milk and honey - promise or warning

The author of the Book of Ruth used various types of symbolic words, hidden messages and double meanings that enrich the text and deepen its message. In this excerpt from the longer article in the Spring 2002 edition of The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Raphael B. Shuchat examines several such literary techniques.


Individual names are the most obvious use of symbols in the book , Elimelech means "may kingship come my way" or "God is my king." Both are possible understandings, since Elimelech was of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of monarchy. The sages say that Elimelech was a man of means, and therefore the term ish [lit. "a man"] is used, which usually denotes a man of stature. The name Naomi comes from na'im [pleasant]. She is the heroine of the story together with her daughter-in-law Ruth.

The most blatant symbolic names are those of Elimelech's sons Machlon [sickness] and Chilyon [decimation]. Who calls their children by such names? Even if we translate these names as "forgiveness" and "expectation," the second name seems forced and the first should be "Mechilon." Were these their real names or did the author change their names to make a literary value statement turning their names into symbols? The latter opinion is congruent with the talmudic opinion. This can be confirmed from the Book of Chronicles.

In describing the family of Judah, the Book of Chronicles refers to Yokim and Cozeba and Yoash and Saraph who married Moabites and returned to Bethlehem.[1] Were Yoash and Saraph the real names for Machlon and Chilyon? If so, were the names changed for symbolic reasons?

Ruth and Orpah are the next names to investigate. Ruth embraced the commandments and Orpah turned away from them. "Orpah" is derived from oref [the back of the head], and le-hafnot oref is "to turn away." She turned away from Naomi and the Israelite people and went back to Moab; Ruth embraced the commandments. The Talmud[2] says that her name hints at this deed. The Hebrew letters of resh-vav-tav [Ruth] add up numerically to 606. If you add to this sum the seven laws of the Sons of Noah, which are incumbent on all the nations, you reach the number 613, corresponding to the commandments.


Elimelech's family left Bethlehem because of a famine,[3] and arrived in the fields of Moab.[4] One cannot but sense the irony in this passage. They leave Bethlehem (beit lehem in Hebrew means literally "house of bread") during a famine, hinting to the reader that they had made a tragic mistake — leaving a literal "house of bread" during times of famine to go to the fields of Moab. A house denotes a warm environment, as opposed to a field that lies open and unprotected. In biblical writings, the empty field is an image that often precedes tragedy.

Naomi and Ruth, detail
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The name Moab is also not accidental: this is the nation that represents the antithesis of hospitality. The Talmud tells us that Elimelech left Bethlehem in order that beggars not come to his door during the famine. This mind-set connected him with Moab, the nation that refused to offer bread and water to the Israelites coming up from the Sinai.[5] Moab is also a nation begotten through the kind of act that the Bible ironically calls "kindness" of a misguided nature;[6] this was Lot's daughter who bears a child by her father, because she believes no other man was alive.[7] These were the people with whom Elimelech connected.


Sometimes the Book of Ruth omits names on purpose. Leaving out the name of a person or place is a way of ridding them of identity, and thereby of importance. The first five verses describe the fall of Elimelech's family from high stature to unfortunate strangers in a foreign land. The minute Naomi, Ruth and Orpah decide to return to Bethlehem everything starts to look up: And they got up [va'takom] she and her daughters-in-law and left the fields of Moab.[8] One can feel the depiction of ascent. As they head towards Bethlehem, Moab becomes a nameless memory: And they left that place where they had been.[9] This is the first time Moab is not referred to by name. The intentional absence of a name creates a feeling of the insignificance of the place. After Orpah turns her back on her mother-in-law, Naomi speaks of her to Ruth as "your sister-in-law" [ye-vim'tech] instead of using her name.[10] The absence of names can be found elsewhere in biblical literature. The Book of Exodus, whose Hebrew title is Book of Names [Sefer Shemot], plays with this theme in the first two chapters. Chapter 1 tells us in detail the names of Jacob's household on their way to Egypt, but in Egypt the slavery leaves them nameless, without identity. A new king (without name) forgets Joseph[11] and speaks to his people[12] without mentioning the name Egypt. Chapter 2 brings more nameless people. Moses' parents and his sister do not yet have names,[13] nor does Pharaoh's daughter.[14] Only after Moses is rescued by Pharaoh's daughter is he called by name.[15]

Ruth meets Boaz, detail
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The Book of Ruth is filled with irony, double entendres, drama and even humor. In Chapter 1 there is a hidden discussion between Naomi and her daughters-in-law. She wants them to come with her; they are all the family she has left, yet she knows that Bethlehemite society is not accepting of strangers, especially Moabite women (as is obvious from Chapter 4:6). Unable to say this directly, she hints of it in an ironic statement: "Turn back my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. For even if there were hope [for marriage] and [I were to conceive] tonight and bear children, would you wait for them to grow up?"[16] Why would her daughters-in-law expect her to produce husbands for them? Obviously, Naomi knows how difficult it will be for them to remarry in Bethlehem. Orpah gets the massage and returns home, while Ruth clings to Naomi.

Chapter 2 includes a humorous description of Ruth's being unaccustomed Judean culture: And she went and gleaned in the field after the reapers.[17] In Hebrew, the word "reapers" is masculine gender. It appears that Ruth, unacquainted with Judean customs of modesty, went gleaning in the field behind the male reapers. It also appears that out of courtesy, no one said anything to her. Boaz came from the city and noticing this unusual event asked right away: "To whom is this girl?"[18] The reaper, possibly embarrassed to have allowed such a situation, covered up for himself with the excuse, "She is a Moabite girl who came with Naomi from the fields of Moab," meaning — she is a foreigner, so obviously she does not know how to act. Boaz tries to hint to Ruth to glean with the woman reapers. And Boaz said to Ruth: "You have heard my daughter, do not go to glean in another field, do not change places and thus shall you cling to my [reaper] girls."[19] Boaz diplomatically told her to glean in his field but only among the woman reapers. Ruth did not get the message, assuming he was just being kind in inviting her to stay in the field. In the meantime, Boaz told his male reapers to keep their distance from her,[20] and not to embarrass her if she continued to glean among them.[21]

When Ruth returns home, beaming that Boaz came over to talk to her, she still does not comprehend what she has been told. After telling Naomi about her meeting with Boaz, she says: 'He even told me to cling with his [reaper] boys until the end of the harvest.'[22] Naomi, familiar with the customs of Judah, understands Ruth's mistake right away, and tells her: "Better my daughter that you go out with his girls so that they should not harm you in another field."[23] That is when Ruth realizes what Naomi means: "And she clung to Boaz' girls to glean until the end of the barley and wheat harvest."[24]

excerpted [1] I Chronicles 4:22 [back]
[2] BT Bava Batra [back]
[3] Ruth 1:1 [back]
[4] Ibid., 1:2 [back]
[5] Deut. 23:5 [back]
[6] Lev. 20:17 [back]
[7] Gen. 19:37 [back]
[8] Ruth 1:4 [back]
[9] Ibid., 1:7 [back]
[10] Ibid., 1:15 [back]
[11] Ex. 1:8 [back]
[12] Ruth 1:9 [back]
[13] Ibid., 2:1 [back]
[14] Ibid., 2:5 [back]
[15] Ex. 2:10 [back]
[16] Ruth 1:12-13 [back]
[17] Ibid., 2:3 [back]
[18] Ibid., 2:6 [back]
[19] Ibid., 2:8 [back]
[20] Ibid., 2:9 [back]
[21] Ibid., 2:15 [back]
[22] Ibid., 2:21 [back]
[23] Ibid., 2:22 [back]
[24] Ibid., 2:21-23 [back]
excerpted From The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. XXX:2 (118), April-June 2002. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Bible Quarterly, POB 29002, Jerusalem, Israel
excerpted Raphael Shuchat is a lecturer in Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University.

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