Ruth’s story is very well known amongst Christians today. She is rightly labeled as a woman of incredible faith and dedication. Her sister-in-law, Orpah, tends to fall into the background of the story. It’s often thought that Ruth did the right thing, while Orpah failed. It’s easy to criticize Orpah for perceived unfaithfulness, but when we take a closer look at the whole story in context, it’s easier to understand her actions.
Ruth may have been braver, but Orpah still played an important role, and her story is told for a reason. Let’s take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Orpah. While we should still celebrate Ruth’s faithfulness, we can also develop sympathy for Orpah and the decisions she had to make.
Who Was Orpah in the Bible?
In Ruth 1, we find there was a famine in the land of Canaan. Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, travels from Bethlehem to Moab to escape the dismal conditions. While living there Naomi’s husband, Elimelek dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.
The marriages left Ruth’s sons unequally yoked since the Moabites worshipped their own false gods. It can be argued that the marrying of strange wives contributed to Ruth's sons’ early death. Naomi puts much faith in her sons after her husband’s death; however, they pass too soon after their marriages, not living long enough to leave any children behind.
After the passing of her sons, Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to return to their people. She explains that she is too old to marry, and even if she did, it wouldn’t make sense for Ruth and Orpah to wait until any future sons were old enough to marry. Ruth is determined to stay by Naomi despite the circumstances. Orpah, however, listens to her mother-in-law and returns to her family.
What Do We Know about Orpah?
Biblical names held great significance. Orpah’s name has a few meanings. One is a derivation of the Hebrew word “oreph” which means neck. This translation could label Orpah as stiff-necked since she turned away from her mother-in-law after her husband’s death and returned to her people. Other translations label the name Orpah as a fawn or gazelle, young animals easily startled and capable of running away swiftly.
We know Orpah married Naomi’s son, Kilion, and Ruth married Mahlon. Some believe Orpah and Ruth were sisters before their marriages and they were daughters of the king of Moab. Either way, they practiced different traditions and held different beliefs. It can be argued that Naomi’s family turned from the ways of their home country and began adapted to the foreign traditions.
Naomi hears the famine has ended in Bethlehem and decides to return home. When she first encourages Orpah and Ruth to return to their people, they both resist. Ruth 1:9-10 says “May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
Again Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to their homes. Ruth 1:14 says “At this, they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.” Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, but Orpah heeds her mother-in-law’s warning. The words before Orpah’s departure should be noted. She wept aloud. Leaving Naomi wasn’t a simple decision, but a difficult and painful one.
Why Didn't Orpah Go with Naomi?
Orpah listened to Naomi’s plea. During biblical times, women relied on men for survival, to provide a roof over their heads and put food on the table. Naomi knew it would be difficult for three widowed women to make a life of their own. Women married for necessity more than desire.
But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!” Ruth 1:11-13.
If Orpah continued with Naomi, she knew her future was uncertain. Naomi didn’t have a secure home or way to make a living. Even if the best circumstances occurred and she gave birth to sons, it would be years before the boys would be old enough to take care of them. Naomi was convinced it was in Ruth and Orpah’s best interests to go back to their mother’s home and have a chance at a fresh start, marry again and have children. Ruth couldn’t be convinced, but Orpah was swayed.
Why Shouldn't We Be so Harsh with Her?
Orpah didn’t stow away in the middle of the night when no one was watching. She didn’t leave in secret or go against her mother-in-law's wishes. She did what Naomi told her to do, not once or twice, but three times Naomi tells her to turn back. At first, Orpah remains with her mother-in-law, along with Ruth. In verses 9-10, the Bible explains “Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” Orpah chooses Naomi over her family of origin at first, showing commitment and dedication to her family by marriage.
It’s hard to blame Orpah for choosing a fresh start over an unknown future in a foreign land. Going back to her mother’s home provided her with the possibility of another marriage and children. Those chances seemed slim to none if she continued to the foreign land. Having her own family provided comfort and insurance of a comfortable life. On the other hand, continuing with Naomi meant embracing the unknown which could have been detrimental. We know Ruth’s story has a happy ending, but Orpah didn’t know that. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. The Bible tells us Orpah wept aloud before departing. She wasn’t merely sad to leave her mother and sister-in-law but disturbed enough to cry aloud.
Additionally, Orpah didn’t have a deep-rooted faith in God to pull her through the possibility of a difficult life. She came from a background that worshipped false idols. While Ruth commits to following the God of Naomi, Orpah makes no such promise. As Christians, we are attuned to God’s promises and can remain faithful through difficult circumstances. Orpah didn’t have such faith. Instead, she would be putting hope in mere humans, and while she loved her mother-in-law deeply, it wasn’t enough to risk the rest of her life.
It’s easy to label Ruth as the “good character” and Orpah as the “bad character” when we look at this story. Observing Orpah’s actions in context can help us better understand her decisions. Some may perceive Orpah as failing in love and devotion to Naomi. Taking a closer look helps us see she was also a human being making, what she thought, were the best decisions for her life.
Ruth’s actions teach us a lot about God’s faithfulness. She persisted through dire circumstances and showed unyielding love to Naomi. Her faithfulness was rewarded. God showed up and put Ruth in the field of Boaz. They married and Ruth became part of the lineage of King David. However, we can also learn important lessons from Orpah’s story. Her decision teaches us about the predicaments single and widowed women lived through in the past. And knowing all of this makes Ruth’s story even more remarkable.
Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Emiliano Vittoriosi
Jenna Brooke Carlson is an elementary dual language teacher in the Chicago suburbs. As a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Word Weavers, she enjoys spending time with other writers and perfecting her craft. She recently signed a contract for her first young adult novel, A Big Hot Mess, with Elk Lake Publishing. Along with writing, she’s pursuing her dreams of creating a community of brave young women, who she can encourage to live out their dreams amid challenges and imperfection. Her days are busy, but she’s determined she can conquer anything with a fuzzy blanket and a hot cup of tea. To find out more about Jenna, visit her website at jennabrookecarlson.com.
This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.