Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Ruth

Where the Book of Ruth is found in the Bible

More than many biblical books, the two possible placements of the Book of Ruth in the Bible are both highly significant.  In the Christian tradition, Ruth is found after the Book of Judges and before I Samuel. It is the transition book from the violence of Judges to the birth of kings.

We are not surprised that at the beginning of Ruth we are told that “in the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1).

The final chapters of Judges are among the most frightening and disordered chapters in all of Scripture.  They are filled with rape and neglect and mutilation and war — all manner of violence.  And surrounding the reports of violence is a thrice repeated refrain, “There was no king in Israel” ending with “and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  Having no king meant, in the language of Judges, having no order, no good law to remind folks of responsibilities outside of their own desire.  This refrain of Judges invites us to read the Book of Ruth as an intimate response to that refrain, as a response to anytime the world becomes crazed with both violence and self-serving. 

And Ruth ends with a genealogy that ends with the birth of David.  David represents hope for order and doing good in and for the community.  This leads directly to the books of Samuel and Kings, with particular ties to the story of Hannah in I Samuel 1-2.

In the Hebrew ordering of the biblical books, the Book of Ruth is one of the 5 Megilloth (Hebrew for “Scrolls”) with Ecclesiastes, Esther, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs. Ruth is often placed directly after the Book of Proverbs.  The final chapter of Proverbs 31, beginning in verse 10 contains an alphabetic ode of praise to, as translated in the NRSV, “a capable wife.”  The Hebrew is actually ishah hayil, “a woman of worth/value,” the very same phrase Boaz uses of Ruth in 3:11.

Ruth in Matthew’s genealogy (Luther)

The genealogy at the end of the Book of Ruth is tied directly to the genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s genealogy, unlike that in Ruth, mentions 5 women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and Mary.  At least 2 factors bind these women together.  First, all but Mary are foreign women.  Second, the sexual behavior of all of these women is open to question.  More than this, one might say that if their sexual relations are taken at face value, each of these women would be immediately condemned – Tamar (Genesis 38) poses as a prostitute to entice her father‑in‑law; Rahab (Joshua 2) is a professional lady‑of‑the‑night; Ruth goes seductively to Boaz on the threshing floor; Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) bathes on the roof and then sleeps with David; and Mary gets pregnant without the benefit of marriage.  And yet, with the possible exception of Bathsheba who is here not graced with a name, these women are not in fact harlots, but rather they are heroines of the faith.  These women who risk their reputations, who risk being ostracized from society, and who even risk potential death, made possible the perpetuation of the Davidic line and ultimately, in the Christian tradition, the coming of the Messiah.  The tradition, far from condemning them, preserves for these women certain remarkable words of praise.  Of Tamar, Judah said “She is more righteous than I, in as much as I did not give her to my son (Shelah)” (Genesis 38:26).  Ruth is blessed by Boaz, named by him a “woman of worth.”  Mary is, of course, called by Elizabeth “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42)  These women are not necessarily what they seem ‑ insignificant or fallen.  They show us that God uses and shows us what might look questionable from the outside (sexually questionable behavior) is not what it seems.  

When reflecting on the inclusion of these foreign women into Jesus’ genealogy as presented in the Gospel of Matthew, Martin Luther emphasized the broad reach of Jesus’ saving grace which overcomes boundaries often set by human communities around economic status, ethnic background, origin, etc.

Commenting on Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, Martin Luther wrote:

“But Christ our Lord wanted to be born from the blood of various nations; for He had Rahab, Ruth, and Tamar as mothers. Since He was not ashamed of these women, and indeed Egyptian, Canaanite, and Moabite women are listed in His genealogy…The same thing can be said of David and the other kings who were born of the same mothers, for with God there is no respect of persons [Acts 10:34].”

(Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1965, S. 7:199)

Unexpected role of women

Among the significant aspects of the Book of Ruth is the role of women.  Over the years, readers have assumed that the Bible has a negative view of women, their worth, and their capacity for leadership. This view of women was shared by many people both in biblical times and in the following centuries.  Books such as Ruth (as well as Esther and the many stories about women in Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, and other books) call that assumption into question.  Ruth and Naomi, both individually and through their relationship with one another, make possible the birth of David, and eventually, Jesus. They act with commitment, caring, and imagination – through both hard work and taking risks. In certain ways, their relationship sets the stage for the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1).

Relationship to immigrants

Not only is Ruth a foreigner and a resident alien, both Naomi and Ruth are immigrants.  Immigration is at the core of the biblical narrative.  Adam and Eve are forced out of the garden; Abraham and Sarah leave what is familiar in search of a better future; Moses leads his people in search of a Promised Land; Jesus himself, whose public ministry is marked by a constant invitation to go “to the other side,” starts out his life as a refugee running away from governmental persecution under Herod.  These stories illustrate what migration scholars refer to as either pull or push factors that motivate people to migrate. A pull factor is something that attracts a person to a new location—an opportunity for work, study, or adventure.  Abraham and Sarah, for example, were motivated to migrate by the “pull” of God’s promise.  Push factors are those that force someone to move—the loss of a job, a difficult economic circumstance, violence, etc. We see this regularly in our world.

The story of Naomi and Ruth is a story of two migrations: first to Moab and then back to Bethlehem. The first is motivated by a push factor: famine in the land. The second migration is motivated by a pull factor.  Naomi hears, while in Moab, that the Lord had ended the famine (Ruth 1:6). Everything in the book is tied to these migrations and the issues of being a migrant and how migrants are viewed.

A particular issue is highlighted by an odd aspect of the final chapter of the Book of Ruth. In the first 3 chapters, Naomi and Ruth are portrayed as active participants in determining their own future.  They have relied on each other and their ingenuity and knowledge of the law to navigate very difficult circumstances.  In chapter 4, however, there is a marked shift in the narrative. Neither Ruth nor Naomi speaks in chapter 4. 

The legal and cultural norms of the time rendered them dependent on the goodwill of Boaz, the next-of-kin, who was both male and had status in the society.  This kind of dependence is experienced by many who live on the margins of society, including those who are heirs to Ruth’s status as a questionable immigrant.  Because of language barriers, fear, or immigration status, many recent immigrants must depend on others to literally “speak for them” in a variety of public arenas, from doctors’ offices, to teacher-parent conferences, to courts of law. Naomi’s and Ruth’s lack of speech in the final chapter invites the reader to consider community responsibility toward the immigrant.

The art of story

Ruth is one of the most beautifully crafted narratives in all of Scripture.  The book offers an opportunity to illustrate some of the many ways in which how a story is told illuminates the multiple aspects of what a story teaches, invites, and inspires in the lives of its hearers/readers.  Art is not incidental to theology and meaning. Three aspects of the art of story are expanded below: how characters are presented; the importance of word plays; and the significance of repeated themes. 

1. The art of story: Character

Biblical stories most frequently center on particular characters. One often knows characters are important when they have names (which often have meaning) and voice (what they say and how they say it matters). Also important is what other characters and the narrator say about them.

Add these aspects together, and add the bonus in Ruth of contrasting characters, and one gets an intricate view of the 3 main characters.

Naomi is the pivotal, central character of the book. She, like the book, moves from death to life, from despair to joy, from lament to blessing. Naomi, which in Hebrew means “pleasantness” declares herself to be Mara, which in Hebrew meansbitter,” so she provides her own contrasting character. We know her to be a loving mother-in-law to her two Moabite daughters-in-law. She moves from not being able to see her usefulness to Ruth or anyone, to one who sees God’s hand at work, allowing her to scheme, and then to one who takes her grandson into her embrace.

Ruth, whose name perhaps means “friendship,” is a most unexpected heroine.  The law sees her as a despised Moabite, a sojourner, an immigrant. Her contrasting character is her sister-in-law, Orpah (which means “back of the neck”), who actually obeys Naomi and goes back to her family as expected.

Ruth is portrayed as loyal, faithful, hard-working, loving, and knowledgeable of and willing to live by the customs and traditions of her new land. Ruth is willing to work hard, like immigrants throughout history. She chooses to glean rather than to earn her keep as a prostitute. She is self-effacing and grateful; she eats only until she is satisfied and takes food to her mother-in-law. She is joined to the matriarchs of Israel and the ancestors of David.

Boaz, whose name in Hebrew means “strength,” shows the reader what it is to be a man of value, of worth.  His major contrasting character is the nearest next-of-kin (never graced with a name) who is more interested in acquiring property than in helping relations or in continuing the family of a dead “brother.”

Boaz greets his workers with a blessing, encourages them to welcome gleaners rather than to molest foreign women.  Boaz acts with compassion, generosity, recognition, responsibility. He is a remarkable and clever interpreter of the law. 

2. The art of story: Word plays

One of the most fun, insightful, and often ironic ways that stories point to what is important is by playing with words.  In the Book of Ruth, 5 word plays are worthy of highlighting.

The book begins (Ruth 1:1) with the ironic reality of there being “famine” in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “the house of food.”

Naomi, in her “M nara” period sends her daughters-in-law back to their own families, praying that the Lord grant them “security” in the houses of their husbands (Ruth 1:9).

Then, when she recognizes the Lord’s hand present in their lives, she takes the reins and tells Ruth that she herself needs to seek some “security” for Ruth. (Ruth 3:1)

Boaz and Naomi never actually speak to each other, but they speak the same language, and in chapter 3, they ask Ruth exactly the same question: “Who are you?”  and “How did things go?” Both are mi ‘at in Hebrew (Ruth 3:9, 16).

And, most importantly, both Boaz (Ruth 2:1) and Ruth (Ruth 3:11) are described as people of value, of worth (in Hebrew, ḥayil).

3. The art of story: Repeated themes

Repetition is a central way that stories help readers to recognize what is important. The Book of Ruth often highlights important themes through repetition.

The importance of food and famine, harvest and gleaning, meals and eating, is also seen in numerous repetitions. All of the scene transitions in the first 2 chapters are marked by this theme (Ruth 1:1, 6, 22; 2:1-2, 14, 17, 23).

The centrality of issues of family is made clear from the first chapter, which is marked by a plethora of family terms with multiple repetitions: wife, sons, husband, daughters-in-law, people, mother, daughters, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law.

The significance of Ruth’s immigrant identity is marked by the fact that she is almost always called “Ruth, the Moabite.” The underlying wish not to be an immigrant is emphasized in chapter 1 in the repeated use of the Hebrew word shuv, translated as “return,” “go back,” or “turn back” (Ruth 1: 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 21, and twice in 22).

Three other repeated themes mark the book of Ruth’s invited response to the issues of family, relationships to Moabites and others with immigrant status.

Underlying all right relationships is a strong sense of loyalty, commitment, and divine love.  This reality is emphasized in the 3 times repeated use of the all-important Hebrew notion of ḥesed.  This word is found in 3 of the book’s blessings (Ruth 1:8; 2:20; 3:10).

The final 2 central repetitions are also discussed elsewhere: the role of the next-of-kin and the theme of blessing.

The Hebrew word go’el (next-of-kin; redeem/er) as either a noun or a verb (as in redeem or buy back the land) actually occurs 21 times in the text of the Book of Ruth, first in Ruth 2:20, 6 times in chapter 3(once in 3:9; twice in 3:12; three times in 3:13), and 14 times in chapter 4 (once in 4:1, once in 4:3, five times each in 4:4 and 4:6 and once each in 4:8 and 4:14, though the repetition is difficult to see in the English rendering of the text).  In Ruth 4:14, the newly born child becomes Naomi’s next of kin, her redeemer.  The family is redeemed, redefined, includes and is made possible by Ruth, the Moabite.

All of these themes are gathered up, refined, and given depth in the 7 blessings of the book, perhaps 7 because of the sacredness of the number (Ruth 1:8-9; 2:4, 19, 20; 3:10; 4:11, 14).  Blessing, more than direct actions of God, shows us how God acts.  Individuals and communities together are the instruments of God’s presence.