Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

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: Naomi hears the Lord has ended the famine; the harvests begin and continue; Ruth gleans; Boaz 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.

Genre

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 David 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 Balaam 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 righteous foreigners, a point emphasized once again by Matthew through the women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (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 widow 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 dreams 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 floor, much as Judah must recognize righteousness in the actions of Tamar in Genesis 38. Thus the women at the gate 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 kin

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 redeemer 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).

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