LESSON 1: Ruth 1:1-4

It may be helpful to start by reading about “Ruth and Shavuot” to understand something of the importance of this book.

Need help pronouncing Hebrew. Here is a “Reading Tutor” on Ruth 1:1.
Here is Ruth 1:1-4 being read aloud.

And for verse 1, I give “Detailed Translation Notes.”

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו
(Ruth 1:1).

Now, on to translation aids for verses 2-4, notes on Vav-conversive, narration verbs in Hebrew, and possessive suffixes, and also an audio file from the live class here in Atlanta.

The passage begins with a typical verb of narration. Often sections begin with a Vav attached to a verb. In this case, the chapter begins with Vav attached to the shortened form of “it will be” (יְהִי). The resulting verb (וַיְהִי) looks like it should be “and it will be.” But that is not correct. It means “and it was” or “now it happened.” How can this be?

It is because Vav before a verb often, unless the vowels indicate otherwise, reverses a “future” to a “past” or a “past” to a “future.” This is sometimes call Vav conversive (or Vav consecutive or Vav conservative). It is so common in the Hebrew Bible, a student will get used to it quickly.

In biblical stories (narratives) the common style is to note sequences of action with Vav-conversive forms one after another and with simple Perfect forms in between the Vav-conversives. Hebrew stories are heavy with verbs. The word “and” is prefixed to many of them. Some translations try to render most of the vavs with the “and” translation, but doing this every time sounds awkward in English. Therefore many vavs go untranslated. The Hebrew narrative style will become very familiar as we work through Ruth.

In English we frequently need to designate to whom something belongs, as in the sentence, “He took Jenny’s car to the store” or simply “he took her car to the store.” In the second example the pronoun “her” stands in place of “Jenny’s”.

In Hebrew, there are stand-alone pronouns. The stand-alone pronoun meaning “she” is הִיא. But the stand-alone pronoun is only used when it is the subject of a clause or sentence.

In Hebrew, when we want to use a pronoun to denote possession, we add a possessive suffix to a verb. Any Hebrew textbook will list all of the suffixes for you. But let’s consider some examples in Ruth 1:1-7:

  • The suffix for “his” is usually וֹ and sometimes consonantal ו. We see it twice in verse 1: אִשְׁתּוֹ and בָנָיו (his wife from אשּׁה in construct form אשׁת with וֹ suffixed to it and the plural form sons בָּנִים in construct בְּנֵי with ו suffixed and the first vowel is lengthened).
  • The suffix for “her” is הָ or הּ preceded by the vowel ָ and we have the example בָנֶיהָ in verse 3 (“her sons” which is similar to verse 1 which has “his sons”) and אִישָׁהּ at the end of verse 5 (“her man” or “her husband,” note the subtle difference between this spelling and אִשָּׁה, “woman” or “wife”).

My intention in the translation summaries is simply to give some aid and clues, not to look up words for you (that is why you have a lexicon/dictionary). My summaries will focus on things that may be hard for a beginner. I will make my comments verse by verse and will use transliteration to save time (a common sense transliteration and not the alien language that is used in academic transliteration).

VERSE 2: In the phrase ve-shaym ha-eesh Elee-melekh the verb is not written. This is because the “to be” verb can be assumed and often is in Hebrew. The name Elimelekh means “my God is king.” The name Naomi is from the root for “pleasant” and the kametz vowel with the schwa next to it is pronounced as a long “o” sound (rhymes with “row”). The names Makhlon and Kilion might be significant (“sick one” and “cease”). The whole family of Elimelekh and Naomi are Ephrateem or Ephrathites, the clan of Judah referred to elsewhere that settled in Bethlehem. Va-yah-voh-oo is a Vav-conversive 3rd masculine plural from the root meaning “came”. Va-yih-yoo sham is a Vav-conversive of the verb “to be” in 3rd masculine plural and the idea is not just that they “were there” but “they lived there.”

VERSE 3: va-ya-mat is a Vav-conversive 3rd masculine singular from the root mem-vav-tav meaning “die”. Note that the subject of the verb is Elimelekh (in Hebrew, subject normally come after the verb). eesh Naomi is a construct chain (word pair). vah-teesh-ah-ayr is a pattern of the verb called Niphal and it is often passive (the subject is Naomi, but the verb describes what happened to Naomi and not what Naomi did). The root of this verb is “remain” or “left over” and so Naomi “was left behind” by her husband who died. The Niphal pattern is important but slightly uncommon and usually is learned after one has a good bit of practice reading narratives.

VERSE 4: vah-yees-oo is from the root meaning “lift” and is a Vav-conversive 3rd masculine plural. la-hem means “for themselves.” nasheem is the plural of eeshah (“woman” or “wife”) even though it does not look like the correct plural form (nasheem is considered an irregular plural and simply has to be memorized). The expression here is strange: they lifted for themselves wives? Yes, as the JPS Commentary explains, this is how marriage was described in post-exilic Hebrew (suggesting that Ruth was written after the exile in Babylon even though the story concerns events long before the exile). mo-av-ee-yot is no doubt an unusual looking word to a new reader and is the feminine plural form of Moabite (some might render it “Moabitesses”). The names Ruth and Orpah could signify “watered field” and “cloud.” Remember they left Judah because of a famine, usually caused by lack of rain. akhat is “first” and shayneet “second” (these are called ordinal numbers, as opposed to cardinal numbers like “one” and “two”).

Click this link for the audio recording of a live class on Ruth 1:1-4. Ruth #1



Filed under Lessons

3 responses to “LESSON 1: Ruth 1:1-4

  1. A. Niccacci has a comment on this. A decade or so back I asked Randall Buth of Jerusalem about Niccacci’s framework. Buth wasn’t particularly upbeat in his response. Text-linguists don’t all use the same framework, and after decades of listening to Buth I have some serious reservations about Buth’s framework, as for Niccacci’s paper on Ruth, it is worth reading.

    Ruth 1:1-7
    Dawson comments as follows on the two vav yahi clauses in Ruth 1:1: “Two vav yahi clauses in succession is in itself very unusual (p. 177).”
    :end quote

    Alviero Niccacci, ofm
    Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem

  2. … actually, Niccacci quotes Dawson to disagree with him about multiple occurrences of vav yahi ויהי clauses in succession. It isn’t all that rare. Gen. 39:2 we see a triple set. I set up a search pattern for this. Haven’t had time to check all references.

    Gen. 1:5 , Gen. 1:8 , Gen. 1:13 , Gen. 1:19 , Gen. 1:23 , Gen. 1:31 , Gen. 4:14 , Gen. 27:30 , Gen. 39:2 , Ex. 4:9 , Ex. 7:19 , Ex. 9:9 , Ex. 12:41 , Ex. 16:5 , Ex. 19:16 , Num. 10:32 , Num. 24:18 , Num. 32:22 , Num. 34:4 , Deut. 20:11 , Josh. 6:27 , Josh. 15:4 , Josh. 16:5 , Josh. 18:12 , Josh. 18:14 , Josh. 18:19 , Josh. 19:29 , Judg. 17:12 , Judg. 19:1 , 1Sam. 5:9 , 1Sam. 18:21 , 1Sam. 22:2 , 2Sam. 7:4 , 2Sam. 13:23 , 2Sam. 21:18 , 2Sam. 21:20 , 1Kings 1:21 , 1Kings 13:20 , 2Kings 3:15 , 2Kings 9:37 , Is. 5:5 , Is. 17:5 , Is. 29:2 , Jer. 18:23 , Jer. 42:7 , Ezek. 3:16 , Ezek. 37:27 , Ezek. 47:12 , Ezek. 48:18 , Hag. 2:16 , Prov. 8:30 , Ruth 1:1 , Neh. 2:15 , 1Chr. 17:3 , 1Chr. 20:6 ,

  3. Carl Kinbar

    Great work, Derek.

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