Ruth - Introduction
Ruth is an exquisite short story that instructs and delights. The three main characters—Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz—and the pastoral landscape in which they move come to life with the deftest of verbal strokes. Four chapters of elegant Hebrew prose transport Ruth and Naomi from sorrow to triumphant joy by means of dramatic dialogues, suspense, extended word play, and intricate compositional symmetries. The book's verbal sophistication suggests that its author was a literate member of the upper classes—a court scribe, perhaps. At the same time, the folktale patterns and motifs provide evidence of the story's origins in the oral tales enjoyed and embellished by ordinary Israelites as they raised their families and worked the fields.
The dilemmas faced by two women left destitute and isolated by the deaths of their husbands and sons are the focus of the plot. The turning point in their fortunes occurs when Ruth takes advantage of an Israelite legal tradition that allowed foreigners, widows, and the poor to gather grain during the harvest (Lev 19.9–10; 23.22; Deut 24.19–22 ). In the fields of rural Israel, which demanded the labor of men and women alike, the socially mandated boundaries separating the worlds of men and women lost their rigidity. In that context Ruth encounters Boaz, her future husband. The themes of life and fertility evoked so richly by the harvest scenes carry over to the final chapter of the book when Naomi embraces the newborn son of Ruth and Boaz.
The book ends with a genealogy and the delightful revelation that Ruth of Moab is the greatgrandmother of King David himself. Early Christian tradition concerning the ancestry of Jesus names only four women (three of them non-Israelite): Mary, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth (Mt 1.5 ). Rabbinic tradition celebrates Ruth the Moabite as the model proselyte (convert). Christian Bibles place the book of Ruth between Judges and Samuel, reflecting the historical context of the story. In Jewish tradition, however, Ruth is the liturgical reading for the harvest festival of Shabuot/Weeks, reflecting the book's agricultural setting. Consequently, it is grouped with the other festival scrolls (the Megillot), including Esther, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations.
Although the story is set “in the days when the judges ruled” (ca. 1200–1025 BCE), the date of Ruth's composition remains unresolved. On the one hand, a date during the monarchy is suggested by the book's obvious interest in celebrating the ancestry of King David, whose descendants continued to rule until the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Equally pronounced, however, are the story's frequent reminders that its heroine is not an Israelite. Indeed, the storyteller suggests that Boaz's gracious treatment of Ruth the Moabite is unusual as well as exemplary. This insistence on an inclusive attitude toward foreigners suggests to many scholars a date of composition in the fifth century BCE, when the issue of intermarriage between Israelites and non‐Israelites had become extremely controversial (see Ezra 9.1; Neh 13.1 ). Whatever its date, however, Ruth is not a polemical book. The values it proclaims—loyalty, love of family, and generosity toward strangers—are universal and timeless.