For the writers of the Bible, names are important. Abel’s name (הבל; Hevel), meaning “vapor” or “mist,” underscores the fact that he won’t last long. Noah (נוח; Noach), meaning “rest,” foreshadows the ark “resting” on dry land after the flood. Likewise, the Hebrew terms in the beginning of Ruth can clue us in to what’s coming in the narrative; the names that we encounter in Ruth highlight the difficulties of human existence, but also point to God’s presence and provision in the midst of uncertainty.
The opening verses of Ruth contain a wealth of meaning that we might not see when reading in English: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab…. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion” (1:1-2). Starting with the final two names, Elimelech’s sons are called Mahlon (מחלון) and Chilion (כליון), which mean “sickly” and “frailty,” respectively. Thus, as with Abel, the reader is not surprised when, only three verses later, the text states that “Mahlon and Chilion died” (1:5).
While these deaths might have been expected, the writer of Ruth also notes that their father Elimelech (אלימלך)—which means “My God is King”—also dies suddenly (1:3). Although the father’s name alludes to the ever-living God, he dies suddenly and without explanation. The irony of Elimelech’s death is heightened by the fact that “there was a famine in the land” (1:1)—particularly, in the family’s hometown of Bethlehem (בית לחם; Bet Lechem), which means “House of Bread.” Thus, there is no food in the one place we would expect an abundance of sustenance. Even Naomi—“My Delight” (נעמי; Na’omi)—changes her name to Mara (מרא) to reflect the “bitterness” of her losses in life (1:20).
Although Ruth begins with emptiness, the story gradually begins to refill the lives of its protagonists. Tragically, Naomi is left without a husband or sons, but “Ruth” (רות) likely comes from the Hebrew word for “companionship” (רעות; re’ut), so that Naomi continues to have a loyal friend after the loss of her family. More, one of the probable meanings of Boaz—the man who redeems Naomi and Ruth—is “In Strength” (בעז), which alludes to the strength of God to bring redemption out of tragedy. Therefore, while some of the names in Ruth serve to underscore initial emptiness, other names—like Ruth and Boaz—remind the reader of God’s ongoing provision and the divine desire for the ultimate good.