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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Ruth - Introduction

At first sight Ruth is a delightfully simple tale of domestic life. It moves from sorrow to joy, from emptiness to fullness, largely through the initiative and resourcefulness of two women. This description, however, masks many intractable questions not only of date and purpose but of relationship to OT law and practice. In the prominence it gives to women, and its unconventional attitude to society, it resembles Esther, although contrasting with this in its overtly religious dimension. Although YHWH's active intervention in human life is acknowledged only twice ( 1:6; 4:13 ), the frequent invocation of the Name in blessing affirms that he is in ultimate control. Yet this aspect is deliberately muted; at times God seems not even ‘in the shadows’ (Campbell 1975 ), and twice significant events are attributed to chance ( 2:3; 3:18 ). Throughout it is a story of faithfulness (ḥesed) human and divine. Each of the blessings invoked is fulfilled ultimately through human agency.

The questions of date and purpose are interrelated. Uncertainty as to the one compounds the problems concerning the other. Arguments can be adduced for both a pre-exilic and a post-exilic date. In neither case are they conclusive and the matter remains unresolved. From a general consensus on linguistic grounds that it belongs to the post-exilic period and, despite its non-polemical tone, may have been a protest against the exclusivism of Ezra and Nehemiah, preference has moved now to a pre-exilic date on the grounds that the alleged Aramaisms are, with few exceptions, open to other explanations. Neither the fact that it is included among the mĕgillôt (the five scrolls) in the third section of the Hebrew canon, nor comparison with the attitude to foreigners in the book of Jonah, justifies assigning it to a late date. The setting of the story in the period of the Judges, which accounts for its position in the Christian canon, is, however, clearly remote from the author's own time ( 1:1; 4:7 ). If the concluding references to David are original they provide a terminus a quo for its written form and open the possibility that it may have had a political purpose in supporting David's claim to the throne, whether in his or in Solomon's time (Hubbard 1988 ). The acceptance of Moab as an appropriate refuge for a Judahite family, and of Ruth as the wife of a prominent Israelite, suggests a time prior to the growth of the intense hostility represented by Deut 23:3–6 . Whatever its original purpose, its position in the Christian canon introduces a note of hope after the negative anarchical tone of the end of Judges and restores woman, and the male-female relationship, to an honourable position after the sordid, misogynist events of Judg 19–21 .

In the HB the position of the book of Ruth varies. When it immediately follows Proverbs Ruth herself is to be seen as an example of the ‘capable wife’ (᾽ēšet ḥayil) of Prov 31 . In Judaism the book of Ruth is associated with the harvest celebration of Pentecost, the biblical Feast of Weeks, and the giving of the law.

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