Introductory Issues in Ruth
Famine, grain, and fullness
Food plays a major role in the book of Ruth. It begins ironically with famine in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “house of food.” Each subsequent scene transition is marked by a mention of grain or food: NaomiThe mother-in-law of Ruth More hears the Lord has ended the famine; the harvests begin and continue; RuthThe great-grandmother of David More gleans; BoazHusband of Ruth and great-grandfather of David. More shares a meal with Ruth and sends grain home to Naomi; Ruth shares food and grain with Naomi. This imagery helps the reader consider the movement of the entire book from famine to birth and fullness. The movement occurs both in the life of Naomi and in the life of the entire nation, who move in this book from the period of the judges to the time of the kings. Readers are invited to consider how and why life moves from emptiness to fullness, including the role of God and the loving behavior of ordinary people.
GenreA genre is a type or category of something, often literature. Form criticism (see) begins with sorting biblical literature into various genres. More
The book of Ruth is best read as a biblical short story told about Israel’s ancestors, much like the stories about Joseph. The details are important not so much for their historical accuracy as for what they tell us about how God works through ordinary people for the good of all. The major historical claim is that DavidSecond king of Israel, David united the northern and southern kingdoms. More had a Moabite great-grandmother.
Israel’s relationship with Moab
Moab was one of Israel’s most hated enemies. When Israel was wandering in the wilderness in Numbers 21-33, Moab refused to give the people food and passage through their land. They even hired BalaamA soothsayer who blessed Israel at the end of the wilderness wanderings. More to curse Israel. For this reason Moabites were not allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3-5). In the book of Ruth, when Elimelech and his family went to sojourn in Moab and especially when his sons married Moabite women, the ancient reader would have found this very questionable, even treasonous behavior. Ruth, in the book, is always spoken of as Ruth the Moabite, to remind the reader of her nationality. Yet through her loyalty and generosity, Ruth is shown to be a worthy woman (3:11). She is compared to the matriarchs of Israel (4:11) and becomes the instrument of Naomi’s fulfillment (4:15). Moreover, David is shown to have a Moabite great-grandmother, thereby inviting readers to consider the value and importance of righteousA righteous person is one who is ethical and faithful to God’s covenant. Righteousness in the Old Testament is an attitude of God; in the New Testament it is a gift of God through grace. In the New Testament righteousness is a relationship with God… More foreigners, a point emphasized once again by MatthewA tax collector who became one of Jesus’ 12 disciples More through the women mentioned in the genealogyGenealogy involves the study and tracing of families through the generations – in short, family history. One genealogy in Genesis traces the nations descended from Noah. In the New Testament Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham, while Jesus’ genealogy in Luke goes… More of JesusJesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God’s saving act for humanity More (Matthew 1:1-17).
The levirate system of insuring family lines
In ancient Israel, continuing the family line was of paramount importance, especially in order to insure that family property stays in the family. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 presents the law of the levirate whereby the childless widowA widow is a woman whose spouse has died, often plunging her into poverty and putting her in a vulnerable position in society. Jesus, in his concern for the poor, regards widows with compassion and concern. More of a deceased brother is given in marriage to the living brother. The firstborn son of the new union continues the dead brother’s name and thus inherits the property. Additionally, the widow is not left without family. When Naomi loses her husband and sons, she dreamsDreams often have potency and predictive power in the Bible, for they were seen as messages from God. In the Old Testament Joseph dreamed about the seven fat and lean years. In the New Testament Joseph dreamed about escaping to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. More aloud to her daughters-in-law about such a possibility and then dismisses it as impossible (Ruth 1:12-24). Ironically, Boaz, in chapter 4, makes use precisely of this system to claim Ruth and make possible the birth of Obed. Though not technically a brother, Boaz stretches the law to apply to the next-of-kin, thus fulfilling the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
The life of a foreign woman
An unmarried, childless foreign woman living in Israel, outside of the protection of her father’s home, would have been an outcast–particularly a woman from an enemy country such as Moab. She would have had no status and no means of making a living except possibly prostitution. In fact, one of the Hebrew words for “prostitute” is the very word for “foreign woman” that Ruth applies to herself (2:10). But Ruth chooses a different way. She first gleans the grain left for the poor, and then she lays claim to a family connection with Boaz, risking being mistaken for a prostitute. The reader, like Boaz, must see nobility rather than shame in her actions at the threshing floorA threshing floor is a location where farmers thresh grain. Threshing is the process of beating grain, such as wheat and oats, to separate out the chaff. Some of the action in the book of Ruth takes place on a threshing floor. More, much as JudahJudah was the name of Jacob’s fourth son and one of the 12 tribes. More must recognize righteousness in the actions of Tamar in Genesis 38. Thus the women at the gateGates are openings in walls or fences for entrance and departure. In the Bible (as in Ruth and the prophets) the city gate was a commercial center where business and social transactions took place. In Amos the gate is the location of the law court… More compare Ruth to Tamar (Ruth 4:12).
The life of an Israelite widow
Widows in Israel did not have an easy life. They are most often grouped together with orphans, sojourners, and the poor, all groups on the fringes of society that need protection. They were frequently considered objects to be pitied and burdens on society, particularly if they were childless as well. Widows possibly felt some level of guilt for what had befallen them. Thus Naomi, renaming herself Mara, which means “bitter,” identifies herself as empty and deserted by God (1:20-21). And yet in the book of Ruth, the two widows, Naomi and Ruth, become the active agents of positive change, showing that God uses unexpected people in unexpected ways.
The role of the next of kinThe next of kin is a person’s closest living relative, and is usually defined as the closest living blood relative. In the book of Ruth, which deals with family relationships, Naomi (after the death of her husband and sons) returns home to live with Boaz,… More
The “next of kin” in ancient Israel was called a go’el, which can also be translated “redeemer.” This nearest relative or redeemer was intended to protect the property and honor of the family and also to act the part of the “redeemer” in the levirate system of marriage by marrying a dead brother’s widow and having a child in his name. In the final two chapters of the book of Ruth, this Hebrew word for “redeemer/next-of-kin/redeem” (appearing both as a noun and a verb) occurs twenty-one times. The issue is who will redeem/buy back/act as next of kin for Ruth, Naomi, and ultimately for Israel. Boaz first comes forward as the dependable redeemerA redeemer is someone who literally buys back, wins back, or frees from distress. The Hebrew term for redeemer (go’el) means to deliver or rescue. It may be a person or God who performs the act of redemption. More rather than the nearest next of kin. In the final use of go’el in the book of Ruth, the women apply it to the child born to Ruth, declaring that the Lord has not left Naomi without a next of kin (4:14).