to Bethlehem. Ten years prior, she fled with an empty stomach, but also with a husband and sons who filled her hands with blessings. Now, Bethlehem can again fill her stomach, but her family has died. In her bitterness, she seems to forget the faithful, loving Moabite daughter-in-law who has followed her and vows to stay at her side. She will learn soon enough how God will use Ruth to restore her hope and her future.
Chapter Summary:
Ruth 1 depicts how a person can feel "starved" for things other than food. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, flee a famine in Bethlehem and settle in Moab where there is plenty of food and their sons find devoted wives. Within ten years, however, Naomi's husband and sons are dead. When she hears Judah has food again, she prepares to return as an old, bitter widow. One daughter-in-law, Ruth, insists on accompanying her. On the surface, a young Moabite widow in Israel would be the last person who could help, but God honors Ruth's lovingkindness and eventually uses her to restore Naomi's hope and future.
Chapter Context:
Ruth chapter 1 introduces the tumultuous life of a Jewish woman in the era of the judges (Judges 2:16–19). The Israelites have entered the Promised Land but have only half-heartedly pursued God's command to drive out the depraved Canaanites. Too often, they rejected God for foreign idols. God responds with war and famine. In the face of one such famine in Judah, Elimelech and Naomi take their two sons and flee to Moab. After ten years, when the famine is lifted, Naomi returns to Bethlehem with all that is left of her family: one daughter-in-law. They encounter Boaz, whose character is explained more in chapter 2.
Book Summary:
Though set in a time of violence and tragedy, the book of Ruth tells one of Scripture’s most uplifting stories. Naomi, an Israelite, leaves her home during a famine. While away, in Moab, her husband and sons die. Naomi convinces one of her Moabite daughters-in-law to leave her and seek a new life. The other, Ruth, refuses, declaring her love and loyalty to Naomi. When the pair return to Israel, they encounter Boaz. This man is both kind and moral; his treatment of Ruth secures Naomi’s future and becomes part of king David’s ancestry.
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