The book of Ruth tells the story of two bereaved women, Ruth and Naomi, who leave the land of Moab and find their lives renewed in the land of Judah.
In four chapters of deceptive simplicity, the book of Ruth carries the reader in a dramatic arc from emptiness in Moab to abundance in Bethlehem. Two destitute widows, the Judean Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, arrive in Bethlehem (“house of bread”) during harvest season. Laboring in the fields, Ruth meets and then marries Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi's late husband, Elimelech. The birth of Obed, son of Ruth and Boaz, ensures that Elimelech's lineage (his “name”; see Num 27:4) will survive to produce its most illustrious member, King David.
All the ancient versions of the Bible name the book for its gentile protagonist, Ruth the Moabite. Based on a Semitic root (rwh) related to overflowing and life-restoring water (the verbal form appears in Ps 23:5, “my cup overflows”), the name at first applies only ironically to the weeping widow from Moab. Ultimately, however, Ruth's name proves prophetic when her loyalty and initiative lead to restored life and prosperity for herself and Naomi.
Besides Ruth, the other names in the story proper work symbolically and/or descriptively. Naomi means “pleasing.” Naomi's sons Mahlon and Chilion are “Weak” and “Sickly,” respectively, which hardly constitute real-life names. Etymologically Orpah might be rooted in the word for “clouds” or “nape of the neck” (seen as she walks away?). Boaz derives from “strength” and Obed means “servant,” but these are probably shortened forms of male sentence names like that of Naomi's husband, Elimelech (“My God is king”). Boaz is also the name of one of the two bronze pillars of Solomon's Temple (1 Kgs 7:21; see also 1 Chr 2:12), leading to speculation that the threshing floor of Ruth and Boaz's nocturnal meeting might allude to the threshing floor which David bought for the site of the Temple (2 Sam 24:16). As for the kinsman who renounces Ruth, the narrative pointedly refuses to supply any name at all, calling him literally “somebody or other,” as if to stress his irrelevance to the future of the family.
Most of the names particular to the Ruth narrative belong to no one else in the Bible. The assembled people of Bethlehem, however, invoke ancestral names from Genesis (Rachel, Leah, Israel, Judah, Tamar, Perez) in their communal blessing of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:11–12).
Location in the Canon and Textual Evidence.
The book of Ruth appears in the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text as one of the five Megilloth, or festival scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther; their order varies). In turn the Megilloth constitute part of the Ketuvim (Writings), the third grouping of texts in the Tanakh or Jewish scriptures. Since at least the twelfth century C.E. the harvest-themed Ruth has been read in the synagogue at the Feast of Weeks (Heb. Shabuot; Lev 23:15–16), corresponding in the calendar and symbolism roughly to Christian Pentecost (Acts 2).
The Christian canon follows the arrangement of the (Greek) Septuagint and probably some earlier Jewish traditions, with Ruth situated by chronology between Judges and 1 Samuel. The story's setting “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1) points backward, while the Davidic genealogy with which the book ends (Ruth 4:18–22) looks forward to the imminent appearance of David himself in 1 Samuel. The Septuagint and the fragments of four manuscripts of the book among the Dead Sea Scrolls for the most part correspond to the Masoretic Text of Ruth, and the book's apparent confusion of feminine grammatical forms and occasional use of obscure words do not notably affect the text's basic meaning.
It is quite plausible that the story of Ruth and Naomi in an oral form arose and circulated among women. Some modern commentators have speculated that the author of the book might have been a woman, detecting in the story's unusual foregrounding of female characters and its sensitivity to womanly sorrows and joys a feminine authorial sensibility. The author, perhaps reflecting the way real women spoke to one another, identifies Elimelech as the “husband of Naomi” (1:3) instead of the expected “Naomi, the wife of Elimelech,” and refers to the “mother's house” (bêt 'ēm, 1:8) rather than the more conventional “father's house” (bêt 'āb). A woman might have been more likely than a man to invert the gendered biblical type-scene in which a male hero comes upon young women drawing water (Gen 24:29; Exod 2:15–22) by having Ruth drink water drawn by young men (Ruth 2:9).
Ruth has obvious affinities with oral folk traditions, but the author of the book—whether male or female—displays remarkable literary sophistication and an easy familiarity with the substance and style of the ancestral narratives of Genesis (e.g., 12:1; chs. 19; 24; 38) as well as wilderness traditions in Numbers (22–24; 25), legal statutes concerning the rights of the poor (Lev 19:25; Deut 24:19–21), Israelite exclusion of Moabites (Deut 23: 3–6), exogamous marriage (Deut 7:1), Levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10), and property redemption (Lev 25:23–25). Beyond the Pentateuch, the lexical and thematic parallels between Ruth and both Lamentations and Isaiah 40–55 have been noted. Although one Talmudic authority (B. Bat. 14b) attributed the book to the prophet Samuel, the author of Ruth remains anonymous.
Modern scholars have not reached a consensus concerning the date of the book. Some favor a date sometime in the monarchy (1000–586 B.C.E.), locating the author in scribal circles of the Jerusalem court. If, as seems more likely, the book belongs to the exilic or postexilic period (after 586 B.C.E.), the author probably lived somewhere in Judea, but could have been a poet, sage, or scribe, perhaps even a bureaucratic functionary of the ruling Babylonians (586–539 B.C.E.) or Persians (539–333 B.C.E.). Regardless of date or gender, the author would have been an elite Judean writing for Judeans.
Historical Context and Date of Composition.
Disputes over Ruth's date of composition, and thus its purpose, persist. Arguments centered either on supposed archaic lexical forms or late Aramaisms remain inconclusive. While a majority of scholars consider the Davidic genealogy (4:18–22) original to the story, a few attribute it to a later editor.
Most attempts at dating begin with the text's recurrent labeling of Ruth as a Moabite. The biblical tradition is implacably hostile toward Moabites, tracing their ancestry to Lot's son by incest (Gen 19:37), blaming Moabite women for seducing Israelite men in the wilderness (Num 25:1) and forbidding association with Moabites (Deut 23:3 [Heb. 23:4]). To feature a Moabite woman not only as the hero in an Israelite tale but also as the great-grandmother of King David himself would be unthinkable unless the author had a specific agenda in mind.
For advocates of a preexilic date, the Davidic genealogy points to the story as propaganda for the Davidic royal family who, supposedly, needed to give a positive spin to an embarrassing rumor about a Moabite-tainted lineage. David had a Moabite ancestor, the apology goes, but when Ruth pledged herself to Naomi, she became an Israelite just as a bride relinquishes forever the family of her birth to join her husband's family; formal conversion from one religious tradition to another is a later practice. Furthermore, this Moabite woman demonstrated a deep appreciation of Yahwistic faith. However, the Bible never mentions any such rumor, and despite David's apparent friendly relations with Moab (1 Sam 22:3–4), there is no suggestion of a Moabite branch of the family. Another line of reasoning in favor of Ruth's early date, or at least an earlier stage of the story, sees its central theme as God's hidden providence working toward fulfillment in the Davidic monarchy. This theme, however, would have at least as much theological relevance if the story dated to a later period.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, a monarchic dating for Ruth seemed on the rise. Subsequently, however, the older theory that the story of a Moabite who becomes David's ancestress fits best in an exilic or postexilic context has regained ground. Past advocates for a postexilic date understood Ruth as an expression of inner Jewish opposition to the ethnically exclusionary policies of Ezra and Nehemiah and their community of returned exiles (Ezra 9:1, 11; 10:2; Neh 13:1; 28–31). In Ruth, as in Jonah, non-Israelites demonstrate exemplary faith in the LORD and enjoy the LORD's approbation. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, scholarship has tempered and augmented this reasoning. Sociological studies have provided more nuanced understandings of the power dynamics of social exclusion and characterization of the “other.” Moreover, the author of Ruth takes the common view of David's illustrious status for granted and appropriates it to legitimate ethnic intermarriage, but perhaps also—in light of the returned exiles' move to exclude Judeans who had remained in the land—to advocate a less restricted definition of “Israel.” Also, Naomi's return from exile to renewed life in Judah mirrors both the Exodus and the repatriation of the exiles after 539 B.C.E. Naomi's bitter outburst and ultimate joy could function as an answer to questions of theodicy raised by the exile and the subsequent impoverishment of the postexilic Judean community; Ruth's lexical parallels with Lamentations enhance this possibility. Finally, the author's many allusions to earlier Israelite texts and traditions mirror the antiquarianism found in Chronicles and other unquestioned Second Temple period texts.
Structure and Contents.
Chapter 1: Moab to Bethlehem: women alone
1:1–14 Famine; childless widows in Moab
1:15–18 Ruth allies herself to Naomi
1:19–22 Bitter return to Bethlehem
Chapter 2: Bethlehem: men and women harvest in sunlight
2:1–7 Ruth among the harvesters
2:8–17 Meeting of Ruth and Boaz
2:18–23 Naomi regains hope
Chapter 3: Ruth and Boaz alone at night
3:1–5 Naomi's instructions to Ruth
3:6–13 At the threshing floor; Ruth reminds Boaz of his duty
3:14–18 Ruth returns to Naomi
Chapter 4: Success in male and female business
4:1–12 Boaz redeems Elimelech's land and the right to marry Ruth
4:13–17 Marriage, childbirth, communal rejoicing
4:18–22 Coda: Davidic genealogy
In terms of its genre, Ruth is a short story or novella featuring people who must resolve a dilemma on their own initiative. God provides fertility for land and humans (1:6; 4:13), but through natural processes alone, and though characters may invoke God by name, there are no miracles. The story follows a linear dramatic plot line with an unusually rich concentration of colorful dialogue. At the same time, the book contains repetitions, inversions, and chiasms (an ABC/C′B′A′ pattern) involving space, time, mood, vocabulary, gender, number of actors, and the like. For example, the first chapter contains a simple chiasm: famine and journey to Moab inverted by a journey to Bethlehem and harvest. The public setting of Ruth and Boaz's daylight meeting in chapter 2 gives way in chapter 3 to a tête-à-tête by night. Marriage, birth, and rejoicing in chapter 4 reverse the barren widowhood and sorrow of chapter 1. The Hebrew verb “to return” (šwb) recurs with various meanings closely intertwined with the plot: not just “return,” but “bring back,” “restore,” and, as a participle, “returnee” (Heb. “returning woman”) identifying Naomi and—despite her Moabite ethnicity—Ruth.
In the New Testament, Matthew (1:5) lists Ruth as one of four women in Jesus' genealogy along with Tamar (Gen 38), Rahab (Josh 2), and the “wife of Uriah” (2 Sam 11). The gospel probably reflects Jewish tradition as of the first century C.E. that the women were all foreign and/or Jewish proselytes, and each of them, like Mary (Miriam), Jesus' mother, remained morally uncompromised despite an association with sexual irregularity. The rabbis celebrated Ruth's beauty and piety, designating her one of the “mothers of Israel” (Pesiq. Rab. Kah. 16.124a); Ruth's refusal to leave despite Naomi's thrice stated opposition suggested to the rabbis a model for ritual conversion to Judaism.
Ruth, along with Song of Songs and Esther, has become a primary text for feminist theologians and critics who have found in it a corrective to the patriarchy that pervades much of the Bible. These books not only feature women as central figures but—perhaps more important—suggest ways in which the marginalized can act as agents of their own life within and despite patriarchal dominance. Ruth's generous spirit also demonstrates the capacity of women to mirror and model divine covenantal love (Heb. hesed).
Ruth, in fact, is a favorite text for a number of socially marginalized groups. Immigrant and minority women have taken inspiration from Ruth the Moabite building a new life in a foreign land. The love of Naomi and Ruth—“better than seven sons” (4:15) to Naomi—has inspired queer-theory readings. On the other hand, postcolonial and postmodern critics counter that Ruth is the “good immigrant” who assimilates into the dominant culture, erasing her own distinctive identity; or that when the women of Bethlehem name Obed and announce “A son has been born to Naomi” (4:17), Ruth has been discarded like an impoverished surrogate mother whose only wealth is her fertile womb. The poet John Keats recognized the immigrant's hope for a new life interwoven with the pain of exile in “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), imagining “the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”
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Mary Joan Winn Leith