Resources for the Book of Ruth:
Campbell Jr., Edward F.. Ruth. Part of the Anchor Bible Series, W.F. Allbright and David Noel Freedman general editors. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1975).
LaCocque, Andre. Ruth. Part of the Continentl Commentary series. Translated by K. C. Hanson. (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004).
Linafelt, Tod. “Ruth” in Ruth & Esther. Part of the Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry series, David W. Cotter Editor. (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1999).
Sakenfeld, Katherine Doob. Ruth. Part of the Interpretation Biblical commentary series, James L. Mays series editor. (John Knox Press, Louisville, 1999).
Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nosson Scherman. The Book of Ruth: A new translation with a commentary anthologized from Tlmudic, Midrashic, and Rabbinic sources. (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1976).
Intent of the book is to provide instruction to the Jewish community on how to deal with outsiders, a corrective to hyper-nationalism. This was an area of controversy throughout:
- in the period of Judges (1200 to 1000BCE) the problem was conquest and the temptations of idolatry with foreigners in their midst,
- in the time of the monarchy (1000 to 600) the problem was foreign wives brought in by the kings (along with their gods, temples, and priests),
- and after the return from Babylon(520BCE) the problem was foreign wives brought back with them, a concern for re-establishing a Jewish state.
And is quite a contrast to Joshua and Judges with regard to inter-marrying and tolerance.
LaCocque p. 13 and previous : this is a novella or short story, a work of fiction. A central part is the genealogy which is fictitious. The figure of Ruth the Moabite was invented. There was a real Bethlehem and a real Boaz – though nothing was known about him – hence he was a good choice for the storyteller.
Sakenfeld p. 45 “The story from start to finish illustrates the ways in which loyal action, kindness, and good will produce a surplus that can both break down dividing walls of hostility and open new horizons to shattered lives.”
LaCocque in preface: “How is Ruth the Moabite a saintly woman from among the nations (Gentiles)? Through her hesed (goodness of heart, steadfast love and fidelity), that compels the host society of Bethlehem to interpret the Torah (the charter of Jewish identity before God) in a generous and amplificatory way … The book of Ruth, therefore, is not just a touching and delightful story of two women, Ruth and Naomi, gaining respect and honor in a patriarchal and chauvinistic society, but is a vibrant plea for the adoption of a consciousness moved by expansive love rather than by restrictive legal definitions.”
- Who is faithful?
- Who is my neighbor (that I must care for them)?
- “Who is my brother?”
- Where is “home”?
- Who is an Israelite?” (One who acts like one – not in war but in loving kindness according to the Law!)
Orpah and the near-redeemer do not do evil or wrong but do not go far enough to make real the loving-kindness that is to mark the covenant community of God. They stand as foils for Ruth and Boaz who are determined to act in an upright way – including when it is not convenient or profitable.
Date of authorship suggested varies by 500 years but most scholars put it in the Babylonian exile and return period of 550 to 500 B.C.E. – though the story in simpler form may have been around much longer. This time period was one of upheaval as some Israelites returned from Babylonian captivity and began to rebuild the Temple and society – there was a conscious attempt to define who was and wasn’t Jewish, and to insist on re-creating and preserving Jewish identity. Men of Israel were required to divorce foreign wives and send them home. Hence, perhaps the book stands guard to prevent over-reaction or over-zealous behaviors, a corrective of sorts. At this time of return Israel ruled by Ezra & Nehemiah, “new” judges, returning from exile in a foreign land to a situation that was not ideal. Those scholars who argued for a much earlier date (around 1,000 BCE / in the time of David) do so based on linguistic analysis of the Hebrew. Neither group makes a case convincing enough to change the others’ opinions.
Most scholars believe that the focus on the women in the story is so strong and unique that this story was created by a woman, passed on by women story tellers. No way to know. The rabbinic tradition is that Samuel (transition point between the time of the Judges and Kings, last of the Judges and first of the prophets) was the author of Ruth.
All of the commentators agree that the story is wonderfully done. Campbell notes that the story-craft is full of nuances and connections that emerge in the tenth or twentieth hearing or reading of the story. Rabbinic commentary cover says the story is: “Deceptive in its simplicity, profound in its depth.” Naomi and Boaz use the language of older people … words are used here and then later to make connections. Same is true theologically – i.e. Ruth and Olpah do not have children in ten years while in Moab, but Ruth gets pregnant immediately in Israel.
- Gleaning – the practice of allowing the poor to go through the fields after the harvesters in order to gather what they missed. Eventually the rabbis and tradition became established that harvesters ought to deliberately leave about 10% of the harvest for the gleaners. See Leviticus 19:9, Lev. 23:22, and Deut. 24:19. There were lots of rules about who, when, where, and how this practice worked. They were allowed into a field only behind the harvesters, taking what was left. They could only pick up 1 or 2 stalks at a time – not handfuls. Etc.
- Levirate marriage – If a married man were to die without a male heir his brother or other near relatives were to take the wife of the dead man into their home, marry her, provide protection for her, and give her a son who would carry on the dead mans name. The heir would also inherit the dead man’s land / property thereby keeping it in the family. Surprisingly – the biblical record is not real clear as to the extent of the practice or its details. Was the woman obliged to agree? See Deut. 25:5 and Genesis 38 Eventually this practice felt too close to incest and the rabbis forbade it altogether.
- redemption of land and persons – the ‘redeemer’ involved the right / responsibility of near relatives to purchase land to keep it in the family. with regard to persons the right / responsibility to pay to keep someone out of slavery or to buy them out of it and their indebtedness. The land is kept as a sort of trust for the eventual heir.
Despite the above, much is just not known about the various legal and other customs that play a part in this book. For us – confusion. We can assume that ancient listeners / readers would have had no difficulties in following what happens and understanding why.
How is the Book of Ruth used? One of the five “Festival Scrolls” read at Jewish feasts during the year – this one is read at Shevuot – Feast of Weeks / Pentecost. This is so because it is associated with harvesting. (Sheva means 7, 7 weeks after Passover plus one day = 50 (Pentecost). The barley harvest came first, then the wheat harvest took place – taking a total of about 7 weeks. Hence a harvest festival and offering was timely.) These days this feast celebrates the giving of the Torah and is one of the most important holy days of the year.
Ruth is mentioned (Rahab also) in the genealogies for David and for Jesus. Inclusion of women who were NOT Jewish in these genealogies was particularly significant for Christianity as the church thought through the mission to the Gentile world. Note also – the scene is primarily set in Bethlehem. Remember at the end of Judges – the man and his doomed concubine set out from Bethlehem.
LaCocque p. 3: “(Ruth) represents the ‘other’. She was a woman in a man’s world; she was a widow and without a child in a group for which infertility was a mark of shame; she was a foreigner and also an enemy …”
Bethlehem is peaceful, harmonious, and orderly – in contrast to much of what we read in Joshua and Judges. “Bet Lehem” means “house of bread”.
Sakenfeld p. 12: ”Here we have a story of two women working together to make a way out of no way, to find security in the midst of a system that has little to offer to widow without families. First one women, then the other, as the occasion arises, takes initiative to set their course. The significance of this example of solidarity among women is heightened because of their different ages, their ethnic backgrounds from groups traditionally at enmity with one another, and their specific relationship as mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, a relationship regarded by many cultures as potentially filled with tension and even discord.”
The text has been misused, especially in Christian Asian cultures, to justify a practice in which wives are required to serve the mother-in-law and not be independent.
Scene is set quickly.
The names in Ruth:
- Elimelek means “my god is king”. A good pious name, relevant to the time of judges before the monarchy. But he betrays it, doesn’t trust in God, and goes to a foreign land. The rabbis read it – ‘to me kingship will come’ – which it does, ironically, through him to David. But for the rabbis – Elimelek is arrogant.
- Naomi means “my pleasure”
- Mahlon and Chilion mean “weak” and “sickly”.
- Ruth means or comes from root “to satisfy” or quench one’s thirst.
- Orpah perhaps means “(back of her) neck” or possibly “clouds”.
- In Rabbinic tradition both Ruth and Orpah are daughters of the King of Moab, princesses. Note the story of Eglon, King of Moab, in Judges. He stood up when he was told by Ehud that he had a message for him from God. (Then Ehud killed him). But, because he respected the LORD by standing up, he was rewarded by God with a daughter who would be the grandmother of David. None of this is in the text itself – a good example of how traditions grow around stories and how people put things together.
- Boaz was one of the names of the pillars at the entrance to the Temple and means “strength”. Also, of course, he is a “pillar” of the community.
- “Tov” – unnamed in the text but from Rabbinic tradition the name of the closest relative to Elimelek, means “good”
- Obed, Ruth’s son, means “servant”
This was a time of subsistence agriculture. Not able to produce large extra quantities or save products for long periods of time. Not able to transport them from region to region either. Families and areas survived harvest to harvest (like paycheck to paycheck) without any real safety net. Drought or insects or whatever meant real disaster – including starvation.
Moab had been long established in biblical tradition as an enemy of Israel. Biblical tradition held that the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and a son born to one of them (Moab) was the father of the Moabites (Gen. 19:36). The Moabites did not allow Israel to pass through or to gain food and water as they emerged from the desert. The Torah itself then said that no Moabite could marry a Jew or become a member of the Jewish community. (Later, the rabbis said that the Law actually was – no Moabite MAN.)
They were equivalent of the Samaritans in the time of Jesus. It is a region just as difficult to live in as Israel though conditions on the two sides of the Jordan can differ significantly due to the geography.
The rabbis, p. 65: ‘They felt themselves drawn to the Moabites whom they resembled. They were mean and ungenerous like the Moabites who ‘did not meet Israel with bread and water on the way when the left Egypt’”
Campbell notes that the opening scene being set up is plausible. p. 59 “It is suggested here that plausibility is precisely what is sought, as opposed to historicity. To gain plausibility, the story-teller uses his (her) knowledge of geography, climate, and historical background. These are not to get in the way; neither are we to be concerned whether it all happened in precisely this way.”
Go back / turn / return Naomi and the two daughters-in-law have complex relationship and complex forces at work within them and within the readers / hearers pre-conceptions.
Where is “home” really? Return / turn also has many instances of being used to express the concept of repentance.
Rabbinic commentary: “The simple text makes abundantly clear that Elimelech’s was a most distinguished family. The Sages go even further in extolling Elimelech and in pointing out the enormity of his sin in deserting his people – imagine the blow to them when the great man to whom they look for encouragement, guidance, and material support during the famine defected to an antagonistic neighbor.”
Rabbis p. 66: “Had Elimelech’s sons sinned only in leaving the Holy Land, the punishment of being orphaned would have been retribution enough. but they sinned further by marrying Moabite women.”
Naomi is distressed that she cannot provide for her daughters-in-law. No other sons for them to marry now or in the future. Orpah goes back to Moab and the text does not judge her for doing so. Ruth commits to true and full cultural immersion and adoption – a very significant commitment. Ruth does this not knowing (knowing?) that the people in her new country will be hostile or wary of her (as the text does indeed show).
The text is clear from here on – Ruth models a faithfulness that puts the faithfulness of other followers of the LORD to shame and question. Her faithfulness and goodness, even though she is a foreigner, provokes in the end faithfulness on the part of others.
The rabbis were divided – some thinking that the two women converted to Judaism when they married (for no good man would have married a Gentile); others saying they only gave up their other gods and that Ruth converted when she came to Israel. From Ruth comes the rabbinic tradition that a prospective convert must be counseled three times against the idea of converting.
“Ruth the Moabite”, as she is referred to, will continue to reinforce in the story that she is a foreigner.
Is there such a thing as coincidence? God, hardly mentioned in the book (though He does get mentioned), is understood to be working behind the scenes to have all work out in the end. Hence, Ruth happens to pick Boaz’s part of the field, Boaz happens to come out …
Note that “The LORD be with you!” is Boaz’s greeting. The rabbis credit Boaz with beginning this now traditional customary greeting. We use it still today!
Boaz gives her advice to avoid the young men in the fields lest she be molested or harassed as a foreigner and a woman without a protector. Boaz is “an upright citizen, the helpful relative, and the unmarried land owner.” p. 43 Sakenfeld He now becomes her protector. Then, as she has no food to eat at lunch time, he invites her to eat with his workers.
Boaz goes far beyond what the Law would have required him to do, particularly since Ruth would not have been covered by the Law at all (as a Moabite she was specifically excluded).
Sakenfeld notes that a full day of work by Ruth, with the extra generosity of Boaz counted in, was enough food to feed two people for about 4 days. The harvest would continue for a number of weeks, nevertheless it did not provide Ruth and Naomi a solution to their larger problems. Ruth ‘eats her fill’ and has more left over – the abundance given to those who are good people. (Remember – her name means satisfy or to be satisfied.)
Sakenfeld p. 51: “The determination of Naomi, the daring of Ruth, and the uprightness of Boaz that have already been exhibited are further illustrated in the behavior of the key characters in these scenes. Each shows concern for the welfare of another, yet the achieving of the other’s welfare will take shape in a way that benefits the helper as well.”
Boaz will “winnow” the barley harvest. Tined shovel to toss up the grain, the wind carries the chaff away and the heavier grain falls down into pile. Time was running out for the two women – will the generous Boaz just go on to the rest of his life?
Story teller leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not a sexual encounter was desired or happened. However, what Ruth does would have been seen by others as scandalous. As with Tamar who played a harlot but was an upright woman – so too with Naomi and Ruth in this text. Note that it is the women who take all of the initiative here.
“Uncover his feet” is a biblical euphemism for uncovering a man’s private parts. “Spread your cloak over your servant” cloak can also mean wing. An invitation to marriage from Ruth.
Rabbinic commentary p. 117: “And he said, let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor. The Midrash comments that he was addressing himself to God: “All that night Boaz lay stretched out upon his face and prayed, “Lord of the Universe, it is revealed and known to you that I did not touch her; so may it be Your will that it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor, that the name of Heaven be not profaned through me.’” He wasn’t concerned for his own reputation; he was known as a righteous man, and he was old – he would not be accused of un-becoming conduct. It was Ruth’s reputation he was concerned with; after all she went out in the middle of the night! He therefore specified that it not be known that the woman came to the threshing –floor.”
Sakenfeld emphasizes the risks Ruth took in the encounter – to go to him at night alone. Extremely risky in that society and culture. Rejection, reputation etc. Legally, because she was not married, she was not subject to stoning / charges of adultery. See Genesis 38 for the story of Judah and Tamar, who played the harlot to get justice for herself.
LaCocque notes that in an ironic play on biblical themes it is not the ‘youngest’ one who is chosen but the ‘oldest’ one who will play a role in advancing God’s will for the community and for Ruth in particular. Later David will be a chosen youngest one.
The bulging apron, carried next to her body, foreshadows a pregnant Ruth later on.
Questions, some without answers, on what happens in chapter 4 (Campbell, 157ff:)
- Why is the near redeemer not named, only referred to as “so and so”? Our translation says he was named but the text doesn’t have it. The Hebrew has “so and so”.
- Why does the field suddenly come into play? How does it belong to Naomi?
- Why does the near-redeemer not seem to be aware of both the land and of Ruth?
- Does Ruth have to be ‘bought’?
- What is the significance of the shoe and the ritual?
The scene shifts from dark night and private encounter to broad daylight in public at the gate of the city. On the “coincidence of the nearest redeemer coming to the gate just then – Rabbinic commentary p. 120 “Had he been at the opposite end of the earth God would have caused him to fly, so to speak, to be there, in order to relieve the righteous Boaz of the anxiety of waiting …’ The Midrash continues: ‘Boaz played his part, Ruth played hers, Naomi played hers, whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘I, too, must play Mine.’”
Sakenfeld p. 67 “A broken family is reestablished, a marginalized outsider is brought into the community circle, a new life comes into the world, the atmosphere is permeated with blessing and rejoicing.” Key to note is that David and then the Messiah all depend on, hinge on, the faithfulness and goodness of Naomi and Ruth – as well as on the faithfulness and goodness of Boaz and the rest of Bethlehem eventually. They go far beyond the Law and its requirements and peace and justice are the result.
The function of the 10 men at the gate are to be witnesses, not judges.
Naomi’s husband Elimelek may have sold the land, rented the land, or simply left the land. Naomi would have the right to reclaim it as his widow but could not afford to do so, or afford to begin farming it (startup costs). Any discussion of this would have to occur AFTER the harvest so that the current occupant was not out of his labor – as Boaz does wait. The key, according to LaCocque, is the social and cultural and religious / legal bias of keeping the land within the family, within the clan. Tied to this – of providing an heir to Eilimelek which is done through Ruth, and of then providing for him a means of support..
The other man does not want to redeem the land if it also involves the (moral) obligation to marry Ruth – if she has a son in the dead man’s name that son would inherit the property with no other cost, leaving the redeemer (as well as his previous descendants) out of the picture and out of his money. An alternative, from the Rabbis, is that he was unaware of the newly remembered interpretation of the law permitting Israelites to marry Moabite women, but not men. He was afraid he would bring about a death sentence on himself or his children.
Sakenfeld p. 77 “How remarkable that Ruth the Moabite is compared to Rachel and Leah, for Jacob was sent to their father to seek a wife precisely so that he would be sure not to marry a non-Israelite! Gen. 28:1 “
Rabbinic tradition – Boaz married Ruth but lived with her only one night – and then died. Not as punishment for marrying outside the faith. God had kept an aging Boaz alive so that centuries of God’s plan might still bear fruit.