The Book of Ruth is named for the Moabite woman who commits herself to the Israelite people by an oath to her mother-in-law Naomi and becomes the great-grandmother of David by marriage to Boaz of Bethlehem. Thus she is an ancestor in the messianic line that leads to Jesus (Mt 1:5).
The book portrays the love and loyalty of human beings in working their way through tragic circumstances to participation in the community of the faithful people of God. The key is responsible and loving decision-making: Ruth’s loyalty (2:11), her generosity (1:15–17; 2:2, 7) and her willingness to take risks for the sake of righteousness set in motion a chain of beneficial events, while behind the scenes God blesses each step in the developing drama. Ruth is so frequently designated “the Moabite” in the book that the audience of the story is constantly reminded of the universality of the embrace of salvation.
In the Greek and Latin canons, Ruth follows Judges, to which it is related by its opening time reference (“Once back in the time of the judges…”), and precedes Samuel, serving as transition from Israel as tribal union to monarchy. In the present sequence of the Hebrew canon it is placed among the “Writings” immediately after the Book of Proverbs, which ends with a powerful portrayal of “the woman of worth” (Prv 31:10–31; cf. Ru 3:11). Ruth is the primary liturgical text in Judaism for the celebration of the feast of Weeks (Shabuot).
The beauty of the story’s construction, its use of dialogue (nearly two thirds of the text), and the sheer drama of its content mark it as one of the classic short stories of world literature. Based on the recollection of an historical figure, a story is developed which grips its audience with profound insight into divine and human relationships. The story is presented from a point some time after the course of events, as is indicated by the explanation of an obscure custom in 4:7. Wherever and whenever it was told, its claim of God’s universal concern for humankind and the attractiveness of caring human responsibility shines forth.
The date of composition is disputed. Many authors date it early in the monarchy, and valid arguments can be presented for that position. Others argue for a postexilic date; they see the favorable presentation of a Moabite woman who became David’s grandmother as a counter to the stringent measures of Ezra and Nehemiah against marriage with Moabites and other non-Jews (Ezr 9–10; Neh 13:23–29).
Naomi in Moab. 1Once back in the time of the judges* there was a famine in the land; so a man from Bethlehem of Judah left home with his wife and two sons to reside on the plateau of Moab. 2The man was named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his sons Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem of Judah. Some time after their arrival on the plateau of Moab, 3Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4They married Moabite women, one named Orpah, the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion died also, and the woman was left with neither her two boys* nor her husband.
6She and her daughters-in-law then prepared to go back from the plateau of Moab because word had reached her there that the LORD had seen to his people’s needs* and given them food. 7She and her two daughters-in-law left the place where they had been living. On the road back to the land of Judah, 8Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you to your mother’s house.* May the LORD show you the same kindness as you have shown to the deceased and to me. 9a May the LORD guide each of you to find a husband and a home in which you will be at rest.” She kissed them good-bye, but they wept aloud, 10crying, “No! We will go back with you, to your people.” 11Naomi replied, “Go back, my daughters. Why come with me? Have I other sons in my womb who could become your husbands?* 12Go, my daughters, for I am too old to marry again. Even if I had any such hope, or if tonight I had a husband and were to bear sons, 13would you wait for them and deprive yourselves of husbands until those sons grew up? No, my daughters, my lot is too bitter for you, because the LORD has extended his hand against me.” 14Again they wept aloud; then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her.
15“See now,” she said, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her god. Go back after your sister-in-law!” 16* But Ruth said, “Do not press me to go back and abandon you!
Wherever you go I will go,
wherever you lodge I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people
and your God, my God.
17Where you die I will die,
and there be buried.
May the LORD do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!” 18Naomi then ceased to urge her, for she saw she was determined to go with her.
The Return to Bethlehem. 19So they went on together until they reached Bethlehem. On their arrival there, the whole town was excited about them, and the women asked: “Can this be Naomi?” 20b But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [‘Sweet’]. Call me Mara [‘Bitter’], for the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21* c I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why should you call me ‘Sweet,’ since the LORD has brought me to trial, and the Almighty has pronounced evil sentence on me.” 22Thus it was that Naomi came back with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who accompanied her back from the plateau of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.*
* [1:1–2] Back in the time of the judges: the story looks back three generations before King David (4:17) into the time of the tribal confederation described in the Book of Judges. David’s Moabite connections are implied in 1 Sm 22:3–4. Bethlehem of Judah: Bethlehem, a town in which part of the Judean clan-division called Ephrathah lived; cf. 1 Chr 2:50–51; 4:4; Mi 5:1. Jos 19:15 mentions a different Bethlehem in the north. The plateau of Moab: on the east side of the Jordan valley rift, where the hills facing west get more rain, and where agricultural conditions differ from those in Judah. Ephrathites: a reminder of David’s origins; cf. Mi 5:1.
* [1:5] Boys: the way the storyteller chooses certain words as guides is shown here; “boy” will not appear again until 4:16.
* [1:6] Had seen to his people’s needs: lit., “had visited his people.”
* [1:8] Mother’s house: the women’s part of the home, but also perhaps the proper location for arranging marriage; Sg 3:4; 8:2; Gn 24:28. Kindness: Hebrew hesed. The powerful relationship term used here will recur in 2:20 and 3:10; kindness operates on both the divine-human and human-human level in Ruth.
* [1:11] Other sons…husbands: a reference to a customary practice known from Dt 25:5–10, levirate marriage, which assigns responsibility to the brother-in-law to produce heirs in order to perpetuate the name and hold the patrimonial land of a man who died childless. How far the responsibility extended beyond blood brothers is unclear; cf. Gn 38:8 and the upcoming scene in Ru 4:5–6. Naomi imagines the impossible: were she to have more sons they could take Ruth and Orpah as their wives.
* [1:16–17] Ruth’s adherence to her mother-in-law in 1:14 is now expressed in a profound oath of loyalty, culminating in a formulary found frequently in Samuel and Kings; cf. especially 1 Sm 20:13. Even death: burial in Naomi’s family tomb means that not even death will separate them.
* [1:21] Naomi’s despair is made clear by her play on the meaning of her name in v. 20 and now by her accusation, like that in many psalms and in Job, that God has acted harshly toward her. The language belongs to the realm of judicial proceedings. By crying out in this way, the faithful Israelite opens the door to change, since the cry assumes that God hears and will do something about such seemingly unjust circumstances.
* [1:22] Barley and wheat harvests come in succession, from as early as April–May into June–July; Dt 16:9–12 suggests that the grain harvest lasts about seven weeks. The time reference leads effectively to the next episode.
a. [1:9] Ru 3:1.
b. [1:20] Ex 15:23.
c. [1:21] Ru 3:17; 1 Kgs 17:20.
The Meeting. 1* Naomi had a powerful relative named Boaz,a through the clan of her husband Elimelech. 2* Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “I would like to go and glean grain in the field of anyone who will allow me.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” 3So she went. The field she entered to glean after the harvesters happened to be the section belonging to Boaz, of the clan of Elimelech. 4* Soon, along came Boaz from Bethlehem and said to the harvesters, “The LORD be with you,” and they replied, “The LORD bless you.” 5Boaz asked the young man overseeing his harvesters, “Whose young woman is this?” 6The young man overseeing the harvesters answered, “She is the young Moabite who came back with Naomi from the plateau of Moab.b 7* She said, ‘I would like to gather the gleanings into sheaves after the harvesters.’ Ever since she came this morning she has remained here until now, with scarcely a moment’s rest.”
8Boaz then spoke to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Do not go to glean in anyone else’s field; you are not to leave here. Stay here with my young women. 9Watch to see which field is to be harvested, and follow them. Have I not commanded the young men to do you no harm? When you are thirsty, go and drink from the vessels the young people have filled.” 10Casting herself prostrate upon the ground, she said to him, “Why should I, a foreigner, be favored with your attention?” 11c Boaz answered her: “I have had a complete account of what you have done for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death; you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom previously you did not know. 12d May the LORD reward what you have done! May you receive a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” 13She said, “May I prove worthy of your favor, my lord. You have comforted me. You have spoken to the heart of your servant*—and I am not even one of your servants!” 14At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and have something to eat; dip your bread in the sauce.” Then as she sat near the harvesters, he handed her some roasted grain and she ate her fill and had some left over. 15As she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young people: “Let her glean among the sheaves themselves without scolding her, 16and even drop some handfuls and leave them for her to glean; do not rebuke her.”
17She gleaned in the field until evening, and when she beat out what she had gleaned it came to about an ephah* of barley, 18which she took into the town and showed to her mother-in-law. Next she brought out what she had left over from the meal and gave it to her. 19So her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you go to work? May the one who took notice of you be blessed!” Then she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked. “The man at whose place I worked today is named Boaz,” she said. 20e “May he be blessed by the LORD, who never fails to show kindness to the living and to the dead,” Naomi exclaimed to her daughter-in-law. She continued, “This man is a near relative of ours, one of our redeemers.”* 21“He even told me,” added Ruth the Moabite, “Stay with my young people until they complete my entire harvest.” 22“You would do well, my daughter,” Naomi rejoined, “to work with his young women; in someone else’s field you might be insulted.” 23So she stayed gleaning with Boaz’s young women until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.
* [2:1] Kinship ties and responsibilities now become very important. Boaz is introduced as one of a group surrounding Naomi through her husband’s kin who are expected to extend care. The particular term used here (moda‘, “relative”) is picked up in 3:2; otherwise, most of the terminology about this responsibility to care will use the vocabulary of redeeming (go’el, “redeemer”).
* [2:2] Israelite custom made provision for the poor, the widow, the stranger and the orphan to gather what was left behind by the harvesters, and instructed farmers not to cut to the edges of their fields, for the sake of these marginalized; Lv 19:9–10; 23:22; Dt 24:19–22.
* [2:4] The story brings Boaz upon the scene quickly, but he moves among his workers with the grace of a man of prominence, greeting them and being received with courtesy. The Hebrew blessing formulas used are frequent in Jewish and Christian liturgies.
* [2:7] The verse is somewhat garbled, but the points are clear that Ruth has been appropriately deferential in seeking permission to glean, and has worked steadily since arriving. Or perhaps she has waited patiently until Boaz arrives to gain permission.
* [2:13] Servant: only here is the language of servanthood used. Ruth has spoken with very deferential words to Boaz, but then seems to think that she has assumed too much.
* [2:17] Ephah: see note on Is 5:10.
* [2:20] For the first time, the story uses the Hebrew word go’el, “redeemer,” for the responsibilities of the circle of kinship surrounding Naomi and Ruth and their deceased relatives. Involved are the recovery or retention of family land (Lv 25:25; 27:9–33; Jer 32:6–25), release of a relative from voluntary servitude to pay debts (Lv 25:47–55), and “redeeming blood” or vengeance, attested in passages which regulate such vengeance. No explicit connection is made elsewhere in the Bible between marriage responsibilities and redeeming.
a. [2:1] Ru 3:2, 12; Mt 1:5.
b. [2:6] Ru 1:22.
c. [2:11] Ru 1:14–17.
d. [2:12] Ru 3:9; Dt 32:37; Ps 91:4.
e. [2:20] Gn 24:27; Lv 25:25; 27:9–33.
Ruth Again Presents Herself. When Ruth was back with her mother-in-law, 1Naomi said to her, “My daughter, should I not be seeking a pleasing home for you?a 2* Now! Is not Boaz,b whose young women you were working with, a relative of ours? This very night he will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. 3Now, go bathe and anoint yourself; then put on your best attire and go down to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man before he has finished eating and drinking. 4But when he lies down, take note of the place where he lies; then go uncover a place at his feet* and you lie down. He will then tell you what to do.” 5“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth replied. 6She went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her.
7Boaz ate and drank to his heart’s content, and went to lie down at the edge of the pile of grain. She crept up, uncovered a place at his feet, and lay down. 8Midway through the night, the man gave a start and groped about, only to find a woman lying at his feet. 9“Who are you?” he asked. She replied, “I am your servant Ruth. Spread the wing of your cloak* over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” 10He said, “May the LORD bless you, my daughter! You have been even more loyal now than before in not going after the young men, whether poor or rich. 11Now rest assured, my daughter, I will do for you whatever you say; all my townspeople know you to be a worthy woman.* 12c Now, I am in fact a redeemer, but there is another redeemer closer than I.* 13Stay where you are for tonight, and tomorrow, if he will act as redeemer for you, good. But if he will not, as the LORD lives, I will do it myself. Lie there until morning.”d 14So she lay at his feet until morning, but rose before anyone could recognize another, for Boaz had said, “Let it not be known that this woman came to the threshing floor.” 15Then he said to her, “Take off the shawl you are wearing; hold it firmly.” When she did so, he poured out six measures of barley and helped her lift the bundle; then he himself left for the town.
16She, meanwhile, went home to her mother-in-law, who asked, “How did things go, my daughter?” So she told her all the man had done for her, 17and concluded, “He gave me these six measures of barley and said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty.’”e 18Naomi then said, “Wait here, my daughter, until you learn what happens, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”
* [3:2] Ruth’s determined action to bring relief to Naomi’s and her own circumstances now impels Naomi to move, using means available in Israelite custom which no one in the story has up to this point brought into play.
* [3:4] Uncover a place at his feet: Naomi advocates a course of action that will lead Boaz to act. Israelite custom and moral expectations strongly suggest that there is no loss of virtue involved in the scene.
* [3:9] Spread the wing of your cloak: Ez 16:8 makes it clear that this is a request for marriage. Ruth connects it to “redeemer” responsibility. A wordplay on “wing” links what Boaz is asked to do to what he has asked God to do for Ruth in 2:12.
* [3:11] Worthy woman: the language corresponds to the description of Boaz in 2:1 (lit., “strong and worthy”); the two worthy people are linked in character to one another, as they have already proven to be in their generous behavior toward the ones in need of their care. The townspeople, lit., “all the gate of my people,” will ratify this at the gate in the sequel.
* [3:12] Another redeemer closer than I: Boaz knows of a closer relative who would have a prior right to buy the field and marry Ruth.
a. [3:1] Ru 1:9.
b. [3:2] Ru 2:1.
c. [3:12] Ru 4:1.
d. [3:13] Ru 1:16; 4:5.
e. [3:17] Ru 1:21.
Boaz Marries Ruth. 1Boaz went to the gate* and took a seat there. Along came the other redeemera of whom he had spoken. Boaz called to him by name, “Come, sit here.” And he did so. 2Then Boaz picked out ten of the elders* of the town and asked them to sit nearby. When they had done this, 3he said to the other redeemer: “Naomi, who has come back from the plateau of Moab, is putting up for sale the piece of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4* So I thought I would inform you. Before those here present, including the elders of my people, purchase the field; act as redeemer.b But if you do not want to do it, tell me so, that I may know, for no one has a right of redemption prior to yours, and mine is next.” He answered, “I will act as redeemer.”
5* Boaz continued, “When you acquire the field from Naomi, you also acquire responsibility for Ruth the Moabite,c the widow of the late heir, to raise up a family for the deceased on his estate.” 6The redeemer replied, “I cannot exercise my right of redemption for that would endanger my own estate. You do it in my place, for I cannot.” 7d Now it used to be the custom in Israel that, to make binding a contract of redemption or exchange, one party would take off a sandal* and give it to the other. This was the form of attestation in Israel. 8So the other redeemer, in saying to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” drew off his sandal. 9Boaz then said to the elders and to all the people, “You are witnesses today that I have acquired from Naomi all the holdings of Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon. 10I also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as my wife, in order to raise up a family for her late husband on his estate, so that the name of the deceased may not perish from his people and his place. Do you witness this today?” 11e All those at the gate, including the elders, said, “We do. May the LORD make this woman come into your house like Rachel and Leah, who between them built up the house of Israel. Prosper in Ephrathah! Bestow a name in Bethlehem! 12With the offspring the LORD will give you from this young woman, may your house become like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”*
13Boaz took Ruth. When they came together as husband and wife, the LORD enabled her to conceive and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the LORD who has not failed to provide you today with a redeemer. May he become famous in Israel! 15He will restore your life and be the support of your old age, for his mother is the daughter-in-law who loves you. She is worth more to you than seven sons!” 16Naomi took the boy, cradled him* against her breast, and cared for him. 17The neighbor women joined the celebration: “A son has been born to Naomi!”f They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18g These are the descendants of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron,h 19Hezron was the father of Ram, Ram was the father of Amminadab, 20i Amminadab was the father of Nahshon, Nahshon was the father of Salma, 21Salma was the father of Boaz, Boaz was the father of Obed, 22j Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David.
* [4:1] The gate of an Israelite town was the place where commercial and other legal matters were dealt with in publicly witnessed fashion.
* [4:2] Ten of the elders: to serve as judges in legal matters as well as witnesses of the settlement of business affairs; cf. Dt 25:7–9.
* [4:4] Although the laws governing inheritance by Israelite widows are not specified in the Bible, Naomi seems to have the right of disposal of a piece of Elimelech’s land. The redemption custom in Lv 25:25 would then guide the procedure.
* [4:5–6] Although redemption and levirate practices are not otherwise linked in the Bible, they belong in the same area of need. Boaz claims that buying Elimelech’s field obligates the other redeemer to produce an heir for Mahlon, who would then inherit the land. That would jeopardize this redeemer’s overall holdings, since he would lose the land he had paid for. He can afford the first step but not the second, and cedes his responsibility to Boaz, who is willing to do both.
* [4:7] Take off a sandal: the legislation in Dt 25:8–10 provides that if a “redeemer” refuses to carry out the obligation of marrying his brother’s wife, the woman shall strip off his sandal as a gesture of insult. In later years, when the obligation of carrying out this function of the “redeemer” was no longer keenly felt, the removal of the sandal may have become a formalized way of renouncing the rights/obligations of the “redeemer,” as in this text.
* [4:12] Gn 38 contains a story about Tamar similar to Ruth’s in levirate marriage. Judah, under less laudable circumstances, fulfills the same role as Boaz will, and Perez, son of Judah and Tamar, perpetuates the line. Thus two non-Israelite women, Tamar and Ruth, are important links in David’s genealogy.
* [4:16] Cradled him: the child belongs to Naomi in the sense that he now becomes the redeemer in the family, as stated in 4:14. This tender act by Naomi is not necessarily adoptive and differs from the relationship in Gn 30:3; cf. Nm 11:12. Naomi now has a “boy” to replace her two lost “boys” in 1:5.
a. [4:1] Ru 3:12.
b. [4:4] Lv 25:25.
c. [4:5] Ru 3:13.
d. [4:7] Dt 25:9.
e. [4:11] Gn 29:31–30:24; 35:16–19.
f. [4:17] Lk 1:58.
g. [4:18–22] 1 Chr 2:4–15; Mt 1:3–6.
h. [4:18] Gn 46:12; Nm 26:21; 1 Chr 4:1.
i. [4:20] Ex 6:23; Nm 1:7; 2:3; 7:12–17; 10:14.
j. [4:22] 1 Sm 16:2–13.