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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through the Book of Ruth

The Prologue: A Family Dies (Ru 1, 1–5 )

A family from Bethlehem, which had been driven by hunger to Moab, is now left without any hope of progeny since the men of the family have recently died. This is a principal problem of the story: Naomi is left without husband or sons ( 1, 5 ). The author makes a special note of identifying the family's origin in Bethlehem of Judah ( 1, 1 ), noting more specifically that they were “Ephrathites from Bethlehem of Judah” ( 1, 2 ). This detail, emphasized as it was, certainly led those who first read the story of Ruth to think of the most famous of all Ephrathites: David, the son of Jesse (see 1 Sm 17, 12 ). Thus, the opening verses of the story hint at its eventual resolution.

The Geographical and Cultural Setting

The events recounted in these opening verses reflect conditions typical of life in Canaan. Because the region did not have a river system that made large‐scale irrigation possible, agriculture was completely dependent on rain. When the rainfall was inadequate, famine was the inevitable result. One way to cope was to move to areas unaffected by the famine—usually this meant Egypt (see Gn 12, 10; 26, 1 ). Moab was an unusual choice. It was located east of the Dead Sea and, like the lands to the west, it too was entirely dependent on rain for agricultural productivity. Presumably a drought that affected Bethlehem would have affected Moab as well. Also unusual is that no negative comments are made regarding the marriage of Naomi's sons to Moabite women. But these details also serve to prepare the reader for an even greater anomaly coming at the end of the story.

Childless widows were particularly vulnerable in the social and economic system of the societies of the ancient Near East. A husband and sons provided a woman with security. Naomi found herself without such protection in a foreign land. She bitterly lamented her fate (Ru 1, 13 ), but in an unusual move one of her daughters‐in‐law chose to ignore her own welfare and care for Naomi. Instead of attaching herself to a man to provide for her welfare, Ruth attaches herself to Naomi, who can offer her nothing.

The Motif of Emptiness

Naomi's “emptiness” is the principal problem of the story. With great artistry the author of Ruth weaves into the story a motif of emptiness, which sets the action of the story in motion and will be reversed by the end of the story. The emptiness of the land (famine) causes Naomi's family to leave the land. The emptiness of the land gives way to the emptiness of Naomi as she loses her husband and her sons. Naomi dismisses her daughters‐in‐law because her “emptiness” cannot be cured. She is too old to give birth again. Naomi's emptiness is accentuated when she contrasts her previous abundance with her present destitution ( 1, 21 ). The story ends with Naomi no longer empty. She takes Ruth's child to her breast and cares for him. The women of the neighborhood congratulate her: “A son has been born to Naomi” (Ru 4, 17 , literal translation).

Naomi and Ruth in Bethlehem: Emptiness and Uncertainty (Ru 1, 6–22 )

The length of this scene indicates its importance for the author of Ruth. Naomi decides to return home because the famine is over in the land of Israel. Also motivating her decision must be the realization that she will have a better chance of survival among her own people than as an Israelite widow living among Moabites. Naomi's words to her daughters‐in‐law accentuate the tragedy of her situation. She is too old to marry and can no longer bear children. She can hope for nothing. Her daughters‐in‐law share Naomi's desperate situation, but she advises them to return to their people. Among their own people they may be able to find husbands and thus secure their future. With Naomi there can be no future. Ruth's loyalty is shown in her refusal to abandon her mother‐in‐law in spite of the hopelessness of Naomi's future; she will stay with Naomi despite the prospect of poverty.

The Character of Ruth

By drawing out the hopelessness of Naomi's situation coupled with Ruth's refusal to leave her mother‐in‐law, the author highlights Ruth's character: she is faithful. While there is nothing wrong with Orpah's returning home, Ruth's virtue is shown in sharp relief by the contrasting actions of these two women. Ruth is willing to share the plight of Naomi. Ruth's character is spotlighted even more in its biblical context. She is not called by God. She receives no promises. No reward awaits her. She acts solely for the good of Naomi. Her loyalty will draw the attention of Boaz, which eventually will lead to the resolution of the problem facing Ruth and Naomi, and thus everything in the story depends on this young widow.

God's Presence in the Story

It is important to note that, in the story of Ruth, most often God is referred to in the blessings and oaths that are spoken by the main characters. Naomi blesses her two daughters‐in‐law ( 1, 8f ); Boaz blesses Ruth for her loyalty to Naomi ( 2, 12 ) and her good character ( 3, 10 ); Naomi blesses Boaz for his kindness to Ruth ( 2, 20 ); the blessing of fertility is bestowed upon Ruth by the citizens at the city gate ( 3, 10 ). All of these blessings are issued in God's name, but it is through the actions of the main characters that the blessings are fulfilled. God stands behind all as cause ( 4, 14 ), but God's activity is mediated by those who live faithful lives.

Other references to God in the story imply that God is the cause of all that happens. God is the one who has ended the famine in the land of Israel and filled it with food ( 1, 6 ). God is blamed for Naomi's destitution ( 1, 20f ); God is also responsible for Naomi's abundance at the end of the story ( 4, 14 ) by enabling Ruth to conceive and bear a child ( 4, 13 ). The hand of God is to be found in all that happens in the lives of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. But there are no miracles, no theophanies, no signs and wonders to illuminate Ruth's way. It is through the ordinary lives of ordinary people, who demonstrate extraordinary care for each other, that the divine is manifest.

Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi (I): A Meeting with Possibilities (Ru 2, 1–23 )

Ruth takes the initiative in this scene, requesting permission from her mother‐in‐law to glean in the fields. Picking the few stalks of grain left by the harvesters was one way that people without land were able to feed themselves. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy require that harvesters not be so thorough as to leave nothing for the poor (Lv 19, 9f; 23, 22; Dt 24, 9 ). Ruth, seemingly by chance, enters the fields of Boaz, a prominent relative of Naomi. Boaz has heard of Ruth's kindness to her mother‐in‐law, and sees to it that she is protected and allowed to gather a considerable amount of barley.

The Character of Boaz

The story depicts Boaz as generous and noble. He insists that Ruth glean only in his fields, he extends his protection to her, he provides her with food and water, and he sees to it that she will prosper in her gleaning. The motive for his behavior toward Ruth is her kindness and loyalty to Naomi. We see in his gracious response to Ruth's faithfulness that Boaz is a person of integrity and honor.

Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz (II): A Husband for Ruth (Ru 3, 1–18 )

Naomi does not want Ruth to remain a widow, so she decides to take advantage of the positive encounter between Ruth and Boaz. She suggests a plan to Ruth that could lead to marriage with Boaz. Although the writer uses euphemisms that reflect his culture's reticence about private matters, the sexual overtones of Ruth's actions are clear. Her encounter with Boaz on the threshing floor could have turned out differently, but Boaz's integrity and generosity led in the direction Naomi hoped: Ruth will have a husband.

The Climax: Boaz Acts (Ru 4, 1–12 )

The storyteller introduces a new wrinkle into his tale to complicate matters just before the denouement. For the first time in the story, Elimelech's land becomes an issue. Probably the story's first readers would have wondered when the storyteller was going to get around to dealing with this most important matter. Boaz assembles ten of the town's elders to witness how the matter of the land was going to be settled among Elimelech's relatives. The presence of the elders insured that the details of settlement became “public record.” An unnamed relative who had a prior claim on the land was willing to buy it back, thus making sure that Elimelech's land would stay “in the family.” Of course, doing so will benefit that man economically. But then Boaz adds that with the land came Ruth, Mahlon's widow. The land in question would pass to any child born of Ruth and the relative in question. It is at this point that he demurs and cedes his rights to Boaz. The storyteller implies that the unnamed relative was concerned solely about his interests, unlike Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, who, throughout the story, are concerned less about themselves and more about the welfare of others. With the tension brought on by this last complication, the storyteller can proceed to the “happy ending,” which has Ruth acquire a husband, Boaz acquire both a wife and Elimelech's land, and Naomi acquire a son who will fill her emptiness.

Levirate Marriage and Land Redemption

Some interpreters suggest that the marriage of Boaz and Ruth represents a variation of the levirate marriage. A levirate marriage was the marriage of a woman with the brother of her deceased husband (levir is the Latin word for “brother‐in‐law”). Such a union was mandated if the marriage was childless (Dt 25, 5–10 ). The practice developed to insure that the line of the deceased man would continue, in spite of the fact that he died before his wife bore him a child. Though Boaz claims Ruth as wife to raise up a family for her late husband, he is not her brother‐in‐law and thus the law of levirate marriage did not apply. The storyteller presents Boaz as going beyond his obligations in order to help two widows in need.

Land redemption was a strategy that developed to make sure that circumstances that forced a man to sell his land would not lead his family into a permanent state of poverty. According to Lv 25, 23–38 , it was the responsibility of a relative to buy the land before it was sold outside the family or to buy it back if it had already been sold. The land remained the property of the relative who bought it back until the Year of Jubilee, when its ownership reverted to the descendants of the man who was forced to sell it.

A Son for Naomi (Ru 4, 13–17 )

Ruth's marriage to Boaz is blessed with a child. Naomi's loss is replaced by Ruth's gain; the tragedy of death, with which the story opened, is balanced by the joy of new life. Notice the women of the village congratulate Naomi as if she were the mother: “A son had been born to Naomi” (Ru 4, 17 , literal translation). The storyteller thus solves the problem of Naomi's emptiness. The NAB translation obscures this point by calling the child Naomi's “grandson.” While the child indeed was Naomi's grandson, the text nonetheless shows Naomi acting as if she were the mother (Ru 4, 16 ) and being recognized as such by the women of her village (Ru 4, 17 ).

The Epilogue: A Family's Genealogy (Ru 4, 18–22 )

The story's epilogue takes the reader back to the prologue, which identified Naomi's family as “Ephrathites from Bethlehem” (Ru 1, 2 ) and thus informs the reader of the wider significance of this charming story of one family's problems. The most famous Ephrathite from Bethlehem was David, who, it turns out, was a descendant of Boaz and Ruth. Usually a genealogy serves to legitimate the status of the last person named. Here David, the last person named, serves to show the significance of what happened to three people from the village of Bethlehem for all Israel.

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