Ruth 1:1-18

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Ruth 1:1-18

Background to the Book of Ruth


A painting was done as a piece of work for an assessment in an OT topic. The painter was Mark Thomas and it now hangs in the Blackwood Uniting Church

The blues cloak outlines the coast, which forms the east end of the Mediterranean and symbolises Israel and Egypt at the bottom end. The Cloak of Ruth protects Naomi since it is through the efforts of Ruth they find security and new life. The barley is the reminder of famine and their reason for going into Moab. Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz and they are full with food, again after the night on the threshing floor Ruth's cloak is full and finally her womb is full with a son.

It is very powerful painting with a lot more symbolism, which depicts the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz in visual form.

The book is one complete story and all four chapters need to be read for it to be fully appreciated. Although, is literary form is narrative it does have poetic feel to it, but very doubtful it was poetry originally. It is a very cleverly crafted story and there are many literary forms, which are used to emphasise the message. We will explore these under the section on insights. Unlike many Hebrew texts, this one is in reasonable condition and thus, a straightforward process for translation.

In the Christian canon Ruth comes after Judges because it is set in this period, however, it is extremely unlikely it was written in this period. In the Hebrew canon, it comes in the writings section at the end of the bible as one of the five scrolls between Proverbs and Ezra.

A number of historical periods are suggested for the time of its creation:

  1. Early in period of monarchy.
    The opening suggests it could not be any earlier than, "In the days when the judges rules (judged)", so this time was in the past.
    More precisely, it could be at a time when the Davidic dynasty under threat e.g., at the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam and there is a need to defend Davidic dynasty against Jeroboam (4:11-12, 18-22). The genealogy and references to Rachel, Leah, and Tamar, who had Perez by Judah, link David's ancestry to honoured people of the time of the Patriarchs.
  2. Later in the period of monarchy.
    Either in the time of Hezekiah or Josiah who in their reforms tried to incorporate the northern tribes: it is seen as evidence of favour to foreigners.
  3. Post-exilic period in the time of Ezra/Nehemiah.
    It was written to combat the exclusive policies of these two people based on evidence that the story has within it, "language gauged as late".

I think it could easily have an early oral form, which later has been crafted into a literary story with its important theological message. Like many books in the Old Testament, we cannot be certain about their origin and at what time they became a written form.

Purpose for the Book:  Appears to have been used for two major purposes:

  1. to support the claim of David to the throne with the addition of the genealogy of David (vv18-22). Ruth is accepted because she is worthy and her loyalty is acclaimed.
  2. to show the inclusive nature of Israel's God, Yahweh - it rests on God's grace and simple faith of people.

Both these things are important at a number of places in Israel's history. 4:18-22 only major addition, which is supported by number of scholars.

Laws/ Social/ Traditions

Although the Book of Ruth fails to give us precise historical dates and doesn't name any leader of the period, it does give us some clues about social conditions. In spite of the prohibition against the people of Moab (Deuteronomy 23:3-6), there was obviously free movement between the countries otherwise Elimelech could not’t have taken his wife and sons to live there.

The law about the right to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) is seen to be in operation (Ruth 2:2). There is a suggestion that permission of the landowner had to be sought "behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour". Knowledge of Leverite marriage by which a brother had to fulfil the marriage obligations of his dead brother if the widow was left without children (Ruth 4:5). Except in the case of Ruth, Boaz is not obliged to marry her at all.

We become aware that the laws related to the redemption of property by which next of has the first refusal is practised in Israel (Ruth 4). Furthermore, legal business is conducted at the city gates (Ruth 4). We have in Ruth some aspects of ordinary people going about life

We cannot say for certain whether Ruth was an 'historical figure'?
The story would appear to establish Ruth as a person in Israel's history. Would the story have been sustained if Ruth were not the mother of Obed (Matthew 1:5)? Whatever the answer, Ruth is an important person in the history of Israel and her part in the lineage of David.

Context of Ruth 1 (What's Happening in the Literature around Ruth 1)

The book of Ruth sits between Judges and Samuel and has connections at the beginning and end to the books either side. Ruth 1:1 makes the statement which sets the book in the time of the judges and follows the stories of the judges. Judges 21:25 states, In those days there was no king in the Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.

The very last words of Ruth (Ruth 4:18-22) refer to David and his genealogy and 1 Samuel begins the story which leads to the anointing of David as King. Timothy Beal (1999, xxv) suggest the purpose for the Book of Ruth was to act as the narrative link between Judges and Samuel. The problem with this theory is that it depends on the ordering of the Books in the English versions and pays no heed to the Hebrew scriptures. I think the authors had more intent behind their books than simply to act as links.

As Ruth 1 has set the story in place with the famine and migration of Elimelech and family to Moab so it sets the scene for the return of the widowed wife, Naomi, and one of the daughters-in-law, Ruth. Orpah, the other daughter-in-law has taken Naomi's advice and gone back to her own people. The chapter ends with the statement that Ruth and Naomi came back to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

In chapter two we are introduced to the kinsman who is going to be the redeemer of these women and Ruth's immediate action is to go to the fields to glean as the grain is being harvested. We know she finds favour and is protected by Boaz. Ruth returns to Naomi with enough grain to feed them and Naomi now blesses the Lord. This attitude is a complete turn around from the bitterness that Naomi expresses on her return to Bethlehem. We deal with the remainder of this story in next week's lectionary reading.

Insights/Message of Ruth 1

Structure of the Book of Ruth

Chapter 1:1-5 Sets the story with the flight into Moab because of famine in Bethlehem (House of Bread). 1:6-22 relates the death of husband and two sons with the consequent journey of Naomi with Ruth on the road back to Bethlehem where there is now plenty. Chapter 2 sets the story by which Ruth meets and benefits from the kindness of Boaz. The chapter begins with the need to glean for grain and ends with Ruth taking home grain for Naomi. Chapter 3 continues the tale with of Boaz responding to the wiles of Naomi and Ruth and acting righteously towards her. Chapter 4 has Boaz doing a deal with the kinsman without telling the whole truth until later in the transaction and from this Naomi and Ruth find security, food, status and filled with the seed of Boaz, Ruth gives birth to a son. From the emptiness of Chapter 1:1-5, the story ends with fullness for all the characters.

Verses 1-5 give a history of Naomi and Elimelech in a succinct manner. They have to leave the House of Bread (Bethlehem) to travel into Moab. It is strange there is no condemnatory remark in relation to Moab because the people of Moab are condemned in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:3-6) and Israelites are commanded not to marry/ have covenant with foreign women Exodus 23:32. Yet, Mahlon and Chilion both married Moabite women. It is an interesting start to a story, which ends up naming Ruth, a Moabite, as worthy, blessed and the great grandmother of David. The law is subverted by the story.

Naomi heard that there was no longer a famine, which suggests some means of trade, and communication was occurring between the countries of Judah and Moab. The narrator uses dialogue to tell us about Naomi's concern for her daughters-in-law in that they find husbands within their own people because she is too old to provide sons for them. This comment relates to the Law in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), which states that widows have to be cared for by any brothers of the dead husband in order to continue the blood line of the family. In this case, there are no younger brothers to meet this legal obligation. This lengthy description of the reasons why Naomi cannot keep the law is out of proportion with say, the deaths of husband and sons, but again underlies both her concern for them and her bitterness against the Lord. Initially, the dialogue has both Orpah and Ruth claiming they will return, but Orpah is prevailed upon and we are left with Naomi and Ruth travelling together. The repetition of "return my daughters" underlies Naomi's cry for them to find happiness and security within their own people. In further dialogue, Naomi pleads with Ruth and points to the return of Orpah to convince her to do likewise. There follows the well-known reading, which is used out context and rarely given its context. It is profound not only for Ruth's affirmation of loyalty to Naomi, but also for her own affirmation of faith in Yahweh. The words she uses are similar to words used by God and are set out like a covenant. After this affirmation, Naomi is finally convinced and they travel together into Bethlehem where the townsfolk greet her. Naomi expresses her bitterness against God and makes the claim she went away empty (famine) and returns empty (no child).

The Hebrew word for return (sub) occurs twelve times in the first chapter, which again underlies the story that this chapter is about returning. It is the same word that is used to mean repent in the Old Testament or to turn away and worship foreign gods (apostasy). Another word that is used to make a point is lehem (bread), which Naomi hears about in 1:6 and is a play on Bethlehem, House of Bread. They left Bethlehem because there was no bread and Naomi returns because it now has bread. Hesed (kindness, deal kindly) is used to describe God's act of caring and grace: it has more depth than the way we use the word in English. If one shows hesed to another, it implies a loyalty, which is beyond what is usually required.

The clan or sub- tribe of Ephraim could refer to the descendants of Ephrah wife of Caleb which is interesting in light of the main characters in this story are women. On the other hand, it could be making other connections with the book of Judge because in 12:5 the people from Ephraim are called "Ephrathites" (Robertson Farmer: 1998, 900). In v.1, no one is named: in v.2, Elimelech is named first and Naomi as his wife and thereafter, Naomi is the focus and Elimelech is her husband.

Message/ Theology of Ruth 1

God is portrayed as the one who is in control of food and famine, which is the reason Naomi, can blame God for her misfortune. Rather like Job, she cannot see the bigger picture or mystery of God, but like many people wants to blame God when things go wrong.

She is well aware of the Law and knows it is beyond her physical means to fulfil it for her two daughters-in-law. Naomi is portrayed as caring for them in the midst of her own bitterness and sorrow. The startling turn to this story is Ruth's insistent response that she will return with Naomi. Ruth is bound to have been aware of the bitter antagonism of the Israelites against her people and the Law against her marriage to Naomi's son. She displays no fear about this and fully accepts Israel's God as her own.

Robertson Farmer makes a helpful observation when she points out that there is no condemnation of Orpah for obeying her mother-in-law and returning to her mother's house (usually like Tamar [Genesis 38] they return to their father's house). On the other hand, there is no moral message in this story, which dictates that daughters-in-law have to care for their mothers-in-law, which is how some cultures may want to use this story (1998, 906).

The oath formula declared by Ruth is very significant of her relationship with Naomi and with God. She is making a formal declaration based on covenant type phrases. In one sense, there was no alternative for Naomi but to accept her declaration. The hesed of Ruth is her action in going way beyond what the law or good manners required. She risks starvation and total rejection in her decision to return with Naomi.

One can think of people in our society, congregation and world who have gone beyond the requirements to care for and show loving kindness to those who have been rejected or ostracised by society. The people who were willing to care for those with AIDS in the early years.

Naomi, in the midst of her grief and shame in returning empty to Bethlehem fails to acknowledge Ruth in the initial greeting by her friends and relatives. She must have later shared why Ruth is with her and the support they give each other is apparent in the story. People in the midst of grief and disappointment often fail to see the support given by those around them and can feel hurt by this lack of acknowledgement.

Resources/Worship for Ruth 1 (Worship and Ways to present Ruth 1)

Chapter one is a great piece of drama and the dialogue becomes very affective if it is done with several voices.  The set Psalm for the day (146) is a joyful song of praise and can be used to open the service.



Brenner, Athalya. ed., A Feminist Companion to Ruth. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
---. Ruth and Esther. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999
Bush, F. Ruth/Esther. WBC. Dallas: Word Books, 1996
Campbell, Edward. F. Ruth. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Fewell, Danna.N., and David M. Gunn, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Gow, Murray. D. The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose. Leicester: Apollos, 1992.
Gray, John. Joshua, Judges and Ruth. NCB. London: Nelson, 1967.
Hubbard, Robert.L. The Book of Ruth. NICOT. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1998
Larkin, Katrina.J.A. Ruth and Esther. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
Linafeldt, Tod. Ruth. Berith Olam. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.
Nielsen, Kristen. Ruth. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1997.
Robertson Farmer,Kathleen A. "The Book of Ruth: Introductions, Commentary and Reflections." In The New Interpreter's Bible. 2:889-946. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. Ruth. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1999.
Tribble, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. OBT. Philadelphia: Fortress Press8
Wolde, Ellen van. Ruth and Naomi. London: SCM Press, 1997.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: