“The Other Ruth” — Orpah

Along the dusty road of Bethlehem, one ordinary day, Joseph’s parents (Jacob and Rachel) traveled many years ago. God had gifted them with another child, and they more than likely were anticipating this child with great joy. As they traveled along that road, Rachel went into labor and scripture tells us that she succumbed to the pains of labor and on that path, died. Genesis 35 tells the story of the baby first named “son of my sorrow,” then renamed “Benjamin, son of my right hand” by the father, who was left alone to care for this little guy. It was a shocking, jarring story before Joseph’s disappearance.

The road to Bethlehem was traveled by two of the greats—Jacob and Rachel. They and this road were famous. Stories were written, songs were sung that rehearsed their story. The road to Bethlehem was not exactly a place a pregnant woman would want to travel. The story may have even elicited fear. Years later that same path was traversed by another ordinary couple named Elimelech and Naomi—going the opposite direction. Perhaps their hometown thought they were going outside of God’s will or providence. Perhaps they doubted God’s call to Elimelech to go to Moab, creating even more distress as they traveled on. The background to their story is that they were related to a people waiting for Messiah. There was a promise attached to their descendants—but in the darkness of the time of the Judges, a time when a deliverer was needed most, Elimelech went the opposite direction. Naomi had a lot of explaining to do with her women friends. Did this couple somehow miss the prophecies? Did they know of the coming Messiah? When they traveled, they brought their two children named sickly and wasting away. The community was more than likely affected by this change of events. It limited the pool of possibilities. We are not told why their sons were named as they were, but their names were not Messianic type names. Was God worried, upset? Did their departure mean His plan would stop? It all but looked that way to those who did not know God’s  plan. We know on this side of it, that it was providential to seek a young lady whose descendants would bear a future king. An ordinary lady who we will come to learn  was very extraordinary indeed. Only it was not to be in this season of time.

Elimelech’s name means, “My God is King.” This was in the time of the Judges when there was no king and the people continued to rebel against God. It sounded pretentious, his name sounded like his God was higher or better than the ones in Moab. His wife, named pleasant one—Naomi—had accompanied him on this trip with their two sons, but they were only planning to stay for a little while. Days turned into months and soon ten years had gone by. God’s plans are never thwarted.

What greeted them in Moab? A lush, green hill area that provided some food. The culture was led by cultic beliefs and wicked practices. Elimelech and Naomi would have practiced the Jewish festivals and Sabbath. Community Feasts, dancing, fellowship, scripture, worship of the one true God, blessing others with gifts and kindness faded into the sunset as they trudged on to Moab. 

Moabites were known for their wicked deeds and idolatrous worship of the god Chemosh. He was capricious and cruel. His followers practiced human sacrifice, killing of infants, and more. Elimelech’s customs would have been very calm in comparison to the wild parties and celebrations these people engaged in week after week. The two boys grew up and became men. They chose for themselves foreign wives—even though that was forbidden to do so. Considering the prophecies, this may have been heartbreaking for Naomi. Was this part of her life becoming bitter, disillusioned?

We are not told that Naomi continued her worship and festival celebrations, but it would be reasonable to say she did. Somehow the new brides got a flavor for Naomi’s God and His character. We are not told whether Elimelech continued in his faith and traditions or if he became jaded and joined in with the celebrations of Chemosh.

Syncretism quickly kills out what is true, like a cancer.

What we are told, is that two women joined their family system and in a culture that killed infants, God in His sovereignty allowed both women to be barren, thus stopping the blood line of Elimelech’s family while in Moab.

Our family studied each precious word in Ruth and there is more material than would fit into this blog. We hope to share it in a different format in the days ahead. For the blog I wanted to write about something I did not read in any of the commentaries. Many say there are three main characters in this book, but actually there are eight: Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, Chilion, Orpah, Ruth, the other kinsman and Boaz.

Why is Orpah left out of most commentaries? Her life certainly tells a story worth hearing. We have volumes on every other character except her. The verb endings may suggest Aramaic language or feminine authorship.  It no longer is believed to be Samuel. Some say it is possibly his mom or another author. There is great care to look at things any grandma worth her salt would notice. Hmm?

Orpah lived in two cultures—straddling Jewish festivals and cultic pagan practices led by Chemosh followers. Her husband Chilion was named the “wasting away” one so probably not a big win in the trophy department. She is not as impressed with Naomi, at least not to devote herself for her entire life as Ruth had done. Her husband’s character had not made a big “I must convert” impression on her. This young wife lost her father-in-law, who once knew the God of Israel. She may have heard of the Messianic promises and had a glimmer of hope that through their union (Chilion and Orpah), Messiah would come into the world. Naomi left feeling empty but Orpah, her whole life was empty. Her husband died; she was barren. Her new world was shattered.

“Grief is the loudest silence I have ever heard” P. Ryters once wrote. Silence would be Orpah’s world as she did not have a relationship with El Shaddai. She had not known Him to be mighty as Naomi had known. Orpah was still grieving, away from her husband’s family and her family was  wicked to some degree. Any inspiration from the men from Bethlehem in her life died with them, and Naomi, the pleasant one, had now lost hope. Where did her God go? Why isn’t He rescuing her? Just when Orpah may have started to believe, Naomi falls into discouragement and depression on some level.

When we cannot see God, when we cannot feel God, we must speak and stand on what we remember. Those moments are critical for others who are watching. We may be their only lifeline. We cannot let the enemy of our souls use us to do his bidding in times like these. The storm may not be about us; it may be about those watching on the sidelines.

Proverbs 26:11 tells us “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.” Orpah did not have the wisdom of Proverbs as it had not yet been written. She could use that excuse, but we cannot.

Orpah follows alongside Ruth down the road. Was it then, on that familiar road, that perhaps the story of Rachel is shared? Was it then the reality of robbers and criminals hiding in the shadows became a reality to eclipse her high hopes? Did she question if she could really live in the religious world of Bethlehem where they were going? Was she more afraid of that or missing a carnal life back in Moab? She could go either way on that road. Weary, grief-stricken Naomi implores her to go back. Insists even. She addresses her possible false hope that Messiah will come through their family line because Naomi absolutely cannot have children any longer, and remember Rachel? Orpah (name meaning gazelle), kisses her and bolts.

Relieved she no longer has to comfort the two women in their grief, or face a new culture with all its difficulties, Orpah will go home, alone, to deal with her unbearable grief over the loss of her entire family system. She chose isolation and what was familiar rather than fellowship and what was unknown. The road home may have been shorter—but it was not better. Nor was it holy. Her two friends faded in the distant sunset and her moral compass was still set to the cruel, perverse god Chemosh.

I write about her in this short story because not all stories end in a baby being born into a Messianic line with grand reveal parties and celebration. Orpah could be any one of us. Ordinary, but with options. This was a barren woman, overcome by grief not once but three times over. I would suggest five times over as her closest women friends Naomi and Ruth walked away from her and stepped into their new destinies. The Sabbath candle would now be her only representation of the God of Israel in her life—IF she continued to light it.

What are your choices today? Have you come to a fork in the road with who you will serve? Who will you follow? What will you do with your grief or new set of circumstances? We can learn from this woman. She obeyed her mother-in-law, but she did not obey her mother-in-law’s God. She had hope—but it was in what she wanted and willed, rather than in trusting a Sovereign God and HIS will.

In our Sunday school class, we have been talking about conditional clauses. In 1 Kings 3 God tells Solomon, “If you do this, then I will do that.” In 2 Chronicles 7:14 God tells them “If my people, who are called by my name humble themselves (follow my voice), seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, THEN I will. . . .” If you read on to verse twenty-two the story takes a dark turn. It reflects the period of the Judges when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Consequences are heavy when one turns from God. IF Orpah had followed Naomi and her God, Orpah’s outcome would have been far better.

We spend much time talking about the beauty of the Ruth story, but there is a strong case for looking at the two women’s lives and the contrast of choices they made on that ordinary road on that ordinary day. At the crossroads, we see two decisions that were vastly different.

Today—you can choose Christ and follow Him, worshipping, seeking fellowship and asking Him to be your God—or—you can go back to serving idols and living in wild, wicked debauchery. I’m going to spell this out, even though that might not make some comfortable. Debauchery means getting drunk, high, living in open fornication, adultery, stealing, lying or any violation of the Ten Commandments. You are either living holy or living a lie.  There’s not a side road or detour. It’s a narrow road. We all choose life or death. Walking away doesn’t end our story, it just determines the finale. Choose better.

Orpah will eventually get remarried and live in a land that is not God fearing. Other writings from that time and possibly a verse in Samuel suggest that she is given four sons who become warriors. One of them you might recognize—Goliath. The reach to exterminate the birth line of the soon-coming King of Israel continued even up to that battlefield. One moves toward victory and the other moves toward defeat.  Our decisions affect our lives, our children, our communities and more. Choose better.

Is there a place in this story about God’s loving kindness for Orpah? Yes, and it was offered. She had free will and a choice. It is understandable that she was disappointed. It is understandable that she had much grief and made a hasty decision in that grief. Who would fault her for wanting to stay where it was safe, familiar? Her parents still lived there; her traditions may have called her back. What must be remembered in this short story, with long impact, is that we are ALL given choices. Hear the call of “whosoever will.” We can follow and go forward despite much fear and anguish, trusting God has a plan we may not see, or we can run back to our idols and our own ways. Choose better.

Ruth converted when she said, “Your God will be my God too.” Ruth dared to trust. Ruth had a glimpse of a loving, sovereign God and left everything to find Him, to seek that God. Naomi did so out of sheer desperation and memory power. How you return is not as important as IF you return. Ruth and Naomi chose to go for God, will you?

“Jesus, I give you my life. I repent for my sins and idols. I turn away from my past. I want to follow you. I want your people to be my people. I want you to be my God for life. I surrender to you and trust in Your sovereign plan. Make me born from above into Your heavenly family today I pray.

Please let me know if you said that prayer. I want to introduce you to something called the Roman Road, which will help as you walk in a new direction. Great things can be ahead. IF you turn to Him and follow, THEN . . . He will lead and bless you. Choose Best.

Walking with you,

Renae Roche ©2023