Ruth - Introduction
THIS BEAUTIFUL SHORT STORY revolves around the relationship between Naomi, a woman from Bethlehem, in Judah, and her Moabite daughter‐in‐law, Ruth. Naomi, her husband, and their two sons have come to Moab to escape from famine in Bethlehem. The first chapter recounts, in short order, the death of Naomi's husband, the marriage of her sons to Moabite women, the sons' deaths ten years later, and Naomi's decision to return to Bethlehem. One daughter‐in‐law, Orpah, returns to her Moabite family. The other, Ruth, declares allegiance to Naomi and to the God of Israel and returns with Naomi. Despite Ruth's company, Naomi is embittered at her many losses. In the course of the coming weeks, however, these losses are all reversed. In the second chapter, Ruth gleans in the field of Naomi's kinsman, Boaz, and acquires enough grain to sustain Naomi and herself for some time. In the third chapter, Naomi devises a plan for Ruth's future security: Ruth will pay a nighttime visit to the threshing floor where Boaz has been winnowing the barley harvest, and will thereby elicit a promise of marriage. The plan is successful and culminates, in chapter four, in the marriage of Ruth and Boaz and the birth of their child, Obed. The book ends with a genealogy which traces the line of Obed back to Perez, the child of Judah and Tamar (Gen. ch 38 ), and forward to King David.
The simplicity of the story belies the literary craft of the book. Its central theme is the movement from emptiness to fulfillment. This theme is expressed on two planes, the agricultural and the personal. The agricultural sequence anticipates the personal sequence by one step all along the way. The famine precedes Naomi's bereavement, whereas the renewed harvest during which Ruth gleans in Boaz's fields anticipates the abundance that awaits Naomi herself with Obed's birth. The fidelity and love between Naomi and Ruth is the most positive portrayal of women’s relationships in biblical literature. The centrality of women is also emphasized by the references in Ruth 4.11–12 to other prominent biblical women, namely, Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob, and Tamar, whose son by Judah, who himself is Jacob's son, is an ancestor of Boaz, and therefore of Obed and David as well.
The story portrays Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz as models of πesed, that is, of loyalty and commitment that go beyond the bounds of law or duty. esed is exemplified in the fi‐ delity of Ruth to Naomi, the loving concern of Naomi for Ruth, and the kindness of Boazto both women. Related to the motif of πesed is the role of God. God is mentioned numerous times by the three main characters, but the actions of the story are never explicitly mentioned as deriving from God. Rather, God remains in the shadows, implying that divine activity lies behind the reversal of the deprivations that have afflicted Naomi and the nation as a whole.
The authorship of the book is unknown and its date is difficult to establish. Many scholars propose a date between 950 and 700 BCE, that is, between the time of David and the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Others suggest a date during the period of the Babylonian exile or in the early period of the return (586–500 BCE). In the latter case, the book may be read as promising that those who return from exile will be blessed, just as Naomi was when she returned from Moab to Bethlehem. A story recounting the lineage of David might also have had special meaning at a time after the Davidic monarchy had come to an end. If the story is dated to the early exilic period, its positive depiction of Ruth the Moabite may be polemical, empha‐ sizing, in contrast to Ezra‐Nehemiah, that foreigners may be integrated into the Jewish community.
In the Jewish Scriptures, Ruth is included among the five “megillot” (scrolls) in the third division, namely, the “writings” (Kethuvim). Because the book is read in the synagogue on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, it usually appears second among the megillot, after Song of Songs, which is read at Passover, though other sequences for these five books are found in manuscripts. The association with Shavuot is appropriate. The events told in Ruth span a period somewhat equivalent to that of Passover to Shavuot, that is, a seven‐week period from the beginning of the barley harvest to the end of the wheat harvest. Furthermore, King David, the culmination of the genealogy in Ruth 4.18–22 , was traditionally thought to have been born and to have died on Shavuot. Finally, Shavuot has been identified since the 2nd or 3rd centuries of the Common Era as the time of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (cf. Exod. chs 19–20 ). This element of the feast is related to the prevalent rabbinic theme of Ruth as the ideal convert to Judaism who takes the Torah upon herself just as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai.
In non‐Jewish versions and translations of the Bible, Ruth is placed between Judges and the books of Samuel, following the order of the Septuagint. This placement acknowledges the fact that the book is set in the period of the judges ( 1.1 ) and ends with a genealogy of David ( 4.18–22 ). It therefore provides a link between the chaotic period when Israel was ruled by judges and the stories that lead up to the establishment of the monarchy, which reaches its highest point in the reign of David.