There is a vigorous debate among Biblical scholars regarding the origins of “The Scroll of Ruth.” Is Ruth, in fact, a late Biblical text, or not? Clearly the writer of the text intended for it to be akin to the Judges period in Israelite history, hence why it was placed with the former prophets, between Judges and Samuel in the Greek Septuagint, and consequently in the same spot in the latter Christian canonical order. The writer opens the text with: “And it happened in the days when the judges ruled…” (1:1, per the Robert Alter translation) mirroring the classical Biblical style, though the scroll was likely written much later, perhaps after the Babylonian exile, due to its unique narrative structure. It contains four chapters.
It tells of a man, Elimelech, who takes his family from Bethlehem to the plains of Moab due to famine. Moab is the land east of the Jordan River, east of Israel, in present-day Jordan. While on the plains Elimelech dies, leaving his wife Naomi (meaning “pleasant” or “sweet”) and their two sons who take Moabite wives: Orpah (“nape”, a slang for flight, or departure, per her actions in the story) and Ruth (unclear name origin, perhaps re’ut meaning “friendship”).
Then, both sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law alone. Orpah decides to return to Moab but Ruth “clings” to Naomi. “Where you go I will go,” says Ruth in honoring her commitment. She returns to Bethlehem with Naomi in time for the barley harvest, causing a stir in the town. Naomi changes her name to “Mara” and twice refers to God as “Shaddai,” an archaic Canaanite reference.
Ruth goes out into a neighbor’s field for the harvest in order to attract Boaz, a former family friend of Naomi, now called Mara. Boaz welcomes her into his home and allows her to glean the barley harvest from his field, knowing that she left her family for a strange land with her mother-in-law. One night, at the behest of Naomi, Ruth visits Boaz and uncovers his feet to persuade him to “redeem”, or wed her. Boaz seeks the approval of the town elders first to claim all the property that was once Elimilech’s, and he takes Ruth as a wife. She gives birth to a son, Obed, named by neighboring women, and meaning “worshipper.” Obed is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David.
The Book of Ruth is a text about “going” and “coming back” and “clinging” to one another. It is a simple book, and it appeals to a common humanism found in its characters. The setting of Ruth is bucolic, on the dry plains of Moab and in the remote town of Bethlehem (“house of bread”). Ruth is a foreigner from Moab and a hard worker, as evidenced by her long hours working in the barley fields. She decides to “go back” to Bethlehem from the plains of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi, after Naomi’s entire family dies, and Ruth accepts the customs and the God of the Israelites. She finds favor in the eyes of a gentleman, Boaz, who honors her devotion and servitude, and he takes her for a wife. She gives birth to Obed, grandfather of David.
The book is simple, and beckons the reader to consider simple times amidst pleasant, amiable countrymen, wherein a stranger proves herself worthy through hard work and dedication, and she is rewarded with blessings. Both the books of Ruth and Esther are similar in the Ketuvim (“writings”) in that they are fantasy tales (one in Bethlehem and the other in Persia) of two noble women overcoming hardship and finding favor with their compatriots, as well as with their God.
For this reading I used Robert Alter’s translation.