Introduction to the Book of Ruth

from a Jewish Perspective

To Ruth Stanley, my grandmother. Saint Francis of Assisi said,
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”
From her Quaker roots, my grandmother preached the Gospel her whole life.

The book of Ruth is a flawless love story in a compact format. It’s not an epic tale, but a short story of only eighty-five verses. Nevertheless, it runs the full range of human emotions, from the most gut-wrenching kind of grief to the very height of triumph.

Ruth’s life was the true, historical experience of one genuinely extraordinary woman. It was also a perfect picture of the story of redemption (see the commentary on the Book of Exodus Bz – Redemption). Ruth herself furnished a fitting picture of every sinner. She was a widow and a foreigner who went to live in a strange land. Tragic circumstances reduced her to hopeless poverty. She was not only an outcast and an exile, but also left without any resources – reduced to a state of utter destitution from which she could never hope to redeem herself by any means. When she had nowhere else to turn, she sought the grace of her mother-in-law’s closest kinsman. The story of how her whole life changed is one of the most deeply touching stories in the whole Bible.1

Title

The biblical book of Ruth derives its name from one of its three main characters, the Moabite daughter-in-law-of Na’omi and eventual wife of Bo’az. That the book should be named after Ruth is truly remarkable for several reasons. First, Ruth was not even an Israelite. She was a Moabite. Second, Ruth is not the main character in the story. The story opens up describing the crisis in Na’omi’s family, highlighting her own emptiness, and concludes with the resolution of the crisis and the declaration of her fullness in the birth of Obed. Scholars have recognized the importance of direct speech in this book. Fifty-five out of eighty-five verses contain dialogue and 52.4 percent of the words occur on the lips of the characters. Of the three main characters, however, Ruth speaks least often, and her speeches are the shortest. Based on the plot, the book could be called “The Book of Na’omi” and based on the dialogue, “The Book of Bo’az.” In addition, given the concluding Epilogue and genealogy, as well as the purpose of the book, it might even have been called “The Book of Obed.” No doubt the present title reflects the narrator’s and reader’s fascination with and special admiration for the character of Ruth.2

Authorship

The identity of Ruth’s author is uncertain. The author records the events that took place 100 to 150 years earlier. Whoever the author was, he was not an eyewitness to these events because he records the events well before his time. However, it is obvious he must have had access to the written accounts of the family of Y’hudah and the line of Perez. The Talmud (200 AD) ascribes the book to Samuel.

Date

The book gives us several clues about the timing of its writing. To begin with, although the story itself takes place during the period of the judges, it was written after the period of the judges because the first verse of the book is in the past tense: Back in the days when the judges were judging (1:1a). Therefore, it was probably near the end of the period of the judges, which covered 450 years (Acts 13:20). The story of Ruth took place over a period of 10 years. A second clue occurs in Chapter 4. In the past, this is what was done in Isra’el for the redemption and transfer of property to become final: a man took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Isra’el (4:7). Here the author has to explain a custom in Isra’el that was no longer practiced, which shows a lapse of time between the event and the writing of the story. A third clue is the fact that the genealogy ends with David and does not mention Solomon. Fourthly, the language of Ruth is classical Hebrew and this indicates an early date for the book. Fifthly, it contains many archaic forms, which were not found later in Hebrew. So Ruth was probably written during King David’s reign in about 1000 BC. And for reasons we will discuss later, it was probably written when David was king over Judah only, before he became king over all Isar’el.

The Place in the Canon

In the Hebrew Bible (which is divided into three parts: the Torah, the Prophets, or the Nevi’im, and the Writings, or the Ketuvim) is found in the fifth book of the third division known as the Ketuvim. It is also one of the five books (the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) known as the megillot, meaning scrolls, which are read in the synagogue on five holy occasions. They are read in the following order: Song of Songs is read at Pesach; Ruth is read during the feast of Shavu’ot (see Ah – The Book of Ruth and Shavu’ot); Lamentations is read during the ninth of Av (see the commentary on The Life of Christ Mt – The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple on Tisha B’Av in 70 AD); Ecclesiastes is read at Sukkot; and the book of Esther is read at Purim (see the commentary on Esther Bn – The Feast of Purim).

The English Bible follows the order of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the TaNaKh) and places Ruth after the book of Judges. Ruth gives a more positive side of life during the time of the judges and showing that there were those who sought after ADONAI. Ruth also serves as an introduction to the books of Samuel and background for King David.

The Historical Background

The book took place during the time of the Judges. Within the book we are told that it took place during and after a time of famine. We see a famine mentioned in Judges 6:3-4, so the story probably took place during the time of Gideon.

There are similarities and differences in the book of Judges and the book of Ruth. Judges shows immorality, homosexuality (Judges 19:16-24), while Ruth demonstrates fidelity, righteousness, and purity. The book of Judges shows idolatry, the book of Ruth shows the worship of the One True God. Judges shows decline and disloyalty, whereas Ruth shows devotion. The book of Judges shows lust, but the book of Ruth shows love. Judges shows war, however, Ruth shows peace. The book of Judges demonstrates cruelty, while the book of Ruth demonstrates kindness. Judges reveals disobedience leading to judgment, but Ruth reveals obedience leading to blessing. Lastly, the book of Judges demonstrates spiritual darkness, however the book of Ruth demonstrates spiritual light.

Ruth was a Moabitess and the Moabites generally had a contentious relationship with Isra’el. The Moabites were descendants of Mo’av, who was the son of Lot, through his older daughter (see the commentary on Genesis Fb – Let’s Get Our Father to Drink Wine, and then Lie With Him to Preserve Our Family Line). The descendants of the son of Lot occupied the plateau directly southeast of the Dead Sea. The Moabites became prominent in Isra’el’s history during the time of the exodus. At the time when Isra’el passed through Moabite territory the Ammonites controlled it and were defeated by Isra’el under the leadership of Moses (see the commentary on Exodus Cv – The Amalekites Came and Attacked the Israelites at Rephidim).

Now Balak, who was the king of Mo’av during the time of Moses, did not try to stop Isra’el’s militarily as did the Edomites. Instead he summoned Balaam, a wicked prophet (not a false prophet), to curse the Jews instead (Numbers 22-24), but to no avail. Finally, in Numbers 25:1-9, it was Moabite women who finally succeeded in seducing Isra’el and resulting in her judgment. In spite of that enmity, God forbid Isra’el from provoking Mo’av to war because YHVH Himself had given them their land (Deuteronomy 2:9). In the subsequent history, however, the Moabites were a major source of Isra’el’s troubles.

For example, in Judges 3:12-14, for eighteen years the Moabites subjugated Isra’el under Eglon. Later on, after King Sha’ul had assumed rule over Isra’el, he fought against the Moabites (First Samuel 14:47). In the early days of David, he had a friendly relationship with the Moabites and when Sha’ul was perusing him, he even took his parents to Mo’av for safe keeping from the hands of Sha’ul (First Samuel 22:3-4). The chief god of the Moabites was Chemosh (Numbers 21:29), which included human sacrifice (Second Kings 3:26-27), and they also worshiped Ashtar, the wife of Chemosh.Now the Moabite Stone, a famous archeological stone, gives us information about the conflict between Mo’av and the dynasty of Omri in the northern kingdom of Isra’el.

Social Background

Ruth is not a history of public events, but a picture of humble village life, painted on a quiet background away from the turmoil and strife that fills the pages of the book of Judges. The existence of such peaceful conditions in that era would be unknown to us but for the book of Ruth. Who would have dreamed that so beautiful a society as described in its chapters could flourish in those lawless times? Life in the towns was insecure, and corrupt rulers administered justice. It was, in the words of the Rabbis, a generation that judged its judges. Describing the rampant lawlessness, the Midrash tells of men who, having been tried and convicted of crime, would turn and assault their judges. But it was a generation that had the judges they deserved.

What a relief to turn to the placid scene of goodness in the small town of Beit-Lechem! And how happy we are to feel that the simplest country life can, and did, exist side by side with the general state of social disorder and continuous warfare. We thank YHVH for so ordaining that no times shall be so wild, but that in them one might find quiet corners and green oases, all the greener for their somber surroundings, where life might glide on in peaceful isolation from tumult and strife.

At some such quiet period in the history of the Judges, the incidents of the book of Ruth took place. Their lives could apparently be lived in comparative safety, without hindrance, and men and women would love and work and weep and laugh and enjoy their tranquil days about their homes. We see these folk with their time-honored customs and family events; the toiling shepherd, the busy reaper, the women with their cares and uncertainties, the love and labor of simple life, the sympathetic crowds that gathered to share the sorrow of the bereaved or the joy of the newly-wed . . . all of the various religious and social occasions. A religious influence was evidently emanating from some central place of worship and spreading far and wide.

This was where the real world history was being made. Not in the arena of battle, but in the peaceful homes of the simple country folk – there Isra’el’s character was built and her heroes were fashioned. The “unimportant people” who lived and died unnamed and unseen in their homes actually shaped the course of history and it was there, as seen in the book of Ruth, that world-changing event took place.

Structure

The structure contains four basic scenes:

Aj – Scene One: Na’omi’s Return to Bethlehem

Ap – Scene Two: Ruth Meets Bo’az in the Grain Field

Av – Scene Three: Na’omi’s Wonderful Plan for Ruth’s Life

Az – Scene Four: Bo’az Marries Ruth

Literary Features

The book of Ruth is a Jewish short story, told with flawless skill. Among the historical narratives, only Esther reviles it in its compactness, vividness, warmth, beauty and dramatic effect. Wonderfully symmetrical, the action moves from a prologue of distress, see Ai – Na’omi’s Misery and Emptiness (with 71 words in Hebrew), through the four scenes, to an epilogue of relief and hope, see Bc - Na’omi’s Satisfaction and Fullness (with 71 words in Hebrew). The crucial turning point occurs exactly midway: Na’omi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by ADONAI, who has never stopped showing grace, neither to the living or the dead.” Na’omi also told her, “That man is one of our closest relatives; he is one of our kinsman redeemers” (2:20 CJB).

The opening line of each of the four scenes signals its theme: 1:6 the return; 2:1 the meeting with Bo’az; 3:1 finding a home for Ruth; 4:1 the decisive event at the gate, while the closing line of each scene facilitates transition to what follows: 1:22, 2:23, 3:18 and 4:12. Contrast is also used effectively: pleasant (the meaning of Na’omi) and bitter (1:20), full and empty (1:21), and the living and the dead (2:20). The most striking is the contrast between two of the main characters, Ruth and Bo’az. The one is a young, foreign, destitute widow, while the other is a middle-aged, well-to-do Israelite securely established in his home community. For each there is a corresponding character whose actions highlight, by contrast, his or her selfless acts: Ruth to Orpah and Bo’az and the unnamed kinsman-redeemer.3

Aim and Purpose

There are several purposes to the book. The first purpose is to provide a genealogical link between Judah and David, and so continue the messianic line because there is no genealogy given of King David in the book of First Samuel. A second purpose is to show there was faith and obedience in that time of apostasy, that God still had a remnant. A third purpose is to foreshadow the person of the kinsman-Redeemer. A fourth purpose was to show that the grace of YHVH includes the Gentiles. But a fifth, and most important purpose, was to show the superiority of the house of David over the house of Sha’ul, and therefore defend the claims David over the claims of Sha’ul’s son Ish-Bosheth. After Sha’ul was killed, David did not become king of all Isra’el for seven years, rather, Ish-Bosheth became king of all the tribes except for Judah. If it were not for the genealogy in Ruth, David would not have been able to defend his right to the throne over all Isra’el.4

The Use of the New International Version

This commentary on Ruth is written from a Jewish perspective, using the New International Version unless otherwise indicated. There will be times when Hebrew is substituted for English names using the Complete Jewish Bible by David Stern; but generally the NIV translation will be used for the Jewish perspective.

The use of ADONAI

Long before Yeshua’s day, the Hebrew word ADONAI had, out of respect, been substituted in speaking and in reading aloud for God’s personal name, the four Hebrew letters yud-heh-vav-heh, variously written in English as YHVH. The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) made it a requirement not to pronounce Tetragrammaton, meaning the four-letter name of God, and this remains the rule in most modern Jewish settings. In deference to this tradition, which is unnecessary but harmless, I will be using ADONAI where YHVH is meant.5 In ancient times when the scribes were translating the Hebrew Scriptures, they revered the name of YHVH so much that they would use a quill to make one stroke of the name and then throw it away. Then they would make another stroke and throw that quill away until the name was completed. His name became so sacred to them that they started to substitute the phrase the Name, instead of writing or pronouncing His Name. Over centuries of doing this, the actual letters and pronunciation of His Name was lost. The closest we can come is YHVH, with no syllables. The pronunciation has been totally lost. Therefore, the name Yahweh is only a guess of what the original name sounded like. Both ADONAI and Ha’Shem are substitute names for YHVH. ADONAI is more of an affectionate name like daddy, while Ha’Shem is a more formal name like sir.

The use of TaNaKh

The Hebrew word TaNaKh is an acronym, based on the letters T (for "Torah"), N (for "Nevi’im," or the Prophets), and K (for "Ketuvim," or the Sacred Writings). It is the collection of the teachings of God to human beings in document form. The term “Old Covenant” implies that it is no longer valid, or at the very least outdated. Something old, to be either ignored or discarded. But Jesus Himself said: Don’t think I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets, I have not come to abolish but to complete (Matthew 5:17 CJB). The Hebrew acronym TaNaKh is used in this devotional commentary. Sometimes instead of the phrase, the Old Testament, the phrase the Old Covenant is used when comparing something to the New Covenant.

The use of the phrase, “the righteous of the TaNaKh,” rather than using Old Testament saints

Messianic synagogues, and the Jewish messianic community in general, never use the phrase Old Testament saints. From a Jewish perspective, they prefer to use the phrase, “righteous of the TaNaKh.” Therefore, I will be using “the righteous of the TaNaKh,” rather than Old Testament saints throughout this devotional commentary.

Key Verse: Ruth 2:20

Key Word: shuwb

The key word in Ruth is shuwb, meaning to repent (from evil), to return, or to turn back (to something or someone good). This is a significant Hebrew verb and embodies the essence of the book of Ruth. This verb occurs 1,059 times in the TaNaKh and in every chapter of Ruth. I will be inserting the word (shuwb) in the text when it is used.

 

< previous page
next page >

Genesis | Exodus | Isaiah | Ruth | Esther | Jeremiah
Life of David | Jonah | Jude | Life of Christ | Hebrews | Revelation
News & Updates | Links & Resources | Testimonials | About Us | Statement of Faith
Home | Español | Our FAQ