Why did Mahlon and Chilion die? According to the Targum 9   Recently updated!

Unknown artist
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. []

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

9 thoughts on “Why did Mahlon and Chilion die? According to the Targum

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Christian,

    How interesting that this should come up!

    This past sunday in Sunday School here at Faith Community Church in Redding, CA the class was dealing with the Book of Ruth. In the discussion we came upon 1:4 dealing with the death of Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion (Kilion).

    As the teacher I pointed out the following:
    1) Deuteronomy 23:3ff is quite clear about allowing Ammonites and Moabites into the congregation of Israel. In other words, the Israelites are NOT to marry outside of nation of Israel. Elimelech, as the parental head violated that commandment along with Mahlon and Chilion. Intermarriage with the Canaanites was also forbidden.

    2) It is by the grace of God that saw Ruth accept the God of Israel as her God over against the gods of the Moabites (especially the god Molech/Chemosh). The same could also be applied to Tamar, Rahab, and later, Bathsheba.

    3) Boaz did not let the grass grow green under his feet in seeking the hand of Ruth (chapter 4).

    I would add the following to that which I did not know until today
    4) In an article referenced by Dr. Claude Mariottini in Israel Today Magazine,”A Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 2:4,”
    (http://israeltoday.co.il/NewsItem/tabid/178/nid/23351/language/en-US/Default.aspx.), Jewish rabbinic interpretation links Genesis 2:4 with Ruth 4:18 based on the plene reading of “toledoth.”

    “The plene spelling toledot (generations) in Genesis 2:4 appears
    only here and Ruth 4:18, the latter verse stating “this is the
    genealogy (toledot) of Perez.” According to Jewish commentators, this
    unique spelling is that which links the two genealogies and
    juxtaposes Adam with the Messiah, the son of Perez.”

    Interesting how this fits in with your post today.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Thanks Bryant! I am glad you found this interesting.

      I think there are still reasonable questions as to whether we ought to see Ruth as “converting” (making a clear commitment to accept YHWH over and against other gods) or simply the more common ancient practice of simply accepting that now that she would be in Israel she would worship the Israelite god. Later traditions, both Jewish and Christian, of course make this into a full conversion. In fact, that is my most recent article that I am just shipping off this week.

      As for Boaz “not letting the grass grow” he certainly did not once Ruth acted! But as I point out in another article and some posts here (as have many others), Boaz takes very little initiative with regards to Ruth, or Naomi for that matter. He knows that she is present and in need (chapter 2) but the only action he takes is to allow Ruth to safely glean. It requires the cunning of Naomi and the action of Ruth to goad him into taking the next steps.

      Finally, TgRuth also adds information to the genealogy at the end of Ruth:

      18 These are the descendants of Perez. Perez fathered Hezron.

      19 Hezron fathered Ram, and Ram fathered Aminadab.

      20 Aminadab fathered Nahshon, and Nahshon was the head of a family of the house of Judah. Nahshon fathered Salma the Righteous, that is Salma from Bethlehem and Netophah, [whose sons] did away with the guardposts which Jeroboam the Wicked placed on the roads, and the deeds of the father and sons were beautiful as balm.

      21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Ibzan the judge, that is Boaz the Righteous, through whose merit the people, the house of Israel, were freed from the hand of their enemies, and because of his prayers the famine passed from the land of Israel. Boaz fathered Obed, who served the Lord of the World with a perfect heart.

      22 Obed fathered Jesse, who was called Nahash because no sin or fault was found in him that he should be delivered into the hand of the Angel of Death to take his life from him. He lived many days until there was remembered before the Lord the counsel which the serpent gave to Eve, the wife of Adam, to eat of the fruit of the tree, those who eat of its fruit are made wise to know good and evil. Because of that counsel all who dwell on earth were condemned to death, and for that sin the righteous Jesse died, that is Jesse who fathered David, the king of Israel.

  • Bruce Killian

    I Mahlon and Chilion died because they married Moabitesses, Boaz was not under the same restriction because his mother Rahab was an Ammorite and so he was separated from the congregation of the Lord by 9 rather than 10 generations. Long ago I wrote an article showing the geneologies between Ruth and David were abbreviated because of this requirement.
    Brace and peace,

    • Targuman

      It depends upon what you mean by “real answer.” The Book of Ruth does not offer an answer. It simply states that they died. As noted above, the rabbinic commentators and others assume that they died because they transgressed the law found in Deut. 23:4 [Engl. 3] states, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” “Admitted to the assembly of the LORD” is understand as meaning marriage in this context.

      Given that Boaz does NOT die when he marries Ruth it seems likely to me that the author of the Book of Ruth simply did not want to explore the cause of the sons’ deaths and rather focus instead upon Ruth’s full inclusion into Israel.

      • Matt

        Interesting read. Unfortunately, no one here looks into the text of Ruth 1:4 to its extent…”and they lived there about ten years….1:5 “then both Mahlon and Chilion died,” I agree that the rabbinic commentators ASSUMED they died because of the law, but the commentators in no way give a reasoning as to why they died ten years later. In saying that, I believe that the best conclusion is to not to assume a reason for their death and be satisfied with just knowing they died.

  • Shoshana

    Ruth was not an ethnic Moabite, she was an Israelite. Ruben, For over 200 years Ruben, Gad and half of Manasseh occupied all the territory north of the Arnon to MT Hermon. Part of that territory was once Moab’s but the Amorites under King Sihon took it. Moab tried to take it back and for about 18 years succeeded at least in an area. Israel fought back and its during this time that Naomi’s sons died. Boaz could not have redeemed her had she been a true Moabite. One can be an American, a Cuban, a Frenchman, etc and still be a Jew. Ruth was a Moabite Jew that like many had in Israel, worshiped the local deities but chose to do teshuva returning with Naomi.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Shoshana, that is an interesting suggestion that Ruth was an Israelite. I have note read it anywhere else and I would be interested as to where you come across this idea.

      Unfortunately it is contradicted by the biblical text of the Book of Ruth. It repeatedly (and with emphasis) states that Ruth is “a Moabitess.” The distinction between ethnicity and nationality (such as you suggest for a Frenchman and a Jew) is a relatively recent conception. In fact, it is at the core of anti-Judaism throughout antiquity and into our modern era, the assumption that one could NOT be a Jew and a Frenchman (e.g., the Dreyfus Affair), American, etc.