In the days when the chieftains ruled, there was a famine in the land; and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab. Ruth 1:1 JPS Ruth Commentary
Famine – Elimelech leaves Bethlehem in order to find food for his family. The very idea is fraught with contradictory implications. Elimelech (“God is my king” – but if God is my king, why am I not relying on Him?) leaves Bethlehem (“the house of bread”) in order to find “bread” elsewhere in the land of Moab (a land that is occupied by a people with whom Israel is to have no contact). Furthermore, this story begins in the time of the “chieftains” (sometimes translated “judges”). These were both men and women who were military leaders in charge of the people of Israel in the time before the monarchy. Some of them were righteous. Some were not. At the end of the period, there is a terrible tribal civil war that leaves the land in chaos and sets the stage for the appeal for a king. It isn’t simply famine that drives Elimelech from Bethlehem. In this time, it might not be possible to count on the community to support those in desperate need. We must also note that Elimelech doesn’t go to Moab to obtain food. He goes to reside there, to take up temporary residence. There must have been a good reason not to return to Bethlehem immediately. Chaos rules the land of Israel. As the book of the Chieftains says, “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” That is the equivalent of “Every man did as he pleased.” Perhaps Ruth’s story is much closer to us than we might have imagined.
This is the background for the story of Ruth, and it is this background that acts as the foil for Ruth’s demonstration of hesed. But there are also parallels with older stories. We know that the Tanakh uses parallel repetition in order to demonstrate the continuing application of important themes. The relationship between famine, grace, hesed and the foreigner isn’t isolated to Ruth’s story. It is also part of the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Tanakh makes the allusion obvious with the use of the sentence “there was a famine in the land,” exactly the same words found in Genesis 12:10 and 26:1. Furthermore, ra’av (famine) is the reason Jacob and his sons travel to Egypt. Hunger drives human behavior – in more ways than one. It is worth noting that ra’av is the consonants Resh-Ayin-Bet, the combination of “evil” (ra) and the consonant Bet (“house”). Is famine not “evil in the house”? Of course, we know that there are many kinds of hunger inside our homes. Perhaps the Torah lesson is that any hunger that originates or is attached to evil produces undesirable results – even if God uses those results to serve His purposes. It is “evil in the house of bread,” both physical and social, that drives “God is my King” out of his home. There is a lesson here as well. Isn’t the purpose of being one of God’s citizens to restore order to His house? Doesn’t Peter instruct us to begin in our own house? Perhaps Elimelech needed to restore what Bethlehem had lost instead of fleeing to Moab? But perhaps Bethlehem lost what it needed to restore God’s people because it allowed ra’av in the first place. Do you think that the social and moral chaos that came from the chieftains had no effect on the land? If you unintentionally disconnected these two “spheres” of life, you were thinking like a Greek philosopher, not an ancient Israelite.
Elimelech, Naomi, Ruth and Boaz are all connected to the land, and the land is connected to the righteousness of the people who occupy it. Ruth’s story does much more than heal human relationships, right?
I suppose the next question is obvious. How does your life connect you to God’s land? What personal relationships are you developing that also heal the place where you live?
Topical Index: Ruth 1:1, Elimelech, famine, ra’av, Genesis 12:10, Genesis 26:1