It is not difficult to account for the appeal of this short book. As an example of storytelling alone it has outstanding merit, with its symmetry of form and vivid characterization, but above all it is a book with a message. When Naomi was finding life bleak and pointless, Ruth chose to stand by her mother-in-law rather than leave the older widow to face the journey into the future all alone. Tragedy in Moab led to a happy ending in Bethlehem, and selfless loyalty was rewarded. God overruled events to bring love and security to those who trusted him, while at the same time weaving their lives into his purpose for the world. God remained hidden, but was nevertheless at work in the ordinary affairs of daily life, fulfilling his promises to his people.
Many attempts have been made to classify the book of Ruth according to the categories of modern European literature. It has been regarded in turn as a novella, an idyll and a historical novel, all of which imply a large fictional element. In an attempt to set the book against a Near Eastern background, other scholars have suggested that it had its origins in cultic mythology, but without producing convincing evidence. The book itself, with its opening words, ‘In the days when the judges ruled’, and its concluding genealogy ending with King David, imply historical and verifiable events. True, it deals with an ordinary family and not with the exploits of the great, but the link between Ruth the Moabitess and King David is not likely to have been invented, for it did nothing to enhance his standing in Israel. Though the writer took great pains to make his book a work of art, he evidently intended it to be accepted as historical. It is a true story, beautifully told, after the style of the patriarchal narratives, where some of the same themes occur, such as famine, exile and return, and childlessness, through which God makes himself known.
Authorship and date
The book offers no indication of the identity of its author. The Talmud (c. ad 200) attributes it to Samuel, but Samuel died before David became king (1 Sa. 28:3), and the book implies that the kingship of David was well known. The period of the judges is referred to as a past era, and the necessity of explaining the shoe ceremony in 4:7 indicates that some time elapsed before the events were recorded. A scribe at the court of Solomon would have had access to the royal archives, and the period which saw literature and the arts flourishing might well have produced this artistic gem. Several recent scholars have detected a female perspective in the book which has suggested to them that the author was a woman. In a society dominated by men it is significant that the book should have been written about two women, whose initiatives brought about the action, and whose faith was rewarded. In God’s providence their lives even played a part in preparing for the coming of the Saviour (Mt. 1:5; Lk. 3:32). Whoever wrote the book was in tune with God’s revealed purpose of blessing ‘all peoples on earth’ (Gn. 12:3), and had lived long enough to recognize God’s working in human lives. Few writers have been more successful in making goodness attractive.
The date of writing is also difficult to establish. It could be at any point between the reign of David (c. 1000 bc) and the book’s acceptance into the canon of Scripture in the second century bc. The era much favoured during this century has been the post-exilic period, especially the fifth or fourth century bc, when the book could have been a protest against the narrow nationalism of Ezra and Nehemiah. The presence of Aramaic words in the Hebrew was thought to support a late date, but more recent studies have questioned the force of this argument. The book shows no sign of being ‘protest literature’, and study of the language has been used to show that its classical Hebrew is likely to be pre-exilic (i.e. seventh century at the latest). It seems likely that the writer lived long enough after the events he recorded to see them in perspective, perhaps during the reign of Solomon. One tentative suggestion is that the prophet Nathan could have been the author. He left records of David’s reign (1 Ch. 29:29), fearlessly challenged the king’s personal life (2 Sa. 12:1–12), and yet was willing later to support Bathsheba (1 Ki. 1:11–53).
Place in the canon
The book of Ruth was treasured as Scripture in both Jewish and Christian circles, and was included in official lists of scriptural books when the church began to compile these in the second century ad. The references in the gospels (Mt.1:5; Lk. 3:32) show that Ruth was regarded as authoritative when they were written.
In our English Bibles Ruth follows Judges, as it does in the lxx and Vulgate translations. In printed Hebrew Bibles, however, Ruth appears in the third division, the Writings, where it is the second of the five scrolls which were used liturgically in the synagogue by the sixth century ad. The Song of Songs was the first because it was used at Passover; Ruth was used at Pentecost. The Babylonian Talmud, which is older than the sixth century, began the Writings with Ruth, followed by the Psalms. Other texts have Ruth as the first of the five scrolls because it belongs first chronologically. Evidently the book was first placed among the Writings and was later transferred to the position where it belongs historically, between Judges and Samuel.
Famine is the circumstance that caused an Israelite family to migrate to alien Moab. Famine was a recurring event in patriarchal times, causing Jacob and his sons to migrate to Egypt. Enslaved and oppressed, they experienced God’s deliverance, an event remembered annually at Passover (Ex. 12:1–29). In the book of Ruth the same God came to the aid of two needy women, demonstrating his power to bring good out of sorrow, life out of death.
Marriage is another theme central to the book. It was central in Naomi’s thinking. While she regarded herself as too old for marriage, for her daughters-in-law it was a priority which she urged them to pursue (1:9). The birth of a grandson would give her new zest for life and if, by God’s providence, he could be legally accepted as Elimelech’s heir then her joy would be complete. Ruth, the young widow from Moab who had thrown in her lot with her mother-in-law and had embraced the faith of Israel, assumed that remarriage was not only right and proper but also her express duty. In order that she could provide for Naomi, she needed a husband who would accept Naomi as a member of the family. For that reason her story had to be a love story with a difference, but under Naomi’s guidance it turned out to be even more unusual. She might have married an eligible young man of her own generation, but that would not have solved Naomi’s problem over the family property, nor would it have given an heir to Elimelech. By marrying into her late husband’s family, Ruth brought security into Naomi’s life as well as into her own. Her selfless love mirrored that of the God of Israel, in whom she had put her trust.
The two women dominate the story, but Boaz, a close relative of Elimelech, also had to be willing for new responsibilities. Not only was Naomi expecting him to marry the widow of Mahlon, his relative who had died in Moab, but also to buy property which might not in the end be his. The legal provision favoured the family which had been bereft, ensuring that a son born of the marriage would inherit Elimelech’s property and continue his line. The nearer relative to whom Boaz put the proposition rejected it on the grounds that it endangered his own estate (4:6). Boaz large-heartedly accepted the family responsibility, though it was costly, to the unqualified approval of the elders and people of Bethlehem, who prayed for God’s blessing to prosper his standing in the community and give children to Ruth.
By the end of the story those prayers were answered more fully than any of the participants could have imagined. Israel’s felt need of a king was to be met after Saul’s death through David, a grandson of the boy called Obed who was born to Ruth and Boaz. David, for all his faults, established the kingdom, built Jerusalem, and inspired visions of the ideal king to come. God took the love and obedience of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, and wove it into his eternal purpose to show ‘love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Dt. 5:10). The Messiah was indeed born into this same family (Mt. 1:5–6, 16; Lk. 3:23–31).
A further theme, implicit in all that has been written thus far, is God’s providential ordering of human life. The author of Ruth could see part of God’s purpose for human history being fulfilled in David; the Christian reader can fit the part into the whole, for God was executing a plan to redeem humankind through great David’s greater son. The author of Ruth was also aware of God’s hand upon the personal circumstances of families and individuals, encouraging them to look back over events and to trace the mysterious outworking of God’s overflowing goodness in their lives. The events speak for themselves. In personal life and in history God was working out his good purpose.
(See the booklist on Judges)
D. Atkinson, The Message of Ruth, BST (IVP, 1983).
R. L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1988).
M. D. Gow, The Book of Ruth (Apollos, 1992).
D. A. Leggett, The Levirate and Goel Institutions in the Old Testament (Mack, 1974).
c. circa, about (with dates)
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
BST The Bible Speaks Today
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Rt 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.