Orpah the Moabitess daughter-in-law of Naomi returned to her homeland when Naomi told her that her prospects for getting a new husband were bad if she did not go back to Moab (Ruth 1:1–14). Her other Moabitess daughter-in-law Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and Naomi tried to encourage Ruth to go back to Moab in order to find a new husband (v. 15).
Note that Naomi exhorted Ruth to go back to Moab by telling her that Orpah has gone back “to her gods” (v. 15). In the ancient Near East, peoples of different territories worshiped different gods, and it was thought that a god’s reign was limited to the territory where the god’s worshipers resided. When one nation or people defeated another, it meant that the god of the victorious nation was stronger than the god of the defeated nation. On a surface-level reading, Naomi’s reference to the gods of Moab might imply that she held to such a theology. However, Naomi clearly believed the God of Israel could be active outside the land of Israel, for she asked that the Lord would give rest to Orpah and Ruth in their new houses in Moab (vv. 8–9). Her reference to the gods of Moab was likely a way to convince her daughters-in-law to go where they would find new husbands and, thus, provision. Moreover, she clearly did not think that either daughter-in-law would forsake the gods of Moab for the God of Israel.
However, that is exactly what Ruth the Moabitess did, committing herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s God, the Lord of Israel and the one true creator God (vv. 16–18). Given the spiritual disaster that was the period of the judges, Ruth was exemplary in this commitment to the Lord. One cannot help but recall the gentile centurion who, centuries later, would show much greater faith than most others in Israel during the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 8:5–13). And plainly, Ruth’s confession could be due only to the grace of God in granting her new life (see John 3:1–8). In commenting on the difference between the choice of Orpah and the choice of Ruth, Matthew Henry writes that Ruth is “an instance of the grace of God inclining the soul to the resolute choice of the better part.”
As chapter 1 of Ruth concludes, we see that Naomi held a certain bitterness toward the Lord because of the loss of her husband and sons. Returning to Bethlehem, she asked the people to call her “Mara,” or “bitter,” on account of what God had allowed to happen to her (vv. 19–22). Soon, however, the Lord would bless her and Ruth.