A Family Tragedy: Famine and Death

1:1 During the time of the judges there was a famine in the land of Judah.

In the days when the judges ruled – The ‘judges’ spoken of were not legal functionaries, but people raised up by God to be deliverers in a time of national trouble. These were days of:-

  • Sinfulness, Jud 2:11
  • Servitude, Jud 2:14
  • Sorrow, Jud 2:15
  • Scarcity, Jud 6:6 Ruth 1:1

‘The story of Ruth takes place sometime during the period of the rule of the judges. These were dark days for Israel, when “everyone did as he saw fit.” (Jud 17:6 21:25) But during those dark and evil times, there were still some who followed God. Naomi and Ruth are beautiful examples of loyalty, friendship, and commitment – to God and to each other.’ (Life Application Bible)

There was a famine – The severity of which may have been made worse by unsettled times which characterised the period of the Judges. In the days of Gideon, for example, we know that the Midianites destroyed both cattle and produce, Judg 6:3f.

The land is, of course, Canaan. Palestine has rather uncertain rainfall, and so drought, and consequently famines, were quite common, taking place during the lifetimes of Abraham, Gen 12:10; David, 2 Sam 21:1; and Elijah, 1 Kings 17:1. Local variations could occur, so that a famine in Judah might not affect neighboring Moab. Moreover, the chaotic time of the judges (Jud 21:25; cf 6:3f) would have exacerbated matters.

The promised land was one ‘flowing with milk and honey’, and Bethlehem was the very ‘house of bread’.  Famine was one of the judgements God had threatened if his people were disobedient, Deut 28.  Elimelech should have seen the famine as God’s amber warning light, intended to lead to repentance (Ferguson), but instead he chose to flee.

So a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live as a resident foreigner in the region of Moab, along with his wife and two sons.

A man – God is interested the concerns of individuals as well as the affairs of the cosmos.  ‘The book of Judges is painted on a broad canvas.  Although individual people feature in the book, they do so in the context of civil strife, of national upheavals, of international concerns.  The book of Ruth, however, although not ultimately unmindful of the national – even global – significance of its characters, nevertheless homes in on ‘a certain man’, his family and their fortunes.  It reminds us that the God of the nations is also concerned about the ordinariness of “a certain man”.’ (Atkinson)

Bethlehem – means ‘House of Bread’, a name which indicates its unusual fertility (see ch 2).

Went to live for a while – Moving house is a stressful experience. It means turning your back on familiar people and places, and finding your way in a new environment.

Moab was the son of Lot, the evil fruit of the incestuous relation of Lot with one of his daughters, Gen 19:36f. Moabites had hired Balaam to curse Israel (Num 22:1-8) during Israel’s pilgrimage to Canaan.

Moab was fifty miles away, south-east across the Dead Sea. It was populated by people descended from Lot, Gen 19:37. Their worship of the Chemosh seems to have involved human sacrifice. Moab was one of the nations that oppressed Israel during the period of the judges, (Jud 3:12ff) so there was hostility between the two nations. The famine must have been quite severe in Israel for Elimelech to move his family here.

It was odd thing for Elimelech to do – to forsake the promised land for such an alien environment.  ‘It is evidence of a discontented, distrustful, unstable spirit to be weary of the place in which God has set us, and to be leaving it immediately, whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it.’  (MHC)  But even this is move is evidence of distrust or unbelief on his part, the rest of the book will show how God can in the long run overrule even our mistakes for good.

1:2 (Now the man’s name was Elimelech, his wife was Naomi, and his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were of the clan of Ephrath from Bethlehem in Judah.)

The man’s name was Elimelech – Like other Hebrew authors, the writer of this book shows an interest in people’s names. ‘Elimelech’ means ‘My God is King’, and our author may be wanting to remind us of the irony of a man with such a name lacking confidence in the sovereign care of Yahweh.

Naomi means ‘pleasant’; ‘delightful’, cf. 1:20.

They were Ephrathites – The meaning of this term is uncertain. It may be that Ephrathah was a clan name of a family in Bethlehem whose importance made the clan name a synonym for the city. If so, Elimelech and his family are members of the local aristocracy. This is borne out by the indication that Naomi was clearly not a nobody when she returned, v19, and by her exclamation that she had left for Moab as a wealthy person, v21.

They entered the region of Moab and settled there.

They went to Moab and lived there – Perhaps the writer of this book wishes us to understand that this was not a wise move on the part of Elimelech. Those who stayed at Bethlehem fared well (v6), whereas Elimelech and his two sons all perished in Moab. Elimelech’s widow, Naomi, was left in much more difficult straits than if they had remained at Bethlehem. So, Elimelech’s move to Moab may have been motivated in part by a lack of faith in God’s providence. Nevertheless, the rest of the book demonstrates ‘that God’s gracious providence is not bound by man’s foolishness’ (Atkinson).

1:3 Sometime later Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, so she and her two sons were left alone.

‘Widows in the ancient Near East had lost all social status and generally were also without political or economic status. They would equate to the homeless in our American society. Typically they had no male protector and were therefore economically dependent on society at large.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

‘There was almost nothing worse than being a widow in the ancient world. Widows were taken advantage of or ignored. They were almost always poverty stricken. God’s law, therefore, provided that the nearest relative of the dead husband should care for the widow; but Naomi had no relatives in Moab, and she did not know if any of her relatives were alive in Israel.

Even in her desperate situation, Naomi had a selfless attitude. Although she had decided to return to Israel, she encouraged Ruth and Orpah to say in Moab and start their lives again, even though this would mean hardship for her. Like Naomi, we must consider the needs of others and not just our own. As Naomi discovered, when you act selflessly, others are encouraged to follow your example.’ (Life Application Bible)

1:4 So her sons married Moabite women. (One was named Orpah and the other Ruth.) And they continued to live there about ten years.

Orpah and…Ruth – These are Moabite names. They were, by upbringing, worshipers of Chemosh.

We may regard this as Naomi’s ‘survival plan’.  The marriage of her sons – even to Moabite women – would continuance of the family line.

1:5 Then Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, also died. So the woman was left all alone—bereaved of her two children as well as her husband!

Naomi’s ‘survival plan’ does not work.  Her sons both die without producing any heirs.

So, one disaster follows another. Naomi found herself ‘alone, without home, husband, sons, fellowship, or hope of inheritance’ (Atkinson).  Surely, Naomi neither expected nor deserved this? How can she continue to believe in a God who treats her in this way? She might even have been tempted to say, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few!”

The text does not record that Naomi explicitly asking, ‘Why has God done this to me?”.  However, as the story unfolds, the Lord’s larger plan will become apparent.

Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband – ‘Naomi…was alone, without home, husband, sons, fellowship, or hope of inheritance. What did the worship of Yahweh mean to her now?’ (Atkinson) The OT presents only a partial and shadowy hope in life beyond death. Naomi had to face the prospect that with the death of her husband and her two sons both their name and their inheritance would be lost.

Dale Ralph Davis points out that life can fall apart in just five verses.  One famine, three deaths, ten years, all summarised in five verses.

1:6 So she decided to return home from the region of Moab, accompanied by her daughters-in-law, because while she was living in Moab she had heard that the LORD had shown concern for his people, reversing the famine by providing abundant crops.

She decided to return home – There is no hint that she consulted the diviners before reaching this decision (in contrast to Judges 18:5; 20:18).

When she heard – Naomi had not cut off the lines of communication with her homeland. Nor, as we shall learn shortly, had she allowed her faith in Yahweh to die even though she was living amongst those who knew him not. We can be encouraged by such faithfulness. ‘Faith…is a living mobile, not a still life. And when some parts swing for a time in the shadow, we trust that they will again emerge into the light as they have many times before.’ (Atkinson)

The Lord – The Book of Ruth is rich in its revelation of who Yahweh is. Here, he is the one who comes to meet his people in their need. The character of God dominates the narrative. It was this Lord who had come to the aid of his people. The report was not that the weather had changed for the better, or that the economy had improved, or that the invaders had departed. No: all is traced to the hand of God. All other factors are second causes. The concentrate on these encourages us to seek to manipulate them; to concentrate on God is the First Cause motivates us to look to him in prayer and faith.

‘In our worldview we would be inclined to identify human or natural cause and effect first and then mention that “of course, God was behind it all.” In the ancient Near East it would be the other way around. God would be identified as the cause behind famine or war, with natural or human causes given secondary notice, if mentioned at all. They would not rule out natural causes any more than we would rule out supernatural ones.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

Shown concern for his people – lit. ‘visited his people’.  The same word is used in Judges 21:3, where Yahweh’s ‘visit’ is much more hostile.

Return – Although translated variously in most English versions, the underlying Heb word (‘shub’) occurs repeatedly in this chapter (vv6,7,8,10,11,12,15,16,21,22).  ‘The constant repetition of this particular verb is significant because it is not only the Hebrew word for “return”, but it is the Old Testament’s main word for turning back to God’s covenant grace and mercy – for repentance, for conversion.’ (Ferguson)

Ruth Returns with Naomi

1:7 Now as she and her two daughters-in-law began to leave the place where she had been living to return to the land of Judah, 1:8 Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Listen to me! Each of you should return to your mother’s home! May the LORD show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me!1:9 May the LORD enable each of you to find security in the home of a new husband!” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept loudly. 1:10 But they said to her, “No! We will return with you to your people.”

“Return to your mother’s home” – Possibly a hint that their fathers had multiple wives, each living in separate homes.  But the main point is that Naomi is urging them to go home.

‘Desolate Naomi repeatedly urges her daughters-in-law to return to their original homes in Moab; (Ruth 1:8,11-12,15) she has nothing to offer them.’ (NIV Study Bible)

Duiguid suggests that Naomi may have had in mind the idea that returning home with these two foreign women would be a standing reminder of the family’s sin in leaving the Promised Land in the first place.

Naomi’s love and concern for her daughters-in-law is expressed in prayer. ‘Prayer is, as it were, the flip side to the doctrine of providence. Prayer is the acknowledgement, not of the psychological benefit of some mythological exercise, but of the fact that we believe that God is there, God cares, God rules and God provides, and believe it in such a way that we ready to do something on that basis, namely speak to him. Providence reminds us of our creatureliness and dependence on God, and that together with all men, we stand under God’s lordship; prayer is an activity by which we acknowledge that we cannot be our own lord. Providence reminds us that everything is not ultimately absurd or meaningless; prayer is our way of expressing our “yes” to the conviction that God is working his purposes our in nature, in men, in history. Providence is a reminder that the Lord is a God of grace and generosity; prayer is our way of responding to his invitation to be a member of his covenant family, his son or daughter, his co-worker in this world. Providence reminds us that the living God is not an irresistible fate before whom we can only keep silent and passive; prayer is our response to God’s invitation to share fellowship with him, an expression of our union with him. (Atkinson)

“May the Lord…” – Naomi uses the word ‘Yahweh’, the personal name of the God of Israel, rather than the general word ‘Elohim’ or else ‘Chemosh’, one of the principal gods of the Moabites (Num 21:29 1 Kings 11:7).  As Bock observes, there is an assumption here that the love and power of the God of Israel extends beyond national boundaries.

Naomi’s pronouncement of blessing is followed by that of Boaz (Ruth 2:12), the Bethlehem council (Ruth 4:11), and the women of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:14).  Taken together, they express ‘a marvelous theology of hope in Ruth’ (Moore, UBCS).

“Devotion” – ‘Kindness’ (NIV).  The underlying word is one of covenant relationship – ‘steadfast love and faithfulness’. It is a word which ‘combines the warmth of God’s fellowship with the security of God’s faithfulness’ (Motyer).

Bock says that the underlying word – hesed – defies translation into a single English word: ‘It is a covenant term, wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty.’

“May the LORD show you the same kind of devotion that you have shown to your deceased husbands and to me!” – ‘in her effusive praise of her daughters-in-law she presents these Moabite women as models of grace for Yahweh himself. She holds out the possibility that human kindness may be answered in kind by divine action, based of course on the assumption that Yahweh, the God of Israel, actually cares about these Moabite women.’ (Bock)

“Security in the home of a new husband” – ‘Security’ – lit. ‘rest’.  How rare such ‘rest’ was in the days of the Judges!  How needed is such ‘rest’ in our homes and families today!

‘In antiquity there were, of course, few jobs for women, especially in rural areas, so that marriage was almost the only career open to a woman. It was the one thing that promised stability. Naomi saw no future for the young women in her own country. Being Moabites they would be less likely to remarry in Israel. And what else could they do there other than share her poverty?’ (Leon Morris)

They wept aloud – These are tears of anguish for all that they have suffered together, as well as tears over the pain of separation.  They were torn between their love for Naomi and their hope of finding stability and support in a second marriage.

1:11 But Naomi replied, “Go back home, my daughters! There is no reason for you to return to Judah with me! I am no longer capable of giving birth to sons who might become your husbands! 1:12 Go back home, my daughters! For I am too old to get married again. Even if I thought that there was hope that I could get married tonight and conceive sons, 1:13 surely you would not want to wait until they were old enough to marry! Surely you would not remain unmarried all that time! No, my daughters, you must not return with me. For my intense suffering is too much for you to bear. For the LORD is afflicting me!”

“Am I going to have any more sons” – and even if so, would you be content to wait until they were of marriageable age (v13)?

‘Naomi’s comment here…refers to “Levirate marriage,” the obligation of a dead man’s brother to care for the widow. (Deut 25:5-10) This law kept the widow from poverty and provided a way for the family name of the dead husband to continue. Naomi, however, had no other sons for Ruth or Orpah to marry, so she encouraged them to remain in their homeland and remarry. Orpah agreed, which was her right. But Ruth was willing to give up the possibility of security and children in order to care for Naomi.’ (Life Application Bible)

Under the Levirate law (referred to by Naomi in 1:11-13), when a man died childless his brother was bound to raise an heir to him by the widow. This law extended to the next of kin, hence Naomi’s plan. Ruth, by her action in verse 7, was claiming this right. It is complicated by the fact that Boaz is not in fact Elimelech’s closest kinsman, but he promises to take up her case.

“I am too old to get married again” – Bock calculates that Naomi would have been past the age of fifty.

“My intense suffering is too much for you to bear” – Or, ‘It is more bitter for me than for you’ (NIV).

“The Lord’s hand has gone out against me!” – ‘These…words arise from a conviction that underlies the whole of this book, namely, that things do not happen by chance. God is a sovereign God and he brings to pass what he will. Thus Naomi can ascribe responsibility for what has befallen her to no-one but him.’ (Leon Morris)

UBCS remarks that the expression ‘the Lord’s hand’ occurs forty times in the Hebrew Bible, ‘usually in reference to a mysterious, unpredictable power’ (as in Judges 2:15).  Isa 45:7 confirms that bold truth that the Lord both ‘brings about peace’ and ‘creates calamity’.

‘They had each lost a husband. Naomi had lost a husband and two sons as well. Moreover, the young widows could remarry and thus find security and happiness. For Naomi there was no prospect other than a lonely old age.’ (Leon Morris)

‘Despite the pain – even anger – Naomi still holds on to the fact that what she has received is somehow from the Lord’s hands. What is impressive is the truthfulness of her life before God. There is no hiding of the feeling, no pretence that her anger is not there, no sweeping aside with either Stoic upper-lip-stiffness, nor with false affirmations that all in fact feels well.’ (Atkinson)

We do well to remember that ‘Christians grieve too’, although not as those who have no hope. Death has indeed lost its sting, but we must not deny the pain of parting to those who are bereaved. Did not even Jesus weep at the tomb of a friend?

Even though she perceives the Lord’s hand in the famine, in the bereavements, and in the apparent hopelessness of the present situation; even though she experiences God almost as her enemy (“The Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”), she still refers to God by his covenant name of Yahweh.

1:14 Again they wept loudly. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung tightly to her. 1:15 So Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her god. Follow your sister-in-law back home!”

Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye – It is probably wrong to spiritualise or moralise about Orpah’s decision to stay.  There was nothing immoral or illegal about it.  We do not know if Naomi’s prayer for her was answered.  But the narrator offers no criticism of her.  From a literary perspective, her character acts mainly as a foil to that of Ruth (Moore, UBCS).

But Ruth clung tightly to herIt has been suggested that because the same word (dabaq, ‘clung’) is used of Adam and Eve in Gen 2:24, this text recognises and blesses a lesbian relationship between Ruth and Naomi (see also vv16f.  Ruth’s strong love for Naomi is expressed still further in the verses that follow.  It is further suggested that Ruth’s eventual marriage to Boaz is one of convenience, love never being mentioned.  When Ruth bears a son, the focus is again on Naomi (Ruth 4:17), rather than on Boaz.  By way of response, it should be pointed out that (a) the fact that two biblical passages have one word in common can scarcely bear the weight put upon it in this interpretation; (b) there is nothing whatever in the text itself to suggest that the relationship between Naomi and Ruth was sexual in nature; (c) while it is perfectly clear from the text that Naomi and Ruth loved one another deeply, Ruth 4:15 strongly suggests that this deep affection was of a mother/daughter kind.

Her god – or ‘her gods’ (NIV).  ‘Naomi is probably not referring here to the tribal-national deities of Transjordan. Instead she may mean the household gods or the icons representing the ancestral dead (the mysterious ’elohim). The majority of Hebrews, like their Canaanite neighbors, always revered such icons. The story of Micah clearly illustrates this (Judg. 18:24).’ (Moore, UBCS)

Bock identifies a weakness in Naomi’s belief: ‘If she represents the highest level of faith in Israel, it is no wonder Yahweh had sent a famine on the land.’

1:16 But Ruth replied,
“Stop urging me to abandon you!
For wherever you go, I will go.
Wherever you live, I will live.
Your people will become my people,
and your God will become my God.
1:17 Wherever you die, I will die—and there I will be buried.
May the LORD punish me severely if I do not keep my promise!
Only death will be able to separate me from you!”

Bock remarks on the beauty, courage, and spirituality reflected in Ruth’s speech.

Nothing would lure Ruth away from Naomi’s side – not her mother’s house, nor her ancestral home, nor her ancestral gods, nor the pleadings of Naomi herself.  ‘Ruth is amazingly ready to walk away from everything important and meaningful in her world. Her response to Naomi is one of Scripture’s greatest declarations of interdependence.’ (Moore, UBCS)

And then, a very uncertain reception would face Ruth in Bethlehem.  ‘Ruth was a nobody, an outsider, a Moabite of all things. There was nothing kosher about Ruth. She knew she would be about as welcome in Bethlehem as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.’ (Duguid)

Ruth’s reply is in three parts: ‘a negative refusal, a poetic comparison, and an oath’ (Moore, UBCS).

‘There must have been something very beautiful in Naomi’s life thus to win the devotion and love of Ruth, first to herself and then to her God.’ (A.M. Hodgkin, Christ in all the Scriptures, 59)

‘This classic expression of loyalty and love discloses the true character of Ruth. Her commitment to Naomi is complete, even though it holds no prospect for her but to share in Naomi’s desolation.’ (NIV Study Bible) Cf 2 Sam 15:21

‘The Targum…gives the following interpretation of these verses:- “And Ruth said, ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, for I desire to become a proselyte.’ And Naomi said, ‘We are commanded to keep the Sabbath and other holy days, and on it not to travel more than two thousand cubits.’ And Ruth said, ‘Whither thou goest, I will go.’ And Naomi said, ‘We are commanded not to lodge with Gentiles.’ Ruth answered, ‘Where thou lodgest, I will lodge.’ And Naomi said, ‘We are commanded to observe the one hundred and thirteen precepts.’ Ruth answered, ‘What they people observe, that will I observe, as if they had been my people of old.’ And Naomi said, ‘We are commanded not to worship with any strange worship or strange gods.’ Ruth answered, ‘Thy God shall be my God.’ Naomi said, ‘It is our custom, if at all possible, to be buried in our own country.’ Ruth answered, ‘Where thou diest, I will die.’ Naomi said, ‘We have a family place for burial.’ Ruth answered, ‘And there I will be buried also.’ (World’s Bible Handbook, 137)

“Wherever you live, I will live” – lit. ‘wherever you stay the night’, leading to the sense, perhaps, of ‘wherever you lay down your head’.

Your people will be my people and your God my God – The word ‘elohim‘ is used, and so Ruth might have meant ‘your gods my gods’, except that in the very next verse she swears by God’s covenant name of ‘Yahweh’.

Compare Ex 6:7 – “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God”.  This is a solemn and deliberate confession of Yahweh and his covenantal promise.

Spurgeon comments that ‘affection for the godly should influence us to godliness’, and adds the following particulars:-

  • The influence of companionship.
  • The influence of admiration.
  • The influence of instruction.
  • The desire to cheer the godly persons whom we love.
  • The fear of separation.

Spurgeon also notes that ‘resolves to godliness will be tested’. Ruth’s resolve had been tested by:-

  • ‘The poverty and the sorrow of her mother-in-law.’ ‘Naomi said, “The Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me;” yet Ruth says, “Thy God shall be my God.”‘
  • ‘When she was bidden to count the cost.’ Naomi had set before her the hopelessness of her prospects. Those who would say to Christians, ‘Your God will be my God’ should realise what they may have to give up, as well as what they stand to gain.
  • ‘The apparent coldness of one in whom she trusted.’
  • ‘The drawing back of her sister-in-law.’
  • ‘The silence of Naomi.’

There is not only affection and patriotism expressed in Ruth’s words, but a determined and carefully-considered devotion to Yahweh.

However, ‘although some would interpret Ruth’s declaration as a sign of conversion, it is better viewed as an affirmation of a transfer of membership from the people of Moab to Israel and of allegiance from Chemosh to Yahweh.’ (Bock)

Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried – ‘I would rather die with you, in your land, and among your people, and with your God, than live in my own people, in my own land, among my own people, and with my gods.’

The significance of this statement is stressed by Moore (UBCS): ‘Recent research on ancient Near Eastern beliefs about the afterlife significantly heightens our appreciation for Ruth’s faith. Choosing to be buried outside of one’s ancestral estate (nakhalat ʹelohim, 2 Sam. 14:16) is highly unusual for Syro-Palestinians because such decisions are believed to impose grave danger to the everlasting security of one’s extended family, living as well as dead.’

“May the LORD punish me severely if I do not keep my promise!” – Significantly, this solemn oath is uttered in the name of Yahweh.

Bock discusses the contemporary use of Ruth’s speech in the context of marriage vows.  He notes, first of all, that it was uttered by to daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.  It would only be legitimate to apply it to marriage between a man and a woman if such marriage represented the binding together of the two families (and not simply the binding together of two individuals, as it usually the case in our Western culture).  Further legitimisation could be found if one assumes that the speech contains four elements common to all pledges of commitment: ‘(1) an appeal to resist all pressures to break the relationship; (2) a commitment to the other person for life; (3) the adoption of the other person’s family and faith as one’s own and the abandonment of prior allegiances; and (4) an awareness that God is a witness to all the promises we make.’  Bock concludes: ‘since every one of these elements should be a part of any Christian marriage, this speech does indeed illustrate the nature and depth of total commitment.’

1:18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped trying to dissuade her. 1:19 So the two of them journeyed together until they arrived in Bethlehem.

Ruth has made up her mind, and has expressed her resolve with great eloquence.  Naomi is left without reply.  In fact, there is no word of appreciation from Naomi, and her silence after Ruth’s beautiful words of commitment, together with her words (“Empty”) on arrival in Bethlehem suggest that she does not count Ruth’s presence as much of an asset.

Naomi and Ruth Arrive in Bethlehem

When they entered Bethlehem, the whole village was excited about their arrival. The women of the village said, “Can this be Naomi?” 1:20 But she replied to them, “Don’t call me ‘Naomi’! Call me ‘Mara’ because the Sovereign One has treated me very harshly. 1:21 I left here full, but the LORD has caused me to return empty-handed. Why do you call me ‘Naomi,’ seeing that the LORD has opposed me, and the Sovereign One has caused me to suffer?”

The whole town was excited – ‘stirred’ (NIV); ‘in upheaval’.  Bock describes it as a ‘hum’ or ‘buzz’ of excitement.  The population of Bethlehem would have been a couple of hundred people at the most.

‘No doubt Naomi’s relatives had heard of the grief she had experienced since she and her husband had left the town and headed for Moab more than a decade ago. So one can imagine their excitement when she suddenly shows up unannounced.’ (Bock)

“Can this be Naomi?” – Probably, it was not only that they were not expecting to see her, after all these years, but that her appearance had changed almost beyond recognition.

Note that even though the narrator makes it clear that ‘they’ entered Bethlehem, and that the whole village was excited about ‘their’ arrival, the women of the village only acknowledge Naomi.  She seems to be – both to Ruth and them – an embarrassing appendage.

Naomi…Mara – ‘Naomi’ means ‘pleasant’; whereas ‘Mara’ means ‘bitter’.  Changes of name were not uncommon at, or after, times of crisis.  (Naomi’s hearers seem not to have taken her seriously, for they continued to refer to her by her original name.)

“The Sovereign One” – ‘the Almighty’ (NIV).  This translates the Heb. Shaddai.

“I left here full” – Not with a full belly, of course, for it was a famine that had led her husband to leave with her.  But ‘if “fulness” is understood in terms of family and progeny, the statement is true. When she left, she was secure in her husband, and her future was secured by her two sons.’ (Bock)

“The LORD has caused me to return empty-handed” – Or, more simply (and positively) ’empty the Lord brought me back.’

‘Naomi had experienced severe hardships. She had left Israel married and secure; she returned widowed and poor. Naomi changed her name to express the bitterness and pain she felt. Naomi was not rejecting God by openly expressing her pain. However, she seems to have lost sight of the tremendous resources she had in her relationship with Ruth and with God. When you face bitter times, God welcomes your honest prayers, but be careful not to overlook the love, strength, and resources that he provides in your present relationships. And don’t allow bitterness and disappointment to blind you to your opportunities.’ (Life Application Bible)

‘Naomi recognised that the tragedies of her life were not accidents but that the hand of God had been in each of them. God is the Almighty, the one who controls all the circumstances of life. He is not powerless in the presence of evil, but remains the sovereign God, who can make all things work together for the good of his children, Rom 8:28.’ (Wycliffe Bible Commentary)

“The Lord has opposed me” – ‘afflicted me’ (NIV).  See Job 1:21. It was not possible for Naomi at the time to understand that God’s plan for both her and Ruth was for good, and not for evil. But as Christians we know more clearly than her that this is often God’s way. It was just so with the cross of Christ. At the climax of his suffering, our Lord cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the very moment that he feels forsaken by God, he is still able to call him, “My God, my God.” Christ was once forsaken by God so that we might never be. We may come to him with our burdens of guilt and sorrow and shame, and cast our burdens on him.

Dale Ralph Davis says that this expression might better be rendered: ‘the Lord has testified against me.’  She may have felt that she was in the wrong; that the Lord had tried her and found her guilty.  She complains about God, but she does not abandon him.  Faith continues to deal with God even when it cannot comprehend his ways.  ‘The hand of the Lord has gone out against me.’

‘I think the author uses a polysemantic term to convey the multidimensional depth of Naomi’s pain. Thus we feel not only her sense of legal impotence (testimony) but also her sense of theological abandonment (affliction).’ (Moore, UBCS)

As her speech shows, Naomi is ‘bitter’ against God.  ‘There was no whisper of acknowledgement in her heart of her own responsibility in choosing the path of disobedience that had led her away from the Promised Land in the first place. Naomi was simply resentful that the greener pastures of Moab, outside the land of promise, had actually turned into a desert in her experience. The prodigal daughter may now have been back home in her Father’s land physically, but she was back only because she didn’t see any prospect of continued survival among the pigs in the far country. Her body may have made the journey home, but her spirit was still far from restored.’ (Duguid)

Naomi recognises Yahweh as the source of her misery, for it is he who controls the cycle of nature and has power over life and death.  However, she does not question God’s justice, nor proclaim her own innocence.  She seems to have accepted it as a mystery.

The narrative stresses that it is the two of them who make their way the Bethlehem.  And yet the Bethlehemites and Naomi ignore Ruth’s presence.  It is as though she is an embarrassing appendage.  In all her bitterness, Naomi has no idea that in God’s providence the source of her future joy and well-being stands in silence right next to her!

Bock sees in Naomi ‘a flawed faith. Unable to see human causation in Israel’s famine and in her own trials, the woman the neighbors greet is a bitter old woman. She does indeed ascribe sovereignty to God, but this is a sovereignty without grace, an omnipotent power without compassion, a judicial will without mercy.’

‘In a patricentric world where a woman’s security is found in her husband and her future is determined by her sons, she stands alone—except, of course, for this Moabite who has chosen to cast her lot with her.’ (Bock)

Duiguid agrees that Naomi’s faith was flawed: ‘Part of Naomi’s difficulty, of course, was that she wasn’t a very good member of the covenant community herself. There was no distinctive holiness about her; on the contrary, she herself was sinfully on the run from the land of obedience. Those who are consciously living a life of disobedience to God are not typically eager to defend and explain their faith to others! Yet isn’t it striking (and encouraging to us all) that even though at that moment she wasn’t looking out for Ruth’s spiritual interests, or even looking for God herself, nonetheless God was still able to use her, in spite of her attitude, as a means to draw Ruth to himself? Fortunately, God’s mission to rescue sinners is not limited by our flaws, failings, and foibles! God will call to himself those whom he chooses, sometimes through the most bizarre messengers and unlikely combinations of circumstances. It is his work from beginning to end.’

1:22 So Naomi returned, accompanied by her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who came back with her from the region of Moab. (Now they arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.)

Accompanied by Ruth – So Naomi was not empty (v21) after all.  Where was God?  Right there, by her side, in the person of her daughter-in-law.

Arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning – The barley harvest took place in the second half of April, at the end of the rainy season.  It was the first of the major harvest seasons.

The chapter began with a mention of famine; it ends with mention of harvest.  Evidently, this is more than a merely chronological marker.