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Introduction to the Book of Ruth

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General Info

From the most ancient versions, the book has been called “Ruth” after the Moabite heroine who married into the tribe of Judah.  It is one of two books in the OT that is named after a woman (the other being Esther), and the only book named after an ancestor of Jesus.  In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is grouped with the “Writings” (Ketuvim).  Ruth also stands with the books of the Megilloth (the “five scroll”, along with Song of Solomon, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations), each of which is read by the Rabbis at one of five special occasions during the year.  Ruth is read at Pentecost because of the harvest scenes.

In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) and the Latin Vulgate, Ruth is classified as History, and placed between Judges and Samuel.  This is an ideal location, since the events in Ruth occurred near the end of the period of the Judges.  In addition, the closing genealogy introduces King David, the main character in the books of Samuel, as Israel transitions into the period of the monarchy.

Unlike the previous books of the Bible, Ruth contains no mention of God’s direct intervention via direct commands or miracles, but we consistently witness God’s love, grace and providence on display, as he directs each event according to His eternal purposes, working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28).  In this beautiful story, set in deep contrast to other happenings in the dark days of the Judges, God was at work, not only restoring a woman (Naomi) who had lost her family and rewarding another (Ruth) for her faith and loyalty, but also preserving the lineage of the coming Messiah.

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Brief Survey

During the latter stages of the Judges era, a drought and famine came to Bethlehem, the home of Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and two sons.  As a result, Elimelech moved his family to Moab, where the two sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.  While in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons died, and when the famine ended, Naomi decided to return home.  On the way to Bethlehem, Orpah chose to return to Moab, but Ruth declared her loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel (1:16-17), so the two arrived at the beginning of the spring barley harvest.

In chapter 2, Ruth went out to gather barley in the fields to obtain food for Naomi and herself.  By the providence of God, she happened to begin in a field owned by Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, who showed favor by instructing his workers to be generous to her.  When Naomi learned that Ruth worked in Boaz’s field, she developed a plan for Ruth to ask Boaz to act as a kinsman redeemer for Ruth by marrying her (chapter 3).

In chapter 4, after a closer relative refuses to marry Ruth out of concern for losing his own property, Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son named Obed, thus Naomi’s family regains an heir.  The book ends with a genealogy from Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob (Israel) to Boaz, and finally, to David.  Ruth’s loyalty is rewarded as she becomes the great-grandmother of King David and thus, an ancestor of the coming Messiah.

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Key Verses

"Look," said Naomi, "your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her." But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (1:15-17)

She [Ruth] exclaimed, "Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?" Boaz replied, "I've been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." (2:10-12)

Her mother-in-law asked her, "Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!" Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. "The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz," she said. "The LORD bless him!" Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. "He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead." She added, "That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers." (2:19-20)

In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet. "Who are you?" he asked. "I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer." "The LORD bless you, my daughter," he replied. "This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don't be afraid. I will do for you all you ask.  All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character. (3:8-11)

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: "Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth." Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, "Naomi has a son." And they named him Obed.  He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (4:13-17)

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Author and Date

The author of Ruth is not named anywhere in the Bible.  The Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 14-15), Jewish rabbinical literature, identifies the prophet Samuel as the writer.  Some scholars doubt this assertion since Ruth 4:17-22 implies that David was already established as king at the time of the writing and Samuel died before David assumed the throne ~1010 BC.  This would argue for another author such as Nathan, who served a prophet during David’s reign.

While the author must remain anonymous, we believe it is reasonable to credit Samuel as being the author based on internal evidence.  The events in Ruth occurred in the latter stages of the period of the judges, so Samuel would have been very familiar with the era.  In addition, he had already anointed David as king, so he knew it was only a matter of time before David assumed the throne.  The omission of Solomon from the closing genealogy argues for an early date.  Finally, the Hebrew literary style in Ruth is very similar to the majority of the books of Samuel, but differs from the later historical books of Esther, Nehemiah and the Chronicles.

Based upon the previously mentioned genealogy with the omission of Solomon, plus internal statements referencing the past (1:1, 4:7), we can reasonably place the writing from the latter part of Saul’s reign (at least after David’s anointing) to the earlier stages of David’s rule.

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Historical Background

Ruth was a woman from Moab, perpetual enemies of Israel located east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.  Moab originated from the incestuous union between Lot and his older daughter (Gen 19:30-38).  The Moabites oppressed Israel during Ehud’s judgeship (Jdg 3:12-30) and were defeated by Saul (1Sam 14:47).  Moab was later cursed by God (Is 15-16, Jer 48, Ez 25:8-11, Am 2:1-3) due to their antagonism toward Israel and their worship of false gods.  During the time of Ruth, there appears to have been a time of relative peace between Moab and Israel, like during the reign of David.

The events in Ruth took place during the latter part of the period of the Judges, probably near the end of the twelfth century BC (see Timeline below).  Due to the lack of national identity and structures, most authority was dispersed among the various independent tribes and clans.  Individual families and clans were frequently dependent upon their own crops and livestock for food and most other provisions.  Even with the fertile hill country, a couple of years of low rainfall could cause famine.  It was during one of these severe food shortages that the book of Ruth opens.

As we noted in the Historical background to the Judges, Archaeologists have uncovered much evidence of widespread destruction during this very dark epoch in Israel’s history.  This dark era forms the background for the Book of Ruth, and for the transition to the monarchy, as recorded in the Book of Samuel. Thus, the faith and piety displayed in Ruth stands in glaring contrast to the violence, disobedience, and spiritual and moral depravity of the period. Even in the most decadent of times, God always raises up a remnant to accomplish His purposes.

For more Information:

See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.

See Historical Background of Joshua for Geographical, Political, Historical, Cultural Settings and Religions of Canaan.

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Timeline

See OT History for timeline of additional historical events.

~ 1406 BC (1) Death of Moses; Joshua assumes leadership of Israelites
~ 1405 BC Israelites Enter the Promised Land and Begin the Conquest (Book of Joshua)
~ 1395 BC Israel Begins Settlement of the Land (Book of Joshua)
~ 1375 BC Death of Joshua (Book of Joshua & Judges)
~ 1375 BC Period of the Judges Begins (Book of Judges)
~ 1130 BC (2) Elimelech moves his family to Moab
~ 1120 BC (2) Ruth, Naomi and Boaz in Bethlehem
~ 1075 BC The Prophet Samuel as Last Judge (Book of Samuel)
~ 1050 BC Saul Becomes Israel’s First King (Book of Samuel)
~ 1040 BC Birth of King David (Book of Samuel)

(1) The date of Moses' death is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt.  Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC, and the death of Moses 40years later, or about 1406 BC.  Many scholars believe that the "480 years" is symbolic, placing the exodus in the early 1200s BC.  Many conservatives (including ourselves) tend to lean toward the earlier date.

(2) The story of Ruth began in the days “when the judges ruled” Israel during a “famine in the land” (1:1), but this famine is not mentioned in Judges.  Therefore, we have approximated the events in Bethlehem based on historical consensus and the genealogy of David (4:18-22) who began his reign over Judah ~1010 BC (see also our article on the Ruth 4 Genealogy List).  The ten years in Moab is based on (1:4).  This would probably place the events during the judgeship(s) of Jair, Jephthah, or Samson.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Prophetically and historically, the book of Ruth continues the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel, and to Judah in particular (Gen 49:10), of their coming King and Messiah.  In Ruth, we see another biological sketch of David’s ancestors among the remnant of the faithful during the dark age of the Judges.  The inclusion of Ruth and Rahab in the genealogy of David and the Christ (4:13-22, Mt 1:5) also shows God’s concern for the Gentiles (including women) within the history of redemption.  Indeed, redemption is a major them which major theme throughout the book, with almost two dozen references to the word's various forms (such as redeemer, redeemed etc).  In addition to the spiritual modes of redemption, we also observe its physical, legal (property, marriage and heirs), and social (Naomi's deliverance from bitterness to fulfillment) elements.

Ruth also demonstrates the importance of being faithful not only to God, but in our relationships with other humans as well.  We see this in Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and in Boaz’s kindness to the women, including his willingness to act as a “kinsman redeemer” (more info in the “Interpretation” section below).  Our unselfish love for others fulfils the spirit of God’s law (Lev 19:18).  As a result, we also see God’s benevolent blessing on the faithful.

Finally, even though there are no “God said” or “God did” statements in the book, we see how God continually guided each event, according to His sovereign providence, for the good of all those who loved and were faithful to Him.  Ordinary routine events become eternal God-sized happenings when we trust and allow Him to work out His purposes through us.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Ruth is a very compact historical narrative which offers several interpretive challenges, a few of which will require separate articles.  The story is a rarity in that it is told from a woman’s point of view, but it also portrays Boaz as a remarkable character as a kinsman redeemer and a vessel of God’s kindness.

The kinsman-redeemer or family-redeemer (Heb go’el, meaning “nearest relative”) was basically a guardian of family rights.  The redeemer could “redeem” (buy back) a family member who had been sold into slavery, or buy back property that had been sold due to poverty (Lev 25:23-34, 47-49).  A kinsman-redeemer could also avenge the murder of a family member by killing the guilty party under certain conditions (Num 35:9-34, Dt 19:1-13).  Finally, the family-redeemer was obligated to marry the wife of his dead brother (if his brother died without any sons) in order to continue his brother’s family line (Dt 25:5-10).  Boaz extends this interpretation to include the closest relative.  Thus, the book of Ruth offers a foreshadowing of our great kinsman-redeemer, Jesus Christ who redeemed us from the slavery of sin and sell with his precious blood (Eph 1:7, 1Pe 1:18-19).  A further discussion may be found in the Family Redeemer article.

Several questions have been raised concerning the relationship and marriage of Ruth and Boaz.  We’ll tackle the easiest one first.  Some have suggested their meeting on the threshing floor (Ruth 3) involved immoral or sexual activity before marriage, but there is no evidence for this.  In fact, the narrative strongly suggests otherwise.  When Boaz awoke in the middle of the night, he was startled to find a woman lying at his feet, and didn’t even realize it was Ruth until he inquired of her.  Ruth then asks Boaz to act as her family-redeemer by marrying her.  It may seem strange that Ruth does the asking, but ancient Jewish writings reveal a custom that a male from an older generation was not to approach a younger woman in this situation.  This is probably why Boaz commends her for her loyalty in wishing to carry on the family line rather than seeking younger men outside Elimelech’s family (3:10).

The other questions, involving the marriage itself, get a bit more complicated, so we’ll give a brief overview and work out the details in a separate article.  First, it appears that Boaz expands the levirate marriage law (Dt 5:5-10, see also Gen 38:8-10) marry the widow in order to provide an heir.  Although Ruth’s deceased husband (Mahlon) had no living brothers, his relative Boaz (who might have been an uncle) combines this institution with redemption of Elimelech’s property, which could be redeemed by the nearest kinsman (Lev 25:23-34, 47-49).   While this extends the strictest interpretation of the levirate custom, there is no condemnation of Boaz's interpretation by the author, and it appears to be accepted as normal practice by the witnesses.  In addition, Boaz fulfils the purpose of the levirate marriage, that of protection for the widow and the continuation of the dead husband’s family line.

Perhaps the most formable challenge is, was not the intermarriage between an Israelite and a Moabite forbidden by the covenant law?  After all, a Moabite was expressly prohibited from worshiping for at least ten generations (Dt 23:3), or even forever (Neh 13:1).  The short answer is that Ruth could be considered a Jew by conversion (1:16-17), a foreigner who joined herself to the Lord of Israel (Is 56:1-8).  We have much more on this subject in our Intermarriage article.

Finally, we note that, within the book’s closing genealogy, it is written that Salmon was the “father” of Boaz (4:21) and Matthew 1:5 states that Salmon was married to Rahab.  A cursory reading in the English would appear to indicate that Boaz was the “son” of Salmon and Rahab.  Indeed, we’ve seen this stated in many commentaries, but this cannot be so.  Rahab (Jsh 2, 6:17) lived during the days of Joshua (~1400 BC) while Boaz lived about 300 years later.  The short answer to this apparent difficulty lies in that, the Hebrew words for “father” and “son” can be translated as “ancestor” and “descendant”.  We explore this timeline gap (there are probably 6-12 generations separating Rahab and Boaz) and much more in our Genealogies in the Bible article.  Furthermore, genealogies in the Bible are almost always included for a primary purpose other than to show a direct chronological lineage.  In this case, the genealogy looks backward and forward to link Ruth and Boaz to the son of Judah and to King David, and ultimately to the coming Messiah.  Thus, the closing genealogy illustrates their place within God’s history of salvation.

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Outline

The book of Ruth can be divided into four sections along chapter lines as follows.

1:1 – 1:5 Prologue: Naomi moves to Moab and Loses her Family
1:6 – 1:22 Ruth and Naomi Return to Bethlehem from Moab
2:1 – 2:23 Ruth Meets Boaz in the harvest Field
3:1 – 3:18 Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor; Marriage Proposed
4:1 – 4:12 Boaz Redeems Ruth
4:13 – 4:17 Ruth Marries Boaz and has a Son; a New Family for Naomi
4:18 - 4:22 Genealogy of King David

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