וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו׃
It happened in the days when the Judges were judging that a famine was in the land. A man from Bethlehem of Judah went to reside in Moab, he and his wife and sons.
Vayyehi וַיְהִי, the first word in Ruth, announces that a narrative will follow. We will be told a story and read about characters and be expected to see between the lines a message. Hebrew narrative has been called laconic (writing that uses few words to say a lot).
Biymei בִּימֵי “in the days of” (combining the preposition בּ with the plural of יוֹם in the construct form יְמֵי) tells us we are going to find out what era of time the story takes place in.
But the phrase which follows it is famously ambiguous: shefot ha-shofetim, שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים. This two-word expression is a construct (the two words have an “of” relationship). A participle used as a noun הַשֹּׁפְטִים follows an infinitive construct שְׁפֹט (a form often used in time expressions).
The phrase could be rendered, “in the days of the judging of the judges” (where “judging” takes the infinitive as a gerund and “judges” translates the participle as a substantive (noun)). This leads to an ambiguity that became a delightful opportunity for rabbinic sages to make midrash (see “Ambiguity and Translation: the Judging of the Judges and Midrash”).
The vav which resumes the narrative in the second vayyehi וַיְהִי is subordinate to the first one. “It happened . . . that.” In other words, the two vayyehi’s work together so we see the second statement declares what happened in answer to the first. A famine רָעָב came to be in the land.
Ruth is a late work, showing signs of being written after Judah’s exile period in Babylon (see the JPS Commentary on Ruth for more). The author assumes the reader knows the theology of the Torah. Famines don’t just happen by mere chance of natural law in Israel. God’s intervening hand controls the weather in Israel, unlike any other place on earth. This theology is found especially in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, but also in many other places. A supernatural law governs Israel. Therefore this famine happens because of implied transgression by the nation.
What transgression lies behind the famine in Ruth? The story takes place in the days of the Judges, which every good reader knows was a wicked time when each person did what was right in his or her own eyes (Judg 17:6). The rabbinic sages list in the midrashim (the collections of midrash, creative interpretation of the bible) ten famines in the biblical narrative, including this one.
The man who is the protagonist of the first few verses (Elimelech) leaves the promised land seeking a better life outside of the promise. No original reader of Ruth would miss that this decision will have bad consequences. In the theology of Torah, God offers himself as the solution to the needs of the people. Going out of the land is going away from God, looking elsewhere for the blessing God offers readily.
Appendix: More Hebrew from Ruth 1:1
וַיֵּלֶךְ is the vav-conversive form of הלך.
בֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה is a triple construct (three words in a construct chain). This triple construct chain is preceded by the מ preposition.
לָגוּר is the Infinitive Construct with preposition ל.
Note that בִּשְׂדֵי is very similar to בִּימֵי except that the root word is שָׂדֵה field.
The sentence has a break before the הוּא. From this word to the end of the sentence is a parenthetical clause (explanatory, adding more information).
To understand more about the ו suffix in אִישְׁתּוֹ and in בָנָיו see below, “Possessive Suffixes.”
In English we frequently need to designate to whom something belongs, as in the sentence, “He took Jenny’s car to the store” or simply “he took her car to the store.” In the second example the pronoun “her” stands in place of “Jenny’s”.
In Hebrew, there are stand-alone pronouns. The stand-alone pronoun meaning “she” is הִיא. But the stand-alone pronoun is only used when it is the subject of a clause or sentence.
In Hebrew, when we want to use a pronoun to denote possession, we add a possessive suffix to a verb. Any Hebrew textbook will list all of the suffixes for you. But let’s consider some examples in Ruth 1:1-7:
The suffix for “his” is usually וֹ and sometimes consonantal ו. We see it twice in verse 1: אִשְׁתּוֹ and בָנָיו (his wife from אשּׁה in construct form אשׁת with וֹ suffixed to it and the plural form sons בָּנִים in construct בְּנֵי with ו suffixed and the first vowel is lengthened).
The suffix for “her” is הָ or הּ preceded by the vowel ָ and we have the example בָנֶיהָ in verse 3 (“her sons” which is similar to verse 1 which has “his sons”) and אִישָׁהּ at the end of verse 5 (“her man” or “her husband,” note the subtle difference between this spelling and אִשָּׁה, “woman” or “wife”).