We don’t know much about Elimelech; the bulk of his story is in the first chapter of Ruth. The phrase “we don’t know” is going to come up a lot because there just isn’t a lot of information, but I suspect that he is another character getting an undeserved bad reputation.
I have heard several messages either about him or that mention him, and it is always bad. He is condemned for leaving Israel, the place of national blessing because of a famine, and because of the bad impact upon his family. He is often compared unfavorably with Boaz, of whom it is said that he stayed put and became wealthy.
The usual application I’ve heard is that if one is being blessed in a church, we should not lightly move away just because times are tough.
While that would appear to be a fair application, that’s not the point of this writing: I want to provide some things to think about that may make us judge him less harshly.
We don’t know about his family life; we don’t know what led to the decision to sojourn in Moab. It could well be that Naomi was the driving force behind the move and that Elimelech didn’t want to go, but that she could have nagged him about how poorly they were doing and how much better it would be in Moab. There are plenty of families in which the wife pushes the husband to “succeed” or to better the family circumstances. Elimelech could be one of the many men who sacrifice principle for peace and thus moved to Moab.
One of the reasons I wonder about this is that you will note that his sons did not marry heathen (non-Jewish) girls until after Elimelech had died. We don’t know their ages; while it may be that they were just too young to marry before their father died, it could be that he had been the primary one encouraging them not to marry the Moabitish girls.
Furthermore, if Elimelech was the bad guy and dragged Naomi off against her will, then why didn’t she return to Israel after her husband died? (She didn’t have any trouble leaving later). The end of Ruth 1:4 seems to imply that Naomi’s sons lived in Moab ten years with their wives.
Note too, that Naomi does not appear to have been a very spiritual person; like many whose faith is weak, she praised God when good things happened (Ruth 2:20), and blamed Him when circumstances were not good (Ruth 1:13, 20,21). She seemed to be encouraging both of her daughters-in-law to return to their heathen ways, but Ruth was determined to stay with her.
Finally (a minor point); there is no indication that Boaz became wealthy by staying where he was; he could have been wealthy before the trouble began.
The following are some other thoughts I had while looking through the story of Ruth; they are not pertinent to the main post, but I put them here for your consideration.
- Who named the children? In an older Bible of mine, it says that Mahlon means “sickly” and the Chilion means “pining” or “failing”. What names to give children! They appear to have been accurate, however, for they both died young
- It is interesting to read that their purpose in going to Moab was “to sojourn” (Ruth 1:1); this implies that they planned to keep moving around and be back before too long, but before long this became “…and continued there”. This story could be told over and over again in the lives of many believers: they intend to do something that they know isn’t really right, but they only plan to do it “for a little while” and then return to doing right. However, the “little while” often becomes permanent. This is a good warning for all believers.
- It is interesting that Orpah was the one who obeyed Naomi and returned; it was Ruth who was determined to say with Naomi.
- Even though Naomi asked to be called “Mara” (Ruth 1:20), the Holy Spirit continued to call her Naomi, as did the people of Bethlehem (Ruth 2:6; 4:3, 17).