The Book of Ruth Is a Short Book in an Odd Place
The Book of Ruth is one of the Bible's shortest books, telling its story in only 4 chapters. Its main character is a Moabite woman named Ruth, the daughter-in-law of a Jewish widow named Naomi. It's an intimate family tale of misfortune, crafty use of kinship ties, and ultimately, loyalty.
Not only is the Book of Ruth short, it's in an odd place, since it interrupts the grand sweep of history found in the books around it. These "history" books include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. They're called the Deuteronomistic History because they all share theological principles expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy. Specifically, they're based on the idea that God had direct, intimate relationships with the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, and was involved directly in shaping Israel's history.
However, in the original version of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Ruth, along with Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, were included in the section known as "the writings" (Kethuvim in Hebrew), while Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were included among the prophets (Nevi'im in Hebrew). This arrangement caused some confusion over what the books were intended to convey. Contemporary biblical scholars now tend to categorize the books as "theological and didactic historiography." In other words, these books reconstruct historical events to some degree, but they tell the histories by means of imaginative literary devices for purposes of religious instruction and inspiration.
So what about Ruth?
So how does the protagonist of the Book of Ruth become an important ancestor of David and Jesus? In brief, her story goes like this:
During a famine, a man named Elimelech took his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, east from their home in Bethlehem in Judea to a country called Moab. After their father's death, the sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. They lived together for about 10 years until both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving their mother Naomi to live with her daughters-in-law.
Hearing that the famine was over in Judah, Naomi decided to return to her home, and she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in Moab. After much dispute, Orpah acceded to her mother-in-law's wishes and left her, weeping. But the Bible says Ruth "clung to" Naomi and uttered now-famous words: "Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
Once they reach Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth seek food by gleaning grain from the field of a kinsman of Naomi's named Boaz. As they do so, Boaz sees Ruth gleaning, so he introduces himself and tells her that his workers will protect her and share their provisions with her. Ruth thanks Boaz, but then she questions why she, a foreigner, should receive such kindness. Boaz replies that he has learned of Ruth's faithfulness to her mother-in-law, and then he prays the God of Israel to bless Ruth for her loyalty.
Hearing of Boaz's interest in Ruth, Naomi then contrives to get Ruth married to Boaz by invoking her kinship with him. She sends Ruth to Boaz at night to offer herself to him, but Boaz, being an upright man, refuses to take advantage of her. Instead he helps Naomi and Ruth negotiate some rituals of inheritance, after which Boaz marries Ruth. Soon they have a son, Obed, who fathered a son named Jesse, who was the father of David, who became king of a unified Israel.
The Book of Ruth Is a Tale of High Drama and Divine Intervention
The Book of Ruth is the kind of high drama that would have played well in Jewish oral tradition. A faithful family is driven by famine from Judah to the non-Jewish land of Moab. Their sons' names are metaphors for their misery, for "Mahlon" means "sickness" and "Chilion" means "wasting" in Hebrew. Clearly these are literary inventions, for who would name their sons "Sickness" and "Wasting"?
When misfortune strikes the family, Naomi's character immediately would draw sympathy because so many women found themselves in similar destitution without male relatives to support them. The twist to this tale, however, is that a foreigner, Ruth, would not forsake her Jewish mother-in-law. Ruth's proclamation of loyalty to Naomi, to her people and to their God would have been recognized by Jews as signs of divine goodness.
The Reasons Behind the Story
Ultimately, the reasons behind the story of Ruth are twofold. First, unlike the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that demanded Jews divorce foreign wives, Ruth shows that outsiders who profess faith in Israel's God can be fully assimilated into Jewish society. The Book of Ruth's original placement next to Ezra and Nehemiah would have served to emphasize how petty and short-sighted a policy of racial purity would have been for the Jews.
Second, and more important, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of Israel's heroic king, David. This means that not only could a foreigner be completely assimilated, but he or she might be God's instrument for some higher good. Thus the Book of Ruth becomes one of the first calls for universality rather than tribalism in Judaism.
The latter concept also lies behind connecting the ancestry of Jesus to the House of David. David was Israel's greatest hero, a messiah (god-sent leader) in his own right. Jesus' lineage from David's family in both blood through his mother Mary and legal kinship through his foster father Joseph gave him royal credence among his followers as the messiah who would liberate the Jews. Thus for Christians, the Book of Ruth represents an early sign that the Messiah would liberate all of humankind, not solely the Jews.
Clearly Ruth is a fictional character, but her story is one that continues to inspire Jewish and Christian believers today.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 1994).
The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible, The Old and New Testaments (Avenel Books, 1981).Comments? Post in this forum thread.