In the time of the Judges in Israel, the 12th and 11th centuries BCE, three ladies found themselves walking on the road outside of Moav, in today’s Jordan. They were all newly widowed. The elderly Naomi lost her husband Elimelech a while ago, she just stood up from the seven-day mourning period of her two sons, Machlon and Chilyon. The two younger women, Ruth and Orpah, married these two Jewish men, but they did not have any children. Naomi had nothing more to live for in Moav, so she is heading back to her home and birthplace in Bethlehem, accompanied by her daughters-in-law. She is going back to her land and her people.
The road is rocky in the wilderness of Moav and is not meant for women travelling by themselves. The estimated time to walk to Bethlehem is a bit more than a week. The road to Naomi’s land is difficult and challenging. The two young ladies are not used to such strenuous exercise. This road trip is a hard test for them. After all, they are daughters of Eglon, the king of Moav.
They walk and talk, day and night. They cry and they laugh. They have very much in common. They have lost everything dear to them. Naomi has buried her husband and two sons. The young women have lost the love of their lives. Maybe by sticking together they can cope with the future?
They are getting closer to the Dead Sea, which means they are closer to Judah. Naomi starts feeling uneasy. She looks at the two, young beautiful women and it hits her; she doesn’t want to go back to Bethlehem with two Moabite women. When she left, more than 10 years ago, her family was wealthy and high society. Now she is widowed and poor. She cannot return with two gentile women. They will have a very hard life. It is time to continue alone. Naomi stops in her tracks, looks at the women and says: “Go, please return, each of you to the house of your mother.” To her surprise the women start to cry. She tries to convince them again and again. She does not think they are ready to follow her and leave their lives behind. They insist: “No, we will return with you to your people.” Naomi tells the women to reconsider and go back to a better life. She tries to tell them that a good life awaits them back in Moav, in the kings palace. She cannot offer them any earthly riches
What Naomi is saying is appealing to Orpah. She could do with a better life, after all the sorrow and stress she has been through lately. In a blink-of-an-eye decision, Orpah, who’s name means “neck” in Hebrew, gives Naomi and Ruth a quick kiss and a hug, turns her neck to them and starts walking back, the same way they just had come.
Naomi pushes Ruth towards Orpah and tells her for the third time : “Behold, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and her gods, return you also.” Ruth, who was drawn to and inspired by Naomi’s God, throws her arms around her and says: “Entreat me not to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”
Naomi is speechless. Ruth, in not so many words, is actually saying she is accepting the God of Israel and His people. No more words needed. She wants to be a Jew by choice. A difficult path, not a very popular choice. They take each others hands and walk together in the rough terrain until they hungry and exhausted reach Bethlehem together. The day they arrived was the beginning of the barley harvest.
Ruth and Orpah, two very different choices. It shows we are free to make whatever choice we want, but our choice will have consequences:
– Orpah went back to Moav, a very self-centered nation. She is known to have become the mother of Goliath, the one who fought with the young David in the Elah valley. She also gave birth to three other giant murderers and warriors. All her sons became enemies of Israel. They were eventually killed by King David and his men.
– Not long after Naomi’s and Ruth’s arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth met and married Boaz, the tenth Judge of Israel. It was Boaz who told Ruth: “May the Lord reward your deeds, and may your reward be full from the Lord, God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take shelter.” He was 80 years old and she was 40. Ruth gave birth to Oved, who became father of Yishai, who became father of David. Ruth lived a long life and merited to see David as king. She also saw his son Solomon on the throne in the Land of Israel. By her convincing choice, she became a mother of royalty. It is mind blowing, that through her, the ultimate King, Messiah will set foot and reign from Jerusalem.
Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Midrash, Book of Ruth.