On account of famine Elimelech and his family left Bethlehem-Judah for the land of Moab. In the brief narrative no critical comment is made upon the change of residence. This silence indicates that the spiritual significance of the journey of this particular family must be traced by means of light afforded in other scriptures. To seek such enlightenment upon the instruction to be derived from this inspired booklet is the purpose of the present studies.
Famine in the Land of Israel
The reference in the opening sentence of the Book to famine in the land is itself suggestive of the degenerate state of the chosen people. In their case, famine was not a mere physical contingency, but a mark of divine displeasure. The land which Jehovah had bestowed upon the children of Israel was "a land that floweth with milk and honey" — milk from well-fed flocks and herds, and honey from luxuriant vegetation. A threat of starvation in such a fertile land implied that the chastisement of God had fallen upon the tribes because they had neglected His worship and transgressed His laws. And that for this reason God withheld rain from heaven they could have learned from the words of Moses (Deut. 11:8-15). At any rate, we read here, "And it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled (judged) that there was a famine in the land" (ver. 1). The physical fact is stated, but not its moral cause.
The exact date of this famine cannot be ascertained. It occurred during the long period when "the judges judged"; and this period extended from about the death of Joshua (Joshua 24:29-31) to the introduction of the monarchy, when Israel rejected Jehovah as their King and Saul was chosen by "the voice of the people" to reign over them (1 Sam. 8:7; Hosea 13:11).
The previous Book shows that under the judges the religious and civil states of the tribes of Israel became appallingly debased. So long as Joshua was with the people they served Jehovah, but when he and the generation that crossed the Jordan with him were gathered to their fathers "there arose another generation after them, which knew not Jehovah, nor yet the works which He had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of Jehovah, and served the Baals" (Judges 2:10, 11). Throughout "the days when the judges" administered the laws the people departed further and further from the worship of Jehovah and from obedience to His statutes.
Before their entrance into the land, Jehovah by His servant Moses impressed upon the people that in the land itself they should render to Him their constant love and obedience lest the land, fertile though it was, should be stricken with famine (Deut. 11:1-17). In that picturesque passage, Moses described the land before them as a good land of plenty where they should "eat and be full"; Jehovah would in its season supply the indispensable rain, the "early" rain to prepare the soil for autumn sowings, and the "latter" or spring rain to swell the corn for ripening and harvest.
But this annual beneficence from heaven would depend upon their own behaviour. They must hearken to Jehovah's commandments, and love and serve Him with all their heart and soul (vers. 13, 14; also Lev. 26:3, 4). In the wilderness, the daily supply of manna from heaven had never once failed in spite of their continual murmurings and disobedience but in the land across the Jordan a bountiful harvest would be, the reward of their worship, their love, and their obedience to God.
Therefore, said Moses, "Take heed to yourselves that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside and serve other gods . . . and Jehovah's wrath kindle against you, and He shut up the heavens that there be no rain, and that the ground yield not its produce, and ye perish quickly from off the good land which Jehovah is giving you" (vers. 16, 17).
From these and other scriptures we learn that in Canaan famine was an instrument of chastisement used by God for the correction of His people. When they, His elect nation, fell into idolatry and immorality, He shut up the heavens, as in the notable instance during Ahab's reign, when on account of His displeasure there was neither dew nor rain for three years and six months (1 Kings 17:1; James 5:17).
The Flight of the Family
Emigration to a more fruitful country is an obvious method of escape from the rigours of famine. It is, however, not always successful, nor always the right plan to adopt. Elimelech, however, with his wife and his two sons, left the temporarily barren fields of Bethlehem for the more productive fields of Moab (ver. 1).
Had Elimelech in his own conscience any justification for this serious step that he took? He may have thought that he had a precedent for it in the lives of his forefathers, who were men of faith. What did they do in like circumstances? When the first recorded famine arose in the land of Canaan (cf. Gen. 26:1), it is written, "Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there" (Gen. 12:10); and these words are echoed in Ruth 1:1. Again, Isaac sought refuge from famine in the land of the Philistines, a land not distant from Canaan like Egypt, but adjoining it like Moab (Gen. 26:1). Further, it was a long and grievous famine that caused Jacob and all his family to go down into Egypt for relief (Gen. 41:56; 47:4). And Elimelech might have thought that in these patriarchal instances there was surely a parallel to his own case, and a justification for his journey to Moab. Had he not scripture in support of his plan? What more was needed?
But surely a further consideration of the history would have taught Elimelech that these incidents were examples not of the integrity but of the laxity of the patriarchs. In these instances, their conduct was to be avoided, not imitated. For what sad effects upon their life of faith and testimony resulted from their ignominious flight from famine! They gained food, but lost their reputation. Both Abram and Isaac prevaricated about their wives and respectively were put to public shame by the reproofs of Pharaoh and Abimelech who evidently regarded them as men whose word could not be trusted. What serious damage was thereby done to their testimony to the living and true God as opposed to the deceitful deities worshipped in the lands where they sought refuge! In Jacob's case, too, how terrible was the sequel to his departure from the land of promise! His seed became bondmen in Egypt, and suffered long and bitterly under the iron hand of Pharaoh's oppression, while God seemed silent and supine.
No; the example of the fathers in this matter was not safe for Elimelech to follow. It was certainly an act of faith, pleasing to God, which brought the patriarchs into the land of promise, but it was an act of merely human sagacity or expediency to leave that land in search of food. In entering Canaan they obeyed the call of God; in leaving it they followed the dictates of their own self-interest, which was to their own discredit as believers in God.
Whether Elimelech observed these danger-signals in the lives of the fathers or not, he took the same risk as they did. He departed from the land upon which Jehovah had promised that His eyes would rest continually, "from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year" (Deut. 11:12). He removed from the land of Judah to the land of Moab; and there he and his two sons died without posterity, and in consequence his inheritance in the land of Israel lapsed.
The Meanings of the Names
Often in Old Testament history and prophecy proper names have an undoubted significance, which affords a key to the moral and spiritual instruction contained in the passages where they occur. In many cases, the meaning is not clearly defined and there is danger of being led astray by a lively imagination which chooses or invents something suitable to itself. In the Book of Ruth, however, the meaning of some names is unquestionable, and this adds clearness and emphasis to the significance of the narrative as a whole.
Elimelech means "God the King" or "God is King." This name is found in scripture only here. With this meaning in mind, it is striking to read in the last verse of the preceding Book (Judges), "In those days there was no king in Israel." Then in the very next verse (Ruth 1:1) we find a designed contrast: Elimelech was a man in Israel who carried about in his name the constant witness that "God is King," though the nation at large disowned the authority of Him Who dwelled between the cherubim in the tabernacle.
However cloudy and dark the day of apostasy may become, we may be sure that God has His torch-bearers. Elimelech was one who bore the light of truth in his name. When Israel denied God's sovereignty, and "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25), this man in Bethlehem silently reminded his townsmen that God was "King in Jeshurun" (Deut. 33:5). In the royal tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) he stood out as an honourable witness that God was the Sovereign Ruler of His redeemed people in spite of the idolatry, anarchy, and individualism that prevailed in their midst. "Elimelech" seemed to be a suitable name for this man in the land of Judah; in the land of Moab it certainly was a misnomer, for he who bore it had forsaken the people of God in order to be there.
Naomi. Elimelech's wife's name, like his own, does not occur elsewhere in scripture. Her name appears to mean "pleasantness" or "sweetness," especially that graciousness of manner which is associated with spiritual beauty. The word is used by the psalmist when he writes of beholding the "beauty (pleasantness, graciousness) of Jehovah" (Ps. 27:4), and again, of his desire that this "beauty" may be upon His people (Ps. 90:17). See also Zech. 11:7, 10, where the word is again found. Naomi (pleasantness) is also connected with wisdom, for Solomon says, "Her ways are ways of pleasantness" (Prov. 3:17). By name therefore, the gracious, good, and wise Naomi must have been a fitting consort for Elimelech; united they would be a noble and goodly pair, powerful and pleasant in their joint lives.
Mahlon and Chilion. Here again are names occurring nowhere else in scripture. For this reason the exact meaning of both names is obscure; but it is sufficiently clear that a deterioration from the sterling qualities implied in the parental names is indicated. Mahlon has been variously translated; e.g., "great infirmity," "painful," "mild." Chilion may mean "consuming," or "consumption," or "pining." Evidently, the general sense of both names is that weakness and wasting characterised the two sons of Elimelech. There was a recognised declension in the family status.
In Judges 17:7 and Judges 19:1, two Levites of evil reputation are associated with Bethlehem-Judah; in Ruth, this place is the home of Elimelech, and afterwards that of Boaz and Ruth. This small town or village in the south of Palestine is of exceptional interest throughout scripture, mainly because of its connection with the life of David (it is called "the city of David," Luke 2:4), and afterwards with David's Son and Lord. It is here and in a few other passages named Bethlehem-Judah to distinguish it from another Bethlehem, situated in the north of Palestine, west of Nazareth, and belonging to another tribe, that of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15).
Micah used a different name for the town in Judah. He prophesied that out of "Bethlehem-Ephratah," though "little among the thousands of Judah," He should come forth Who should be the Judge and Ruler of Israel (Micah 5:1, 2). Ephrath or Ephratah was Bethlehem's ancient name (Gen. 35:16, 19; Gen. 48:7), which it bore when Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died, both sons being types of our Lord in His sovereignty and rule.
Bethlehem lies about five or six miles south of Jerusalem, on a mountainous ridge some 2,500 feet high. The vicinity is noted for its productive corn-fields, olive-yards and vineyards, and also its rich pasturage for flocks and herds. This pastoral abundance is indicated by both its names: Ephrath or Ephratah means "fertility," while Bethlehem means "the house of bread." In a land of general plenty, Bethlehem was known by all to be specially favoured of God with a bountiful supply of food.
How then could Elimelech justify his step in leaving the fruitful fields of Bethlehem for the idol-worshipping land of Moab? If God had withheld His rain from heaven because He was not honoured in Bethlehem, was He more honoured in Moab? Surely, faith, instead of fleeing, would have said, As God has given to me and my seed an inheritance in Bethlehem for ever, I will trust Him daily for the sustenance needed by my family, and I will remain here until He bids me depart. After all, the famine gave him an occasion to show by his "works" that he had faith in God (see James 2:17-26); but he was afraid, and his fear brought about his failure.
The Land of Moab
In the distress of famine, Elimelech from the heights of Bethlehem may have looked eastward across the Dead Sea and have seen thirty or forty miles away the mountains of Moab and among them the peak of Mount Nebo from which Moses not so long before viewed the promised land before his death (Deut. 34:1-5). At any rate, to this neighbouring territory he took his family to find food and shelter, ignoring the evil origin and reputation of the Moabite people whose hospitality he was seeking. "And they came into the country of Moab and continued there" (Ruth 1:2).
The two sister-nations, Moab and Ammon, are known as "the children of Lot" (Deut. 2:9), and are of incestuous origination (Gen. 19:37, 38). They have always been inveterate and implacable enemies of God's elect nation, and they are included in the coming great confederacy of nations which will be formed under the revived Assyrian power to destroy the children of Israel and blot out their very name from the earth (see the prophecy in Psalm 83:4-8).
Moab displayed this enmity against Israel on the way from Egypt to Canaan. When the travelling people reached the plains of Moab (Num. 22:1), Balak the king hired Balaam to effect their destruction by his curses (Joshua 24:9, 10). This scheme failing through divine guardianship, other means of injury were adopted on the advice of the wicked prophet. The people were induced "to join themselves" to Baal-Peor and to indulge in the lascivious rites of the gods of Moab, thousands of the people dying from the plague that followed. This was a dark page in Israel's history, to which there are many allusions in the admonitions of scripture (Num. 31:16; Num. 25:1-5; Deut. 4:3; Ps. 106:28-30; Hosea 9:10; 1 Cor. 10:8; Rev. 2:14).
Elimelech could not have been unacquainted with this terrible incident in the recent history of his people. Nevertheless because of famine he went to sojourn among the heathen Moabites who had even refused bread and water to his fathers when they were on their borders. Because of their flagrant enmity God had said to His people, "Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever" (Deut. 23:4-6; Neh. 13:2); yet Elimelech went there to seek bread for the family.
Misery in Moab
Twice in the Book of Proverbs it is said, "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is the ways of death" (Prov. 14:12, Prov. 16:25). Following his own judgment, Elimelech chose the way which led to Moab to find the food which perisheth, but there he also found his grave. "And Elimelech Naomi's husband died; and she was left and her two sons" (Ruth 1:3). The house of the Bethlehemites in Moab became the house of mourning. There Naomi lamented the loss of the husband she loved and reverenced. There Mahlon and Chilion lost for ever the wisdom and strength a father's guardianship had hitherto afforded them.
To sojourn in Moab must have seemed to Elimelech the right course to take; but had he first sought to know the will of God? Did he wait to hear God's voice saying to him, "This is the way, walk ye in it?" He was seeking bread, but he should have remembered the newly-written words of Moses, "Man doth not live by bread alone, but by everything that goeth out of the mouth of Jehovah doth man live" (Deut. 8:3). He no doubt found bread in Moab, for, like Bethlehem, it was a place of fruitful fields (Jer. 48:31-33) and vineyards (Isa. 16:8-10), as well as of pasturage for flocks (2 Kings 3:4). But Elimelech had no word from God as his warrant for being in Moab; and he died there. In his independent act, he was a contrast with our Lord in the wilderness of Judea, a hungry dependent Man, but One Who found sufficient food in the word and will of Him Who sent Him (Matt. 4:1-4; cp. John 4:31-34).
Bereavement, however, did not drive the widowed Naomi and her sons back to Bethlehem. They settled down in Moab; and the sons "took them Moabitish wives; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the second Ruth; and they abode there about ten years" (Ruth 1:4). Mahlon and Chilion acted as they pleased and on their own responsibility. If they had come to Moab at their father's bidding, they chose their wives of their own freewill. If their father's intention was to "sojourn" in Moab (ver. 1), they now decided to stay in the land of idolatry indefinitely. Those who take a downward path soon accelerate their pace almost unconsciously.
Marriage with idolatrous nations was forbidden by the law of Moses (Deut. 7:3), and no Moabite was permitted to enter "the congregation of Jehovah for ever" (Deut. 23:3, 4). But these two young men of weak piety and stubborn wills married Orpah and Ruth. They abode in Moab about ten years, and both died childless. By the death of the two sons the name and inheritance of Elimelech perished. In this family of Bethlehem the solemn warning was fulfilled which the apostle Paul wrote long afterwards, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap" (Gal. 6:7). "And Mahlon and Chilion died also, both of them, and the woman was left of her two children and of her husband" (Ruth 1:5). Thus Naomi became a childless widow in a strange land!