Bethlehem: A New Direction for the Future

Ruth is filled with indicators that God will restore his people from the grip of death and set them in a new direction of life for the future.  Samuel weaves this theme into the fabric of the story of Ruth using even the city of Bethlehem as an illustration.  We know now that Bethlehem is the house of bread, the place of our Savior’s birth, but this was not always the case.  

In Ruth’s story Bethlehem is permanently transformed from a place of considerable danger and doom to a place of blessing and hope as the house of bread.  We first hear of Bethlehem, which there is called Ephrath or Ephratha, in Genesis 35.  This story associates Bethlehem with death.  One of the most painful episodes in the life of the patriarchs is the account of how death came to Jacob’s beloved Rachel.  Thus we read in Genesis 35:16–20,

Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel labored in childbirth, and she had hard labor.  Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear; you will have this son also.” And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).  And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.  

In earlier biblical literature, we see Bethlehem associated with ruin and death as it marks the spot of Rachel’s grave.  Far from a house of bread in the early stories of redemptive history, Bethlehem had been associated with events that led to ruin and to demise.  
Bethlehem is associated with the agony of the curse as Jacob’s firstborn son betrays him and disgraces his father and family.  So God says in Genesis 35:21–2,

Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.  And it happened, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard about it.

Moses tethers this city together with misery and disgrace, making it a place of defilement and contempt.  Thus, early in redemptive history the city connotes misery, hardship, and pain.  

This was the city of death and betrayal as recorded in Judges 17:7–13:

Now there was a young man from Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah; he was a Levite, and was staying there.  The man departed from the city of Bethlehem in Judah to stay wherever he could find a place. Then he came to the mountains of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, as he journeyed. And Micah said to him, “Where do you come from?” So he said to him, “I am a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, and I am on my way to find a place to stay.”  Micah said to him, “Dwell with me, and be a father and a priest to me, and I will give you ten shekels of silver per year, a suit of clothes, and your sustenance.” So the Levite went in.  Then the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man became like one of his sons to him.  So Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and lived in the house of Micah.  Then Micah said, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since I have a Levite as priest!”

This man was Jonathon, son of Gershom, son of Moses.  Hence, the grandson of Moses was an unfaithful Levite associated with the city
of Bethlehem.  

The city, then, was yielding unfaithful priests, and the fruit of this city appears to be rotten. See Judges 19:1–2:

And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote mountains of Ephraim. He took for himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  But his concubine played the harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there four whole months.

This slave wife was called out and now turned away from her husband.  She became unfaithful and went back home to Bethlehem.  Here her father attempted to detain the Levite.  He kept detaining him and attempted to persuade him to stay with them.  Once more, therefore, we see Bethlehem as a place associated with unfaithfulness, betrayal, and death.  

In Ruth, Samuel records how God resurrects this city into the house of bread.  The story of Ruth acts as the all-important historical fulcrum in which God resurrects Bethlehem to its well-known status as a place of life and bread.  Hence, as Samuel unfolds the narrative of Ruth, he begins with a city that in the past had an association with anguish and distress, but that now is linked with life and hope.  This hope would not only come to the people of God in Ruth, but this city would be the place of hope for the bread that would come down from heaven.  

Story Names: Elimelech

The name of the man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion—Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah (1:2a).

Not only does Samuel tell us the story of reversal in the fortunes of cities, but he even uses names to teach us of the reversal of the curse on families.  It is significant for us to remember that names in biblical narratives play a very important literary and redemptive role.  In the case of Elimelech, the name heightens the irony of his actions as well as the reversal that occurs at the end of the book.  
Elimelech’s name means, “God is my King.”  Matthew Henry properly noted that his name was a rebuke because he was unfaithful and lived contrary to it.  Did he live up to his name?  Someone who had God has his King should have responded to the famine with humility and repentance on behalf of the land.  Living with God as your King would provoke you to recognize the covenant nature of your predicament.  Instead, Elimelech forsook the covenant, which is united so closely with the land.  He left the land and pursued death.  The reader who reads the text with sensitivity to the covenant is able to see his self-destructive path a mile away.  Hence, the story gives us plenty of warning, which Elimelech should have heeded.  The reader immediately notes the danger, while Elimelech walks headlong into destruction for himself and his family.  Thus, the irony of his faithless actions is heightened all the more.  Elimelech should have been faithful to his name, God is King, and he should have turned the city towards repentance and into the house of bread. The painful consequences to his family are therefore going to be obvious.  

We see this not only in Elimelech’s name but also in his wife’s name, Naomi.  Her name means pleasant.  Naomi is Elimelech’s wife and her name indicates a life of hope and pleasantness.  She is the bride to whom her husband should have been faithful.  With names that mean God is King and pleasantness you might expect this couple to be the picture of fruitfulness and hope.  Elimelech had the perfect name for his calling to be a faithful husband.  His task was to lead his wife in the way of life that provides pleasantness.  Yet, he led her away from hope—he was not a faithful husband.  Thus, Naomi whose name calls her to expect pleasantness, finds herself led into a time of bitterness.   

The Two Sons:

Elimelech’s two sons are named Mahlon and Chilion, as noted in Ruth 1:2,

. . . and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion—Ephrathites of Bethlehem, Judah.

Here again emphasis is placed on their connection with Bethlehem and in particular with Bethlehem as the ancient city Ephrath.  These two sons were associated with Ephrath, and their names, which may have been Canaanite, indicate their expected lot.  The first son mentioned is named Mahlon, which seems to mean “sickness” or “weakness.”  The second son, named Chilion, has a name that means “pining away,” “failing” or even “annihilation.”  Their names act as an eerie forecast of the coming doom for this family.  

Samuel uses irony to name Elimelech’s sons as he points to their destiny.  Since their father has forsaken the covenant, their fate is a grim one.  Hence, the author designates them as “weak” and “pining away.”  The birth of sons might normally forecast a hope for the future, but this story points to something entirely different.  

First, we should understand that in biblical literature the names of characters are used as part of the literary structure. The author uses this structure to teach redemptive lessons.  Although a missionary recently told me of an African woman who named her daughter Malaria, we don’t commonly name our children for dreadful images that represent a gloomy future.  For instance, we don’t really think that Elimelech and Naomi named their sons weak and pining away, do we?  No, they probably initially gave them names that they thought were appropriate.  According to Richard Pratt,

Old Testament stories differ from much world literature in their lack of attention to external appearance; physical descriptions occur only occasionally. . . . These clues for characterization occur so infrequently that they deserve special attention when they appear.

Here Pratt was referring primarily to the external details of a story such as height and weight.  However, the same attention should be given to the names of biblical characters.  Samuel gives us more than subtle hints as to the character of the personalities who are involved in our story.  

Like much of biblical literature, this particular story uses names and name changes to teach us redemptive lessons.  While we are used to names being used in positive ways, here the text uses names for negative instruction.  Back to an earlier point, these people did not originally name their children weak and pining away.  Rather, the author gave them story names or names that match their significance in the covenant.  This is a very common teaching tool in biblical stories.  It is not allegory in the purest sense, but we see that names are chosen to point us to the covenant significance of the characters.  Also, God is the one who changes names in his sovereign power, indicating that he alone has the sovereignty over men.  

Thus, we see the covenant significance of Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham.  Jacob’s name was changed to Israel.  Saul’s name was changed to Paul.  Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter.  Certainly, the list could go further.  We simply don’t expect that Elimelech and Naomi were holding their precious sons in their arms thinking of names to use and happily called one of them weakness.  No, these are their covenant names in the story.  

However, we are probably not as comfortable with name changes that are negative.  Furthermore, we are probably not as comfortable with name changes that occur before we are even able to ascertain the original name.  This does happen elsewhere.  For example, if you read 2 Samuel 2:8 and 1 Chronicles 8:33, you will find that one of Saul’s sons name was Ish Bosheth in the Samuel passage and Ish Baal in the Chronicles account.   

Ish Baal means “man of the master,” and the Chronicles passage calls him Ish Baal.  The word Baal originally simply meant Lord or master.  This would mean that Ish Baal was “God’s man.”  Certainly Saul named him a noble name that indicated his commitment to God.  However, the name Baal began to contain negative connotations connected to the false worship of Baal.  Hence, Ish Baal, which started as an innocuous title, and indeed an excellent title, was changed to correspond to the change of connotations connected to Baal and rebellion to God.  

The name was consequently changed from Ish Baal to Ish Bosheth.  This change clues us to the negative connotations associated with Ish Bosheth and his rebellion against God’s anointed one, David.  Ish Bosheth, in his rebellion against God, was a shameful man who brought shame to his father’s house.  The same thing occurs with another of Saul’s descendants, Mephibosheth, which means “from the mouth of shame.”  

Certainly we can surmise that Jonathan did not name his son, “mouth of shame.”  No, what happened is that Samuel ascribes a name that carries a redemptive/theological meaning.  Hence, the person 1 Chronicles 8:34 refers to as Merib-Baal is the same person Samuel refers to as Mephibosheth.  Merib-Baal seems to have originated in the idea of “hero of Baal.”  The parents hoped the son would become a hero of the Lord.  However, as Saul and his descendants brought shame to the line, the one who was originally named hero of God is now one who stands as a mouth of shame.  Indeed, what a beautiful story unfolds in the kindness of David in 2 Samuel 9.  Samuel’s record of the kindness of David is heightened as we are reminded of the shame of the house of Saul.  What a grand reversal occurs with the lovingkindness of King David.  

The household rightly titled with the shame of unfaithfulness and rebellion is mercifully restored from worthlessness and shame to the table of the king.   Samuel uses the names of Saul’s descendants to unleash the richness of God’s mercy to those who come before him and recognize the reality of their shame.  Surely Jesus’ grand act of redemption is foreshadowed in this sweet story of a helpless descendant of Saul.  And for our concerns, we should note the centrality of the name changes, which heighten our insight.  

The use of name change to indicate theological meaning should not surprise us.  Indeed, Naomi, whose name means pleasant, tells us herself about a name change.  She will, through the author of the story, tell her people that she should no longer be called pleasant but bitter.  Therefore, Samuel ascribes the names of weakly and pining away to the certainly cursed sons of Elimelech.  Because of the unfaithfulness of Elimelech, these two young men are consigned to a life of languishing weakness.  Does this not provide rich insight into all those who wander from the way of life?  Those who stray from the hope of the covenant essentially consign themselves to a life of languishing desperation.  The story tells us that their future will be one of gradual demise and languish.  

Elimelech died: The story begins with death, death, and more death

Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (1:3–5).

Naomi, the bride of the covenant, is now stranded by her protector.  Her husband is gone; her sons are gone, and her future is gone with them.  God has brought them to their painful but expected end.  Elimelech, who was called to be a faithful husband, has caused his wife to be stranded in a foreign land.  Naomi was now a helpless widow.  Here the story provokes us to question the future.  What will happen to the bride of this unfaithful husband?  

The Hope of the Coming
Faithful Husband

Here a great transition takes place as Ruth begins to act in the place of Naomi.  The future of the covenant is going to belong to Ruth.  Naomi has a dead husband, dead sons, and a dead womb.  There is no hope for Naomi.  The bride of the covenant has been abandoned and the scene is desolate and hopeless.  Thus, the story now takes a dramatic turn towards Ruth.  This beautiful young woman steps forward and takes the place of Naomi as the bride of the covenant.  Because she is faithful, the future belongs to Ruth.  Hence, Samuel turns the reader’s attention to this beautiful, faithful young woman.    

Ruth is young and has the hope of a husband as well as the hope of a living womb.  Thus, Ruth will be the one who will have a son.  We still have a rather obvious obstacle.  Samuel directs us to the stark reality that without a faithful husband, there is no hope not even for the vibrant, young Ruth.  The husbands who started this story are all dead.  Hence, it is necessary for the bride to be taken by a younger brother who would act the part of the levir.  Yet, because Naomi is too old to remarry and have a younger son, their plight appears to be hopeless.  Indeed, humanly speaking, the story is dead.  

How can there be a faithful husband who will lead them into the way of the covenant when they are all dead?  The reader is forced to conclude that the only hope for new life in this story will come from God, who must somehow provide a faithful husband.  Their eyes and the eyes of everyone who reads this story are pointed forward to the hope of the coming of the faithful husband—one who will bring life to the dead.  

The story causes us to cry out for someone to replace the death of this story with new life.  We long for someone to do what the first husband in this story refused to do.  A faithful husband would never take his family to the land of Moab.  Elimelech’s devastating choices have ruined his family and left them dead and hopeless.  If there is going to be hope in our story, there must be a husband who will be faithful where the past husband has failed.  Hence, we see Samuel developing the story to the coming of Boaz as a type of Christ.  The imagery is as beautiful as it is obvious.  Just as Adam died in his unfaithfulness, so Elimelech died, and his descendants with him.  However, there is still hope in the coming of a faithful husband, Jesus the Christ.  You see how the theme of Christ, the covenant, and redemption are replete in this story.  They are woven beautifully into the very fabric of the text.  The bitterness of unfaithfulness will be turned into the joy of new life through the true husband, Jesus the Christ.  

So many of us are like Elimelech searching for bread in Moab.  This is the place of dryness and death.  This is the place of weakness and wasting away.  Doesn’t this remind you of the story from John 6, where the people followed Jesus for food and not faith?  Like Elimelech, they went from place to place looking for food; they wanted bread, but they didn’t want to find it in the place of God’s command.  

So often we do what the song writer says when we “look for love in all the wrong places.”  We look desperately, but we will never find it because it can only be found in the house of bread, in Jesus.  We are all faced with the same kinds of questions that Elimelech faced.  Where will we go for bread?  Will we be motivated by food or by faith?  As such this story is also our story.  

If we seek bread outside the city we can expect starvation and death.  If we expect this life to give us more than it can give us, then we will certainly find frustration.  If a young person expects that college will give him everything he has been looking for, then he will find frustration.  If you expect your job to give you a sense of satisfaction and fullness, then you will be disappointed in the end.  You won’t find nourishment for your soul in any other place but Bethlehem.  

It is easy today not to learn from these stories.  We look at the stories now and say with a real measure of confidence, “Well, if I would have been Elimelech, I would have stayed in Bethlehem.”  The most amazing example is that of the golden calf.  We fail to appreciate this story’s warnings because we say in our arrogance, “How could they have worshiped a golden calf after God had brought them across the Red Sea?  How could they have forgotten the blessings of the Lord so quickly?”  

How could those Israelites have become grumpy so soon after leaving Egypt?  They were given bread from heaven, and yet they complained.  How, how could they do that?  Then you should stop for a moment and ask yourself an even more important question, “How could a New Testament Christian be so lazy and ungrateful for the bread of life, Jesus Christ?”  

It does not take too many of these kinds of questions to stir us to repentance and to faith.  We quickly say, “Forgive us, O Lord, for being unfaithful.  Forgive us, O Lord, for being so easily distracted from the source of true bread, Jesus.”  Perhaps you are asking yourself these same kinds of questions and you also need to be refreshed in Christ, who is the bread of life.  So the believer is called to refresh himself in the bread that satisfies to eternal life every time he approaches the Holy Communion.  When we can come to the Lord, we are refreshed in the hope of bread that satisfies—Jesus Christ.  

———————

1. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2.     
2. Atkinson, The Wings of Refuge, 35.
3. Richard L. Pratt, He Gave Us Stories:  The Bible Student’s Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives, (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1990), 137.
4. Jim Jordan, “The Book of Ruth,”(Biblical Horizons, Niceville, Fl, 1982). audio tape #2.
5.  See Deuteronomy 25:5–10 for the origin of levirate marriage.


Rev. L. Charles Jackson is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Dayton, Ohio.

Questions for Consideration

1. What was the city of Bethlehem like before the story of Ruth?
2. What do Elimelech and Naomi’s names mean?
3. What are their son’s names and what do they mean?
4. Why are names important in Bible stories?
5. How do name changes function in Bible stories?
6. What role does death play in the story of Ruth?
7. Do you think it is common to read Old Testament stories with humility and empathy?
8. Do you recognize the call to Jesus in Ruth? Explain.

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