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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
The beautiful, short-story like (only four chapters) book of Ruth, which Rabbi Sandmel calls “the most appealing book in Hebrew scripture,” is a refreshing contrast to the dismal book of Judges. While set “in the days when the judges ruled,” on the basis of its use of a later form of Hebrew Ruth is believed to have been written some time between 450 and 250 BCE. That there is included an explanation of a “custom in former times” indicates that the story was written sometime after that custom was no longer practiced. Sandmel describes Ruth as a “new version of an old story.”
In its depiction of peaceful community life Ruth takes a viewpoint which is more cultural than religious. When Yahve is mentioned it is almost in passing. Unlike the books that come before it in the OT, there is no concern with sacrifice, worship of gods other than Yahve, or conflict with non-Israelites. Deaths that occur are apparently due to natural causes. The writer of Ruth implicitly rejects Deuteronomy’s (23:3) prohibition against taking Moabites into the community as well as Ezra (10:1-5) and Nehemiah’s (13:23-27) harsh injunction against marriage with non-Jews. “Ruth reflects a post-exilic Jewish attitude at variance with that of Ezra and Nehemiah and thereby serves to restore a balance by expressing the opposite point of view from them on the subject of hospitality to aliens” (Samuel Sandmel, The Old Testament, p 493).
Ruth has none of the contradictions, inconsistencies, or disjointed narratives indicative of a composite nature in other biblical books. The relatively simple story is more character than action based. To escape a famine in Israel a married couple, Elimelech and Naomi, with their two sons moved to Moab where Elimelech died. The sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then the sons also died, leaving their wives childless. The famine in Israel ended and Naomi decided to return to her home in Bethlehem. Her widowed daughters-in-law wanted to go with her but she encouraged them to “return each of you to her mother’s house.” Orpah went “back to her people and her gods.” But Ruth, in the well known and beautiful passage, insisted on going with Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your god my god; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried” (1:17).
The two women arrived in Bethlehem, where they were warmly welcomed, at the beginning of the barley harvest. As the two women were impoverished, Ruth went out to gleam, to gather what was left in the fields after the reapers had passed through the one time allotted in Mosaic law. Boaz, “a man of wealth” who was a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband, heard about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and arranged for her to get extra shares of grain from his field. When Ruth came home with an unexpectedly large amount of barley, Naomi asked her where she had gleamed and learned about Boaz’s kindness. Ruth continued to gleam in Boaz’s fields until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.
With the harvest ended, threshing began. Naomi suggested that Ruth avail herself of the custom of levirate (“brother-in-law”) marriage in which a surviving kinsman (in Deuteronomy 25:5-6 the brother of a decreased man but there is evidence from non-biblical Near Eastern texts that other relatives could be involved) was obligated to continue the family line by marrying the widow.
Naomi told the younger woman, “Wash therefore, and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (3:3-4).
Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions. “At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.’ And he said, ‘May you be blessed by Yahve, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich’ “ (3:8-11).
Some commentators see indications of sexual activity in what was, whether literal or metaphorical, clearly a seduction. Boaz was very willing to take on his responsibility to Ruth, which also involved the purchase of land belonging to Naomi’s husband, but a nearer kinsman had first rights to the property. Promising to talk with the other kinsman, Boaz told Ruth to leave early in the morning before anyone could know that they had spent the night together and sent her home with six measures of barley.
Boaz sat down at the city gate, which was more than just an entrance to Bethlehem. In the ancient Near East city gates were a kind of public square where people hung out and transacted business. The kinsman came by and Boaz explained the situation. He was interested until Boaz informed him that in addition to buying the field from Naomi he would be buying Ruth “in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance” (4:5). As doing that would complicate the inheritance of his own line, the man declined, clearing the way for Boaz to marry Ruth. The agreement was sealed by what the text explains as “the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging” in which the two men formally stated their agreement after which they exchanged sandals.
The people at the gate witnessed the transaction, affirming the agreement and offering their blessing on the expected progeny, interestingly including a reference to another levirate union: “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (4:12). Perez was born from Tamar’s seduction, disguised as a harlot, of Judah, the father of her deceased husband (Genesis 38). He was also an ancestor of Boaz.
Ruth and Boaz had a son, who seems to have been a replacement of her sons for Naomi who “took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David” (4:16-17).
The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy of ten generations from Perez to David which resembles Genesis’ list of the ten generations from Seth to Noah. Boaz is the seventh generation in the book of Ruth’s genealogy; in Genesis’ list Enoch, “who walked with God” is in seventh place. David ends one list; Noah the other.
© 2021 James Moyers