Historical Background:

There is not too much information in the text of Ruth to determine a time or place where the story of Ruth originated. There are two possible options. The first option is that the story of Ruth was written during the reign of David or Solomon to justify God’s choice of King David even though his great-grandmother was a Moabite. The second option is very similar to the first, but the stakes are different, the text could likely have been compiled in the late 6th century BCE in the return. If it was compiled this late it could still be viewed as a defense of King David having a Moabite great-grandmother. The Jews returning to Jerusalem were extremely pressed by Ezra and other leaders not to sexually mix with other people groups. This is reflected in the prophet Hosea. If God didn’t want Jews to mix with other nations then why would he choose a man like King David who comes from a mixed family? The answer in the text of Ruth is that she, though originating from Moab, gave herself to faithfully being a part of Israel completely. She did not bring her gods with her, nor did she teach her sons or daughters the idolatry of Moab.

 

Literary Synopsis:

Ruth is a love story, and like many love stories it begins in tragedy. Ruth’s husband has died, but not only him. His father and brother have also died, leaving Ruth, her mother-in-law, and sister-in-law alone in a hostile world. Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decides to return to her and her husband’s homeland of Israel, and so sends Ruth and her sister-in-law back to their Moabite families. The daughters-in-law protest, but Naomi states that God must be against her since he has created such suffering for her to endure,[1] implying that her daughters should not say near her. While Ruth’s sister-in-law relents to the order, Ruth refuses to depart her mother-in-law, declaring that her marriage had bound her to Naomi, Naomi’s people, and her people’s God.

Upon returning to her hometown of Bethlehem, Naomi renames herself “Mara”, which means bitter, because she is bitter over the emptiness God has brought to her life. Naomi sends Ruth to pick leftover grain from the harvest fields of a relative named Boaz. When Boaz learns of Ruth in his fields he enquires about who she is and hearing her story takes pity on her. He blesses Ruth for her loyalty to her husband’s people and God by choosing to leave her family and people (and most likely their gods) behind.[2] When Naomi hears of Boaz’s care for her and Ruth she praises God who has revealed he does not forsake his people.[3]

Naomi decides Ruth should marry Boaz along the custom of the kinsmen redeemer. This custom states that if a man dies the man’s closest relative has the right to claim the deceased man’s wife, to redeem her. She is being redeemed in a number of ways in the ancient world: from a life of shame for being husbandless, if she has no sons she may be given children by her new husband, and she will be provided for and protected by her new husband from needing to use her body as a means to provide for herself and, possibly, her children. This protected the families of Israel by ensuring women were protected and did not need to marry foreigners, and ensured that the children born to these widowed women were pureblooded children of the people of Israel.[4]

Naomi encourages Ruth to risk what little honor she would have among the people of Bethlehem and sneak off into the harvest field at night and lay near Boaz. When Boaz awoke in the night he questioned who was laying near him and Ruth asks for him to redeem her. He admits to desiring her but reveals there is a relative who is closer to Naomi than himself, still he will redeem her if the other man does not wish to have her. In the morning, emphasizing the sexually scandalous nature of her behavior, Ruth sneaks away from the field before sunlight becomes bright enough for anyone to recognize her.[5]

Boaz calls the other relative before the elders at the gate of Bethlehem and asks him to redeem Ruth or allow him to redeem her. The relative passes and the elders bless the redemption of Ruth. Boaz and Ruth are immediately blessed by God with the conception of a son, and the women of Bethlehem declare the blessings of God to Naomi. They call her by her former name again because God has restored Naomi’s life by giving her this grandchild.

 

Observations:

  1. The explanation about how someone redeemed things in the past of Israel in 4:7 convinces me that this account is being written (long?) after the purported events themselves. At minimum this indicates a later date for the writing of Ruth, whether under the Davidic monarchy or in the Return to Jerusalem.
  2. I believe that Naomi is actually the key to the book of Ruth. It is Naomi, or references to Naomi, who make all of the theological statements. There is an assumption that God is act work in the historical life of the people of God. When her husband and sons die she believes God has done this and she is bitter over it.[6] Yet, as soon as good things begin to happen she recognizes this is also God’s action in their lives.[7] Lastly, God as the restorer of life is revealed in the giving of children after the deaths Naomi’s sons. Naomi is a beautiful voice for the Jews who are returning to Jerusalem after the exile. After losing fathers and sons in Babylon’s destruction of Judah and in their enslavement, Israel through the Jews can begin to rebuild their people through their blessed children. God is restoring his people even as he was willing to bring her to emptiness in the past.
  3. Ruth would then also be a text that addresses who Jews are allowed to have sex with, or in other words, marry and have children with. Ruth is a valid wife for Boaz because she has left her Moabite life behind her and become loyal, wholly and completely, to Israel and Israel’s god. Boaz’s marriage to Ruth was not simply about sexual desire for Ruth or forming a connection to Moab. Instead, Boaz was fulfilling his obligation to his people that was merging with Ruth’s loyalty to God’s people. This faithful obedience to God’s way of life among his people leads to God’s blessed presence in conceiving a child. As Goldengay’s translation puts it, “So Bo’az got Ruth and she became his wife. He had sex with her and Yahweh enabled her to get pregnant.” This is the kind of family, the Davidic family no less, that the leaders of Jerusalem desire to place in the memory of the Jews as the people of God continue to grow after exile. This sexual emphasis works well in the context of Hosea, Ezra, and Malachi at minimum, possibly more texts as we continue into Second Temple literature.
  4. There are two references to Genesis in Ruth, both occurring in the elders’ blessing of Boaz’s redemption of Ruth. The first reference is to Rachel and Leah as the mothers of Israel, and the second is to Tamar. The idea carried in the blessing is the knowledge that Israel will become great through the womb of Ruth just as the wombs of these women formed the twelve tribes and provided the beginning of the lineage for David from Judah. This also speaks to a later, pro-Davidic writing of this text, but the references to Genesis indicate the formation of Genesis has occurred before the writing of Ruth making a composition date in the early Davidic monarchy less likely. The stories of the patriarchs are common enough among the people that these women simply need to be named in order to be recognized. Therefore, Ruth’s references to the Genesis stories indicate a likely dating in the Jews’ return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.

 

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

 


[1] 1:13.

[2] 2:11-12.

[3] 2:19-20.

[4] 4:5.

[5] 3:14.

[6] 1:13, 20-21.

[7] 2:20.

Posted by Justin Gill

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