If there was ever a biblical story that exemplified the refrain, "And they all lived happily ever after," it would be the book of Ruth. Ruth is comprised of only four chapters, and it is a delightful short story that warms the reader's heart. In the Hebrew Bible, it is found in the third section of the canon, known as "The Writings." It is part of the five festal scrolls, and as such, is read on the Festival of Weeks because of its association with harvest. [The other four festal scrolls are Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther.
In the Christian Bible, Ruth follows Judges. Some scholars, who argue for an early dating of the book, claim this is simply chronologically accurate, as evidenced by the opening line in Ruth, "Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled…" Obviously, this argument has considerable merit. But since the book ends with a short genealogy that includes the mention of David, some time must have passed before Ruth was given its final form. Some scholars see this mention of David as the underlying purpose of the book. Robert Hubbard, for example, claims that Ruth is much more than a "feel-good" story. He has identified multiple connections with episodes reminiscent of the patriarchal stories: 1
- Migration because of famine which advances God's plan (1:1; cf Gen. 12; 26)
- A family's survival endangered by a mother's childlessness (1:5; cf Gen. 16-17; 25:21; 29:31, 30)
- A foreigner's voluntary, permanent immigration to a new land (Ruth, 1:17; 2:11; Abram, Gen. 12:1-5)
- Protection of the woman elected to bear the son of destiny (Ruth, 2:8, 9, 22; Sarah, Gen. 12:17; 20:3, 6; Rebekah, 26:7-11; cf. Dinah, 34:1-31)
- The betrothal-type scene of the chosen wife (for Ruth, see 2:20; cf. Rebekah, Gen. 24)
- Female sexual initiative overcoming male inaction to provide an heir (Boaz and Ruth, 3:7-15; cf. Judah and Tamar, Gen. 38)
- The purchase of property as the result of a death (4:3, 9; cf. Gen. 23; 33:19)
- The integration of the foreign immigrants into their new homeland (2:10-12; 3:11; 4:10, 11, 13; cf. Gen. 14; 20; 21:22-34; 23; 26; 34)
- Marriage to a foreigner later leading to a ruling family (David, 4:13, 17b-22; cf. Perez, Gen. 38; Ephraim and Manasseh, 41:45, 50-52; 48)
- The divine gift of conception providing the son(s) of destiny (4:12, 13; cf. Sarah, Gen. 21:1-2; Rebekah, 25:21; Leah, 29:31; 30:17; Rachel, 30:22, 23; cf. Hannah, 1 Dam. 1:19-20; Samson's mother, Judg. 13)
- The conquest of obstacles impeding emergence of an important family
It would appear, then, that the main purpose of the story was to provide these connections between the patriarchs and David. These historical and theological links show that the divine force that was leading the patriarchs was also at work in David's ancestry. In short, the book has a political agenda - namely, to convince people of the worthiness of David's kingship. God selected and guided him just as He did the patriarchs.
Others argue that Ruth was composed as a rebuttal against the nationalism imposed by Ezra and Nehemiah (post-exile), who decreed that Jewish men had to divorce non-Jewish wives. Ruth speaks favorably of the marriage between an Israelite man and a Moabite woman. If this were the case, it would mean a very late date for the authorship of this book. Most scholars, however, prefer the earlier dating.
Perhaps it is true that Ruth is primarily polemical propaganda intended to silence critics of David's ancestry or prove his right to the throne. (This certainly makes sense considering the general androcentric nature of the Bible.) But the reality is that Ruth is an amazing story, highlighting the personal qualities of David's great-grandmother, not his great-grandfather. (It is not entirely evident why her story would satisfy David's opponents.) Nonetheless, the fact remains that this is clearly a woman's story, told from a woman's perspective. Because of this, some scholars even hint that perhaps the real author was female. No doubt, women storytellers were instrumental in keeping this story alive -- because it had something very important to say. It is much more than a "happy ever after" tale about two women who found a family. It says something about God working in the lives of these women to accomplish His goals.
In that same vein, it is also no accident, then, that in its historical placement in the Christian Bible, Ruth stands as a study in contrasts to Judges. If you recall, Judges is about warfare, violence, and Israel's disobedience. Ruth, on the other hand, exemplifies peace, orderliness, and faithfulness. The fact that Ruth is a foreigner makes the contrast even more striking. Judges ends with the total breakdown of society illustrated by the cruel rape and dismemberment of the concubine and the kidnapping of 400 women destined to repopulate the tribe of Benjamin. Ruth is also interested in preserving a family line, although not with violence, but with caring and positive motives. In our discussion of Judges, we already pointed out how the downward spiral into chaos was paralleled by the increase in injustices and abuses against women. Ruth, then, both literarily and symbolically restores order and honor to the role of women.
There are four primary sections, each comprising one chapter.
1:1-22 - The move from Judah to Moab and back
- The migration to Moab by Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, along with their two sons
- They moved because there was a "famine in the land."
- Marriage and Death of two sons
- Naomi hears that there is food in Bethlehem
- She and her two daughters-in-law set out for Judah
- Along the way, Naomi tells them to return home
- They would be foreigners in a strange land, hence unprotected
- She tells them to return to their "mothers' " houses
- She prays for Orpah and Ruth, asking Yahweh to give them kindness and security
- The daughters-in-law tearfully protest going back home
- Second exchange between Naomi and daughters-in-law
- Stronger, she commands them to return to their homes
- Her life is over; she doesn't want to destroy their lives as well
- Blames Yahweh for her personal disaster
- Third exchange between Naomi and daughters-in-law
- Orpah decides to return home
- Ruth decides to continue with Naomi
- Ruth demands: Do not pressure me to leave you
- Whither you go, I will go
- Naomi gives up, says nothing
- The two women arrive in Bethlehem
- City is bustling
- Dear friends are happy to see Naomi
- She tells them to call her "bitter" because that's how she feels
- Summary statement - it's harvest time
2:1-23 - Ruth finds favor with Boaz
- Introduction of Boaz - cousin of Elimelech
- Ruth declares she is going out to the fields to glean ears of grain
- Naomi gives her permission
- Ruth finds herself in the field belonging to Boaz
- Arrival of Boaz
- Boaz blesses the reapers, notices Ruth
- Asks to whom she "belongs"
- Foreman replies she is with Naomi
- Foreman tells him she's been there all day
- Ruth and Boaz meet
- Boaz tells Ruth to stay in his field and to stay with his "maidens"
- Provides protection for Ruth, special status
- She has access to water; no one has access to her
- Ruth "falls on her face" before him
- Gesture of vulnerability, humble submission
- Asks why she's found favor in his eyes
- Boaz says he's heard about her good deeds with Naomi
- Asks Yahweh to bless her
- Ruth expresses gratitude for his treatment of her
- Boaz invites her to sit with the reapers, signifying acceptance into his community
- Boaz serves her
- Boaz instructs his reapers to leave grain for her
- Thought to be extremely generous on his part
- Day's work well done
- Ruth collected an ephah of grain - roughly 29 pounds, the equivalent of half a month's wages in one day!
- Boaz was generous; Ruth was a good worker
- Conversation with Naomi
- Ruth shares leftovers from lunch with Naomi
- Ruth tells Naomi all about her day
- Naomi recognizes Boaz
- Expresses gratitude for him; stresses his kinship to her
- "Next kinsmen" or "kinsmen redeemer" has legal implications
- He had certain duties and responsibilities to the clan
- Ruth tells Naomi she can glean until the end of harvest (two more months)
- Famine is essentially over for them
- Ruth fulfils commitment to glean
3:1-18 - Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz
- Naomi's plan
- Naomi feels responsible to find "permanent home" for Ruth N
- aomi wanted this earlier; she is the answer to her own prayer
- "Winnowing the barley" signified end of harvest season
- It's now or never
- Ruth was to prepare herself - bath, perfume, dress up to go to the threshing floor!
- She was to wait until after dinner - Boaz would be in good spirits
- She was to make note where Boaz would lie down
- Later she was to uncover his feet; Boaz would tell her the next step "Uncover his feet" is an idiom with many options Most prefer a symbolic gesture of humble submission Others see explicit sexual overtones
- Ruth promises to do exactly as Naomi suggested
- Confirmation of Ruth's promise to obey
- Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor
- Boaz did lie down; Ruth uncovered his feet
- Around midnight he woke up (due to his cold feet!)
- Noticed a woman lying at his feet; asked who she was
- Ruth replied, asked him to cover her with a blanket
- This constitutes a proposal of marriage, symbolized by the man "protecting" the woman
- Ruth assumes that Boaz has a duty to marry her
- Boaz doesn't hesitate a minute - he is both flattered and pleased that she chose him
- He formally agrees to marry her
- She is well known for her kindnesses to Naomi
- One glitch - someone else is closer to Naomi than Boaz
- Technically speaking, that man has right of first refusal
- Boaz is a model of integrity in not trying to circumvent the law
- He promises to check with the other relative, will defer to him if necessary
- In the meantime, Ruth was told to stay the remainder of the night
- In the morning, Boaz was worried someone might have seen them
- Assures Ruth that either he or the other kinsman will redeem her
- Gives Ruth a gift of grain; sends her on her way
- Ruth reports to Naomi
- Naomi tells her to stay calm until the matter is resolved
4:1-17 - Marriage and a new son
- The Legal process
- Boaz went to the city gate bright and early the next morning
- Other kinsman redeemer happened to be there
- Man remains nameless
- Boaz garnered up 10 other elders
- Boaz begins by talking about a piece of property (Ruth?) Naomi has for sale
- Invites the unnamed relative to serve as kinsmen redeemer and to buy the property, thereby providing for Naomi
- Man agrees to do so
- Boaz informs the man that Ruth comes with the property
- Function of Ruth is to perpetuate the name of the dead
- (Have a child who would carry on the family name)
- Man withdraws his offer to serve as kinsman-redeemer
- Not unwilling, but unable to do this
- His own heirs would suffer if his property went to Ruth's child
- His withdrawal opened the way for Boaz to act
- Deal was sealed with a sandal ceremony with 10 elders for witnesses
- (Significance of this is unknown, but perhaps transfer of shoe meant old owner took his foot off the property and new owner put his foot on the property)
- Boaz buys the property (and Ruth)
- Announces his intention, which is witnessed by townspeople
- Elders proclaim blessing upon Boaz and Ruth
- Naomi receives a son!
- Yahweh granted a son to Ruth and Boaz
- Women praise Yahweh
- When the child is born, Naomi takes it to breast - becomes foster mom
- The neighbor women name the child "Obed," who became the father of Jesse, who was the father of David
- Story has come full circle
- Genealogy of Perez - Ancestor of Boaz
- May not be entirely historical
- Highlights the overcoming of obstacles
- David's birth is the fulfillment of God's divine plan
The story, in fact, ends with Naomi's actions. Ruth essentially disappears. Is this done on purpose to remove any possible stigma from having a foreign mother? The text is silent on this matter. What we do know is that the story is poised to go to the next level. The stage has been set. Next month we will explore 1 Samuel, which provides a pivotal and important part of the larger context comprising Israel's history extending from the exodus to exile.
1 Robert Hubbard. "The Book of Ruth." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1988, p40.
Alter, Robert and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 1987.
Auld, A. Graeme. "Joshua, Judges, and Ruth." The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Block, Daniel. "Judges, Ruth." The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.
Hamlin, E. John. "Surely There is Future." The International Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1996.
Harris, J. Gordon. "Joshua, Judges, Ruth." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000.
Hubbard, Robert. The Book of Ruth. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1988, p40.
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. The Women's Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
Nielsen, Kirsten. "Ruth". The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1997.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. "Ruth." Interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1999.