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

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Commentary on Ruth

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( 1:1–5 )

The references to time and place (v. 1 ) have a significance beyond the simply chronological and geographical. They point to a time of anarchy (Judg 21:25 ) from which Ruth's descendant, David, will deliver Israel, and to a foreign land outside the covenant, yet within which God works out his purpose. The contrast between Ruth, this Moabite heroine through whom Israel's future is secured, and the Moabite women who led Israel into idolatry on their journey into the promised land (Num 25:1–3 ), cannot have escaped either the author or the readers of this narrative. The intimate relationship of Ruth and Boaz, with its promise of a glorious future for Israel under David, redeems the apostasy and degradation of the earlier incident.

From conventional beginnings with its focus on Elimelech and his sons, the narrative quickly becomes a woman's story. Through bereavement and barrenness (v. 5 ) it appears as a story without a future. But the death of sons at the story's beginning is counterbalanced at the end by a son whose birth holds promise of a future, not only for the family concerned but for the nation ( 4:14–17 ).

( 1:6–13 )

Naomi's initiative marks a new beginning. But the real initiative is YHWH's in showing his care for his people by ‘giving them food’ (v. 6 , in Hebrew an alliterative phrase, lātēt lāhem lāḥem). This is the first of only two references in the whole narrative to YHWH's direct intervention in human life. In both instances he acts to secure the future, first by the provision of food, and second by the conception of a child (see 4:13 ). The sixfold repetition in this section of the verb ‘return, turn back’ (šûb) indicates a keynote of these verses. With v. 8 the dialogue begins. Naomi's command to her daughters-in-law, ‘Go back’, is repeated in vv. 11–12 in a more peremptory way. The expression ‘mother's house’ is to be noted. It occurs elsewhere in contexts of love and marriage (cf. Gen 24:28; Song 3:4; 8:2 ). In general, however, a widow returned to her father's house (Gen 38:11; Lev 22:13 ), but the death of Ruth's father is not implied (cf. 2:11 ). Naomi's horizons are restricted to the idea that ‘security’ (v. 9 ) is to be found only in marriage, a thought which continues through vv. 11–13 . It is debatable whether or not the idea of levirate marriage (Lat. levir, ‘brother-in-law’; see Deut 25:5–6 ) is present here. In a strict sense this was the responsibility of a dead man's brother within a tightly knit family unit. Future sons of Naomi's would be but half-brothers to the dead. Her words are better understood as an outburst of hopeless despair and possibly self-pity. The ambivalence of Naomi's character already becomes apparent. Does her instruction to her daughters-in-law arise from genuine concern for their future, or is it a cynical rejection of them in despair? The alternatives turn on the meaning of the ambiguous v. 13b , whether it expresses self-pity, ‘it has been far more bitter for me than for you’ (NRSV, taking the Hebrew preposition min to indicate comparison), or altruistic concern, ‘it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake’ (RSV). YHWH is regarded as the source both of blessing as reward for meritorious action (v. 8 ), and of catastrophe which, however, is not necessarily regarded as punishment (v. 20 ).

( 1:14–18 )

portrays the depth of Ruth's commitment to Naomi and to YHWH. The terminology of v. 16 is reminiscent of marriage vows (cf. Gen 2:24 ) and of covenant making (Ex 6:7; Lev 26:12 ). Ruth's action demands comparison with that of Abraham who left his homeland with promise of a future; Ruth at this moment has no promise and no future. Naomi's silence is significant. Nowhere does she respond to Ruth's devotion. Ruth's allegiance to YHWH is signified by the form of her oath (v. 17 ). Her use of the name YHWH here, and here only, implies renunciation of Chemosh, god of Moab, and the aligning of herself with Israel.

( 1:19–22 )

The deficiencies of Naomi's character are exposed. She defines ‘full’ and ‘empty’ (v. 21 ) simply in terms of male relatives. In fact, she left for Moab not ‘full’ but famine stricken; she returned to Israel not empty but with Ruth's remarkable devotion.

The narrative in this chapter is skilfully structured and powerful in its simplicity. From famine (v. 1 ) it moves to harvest (v. 22 ), from Moab to Bethlehem. It began with Elimelech; it ends with Naomi's story. There is both pathos and irony. Despite Ruth's extraordinary avowal of loyalty to Naomi and her God, choosing a future without promise or hope, she is ignored by Naomi and the townswomen in Bethlehem. She is still designated a foreigner (v. 22 ) even though it is with her that the future lies.

( 2:1–7 )

The sequence of events is interrupted by a circumstantial clause (v. 1 ) which supplies details germane to the story as it unfolds. Boaz is better described here as ‘friend’ rather than ‘kinsman’, for mōda῾ (a rare word) is not strictly a kinship term but refers to acquaintance or familiarity (cf. Prov 7:4 , ‘intimate friend’). The vocalized Hebrew text differs here from the consonantal text which indicates a more common word of comparable meaning (mĕyudda῾; cf. 2 Kings 10:11; Ps 55:14 ). Boaz is bound to Naomi by friendship with Elimelech, as well as by ties of kinship as members of the same clan (mišpāḥâ), an intermediate grouping between the smaller family unit (‘father's house’) and the larger tribe. The phrase translated ‘a prominent rich man’ (gibbōr ḥayil) signifies, in some instances, a man of military prowess (Judg 6:12; 1 Sam 16:18 ) as well as wealth (2 Kings 15:20 ). An element of physical prowess is not to be excluded too readily from this portrayal of Boaz (cf. LXX, ‘powerful in strength’).

Ruth had for 10 years been the wife of an Israelite ( 1:4 ) yet still she is reckoned an outsider and designated as ‘the Moabite’ (vv. 2, 6 ). The situation at the beginning of ch. 1 is reversed. It is Ruth now, not Naomi, who is a widow without family in a foreign country. Thus she claims the right of the poor, enshrined in law, to glean at harvest (Lev 19:9–10 ). Ruth's arrival on Boaz's land (v. 3 ; the picture is of unfenced strips of land with various owners) is attributed to chance (miqreh). There is no overt intervention here by YHWH in the course of events (contrast 1:6 ), yet the frequent invocation of his name in blessing throughout the narrative ( 2:4; cf. 2:12, 20; 3:10; 4:14 ) affirms his ultimate responsibility in human affairs. The greeting of v. 4 is a traditional one (see Ps 129:8 ). The nature of Boaz's question, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ (v. 5 ), reflects the assumptions of the patriarchal society of the time. The answer identifies Ruth impersonally, not by name but by her foreign origins and her relationship to Naomi.

( 2:7 )

presents two difficulties, in v. 7a an apparent disjunction with the following narrative in v. 15 ; in v. 7b an exegetical problem arising from the ambiguity of the Hebrew. As regards the latter, NRSV ‘without resting even for a moment’ (following the LXX) is to be compared with REB ‘she has hardly had a moment's rest in the shelter’ (a more literal rendering of the Heb.; cf. NIV). Either way Ruth's unstinting activity is emphasized. The former relates to her request to glean ‘among the sheaves’ (v. 7a , an advance on v. 2 ) which fits awkwardly with v. 15 where this is clearly an outstanding privilege accorded to her by Boaz, not a matter of right. Sasson (1989) attempts to resolve this difficulty by understanding v. 7b , ‘she has been on her feet from early this morning until now’, to refer not to Ruth's untiring gleaning but to her patient waiting for her request to be granted, a privilege outside the competence of the overseer and finally granted by Boaz himself only in v. 15 . Two considerations, however, militate against this view: (1) it is unrealistic to assume that a woman in Ruth's needy circumstances would refrain from gleaning in the customary way while requesting permission for an uncertain privilege; (2) it disregards the explicit statement that she ‘gleaned in the field behind the reapers’ (v. 3 ). A possible solution consists in emending bā῾ŏmārîm (‘sheaves’) in v. 7 to bā῾ămîrîm (‘swathes’; cf. NEB), thus creating a clear distinction from v. 15 . Some prefer to omit v. 7a following the Vulgate and Syriac.

( 2:8–16 )

This section is dominated by the first encounter between Ruth and Boaz, the main characters in the narrative. Ruth's status above that of a servant is acknowledged by Boaz in relieving her of the menial task of drawing water (v. 9 ; the vessels would be either large clay pots or goatskins). Boaz's protection of Ruth (v. 9 ), ‘I have ordered the young men not to touch you’, contains echoes of the divine protection afforded to Sarah (Gen 20:6 ) and Rebekah ( 26:11 ). Ruth's response plays on the verb ‘acknowledge’ (root n-k-r) and the noun ‘foreigner’ (nokrî), a category of persons distinct from the ‘resident alien’ (gēr) who had legal rights of protection within the community.

Boaz alone, in contrast to Naomi, appreciates the cost of Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law (v. 11 ). The motif of reward (v. 12 ) has occurred already in 1:8 . The figure of YHWH's protective wings (kānāp) derives either from bird imagery (Deut 32:11; Isa 31:5 ), a figurative description of deities found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, or from the cherubim in the sanctuary, symbolizing YHWH's presence, which provided a place of refuge in times of need (Ps 36:7; 57:1 ). The combining of YHWH's blessing and Boaz's favour in vv. 12–13 is significant. Only YHWH can pay her ‘wages in full’ (maśkurtēk šĕlēmâ; NRSV ‘full reward’), but Boaz himself is to be the agent of this blessing for under his ‘skirts’ (kānāp) Ruth will eventually find security ( 3:9 ). Behind Ruth's bland words ‘you have…spoken kindly’ (literally ‘to speak to the heart’, v. 13 ) lies a more ambivalent meaning; in some contexts this expression signifies the tender wooing of a lover (Hos 2:14 ). The narrative is rich in such ambiguities which foreshadow the outcome of the story. The overwhelming generosity and superabundance of Boaz's provision for Ruth (vv. 14–16 ) is reminiscent of YHWH's unstinting provision for his people (Ps 81:10; cf. also 1:6 ).

( 2:17–23 )

The picture in v. 17 is of grain beaten out with a stick (cf. Judg 6:11 ). The weight of an ephah is unknown. Although a surprisingly large quantity to result from gleaning, it was not more than Ruth could carry home—possibly, but by no means certainly, about 25 kilos.

The most significant aspect of Boaz's relationship to Naomi and Ruth is now disclosed (v. 20 ). He is a ‘kinsman redeemer’ (gō᾽ēl; Lev 25:25, 47–9 ). v. 21 has a playful, humorous touch. Boaz's instruction, ‘keep close to my young women’ (v. 8 ), becomes on Ruth's lips, ‘keep close to my young men’. Naomi responds with an appropriate warning!

The chapter's close marks the end of harvest (June) and the start of a new uncertain future. Where will provision be found? Once again the initiative is Naomi's (cf. 1:6 ).

(ch. 3 )

Unlike chs. 1 and 2, ch. 3 has no public aspect. It begins and ends with private conversation between Ruth and Naomi, and pivots on the intimate scene between Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor.

( 3:1–5 )

Naomi continues her efforts to secure Ruth's, and with it her own, future by the only means she understands, namely marriage (cf. 1:9 ). To this end she plans an extraordinary and entirely unconventional scheme, although whether from genuine concern for Ruth or from self-interest is unclear. Certainly its outcome is to her own advantage ( 4:15 ). The ambivalence of Naomi's character remains unresolved. The instruction to Ruth to wash, perfume herself, and put on her ‘best clothes’ (an interpretative rendering of ‘cloak’, simlâ) may suggest deliberate preparation as a bride (v. 3 ). There is a hint of unconscious irony in Naomi's words, ‘[Boaz] will tell you what to do’ (v. 4 ). In the event it is Ruth who tells Boaz what to do (v. 9 ). In Naomi's eyes Ruth is merely passive and unquestioningly obedient; in her dealings with Boaz she proves herself independent and resourceful (cf. 2:11 ).

( 3:6–14 )

This dramatic scene is couched in tantalizingly obscure language, perhaps deliberately so. It is unclear whether the expression ‘uncover his feet’ (vv. 4, 8 ) implies sexual intercourse. That a threshing floor with its piles of grain afforded considerable privacy is evident from its use as a haunt of prostitutes (Hos 9:1 ). Moreover the word ‘feet’ (raglaim) occurs in some instances as a euphemism for ‘genitals’ (cf. Isa 6:2 ). Yet the word used here signifies rather ‘the place of his feet’ (margĕlôt; see v. 14 ), hence the REB rendering, ‘the covering at his feet’, is to be preferred to the NRSV. Nevertheless, sexual overtones are undoubtedly present both in the repeated use of the verb ‘lie’ (šākab, vv. 4, 7, 8, 13, 14 ) and in Ruth's request, ‘spread your skirt [literally “wings”; cf. 2:12 ] over your servant’, a highly unconventional proposal of marriage (cf. Deut 22:30; 27:20; Ezek 16:8 ). Far from finding this morally offensive, Boaz gives Ruth his blessing and reaffirms the public regard for her as ‘a worthy woman’ (v. 11 , ᾽ēšet ḥayil; cf. Prov 31:10 ). Yet the unconventional nature of her behaviour is implied by the secrecy which Boaz urges (v. 14 ). There is no suggestion that Ruth is a woman of loose morals. Her action is motivated by the fact that Boaz is ‘next-of-kin’ (gō᾽ēl, v. 9 ).

This, however, raises acutely the question of the relationship of the book of Ruth to OT law, for nowhere else in the OT are the obligations of a gō᾽ēl said to include marriage. His duties were the restoration of property to his impoverished kin and the redemption of their persons from slavery (Lev 25:25, 47–9 ). The gō᾽ēl's responsibility in the matter of Elimelech's property is not made specific until 4:3–4 . The focus here appears to be solely on Ruth's marriage. Yet for the story to have credibility Ruth's request must have appeared reasonable. Indeed Boaz does not question it. It may be that, in different areas, local practice varied and that the laws of Leviticus were formulated in order to regulate the matter, or the term gō᾽ēl is used here in a less technical sense. What is involved here is not to be confused with levirate marriage, an obligation imposed only upon the brother of a dead man and then only in the case of brothers living together in a closely knit family unit (Deut 25:5 ). Whereas the refusal to undertake the obligation of levirate marriage was regarded as a grave dereliction of duty (cf. Gen 38:14, 26; Deut 25:7–10 ), this was not so in Ruth's case. Marriage to her was clearly a voluntary undertaking (v. 13 ).

The meaning of Boaz's statement in v. 10 is not entirely clear. The ‘first instance’ of Ruth's loyalty was her selfless devotion in leaving homeland and family for Naomi's sake ( 2:11 ). ‘The last instance’, v. 10b implies, relates to her single-minded commitment to build up Naomi's family by avoiding other relationships. On these grounds Boaz pledges himself to fulfil Ruth's request (v. 11 ). With v. 12 (where there is a slight dislocation of the Heb.) an element is introduced into the story of which neither Naomi nor Ruth appear to have been aware, the existence of a yet closer relative.

( 3:15–18 )

The themes of emptiness and fullness, prominent in Naomi's lament in 1:21 , recur in these last verses. Naomi's physical emptiness is relieved, but this is but the prelude to the satisfying of her deeper need. Naomi had the first word in this chapter. Now she has the last word. Boaz's mention of the closer relative has introduced an element of uncertainty into her carefully conceived plan. Once again the element of chance is taken into account as she bids Ruth wait to see ‘how the matter will fall’ (v. 18 ). There is no overt reference here to Yahweh's intervention or direction, implicit though it has been in the several references to his name in blessing. The emphasis throughout falls on the human obligation to act according to loyalty (ḥesed).

( 4:1–6 )

Action moves now from the private to the public arena and hence to exclusively male participants and the arrival of the unnamed next-of-kin, known only as ‘so-and-so’ (pĕlōnî ᾽almōnî), a deliberately shadowy figure. The area inside the city gate, the traditional place for executing business, is the scene of a double legal transaction, the redemption of Elimelech's land and the marriage of Ruth. The exact nature of the relationship between these two issues is unclear, and this uncertainty may perhaps account both for a slight dislocation in the Hebrew of v. 5 and, more significantly, for the disjunction between the consonantal text and its vocalized form. The consonantal text is represented by the NRSV, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite’; in contrast the vocalic text, represented by the REB, reads, ‘On the day you take over the field from Naomi, I take over the widow, Ruth the Moabite.’ Either way, the mention of this young woman of child-bearing age complicates the situation. Up to this point mention had been made only of Naomi (v. 3 ). Ruth's prospective child, however, would inherit the land and thus disadvantage the family of the unnamed kinsman. It is this new factor in the situation that accounts for his sudden change of mind from unqualified agreement (v. 4 ) to instant refusal (v. 6 ).

A number of unanswered questions remain: why did Ruth glean as one of the landless poor if the family was already in possession of land, and why was the kinsman not aware of the existence of property (cf. 2 Kings 8:3–6 )? These are not the narrator's concern.

( 4:7–12 )

Although the marriage in question does not accord with the regulations of a strictly levirate marriage, its purpose, ‘to maintain the dead man's name on his inheritance’ (vv. 5, 10 ), is expressed in identical terms (lĕhāqîm šēm; cf. Deut 25:7 ). Nevertheless there are striking differences between the transaction described here and the procedures set out in Deut 25:5–10 . There the removal of the sandal by the rejected widow, accompanied by spitting in the reluctant brother-in-law's face, was a potent sign of his disgrace; here the bestowal of the sandal by its wearer is the solemn confirmation of a transaction.

The amount of space proportionate to the whole narrative which is devoted to this legal transaction emphasizes its importance in the story. The agreement concerning both the property and the marriage is ratified by a properly constituted group of elders (v. 2 ) and by the people (v. 11 ). Ruth's relations with Boaz which began furtively and unconventionally are publicly acknowledged. Theirs is no illicit liaison, and Ruth is no longer an outsider, the Moabite. Significantly the blessing (v. 11 ) compares her to Rachel and Leah, the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. v. 12 further associates her with Tamar, like Ruth a foreigner who, by unconventional means, secured the future of a line threatened with extinction (Gen 38 ). The clan named after her son Perez rose eventually to a degree of prominence (Neh 11:4–6; 1 Chr 27:3 ). Is there a hint here that the speakers knew of Ruth's unconventional behaviour at the threshing floor? Thus Ruth was not the first foreign woman with a place in the genealogy of the royal Davidic line.

( 4:13–22 )

Now, for only the second time in the narrative, YHWH intervenes, this time in enabling Ruth to conceive (cf. 1:6 ). Yet, from v. 14 to the end of the book, Ruth is relegated to the shadows, regarded as little more than a surrogate mother for Naomi's child. Although no longer termed ‘the Moabite’ she is still an outsider. The story ends as it began with Naomi, empty through bereavement of husband and sons, filled now by the birth ‘to her’ of a male child (v. 17 ). The identity of the gō᾽ēl (v. 14 ) is ambiguous, referring perhaps to Boaz through whom Naomi's future has been secured, or more probably, in view of v. 15 , to the newborn child. A woman still needs a male gō᾽ēl. Yet the response of the women (v. 15 ) puts the importance of sons in perspective; Ruth's love for Naomi is of more value than seven sons (cf. 1 Sam 1:8 ). But thereafter the focus is on Naomi and the child. Ruth is ignored. The concluding genealogy is entirely male. Yet the remarkable fact is that the title of the book bears Ruth's name.

Although the book of Ruth is often termed a love story, the only reference to ‘love’ occurs in v. 15 , not between Ruth and Boaz but between Ruth and Naomi, unreciprocated though it was on the older woman's part. The women who shared Naomi's distress ( 1:19–21 ) share her joy, and, in the only instance of its kind in the OT, name the child (v. 17 ). Elsewhere this is a function of the parents alone.

Whether vv. 17b and 18–22 are an original part of the narrative is open to question. It is, however, arguable on literary grounds that the names of the genealogy form a counterpart to the tragic names of ch. 1 . From a tale of death and bereavement they point to a glorious future. In the canonical context their importance lies in giving the story a wider significance than the purely domestic, and in introducing the promise of hope after the despair with which the book of Judges ends.

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