As I approached writing a First Reading post on Ruth, I believed it would be easy. The book of Ruth is very short, tells only one story, and contains nothing that will upset or frustrate the reader. Unlike literally every other book of the Old Testament before it, Ruth gives us only good examples. The people in this story demonstrate moral behavior, abiding love, true compassion, sincere loyalty, and godly honor. At no point in my reading of Ruth’s 4 chapters did my heart drop into upset, confusion, or anger. I didn’t have to wrestle with Ruth, so I thought I could just come here and write a short, sweet summary; something I could simply hammer out in an hour and then set aside for bigger, meatier, tougher books in our Bible.
But that would be a huge mistake. Paul tells us that all scripture is God-breathed (2Tim 3:16). I believe him. Because I believe him, I also believe that Ruth demands as much of my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual effort as the “difficult” books.
Reading Ruth is a joy and a relief after the violence and failure and depravity and dense law of the Torah, Joshua, and Judges, but we shouldn’t take that to mean that Ruth is supposed to be light, less important, or easy.
The book of Ruth is a gift, so let’s take the time to really appreciate it together for awhile.
As we start this new “First Reading” series, I find it necessary to go over the basics of why I’m here and what these series of posts are meant to accomplish. Remember that the purpose of these posts is to share my thoughts, questions, and perspectives as a first-time reader in this book of holy Scripture.
- This is not a scholarly commentary.
- This is not a study guide.
- I have exactly zero authority in the realm of biblical exegesis.
This is only a peek at my margin notes, a journal of my initial thoughts, a first confrontation of difficult passages, and any questions or conclusions I have drawn as a layperson in solitary study.
Get out your Bible and study the book of Ruth with me. Feel free to comment, share questions, or tell me stories about your own experiences as you read. As ever, by sharing this publicly, there is an implicit request for scholarly correction if and when I get things wrong.
Authorship: Ruth, like so many books of the Bible, is anonymous. All this means is that no author is declared in the writing. Tradition holds that the prophet Samuel was the author, and evidence in the text suggests an author contemporary to King David rather than someone from a time before or long after his rise and reign. The prophet Nathan, therefore, is another reasonable candidate.
Date of Writing/Date of Events: The events in Ruth take place during the time of the judges (Ruth 1:1). Due to the prominence of Moab in the story, most scholars believe the time of Ehud most credible. This would place the events in the story at c.1250 BC, which I personally think a bit early* given the narrative context. The date of authorship is most likely c.1000 BC/BCE. Because there is no mention of Solomon in Ruth, arguments for a later date of authorship are less credible.
*Amy’s Personal Opinion: One of the biggest problems that Old Testament chronologies run into is their insistence on placing the judges of Israel in a linear, one after another timeline. I see no reason for that after reading Judges. It makes far more sense to me, given the diversity of tribes from which the judges came and the different areas over which they had control, to ascribe significant overlap to the leadership of each judge.
The Western need to nail down exact timelines (which I most definitely share…oh, do I ever love precision dating, quantifiable data, and peer review) is uniquely post-Enlightenment thinking, and it’s a little ridiculous to burden Ancient Near Eastern literature, which had no such concerns, with our rigid and alien requirements.
Narrative Context: Ruth introduces the direct ancestry of King David (Ruth and Boaz are his great-grandparents). The story comes during a famine in Judah, during which a man and his family flee to Moab for better odds at finding food and a way to make a living. It is a time when Israel is fluctuating between obedience to God and disobedience, and this story takes place before the fall of Israel into total chaos and lawlessness. The time of Ehud or just afterward, when Moab and Israel are at peace makes sense. Ruth is the origin story of Judah’s rise and David’s rise, which will lead Israel into the time of Kings.
The Big Picture: Ruth is about love, loyalty, family honor, and the elevation of the tribe of Judah as the house of King David.
Chapter 1: This is What Love Looks Like
Verses 1-5 introduce us to the family of an Ephrathite named Elimelech. They have left their home in the land surrounding Bethlehem to find relief from a famine and come to settle in the land of Moab.
Elimelech dies, but his wife Naomi still has her two sons to provide and care for her in Moab. Each son marries a local Moabite woman, and the family goes on together in prosperity for ten years. But then tragedy strikes. The two sons of Naomi die prematurely and at the same time. We are not told what caused their deaths, but we are given a picture of what devastation this meant for Naomi and her daughters-in-law, named Orpah and Ruth. These three widowed women have no male heirs among them to claim land or a means of support. Without husbands or sons or fathers to care for them, not only must they grieve the loss of their sons and husbands, but they must also now despair over how they will continue to live.
Verses 6-14 show us a moving plea from Naomi to her daughters-in-law. It is a picture of familial harmony and self-sacrificial love. A mother-in-law looks at her beloved dauthers-in-law and, against her own interests, urges them to return to their families in Moab to get another chance at marriage.
Marriage means protection. It means food, safety, support, and social position. Being a widow in this time and place meant poverty and risk of abuse, rape, or enslavement. It meant lack of protection, and loss of social status. It was a miserable and desperately precarious position, and Naomi realizes that even though she is an old woman without hope of a new husband, her “daughters” are not. Loath as she is to part from them, she urges them to leave her and go search for a new chance on their own.
Notable here is that both daughters-in-law initially say, “no,” and with a great deal of emotion. Neither woman wishes to part from Naomi. This is clearly a loving bond they’ve built together. It is a lesson in imagery that just screams from the page, even for us today, about how we should love one another in our families.
Orpah is convinced when Naomi pleads with them a second time. She weeps with Naomi and Ruth, says her farewells, and goes back to her Moabite parents.
Ruth, on the other hand, is having none of it.
Verses 15-22 show us Ruth’s response to Naomi. Ruth is even more self-sacrificial here than Naomi was. The stakes are higher for her. For Naomi, sending her daughters-in-law away was a magnanimous gesture of love, but Naomi stood only to lose their company and support by letting them go. Naomi’s future prospects are not significantly changed whether her daughters stay or leave.
Ruth, on the other hand, is still a woman of vital age with every reasonable prospect of finding a new husband and making a new family. Seen in that light, Ruth’s loyalty to Elimelech’s widow, her own dead husband’s mother, is a very big deal.
Ruth tells her that she will not leave under any circumstance. Her famous “whither thou goest, I will go” response is in verse 16, but Ruth goes even further. “May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us.” This is covenant language. We say these words when we marry, do we not? “Until death parts us, we will be one.” Ruth is telling her mother-in-law that love and honor and loyalty are more important than security and comfort; she is telling Naomi that she has faith that staying together will be the right course. They will figure this out together.
Naomi has received word that the crops are coming in and the famine is over in Judah, so the two women mourn the loss of Orpah and then travel together all the way from Moab back to Bethlehem in Judah. It is a hopeful picture of two women who have suffered tremendous loss, leaning on one another and having faith that God will show them a way out of their misery.
Thanks for reading with me! I’ll come back next time in chapter 2. We’ll go over the concept of a family’s “redeemer,” and what all of that meant under Mosaic Law.