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Author & Date

The author, date and purpose of the book are all unclear[1], yet it is fascinating and has been valued for millennia. Matthew 1:5 places the events a few years before the birth of King David, that is, towards the end of the age of the Judges. Thus its place in the Canon is appropriate chronologically.

Some claim that Ruth was written in opposition to Nehemiah and Ezra (it shows that the Jews were already racially impure long before they ordered that foreign wives be sent away, and the racial impurity is identified with heroes such as King David); however, if that had been the aim, the author would have played down Ruth becoming a proselyte to Judaism and her acceptance in Bethlehem despite Deuteronomy 23:3–4; and if foreign-ness was the main theme, the kinsman-redeemer would have cited it as his reason for not marrying Ruth. The book may well pre-date the return from exile.[2]

This book is a brilliant short story set in the time of the Judges, but was written down later. In those days the only security a person had was the support of their tribe. The powerful had a duty to look after any poor and disadvantaged relatives. According to Nehemiah 8:17, the full Law was not followed throughout the period covered by this book (because it hadn't yet been written?). The author of Judges seems to think anarchy inevitable without a king, but Ruth shows otherwise[3].


The book has the honour of being read in synagogues at the Festival of Weeks[4], celebrating the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22). There is evidence that King David's position was questioned on account of the mixed descent shown by Ruth[3] so the monarchy had no motive for inventing the story. The book rehabilitates Moabite women, who were blamed for leading the Hebrews into sin in Numbers 25:1–2 [1], and affirms women in general[3].

Structure (after Laffey[6])

Chapter 1: famine
Chapter 2: encounter with Boaz
Chapter 3: another encounter
Chapter 4: resolution


"The Book of Ruth comes between the Book of Judges and the Books of Samuel and Kings, all of which are concerned with great public events in the story of the people of Israel. Ruth reminds us that alongside public life there is a key place for the small scale, the individual, and the facing of personal and domestic issues".[5] There is no parallel record of much of the detail in this book, so many details are puzzling. The speeches in the book appear to preserve an ancient regional dialect[2].

The participants believe God is involved in human affairs, and frequently pray his blessing on each other, but that prayer is always answered through human actions. Both blessing and disaster are attributed to God's action, but are not seen as signs of his approval or punishment[1]. Ruth needs a son; she clings to Naomi and transfers her allegiance to Naomi's tribe and God. Naomi flounders in despair, like everyone in Judges 17–21 [3], until she sees Ruth's positive outlook bearing fruit.

Through Ruth, Lot's blood was introduced into David's line.

Ruth and Boaz show fidelity, courage and generosity to an extent that Naomi does not, though with flirtatious ambiguity[1]. Boldness and faith are rewarded, e.g. Ruth 2:12 [2]. A proselyte becomes an ancestor of kings and eventually of the Messiah. The "hollow religiosity" of Judges 17–21 pales beside Boaz's "solid integrity"; the anarchic era of the judges, which saw kindness as a tit-for-tat deal (e.g. Judges 21:22), is replaced by order under the monarchy, and realization that God's people should be able to show his undeserved kindness[3]. Ruth skilfully leads the reader from the depressing tone of the end of Judges to hope and joy; it is "a very bright light in a very dark world".


Chapter 1: famine

Reference to the time when the judges "judged" (not "ruled" [2] [3]) shows that Ruth was not written down (preserving earlier oral tradition) until the time of the monarchy at the earliest, and suggests that justice, in some sense, will be a theme[3].


Settling in Moab may show desperation, given the hostility shown in Deuteronomy 23:3–4. But perhaps the book pre-dates both Deuteronomy[2] and that hostility.

Elimelech means "my God is king", challenging the idea prevalent in the time of the judges that the Hebrews needed a king like other nations[3]. Naomi means "pleasant"; Mahlon means "sickness" and Chilion means "failing". Bethlehem means "house of bread" [3] and Boaz may imply strength[2].


Naomi was an innocent who suffered, which seems to us to be an injustice, yet the question "why?" is neither asked nor answered[3]. In an age when polygamy was normal, the fact that Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion had only one wife each (cf. v.8) implies that they were not only a refugee family in Moab (v.2), but also poor.


Perhaps Naomi made sure her sons married when she became a widow to secure her own future[3]. Orpah means "neck" and Ruth means "restore" [3]. The ten years may represent Naomi's entire stay in Moab, not just the part when Orpah and Ruth were married to her sons. This explains why neither children nor lack of children are mentioned[2].

Orpah and Ruth both wandered into a relationship with God's people, and thus with God. In Ruth's case it led to a place of honour among God's people, and in God's plan; in Orpah's case, it did not. The same is probably true for those who encounter God's people today; some will continue as if nothing had happened, but others will be drawn into a full and fulfilling relationship with God.


Naomi's plan collapsed, leaving her in a seemingly hopeless situation, and the undeserved suffering is extended to her daughters-in-law[3].


At last there is some good news for Naomi, but her reaction leaves Orpah and Ruth even worse off.


The first expression of hope in God is on the lips of Naomi. She twice refers to YHWH which is surprisingly specific when addressing Moabites, and shows that she was not caught up in the idea that gods were active in specific areas, but knew that YHWH was active even in Moab[2]. These were evil times; perhaps Naomi was afraid that Orpah and Ruth would be prey to abuse like that in Judges 19:25 [3]. The reference to "mothers' houses" may mean that Ruth and Orpah had both lost not only their husbands but also their fathers[6], or that as widows they would be expected to live with their mothers[2] [3].


The "daughters in law" in v.8 are now "daughters" drawn closer by their problems[6].


Ruth and Orpah suddenly realize that this is a final good-bye[2].


Ruth's words resemble a marriage vow[1], and in v.17 she too refers to YHWH; she is adopting him as her God.


Naomi is left speechless, and stops arguing.[1]


The text indicates that the women of Bethlehem greet Naomi[2]. They seem not to know what to make of Ruth, who is a foreign widow, and thus a nobody.


Now Naomi calls God Shaddai (cf. God speaking to Abraham in Gen.17:1) rather than YHWH; it has connotations of irresistible power[2].


This time Naomi calls God YHWH in the first clause and Shaddai in the second[2].


Bethlehem, the "house of bread", lives up to its name: a harvest is in progress[6].

Chapter 2: encounter with Boaz


Boaz is described using an unusual word meaning "friend" rather than "relative" [1], and as one having both military and financial power like that of a Norman knight[2].


Ruth takes the initiative again, asking Naomi for permission to go gleaning, with a suggestion that she is looking for something beyond food. The law allowed the poor to glean at the edges of the field (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19 gave all widows this right). The edges may have been paths separating adjacent unfenced fields[1], like an allotment. Naomi, perhaps too frail to do such work, had to let Ruth go, though it would be a public admission that they were destitute[3]. Some commentators assmue that their plight arose from a legal system that did not allow a woman to inherit her husband's land, yet in 4:3 Boaz announces that Naomi has a parcel of land to sell.


Ruth seems to have visited the fields a number of times to see where she was welcome, and the author wants us to imagine God's hand guiding her[2].


Perhaps as famine was replaced by harvest there was a mood of thanks and praise[3].


Boaz consult his man-servant about the new maid-servant, asking about Ruth's social connection rather than her name. Rabbis dispute whether his interest was purely patriarchal or he was attracted to her[3].


The servant describes Ruth as a respectable woman[3]. Boaz is distantly related to her by her former marriage, but it is not clear that he has any duty towards her.


Ruth asked to glean not only between fields, as allowed by law, but between sheaves in Boaz's field, possibly through ignorance, being a foreigner[2]. The text is unclear about the time between Ruth's request and Boaz's arrival; either she was given permission and started gleaning, or waited patiently for an answer. Boaz clarifies the situation in v.15, going well beyond what was required.


Boaz decides to speak to Ruth, calling her "daughter" because she is young and he sees himself as her patriarch. Her wandering days are over and it is time to stay in one place[3]. The sentences that follow give Ruth a place in his extended household.


Boaz's invitation to Ruth to drink from jars filled by others gives her a status above that of a servant, as well as saving her discomfort and effort[1]. His words to the young men could simply forbid them to push her away if she gleans close to where they are reaping[2] or refer to "sexually inappropriate touching"[3].


The author implies that Boaz saw a parallel between Ruth leaving Moab and Abraham leaving Ur, trusting God as he walked into the unknown[2]. Wandering is a key biblical theme, and perhaps the root of the word "Hebrew" [3]. "Boaz concludes with a little prayer for Ruth" [2] speaking of God's protecting love, and acting it out, an effective witness to someone brought up in another religion[3].


This is the nicest thing that has happened to Ruth since her husband died[2]. Ruth's response literally means that Boaz has touched her heart, which is the sort of thing that a courting couple might say to one another[1]. She humbly refers to herself as a servant, which is lower than the way Boaz and his servant have referred to her.


Boaz invites Ruth to join the workers at lunchtime[2], in order to integrate her[3].


Boaz grants what Ruth requested, adding commands that suggest a real risk of abuse[3]. Working close to the reapers, she had first pickings of the gleanings[2].


Hope wells up within Naomi's heart, and she responds with praise of YHWH [3].


Ruth took home a little leftover food from the lunch that had been given her in 2:14, Ruth and Naomi seem to have been living from moment to moment, with nothing in the larder at all.


Ruth intends to stay close to the young men, but Boaz urged her to stay with the young women in v.8 [7]; Naomi corrects her at once.


About two months pass[2]. Naomi seems totally dependent on Ruth.

Chapter 3: another encounter


The only way Naomi can imagine a secure future is marriage, and she is too old, so Ruth must marry and continue to look after her; but she couches her idea in language that focuses on Ruth's needs. Her scheme is sufficiently unconventional[1] that she explains it to Ruth in great detail, using an unusual word for "kinsman" which implies marrying in order to have children[3]. Naomi advises Ruth to "try it on" by sleeping with Boaz, perhaps in the full sense of the word (hinted at by the suggestive word "know" in v.3), hence the washing and perfuming beforehand, and the early departure before anyone noticed. The special clothes might be a cloak of concealment rather than for ostentation[2].

The threshing-floor was not a private place, and Hos.9:1 tells us that prostitutes sought clients there, so the plan carried a significant risk of scandal[3].


Ruth defers on this occasion to Naomi, whose homeland and culture this is, but elsewhere she shows considerable spirit[3].


This celebration of the completion of the harvest that marks the end of a famine would be particularly hearty. Ruth waits until the middle of the night, when Boaz is asleep—​perhaps the longest wait of Ruth's life. Then something startles Boaz; "Perhaps Boaz is startled by Ruth's elbow in his ribs!" [3].

Boaz "is so astonished by her forwardness that he hardly knows what to do".[8] In Hebrew "feet" were a common euphemism for the private parts, e.g. 1 Samuel 24:3–4 and Is.6:2. Thus "uncovered his feet" means at the very least that she cuddled up to him, and it might indicate a sexual encounter which would explain why, as Naomi predicted, Boaz acted promptly to regularise their relationship. However, it seems odd that Boaz did not notice her presence until she "uncovered his feet". The text has "tantalizingly obscure language, perhaps deliberately so" [1].


The relationships have developed since 2:5; Boaz now asks Ruth who she is, and she responds with her own name, and emphasizes their kinship. She now describes herself not as a foreigner but as his servant.

Naomi told Ruth to let Boaz tell her what to do, but she jumps straight in with a symbolic request to spread his cloak over her, echoing the metaphor that he used in 2:12. She is asking Boaz to "take her under his wing".


Boaz understands this as a proposal of marriage, and seems pleased. He explains the procedure to be followed.


There is a difficulty in the Hebrew text of this verse, which says "he went into the city" but the sense requires "she went into the city". The first 1611 edition of KJV followed the Hebrew and is known as the "he" Bible" but the second "she" edition changed it to make sense.[12]


"Empty" may echo Naomi's talk of emptiness in 1:21.

Chapter 4: resolution


The gate was the place where public business was done in ancient cities that lacked any other open space[2].

Some see this as "levirate marriage" [9] to preserve a dead man's lineage, which was seen as a duty of critical importance before God's offer of personal immortality was understood[6]. Others disagree because Boaz clearly had a choice whether to marry Ruth or not[1], and the duty of levirate marriage fell on a brother, yet none of the three widows married her deceased husband's brother[2]. A kinsman-redeemer was not required to marry his kinsman's widow (Leviticus 25:25).

Many questions arise from the text: what was the connection between Elimelech's land and marriage to Ruth? Why was Naomi reliant on gleaning if she owned her husband's land? We are not told the answers. But we can see from the column-inches given to the legal aspect that the author wants to show that the relationship between Boaz and Ruth, though it started secretly, was made official[1].


Boaz knows background details that are not explained. He is trying to sort out three problems at once: what to do with Elimelech's land (they probably only learned of his death when Naomi returned alone); how to preserve Elimelech's name for posterity; and how to save Naomi and Ruth from destitution[3]. It is not clear how Naomi had rights to sell the land but no right to live off its proceeds, but it seems that Boaz is explaining the matter strategically in order to achieve the outcome he wants[2].


Boaz suddenly adds that Ruth is a part inheritor; perhaps her husband Mahlon inherited part when his father Elimelech died, and Mahlon has now died too.


The kinsman wants the land, but perhaps not on the condition that he must raise a son to take it away from him as Elimelech's heir. It is possible that the author deliberately conceals the man's name, as his just deserts for putting his posterity before Ruth and Naomi's needs[2]. An alternative explanation is that he thinks that incorporating a foreigner into his heritage will make things awkward[3]. Whatever the reason, it seems that Boaz anticipated the man's reaction correctly.


The text was written long after the era in which the events are set; otherwise the explanation in v.7 would not be necessary[6]. Throwing something down is a demonstrative action, as in "throwing down the gauntlet". Throwing down a sandal might mean "here I stand", a way of staking a claim. In some translations of Psalm 108:9 God claims Edom in the same way.


The witness of a number of respected people was the only way of validating anything in an age when writing was rare or unknown[2].


Boaz announces before the witnesses Ruth's new status as his wife. It seems odd to modern ears that she wasn't there to hear it, though she seems to have proposed marriage in 3:9.


The elders "toast" the marriage with a variety of blessings[3].


A happy ending: the famine is over, and the young widow is married with a son[6]. But Ruth is scarcely mentioned from here on; the author leaves us thinking about Elimelech's posterity rather than the security of a Moabite widow.


The women celebrate the roles of God, Boaz and Ruth in Naomi's salvation[6].


The neighbours propose that the child should be called Obed, which seems to mean "servant"; Boaz must have agreed. Perhaps they wanted everyone to remember that good things happen when God's people serve others[6].


The genealogy is said to be too short to span the years, so it may only be mentioning the most important people[2]. However, Anderson[10] says the period of forty years, often cited in scripture, represented a generation (thirty was the prime of life, when Jesus started his public ministry) so the generations were more widely spaced than they are today and more widely than the twenty years often assumed (Rohl[11] p140). Also the number of years to be spanned is disputed on account of Rohl's revision to the chronology.

It is ironic that the story of Elimelech, whose name suggests that the call for a king should be resisted, ends in the genealogy of the royal family! [6]


  1. Emmerson, Grace "Ruth" in Barton J & Muddiman J (eds) The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: OUP 2001) p192f
  2. Morris, Rev Canon Leon Judges and Ruth (Leicester: IVP Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1968) p219f
  3. Moore, M "Ruth" in Hubbard R & Johnson R (eds) New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) p293f
  4. Celebrating the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22)
  5. Redfern, Alastair Ministry and Priesthood (London: DLT, 1999) p5–6
  6. Laffey, Alice "Ruth" in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1990) p554f
  7. Some commentators attribute this disparity to quirks elsewhere in the book that suggest an ancient local dialect which blurs the masculine and feminine versions of words, but I doubt that a foreigner would speak in such a quirky dialect.
  8. Gottwald, Norman K The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction (paperback edition 1987, Fortress, Philadelphia) p555
  9. Latin "levir" means brother-in-law; see Deuteronomy 25:5–6
  10. AA Anderson 2 Samuel in Word Biblical Commentary series (ed. D A Hubbard et al) Word Inc., Dallas 1989, p77
  11. David Rohl A Test of Time: The Bible—​from myth to history (London: Century 1995)
  12. Campbell, Gordon Bible: the story of the King James Version OUP paperback edn 2011, p.87

© David Billin 2002–2023