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.

BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

32 COMMENTS

  1. Names! I was just pondering this topic a few days ago. The names given to a person as a newborn appear to be prophetic/divinely inspired to encapsulate the essence of what that person was to be/become. When that person experienced a metamorphosis of their essence, their name would be changed.
  2. Naomi seemed to have expected that her life circumstances would reflect the essence of her name. When her temporary circumstances didn’t reflect the essence of her name, she requested a name change. But her name wasn’t changed because ultimately the circumstances of her life mirrored the essence of her name.
    • Will never negate names given by God who sees us like no Human can. Not quite sure how a name divinely inspired would change when circumstances changed. I tend to think that we place too much emphasis on names given by parents. somewhat like Birthday and astrological signs. Witchcraft?

      + More answers (1)
  3. The essence of Elimelech‘s name was true as well. The God of Elimelech is King and reigned supreme in Elimelech‘s family’s ultimate circumstances, even after Elimelech went to sleep with his fathers and was silenced and not able to advocate for his family. Elimelech‘s God reigned with the final say/word.
  4. As a student of the Lord, understanding the meaning of names in the Old Testament is so important. The Hebrew meaning of names brings revelation and the intent of heaven while studying the Old Testament. Blessings
    • Kris, thanks for reading, and for your question. Orpah means "gazelle," so it's fitting that she ends up leaving Naomi (as gazelles are known for their flightiness).
    • The precise meaning of Esther is debated, but it could be related to the words for "star" in multiple Semitic languages and in Persian. Alternatively, it may be related to the Medio-Persian word "astra," which means "myrtle." This latter option would cohere with the alternative name that the Bible gives to Esther: "Hadassah" -- which also means "myrtle" in Hebrew (see Est 2:7).
    • Thank you for this enlightening article and for all that you all do at IBC! I thank the Lord that when I don’t have an understanding of a matter, I ask the Lord, in all humility, to open my eyes of understanding and I don’t speak ill of His word.
  5. Have you seen Chuck Missler’s discovery? Ie the names from Adam through Enoch down to Noah. The meanings: Man, Appointed, Mortal, Sorrow, (but!) The blessed God, Shall come down, Teaching, His death shall bring, The despairing, Comfort. Ie the gospel in a nutshell. Every word of God is perfect!
  6. I'm puzzled. Which new mom is going to name her baby "sickly" and "frailty"????? It's speaking forth disaster..... I WILL NOT DO THAT! I'm not saying that isn't what those Hebrew words mean....
    Unless so sadly, so there was already so much hopelessness present at when they were born.
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