Ruth is the only book of the Bible named after a foreign woman. It is interesting and unusual due to its domestic setting, its female lead characters, and its treatment of foreigners.
The book is a single story of four chapters.
The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges and begins with a family from Judah who seek to escape famine by emigrating to Moab, where the sons of the family marry Moabite women. After first her husband and then her two sons die, Naomi the mother of the family sets out to return to Judah. Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law to go back to their own people: one, Orpah, obeys and returns home, the other, Ruth, refuses to leave Naomi and promises never to be parted from her in a passionate plea which ends “May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:17).
The two women travel to Bethlehem, where Ruth goes out to glean in a field belonging to Naomi’s wealthy kinsman Boaz. Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and compliments her loving kindness in leaving behind homeland and family to look after Naomi. When she returns to Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law devises a plan and tells her to return to Boaz by night in her best clothes, where she is to “uncover his feet” and to lie down, and “he will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:4).
After an exchange between Boaz and Ruth on the threshing floor, which includes some sexually-charged language, the two reach an agreement that if a nearer kinsmen will not act as redeemer to Ruth, then Boaz will marry her. Boaz is keen to preserve Ruth’s reputation, and sends her back to Naomi early in the morning with a parcel of grain, where she relates “all that the man had done for her” (Ruth 3:16).
Boaz speaks to the nearer next-of-kin at the city gate, where he offers to allow the man to redeem land belonging to Naomi. At first the man agrees, until Boaz tells him that this will also mean acquiring Ruth as his wife. The unnamed man then withdraws, and Boaz asks the elders and all the people to witness his redemption of the land belonging to Naomi’s husband and his marriage to Ruth. Boaz and Ruth consummate the marriage and Ruth bears a son, afterwards the people praise Ruth and bless the LORD for his treatment of Naomi. The child is named Obed, who “became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17).
Date and authorship
Traditionally, the prophet Samuel was understood to be the author of Ruth, but the book contains references to the kingship of David, and Ruth 4:7 begins, “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel…,” suggesting that the setting of the story is already some time in the past when the book was put together. Some scholars have suggested due to its themes and focus on the two main women in the story that female authorship of the book is a possibility.
Scholars are broadly divided into those who believe it to be very early (possibly during the reign of Solomon), and those who believe it to be a much later book dating from the 5th or 4th centuries BCE. The language of Ruth does not give any certain indication of date. The treatment of Moab and the way in which legal customs are presented and used by the characters in the story are also ambiguous. It is argued either that the text must be late, as it seems to refer to legal codes which are found in other sources, or it may be early, as it doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding of how those codes work. The dating and authorship of the book are, therefore, very difficult to pin down.
Working out the book’s original purpose is connected to the problem of dating. Many scholars have argued that the positive view of a mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite portrayed in the book of Ruth is written in opposition to the views about foreigners in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and that it shows another line of thought which is far more positive about relationships with outsiders. It is also possible, however, that the book was written much earlier, given its generally positive tone, and lack of any explicit reference to laws banning mixed marriages.
If it is an early work, then Ruth may have been written to give a sympathetic back-story to David and so give legitimacy to his kingship, at the same time explaining away the problem of David’s Moabite great-grandmother by showing God at work in the life of Ruth and in the arrival of Obed.
More recently, scholars have also noted how prominent the everyday lives of women are in the book of Ruth, in contrast with many other biblical narratives, and have argued that the book may have been composed among women to give another perspective on faith.
Whatever the other possibilities, most scholars agree that Ruth makes much of the concept of hesed or God’s loving-kindness, which is one key way of understanding God’s relationship with Israel in the Bible as a whole. The language of hesed is used about Ruth’s actions during the story, and in a book which says very little about God’s direct intervention, Ruth seems to be rewarded by others, including God (Ruth 4:13), because of the loving-kindness she shows in her actions toward Naomi and Boaz.
Ruth is one of the Megilloth, the five scrolls, along with the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther, which have traditionally been read at major festivals. Ruth is appointed for reading during the Feast of Weeks festival of the harvest first-fruits, probably because of its setting during the barley harvest.
Traditional interpretations have focused on Ruth’s seemingly wholehearted acceptance of the God of Israel in chapter 1, because of which she has frequently been held up as the “ideal convert” to Judaism. The scroll is, therefore, particularly meaningful to those who have become Jews by choice.
The importance of the theme of hesed has also featured prominently in the book’s interpretation, and Ruth has widely been seen as a positive role model and exemplar of one who practices loving-kindness, with the purpose of the book being seen as commending such actions. The relationship between Ruth and Naomi has attracted some attention recently from scholars, who have either affirmed or questioned the motivations of the two women. Others have considered the strong bonds of Ruth and Naomi’s relationship and the language describing it to indicate that a same-sex relationship might be portrayed in the text.
The view of Ruth as role model has also been challenged by some feminist commentators who are wary of Ruth’s seeming submissiveness, but her portrayal has remained overwhelmingly positive in most traditions.
Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Ruth. JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011.
Larkin, Katrina J. A. Ruth and Esther. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Matthews, Victor H. Judges and Ruth. NCBC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Van Wolde, Ellen. Ruth and Naomi. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1997.