By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Book of Ruth is one of the shorter books of the Bible, but the story it tells is one of the most movingly ‘human’ in all of the Old Testament. However, how the story of Ruth should be interpreted is not an easy question to answer. Let’s delve deeper into the Biblical Book of Ruth to discover a world of outsiders, love, law, and mysterious customs involving shoes.
Before we come to the analysis, though, it might be worth summarising the plot of the story of Ruth as it’s laid out in the Bible. The Book of Ruth is thought to have been written some time between 450 and 250 BC.
Book of Ruth: summary
A man named Elimelech, from Bethlehem-Judah, left his hometown when a famine struck. He and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, left for Moab. Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two sons.
These two sons married Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. Ten years passed, and Mahlon and Chilion both died. Naomi decided to return to Judah, hearing that the famine had passed, but she entreated her sisters-in-law to remain in their homeland of Moab. After all, this was their home, and why should they accompany her back to her homeland now their husbands were dead? They have a house in Moab and will be provided for.
Although both women initially pledged to stay with Naomi, when she urged them to leave her, Orpah agreed. But Ruth stayed by Naomi’s side and vowed to accompany her back to Judah.
Back in Judah, there was wealthy relative of Naomi’s dead husband, a man named Boaz. Ruth went into the field to gather corn for the harvest, where she caught the eye of Boaz.
Boaz promised to treat Ruth, an outsider in the land of Judah, as an equal, and welcomed her. Ruth was overcome by his kindness, and asked what she, a stranger, had done to deserve it. Boaz replied that he had heard how she left behind her own parents in Moab to accompany her mother-in-law into a strange land.
Ruth went home to her mother-in-law that evening, and told her what had happened. Naomi told Ruth that Boaz was a near-kinsman, and as such he will protect and provide for them. Ruth went to Boaz that night and knelt at his feet. She told him she was his handmaid and they were kin.
Boaz replied that there was a man who was an even closer kinsman to her than he was, and this other man had, essentially, first refusal on whether he wished to marry Ruth. However, if this other man said he didn’t want to marry Ruth, Boaz declared he would happily do so. And he gave her six measures of corn to take back to Naomi as pledge.
Boaz called a counsel of elders, including this other kinsman of Ruth’s, and explained that Naomi had her dead husband’s parcel of land to sell, but that if the kinsman wished to claim it, he must also agree to marry Ruth.
There followed a strange custom involving a shoe, whereby a man ‘plucked off his shoe’ and handed it to his neighbour if he wished to forgo his claim to something. This was a kind of ‘testimony in Israel’ in those days, we are told, a legal ritual which sealed the deal.
So this other man took off his shoe and gave it to Boaz, signalling that he relinquished all claim to Ruth or her dead father-in-law’s land. Marrying Ruth would damage his own inheritance from his father (presumably for marrying a Moabite foreigner) so he declined. Boaz announced that he would marry Ruth, and they promptly got married, and Ruth had a son.
This son, we are told, in turn had a son named Jesse, who himself had a son, named David.
Book of Ruth: analysis
Many books of the Old Testament seem to have been written to counter the narrow nationalism of other books of the Old Testament. So the message of the Book of Jonah – in which the title character’s disdain for the people of Nineveh receives a sharp moral rebuke from God – functions as a sort of riposte to the Book of Obadiah. And we can analyse the Book of Ruth as a response, or counter-response, to those other stories in the Bible which endorse a nationalistic understanding of Israel.
Whichever interpretation of Ruth we choose to follow, we should bear in mind the key fact of the story, which is that Ruth is a Moabite who leaves her family and her own people behind to begin a new life, as the devoted companion to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, in the land of Judah.
The Dictionary of the Bible emphasises this aspect of the story, and suggests that Ruth’s loyalty to her adopted nation of Judah is important because Ruth is the ancestor of David, the great King of Israel. (Ruth is David’s great-grandmother.) So one ‘meaning’ for the Book of Ruth, and its significance for Judaism and Christianity, lies in its genealogical quality, in providing the story of David’s ancestry. If Ruth had never left Moab and followed Naomi to Judah, David would never have been born.
All of our lives hinge on such chance happenings or vagaries that occurred somewhere in our ancestral history, but for Jews and Christians the story of Ruth’s adoption of Judah as her new home, and her union with Boaz, possesses greater importance because her descendants would include King David of Israel.
Ruth is an idyllic romance, and one of only two books of the Bible named after women (the other one is Esther). But it would be wrong to offer a feminist interpretation of the story of Ruth which saw her as somehow bucking the patriarchal customs and laws of her time.
After all, the patriarchal laws binding women to men are still present her: Ruth may wish to marry Boaz, but he is intent on observing the law which gives Ruth’s closer kinsman first dibs on her, as it were. Both Ruth and Naomi are survivors in this patriarchal landscape, but they are nevertheless constrained by its laws and traditions.
We should view the Book of Ruth firmly as fiction: it’s a ‘short story’, essentially, some two millennia before the ‘short story’ came into existence as a recognised genre. But the details of the narrative are too neat to be strictly historical.
For instance, the names of Elimelech’s children, Mahlon and Chilion, literally mean ‘sickness’ and ‘wasting’ respectively; these strike us as unlikely names for a parent to give to their children, and given the fates of the two sons, their names seem far too pat. They chime symbolically, however, with the famine which drives Elimelech to leave Judah behind for Moab.