While living in Moab due to a famine in Judah (Ruth 1:1-2), Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women (Ruth 1:3) named Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:4, 14). The two women are contrasted from the time they enter the text until Orpah’s departure (Ruth 1:14).
They took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. (Ruth 1:4 NASB)Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) notes:
These names occur nowhere else in the Old Testament; indeed, it is uncertain whether they are Moabite or Hebrew. Although the names’ genuineness need not be doubted, the meaning of Orpah remains an unsolved mystery. (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 94)Though the name’s meaning is unknown and it is uncommon, Orpah is actually the name that appears on Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)’s birth certificate as her aunt Ida plucked it from the pages of the Bible.
When Naomi and her daughters-in-law lose their husbands (Ruth 1:3, 5), the trio is faced with another crisis - how to proceed. The sense is that after ten years together (Ruth 1:4), they have grown close and do not wish to leave each other’s company (Ruth 1:9, 14).
Inexplicably, Naomi waits until they are already en route to Judah to advise her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab (Ruth 1:6-7). Twice, the mother-in-law appeals to Orpah and Ruth to return home (Ruth 1:8-9, 11-13). From Naomi’s perspective, she has nothing to offer her loved ones as a woman’s security and value came from a husband or sons and she was out of both. While her only option is to return to her homeland, Judah, Naomi realizes that her daughters-in-laws’ prospects are bleak there.
Not only are Orpah and Ruth Moabites and so members of an already stigmatized nation, their marriages are childless when the sons die ten years later. Supposedly a land of plenty, Moab proves to be sterility and death. (Newsom and Ringe, The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition,85)
On the surface, for Orpah and Ruth, all signs lead to Moab. Returning home represents the only sensible course of action as Moab held the probability of a normal life while the prospects of remaining with Naomi are replete with uncertainty. Knowing as much, Naomi advises her charges to return to Moab (Ruth 1:8, 12). Because of this advice, some have questioned Naomi’s faith in Yahweh and God’s ability to redeem her family.
Naomi’s second appeal is evidently convincing as her words strike a chord with Orpah. Orpah’s rationale mirrors The Clash’s catchy 1982 single:
Should I stay or should I go now?After weighing her options, Orpah literally kisses Naomi goodbye (Ruth 1:14).
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:14 NASB)While Orpah leaves, Ruth cleaves. Ostensibly, Ruth is reckless while Orpah plays it safe and opts for the more sensible choice.
Naomi’s disappointment is palpable. She goes from calling Orpah “my daughter” (Ruth 1:12) to “your-sister-in law” (Ruth 1:15) and it is telling that it is Orpah who kisses Naomi and not vice versa (Ruth 1:14).
Traditionally, Ruth is lauded while Orpah is maligned. Orpah returns to her people and more importantly reverts to her gods (Ruth 1:15) while Ruth makes an act of faith towards Israel’s God (Ruth 1:16-17). With this choice, Orpah is written out of the biblical text never to be referenced again while Ruth will become the great grandmother of king David (Ruth 4:17) and will ultimately have a biblical book named after her.
André Lacocque (b. 1927) relays this traditional view, writng:
The literal obedience of Orpah to Naomi’s orders has incalculable consequences of future deprivation for Chilion’s family line. Because Orpah has missed the turning point of history in chapter 1 of the narrative, Chilion’s death is a double death. (Lacocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, 35)
Had Orpah stayed with the group, how would the story have played out? Would Ruth have “clung” to Naomi if Orpah had not just left? Given the same options, how would you have chosen? Is there a place for playing it safe in the life of faith? Just because Ruth chose well, does it mean that Orpah chose poorly? For Ruth to be right does Orpah need be wrong?
The text itself neither criticizes nor congratulates Orpah and technically speaking, it is she, not Ruth, who obeys her mother-in-law. Kirsten Nielsen (b. 1943) informs:
It is characteristic that the author passes no judgment on Orpah, leaving this to the reader. Sooner or later a reader is bound to react negatively. Thus in the Midrash Ruth Rabbah we find the brutal account of Orpah on her return journey being raped by a hundred men and a dog. Here we are left in no doubt as to what to think of Orpah, though according to the narrator of Ruth she does only what her mother-in-law insists on. (Nielsen, Ruth: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 48)Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943 reminds that the reader is not privy to the rest of Orpah’s story. He counters:
May one fault Orpah for unforgivable disloyalty to Naomi? On the contrary, the narrator avoids criticizing her. In fact, her departure merits some praise as an obedient daughter who properly accepted Naomi’s wise counsel. Were the story to follow her future, it might report Yahweh’s fulfillment of Naomi’s good wishes (Ruth 1:8-9). Her choice only highlights how extraordinary was Ruth’s conduct. That is the narrator’s point: Orpah did the sensible, expected thing, Ruth the extraordinary and unexpected (Hubbard , The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 115-16).K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (b. 1953) notes that from a literary perspective, Orpah is in the same spot in the first chapter as the kinsman-redeemer finds himself in the book’s final chapter:
While Orpah serves as a foil to Ruth in the story heightening the contrast, the narrator does not criticize Orpah’s decision. She is not portrayed negatively; the reader is given good reason for her decision and little other information. It is not that Ruth is right and Orpah is wrong per se. Rather, the actions of Orpah make Ruth appear that much more positive (the unnamed nearer kinsman-redeemer will serve the same function in relation to Boaz in Ruth 4). (Younger Judges, Ruth (The NIV Application Commentary) , 423)Adele Berlin (b. 1943) concurs:
In the case of Orpah, both she and Ruth initially react the same way, expressing reluctance to leave Naomi. Only after prolonged convincing does Orpah take her leave, and, of course, Ruth’s determination to remain with Naomi becomes, in the eyes of the reader, all the more heroic. The two were first made to appear similar—they were both Moabite wives of brothers, both childless widows, both loyal to their mother-in-law. Only gradually is the difference between them developed, and when it is, the effect is dramatic and moving. (Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, 85)Ruth’s decision is exceptional and Orpah serves a reminder that not everyone would have acted as she did.
Have you ever been compared with another to make one of you appear more impressive? Why does Ruth make the decision that she does? When have you taken the road less traveled?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-Robert Frost (1874–1963), “The Road Not Taken” Mountain Interval 1916.