Why did Mahlon and Chilion die? According to the Targum

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Illuminated Naples Bible (Ms. 1191, f.97v): Wedding of Machlon and Chilion
In the upper section, Naomi and Elimelech stand at the gate of Bethlehem as their sons Mahlon and Chilion leave. In the lower section, Mahlon and Chilion are married to Ruth and Orpah.

Other resources for the Book of Ruth and its Targum can be found by navigating the menu above.

Last month [July 2012] I presented my paper on the conversion of Ruth in Targum Ruth.1 I noted, in passing, that the Targum also explains why the two sons/husbands died in Moab. A reminder of the biblical text:

Ruth 1:1   In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

In the Bible we are given no explanation for why Elimelech’s sons died. We might make various inferences such as relating it to their having moved out of the Promised Land and marrying not simply foreign wives but specifically Moabite women (see Deut. 23:3). We might make such interfaces, but the biblical text offers no explanation. Such ambiguity is often the case in Hebrew narrative texts, allowing room and opportunity for the reader to engage with the text or, perhaps, simply not concerned with issues that later readers found important.

The Targum of Ruth, like all Targumim, is expansive and seeks to answer many questions that the Targumist felt lacking in the biblical text. In this case, the opening portion provides a specific answer to why Mahlon and Chilion died.

Tg. Ruth 1:4 They [Mahlon and Chilion] transgressed the decree of the Memra of the Lord and they took for themselves foreign wives from the house of Moab.

After my paper, a man came up to me and asked where this was in the Targum, since he had never read such a judgment in rabbinic literature. Now, I did not know the man so I do not know his experience or expertise and I do not claim to have complete or thorough knowledge of all rabbinic haggadah but I was fairly confident it was at least in Ruth Rabbah. Sure enough, not only is it in the Targum of Ruth, it is also in the Midrash.

Ruth R. II:9. AND THEY TOOK THEM WIVES OF THE DAUGHTERS OF MOAB (1, 4). It was taught in the name of R. Meir: They neither proselytised them, nor gave them ritual immersion, nor had the new law, Ammonite, but not Ammonitess, Moabite, but not Moabitess, been propounded, that they should escape punishment on its account.2

R. Meir, according to the Midrash, taught that Mahlon and Chilion “should not escape punishment” since the exceptions to the biblical law, including conversion, had not yet been promulgated in the time of Elimelech and his sons and therefore they died. It seems to me that the Targum is simply making explicit what is implicit in Ruth R. II:9.

Now this creates a separate problem for the Targumist which may explain why the other rabbinic commentaries side-step this explanation of Ruth 1:4. Once it is declared that M & C have been killed because they took Moabite wives, how can Boaz take Ruth to be his wife? Surely he would suffer the same fate! Again, it is worth noting that Ruth’s status as a Moabite in relation to Deuteronomic Law is not addressed in the biblical text, something that scholars have debated for centuries (e.g., did the author of Ruth even know of Deuteronomy?). The Midrash alludes to the answer in reference to the “new law” and the Targum makes it explicit in Targum Ruth 2:11.

11 Boaz replied and said to her, “It has surely been told to me concerning the word of the sages that when the Lord decreed concerning them he did not decree against any but the men.

So the Targumist explains why M & C died, but Boaz did not. Why is this discussion important? Because dating rabbinic texts is difficult and dating Targumic texts even more so. One method is to try and determine which exegetical tradition is older and who is borrowing from whom. If the Targumic reading of 1:4 is new or unique or even in conflict with other rabbinic traditions, that might be helpful in determining its date. Or not.

Note that in contrast with the Targum, in the Talmud (b. B. Bat. 91a) it is stated that the “sin” of Elimelech and his family was “to go forth from Palestine to a foreign land” before all supplies and options were exhausted. It does not mention the taking of Moabite wives, but rather places the emphasis upon the lack of faith that God would provide for them in their time of famine and need.

IMAGE: I found this great image at “The Visual Midrash” [the link is now dead]. I need to do more research into this MS; it is beautiful. It is fascinating that there is a Christian priest officiating this wedding (note the crosses on the stole)! A whole new realm of “wrong” as far as the unions of Mahlon and Chilion to their non-Jewish brides.

 
  1. NB: This was originally posted in August 2012, but it is my most frequently visited essay so over the years I have taken time to tweak and flesh out some of the content. []
  2. Rabinowitz, Louis I. Midrash Rabbah: Ruth. London: Soncino, 1939. []

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