In these posts, I will be dramatically retelling various narratives from the Bible. They will be true to the text, but will be embellished with what I believe can be legitimate human emotions, cultural colourings, and narratival developments. I hope that they inspire a greater portrait of the characters without losing the full flourish of Biblical truth that they contain.
With regards to the book of Ruth, I personally suspect that this story (a real, historical story) chronologically falls at some point during the events of Judges chapter 3, where Israel is subdued by the Moabites. God, in faithfulness to the covenant blessings and curses as laid out in the covenant text of Deuteronomy, has brought famine and death to His people for their idolatry and wickedness. This action acts both as judgement and punishment, as well as a yearning for their return to obedient behaviour.
We might, initially, buck against this, but we must remember that such discipline is a good thing; we punish those who consistently break the law, for example, with the hope that they eventually change their behaviour. God's relationship with Israel is even greater than that; He is their covenant Lord who brought them up out of Egypt for His glory. For them to betray Him and worship other gods is an act of treachery against the covenant that their forefathers signed them up to with God, and thus, God is bound by His love, His covenant, and His mercy, to discipline them.
But in the midst of discipline, there is always the hope of God's holy love. Ruth, occurring, I suspect, in the third chapter, acts as a microcosm of the entire book of Judges: Israel rebels, moves away from God, is disciplined, humbled, repents, returns and is, subsequently restored.
May these dramatic retellings warm your soul.
Naomi shook her head. She watched her husband acutely and never before had his name felt more like a mockery than right now. Elimelech. Eli-melek. My God is king. 'Really? Where are you, Chemosh? Where are you Baal? How are we to eat with this famine? What have we done to deserve this horrific season?'
Elimelech returned the gaze of his wife. His face was downcast. He had aged significantly in the last few years. He worked and toiled with all his might, sacrificing to Chemosh, to Baal, even to YHWH occasionally, praying, begging, beseeching, one of them to lift this cursed famine and allow him to feed his wife and two boys. Anything they managed to grow was taken for tribute to King Eglon, the Moabite.
As he thought of Mahlon and Chilion, he turned to look at them. They were so frail and emaciated with hunger. They had never known the plenty of Elimelech's youth, but these last few years had been extremely trying. He turned his furrowed brow back to his wife. He sighed.
'Naomi, we have to go. We have to leave. The gods have abandoned us. There is simply no food here for us anymore. The soil refuses to give her plenty. What other option do we have except to remain here and die? I will not see my boys die because I cannot provide. You've heard the rumours, you and your gaggle of women. There is food over in Moab. We should move there. At least until the famine ends. Then we can return.'
'But, Elimelech, this is our home. This is the land you inherited from your father and his father all the way from the conquest. It is ours. Why would we leave? Can't we sacrifice? Can't we go to the altars and pray once more?'
Naomi looked so pathetic in her begging eyes. It broke Elimelech's heart to see her so dejected. He cared for her truly and honestly and wanted to protect her. This was his family, his wife, and this was his responsibility. With a sadness in his heart that he knew Naomi understood, he walked over to where she sat on a roughly hewn wooden stool, and gently placed his forefinger on her smooth olive-coloured cheek.
'My dear Naomi, the gods refuse to hear us. With what can we sacrifice? We have nothing left. Every morsel of food we need to make it to Moab. Any gold or silver we have we will need to establish ourselves there. Time is up. We appealed to them and they mock us from their heavenly palaces. This is our only hope. Look at our boys. I know your heart aches to see them so thin and sickly. Maybe, when this is all gone, we can return. Maybe we will come back, find them good Israelite wives, and hear the laughter of their children some day. But for that to happen, we need to leave Bethlehem. We need to leave Judah and go to Moab. Eglon is blessed by the gods. If we serve him, he will feed us. It's all we can do.'
She leaned into his touch. His finger became his hand and she rested against it. She felt momentarily safe in his large, farmer's hands. Rough, calloused, dirty, aged with working under the hot sun, she knew that he would do all he could to protect her. She knew, also, that in her heart she agreed with all he said. This was the only way. Her stomach dropped at the thought of leaving her beloved home. This was her marital home. She had grown up in this town. Had given birth to her boys in this very house. Giving it all up, even for a few seasons, would be so difficult.
But she knew that Elimelech was correct. It was better to leave and perhaps one day return with her boys than to stay and simply die. Who did that help? And indeed, where was this YHWH who had promised to care for His people? All the stories she remembered hearing at bedtime sitting by the fire, or that were sung by the ladies out on the fields, when she was a child? They seemed like cruel jokes.
'Plagues against Pharaoh in Egypt (wherever that was)? Sure, great. Parting the Red Sea (I'd love to have seen that!)? Amazing. Unbelievable victories and the conquest and settling of the land? Fine. But where is the food? The 'land flowing with milk and honey?' YHWH has deserted us. Chemosh has deserted us. Baal has deserted us. Elimelech is right. We have to go to Moab.'
The thought broke her heart, yet she knew it was true. She looked up at him.
'Okay, Elimelech. I'll tell my father tomorrow and we can leave whenever you say.'
He looked at her and saw the tears forming in her eyes. He leaned down, kissed her forehead, and pulled her close into his chest, wrapping his arms around her. There was no other way.
'We will return, Naomi. It will only be until the famine ends. I promise. We will return.
The next day, after Naomi gave the boys some mouldy bread, she told them to pack up whatever they could carry and place it into a basket. She would be back shortly. She made her way to her father's house and saw the familiar sights and smelt the familiar smells. Yet it was eerily quiet. Where once chickens and children ran round chasing each other, now there was silence. There was no booming laughter from a wine-filled father, nor a contented exhaustion from a post-dinner-making mother. She walked into the mud-plastered house and saw her father sitting against the wall.
He, too, had aged dramatically since the famine had struck. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.
'Father, how are you?' He rose and slowly ambled to meet her embrace. Many homes were unhappy, roiled by abuse, violence, or apathy, but he loved his daughter and liked Elimelech. He was glad when the marriage went ahead.
'Ah, daughter, life is hard on these aging bones. Where are the boys? Are they okay?' A look of concern crossed his wizened face. There had been so many dead already.
'The boys are okay. Just about. They grow weaker. I'm here on behalf of Elimelech, though. Is mother here?'
He knew what was coming. He had already argued with Elimelech about the merits of staying in Judah. But this was not his family anymore. He had given Naomi to Elimelech and, in doing so, had said he would trust the judgement of his son-in-law to protect his daughter. He shook his head. She was across the village grieving with a family who had suffered yet another death.
'Oh. That is horrible, father! Just horrible. It seems everyone has tasted the bitterness of this evil famine. Death and disease are everywhere and there is no respite in sight, not from heaven, nor from the judges. We are abandoned. We have decided to go to Moab and seek food and relief there. But Elimelech has promised that we will return when and if the famine subsides.'
She paused and waited for the reaction. Any reaction.
He looked at her for a long moment before breathing deeply. 'Aye, daughter, do what you must. I hope you will come back. And I hope I get to see your face before I die. Your mother will be distraught. But you have my blessing. Tell Elimelech that I trust Chemosh will bless you. We continue to pray that Baal will bring back the harvest.'
She hugged him deeply before turning and leaving. She heard him cough behind her but kept walking. Tears streaming down her face.
They were ready to leave. They shared a meal of broth that was, admittedly, more water than anything else. There were some crudely cut, small, vegetables bubbling around the cauldron, but at Elimelech's insistence she gave them to the boys and herself, and all consumed it greedily. He satisfied himself with the water.
'Mahlon? Chilion? Tomorrow we are going on a journey. We are going to go East, to Moab. Until the famine here subsides, okay? We'll leave as soon as dawn breaks. I don't want to hear any arguments; this is for the best. You will not be able to say goodbye to your friends, or your grandparents. We must leave tomorrow morning. So eat up all that you can, and sleep deeply.'
The boys looked at him. Mahlon had crested puberty and was beginning to think about the possibility of aiming towards a family of his own in the not too distant future. This would be a delay if, as he had expected, he would marry a Bethlehemite. Chilion, however, was the more vocal child, in the midst of his twelfth year. He wanted to stay, or at least to see his friends.
One look from Naomi, however, silenced any rebellion. They realised that this was serious. Naomi and Elimelech shared another glance before reiterating the instructions and telling the boys to go to sleep.
Naomi lay beside her husband, nestling into the crock of his arm. Her heart was heavy with sadness and fear. They were Israelites after all. The Moabites oppressed her people! Why would they take pity on refugees from Judah? Would they be safe? Could they afford shelter and food? So many uncertainties. So many questions. So few answers.
Sleep was a long time coming for Naomi that night.
Eventually morning broke and, as the first shaft of sunlight broke through the doorframe and hit Elimelech's face, he shot up. Rubbing his eyes, he stood up, stretched his arms and legs before hobbling to the door to look outside. There was dew on the ground. The sun was climbing but there was very little movement around the village yet.
He reentered the house and woke Naomi. Together they prepared the final details before leaving. Then they roused Mahlon and Chilion, who, sleepy, eventually rose and grabbed their woven baskets, tied the supports around their shoulders, and waited for further instruction. Naomi joined them by the door, herself encumbered with a large, heavy basket, resting on her back.
They watched as Elimelech dug up his gold and silver pieces, counted them, and carefully placed them into an animal hide bag, and attached it to the inside of his robe. He went to the household altar and bowed down, prayed quickly, then attached his own burden and walked to his small family.
'We walk quielty and quickly. We don't want to draw too much attention to ourselves. If people ask, we be polite but don't stop. We need to get to Moab and find somewhere to stay as soon as possible, okay? We will walk until noon. Then we will rest.' Everyone nodded. He took Naomi's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. She looked at him. And then, together, they left their house. And they walked the familiar road out of the village and towards the fields.
They looked so empty in the morning light. It wasn't so long ago that she had slept out in the fields and worked from dawn until well into the evening, cutting the grain, throwing it up to remove the chaff, and then bringing it home to store or cook with. Now, however, the soul was hard, sun blasted, cracked. Empty.
They continued to walk until, when she turned around, she could no longer see her beloved Bethlehem. She stopped for a moment, looking back. Then, turning her back on Bethlehem, on Judah, on Israel, she set her face East, towards the hope of Moab. There would be the salvation of her little family. There she would find peace through these difficult years.
By noontime, they had been joined by others who were making the same journey. From all over the famine-struck areas of Canaan, families were abandoning their homeland, their inheritance-land, and moving towards Moab in hopes of a better life. And, occasionally, there was the stark reminder that not all would make it: bodies lay by the side of the road. Death was all around, from the fields, to the ditches, to the gullies.
By nightfall a few days later they were close to Moab, but rather than stumbling slowly through the dark, they stopped and slept out in the open, huddled together around a small fire to keep warm. Under normal circumstances they would be afraid of robbers. But Eglon's reign managed to, at the very least, keep thieves at bay. At least, this close to his territory, anyway. And so, shivering, cold, and hungry, they slept. Tomorrow they would enter Moabite territory and try to build a new life for themselves. Tomorrow. Tomorrow a whole new world would open up for them.
The sun rose and so too did Naomi and her boys. They were stiff and cold, covered in the earth's moisture. She heard Elimelech snoring softly and let him sleep a little longer; he had stayed up well into the night acting as a guard for them. He deserved a few more minutes of rest. Meanwhile, she pulled out the last of the mouldy bread and a couple of figs. She wrapped the bread around the figs and gave one each to Mahlon and Chilion. She nibbled on a fig herself before waking her husband and handing him the last fig and tiny piece of moist bread. It was all they had left.
Elimelech looked towards the boys and back to Naomi. She smiled, 'They had some already, my love. Eat. Today we will need our strength and our wits about us.' Satisfied that his boys had eaten, Elimelech bit into the fig hungrily, savouring the sweet taste, before swiftly downing the bread. He stood up and stretched. His limbs were sore and his feet ached.
He knew that Naomi and the boys would be feeling similarly and so tried to take their minds off their condition by speaking about Moab. He asked them if they were excited to see a new country. They nodded in spite of their exhaustion. He then told them, again, about the rules. They were not citizens and so had to be very respectful and careful. Speak only in response. Take nothing for granted. Do nothing that could be offensive.
'We are guests here. We are in need. They don't need us. But, by Chemosh, I hope they help us.' They nodded again before getting ready to depart.
All were tired, but there was only one thing to do now: continue. And so, grabbing their bundles, they left their temporary sleeping grounds, and made their way towards the city.
It didn't take long before the noises reached their ears. Hustle. Bustle. Life. Laughter. They looked and saw workers in the fields. Men and young women were collecting the last of what was evidently an actual harvest. Perhaps not a huge one, but better than the fields of Bethlehem. They began to get excited.
Hope started to rise up in Naomi's heart. Elimelech had been right. There was food. The rumours were true! Yes, she was sad, still, but, oh, perhaps they would survive after all. Their decision to leave Israel had been the right one, it seemed. She found that she suddenly had energy in her legs.
She looked at Elimelech and saw the evident expression of relief in his eyes. He was close to tears. There was food! She smiled at him a dazzling, large, and excited smile. This was a new adventure for them both. Neither had ever left Judah. Naomi hadn't even ever left Bethlehem before; yet here they were in a new country. She couldn't wait to meet some ladies and learn all about this new culture. This would be her home. For a while, at least. Perhaps.
For now, however, she simply wanted to get into the city, find somewhere to stay, buy some food, and feed her family. Elmielech would look for work. He was a farmer and the season was almost at an end so it wouldn't be much, but if they could just get through the winter here, then he would work hard in the spring and provide food and they would survive and thrive. Her boys would grow strong and find wives and they would all have a future together! Hope was bursting in her heart.
'Chemosh be praised!' Elimelech whispered. He looked at Naomi. She smiled again. She couldn't but help it and he returned it eagerly. He kissed her right there, on the road, in front of other travellers. He didn't care. Relief flooded through his frame. Nothing was settled yet, of course, but at least it looked promising. There was food. God, there was laughter. He hadn't heard this buzz of casual, relaxed, laughter in so long.
'See that, boys? That's the kind of thing I grew up with. Do you remember that, Mahlon? When we used to work on Salmon's fields? It was a while ago, of course, and you were much younger. But we weren't hungry back then! And, thanks to Baal and Moab, we won't be hungry again! We are going to be okay. Let's keep going. We want to find shelter as soon as possible then we can go and find food. Real food. Fresh food. Maybe even some meat! Haha, do you see that Naomi? Joy! Laughter!'
He gave a whoop and a jump before walking, his pace accelerating with excitement. There was a future for them in Moab!
They walked around the city of Dibon, their new home. The language was similar enough to Hebrew to ensure they could passably understand one another. Of course, in a perverse way, it helped that Israel was under Moabite oppression. The Moabites didn't feel threatened by refugees from their territories. Rather, in a bizarre manner, they proudly talked of their king, Eglon, and his increasing power. Which, in turn, meant increased prosperity for the Moabites.
It made sense, therefore, for the likes of Elimelech and Naomi to make their way into Moab. After all, this was now the nexus of power in the region. Where there is power, there is wealth, and, importantly, food. This did not mean that Moab was not experiencing shortages or famine-like conditions, however. The weather affected the entire region. But because Eglon was the dominant power in the region, tribute poured into Moab from the cities of Judah, Northern Edom and Southern Ammon. Eglon's power was reaching its zenith, and the Moabites were enjoying every moment of it.
Naomi was transfixed. They walked past a busy market square full of produce and meat, animals, slaves, cloths, even jewellery. She looked in wonder at the busyness of the town. It was reaching the noonday heat and she asked Elimelech if they might find a place to stay soon. He began asking traders in the square for advice. Most directed him to darkened alleys where prostitutes plied their trade, but one man eventually offered to take him to a small room that he would rent to these foreigners. The price, Elimelech knew, would be extortionate, but his family had to be safe. There were rumours about what happened in the market squares of cities in pagan lands. Thank the gods Bethlehem never had anything like that.
When they arrived at their new lodgings, Elimelech reached into his money bag and, under the watchful eyes of the greedy trader, paid the full amount there and then. He bowed to their new landlord who smiled greedily, pointedly eyed Naomi up and down, before exiting with a snort.
Naomi brushed it off. Such behaviour would presumably be part of the transition; she was, after all, different. She was a Hebrew, not a Moabite. And men, for some reason, loved what wasn't their norm. She wasn't naïve or young enough to be so foolish. She would be careful, and wise, but she would not let such men ruin her newfound life. Besides, they had hope. For the first time in what felt like years, her little family had hope.
'Go out, dear Elimelech, and get some food and sticks. I will make us a fine meal and then we can go and explore a little.' She smiled. Elimelech took Mahlon with him, and went to do her bidding.
Meanwhile, she began sorting and arranging. She wanted things to be just as she remembered them from Jerusalem. In the corner, on a little shelf, she placed her gods and idols. She made room in the middle, however, for a small trinket that would remind her of YHWH. Yes, she may not be a faithful YHWHist, and, yes, she may worship other gods, but she wouldn't reject YHWH completely. To do so would be to reject her heritage completely. And she wasn't prepared to do that. Not yet. Her God was her link to her homeland. Her heritage. Her history. She wasn't ready to reject YHWH, or Israel. At least. Not yet.
About an hour later, Mahlon burst through the door with more energy and excitement than he had had in months. Naomi jumped in surprise, turning to look at the noise. Chilion, who had been napping, jumped up in fear. They stared at the babbling Mahlon. Naomi burst out laughing.
'Mahlon, what have you been eating? Your face is a mess. Is that honey?' At this, Chilion, chagrined at the injustice, stood up and began to protest, before Mahlon, without looking, held a piece of comb in his direction. He hadn't paused for a second, but continued to talk about all he had seen.
'Mahlon, dear. Calm down. Where is your father?' Naomi asked, amused.
'He is on his way. With food, mama. Food for all of us. For days!' He answered enthusiastically. 'He told me to tell you to heat the pot because we're going to be eating big tonight!' He giggled. She ruffled his hair and said, 'Well, go to the well and bring me some water, then, boy.'
Turning to Chilion, who was chewing busily on his honeycomb, she said, 'Well, Chilion? How does it taste? Go and help your brother.' Meekly, distractedly, Chilion obliged. Naomi set herself to task. She set the cauldron up on the rest, above the fire pit. She waited eagerly for Elimelech. Standing by the door, she saw his frame labouring towards her, weighed down with a large bag of grain, vegetable and a slab of meat the size of his head! She laughed and rushed to meet him. She kissed his cheek, took the vegetables from him, and ran back to the house. Tonight they would feast well.
Time passed over the next few months. She turned her own attentions to sewing garments in the Hebrew style and sold them in the market to curious Moabites and other Hebrew immigrants. Elimelech sold his services as a labourer in the fields and vineyards while he could, but the season was coming to an end. They stored food and clothing in preparation for the winter ahead of them. It would be tight, but, as Elimelech reminded Naomi, 'We have come through much worse in the last few years. A couple of weeks with reduced levels is infinitely better than entire harvest seasons scratching in the dirt. See how Chemosh has blessed us, my love? We are doing well. Thriving. The boys are healthier than they've ever been. We have some money, shelter, food, and you even have a business. Things are only going to get better next season when I can work the full season!'
Naomi smiled. She admitted it. She was convinced. Moab was more than she could have imagined. And, frankly, she was beginning to enjoy herself. Their neighbours were friendly and she had made sweet friendships with a number of the ladies and their daughters. She was settling in nicely. And, she acknowledged, her boys no longer looked sickly. They were gangly, of course, but then, look at Elimelech! Tall, skinny, and no matter how much she tried, fat would stay on his frame. They were the fruit of their father's loins, that was for sure.
She was settling into Moab nicely. Every morning, day and night, she and Elimelech would both prostrate themselves before the makeshift alter by the corner of their house and pray to the gods. All of the gods that they wanted to observe. They feared, most of all, angering any one deity who would then curse them. And so, each day, they were careful to pay homage, and give gifts of food and milk and wine, to the gods of Moab, and even, on occasion, YHWH of Israel. But, Naomi reasoned, they were in Moab and it was only right that, as they were in the land of Chemosh, he should be given central positioning on the altar. YHWH's fetish was moved to the side.
But life went on. At the rising of the next full moon, they would celebrate the feast of the end of harvest. It would be, if her Moabite neighbours were to be believed, a party that she could not imagine. The wine would flow, food would be eaten, the fires would rage, and they would participate in an orgy of food, lust, drinking, and pleasure. This would be the last celebration until the winter ended. And Naomi was excited.
The day arrived and the entire city square was turned into a massive sacrificial centre where the priests of Moab would make oblations and libations to their gods. Naomi was sure to have enough food and wine on hand to participate, lest Chemosh take away all that he had given. Elimelech praised her diligence and, together, they prepared for what was to be a brand new experience for their entire family.
As the noonday sun began its descent, Naomi and Elimelech joined the mass of people near the square. There, the Moabite priests were making prayers to their many gods. At one side of the platform, a cow was brought towards the altar and the priest gently stroked its nose before raising a sharp blade and slitting its throat. The blood spilt into a vast pot where it would be used later in the ceremony. Then the corpse was prepared for sacrifice.
Meanwhile, further around the courtyard, the same event was in progress at different stages. Here, a priest was praising Chemosh for victory over those weak and useless Hebrews to the West. (Naomi and Elimelech bristled slightly at this, but the sting was short-lived for, frankly, it appeared to be true.) There, a priestess was copulating with an adherent as part of the familiar cultic rituals that, Naomi had been told, pleased the gods and encouraged them to have sexual congress in the heavens. This would result in the rain and a good harvest next year.
Naomi stared at the priestess. She wondered how such women could enjoy their life of enforced 'pleasure.' They didn't look lifeless or unhappy. At least, this priestess didn't. She appeared lost in the throes of wild, abandoned, pleasure. So much so, in fact, that Naomi was quite sure it wasn't real. 'She's faking it. Or, perhaps, she's under some divine trance? Maybe she's drunk. Though, when Elimelech and I take too much wine, that isn't how we look, I'm quite sure!' Then it struck her. This was worship. That is why these men and women would so wilfully engage in such public action as this. They are worshipping and the gods demand it, and if the gods demand it, it must be good. And if it is good, then it can be enjoyed. Should be enjoyed even. It made sense to her now.
Elimelech noticed her gazing at the priestess, leaned in, and made a husbandly comment to her, grinning. She looked at him, before blushing, and whispering back to him with equal lasciviousness. After all, this is what the gods demand. She could do her part. Besides, Elimelech was a handsome, and kind, husband. She knew she was fortunate in his treatment of her. She appreciated his compassion and his love. This, she determined, would be a good day for them.
The boys, too, were enthralled. They had never seen so many people in the one place all at once. The noise seemed deafening. People everywhere were talking, praying, singing. Animals were calling out, squealing, dying. The fires were burning and the smoke tickling their eyes. They could smell the glorious smell of cooking meat. All around them the experiences were exciting, new, and confusing. But it was fun.
Naomi and Elimelech were standing in line to come before the priest of Chemosh. They had brought a gift for the god and for his priest. They would make a sacrifice to him and this would compel him to bless them in the coming year. After they worshipped Chemosh they would make their way to Baal's temple, sacrifice there, and then explore the celebration for a while. They would drink, eat, make love, and enjoy this new way of life. They felt at home.
The months rolled by and winter began to fade. It wasn't long before Elimelech was walking out by the fields waiting to see when the landowners would be hiring hands to help out in seeding some fields or preparing to harvest others. He wanted to be sure he was visible and known. He wanted to work.
Some days passed but eventually he was hired as a daily worker in the fields. And he worked himself to the bone. He was one of the first out each morning to wait by the gates, and usually was one of the very last to leave the fields, exhausted, but having pulled an incredible shift. His work ethic was noticed by his peers and by the leaders who began to bid for his services. His stature was growing and by the end of the season he was one of the most sought after labourers. This fuelled his ambition and he was able to secure employment as a field guardian through the winter. It wasn't much, but it was something. It would be extra income to add to Naomi's ever-steady sewing business. Together, they were making quite a team.
They had money. They were able to move out of their rented accommodation and build a small house for themselves in a less seedy part of Dibon. Elimelech was proud of their work. They had honoured Chemosh for years and, finally, he was giving them his approval and their due. They were earning more than sufficient income. They had comfort. They had security. They even had community. He had made friends with wealthy workers and landowners who flattered Elimelech to secure his services.
Naomi, too, had grown to enjoy Moabite culture over the few years they had been in Moab. She befriended numerous women of all castes. To the Hebrew immigrants, she was a mother figure to them, helping to graft them into their new homes and alien society, providing them with advice and encouragement. To the Moabites, she was the model immigrant: involved, energetic, and a devoted worshipper of the gods.
And yet. And yet there was something missing. She knew that, despite how much money they gave to the temples, and no matter how she dressed like a Moabite, she was still an outsider. At heart, she knew, her friends? They cared for her, but they still kept a distance. She wasn't a Moabite. She wasn't 'one of them.' This thought plagued her. She didn't want to be an outsider. This was her home. She was making roots here. She had a flourishing business. Elimelech's reputation was growing, almost by the hour. Together they were popular, increasingly wealthy, and had access even to King Eglon's court, on occasion. And yet she didn't want her boys to be considered 'outsiders.' This would inevitably hamper them. Something would have to be done. But what?
Eventually she stumbled upon the obvious answer. How had she not seen it before? It was so simple. Mahlon was getting to the age when she and Elimelech should be preparing to marry him. They would marry Moabite women and this would seal their inclusion into Moab once and for all. They would become part of Moab and, with Naomi's guiding hand coupled with Elimelech's growing network of powerful people, her boys would make something of themselves. They may even become priests in one of the temples. That would secure their future and provide a handsome income. She was confident Elimelech would support her plan.
To be sure, however, she turned her attention to the large altar in the house. She made her way to the relics of Chemosh and Baal and added a newly purchased idol: Asherah, Baal's consort. She would guide her plan, Naomi believed. She spent time offering supplication to her new goddess for a good, Moabite woman, for Mahlon, and another for Chilion. Together, she beseeched the gods to give her a family lineage in Moab that would be strong and lasting.
When Elimelech arrived home, tired, sweating, hungry, and eager to talk about his latest conversation with the landowner for whom he now worked, Naomi sat with him and fed him a large meal of chicken stew. He pulled the meat off the bones as he talked, enjoying every mouthful. She listened intently waiting for him to finish before she dared to speak to him about her plan. Finally, satisfied, he lifted the pitcher of water to his lips and drank deeply, before exhaling and praising the meal.
'Elimelech, I think it is time we talk about Mahlon and Chilion,' she started.
He looked at her surprised, 'Why? Has something happened?'
'Oh, no, no, love. That's not it. I think we need to start talking about when they are going to marry. After all, Mahlon is nearly 17. It's only a matter of time before something happens and our hands are tied. We should arrange a wedding with someone before they get themselves into trouble. After all, they could marry someone with wealth, power, position, prestige. But. If they act with their body, they'll get some silly girl pregnant and then we will not be able to guide them. We should talk to them.'
Elimelech played with his beard briefly, thinking about what his wife said. He stared at her. Behind her almond eyes was a brain hard at work, he knew. Her calloused fingers gently stroked his arm. Savouring her touch for a moment, he exhaled before smiling.
'And, dear wife, do you have anyone in mind? We haven't been in Bethlehem for five years, now. Who knows how the famine is going there, or even who is alive. There aren't many who arrive from Bethlehem, anymore, as you know.'
She steeled herself. 'This is true, Elimelech. But, what if they were to marry a Moabitess? Someone from here? This would give them a standing in Dibon as citizens. They would be accepted and develop their own paths with a good wife. And, without any stupid mistakes.' She looked him straight in the eye, waiting for an ejaculation of anger and bigotry.
Instead, she saw her husband thinking. As she waited, she stared at his face. He had grown older with more wrinkles. His brown skin was marked with fresh dots every week. His hair was long. Tonight, she noticed, he looked tired. But he maintained his rugged handsomeness. Eventually she heard him clear his throat.
'Aye, Naomi. That is a good thought indeed. It would mean, of course, that we aren't going back to Judah. We would, in reality, be giving up our land and inheritance in Bethlehem. If it is even still there or someone hasn't taken it already. It would be a definite move to stay here. I think it is a fine idea. Do you have any ideas for the girls?'
Surprised, and yet not unprepared (for she was a calculating and sly woman), she said, 'Give me a while to think on it, my love. Go, wash your face, and I'll bring out some wine for us.'
They didn't talk about it for a few days while Naomi marshalled her thoughts and ideas. She wanted a fullproof argument that Elimelech would accept and work to implement. And yet time wasn't on her side. It was moving into the harvest season and soon everyone would be busy and the arranged marriages would already be underway.
She spoke to Elimelech that evening.
'Sorry, what? Who?' He said, confused.
'Ruth. I think you should speak to your boss and propose a bride price for his daughter, Ruth. Mahlon is ready, and she has hit puberty. We could seal the deal with him within the month and the celebration could take place with the rest. She comes from a good family, we have a good relationship with them, and he would inherit their land, too. It is a very clever match, Elimelech, and I think, I really think, we can make it happen!'
His initial reaction was to be skeptical, but the more he turned the idea round in his head the more convinced he became that this was a wise decision indeed. He said he would think about it over the next few days. She smiled happily; she knew her husband. He would take his time, assessing the idea from different angles, but she had done her homework. He would, eventually, come to see her wisdom and accept her plan.
This harvest season was wetter than usual. Rain kept falling but the work had to be completed. Elimelech stayed out long hours under the rain, helping the labourers. Naomi noticed that he grew fatigued quicker than usual. Soon he developed a persistent, painful, cough. He would be awake late into the night drinking water, trying to suppress it, only for him to finally fall asleep shortly before the sun rose. Yet, true to his form, he was up at first light to make his way back to the fields. Coughing painfully. She noticed, occasionally, there was blood on his hands after a particularly painful coughing fit. Together they begged Baal for better weather so that the harvest wouldn't be damaged and his chest would clear up.
She, herself, however, had matters to attend to. Mahlon and Ruth were betrothed to be married, just as she had planned. It had been an expensive arrangement; they were, after all, foreigners. But it was an investment of generations, she reminded Elimelech. Now she had to get the house ready for Ruth's arrival after the marriage, and it fell to her to prepare the clothes for Mahlon. She also offered to use her skills to make Ruth a pretty garment for the wedding, and Ruth accepted, eager to wear one of Naomi's beautiful creations.
Mahlon had only met Ruth once or twice, when Elimelech had been invited to eat with his manager's family. She was young and had an impish smile. At the time, Mahlon hadn't really paid attention to her, but he did remember her, and that was something. He was excited to be married. He felt ready. Like his father, he had been working on the fields, and was exhausted by the rain and unseasonably cold and wet weather. But he was youthful. He continued to be out late, drinking with his friends, and enjoying the more sultry side of Moabite culture. A wife, he knew, would change his habits. Yet, he also knew that his mother was right. If he was to make a name for himself, to craft a career and life for himself, he needed to grow up. And Ruth brought a dowry with her: land. Money. Position. Plus, he smiled slyly to himself, he remembered that she was cute. He was content.
The harvesting at the fields continued while Naomi worked late into the evening, straining under the ever-dimming candlelight of the night, to try to finish her garment for Ruth. The day of the wedding was fluid due to the weather. They wouldn't have much notice, but rather would wait and see what the weather would be like, and then, with other families in the same situation, a large public wedding would take place. She would be ready. The marriage between Mahlon and Ruth proved to be creating quite a buzz in Dibor, much to Naomi's pleasure. Everything was falling into place nicely.
Her only respite from her work was her morning and evening times of worship. Daily, she prostrated herself at the altar by her bed. Her gods got her first thought of the day and last thought of the evening. Her frequent prayers to Asherah were being answered. She truly felt that she and her family were beloved by the gods. From fleeing Judah things had only gotten better and better for her and her family. She was excited.
Finally, some days later, she had Ruth round to try on the long flowing garment. Ruth's eyes grew wide when she saw it. Over the years, Naomi's skill had developed significantly and the dress she was holding for Ruth was truly beautiful. Ruth couldn't believe it. She couldn't wait to try it on, and, barring a few alterations here and there, it was ready for her. And she was ready for it. She was ready to leave her father's home, to be a wife, to learn from Naomi, and to become a mother. Mahlon was a nice boy. She heard the rumours about him, but wasn't too worried. She would be happy and do her best to make him happy. Together, they would mould into a happy, successful, married couple just like Naomi and Elimelech.
The day arrived. Elimelech, his breathing more difficult than ever, told Naomi that the sky was clear for now, and that the priests were telling the families to prepare for the marriages that afternoon. Mahlon was wearing the fine tunic that Naomi had made. She, herself, wore a robe that she had made for a celebration the year prior, and Elimelech was dressed in his finest tunic, bought from the marketplace, in the Moabite style.
They made their way to the temple of Asherah where, under her image, Mahlon married Ruth, the Moabite, and after the required covenants were made between the families, they feasted together, enjoying good wine, good food, and much mirth and laughter. Naomi, visibly aging herself, surveyed the scene from her husband's side, contentedly. Chemosh was good. Asherah was blessing them. Even Baal had stopped the rain for the day. Like a matriarch, she felt peace inside. This was her home. Her people. Her family. And all was well.
Thunder rumbled from the east. Rain was coming. Naomi sent Mahlon and Ruth home first. She remembered her own experience as a brand new, young, uncertain, bride. Privacy, she knew, would be appreciated.
She watched them go, smiling. All was, indeed, well.
Except that it wasn't. Over the next few days and weeks, Elimelech's cough progressively grew worse. Eventually he started going to the fields later in the morning. The harvest was nearing its end, and the annual celebration was drawing near. His cough continued to worsen and, at the celebration, both he and Naomi made sacrifices to Chemosh to remove the sickness from him. They paid the priest handsomely to pray over him, dispelling any curses that may have been cast upon him. They desired mercy from this painful illness.
It was not to be. As the wind and rain of winter oppressed them, Chemosh apparently deafened his ears to his favourite immigrants, and, under the weight of a bitter fever, Elimelech finally breathed his last. Naomi grieved him fiercely. She knew of many husbands who routinely beat their wives. Who, in a drunken stupor, wasted their meagre wages on cheap wine at the taverns. Who returned home later in the evening reeking of illicit love from the brothels. Elimelech, for all his faults, had always treated her and the boys well. He provided for them, and had even brought them to Dibor and made them flourish.
He, whose name meant, 'My God is king,' was buried in a foreign land, under the weeping tears of a wife, two sons, and a daughter-in-law. Naomi stood by his grave and realized things would never be the same. But she would be unbowed. She would be resolute. She had two boys and they would grow into men just like Elimelech. She would ensure it.
Death had come. Perhaps, even, judgement. Though, for what, she could not say. But it would not break her. She would continue.
Ruth was growing in her wifely duties very well. She treated Mahlon just as she, herself, had treated Elimelech. Ruth was a swift learner from Naomi, not unafraid to help out with cooking, or even going to the fields to help Mahlon. She was not, however, a gifted sewer. Naomi would have to find someone else to train as an apprentice. Ruth, all acknowledged with laughter, made a great wife, but a lousy seamstress.
The next year, Naomi gave instructions to Mahlon to find a wife for Chilion. Mahlon was now the head of the house and had begun to fill the role well. He would negotiate a bride price for Chilion and, soon, Naomi would be able to rest. Soon, she would be able to sit and rock a little child on her lap. Soon, she would hear the cooings and gurgles of little grandchildren and know that her legacy was secured. If only Mahlon and Ruth would hurry up and get pregnant!
Naomi continued her daily routine of morning and evening worship. One day, to her surprise, Ruth came to her and, holding the fetish that Naomi had brought from Israel (but had quite forgotten for some time), asked her, 'What is this, mother? It looks like a fetish of worship, but I've never seen one like this.'
Naomi looked at it for a moment, then reached for it. She rubbed it fondly in her hands, rubbing her fingers over it before responding. 'This is a reminder of when we used to live in Israel. Where I come from, Ruth, we are not meant to make images of our God, YHWH. So, instead, we make things like this that remind us of the stories from our past. And they are meant to cause us to worship Him. I haven't seen this in so long. Where did you find it?'
'It was over by our side. I hadn't seen it before. Can you tell me some of the stories of Judah? I want to hear them.'
Naomi smiled at her, her gaze not moving from the small wooden box in her hands. 'Maybe tonight, Ruth. After dinner. If I can remember them. It has been so long, now. But maybe later.' She turned back to her altar, and, gently, set the box down, beside the image of Asherah. Today she would, once more, pray to YHWH as well.
That night, as they listened to the wind blowing gently outside, Naomi told her family the tales of her youth. She shared about how YHWH had made a covenant with a man called Abram, from far away, beyond the great desert in the East, and promised him a people more numerous than all the stars in heaven. YHWH made a covenant with Abram, and, though it was a long time in being fulfilled, it had been fulfilled. Eventually he had a son, Isaac. That son had two sons of his own, Jacob and Esau. Duplicity was common in that family line, but eventually Jacob bought the birthright of the covenant blessing and his twelve sons would become the founders of the tribes of Israel.
She recounted how they moved to Egypt because of a famine, and there God blessed them. 'Just like us,' Naomi said. But the story turned darker, as she recounted how Israel had been made slaves and even had their young children murdered by a cruel pharaoh.
'Pharaoh? That's like a king?' Ruth stumbled over the unfamiliar Egyptian word.
'Yes, though in Egypt the Pharaoh is called a god. So, when YHWH raised up Moses to free our people from that slavery, YHWH sent ten plagues. These plagues decimated Egyptian livestock and humiliated the Pharoah's claims of divinity. It was a divine conflict and each time YHWH won. Eventually Pharaoh let them go free and God brought them, under Moses, to the Red Sea and there YHWH made the ocean open up before them and they walked through.' She paused. 'On dry land.'
'Meanwhile, as Pharaoh and his army chased them, YHWH caused the waters to wash over them, drowning them. And ever since then, Egypt has never fully recovered. Our people, though, were disobedient and due to our unwillingness to trust God, were kept out of the land for 40 years until everyone in that generation died, except two men.'
'Why did He do that?' Ruth asked, mesmerised.
'Because God is holy and is to be obeyed. Even in difficulty. Even Moses, our leader, never made it into the Promised Land. God made a covenant with us, though, through Moses. That, so long as we worshipped Him, we would have peace, prosperity, and progeny in the land. For ever.' She sighed. 'But our fathers failed and soon we were oppressed by other nations because we didn't trust God for victory. Instead we failed and added other gods to our worship. This angered YHWH. He sent famines and curses and enemies.' She paused.
Ruth looked over to where Naomi slept. The altar there was large. It had images of Chemosh, Baal, El, Asherah. To the side, almost as if it was forgotten once again, sat the little box that Ruth now realized was meant to be a replica of the ark that contained the covenant.
'But,' she asked quizzically and with a confused furrowed brow, 'If YHWH punishes your people for worshipping other gods, is there only one? And if so, why do you worship Chemosh?'
Naomi paused. She had never thought about it before. 'I think, Ruth, that we live in a complicated world. It seems clear to us that there are many gods who rule over different regions. Yes, YHWH was greater than Ra and Amun and the other gods of Egypt. But. We experienced famine and so we needed other gods. Surely you would agree that praying to them all is better? We honour them all and so they all will leave us alone at the least, or bless us.'
Again, with confusion in her voice, but not lacking courage, she pressed on, 'But, mama, you said that YHWH made a covenant with your people? To provide for you, right? So long as you believed and obeyed that covenant? So, surely, if you believe YHWH, then you shouldn't be worshipping these other gods, because that is what angers YHWH and made Him bring the famines and deaths and war? So, why do you worship them?'
Naomi was growing irate at what she felt was an attack. 'Ruth, sweetheart,' she said with thinly veiled frustration, 'You don't know what famine is like. To experience the hunger and to watch as your children suffer. In those moments, when we prayed to YHWH and Chemosh and Baal, the only voice who was silent was YHWH. When we left Judah to come here, Chemosh rewarded us. YHWH was silent. He abandoned us. It doesn't matter whether we prayed to Him alone or added other gods. When it came to it, Chemosh protected us and rewarded us here in Moab, and YHWH didn't. YHWH is powerless.'
Ruth started to respond, but Mahlon, who had initially been interested but grown bored, didn't want to have to play peacemaker between the women, told Ruth, 'Let's go to bed wife. Let's see if we can't compel Asherah to give us a child. Or, at least try ourselves.'
Ruth stopped speaking. She realized that Naomi was getting frustrated with her and bowed her head. 'I'm sorry mama. I just. I feel like I understand YHWH's perspective. I. I think I like YHWH. I didn't mean to upset you. I hope you can tell me these stories again.' She rose to her feet, walked over and gave Naomi a hug before following Mahlon to bed.
Naomi carried herself to bed. She thought about the stories of her youth. She wondered why Ruth's questioning had agitated her so much. After all, YHWH hadn't stopped the famine. It was still going on. The arrival of immigrants into the swelling city of Dibor made that very clear. So why was it that she felt guilt, and even a stab of fear, in her heart, when she recounted her words to Ruth? She wasn't sure, but she began to feel like she could hear a voice beckoning her. It was like a faint memory, sitting just beyond the reach of her mind, familiar yet distant, clear, yet she couldn't quite make it out. Perplexed, she promised herself that she would reintroduce YHWH to her worship. She tossed and turned. But she couldn't shake the feeling of unease in her mind.
She did not sleep well that night.
Months passed. Naomi's weird feelings dissipated. Ruth persisted in asking about YHWH. Mahlon evidently grew frustrated by her persistence, but Ruth was obsessed with YHWH. She loved His expressions of love towards His people. Baal and Chemosh never loved their people but simply used them. They had created humanity to be a distraction for the gods and to provide worship and food for them. But this YHWH? He seemed to love His people and had a jealousy for them that made her heart yearn for such love.
Naomi, on the other hand, grew increasingly frightened of YHWH. The more she told the stories about the past power and might of YHWH, the more she grew uncomfortable about her situation. She remembered hearing Elimelech's words when she had pressed upon him the idea of a Moabite wife for Mahlon: 'We will be giving up our land and our inheritance, you know.' This inheritance was given by YHWH. Was it, in reality, the case that she had abandoned YHWH? And if so, at what cost? Was she still a Hebrew? Could she be? If not...what was she? And what were her boys?
These doubts, however, didn't cause her to stop Chilion following in Mahlon's footsteps and marrying a lovely young woman from Moab. Her name was Orpah. She was radiant. Chilion was quiet and introverted, whereas Orpah was vivacious, lively, and sassy. She was able to light up a room simply by entering it. Where Ruth had common sense, grace, even poise, Orpah had a fair beauty and liveliness that all enjoyed. Naomi loved her as much as she loved Ruth. And, despite all living together, Ruth and Orpah grew into good friends. Ruth took Orpah under her wing as an older sister and helped her to be a good wife to Chilion.
Yet still, no matter how each of the women begged Asherah and Baal to bless them with children, they were saddened each month as the cycle restarted. Years went by. It wasn't for want of trying or of begging the gods. Daily, Naomi and the girls prayed to the gods. They would each, often, go to the temple of Asherah and sacrifice to her there, hoping that would bring her approval. They spoke with the priests who told them they were cursed and needed to pay to remove the curses. They spoke with the priestesses who gave them tips on lovemaking and ways to gain the favour of Asherah. All to no avail.
Naomi grew embarrassed. Her plan was not working. Recently she had overheard conversations amongst the other ladies saying that the gods had turned their back on her for whatever it was that Elimelech had done. He had died suddenly, and painfully, after all. The gods, they said, will not be mocked. Now there's a curse on their family. By the time they had been in Moab for 9 years, Naomi was terrified that what they had said was true. She didn't think Elimelech had done anything wrong to anger the gods. Except, perhaps, YHWH. What if YHWH was reaching into Chemosh's territory to destroy her for abandoning the covenant? He was, after all, well within His rights to do so. She was, or had been, a Hebrew. She had transgressed the covenant. There would be punishment. YHWH had promised.
These rumours intensified when Naomi noticed Mahlon coughing in the same manner that Elimelech had experienced. An icy fear gripped her heart. She monitored it for a few days before talking to Mahlon and Ruth about it. They weren't too concerned, but, the longer it lasted, the more Ruth grew afraid that Naomi was right. About the cough, at least. Ruth refused to believe that YHWH was acting purely out of a vindictive, petty, motivation. She didn't know why He might be doing it, but she did not accept Naomi's interpretation. She started to pray to YHWH herself, on behalf of her husband, and her womb. Still, no child came. And Mahlon's condition worsened.
'Remember Naomi. How long did Abram have to wait? YHWH answers His people. You have to trust Him. Perhaps, you have to trust Him alone.'
Naomi ignored her.
A few weeks later, the fever struck Mahlon. No amount of tears, begging, money, medicaments, would shift it. Asherah was silent. Chemosh was silent. YHWH was silent. Naomi grieved as only a mother can. Ruth feared for her husband and her future. She was spoiled goods. Worse than that, even. She had been married to a foreigner. He was dying as his father had: cursed and diseased. She was childless. Who would marry her now? Her own father may not even take her back. She would be another mouth to feed and wouldn't be likely to get a good price for remarriage. Poverty? Dear gods, prostitution? Was that her lot? How had her gods punished her so? What had she done? Married into Naomi's family? That can't be wrong, surely? No. Maybe it was her increasing reverence for YHWH that angered Chemosh? Well. So be it. Chemosh hadn't given her a child. She would wait on the LORD of Israel to prove Himself. He would either be faithful, or a disappointment, just like all the other gods she had prostrated herself before.
That night, as Ruth sat by his side, Mahlon, mumbling feverishly, gripped her hand tightly, then in a fit of bloody coughing, he died. Naomi's wail could be heard throughout the city.
The curse of this Hebrew family had struck again.
Barely had Mahlon's burial been completed and the days of mourning observed before Chilion became ill. His symptoms presented differently, but Naomi finally understood. She was being tortured by YHWH. He had forsaken her, just as she had forsaken Him. And He was having His vengeance. Justice for the broken covenant would be His. She couldn't run. She couldn't leave Chilion. Nor Orpah or Ruth. Not as a widow and soon-to-be-widow. How could she do that?
Yet. She had no money left. She had spent all their gold and silver on Mahlon. Her work output was diminishing and competition from other Hebrew seamstresses was stealing her customers. She had to go and work in the fields with Ruth while Orpah cared for Chilion. Her dreams of an empire in Moab were falling apart right before her eyes. Just as her son was dying before them.
The inheritance of the land of Israel? That YHWH had promised? Well. There would be no heir. No child to make the land his own, here or in Judah. No one to tend the fields. She could barely provide for herself and Ruth, and now she would have to provide for Orpah? How could she do that?
'Oh, YHWH! Please. Let Chilion live! Don't take him. My boy. Don't blot our name out from Israel for all eternity! Take me. I sinned. It was my decision. Please, YHWH! Have mercy, I beg you!'
But Chilion grew worse. And as his condition worsened, Naomi sank into a deep depression. Losing her husband was one thing. Losing her firstborn, another. But now, to lose Chilion as well? With no grandchildren? Her entire world was shaken from its foundation.
She spent hours each day beneath the large altar in her house, praying to every god she knew. Chemosh was silent. Baal was silent. Asherah was silent. YHWH was silent. And Naomi mourned.
Ruth watched on, silently. She continued to cook for Orpah, Chilion and Naomi. She held Chilion's hand just as she had held Mahlon's . When Orpah was too tired to wash his forehead, Ruth was there to step in. She grieved with Naomi and with Orpah. Her own wounds were just as raw, but, right now, Naomi needed Ruth to be strong. And so, strong Ruth would be. Her own grief was suppressed until the darkest part of the night when it threatened to consume her. She fought back the fears about her future that plagued her mind. She would deal with them when needed; right now, she had to be strong. And so, silently, she served Naomi and Orpah in the background. But inside she, too, was weeping.
Despite the pleadings from Naomi, the gods remained silent. Naomi watched as her youngest boy slowly grew weaker and weaker. Her own future flickering with every laboured breath that Chilion managed. The sweat poured from him, even as he shivered with a cool chill. His cough grew worse. It didn't take long for the disease to progress in the way they were now familiar with. He was coughing blood and feverish delirium developed swiftly thereafter.
Two days later, the street heard the wailing that they were anticipating. Naomi's heartbroken grief was heard by all: Chilion was dead. And, with Chilion, so, too, was Naomi. She had no future. The line of Elimelech, once so promising, now, in Moab was buried deep in the ground. Far flung Moab. No family to comfort her. Only friends turned strangers to watch from a distance as Naomi, the cursed Naomi, prepared her final son for burial. She came with little, but was left with nothing. She had no heir and thus no future. As a woman, a wife, a mother, she had failed. She was already dead.
And the gods had failed her.
Yet, she knew that she had failed YHWH. In the deepest recesses of her heart, she knew, now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that YHWH had done this. She and Elimelech had broken the covenant with YHWH, left the land, forsaken their inheritance, and abandoned YHWH. He had responded in kind. She was sure of it. And, what cut her to the heart, she knew she deserved it. She had broken the covenant; YHWH was doing exactly as the covenant had stipulated. This was exactly what she should have expected.
'Oh,' she lamented. 'If only He had taken me! I can't protect or provide for these young women. They have no children of their own. They share in our curse. What have I done? I can't care for them.'
These thoughts roamed in her mind for days and weeks. She knew that she was as good as dead. Poverty-stricken, she would become a beggar, forced to survive on the kindness of strangers. Better to be a beggar in Judah than in Moab, at least, she thought. She could return to Judah and die in the town of her homeland, a warning to all who dared challenge YHWH. But these young women? Ruth, it was no secret, loved Naomi, deeply and wouldn't want to leave her. Orpah, too, loved Naomi, but she was a Moabite through and through. Besides, Orpah was still young and dazzlingly beautiful, though grief had aged her slightly. She could remarry swiftly. But Ruth? Ruth was unlikely to find a suitor swiftly. She had been married for a few years and remained without child. Clearly, the curse of this family had damaged her fertility. She could go back to her father's house, perhaps, but to what end? A lifetime of subservience and domesticity as a slave to her eldest brother? Better that than prostitution. Better that, Naomi reasoned, than abject poverty in Judah. At least she had heard that the famine in Judah had ended, at long last.
With that, Naomi was resolved. She had nothing to offer Ruth or Orpah. She had given everything, literally, to Moab and her cruel gods. And she had been given nothing but grief. With a heavy heart, she called Ruth and Orpah to the table to tell them what she had decided. Naomi, whose name meant pleasant, was filled with a bitter grief.
'My girls, you know how I have loved you. You cared for my boys with compassion, loyalty, faithfulness, and honour. You have not complained about your lot, though I know you think it. I see it in your faces.' She held up a hand to delay their denials. 'It is okay, my daughters. I am bitter, too, for your sakes. To not have a child to comfort your sorrow and give you hope for your future must be a terrifying thing. I only wish that I could help you. That I could be here for and with you. But, you know that I cannot provide for you, much less protect you.'
She paused. The weight and enormity of her words would, she knew, be another crushing blow to their already fragile hearts.
'My daughters, I am going to return to Judah. I have lost everything in Moab. My husband. My boys. My faith in my gods. All I have left is you, and I am now sending you back to the houses of your fathers. I have nothing for you. I'm going to go to Judah where, in penitence and brokenness, I will wait to die. It's all I have.'
She stopped. She covered her mouth with a wrinkled hand. Tears slowly ran down her face and dripped onto the wooden table, where once wine had sloshed in joyous celebration.
Ruth stared at her, horrified. Orpah lowered her head. Together, they all started crying anew. Their happy family, once so full of hope, was being torn apart again, never to be the same.
No one spoke for quite some time. Eventually, Ruth rose and fetched the pitcher of stale water. She wiped her face with the hem of her scarf, then poured Naomi and Orpah a drink. Naomi didn't touch it. Ruth raised the pitcher to her own lips and felt the warm liquid slide down her throat. It did nothing to quench her sorrow. Her mind was racing. She looked at Naomi again, and saw in her aging mother-in-law a depressed defeat. How could Naomi ask such a thing of her? To dishonour Mahlon and abandon Naomi? The gods would never forgive her. She would never forgive herself!
'Sweet mama. We will come with you. We will help you pack up your things and we can leave in a couple of days. Drink your water. Orpah and I will prepare something to eat.' Orpah rose to assist Ruth.
From her stool, Naomi heard their whispering, but didn't have the heart to eavesdrop. She would let them comfort one another. She knew they would understand their plight and eventually, hesitantly, come to accept that what Naomi had said was right. Naomi's plans were always right. There was nothing for them in Judah just as there was nothing for her in Moab. Ten years she had lived in Moab and it had taken everything from her. These girls had a glimmer of hope, perhaps. In Moab. There was nothing for them in Judah. They would not come with her, she knew. She would retrace her steps, back to Judah, back to Bethlehem, back, even, to YHWH, on her own.
The next day they shouldered their meagre belongings and made their way to the gates of the city. Naomi refused to look back to Dibor, instead keeping her eyes fixed on the road. Too much heartache had befallen her in Moab. She was leaving her family buried, her home barren, and her heart broken. At either side walked a faithful, but childless, widow, Orpah and Ruth. Her daughters. All that she had left in the entire world. And soon, she knew, she would send them back.
They kept walking. They passed by the fields where, only a few years ago, Elimelech had made a name for himself as a diligent worker. They kept walking, and made it to the border of Moab, where Israel's Moab's territory met. She stopped there. The girls stopped with her, thinking she needed to rest.
'Let us find you somewhere to sit, mama,' said Ruth. Orpah took the load off her own back and reached to Naomi to remove her bundle. Naomi gently patted her arm away.
'My daughters. This is where we part. You have treated the dead more faithfully than anyone I have ever known. You have honoured me, Elimelech, and my boys. I am forever thankful and grateful. But I have nothing for you. Judah has nothing for you. YHWH has nothing for you in Judah. May YHWH bless you and deal kindly with you. Return to the house of your mother. I will give offerings and pray that you will find rest in the house of a husband soon, each of you. Go, now. Before it grows dark. I will make my way home.'
Immediately, the two women started to protest. Orpah clung to Naomi saying that she would not leave her. Ruth, as was her demeanour, remained quieter, but no less emotionally hurt by Naomi's plan. Together they cried as Naomi pressed her case.
'Why would you stay with me? I cannot provide for you. Even if I were to marry right now, and give birth to another son, would you wait for him to grow up and marry him, as is our custom? Would you? Of course not. And even if you would, I would never ask that of you. Would you refrain from marrying and having children of your own for another fourteen or fifteen years? No, my daughters. The line of Elimelech is dead. But you can still find rest and have a future, here in Moab. I am extremely bitter that YHWH has come out against me and judged me, though, I now know we deserved it. I am sorry, for your sake, however, that you have been caught up in my sin. Please now, don't make an old woman's heart hurt further. Let me grieve and journey on my own. You are not abandoning me, I am asking you, telling you, to go home. That's where you have a future.'
Her words sounded hollow even in her own mouth. But eventually she prevailed upon Orpah. And, weeping anew, she hugged Naomi, who kissed her forehead as only a mother can, then Orpah turned back towards Moab, back towards Dibor, and back towards Chemosh.
But Ruth stood, resolute. Naomi had seen that fierce fire in Ruth before. Usually when arguing with Mahlon, but occasionally in disagreements with her, and even Elimelech. Ruth, for her sweet-natured disposition, had a stubborn streak that bordered on disrespect. Naomi saw that same energy now. She sighed inwardly. What a wife she had made, and what a mother she could have been.
'My dear daughter, why are you still here? Don't you see that Orpah your sister has left? Go with her and you can be a comfort to one another. Orpah has returned to her home and to her gods. That is right and it is where she belongs. It is where you belong, too, my daughter. Go back with her now. I will be okay. I will make it back to Judah and I will die on my own. But you can have a future here. Find rest in the bed of a new husband. Have his children. Laugh as they grow. Enjoy your old age, and then, when your time comes, you will look back on a life well lived in the service of your people. May the gods pity you as surely as they have abandoned me.'
Ruth blinked repeatedly, trying to blink away the tears that stung her eyes. She started to speak, choked on the beginnings of a sob, paused, then started to speak again. She had prepared her words very carefully, anticipating that Naomi may try this.
'Mother, do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall by my people and your God shall be my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me, and more, if anything but death parts me from you.' She lowered her head. She had managed to get it out without bursting into tears. It had taken all her effort but she had said her piece and that was her decision.
Naomi listened to Ruth's words with surprise. She knew Ruth meant every word. Truthfully, Naomi had been frightened about travelling alone, but she was trying to do the right thing by sending Ruth back to Moab where she could have a future.
Regardless, however, she knew Ruth's mind was made up. Besides which, Ruth had spoken of YHWH in a way that reminded Naomi of what some of the older men and women had said in the days of her youth. YHWH was their God and we, they, were His people. They called it the covenant promise. He would be our God. Ruth had said that now.
Naomi also knew well that outsiders were welcomed into YHWH's covenant family. In her own family history, through Elimelech, Salmon had married Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho. She had come into Judah, even to Bethlehem, and been accepted. Despite her ethnicity. Despite her previous trade as a whore. She had been accepted and had been blessed by YHWH. Perhaps YHWH would at least protect Ruth until Naomi died. Then she could return to Moab with a clear conscience.
She relented. 'Ruth, my daughter, I cannot force you to return to Moab. I have nothing more I can say to convince you. I hope, for your sake, that you will be accepted into our people. I will do all that I can for you. Let us go. We can keep walking for a few hours yet.'
They continued in silence until dusk. Naomi sat by the side of the road while Ruth gathered some kindling and built a small fire. There were other travellers on the road who camped nearby, seemingly to offer these two widows some protection. After dinner, as the stars twinkled in the sky and the moon slowly journeyed across the canvas of night, Ruth asked about Bethlehem and the stories of Israel. But most of all she asked about YHWH. In her breast a flame was fanning into ardent worship. There was something about YHWH, the covenant-maker, the covenant-lord, that drew her to Him. Despite the pain and horror of what was evidently the curses of a broken covenant, she yearned for the loving hand of a god who made himself known.
As Naomi regaled her, once again, of the mighty acts of YHWH in creation, in the great flood, in his personal love and commitment to Abram, in His war against Pharaoh because of His love for His people, Ruth saw children from the nearby caravan draw closer. Eventually she invited them to come and listen with her as Naomi talked. She gave each newcomer a fig and bade them sit and listen.
As Naomi retold the narratives she remembered from her youth, her audience sat enthralled, even as her own heart was hardening against the God about whom she spoke. Looking around her, seeing young boys and girls listening with rapture and joy, her heart dropped with the knowledge that this would never be her lot. She would never have her own grandchildren sit by her feet, hear her talk, eat her treats, and sleep in her arms. This was a lousy surrogate for Naomi.
Yet still she continued to talk about the love of YHWH and His mighty deeds.
'Someday, little ones, someday a hero will come who will indeed crush the head of that evil serpent who brought sin into the world. He will come through the line of my very own tribe, Judah. He will be a lion and He will be our Messiah. Justice will flow from His throne and we will all dwell together in harmony. Ours in a history of asking, 'Is this Him?' He hasn't come yet. But we know He will. It's our only hope in life and in death. That God will dwell with us and we shall dwell with Him as His people.'
The next morning, they walked some miles with the caravan. The children bustled around Naomi and Ruth asking for more sweets and giggling and laughing. The women of the group talked with them and heard their story. Compassionately, they were invited to journey the rest of the way with them, but they were heading north towards Ephraim. Naomi, however, had had her fill of travel. She was returning to Israel to await death.
As they parted ways, Naomi and Ruth gave some of the kids a few figs and received thankful hugs in response. Then, quietly, they turned south and made their way towards the city of Salem. Bypassing it, they eventually arrived at the fields of Bethlehem. Naomi and Ruth stopped. Naomi couldn't believe her eyes. The fields looked full. There were men and women out in the fields going between the rows of barley. The stalks weren't quite ready for harvesting yet, but it was close to the time. And the fields were flowing in abundance. Ruth looked at Naomi.
'I've never seen so much in one field, mama. This is a plentiful land, indeed!' Naomi said nothing, her eyes wide open in disbelief.
'YHWH has blessed His people,' she managed to whisper. Ruth heard her, but said nothing. There was nothing she could say. She knew that, in Naomi's mind, YHWH had punished her and she no longer considered herself under the covenant, for she had no one to inherit Elimelech's land. YHWH had destroyed the line that abandoned Him. Ruth had no answer for her.
Eventually they made their way past the fields. Ruth noticed some of the older teens were staring at her. A couple of older women came out of their houses to watch these new arrivals. She watched as they whispered to one another. Eventually an older woman made her way up to Naomi and looked her right in the face.
Naomi and Ruth stopped, and waited. Eventually the woman smiled, laughed, and grabbed Naomi into a bear hug.
'Naomi! It is you! My, how you have aged, but you can't hide those eyes from me, my dear! You have come home! Oh, Naomi. You've returned!' Laughing she clung to Naomi who slowly raised her hands and returned the embrace, half-heartedly.
'Miriam? Oh my sweet Miriam look at you. You look wonderful.'
'Yes, Naomi, it's me, Mim. How have you been? How was Moab? Are you home to stay? Where is Elimelech and the boys? Are they going to join you? Who is this?' Turning to Ruth, she said, 'Hi, I'm Miriam, one of the women of Bethlehem, an old friend of Naomi's from way back.'
'I'm Ruth, Naomi's daughter-in-law,' Ruth replied. Her accent felt unusually thick, all of a sudden. Never had she felt more of an outsider than right now. She was slightly uncomfortable.
'Oh my goodness, you married into Naomi and Elimelech's family? How blessed are you, my dear Ruth. To which boy? Mahlon, I suspect?'
'That's right,' Ruth replied, meekly.
'Well, YHWH be praised, yes? You have returned, Naomi! Do you see? We returned to worship YHWH our God and the fields brought us food in abundance. YHWH has blessed us, praise His name. When will we ever learn, hmmm?' She laughed. Her infectious enthusiasm brought a smile to Ruth's face. Others soon joined Miriam in welcoming Naomi back to the town.
But questions continued to flow concerning Elimelech and the boys. Eventually Naomi raised a hand to quieten them.
'Sisters, thank you for your sweet, and gracious welcome. It's nice to be back amongst you all. But please, do not call me Naomi any more. Call me Mara for YHWH has dealt most bitterly with me. I left you all ten years ago and I was full. I had my husband and my boys. But I return empty. I have left them buried in a foreign land, punished by YHWH for abandoning the covenant. He has brought me back to you all empty. Why would you call me Pleasant when I am Bitter? He has testified against me and has brought this calamity upon me. I have nothing.'
A gasp of shock and sadness coursed through the women. Some men were wandering over to see the commotion. They had noticed the foreigner who travelled with the older lady. When they heard who it was they came to speak with her. The women, led by Miriam, threw their arms around Naomi in compassion. Pointedly, Miriam hugged Ruth as well.
'Mara. Ruth. My heart aches for you. But you have come home. Come, we will bring you back to the land of your family. There you will be able to rest. I will prepare you a meal for tonight. Come, now, let's go.'
As they left, Ruth noticed the ladies and young men watch them, whispering and talking. She knew this would fade as their story became old news. But it hurt right then. She hadn't thought much about being a foreigner in Judah, but today she felt extremely out of place. She had, however, given her word to her mother-in-law. She would love Mara just as surely as she had loved Naomi.
Tomorrow she would figure out how to feed and provide for them. Tonight, however, she was thankful for the kindness of Miriam. Hopefully that would be a pattern for the days and weeks ahead. She said a silent prayer to YHWH. She was in His land now.
The Moabite widow was at His mercy.
I hope that you enjoyed chapter 1. I will hopefully get to the next chapter in a few weeks. After the entire book has been drafted, I will do a YouTube recording of all four chapters of this dramatic retelling of the narrative along with theological summary to explain the necessity and the message of the book of Ruth.
Please leave a comment or reflection; I love reading them.