by Norm Olson
Q: Was Elimelech right or wrong in moving his family to Moab in Ruth 1:1-5?
A: Bible scholars hold varying views on this question. Ruth 1:1-5 simply states that during a famine in the land of Israel, a certain man, Elimelech, moved with his family from Bethlehem of Israel to Moab, perhaps sixty miles east. The word “sojourn” in verse 1 is rendered “reside temporarily,” so he apparently intended to return to Israel after the famine ended. However, the move itself isn’t the only issue that is often discussed concerning this passage.
Many Bible teachers move beyond what is simply stated here and speculate that Elimelech was wrong in his action, some going so far as to compare him to the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, or to Abraham when he went to Egypt and got into trouble. Moses-himself, in a way, a prodigal on the journey to the Promised Land-was buried in Moab. Add to this the fact that not only Elimelech but his two sons died while in Moab, and the speculation that Elimelech was wrong seems even more plausible. The two sons of Elimelech and Naomi were Mahlon and Chilion. Their names, respectively, mean “sickly” and “wasting.” One can see how even these names would lend themselves to this view, though the two boys could have been afflicted with physical problems from birth.
Frequently the content and tone of Naomi’s words in Ruth 1:20, 21 are used to argue that Elimelech’s move was wrong, as well.
As far as the land of Moab is concerned, two factors add to speculation that Elimelech was out of the will of the Lord. First, Moabites descended from Lot through his incest with a daughter (Genesis 19:36, 37). Second, Moab was an enemy of Israel (Numbers 22; 25; Deuteronomy 23:3-6; Judges 3:12-14).
Yet some point out that individual Moabites and Israelites could be, and were, friends (see 1 Samuel 22:3, 4). That the family of Elimelech ended up living in Moab as long as they did shows some degree of peace between the two nationalities. Scholars also point out that Israel was often just as heathen and apostate as the surrounding nations in this period of the judges.
Before Mahlon and Chilion died, they married Moabites. This is another issue often debated. Some say that God did not expressly forbid an Israelite’s marriage to a Moabitess, while others insist He did, as in the case with Canaanites. Nevertheless, the marriages took place. Those who view Elimelech’s move negatively also believe that God consequently judged the marriages in what they see as Mahlon’s, Chilion’s, and Elimelech’s premature deaths. As believers of the New Testament, we recognize the most important principle concerning marriage: a believer should never marry an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6:14). Whether Mahlon and Chilion ever knew the true God personally is uncertain.
Another puzzling twist in the account is why Elimelech traveled to Moab when others apparently did not, weathering the famine in their own land. Further, Elimelech was evidently quite wealthy, since he is referred to as an Ephrathite. That name indicates he was from an ancient, noble line. Some believe his wealth was the very thing, or one of the things, that prompted the move-his fear of losing what he had, as well as his influence and name. Such incidents happen all the time: people move away to make a new start for themselves or to avoid disgrace.
Whatever position we take beyond what is actually stated in the Scripture account–and Bible scholars have differed–we must acknowledge God’s grace and intervention. The book of Ruth is a beautiful account of God’s matchless grace and is laden with meaning. Ruth, the Moabitess, believed on the Lord, and she was not only wonderfully taken care of, but she married Boaz and entered the royal lineage of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. While we want to learn what we can, discover the backgrounds of Biblical events, and draw spiritual lessons, we don’ want this wonderful account to get lost in the debate over issues such as whether Elimelech’s decision was right or wrong. What matters is that God is able to, and does, overrule in the affairs of mankind and is consequently glorified.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send your Bible questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.