Something is wrong with Elimelech. He doesn’t sense it. The rabbis grasp the logic of Torah in a way that either eludes Elimelech or, perhaps Elimelech is smart but contemptible, wise but a schemer, discerning but corrupt. He left the land of promise. The signs of divine displeasure are all over his story.
וְשֵׁ֣ם הָאִ֣ישׁ אֱֽלִימֶ֡לֶךְ The name of the man was Elimelech.
וְשֵׁם֩ אִשְׁתּ֨וֹ נָעֳמִ֜י וְשֵׁ֥ם שְׁנֵֽי־בָנָ֣יו ׀ מַחְל֤וֹן וְכִלְיוֹן֙ and the name of his wife was Naomi and the names of his two sons were Machlon and Chilion.
אֶפְרָתִ֔ים מִבֵּ֥ית לֶ֖חֶם יְהוּדָ֑ה Ephrathites from Bethlehem of Judah.
וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ שְׂדֵי־מוֹאָ֖ב וַיִּֽהְיוּ־שָֽׁם׃ and they came to the fields of Moab and there were there.
Who names their sons Machlon (from the root חוֹלֶה “sick”) and Chilion (from the root כָלַה “cease”)? Who would call their sons “Sickly” and “Soon-ceases-to-be”? The answer is no one. The author has injected humor into the story. But wait, you object, this is biblical history and it must be about truth-telling, right?
The book of Ruth is written late, sometime after the exile in Babylon has ended (after 539 BCE). The names of David’s ancestors has been preserved, that is, the progenitors themselves. Elimelech is in the line, so his name is remembered. But Elimelech’s sons produced no heirs. Their names would likely be omitted from the records. The author had license to be inventive. Original readers likely caught onto this without any difficulty.
Why are they called Ephrathites? Hopefully the reference brings to a reader’s mind Micah 5, where we read, “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, From you one shall come forth To rule Israel for Me.” The region around Bethlehem was called Ephrath. Why?
The answer can be found in the genealogies in Chronicles, “When Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath” (2:19). Ephrath is the wife of Caleb. Caleb’s descendants became known as the founders of Bethlehem (1 Chron 2:50-51). The region of Bethlehem is associated with the name of a woman.
Women occupy the prime place in the story of Ruth, not only topping the list of the main characters, but even down to the place (named for a woman) and the supporting cast (often the women of the town). If we said Ruth shows a woman’s perspective on issues, we would not be exaggerating.
Hebrew translation notes: The pronunciation of Naomi is a very tricky matter. In Hebrew when a kametz vowel is used in a closed, unaccented syllable, it is a kametz hatuph and it is pronounced as a long “o.” The ע in Naomi actually closes the first syllable because the vowel under it, hateph kametz (עֳ) is not a new syllable (sheva vowels are only half vowels). For this reason (and such a thing could give a beginner a major headache in learning Hebrew spelling rules), Naomi should technically be pronounced No’omi (noe-oe-MEE) with the accent on the last syllable. See below, “Name Meanings in Ruth 1.” The root of וַיָּבֹאוּ is בוא and וַיִּהְיוּ is the 3rd masculine plural (3mp) version of וַיְהִי.
וַיָּ֥מָת אֱלִימֶ֖לֶךְ אִ֣ישׁ נָעֳמִ֑י Then Elimelech, husband of Naomi, died.
וַתִּשָּׁאֵ֥ר הִ֖יא וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיהָ׃ and she was left, she and her two sons.
Why did Elimelech die? As alluded to above, something about Elimelech has been left unstated. The story implies that he dies for a reason. Furthermore, the curses that will come to Elimelech’s family keep multiplying (the sons will die, the women bear no heirs for his line). The rabbis deduced that his crime must have been more than a mere lack of faith in the Torah.
How can we say Elimelech lacked faith in the Torah? “Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock” (Deut 28:4 JPS). The famine in Israel could only have been caused by the apathy of the people about God’s Torah. Israel’s climate is supernatural according to Torah. But Elimelech did not follow that logic. He did not stay and seek to persuade the people to serve God and bring back blessing on the produce of the soil.
Instead he emigrated to Moab, searching outside of God’s promise for life and bounty.
This failing of Elimelech is not enough, surmised the rabbis, to explain his judgment of the complete extirpation of his line in Israel. He must have done something worse. In Ruth Rabbah (the ancient midrash collection on Ruth) the sages say Elimelech left Israel out of selfishness. He had enough wealth to keep his family alive during the famine. He did not want to have to give charity, though, to his neighbors, to keep them alive. So he fled to avoid his responsibility to care for his brothers and sisters in Israel.
This midrash is a moral lesson, not a serious guess at the reality behind the events of the story.
In the literary context of Ruth, Elimelech’s evil fate contrasts with the beauty of what happens to Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and the circle of people who live by chesed.
Hebrew translation notes: וַיָּמָת root is מות. Concerning וַתִּשָּׁאֵר the student should become familiar with feminine verb forms as Ruth is the rare book with many of them. This one is a vav-conversive, so consult the Imperfect chart in your grammar. Concerning בָנֶיהָ you will also need to know your feminine possessive suffixes (see below, “Possessive Suffixes,” and consult your grammar textbook to learn the forms.
וַיִּשְׂא֣וּ לָהֶ֗ם נָשִׁים֙ מֹֽאֲבִיּ֔וֹת They took up for themselves Moabite wives.
שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ עָרְפָּ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית ר֑וּת The name of the one was Orpah and the other, Ruth.
וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָׁ֖ם כְּעֶ֥שֶׂר שָׁנִֽים׃ and they lived there about ten years.
וַיָּמ֥וּתוּ גַם־שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם מַחְל֣וֹן וְכִלְי֑וֹן And the two of them also died, Machlon and Chilion.
וַתִּשָּׁאֵר֙ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה מִשְּׁנֵ֥י יְלָדֶ֖יהָ וּמֵאִישָֽׁהּ׃ And the woman was left from her two sons and her husband.
The use of נשׂא as a verb for marrying is one of the evidences that Ruth is a late book, written after the end of the Babylonian exile. Early Hebrew tends to use לקח. The Aramaic word for marriage is used to this day in Jewish weddings (the second cup of wine in a wedding is called Nissuin נִשֻׂאִין).
Elimelech’s clan does the opposite of God’s will in Torah. They marry outside of the family and belief of Israel.
The original readers would notice something many in modern society might overlook: they lived ten years in Moab and had no children. The cultural reality of the time was immediate child-bearing. The unfruitfulness of the wombs of these Moabite wives (or more likely the failure of Machlon and Chilion’s seed) looks like another divine judgment. The two sons live up to their names (see above).
Hebrew translation notes:
Vs. 4. In finding the root of וַיִּשְׂאוּ here is a hint: first-נ drops out when a prefix precedes it in a verb form. In the name Orpah, note that the kametz under ע is a kametz hatuph because the syllable is closed and unaccented. The root of וַיֵּשְׁבוּ is ישׁב. The כ preposition in כְּעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים is an uncommon usage meaning “about” or “approximately.”
Vs. 5. The מ preposition goes with the verb וַתִּשָּׁאֵר to designate “remained from . . .” In other words, she was the only one left “from” her family.
וַתָּ֤קָם הִיא֙ וְכַלֹּתֶ֔יהָ וַתָּ֖שָׁב מִשְּׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֑ב She and her daughters-in-law arose and returned from the fields of Moab.
כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְעָה֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב for she heard in the fields of Moab
כִּֽי־פָקַ֤ד יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עַמּ֔וֹ לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם לָֽחֶם׃ that Adonai had visited his people to give them bread.
וַתֵּצֵ֗א מִן־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָיְתָה־שָׁ֔מָּה And she set out from the place where she was
וּשְׁתֵּ֥י כַלֹּתֶ֖יהָ עִמָּ֑הּ and her two daughters-in-law with her
וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ לָשׁ֖וּב אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ יְהוּדָֽה׃ and went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
Naomi heard that God has visited his people to give them bread. The author does not mean that a prophet delivered a message about God visiting. Rather, this comment on the situation by the narrator refers to an underlying theology. When circumstances changed in Israel, God was the one who ultimately brought the change about.
Though a simplistic attribution of good and bad outcomes to God presents theological problems (bad things happen to good people), the narratives of the Hebrew Bible concern themselves with general truth and not exceptions.
Naomi’s journey back is more likely in desperation than in faith. She has not seen necessarily the error of Elimelech’s ways. Rather, she is a widow in a foreign land, lacking a clan and support.
Hebrew translation notes:
Vs. 6. The root of וַתָּקָם is קום. The word וְכַלֹתֶיהָ includes a noun from the special vocabulary list provided in this course for Ruth 1-2. The ending is a feminine possessive suffix with a transitional vowel. The root of וַתָּשָׁב is ישׁב. Since you translated בִּשְׂדֵי in vs. 1, recognize that מִשְׂדֵי is a slight variation. בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב is an unusual case in which all the existing manuscripts seem to have a misspelling, failing to use the construct form בִּשְׂדֵי.
Vs. 7. The root of וַתֵּצֵא is יצא. The form הָיְתָה is a feminine form of היה. The ה on the end of שָּׁמָּה is called the locative ה and denotes location. וַתֵּלַכְנָה is a vav-conversive form of הלך and a feminine Imperfect form.
Narration Verbs and Vav-Conversive
The passage begins with a typical verb of narration. Often sections begin with a Vav attached to a verb. In this case, the chapter begins with Vav attached to the shortened form of “it will be” (יְהִי). The resulting verb (וַיְהִי) looks like it should be “and it will be.” But that is not correct. It means “and it was” or “now it happened.” How can this be?
It is because Vav before a verb often, unless the vowels indicate otherwise, reverses a “future” to a “past” or a “past” to a “future.” This is sometimes call Vav conversive (or Vav consecutive or Vav conservative). It is so common in the Hebrew Bible, a student will get used to it quickly.
In biblical stories (narratives) the common style is to note sequences of action with Vav-conversive forms one after another and with simple Perfect forms in between the Vav-conversives. Hebrew stories are heavy with verbs. The word “and” is prefixed to many of them. Some translations try to render most of the vavs with the “and” translation, but doing this every time sounds awkward in English. Therefore many vavs go untranslated. The Hebrew narrative style will become very familiar as we work through Ruth.
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”).