Last week my wife and I were visiting a church in our neighborhood. It was Sunday and it was Mother’s Day. In his sermon the pastor was finishing a series of sermons on the book of Ruth. On the day we visited, his sermon was on Ruth, Chapter 4.
I had missed the sermons on chapters 1 to 3, but he said something in his message on chapter 4 that caught my attention. After preaching about Boaz’s purchase of the land that belonged to Naomi and her dead husband, and how Boaz also acquired Ruth and the right to raise the name of Ruth’s dead husband by exercising the right of kinsman-redeemer, the preacher discussed the birth of Ruth’s and Boaz’s son.
The preacher said that Ruth was barren and that she tried very hard to have a child, but unsuccessfully. But, after she married Boaz, the Lord opened her womb and she conceived and gave birth to a son whom the women of Bethlehem named Obed (Ruth 4:17).
The statement that caught my attention deals with Ruth being barren. The statement intrigued me because I had just posted on my blog a study on Rachel and her struggle with barrenness. In that post I mentioned that the Old Testament lists five women who were barren. The five barren women were Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:30), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2), and Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother, cf. Judges 13:2). The New Testament says that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist was also barren (Luke 1:7).
The Hebrew word for “barren” is עֲקָרָ֖ה, ‘aqārāh. The word appears 11 times in the Old Testament, however, the word is never used in the book of Ruth. So, how did the preacher come to the conclusion that Ruth was barren?
There are two possible clues in the book that may indicate that Ruth was barren and unable to have children. The first clue is found in Ruth 1:2-4. The text says that Elimelech and his wife Naomi had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Because of a famine in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Elimelech and his family moved to the country of Moab and lived there many years. In Moab, Mahlon and Chilion “took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years” (Ruth 1:4).
After the death of Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi returned to Bethlehem with Ruth, while Orpah decided to remain in Moab. Thus, since Mahlon and Ruth were married ten years, and Ruth had no children, it is possible that the preacher believed that Ruth was barren.
The second clue is found in Ruth 4:13, where it says that after Ruth married Boaz, “the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.” The idea here is that since the Lord blessed Ruth with conception, then, it is possible that Ruth was barren and unable to conceive before the Lord blessed her.
However, there are several clues within the book of Ruth that may indicate that Ruth was not barren. Although these clues may not be conclusive, I believe they point to the fact that Ruth was not barren. Below are my reasons for affirming that Ruth was not barren.
1. The names of Naomi’s two sons may indicate the root of the problem. The name Mahlon comes from a Hebrew word hlh which means “to be weak,” or “sick.” It is possible that Mahlon’s name indicates that he was a sickly child. The name Chilion comes from a Hebrew word that means “failing,” or “consumption.” Consumption is a wasting disease such as tuberculosis. Thus, it is possible that Naomi’s children were sick from infancy and that their disease did not allow them to father children.
2. Both Ruth and Orpah were married to Naomi’s sons and the biblical text seems to indicate that both Ruth and Orpah did not have children when their husbands died. So, if Orpah was childless when she became a widow, it is possible that the reason that caused Ruth to be a childless widow was the same reason that also caused Orpah to become a childless widow. That reason was their husbands who probably were sterile because of their illness.
Naomi mentioned to Ruth and Orpah the possibility of levirate marriage, where the two widows could have children through another son by Naomi. But Naomi said she was not pregnant and that she was too old to remarry and give birth to children. Naomi’s words clearly indicate she believed that Ruth and Orpah could become pregnant if they remarried.
3. When Ruth married Boaz, it is quite possible that Boaz was an old man. When Boaz called Ruth “my daughter” (Ruth 2:8), this may indicate that there was an age differential between Boaz and Ruth. The age issue appears again in Ruth 3:10. Boaz said to Ruth: “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”
Thus, when Boaz married Ruth, Boaz was older than Ruth. After the marriage, Ruth had no problem becoming pregnant: “So Boaz married Ruth and had sexual relations with her. The LORD enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13). The fact that the Lord enabled Ruth to conceive was not because she was barren, rather because the child was seen as a gift from God.
The idea that the child was God’s gift is seen in Ruth 4:12. After the wedding, the women of Bethlehem blessed Boaz with the following words: “May your house become like the house of Perez, the son Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring the LORD will give you by this young woman.” The reference to “your house” and “the offspring the LORD will give you” may indicate that Boaz was a childless man, and that God blessed him by allowing his new wife to give birth to a son.
Thus, it is my firm conviction that Ruth was not barren.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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