A prayer to use before reading.
May your Spirit, O Christ, lead me in the right way, keeping me safe from all forces of evil and destruction. And, free from all malice, may I search diligently in your Holy Word to discover with the eyes of my mind your commandments. Finally, give me the strength of will to put those commandments into practice through all the days of my life. Amen.
A prayer of Bede (c. 673-735) an English monk and scholar. From The HarperCollins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages (Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1997).
In Christian Bibles, the book of Ruth is found among the historical books between Judges and 1 Samuel. In Jewish Bibles Ruth is in the Writings. While it takes place during the time of the Judges (hence its location in the Bible) the story itself is independent of the historical books. There is some debate about the date of composition. Some think it was written around 950-700 BCE, others would place it closer to the time of David, 950-900 BCE, and others think it is an exilic or postexilic text (sixth century BCE or later). Ruth was most likely written at a later date about an earlier time.
Ruth is short, the length of a short story or novella. In fact Ruth reads like a short story or novella. It is carefully crafted and there is a symmetry in how the story is told. Look for parallels between chapter 1 and 4 as well as chapters 2 and 3. 1 and 4 both have genealogies and both have female choruses who interpret Namoi’s status. Chapter 2 describes a day, chapter 3 a night. See if you discover more examples.
While Ruth on its surface appears to be a simple story, there is much to ponder. It is a story without a “bad guy”. All the characters act with integrity. All seek live faithfully. Notice the various ways the theme of redemption is expressed. Notice what the text has to say about identity and belonging. Notice what the story shows about chesed- steadfast love or loyalty. ( Chesed is a Hebrew word often used to describe God’s relationship to Israel (and to us). Is Ruth only about how individuals ought to act or is the author suggesting something for the nation of Israel as well? Remember the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and their concern about mixed marriages.
Outline of Ruth with comments
I. Ruth 1:1-22 Turning away, turning back: The word sub ( turn, return, go back, brought back) occurs 12 times in chapter one. It can be used in a geographical or physical sense but also in a mental, emotional or spiritual sense. Also notice the themes of fullness and emptiness- food and famine, children and husband alive and dead. “Ephrathite from Bethlehem in Judea” is also used to describe David (1 Sam 17:12). Notice the word plays and meanings. Ephrathite comes from a root meaning “fruitful”, “fertile”, or “productive”. Moabites and Israelites did not get along, see Gen 19, Num 22 and 25, Judges 3, 2 Sam 8,Isaiah 15-16 and Deut 23:3). Bethlehem means “house of bread”. Mahlon sounds like the word for “sickness” and Chilion the word for “destruction”.
In the ancient world the legal status and the economic security of women depended upon husbands and sons. Naomi and her daughters in law are in serious jeopardy. When Naomi tells the young women to go home she is essentially telling them to find new husbands. Naomi’s questions in verse 13 recall in some respects the story of Tamar and Judah from Gen 38. We sometimes forget that Orpah is the one who acted appropriately by the cultural standards of the time.
The word translated as “leave’ in 1:16 carries the sense of changing allegiances. Religion and nationality and land were closely tied in the ancient world. Naomi is proposing a major change in her identity from Moabite to Israelite. She is leaving her land, her nationality and her religion.
What do you think is going on in Naomi’s mind? Why does she not want Ruth to come with her? Does she think Ruth has no future in Israel? Or does she not want to return home with a foreigner and a Moabite at that? Is Naomi’s silence acceptance or frustration?
II. Ruth 2:1-23 Known and Unknown: Insider/Outsider, family/foreigner? In verse 1 we learn that Boaz is a relative of some sort but no family obligation is suggested. In verses 2 and 6 Ruth is identified as a Moabitess. Why do you think Boaz and his foreman treat her the way that they do? See Lev 19:9-10, 23:22 and Deut 24:19 on gleaning. Gleaning is an act of charity toward the poor. The expression “my daughter” in verse 8 is a traditional way an older person or someone of superior status would address someone younger or of lesser status. What assumptions about the status and worth of women are implicit in the story? As modern readers we need to think about how women were treated in the ancient world to appreciate what is happening in the story.
The amount of barley Ruth was able to glean would have been enough for several days.
By verse 20 we are given more information about the family relationship of Boaz and Naomi.
III. Ruth 3:1-18 Uncovering and Recovering: There are three scenes in this chapter,Namoi’s plan, v 1-7, What happens on the threshing floor,v 8-13 and the next morning, v 14-18. This chapter is full of euphemisms and word plays concerning sex. “To know” and “to lie down” are both euphemisms for sex. The word “feet” comes from a root word used as a euphemism for genitals. “Uncover” is used in texts which prohibit certain types of sexual relationships. In the ancient world, threshing floors were associated with sex for hire. Why do you think the story is told this way, with these allusions?
People slept on the threshing floor to guard the crop to prevent theft or damage to it.
What is going on in this chapter? Is Ruth a pawn or puppet of Naomi? Or is Ruth doing what she needs to do to secure her future? Has Boaz been tricked or manipulated or shamed into action? Or does Ruth’s actions encourage Boaz to do what was right? Is Ruth the one who proposes marriage?
This is not the first story we have read where a woman needed to act outside of cultural bounds. Recall Gen 19 and 38.
In verse 14 Boaz is concerned with Ruth’s reputation, or his reputation, or both reputations? Again there is the concept of empty and full (v 15, 17).
Scholars debate whether we are to be shocked by this chapter or are we to admire the women’s initiative and ingenuity. Whether anything “happened” or not the potential for scandal was present. What does that have to do with chesed , loyalty, justice and faithfulness? The text doesn’t tell us in any clear way. Why do you think that is?
IV. Ruth 4:1-22 The Roots of Israel’s Redemption: We don’t know exactly what the rules and customs of the time were concerning rights of redemption and the laws of real estate transactions and how all this relates to marriage. It is probably best not to focus on the details but look at the larger story. In ancient times business transactions often took place at the town gate. This is the first time we have heard that Naomi had land to sell. We don’t know if original readers were surprised by this or if it was an expected development.
In the end, Boaz acquires the family land, marries Ruth and promises to maintain “the name of the dead”.
Think about who Rachel, Leah and Tamar were. (Gen 29:21-30:19; 38:1-30). In addition, Rachel is the “mother” of two northern kingdom tribes, Leah the “mother” of a southern kingdom tribe, and Tamar was probably Canaanite.
Boaz and Ruth have a son. “The women” reappear in the story (as they did in chapter 1) to comment on Naomi’s status. Obed keeps the property in the family but he also “renews/restores” Naomi’s life. And look what is said about Ruth in v15, she is “better to you”/”more to you” than seven sons! Why do you think Naomi reappears in the story now?
The book ends with a genealogy from Perez (the son of Tamar) to David.
Read More About It:
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Ruth.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Berlin, Adele “Ruth” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Robertson Farmer, Kathellen “The Book of Ruth ” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 3, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1999.
Zakovitch, Yair “Ruth”, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Fully Revised 4 th Edition, Michael Cougan, ed. (New York:Oxford University Press) 2010.