A True Israelite: Interpreting Ruth In Light of Old Testament Theology

61 Minutes

Abstract: The book of Ruth is a compact and brilliantly conceived narrative. For some, it is a thoughtful love story; for others it is a kind of parable about friendship and loyalty; and still for other readers, it is narrative pregnant with messianic symbolism. This article will set out to demonstrate that, while all of these elements are present, they do not represent the central theme of Ruth. In order to properly uncover the book’s core theology, the reader must first understand how the narrative fits within framework of Old Testament theology.

Keywords: Old Testament theology, hesed, return, lovingkindness, Israel, obedience

Introduction

     One of the undergraduate classes I teach at the Northview Leadership Institute involves an overview of Old Testament theology. Given the limited time I have to engage in the topic with our students, conveying what Old Testament theology is and how it informs our reading of OT scripture can be a tall order. Generally speaking, I explain to my young and eager scholars that, when considering the theology and theme of the OT, one of the main rules is to avoid using the New Testament as a framework for interpretation. Of course, as modern-day believers with access to both the Old and New Testament, we can see how important themes in the NT are informed, or have their formation, in the OT narrative. In addition, when we engage in Biblical theology, we can examine the overarching theology of the whole Bible and how it weaves its way through both the NT and OT. However, when it comes to OT theology, the Old Testament must stand on its own.

     With that in mind, I typically walk through the book of Ruth to demonstrate how a consideration of OT theology can be practically applied. Why Ruth? Because it serves as a great example of how Christians read elements into the narrative that its author likely never intended. For example, we may have been taught that Ruth is a story about how God is at work in the day-to-day activities of ordinary people. Some think that Ruth is about the merits of loyalty and obedience. Other Christians view the book through a Christological lens: Boaz, the so-called kinsmen-redeemer, is a symbol of Jesus Christ who serves as a kind of kinsmen-redeemer through his death and resurrection. And still others approach the book of Ruth as a simple, well-written love story. While all of these ideas are present, they do not represent what the book is truly about. 

     So it is in the same spirit of student engagement that this essay sets out to observe the book of Ruth. The goal, like my class on OT theology, is to reveal how, through careful consideration of the narrative’s setting and connection to other Old Testament texts, its dominant themes can be uncovered. My hope is that it will also encourage readers to more fully appreciate how the books of the Old Testament each play a unique role in revealing and reinforcing the true character of God and contribute to the progression of the OT narrative.

Ruth and the Theme of ‘Return’

     The book of Ruth is a rich and textured narrative containing several related themes. However, the theme of ‘return’ serves as the primary theology around which the story of Ruth is constructed. To ‘return’ to Yahweh is to turn from disobedience and live faithfully as part of God’s people under His covenant. In addition, while turning away from Yahweh results in punishment, returning to Him leads back to blessing. God’s lovingkindness, or hesed (חָסַד), continually calls his people back to Him. However, faithful obedience to Yahweh results in much more than material blessing; it leads to a changing of the heart; the inward working of Yahweh’s own hesed is evidenced by the individual’s treatment of others. In the book of Ruth ‘return’ and hesed are deeply connected themes that work to reveal who God’s people truly are: “The crucial aspect of Israelite identity is a right (and exclusive) relationship with Yahweh expressed in acts of hesed, not one’s ethnicity.”1 In order to demonstrate the argument that ‘return’ and hesed serve as the dominant themes that make up the theology of Ruth, this study will examine elements of the book, namely the setting, the narrative voice, and the interactions of its characters, in light of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 28 and God’s call for those who disobey to return to Him in Deuteronomy 30: 2-3, 5-6. The goal will be to show that the book of Ruth, through the themes of ‘return’ and hesed, reveals to the reader what it means to live in light of the spirit of the Law and that the character of Ruth is the model for God’s true desire for His people: that His Law and His covenant would be written on their hearts. 

Date of Authorship

     Even though the Talmud credits Samuel as the author of Ruth, there is a general consensus amongst theologians that the author of the book of Ruth is unknown.2 However, when it comes to the period in history in which the book is written, there is much debate. Overall, opinions concerning when Ruth was written fall into one of two camps: pre-exilic or post-exilic. The book of Ruth gives clear evidence that it is written no earlier than the time of King David. Ruth 1:1 states that the story begins in the time of the judges, an apparent reference to a past event. However, it is the genealogy found in Ruth 4:16-22 that gives the reader the most unmistakable evidence of its earliest possible time of authorship. The genealogy records each generation from Perez, the son of Judah, to David, the second King of Israel.

     Those who contend that the date of authorship occurred sometime soon after Israel’s release from Persian exile point out the many parallels between the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (or the single book of Ezra-Nehemiah in the Hebrew Tanakh). A major theme of all three books is ‘return’; Naomi  “returns” to Israel after a ten-year sojourn to Moab while the Israelites in Ezra and Nehemiah “return” to their land after they are granted release by the Persian king. However, ‘return’ does not simply imply a return to the land itself but also back to Yahweh. Ezra and Nehemiah focus a great deal on applying the Law and rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. In the book of Ruth, the notion of obedience to Yahweh has a much more subtle presence. The narrator does not speak directly of the Law or the temple, but obedience to Yahweh’s Law is implied through the time of harvest, Ruth’s hesed, Boaz’s kindness, and the redemption of Naomi from tragic loss to blessing.

     The dating of Ruth’s authorship has also been linked to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah because it has been argued that the book of Ruth was written in response to the so-called ethnic exclusivity espoused by Ezra and Nehemiah. More specifically, Ruth is regarded as a denunciation of the intermarriage prohibition in Ezra-Nehemiah. However, while Nehemiah was violently opposed to the marriage of Israelite men to foreign women, it appears that he opposed only marriage to unbelieving foreigners:

In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Amon, and Moab. As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people. So I contended with them and cursed them and struck them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves” (Nehemiah 13:23-25).3 

     Nehemiah gives specific reasons why he is so concerned about marriages between Jews and foreigners: they retained the language and presumably the customs of their people and disregarded the language and customs of the Israelites. It is reasonable to conclude that the customs of a foreign woman – particularly one from Ashdod, Amon, or Moab – included the worship of foreign gods. If the foreigner renounced her idolatry and followed Yahweh, the marriage would have been deemed acceptable.

    Although the book of Ruth gives a favourable depiction of the foreigner it, like Ezra and Nehemiah, is also exclusionist: “The book of Ruth does not argue for an unconditional universal inclusivity of foreigners. It should be kept in mind that the book of Ruth is not diametrically opposite and against the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah…There are very strict criteria for inclusion into the community: worship YHWH and do what pleases him.”4 In other words, the author depicts Ruth in a favourable light not because he is merely advocating for the inclusion of foreigners into Israel but, instead, he is revealing that it is not one’s ethnicity but heart toward Yahweh that should serve as the criteria for inclusion into the community of God’s people. Given that the narrative takes place during the time of the judges, where the Israelites constantly disregarded the Will of Yahweh, it is the actions of a Moabite that are pleasing to the Lord; it is faithfulness and obedience, and not bloodlines, that identify an individual as part of God’s people.5

     Does Ruth’s meaning or central theme change according to the period in which one might argue it was written? The narrative is too rich and complex to allow for a reading of Ruth through the narrow lens of intermarriage prohibition. This study contends that, regardless of the time in which the book of Ruth was written, its core theology remains constant since it has much more to say about the faithfulness and hesed of Ruth, rather than the marriage of an Israelite to a Moabite. The marriage of Boaz and Ruth is an integral component of the narrative that contributes to the overall theme, but it is not the primary focus. The main concern of Ezra-Nehemiah is the return of Israel from exile and the necessity of being in proper relationship with Yahweh through obedience. Ruth, which also deals with the theme of return, complements a reading of Ezra-Nehemiah as its narrator seeks to convey what a right and obedient heart looks like and the blessings of such obedience that can be enjoyed. While it is true that in Ezra-Nehemiah the focus is on the strict application of the Law, the book of Ruth instead examines the Law as a state of one’s heart.

Hesed

     Hesed is a Hebrew word that describes a state of lovingkindness. However, to fully appreciate the complexity of this Hebrew term, it is worth considering G. Clark’s observations:

חָסַד is not merely an attitude or an emotion; it is an emotion that leads to an activity חָסַד beneficial to the recipient. The relative status of the participants is never a feature of the act, which may be described as a beneficent action performed, in the context of a חָסַד deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties, by one who is able to render assistance to the needy party who in the circumstances is unable to help him- or herself. The use of the word in the Hebrew Bible indicates that חָסַד is characteristic of God rather than human beings; it is rooted in the divine nature, and it is expressed because of who he is, not because of what humanity is or needs or desires or deserves. Yahweh’s tenacious commitment to Israel even in the face of their blatant and persistent rebellion demonstrates that חָסַד is an enduring quality of God. This commitment leads him to punish his wayward people and to regulate their punishment in such a way that they desire to return to him. Although it is not at the time apparent to Israel, יהוה ֶח ֶסד is still available and Yahweh awaits the opportunity to manifest it again when his people repent and return to him.6

     In the book of Ruth, hesed is directly referenced on three occasions: in 1:8 where Naomi wishes for the Lord to deal kindly (hesed) with her daughters-in-law when she implores them to return to their homes; in 2:20 where Naomi gives praise to Yahweh for his kindness (hesed) in response to Ruth’s initial encounter with Boaz; and in 3:10 where Boaz points out Ruth’s kindness (hesed) when she visits him at the threshing floor. Given Clark’s lengthy consideration of the Hebrew word, it is apparent that the author of Ruth did not merely mean to point out that Yahweh and Ruth were showing ‘kindness’; Ruth’s actions in particular reveal an unwavering commitment to the welfare of others and are, at their core, a reflection of God’s hesed.

     Hesed and the theme of ‘return’ are intertwined in the book of Ruth. As Clark points out, it is a term that also involves punishment by God in order to lead His people back to Him. This idea is on full display as Naomi and Ruth return to Israel from Moab. The story begins with a turning away from God, represented through Naomi and Elimelech’s departure from Israel to a foreign and pagan land. After tragic loss, Naomi goes back to Israel with her Moabite daughter-in-law and, as the story progresses, Naomi’s faithfulness and subsequent blessing comes to its full fruition as she becomes firmly reestablished amongst God’s people.

     Furthermore, the hesed of a Moabite woman ultimately leads to Naomi’s full return and redemption. In the book’s first chapter, Ruth displays undying loyalty to Naomi even in the face of dire circumstances. Presumably, Ruth could have been better off by returning to her family in Moab as her sister-in-law chose to do. Yet, she chooses to remain with Naomi – a destitute, motherless widow – and go to a people that would have been largely hostile toward a Moabite. The narrator hints that Ruth’s loyalty goes much deeper than kindness; she pledges to make Naomi’s people her people and Naomi’s god, her god. Once again, G. Clark’s definition of hesed uncovers a key variable: hesed is not something of human origin but, instead, a characteristic of God. Therefore, Ruth’s lovingkindness toward Naomi is one borne from her devotion to Yahweh and not merely a human emotion or obligation. Nowhere in the narrative does the author speak of the legal obligations associated with Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Instead, it is concerned with right behaviour and the state of one’s heart toward God and others.7 Accordingly, the narrator is not merely drawing the reader’s attention to the blessings associated with a return to Yahweh but, more importantly, of imitating the lovingkindess, or hesed, of God: “…there is an especially close relationship in the book of Ruth between the hesed of humans and the hesed of God…the impact of the book is to portray at least Orpah and Ruth, and especially Ruth, acting toward others in the manner in which YHWH acts – living out the imitation of God.”8

Setting

     As the book of Ruth begins, the reader is introduced to an Israelite named Elimelech who, along with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, leave Israel for Moab in the midst of a famine. While the narrator appears to give no more information concerning the reasons for the family’s departure, all the necessary clues are adequately laid out when he states that the events he is describing took place “…when the judges governed…” (Ruth 1:1). Even though the reader is not told of the specific period during the time of the judges, scripture reveals that it was a tumultuous era:

Wherever they went, the hand of the LORD was against them for evil, as the LORD had sworn to them, so that they were severely distressed. Then the LORD raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do as their fathers (Judges 2:15-17).

     Israel in the time of the judges was marked by a cycle of disobedience to God, repentance by the nation, Yahweh’s deliverance through His chosen judge and, finally, disobedience on the part of Israel soon after the judge died.

     The narrator points out that Elimelech and Naomi left because there was a famine in Israel. Once again, the information provided offers a valuable hint as to the status of Elimelech’s and Naomi’s faithfulness to Yahweh. In Deuteronomy 28 God addresses the nation of Israel as they are preparing to enter the Promised Land. He describes the blessings that He will bestow upon His people for their obedience. Then, beginning with 28:15, God speaks of the curses that will fall upon the nation if they turn away from Him. Out of the litany of curses that are listed, famine is included in God’s judgment on the land: “The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed” (Dt. 28:24). What is apparent from Deuteronomy 28 is that, if any calamity is to befall God’s people, it will come about because of their disobedience. Famine, therefore, would not have been some chance event; it would have been a clear indication of Yahweh’s judgment. In order for God’s people to once again find favor in His eyes, they must turn from their disobedience. 

     Yet, while Elimelech and Naomi may have lived during a period of Israel’s disobedience, does it necessarily mean that the couple themselves were disobedient to God? In order to understand the wider context of the narrative’s setting and how, ultimately, it contributes to the theology of the book of Ruth, it is first important to interpret the circumstances through the Mosaic Law. In other words, by uprooting from Bethlehem and moving to Moab, Elimelech and Naomi were in direct violation of Yahweh’s commands: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam…to curse you.” (Dt. 23:3-4). Scripture teaches that, as the nation of Israel travelled through the wilderness, the Moabite king attempted to curse the Israelites (Num. 22-24) and, when his plans were thwarted, sent out Moabite women in order to turn the hearts of the men of Israel away from Yahweh (Num. 25:1-3).

     When Naomi’s husband and, later, two sons die, she makes the decision to return to Israel and insists that her young daughters-in-law remain with their families in Moab. While it is not an explicit statement, Naomi’s response to her daughters indicates that God has punished her for her disobedience: “No my daughters, for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me.” The same allusion to punishment is made later when, having returned to Bethlehem, Naomi insists that she be called Mara “…for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full but the LORD has brought me back empty.” (1:20-21) It is reasonable to conclude that, like the rest of Israel during the time of the judges, Naomi did not live her life in obedience to Yahweh and, as she returns to Israel, recognizes her sin and the consequences of her unfaithfulness.

    The setting also serves as a contrast; Ruth –a Moabite woman – becomes a faithful follower of the God of the Israelites. In fact, in Ruth’s choosing of Yahweh, the narrative presents an interesting juxtaposition: Naomi’s disobedience brings about the redemption of a pagan foreigner who displays greater faith and loyalty than that of the Israelites. There are instances in the narrative that suggest that, as a Moabite, Ruth could expect to be mistreated. For example, in 2:9-10 Boaz instructs his servants not to touch her and, in response, Ruth is amazed that, given that she is a foreigner, He would even notice her. Yet, even though her standing in the community as a foreigner is precarious, Ruth earns an honourable reputation: “Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence.” (Ruth 3:11) Ironically, it is a Moabite, and not an Israelite, who is celebrated for her faithfulness.

A “Return” to Israel

     The reader quickly learns that Elimelech dies not long after they arrive in the land of Moab. In the years that follow, Naomi’s sons marry and eventually die, and so, left only with her Moabite daughters-in-law, Naomi learns that “the Lord had visited His people in giving them food.” (1:6). The implication is clear: since God punished Israel through a famine for their disobedience, His giving of food reveals that the Israelites have turned from the disobedience and, as a result, Yahweh brings an end to the famine. While, at this point in the story, the narrator gives no indication as to Naomi’s attitude toward Yahweh, her decision to return to her land parallels Israel’s turning back to God.

     Instead of leaving, Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. While Ruth’s plea in 1:16-17 will be dealt with in greater detail later in this study, suffice to say that she convinces Naomi to take her back with her to Israel. It is interesting to note the narrator’s words in 1:22: “So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (Italics mine). While it is obvious that Naomi is returning, or going back, to Israel, the narrator adds that Ruth, who is from Moab, is also returning to Israel. The Hebrew word for ‘return’ שׁוּב appears twelve times in 1:16-22. In Deuteronomy 30, after describing to the nation of Israel His punishment against disobedience and warning the Israelites against idol worship, שׁוּב is used as God implores His people to ‘return’ to Him when they have disobeyed:

…and you return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, then the Lord your God will restore you from captivity and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you…The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live (Dt. 30: 2-3, 5-6).

     With this in mind, the narrator of Ruth draws several parallels to the theme of ‘return’ outlined in Deuteronomy 30: the famine in Israel comes to an end, signifying the end of God’s judgment and the nation of Israel’s return; Naomi leaves without her sons, her husband, or a means to provide for herself and returns to Israel where, over time, her misfortune turns to blessing and; Ruth, a Moabitess ‘returns’ to Israel even though it is not her country of origin and not only finds favour and blessing, but also becomes part of the Davidic bloodline. Obedience and return are themes that are closely knit together and, in the book of Ruth, are exemplified in the narrative.

Ruth the Moabite

     As mentioned, the Deuteronomic covenant has a largely negative view of the Moabites and, as a result, restricts the Israelites from sojourning there. The fact that Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women further highlights their acts of disobedience. Therefore Ruth, as a Moabite, would naturally represent something offensive to a faithful Israelite. The reader is quickly made aware, however, that Ruth has chosen to follow Naomi to Israel and, in doing so, has made Naomi’s people, her people and Naomi’s god, her god (1:16). It would be understandable to presume that either Naomi or Ruth’s husband would have ‘converted’ Ruth so that, by marrying an Israelite, she would also worship the god of the Israelites. However, even though the narrator gives no specific background concerning Ruth’s religious affiliations, Ruth’s words reveal that, until 1:16, she had not pledged her fealty to Yahweh: “…for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” Notice that Ruth does not state that Naomi’s people are her people, nor is Yahweh already her God. It is at that moment when she decides to follow Naomi to Israel that she declares that Yahweh will be her God.

     The reader is not given a reason for Ruth’s conversion, although some scholars suggest that it would have been entirely expected that a foreigner, when entering a new land, would have sworn fealty to the god of that region. In fact, in his commentary on the book of Ruth, Daniel Block states that,

Like any Near Easterner of her time, she realized that if she would commit herself to Naomi and go home with her, she must also commit herself to Naomi’s people (Israel) and to Naomi’s God (Yahweh). Although some would interpret Ruth’s declaration as a sign of conversion, it is better viewed as an affirmation of a transfer of membership from the people of Moab to Israel and of allegiance from Chemosh to Yahweh.9

     While Block’s observation concerning the customs of the Ancient Near East (ANE) is accurate, it likely does not apply to Ruth’s commitment to Yahweh since, as mentioned, the narrator of Ruth is purposeful in his statement in 1:22 that Ruth is returning to Israel. The theological significance of her ‘return’ reveals that her decision to make Naomi’s god her god runs deeper than a cultural expectation. While scholars such as Block may contend that 1:22 does not constitute a formal “conversion” on the part of Ruth, she has committed herself to make Naomi’s people her people. There is significance to this statement beyond mere cultural conventions; Naomi’s ‘people’ were God’s chosen people who were in a covenantal relationship with Him. By declaring Naomi’s people as her own, Ruth has chosen to become an Israelite and, as a result, enter into a covenantal relationship with Yahweh.10

     Even if Ruth’s allegiance to Yahweh is borne out of a cultural norm, the narrative makes it apparent that she exhibits true faith in the God of Israel. This is where the notion of hesed plays a key role; Ruth displays a loving kindness and devotion beyond mere obligation or loyalty. In 3:10, when Ruth approaches Boaz at the threshing floor, Boaz provides an insightful observation: “Then he said, ‘May you be blessed of the LORD, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich.’” Boaz’s praise for Ruth stems from his acknowledgment of her act of hesed; he recognizes that she is taking a risk by approaching him and making such a bold proposal. However, the proposal was not made for her benefit since she could likely attract the attention of younger suitors, but instead it was for the benefit of Naomi: “Ruth’s primary demand is simply that he marry her, but Boaz knows as soon as she utters this word [kinsmen redeemer] that the stakes are higher, and this is what triggers his interpretation of her words as an act of hesed; they represent kindness and grace for the benefit of someone else.”11

     Given that hesed is a characteristic of Yahweh and, in these actions, Ruth has displayed true hesed, the author reveals that Ruth is not showing such lovingkindness out of obligation, but one borne out of her devotion to Yahweh. Furthermore, her hesed acts parallel Deutermony 30:6: “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD you God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” Ruth reveals that she has a “circumcised heart” as her actions are not done out of mandatory obedience to the Law but out of a loving devotion to Yahweh. Irmtraud Fisher states that “What is important is realizing God-like kindness in everyday life and in one’s whole plan of life – not whether or not one is of the right origin…The person who in his or her kindness is similar to YHWH’s kindness will not be excluded from YHWH’s people.”12 

Boaz the Redeemer

     Boaz is described as a kinsman of Elimelech and a man of great wealth and it is in his fields where Ruth goes to glean barley. Ruth draws the attention of Boaz and he instructs his servants to treat her kindly. Boaz, by all accounts, is a Godly man. Not only does he bestow blessings on the reapers and on Ruth herself, but his kindness and consideration of Ruth also reveals a gentle nature. While Boaz is often and correctly referred to as the “kinsman redeemer” in much of the literature that is written about him it would be, in the estimation of this study, more accurate to suggest that Yahweh is the redeemer and that Boaz is His instrument of hesed.

     When Ruth first encounters Boaz, the narrator states that she “happened” to come to Boaz’s field when she sets out to glean barley. (2: 3) However, the tone of the statement suggests that the narrator is merely being playful since the initial meeting between the pair is no chance encounter; it is, instead, providentially arranged. The reader is not told why Ruth draws the attention of Boaz but, after inquiring from his servant who she is and learning that she is a Moabite who returned with Naomi, he begins to treat her with great kindness. God’s sovereign hand is further revealed in 2:20 when, after Ruth informs Naomi that she gleaned from Boaz’s field and that he took notice of her, Naomi gives praise to Yahweh: “Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘May he be blessed of the LORD who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead.’ Again Naomi said to her, ‘The man is our relative, he is one of our closest relatives.’” Naomi recognizes the divine intervention of Yahweh in Ruth’s meeting of Boaz and, through her words of praise, leaves little room for the possibility that the meeting was a chance encounter. Naomi is so confident of Yahweh’s divine intervention that she boldly lays out a plan for Ruth to marry Boaz ultimately.

     One of the more curious events in the book of Ruth surrounds Elimelech’s land and the marriage of Ruth. In Ruth 4:1-11 Boaz takes ten men of the elders to the city gate and approaches Naomi’s closest relative who is unnamed. The relative is offered the right to purchase Naomi’s land but is warned that, if he chooses to redeem it, he must also marry Ruth. The unnamed relative, who appears unbothered by the legalities presented to him by Boaz, declines the purchase of Naomi’s land because he would somehow jeopardize his inheritance by doing so. Two legal considerations appear in this scene: the duties of the kinsman redeemer outlined in Leviticus 25 and the stipulations of levirate marriage described in Deuteronomy 25. Brad Embry aptly explains the problem: “While Ruth may qualify for levirate marriage, it is not clear that it is the kinsman redeemer’s job to fulfill it.”13 To put it another way, Deuteronomy 25 and Leviticus 25 refer to two laws. Boaz has somehow combined the stipulations of these laws into one legal obligation; in order to purchase Naomi’s land – which is the right of the closest relative – he must also take Ruth as his wife. If one were to accept, for a moment, that there was legal precedence for such an interpretation of these laws, it is curious that it is Ruth, and not Naomi, whom the kinsman redeemer must marry.

     A fuller exploration into the relationship between the kinsman redeemer and levirate marriage does not fall within the scope of this study. In short, scholars have offered different explanations as to the legalities behind the scene conveyed in Ruth 4. Perhaps one of the most compelling explanations suggests that the narrator had the regulations regarding Zelophehad’s daughters in mind from Numbers 27 and 30. Regardless, what does appear to connect the kinsman redeemer (property) and levirate marriage (progeny) is family loyalty.14 Central to this idea is the theme of hesed; Boaz, in his kindness and loyalty, becomes a redeemer to Naomi by preserving her inheritance and that of her family line, particularly Ruth’s deceased husband, through the ensured continuation of the bloodline.

The Genealogy

     Some scholars have argued that the genealogy tracing the bloodline from Judah’s son, Perez, to that of David is an attempt by the author to counter arguments concerning King David’s pedigree. In other words, since it was known that one of David’s descendants was a Moabite, he was not wholly and truly part of God’s chosen people. The book of Ruth, in displaying Ruth the Moabitess as someone who shows true devotion to Yahweh and His Law and is subsequently blessed for her obedience, seeks to demonstrate that, while a portion of David’s ancestry was of Moabite origin, his Moabite descendent is a true Israelite because of her faithful devotion to the God of Israel.

     It is curious to note that the genealogy in 4:18-22 traces David’s descendants starting with Perez and following a path through Boaz, not Elimelech or his son Mahlon. The levirate marriage between Boaz and Ruth resulted in the continuation of Elimelech’s familial line. According to the stipulation of levirate marriage, any children borne to Boaz and Ruth would, for all intents and purposes, be considered the progeny of Ruth’s former husband, Mahlon. Yet, the genealogy bypasses the rehabilitation of Elimelech’s family line and, instead, mentions Boaz as the descendent of the Davidic line.15 By keeping God’s hesed in sight, a plausible explanation can be offered: Boaz is recognized as the descendent of David because he was faithful to Yahweh, and through his lovingkindness and loyalty to Naomi and Ruth, he displayed hesed. Zvi Ron, in his article “The Genealogical List in the Book of Ruth: A Symbolic Approach,” points out that the genealogy in Ruth 4 follows a pattern similar to other OT genealogies: it lists ten generations and, by doing so, marks the transition from one epoch to another. In addition, the seventh person listed in the genealogy is typically highlighted in order to draw attention to the name.16 For example, in the genealogy of Adam to Noah in Genesis 5, the seventh individual listed is Enoch who, according to scripture, was known as a man who walked with God (Gen 5:24). While it is difficult to ascertain whether this was the intent of the author of the book of Ruth, the genealogy does make a point of highlighting Boaz who, as evidenced by the narrative, was a Godly man.

     Another related function of the genealogy is to underscore the faithfulness of Ruth: “…the genealogy seeks, perhaps majestically, to reinforce important themes in the tale. For example, by recalling David’s illustrious ancestry, it underscores the great reward granted Ruth for her loyalty.”17 Once again, the author emphasizes that faithful obedience and hesed mark a true person of God, not nationality. The ancestry of David – God’s chosen king – is highlighted not by ethnicity but by faithfulness. 

The Redemption of Naomi

     It is through the character of Naomi that the author fully fleshes out the theme of ‘return’ for it is through Naomi that the reader observes how, in returning to Yahweh, tragedy is transformed into blessing. Naomi’s first thoughts concerning Yahweh’s treatment of her are conveyed near the beginning of the narrative when, after having lost her husband and sons, returns to Israel: “She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’” (1:20-21) While her speech indicates a sense of bitterness, Naomi acknowledges that Yahweh brought misfortune into her life. Naomi also points out a vital consideration: Yahweh is the one who brought her back to Israel. As it has already been established, part of God’s hesed involves the punishment of his people in order that they might return to him. While Naomi may not recognize God’s hesed when she first returns to Bethlehem, the narrator, through Naomi’s very words, begins to establish a parallel between Naomi’s return and the hesed of God.

     In chapter two, Naomi’s attitude toward Yahweh takes on a decidedly more positive tone: “Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘May he be blessed of the LORD who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead.’” (2:20) Upon hearing that Ruth has drawn the attention of Boaz, Naomi acknowledges God’s work in the ‘chance’ encounter and, in doing so, recognizes God’s hesed. Yet, God does not work in Naomi’s circumstances directly, but through the character of Ruth. It is Ruth’s hesed, which reflects God’s lovingkindness, that brings about the redemption of Naomi. Potgieter and Taute are succinct in their observations concerning Ruth’s presence in the life of Naomi: “It is the darkest time in Naomi’s life…The story may have ended there if it had not been for Ruth’s living faith commitment to Naomi and her God. Naomi could have returned to Bethlehem alone, and without the greatest blessing from Yahweh – a ‘daughter’ like Ruth.”18

     Finally, as the narrative nears its conclusion, Naomi’s ‘return’ to Yahweh is complete. She is no longer bitter; her daughter-in-law has married a Godly man, Ruth gives birth to a son, thus ensuring the continuation of the family line and, through Boaz’s hesed, Naomi is no longer destitute. Through the words of some unnamed observers, the narrator fully reveals Yahweh’s sovereign lovingkindness: “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.” Once again Potgieter and Taute simply and effectively remark on the outcome: “Naomi, who descended into bitterness is transformed into Naomi once again, a member of God’s covenant people.”19

Conclusion

     The brilliance of the book of Ruth lies in its author’s ability to convey several themes in such a relatively short narrative. However, it is the story’s central theology, that of the importance of hesed that is most skillfully conveyed. Ruth, who hails from a pagan country, exemplifies faithfulness to Yahweh. Therefore, the theme of ‘return’ does not merely imply a return of wayward Israelites back to Yahweh but, in addition, a call to anyone who would renounce their idolatrous ways and turn to Yahweh. In the words of Potgieter and Taute, “…hesed is based on God’s covenantal relationship with His people. It is more valued by God than sacrifice (Mi 6:8) and those practicing hesed certainly meet with his approval. That is why Boaz and Ruth are honoured by Naomi, the elders and the women of Bethlehem and God’s people through the ages.”20

     Each time I conclude my overview of Ruth, I hope that my students will come to an invigorated appreciation for a story that many may have taken for granted since their days in Sunday school. Just as important, I want them to appreciate the unique discipline of Old Testament theology and begin to recognize how the OT lays the foundation for the major themes contained within the New Testament. A purposeful study of Old Testament theology enriches our understanding of the narrative as a whole and informs our approach to each OT book and, ultimately, our love for God’s Word. 

Endnotes

1 Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell, Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 8.

2 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 591.

3 Gerda de Villiers, and Jurie le Roux. “The Book of Ruth in the Time of the Judges and Ruth, the Moabitess.” Verbum et Ecclesia 37, 1 (2016), 3.

4 Unless otherwise stated, all scriptural passages are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Version (NASB) (Eugene: Harvest Houses, 1995).

5 Gerda de Villiers, and Jurie le Roux. “The Book of Ruth in the Time of the Judges and Ruth, the Moabitess.” Verbum et Ecclesia 37, 1 (2016), 3.

6 Villiers, and le Roux, “The Book of Ruth in the Time of the Judges and Ruth, the Moabitess,” 3.

7 G. Clark, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 266.

8 Robin L.Routledge, “Ḥesed as Obligation: A Re-Examination.” Tyndale Bulletin 46, 1 (May 1995), 188-189.

8 Edward F. Campbell, “Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth: Hesed and Change,” Austin Seminary Bulletin (Faculty Ed.) 105, 2 (1990): 69. Campbell also mentions the Orpah displayed an act of hesed by initially staying with Naomi after her husband died. The view of this study is that Orpah is not the focus of the narrative and therefore disagrees with Campbell’s assessment of Orpah’s hesed act.

9 Block, Judges, Ruth, 641.

10 Mark S. Smith, “‘Your People Shall Be My People’: Family and Covenant in Ruth 1:16-17,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69, 2 (April 2007), 257.

11 Block, Judges, Ruth, 695.

12 Irmtraud, Fischer, “The Book of Ruth as Exegetical Literature,” European Judaism 40, 2 (2007), 146.

13 Bradley Embry, “Legalities in the Book of Ruth: A Renewed Look,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41, 1 (September 2016), 34.

14 Thomas W. Mann,“Ruth 4,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology 64, 2 (April 2010), 178.

15 Carmel McCarthy, “The Davidic Genealogy in the Book of Ruth,” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 9 (1985), 57.

16 Zvi Ron, “The Genealogical List in the Book of Ruth: A Symbolic Approach,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, 2 (April 2010), 86.

17 Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 22.

18 Raymond Potgieter and Hermanus Taute, “The Message of the Book Ruth: A Reflection on Naomi’s Traumatic Journey to Mara and Back,” In Die Skriflig 54, 1 (2020), 5.

19 Potgieter and Taute, The Message of the Book Ruth, 5.

20 Ibid., 3.

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