Book of Ruth
|Old Testament (Christianity)|
The Book of Ruth (abbreviated Rth) (Hebrew: מגילת רות, Megilath Ruth, "the Scroll of Ruth", one of the Five Megillot) is included in the third division, or the Writings (Ketuvim), of the Hebrew Bible; in most Christian canons it is treated as a history book and placed between Judges and 1 Samuel, as it is set "in the days when the judges judged", although the Syriac Christian tradition places it later, between Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. It is named after its central figure, Ruth the Moabitess, the great-grandmother of David.
The book tells of Ruth's accepting the God of the Israelites as her God and the Israelite people as her own. In Ruth 1:16–17, Ruth tells Naomi, her Israelite mother-in-law, "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 even death separates you and me." The book is held in esteem by Jews who fall under the category of Jews-by-choice, as is evidenced by the considerable presence of Boaz in rabbinic literature. The Book of Ruth also functions liturgically, as it is read during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot ("Weeks").
The book is structured in four chapters:
Act 1: Prologue and Problem: Death and Emptiness (1:1–22)
- Scene 1: Setting the scene (1:1–5)
- Scene 2: Naomi returns home (1:6–18)
- Scene 3: Arrival of Naomi and Ruth in Bethlehem (1:19–22)
Act 2: Ruth Meets Boaz, Naomi's Relative, on the Harvest Field (2:1–23)
- Scene 1: Ruth in the field of Boaz (2:1–17)
- Scene 2: Ruth reports to Naomi (2:18–23)
Act 3: Naomi Sends Ruth to Boaz on the Threshing Floor (3:1–18)
- Scene 1: Naomi Reveals Her Plan (3:1–5)
- Scene 2: Ruth at the threshing-floor of Boaz (3:6–15)
- Scene 3: Ruth reports to Naomi (3:16–18)
Act 4: Resolution and Epilogue: Life and Fullness (4:1–22)
- Scene 1: Boaz with the men at the gate (4:1–12)
- Scene 2: A son is born to Ruth (4:13–17)
Genealogical appendix (4:18–22)
During the time of the judges when there was a famine, an Israelite family from Bethlehem – Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion – emigrated to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech died, and the sons married two Moabite women: Mahlon married Ruth and Chilion married Orpah.
After about ten years, the two sons of Naomi also died in Moab (1:4). Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers and remarry. Orpah reluctantly left; however, Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you." (Ruth 1:16–17 NJPS).
The two women returned to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, and in order to support her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth went to the fields to glean. As it happened, the field she went to belonged to a man named Boaz, who was kind to her because he had heard of her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth told Naomi of Boaz's kindness, and she gleaned in his field through the remainder of barley and wheat harvest.
Boaz was a close relative of Naomi's husband's family. He was therefore obliged by the Levirate law to marry Mahlon's widow, Ruth, in order to carry on his family's inheritance. Naomi sent Ruth to the threshing floor at night and told her to go where he slept, and "uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do." (3:4). Ruth did so. Boaz asked her who she was, and she replied: "I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman" (3:9 NJPS). Boaz blessed her and agreed to do all that is required, and he noted that, "all the elders of my town know what a fine woman you are" (3:11 NJPS). He then acknowledged that he was a close relative, but that there was one who was closer, and she remained in submission at his feet until she returned into the city in the morning.
Early that day, Boaz went to the city gate to meet with the other male relative before the town elders. The relative is not named: Boaz addresses him as ploni almoni, literally "so and so". The unnamed relative is unwilling to jeopardize the inheritance of his own estate by marrying Ruth, and so relinquished his right of redemption, thus allowing Boaz to marry Ruth. They transferred the property and redeemed it, ratified by the nearer kinsman taking off his shoe and handing it over to Boaz. Ruth 4:7 notes for later generations that:
- Now this was formerly done in Israel in cases of redemption or exchange: to validate any transaction, one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other. Such was the practice in Israel. (NJPS)
Boaz and Ruth were then married and have a son. The women of the city celebrate Naomi's joy, for Naomi found a redeemer for her family name, and Naomi takes the child and places it in her bosom.
The book does not name its author. It is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Samuel, but Ruth's identity as a non-Israelite and the stress on the need for an inclusive attitude towards foreigners suggests an origin in the fifth century BC, when intermarriage had become controversial (as seen in Ezra 9:1 and Nehemiah 13:1). A substantial number of scholars therefore date it to the Persian period (6th–4th centuries BC). The genealogy that concludes the book is believed to be a post-exilic Priestly addition, as it adds nothing to the plot; nevertheless, it is carefully crafted and integrates the book into the history of Israel running from Genesis to Kings.
Themes and background
Levirate marriage and the "redeemers"
The Book of Ruth illustrates the difficulty of trying to use laws given in books such as Deuteronomy as evidence of actual practice. Naomi plans to provide security for herself and Ruth by arranging a Levirate marriage with Boaz. She instructs Ruth to uncover Boaz's feet after he has gone to sleep and lie down. When Boaz wakes up, surprised to see a woman at his feet, Ruth explains she wants him to redeem (and thus marry) her. Many modern commentators see sexual allusions in this part of the story, arguing that 'feet' is a euphemism for genitals.[Note 1]
Since there was no heir to inherit Elimelech's land, custom required a close relative (usually the dead man's brother) to marry the widow of the deceased in order to continue his family line (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). This relative was called the go'el, the "kinsman-redeemer". As Boaz is not Elimelech's brother, nor is Ruth his widow, scholars refer to the arrangement here as "Levirate-like". A complication arises in the story: another man is a closer relative to Elimelech than Boaz and has first claim on Ruth. It is resolved through the custom that required land to stay in the family: a family could mortgage land to ward off poverty, but the law required a kinsman to purchase it back into the family (Leviticus 25:25ff). Boaz meets the near kinsman at the city gate (the place where contracts are settled); the kinsman first says he will purchase Elimelech's (now Naomi's) land, but, upon hearing he must also take Ruth as his wife, withdraws his offer. Boaz thus becomes Ruth and Naomi's "kinsman-redeemer."
The book can be read as a political parable relating to issues around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (the 4th century BCE). The realistic nature of the story is established from the start through the names of the participants: the husband and father is Elimelech, meaning "My God is King", and his wife is Naomi, "Pleasing", but after the deaths of her sons Mahlon, "Sickness", and Chilion, "Wasting", she asks to be called Mara, "Bitter". The reference to Moab raises questions, since in the rest of the biblical literature it is associated with hostility to Israel, sexual perversity, and idolatry, and Deuteronomy 23:3–6 excluded an Ammonite or a Moabite from "the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation". Despite this, Ruth the Moabitess married a Judahite and even after his death still regarded herself a member of his family; she then married another Judahite and bore him a son who became an ancestor of David. Contrary to the message of Ezra-Nehemiah, where marriages between Jewish men and non-Jewish women were broken up, Ruth teaches that foreigners who convert to Judaism can become good Jews, foreign wives can become exemplary followers of Jewish law, and there is no reason to exclude them or their offspring from the community.
Scholars have increasingly explored Ruth in ways which allow it to address contemporary issues. Feminists, for example, have recast the story as one of the dignity of labour and female self-sufficiency, and even as a model for lesbian relations, while others have seen in it a celebration of the relationship between strong and resourceful women. Others have criticised it for its underlying, and potentially exploitative, acceptance of a system of patriarchy in which a woman's worth can only be measured through marriage and child-bearing. Others again have seen it as a book that champions outcast and oppressed peoples.
Genealogy: the descent of David from Ruth
- For "feet" as a euphemism for genitals see, for example, Amy-Jill Levine, "Ruth," in Newsom and Ringe (eds.), The Women's Bible Commentary, pp.78-84. The usual interpretation, as given here, is that Ruth is told to uncover Boaz's genitals, but see Kirsten Nielsen, "Other Writings," in McKenzie and Graham (eds.), The Hebrew Bible Today, pp.175-176, where it is argued that Ruth is to uncover herself.
- Allen, Leslie C. (1996). "Ruth". In LaSor, William Sanford; Hubbard, David Allan; Bush, Frederic William; et al. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837882.
- Atteridge, Harold W. (2006). The HarperCollins Study Bible. HarperCollins.
- Coogan, Michael D. (2008). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195332728.
- Grabbe, Lester L. (2004). The History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, Volume 1: Yehud, the Persian Province of Judah. Continuum. pp. 105 &, 312. ISBN 9780567089984.
- Hubbard, Robert L. Jr. (1988). The Book of Ruth. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802825261.
- Irwin, B.P. (2008). "Ruth 4: Person". In Longman, Tremper; Enns, Peter. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 9780830817832.
- Leith, Mary Joan Winn (2007). "Ruth". In Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Zvi; Newsom, Carol Ann; et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195288803.
- West, Gerald (2003). "Ruth". In Dunn, James D.G.; Rogerson, John William. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Eerdmans. ISBN 9780802837110.
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- Jewish translations and study guides
- Ruth at Mechon Mamre – (Jewish Publication Society of America Version, 1917)
- Jewish Virtual Library
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Ruth – English translation [with Rashi commentary]
- Christian translations and study guides
- The Kinsman Redeemer
- Online Bible – GospelHall.org
- Bible Study on Cross-Cultural Love – InterVarsity website
- Book of Ruth public domain audiobook at LibriVox Various versions
- Encyclopedic entries
Book of Ruth
Song of Songs
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