Ruth is a gripping short story, incorporating folkloric features that make for ease of appreciation as common human experience, as well as distinctive cultural features commending Israel's theology and ethics. Ruth stands eighth, between Judges and 1 Samuel, in the canon of the Bible familiar to Christians, but first among the five small festival scrolls (megillot) of the Hebrew canon, usually right after Proverbs. Ruth is the festal reading for Shavuʿot (Pentecost) in Jewish tradition.
The book begins with a background scenario of a Bethlehemite family, two parents and their two sons, sojourning in Moab because of famine back home. The sons marry Moabites. Father and two sons die, leaving three widows, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. Naomi, choosing to return home, urges her daughters‐in‐law to remain in Moab. Orpah does so, but Ruth cleaves to Naomi. Naomi, lamenting bitterly, arrives in Bethlehem with Ruth accompanying her; she sees little prospect of fullness of life. Scene two (chap. 2) has Ruth initiate efforts to support herself and Naomi by gleaning at the harvest, where she chances upon the field of Boaz, a worthy Bethlehemite. Boaz notices her, at first makes minimal provision, then moves to progressively greater care for this woman who has displayed such loyalty to her family.
In scene three (chap. 3), Naomi, encouraged by the success of Ruth's first steps, directs her how to move things from a temporary to a long‐term resolution: marriage and offspring for Ruth, redeemer care for Naomi. Ruth forces the matter with Boaz in a provocative scene at the threshing‐floor, only to learn that the redeemer responsibility falls first upon a person other than Boaz. In the final scene (4.1–17), while Ruth and Naomi wait, Boaz maneuvers this other person to yield his role at a public forum in the town gate. The way is clear for Boaz to marry Ruth, provide an heir to Ruth's first husband, and provide a redeemer for Naomi. The redeemer is Obed, David's grandfather—this information is the striking climax of a chorus by the Bethlehem townspeople celebrating first Boaz, then Ruth and Naomi. The story closes (4.18–20) with a genealogy connecting David through Obed and Boaz to Perez, Judah's offspring (Gen. 38).
Scholarly efforts to reconstruct earlier stages in the development of the story or to identify additions to the original have yielded little insight into its meaning; even the conclusion that the genealogy at the end (cf. 1 Chron. 2.5–15) is an appendix is now regularly challenged, and interpreters study the book as a carefully crafted whole.
Almost two‐thirds of the story is conveyed in conversation, a characteristic of biblical story‐telling artistry. Both conversation and narration include captivating literary devices. For example, on the road back to Bethlehem, the hesitation of Orpah and Ruth, the combined urging and complaint of Naomi, and the commitment of Ruth are all handled with superb pacing and beautiful language. Guide words such as “return” in scene one and “glean” in scene two bind episodes internally. Key words in pairs are used to link scene to scene and connect the posing of plot problems to their resolutions (e.g., “lads” Naomi has lost in 1.5 with the “lad” Naomi gains in 4.16; Yahweh's “wings” of care in 2.12 with Boaz's “wings” of marital commitment in 3.9). The storyteller is sparing in detail, providing only the essentials and sometimes leaving gaps: we are taken by surprise in 4.3 by a field that Naomi can sell, and are not told whether Boaz and Naomi ever meet.
Emphasizing these literary characteristics follows the trend of current scholarship on Ruth, and it means playing down questions of historicity on the one hand or of the book's role as polemic on the other. In the past, Ruth was often seen as composed in the fourth century BCE to oppose the Ezra‐Nehemiah effort to dissolve mixed marriages. Instead, interpretation now focuses on Ruth as historical fiction, serving as an edifying and entertaining encounter with typical events in a typical town. Clearly, care for those in danger of being left on society's margins is a crucial concern—in the Ruth story typified by two widows, one a foreigner. Structures exist to meet this concern: the gleaning provision (cf. Lev. 19.9–10; Deut. 24.19–22); marriage to one's husband's relative (Ruth 2.12–13; 4.5); redeeming, which involves responsibility for property recovery and care of persons; responsibilities devolving upon members of a wider circle designated by Hebrew words translated “kinsman” in 2.1 and 3.2. The story brings all these customs to bear, assuming that the audience knows how they worked. Among these, the particular practice called levirate marriage (Deut. 25.5–10; Gen. 38) may pertain; alternatively, Ruth 1.12–13 and 4.5 may point to some allied custom otherwise unattested in the Bible. What the story does portray clearly is the interplay of agents of care and recipients of care within society: in turn, the three principal characters both give and receive. Orpah and the potential redeemer in 4.3–6 are ready to give some help; the drama lies with the greater risk and commitment required of Ruth and Boaz to bring good out of bad, a theme expressed in the key concept ḥesed, “kindness,” in 1.8; 2.20; and 3.10.
Theology is muted in Ruth. The book participates in an exploration of divine providence also seen in the Joseph cycle (Gen. 37–50), in 2 Samuel 9–20, and in Job. Only Ruth 1.6, 4.13, and probably 2.20 assert divine intervention, but the greetings and blessings and outcries of the characters keep deity present. The sharp outcry against God by Naomi in 1.20–21 sounds the prominent biblical theme of lament.
The climax, which comes with the note about David in 4.17, suggests that blessing of Israel's royal line is an issue here. The blessing speeches in 4.13–17 are comparable to other Near Eastern royal blessings. If the David theme is intrinsic to the book—this was often debated in the past—then it provides the historical datum that David had a Moabite ancestor. The book is quite probably part of a cycle of stories about David's ancestry, which would include Genesis 38 and other episodes now lost—for instance, about Perez and Zerah prepared for by Genesis 38.27–30, and about Obed prepared for by Ruth 4.16–17.
To decide about the date and audience of Ruth is difficult. Linguistic criteria and judgments about its place in the development of thought, invoked in the past as pointers to a late date, have lost their cogency. A date anywhere in the time of the Judean monarchy is plausible. The audience was probably village people and the storyteller a professional bard, quite possibly a wise woman (cf. 2 Sam. 14.1–20). Alternatively, the story may be a self‐conscious imitation of a folktale, written at the royal court.
The universal appeal and the plausible presentation of typical Israelite life mask precise time and place, and release the story of Ruth for the pleasure and edification of all. The Targumic tradition and rabbinic commentary build the relation between Naomi and Ruth into a paradigm for the education of a proselyte. They celebrate the portrayal of “kindness” and probe the institutions of levirate, shoe transfer (4.6–8), and redemption. Down the centuries, more modern literary allusions give us Dante's “gleaner‐maid, meek ancestress” of David, Bunyan's “Mercy,” Milton's chooser of the better part, Keats's recipient of the nightingale's solace “amid the alien corn,” and Goethe's accolade: the most beautiful “little whole” of the Hebrew Bible.
Edward F. Campbell