[CF Devotionals] 2008-05-18 - Ruth

Installment 6 ~ Chapter 1, Part 1

Verses 1-2: We have already discussed the implications of verse 1 in our introduction. But just as a reminder, the author is setting the groundwork for the environment in which the story takes place. Israel is in a state of moral chaos. Decisions are based on self-centeredness and pragmatism.

"In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21:25).

This really represents a society in anarchy. So one shouldn't be too surprised that we find Elimelech, whose name means "God is King" or "My God is King, " making the decision to move his family to Moab. His decision-making process certainly is not determined by his trust in God. If you asked him, he would certainly give you plenty of legitimate reasons for going. Clearly, he was caring for his family, striving to preserve them. Actually, preservation of the family line is a subtext of the entire story. But in reality, Elimelech was demonstrating situational ethics. His decisions were pragmatic, based not on obedience to God, but on what was expedient. But there is a cost to expediency.

Who is this Elimelech? Well, we know a few things. First, he was of the tribe of Judah. He lived in Bethlehem. He had a wife and two sons. The Hebrew word specifically used for "man" in this verse probably signifies someone of prominence. This would seem consistent with the fact that Boaz was this man's relative, and Boaz had property and position. So, do we know anything else? No, for that is all the author has to say. Of course, Jewish tradition goes way beyond the teachings of scripture, presenting certain assumptions as factual. Consider the following:

"Elimelech was very wealthy and the ... provider of that generation, who left Eretz Yisrael because he was selfish and was afraid that all the impoverished people would come and knock at his door for help. For this he was punished (Rashi).

'He was punished because he struck despair into the hearts of Israel. When the famine came, he arose and fled' (Midrash).

Elimelech may have rationalized his departure by claiming that he could not bear to witness the corruption of the judges while powerless to correct the situation, or that he was not required to dispense more than a fifth of his resources to charity - hardly enough to feed all of the hungry (Kol Yehuda). 1

Bethlehem, which means "house of bread," had become a place of hunger. Judah, which means praise, had become a place of complaint. The famine appears to have covered an area much larger than the town of Bethlehem. So, why a famine? We don't know. There are three possibilities. First, it could be the hand of the Lord judging the people for their behaviors. Or it could be the result of the acts of an enemy. Finally, it could be the natural order of life. Keep in mind, though, God did promise prosperity with obedience, and suffering with disobedience, so it's not unreasonable to believe God was behind this famine.

"However, if you do not obey the Lord your God, and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you" ... The sky over your head will be bronze; the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed."... " You will sow much seed in the field, but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them, but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. You will have olive trees throughout your country, but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off" (Deuteronomy 28:15, 23-24, 38-40).

In any case, there was famine in the land - and so off goes the family, Elimelech, Naomi - whose name means "pleasant" - and two sons, go to the fertile land of Moab. They have left the place of bread and praise, for the land of God's "washpot". The two sons are named Mahlon and Kilion. which mean respectively "sick" and "pining," so the fact we find them dying later shouldn't come as a surprise.

  1. Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir, Translator and compiler, The Book of Ruth, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 61.

To be continued.

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