No biblical narrative has charmed and enthralled readers through the ages more than the story of Ruth. The German poet Goethe (1749–1832) characterized Ruth as one of the most beautiful short stories handed on to us in all epic and idyllic literature. The pastoral scene in the small village of Bethlehem awakens all the senses of its readers: the sights and sounds of village life, the smell of newly cut grain, the taste of freshly baked bread, the touch of a man and woman in the dark of the night.
Likely some of Ruth’s power to charm comes from its idyllic air. It reads as a story without a villain, life without evil. Although village peasants in Bethlehem lived through times of distress, in Ruth even the most dangerous elements—famine and widowhood—are resolved without physical violence and terror. In that way Ruth cannot be equated with other epic and folk literature, which customarily includes intense conflict, sometimes the struggle of good against evil.
Yet hiding within the idyllic world of kind villagers, charming land owners, and harvest festivals, the reader finds a real world; one less than ideal. Nor can the characters in Ruth be reduced to ideal types: the heroic mother, the benevolent landowner, and the faithful foreigner. The pain was real for Naomi, a mother whose world had been turned from pleasant to bitter (Ruth 1:20). The anxiety was intense for Boaz, a pillar of society startled from sleep by a woman at his side (3:8).
A number of issues rise to the surface as significant through the centuries and into our own time, such as community structures that provide for the poor, the resourcefulness of women in a patriarchal culture, family solidarity, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships, and God’s unseen providence. An issue of particular note that crosses among the wealthier and more emerging nations today centers on the person of Ruth herself. A wall of suspicion and concern stood between the resident population of Bethlehem and the immigrant, Ruth, a woman mostly known by her ethnic identity as a Moabite. Israelite tradition carried a memory about the Moabites as conceived through incest (Gen 19:36-37) and banished forever from God’s sight because of their indifference to Israel’s needs (Deut 23:3-6). Ruth was hailed, but perhaps never completely accepted (Ruth 4:14-17).
The world still struggles with the issues that accompany immigration: the deep suspicion and instinctive disconnect by the resident population and the fundamental struggle to survive in an “alien” culture by the immigrant. The Anabaptist communities have been and continue to be committed to assist the immigrant, even if sharing some of the culture’s reservation about influx of “foreign“ and often “non-Christian“ peoples.
Origin, Form, and Features of the Narrative
As is true of most biblical short stories, we know little about the origin of the book of Ruth. The narrator informs the reader that Ruth comes from an earlier era, “in the days when judges ruled” (1:1), a time with customs unfamiliar to the listeners (4:7).
Some scholars believe the narrator looks back from the tenth or ninth century BCE, when people wanted to know more about the ancestors of David and Solomon. Others think it comes from even a much later time, perhaps after the Jews return from Exile in Babylon (i.e., after 538 BCE). Neither history nor language can pinpoint the date of this book as a written document.
In recent decades scholars have focused on the oral characteristics of biblical literature. We know that while some people were quite literate, most people were not. The stories and traditions of the faith were handed on orally from generation to generation in villages, homes, and sanctuaries. A century ago, Herman Gunkel (1862–1932) pointed out the oral characteristics in the book of Ruth. More than likely, local priests, village “grandparents,” perhaps even travelers resting at the village well, retold this delightful story long before it was written. Most likely oral story telling of it continued long after Ruth was written (Gladson: 51–53).
The flow of Ruth moves within contrasting images, represented by specific words. The introduction describes a world of famine, displacement, and death (1:1, 3). The narrative moves quickly to reestablish fertility in the field (1:6). However, only gradually does that benefit the two widows (2:17-18). Having secured sufficient food for the near term, the narrative deals with long term need for a secure home, a place in the community. The narrative tension is resolved when death has been replaced with birth (4:13-17). The movement from famine to fertility, death to birth transports the reader into a world of hope and promise.
Be that as it may, the strength of Ruth lies in its people. The plot functions as a vehicle for portraying people as they relate to one another and their situation. Indeed, person to person dialog dominates the narrative. Direct speech is found in sixty-five percent of the eighty-five verses.
Several often-repeated words carry the narrative from one scene to the next: the word “return” (šub) in chapter 1, “glean” (laqaṭ) in chapter 2, and “redeemer” (go'el) in chapter 4. In her first speech to Ruth and Orpah, Naomi introduces a word which the early rabbis recognized as an important key to understand this story: "May the Lord deal compassionately [ḥesed] with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me" (1:8). In many ways the narrative of Ruth is the story of ḥesed. No English word adequately matches the meaning of this Hebrew word. "Compassion, kindness, steadfast love, faithful love" and "enduring love" all touch, but don’t really exhaust, the meaning of ḥesed. Perhaps the best way to understand ḥesed is to follow Ruth along with Naomi, Boaz, and even Orpah through her story.
Summary and Comment
The narrator sets the story in a time not designated by the year but the era: the period of the “judges,” approximately 1200–1020 BCE. Although local and regional politics and religion might affect how the listeners heard this story, the narrative itself focuses on the challenges and character of village life. The villagers engaged in family farming in fields located around the houses that made up a town. They cultivated grains that could be adequately watered by the spring rains and/or modest irrigation. These grain fields, along with olive trees and grape vines, were supplemented by domesticated animals, mostly sheep and goats. Village size and life was controlled by the availability of water. To find adequate pasture, the older children of the village often took the herds some distance away from the village. A prolonged dry spell forced many village families to move elsewhere in order to survive.
Threatened by famine, Elimelech chose to move his family to Moab. The narrator does not tell us why Moab. None of the biblical stories about Moab are kind to Israel’s eastern neighbor. Instead they berate Moab as perverse and pagan, governed by foolish and fat rulers. To the early listeners, a flight from Bethlehem (“the house of food”) in search of food in Moab involved this refugee family in a shameful migration, from their homeland to the country of their enemy. Sometime after settling in Moab (we are not told how long), Elimelech died (1:3). Subsequently, his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, having married Moabite women, also died (1:5a). The narrator does not explain the deaths nor criticize the deceased. For the mother, Naomi, and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, it does not matter why their husbands died. They are gone. These three childless women are left to fend for themselves.
The Return 1:6-22
The death of the men makes this a woman’s story. Having heard that the Lord restored fertility to her home village, Naomi decides to return to Judah. Her daughters-in-law leave with her. As the women begin the journey from Moab to Judah, the narrator keeps all three women nameless. The quick, silent departure of these women refugees reinforces the pain. Two young Moabite women leave their homeland to “return” to the village of their mother-in law.
Suddenly the silence is broken. Naomi speaks, directing her daughters-in-law to “return” a different direction, not with her to Judah (1:7) but each to her “mother’s house.” As a parting benediction, Naomi asks that God be as steadfastly loyal and compassionate to the two young widows as the two had been to Naomi and to the dead (1:8). To reinforce and extend her petition, Naomi requests that God grant them security, a husband, and a home (1:9). Naomi prays that God provide her two daughters-in-law all that she herself has lost.
This benediction functions as more than a simple farewell. It closes the relationship, freeing the women from any further responsibility to Naomi (Sakenfeld 1985: 34). A tearful kiss from Naomi closes this tender farewell (1:9).
However, instead of the expected compliance, the young women refuse (1:10). They will “return,” but not to their mother’s house as Naomi directed, but "with you to your people" (1:10). The reader may share with Naomi the surprise of that response and the strength of the women’s resolve. These young women will not be controlled by their mother-in-law (Trible 1978: 171).
The dialog becomes more intense as Naomi responds with equal resolve (1:11-13). With command and question, Naomi demands that the two women return as she had instructed. Tearfully, Orpah obeys her mother-in-law. But not Ruth! Ruth stays with her mother-in-law. So Naomi tries once more, instructing her to go with her sister-in-law.
Ruth’s speech of “noncompliance” is the most widely known passage in the book:
- Where you go, I will go;
- where you lodge, I will lodge;
- where you lodge, I will lodge;
- your people shall be my people;
- and your God my God. (1:16)
As extracted for use in various commitment and covenant ceremonies, the quotation seldom conveys the anguish of the three widows and the dangerous uncertainty that lies ahead for all of them. At that point, Naomi says no more. They leave to finish their journey (1:19).
Arriving in Bethlehem to an excited “homecoming,” Naomi immediately redirects the corporate mood to correspond with her personal feelings. Upon hearing her name pronounced by others, Naomi is struck by the contrast between the meaning of “Naomi” (pleasant, delightful) and her lot in life. She chooses another name for herself, “Mara” (bitter), one that expresses the humiliating shame of her story (1:20-21). As Naomi sees it, her life has moved from full to empty by divine decision.
Neither Naomi nor the women acknowledge Ruth’s “return.” Ruth has disappeared except in the “they” of the narrator (1:19). Does Ruth’s presence make a difference? Instead of making the more reasonable choice as did her sister-in-law, Ruth has bonded herself inseparably to her angry mother-in-law.
Finding Food, 2:1-23
Naomi complains that she has returned to Bethlehem empty (1:21). She lacks two of life’s basic needs: food and security. This second chapter (2:1-23) takes up the problem of food. The narrator has already told us that Bethlehem had food (1:6). In fact Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem precisely at the moment when food would be most plentiful, the beginning of the grain harvest (1:22). But will this widow and her Moabite daughter-in-law have access to the food?
From earliest times, the religious and legal tradition of ancient Israel insisted that the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant were to be cared for (Exod 22:22-24; Deut 10:17-19). The widespread practice of gleaning the grain field could provide some food for those who needed it. The gleaners would walk through the field picking up stalks or stems of wheat that the harvesters had dropped. Levitical law required owners to leave at least the edges of the field for the poor and the immigrant (Lev 19:9).
Ruth 2:1 begins by introducing the other major character in this story, Boaz. The narrator describes Boaz using Hebrew words that can be translated as “a man of substance/prominence/standing/worth.” What does it mean to describe a person as a man of substance? It might point to his economic wealth or his prestige in the community. It might also refer to his physical stature or his reputation for military valor. Whatever the exact nuance, the narrator identifies Boaz as a well-known and respected man.
Surprisingly it is the Moabite woman who takes the initiative to get food (2:3). Although custom permitted her to glean in the field of her choice, Ruth is determined to glean only in the field of “someone in whose sight I may find favor” (2:2), implying, perhaps, that she was seeking more generosity than just the available grain. This phrase most frequently indicates a difference in status: the one of low estate has been noticed and treated kindly by a person with power and status.
By chance, Ruth chooses the field of Boaz, a distant relative of her deceased father-in-law, Elimelech. When Boaz arrives at the field, he spots a woman: "To whom does this young woman belong?" (2:5). His foreman identifies Ruth as the Moabite "who came back with Naomi" (2:6).
The dialog between Boaz and Ruth is the center of the scene. Boaz begins with a very directive speech to Ruth (2:8-9). His instructions, along with his address ("my daughter"), suggest that Boaz has assumed responsibility for Ruth that went beyond giving her permission to glean. Ruth is to glean only in his fields and to stay close to the young women who work for him. Ruth will not be harassed by the male workers (2:9). In addition, Boaz invites Ruth to drink from the water that his young men had drawn.
Ruth asks Boaz to explain his special consideration for her, making sure he understands that she is an immigrant (2:10). Boaz does not directly answer Ruth’s question. Instead Boaz’s response equates this “immigrant” with Israel’s ancestral families (2:11). Israel traced its beginnings to Sarah and Abraham who left their homeland to journey to a foreign land (Gen 12:1). Echoes of this memory sound in the words of Boaz: "you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people you did not know" (Ruth 2:11).
In their conversation, both Ruth and Boaz seek to define the relationship. In bowing down Ruth expresses the relationship as one of social distance, servant and master. In response, Boaz equates Ruth with heroes of Israel’s past. However far apart they may have been in their social standing, Ruth’s concluding speech points to an element of intimacy: "May I continue to find favor in your sight, my Lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant" (2:13).
The scene in the fields concludes with Ruth working the rest of the day gathering grain and threshing it by hand. Ruth’s work produces an ephah of barley. We do not know exactly the amount of an ephah. Information from other locations in the ancient Near East suggests that an ephah would have been approximately twenty-two liters, about two-thirds of a bushel, weighing perhaps twenty-nine U.S. pounds or thirteen kilo (Hubbard 1988: 179).
Ruth had left that morning intent on finding “favor” and food. She managed both. Ruth picks up her grain and returns to town where immediately her mother-in-law sees the grain (2:18-19). Quite obviously their food shortage, at least for the near term, was over.
Discovering that Ruth had gleaned in the field of Boaz, Naomi responds with a blessing: "Blessed be he by the LORD." Naomi informs Ruth that Boaz is a relative, in fact "a close relative/redeemer" (2:20). This is the first mention of the word “redeemer” (go'el), a word that will play a central role in the final two chapters.
Seeking Security, 3:1-18
Whereas Ruth took the initiative in obtaining food, Naomi develops the plan to secure their future. Naomi decides to make use of her familial relationship with Boaz. She instructs Ruth to dress seductively (cf. Esther 2:12) and go to the threshing floor where she would find Boaz. Naomi tells Ruth to wait until after the eating and drinking are over. Then Ruth was to approach Boaz and uncover his “feet.” From that point on it would be up to Boaz (3:3-4).
With that the narrative moves from the sunlight of midday in the grain field to the privacy of the farthest corner of the threshing floor in a night so dark that friends could not even recognize one another (3:14). Naomi’s plan to secure their future was filled with even more danger than Ruth’s plan to get food. We don’t know the exact nature of Ruth’s action on the threshing floor, but we can be sure that she made herself sexually vulnerable.
Startling Boaz awake, Ruth identifies him as one who had a special responsibility toward her: "spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin" (3:9). The “redeemer” (“next-of-kin”) was a relative who functioned to assist a member of the family needing financial assistance or legal advocacy. One possible role was that the “redeemer” might be called on to marry a widowed family member to provide security and children for the deceased. If another member, who was “first in line” as go'el, chose not to assume that responsibility, Boaz agreed to do it himself (3:13).
The departure of Ruth from the threshing floor was as mysterious as her arrival. She arose while it was still too dark for anyone to be recognized. Apparently Boaz did not want anyone to be aware that a "woman came to the threshing floor" (3:14). Was he worried about her reputation or his? Perhaps both.
Dialog between Ruth and Naomi has carried this narrative along, beginning on the road running between Moab and Bethlehem (1:6-18). That now comes to an end. We do not hear either woman speak again.
Agreement at the Gate, 4:1-12
We cannot untangle all the legal questions presented by this episode. Elsewhere in biblical law and narrative, the family redemption of land scheduled to be sold for repayment of debt and the marriage of a childless widow to another member of the family are distinctive legal matters. One does not necessarily involve the other. In Ruth the two customs are brought together. Boaz discusses with his relative first one, the redemption of land (4:4), then the other, kinship marriage (4:5).
Boaz opens the legal proceeding in front of the village elders, addressing the other relative with the matter to be decided (4:3-4a). According to Boaz, Naomi was selling a parcel of land that had been part of Elimelech’s estate (4:3). Inviting his relative to purchase the land, Boaz invokes the customary practice of land redemption. Boaz’s unnamed relative agrees to redeem the land (4:4). After paying Naomi for the land, it would be his. For Naomi, the land’s sale would provide her some measure of financial security, at least for a while. The relative agrees to redeem it.
Ruth provided an additional complication. Boaz informs his relative, "On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you acquire the dead man’s widow" (4:5 AT). Ruth’s child would eventually inherit the family property.
For the relative, this stipulation changed the transaction in a way he could not afford: "I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance" (4:6). Apparently he could not afford to pay the needed price and then lose ownership of it when/if Ruth had a child. As a result, Boaz takes on the role of “redeemer.”
The two relatives engage in a ritual to seal the agreement. A sandal was handed from the one relinquishing the right of redemption to the one assuming that responsibility. Ancient Near Eastern documents suggest that this symbolized one person’s removing his foot (his claim) from the property and the other person’s receiving that right to step on the land.
Upon reaching the agreement, Boaz turns to the elders and onlookers. He will purchase the property from Naomi and marry Ruth within the custom of kinship marriage. According to this custom, the firstborn son of this union will be the heir of Elimelech. Elimelech’s property will belong to his direct descendants through this surrogate son, and his name and memory will be a part of the ongoing life of the village of Bethlehem (Deut 25:5-10).
The legal proceeding concludes with the elders’ affirmation: "We are witnesses." The witnesses continue with a three-part blessing: a blessing on Ruth ("the woman"), a blessing on Boaz ("you"), and a blessing on the household or descendants of Boaz ("your house"; 4:11-12).
Conclusion and Coda, 4:13-22
In their blessing of Ruth, the witnesses bring her solidly within the family of Israel. Their hope is that Ruth might be known as one of the founding mothers, joining Rachel and Leah (4:11). And, indeed, the final verses twice connect her offspring to King David himself (4:17 and 4:18-22). Nevertheless, it is hard to know how to interpret the fact that Ruth is not mentioned by name when she is blessed. In spite of the fact that Boaz called her "Ruth," both in the discussion with his relative (4:5) and in the stipulations of the agreement (4:10), to the witnesses Ruth was "the woman" (4:11-12); and the women who praise the Lord in celebration for Naomi name her "daughter-in-law" even as they acknowledge Ruth's noble character (4:15).
Was the "Moabite woman" completely accepted by the community? She had value, but that value is located in what she provided to Naomi ("A son has been born to Naomi," 4:17). She added value to the community by preserving a family name.
In summary, the story narrates an incredible reversal for Naomi from death and bitterness to food and family. Ruth functions as an indispensable agent of that reversal, indeed "more valuable than seven sons" (4:15). But the daughter-in-law of Naomi remains a Moabite from the story’s beginning (1:4) to the end (4:10).
Anabaptist groups have long been involved in refugee settlement. They understand the satisfaction and challenge in settling those forced out of their homes by scarcity, oppression, and/or natural disasters.
Refugees bring skills and commitments that served them well in the homeland but often go unnoticed or underappreciated in their new land. The refugees can find the values and practices of the new culture not only unclear, but contrary to their long-held assumptions about proper behavior and personal relationships. Last but not least, they may always be known less by their name than by the country of origin: "Ruth, the Moabite . . . the Moabite who came back with Naomi" (2:2, 6).
Ruth made an unexpected and uncommon commitment to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth expressed the depth of that commitment in the poem that we occasionally use in commitment ceremonies such as marriage (1:16-17). Naomi tried to discourage Ruth. She saw little value in Ruth coming to Bethlehem, not for Ruth and perhaps not for herself. But Ruth would not be deterred.
We live in a culture that values individual freedom and self-actualization. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi seems idealistic, perhaps indicative of unhealthy dependency. That cultural concern, which is sometimes justified, can make us reluctant to risk any relational commitment reflective of Ruth’s pledge to Naomi. But Ruth’s pledge of fidelity connects her to the One who said, "I will be with you each day until the end of time" (Matt 28:20 AT).
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
The Interpreting Community of Faith (in Ruth/Jonah/Esther)
- Bush, Frederick W. Ruth, Esther. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1996.
- Farmer, Kathleen A. Robertson. “The Book of Ruth.” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.
- Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David M. Gunn. Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.
- Gladson, Jerry A. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Ruth. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2013.
- Hubbard, Robert L. The Book of Ruth. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988.
- Lee, Eunny. “Ruth, Book of.” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
- Roop, Eugene F. Ruth, Jonah and Esther. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002.
- Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. Ruth. Interpretation. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1999.
- Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
Invitation to Comment
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|—Eugene F. Roop|