The Book of Ruth relates the story of Ruth and Orpah, two Moabite women, who married two sons of Elimelech and Naomi – Judeans who had settled in Moab to escape a famine in Judah. When the husbands of all three women die, Naomi plans to return to her native Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to return to their families. Orpah does so, but Ruth “cleaves unto her” and declares “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”
Ruth is regarded as a symbol of abiding devotion and loyalty.
The sons of Naomi and Elimelech were Mahlon and Chillion/Kilyon. Ruth was married to Mahlon. Ruth, a Moabite, is revered for her devotion the Israelite GD and her mother-in-law Naomi, after their husbands die. As a convert to the Israelite religion, she is thought to be exemplary.
Realistically speaking, it’s highly likely there were other motivating factors involved besides a fervent devotion to Naomi and the Israelite GD.
Naomi spoke compassionately to her daughters-in-law, but she did not offer them the choice stay with her. She never said, “You can accompany me back to my hometown in Bet Lechem (Bethelem) my dear daughters, or you can go home to your families, the choice is yours.”
In Naomi’s words, she had nothing more to offer her daughters-in-law. She felt GD had dealt her a bad hand and implored them to ‘return to your mother’s homes, reunite with your people and find new husbands.’
I get it. Naomi was grieving and deeply depressed after the death of her husband and only sons, but what else was going on?
Orpah went home to her family, while Ruth adamantly REFUSED to leave. After Ruth pledged to ‘follow her, live with her and die with her,’ Naomi stopped talking and headed out, with Ruth stuck to her like glue all the way to Bet Lechem.
What is the missing piece of this puzzle? What is the story we’re not hearing?
Was Ruth’s family cruel or unkind? Did they disapprove of her marrying an Israelite? Did they disown her for doing so? I don’t need a Magic Eight Ball to tell me “all signs point to YES!”
Another very real possibility: Perhaps she escaped her family by marrying Mahlon.
Ruth was a Moabite princess, yet she didn’t return to her royal life. Her people were not exactly friends of the Israelites. (Understatement). Balak, the Moabite king, considered the Israelites to be a threat and tried to eliminate the competition by hexing and smiting them. (Bamidbar/Numbers 22).
Ruth was the daughter of Balak’s son, who succeeded him as king. That sheds a lot of light on her pledge to stick to Naomi like velcro and glue. I doubt she had the option to go back home, considering her granddaddy wanted to smite the entire Israelite tribe.
They were in Moab, where her family lived. Wouldn’t a newly widowed young woman at least want to visit her mother for consolation if she could? When I read Ruth’s vows to Naomi, I sensed her plight as a widow without a family or a home.
Where would she go? How would she eat? Where would she live? Ruth would have been in a very dangerous and vulnerable predicament as a woman alone without a husband to protect her.
The protection of Naomi, who was born into the tribe, was all she had.
Naomi had a hometown to return to, where everybody knew her name, (Cheers!) while I sense Ruth’s situation was much more complex than we are taught. We hear a simplistic version, but life is not that black and white.
The Talmud portrays Ruth as a religious heroine and shining model of Torah devotion. Realistically, she was probably a really scared and homeless young widow, clinging to her mother-in-law for dear life.
Does that make Ruth a less desirable figure in Judaism? No, I think it makes her far more relatable to countless women today who have to leave their bio families and carve out a new life, to save their lives. Ruth did what she needed to do to stay safe.
That Ruth, is the one that deserves all the credit, in my book.
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Another factor: The Moabite women were seen as “harlots” leading the Israelite men astray to pray to their gods. (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:1-5). Ruth probably felt she had to prove her unequivocal loyalty to the Israelite GD, if she wanted to seek refuge with them after her husband’s death.