Continuing our study of the Old Testament Historical Books, we now begin our study of the book of Ruth. This book is one of shortest in the Bible, but it tells an important story about the ancestors of David, the greatest king of ancient Israel. In so doing, it also reveals the remarkable faithfulness of God to His people.
Ruth 1:1 opens the book by telling us that it is set “in the days when the judges ruled.” So, the events in Ruth occurred sometime between 1360 and 1110 BC, as those are the rough dates for the period described by the book of Judges, and closer to 1110 given that the story is about David’s great-grandparents Ruth and Boaz. In any case, we see that a famine in the territory of Judah, one of the tribes of Israel, precipitated a series of significant turns that would finally lead to the birth of David.
When famine struck Judah, a man named Elimelech, who was a Judahite, went to live in the land of Moab with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, who took for themselves Moabite wives (Ruth 1:2–4). This was a problem. The name Elimelech means “My God is King,” but Elimelech’s fleeing to the land of Moab indicates that he did not have much confidence in his Lord. The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot through an incestuous act with his daughter (Gen. 19:30–38). They were enemies of Israel who hired Balaam to curse the wandering Israelites of the exodus generation and who led the same Israelites into the worship of false gods (Num. 22–25). Instead of trusting the Lord to provide for his family in the promised land, Elimelech went to the land of his enemies. To make matters worse, his sons married Moabites, who were forbidden to enter the “assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:3–6). Ultimately, this ban was due to the impenitent idolatry of the Moabites, not to their ethnicity, for Ruth the Moabitess joined Israel when she trusted in the God of Israel.
When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi decided to return to the land of Judah, and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, started out with her (Ruth 1:3–6). Concerned for her daughters-in-law, Naomi told them to go back to Moab and take new husbands, for she would be unable to bear more sons whom they could eventually marry (vv. 7–13). Naomi was alluding to the practice of levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5–10), which is key to the story of Ruth and which we will discuss more in the days ahead. Orpah went back to Moab, but Ruth clung to her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:14).