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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oprah, Orpah: What's in a name?

Naomi, Ruth & Orpah (William Blake)
During a February 1991 Academy of Achievement interview,
Oprah Winfrey discusses her unusual first name.  She points out that “Oprah” spelled backwards is “Harpo” (the name of her production company – also the name of her character’s husband in The Color Purple).

Her birth-certificate name, Orpah, was chosen by her aunt
because it was a biblical name.  Because it is not as common a name as “Ruth” or “Mary,” the spelling and pronunciation was not well understood.  “Orpah” therefore became “Oprah” in the eyes and ears of others, and the newer name stuck.

Who, however, was the biblical Orpah?

In relational terms, she was the wife of Chilion, sister-in-law of Ruth, and daughter-in-law of Naomi (all from the Book of Ruth).  Although Naomi and Chilion were Israelites from Bethlehem, Ruth and Orpah were Moabites.  According to Wikipedia, the ancient Kingdom of Moab was located on a “mountainous strip of land in (today’s) Jordan running along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.”  According to Deuteronomy 34:1,  it was on Moab’s Mount Nebo that Moses was given a view of the Promised Land.  2 Maccabees 2:4-5 tells us that Jeremiah once hid the Ark of the Covenant within a cave on Mount Nebo.

According to Genesis 19:30-38, the Moabites are descendants of the incestuous union between Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and Lot’s eldest daughter.  After having survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters had each seduced their father (after deviously getting him drunk) in order to perpetuate their otherwise lost family line.  Lot’s elder daughter gave birth to Moab, and Lot’s younger daughter gave birth to Ben-Ammi (ancestor to the inhabitants of the biblical Kingdom of Ammon).

The existence of the Moabites has been historically verified.  The Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) bears an inscription by the 9th-century B.C. Moabite King Mesha.  It proclaims victory over an ancient Israelite king.  According to Wikipedia, line 31 of this inscription specifically mentions the House of David.  Besides differing politically, Moabites and Israelites differed religiously.  Whereas many Moabites worshipped the
god Chemosh and the mother-goddess Ashtar, many Israelites condemned these beliefs as blasphemous.

While living in Moab, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah all became widows.  Since the widow’s situation was often a dire one in those days, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to remain with their people in Moab when she returned to Bethlehem.  Both daughters-in-law at first insisted upon accompanying Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Ruth 1:14 then tells us that “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.”

From a Hebrew-canon perspective, Ruth has been deemed the heroine who chose the one true God.  From King Mesha’s perspective, this story might have been told quite differently.


Copyright May 25, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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