1. Title. The book of Ruth forms an appendix to the book of Judges, and an introduction to the following two historical books of Samuel. It receives its title from the name of the person whose story it tells. Hebrew proper names have meanings. These are lost to the reader of the English translation of the Bible, because the translators have simply transliterated the proper names without attempting to give their meanings. Ruth was a Moabitish woman, and naturally her name is not Hebrew. The derivation and meaning of the name are uncertain, though some think it may be related to the verb ra‘ah, “to associate with,” and thus mean “friend,” or “friendship.” The book of Ruth gives us, not the story of romantic love, but of the reverential love of a young widow for the mother of her deceased husband. The love portrayed in the character of Ruth is of the purest, most unselfish, and extraordinary kind. Though a Moabitess, Ruth accepted Naomi’s faith as her own, and was rewarded by marriage to a Jewish nobleman, Boaz, by whom she became the ancestress of David, and thus, eventually, of Christ.
2. Authorship. Critics have debated the authorship of the book of Ruth. As in the case of the book of Daniel, there are some who set the date of writing early and some who set it much later. The theory of a postexilic origin for Ruth is ably presented in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Some critics have assumed that the book represents a subtle argument in favor of intermarriage between the Jews and other peoples, since it states that David descended from such a marriage. They suggest that it was written in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah as a protest against their stringent laws prohibiting marriage between Jews and non-Jews. The five chief reasons set forth by those who believe that the book of Ruth was written in postexilic times are these: 1. The expression “in the days when the judges ruled” (ch. 1:1) implies a later date for the writing of the book.
2. The fact that the book of Ruth appears in the third section of the Hebrew canon implies late composition. 3. The book contains a number of Aramaisms which would not appear in a pre-exilic narrative. 4. The genealogy at the close of the book shows definite influence of the priestly school. 5. The expression “in former time” (ch. 4:7) seems to imply that the shoe ceremony and the redemption of land and women were no longer practiced.
These arguments are, however, far from conclusive. The expression “in the days when the judges ruled” implies no more than that the book of Ruth, as we have it, was written after the close of the period of the judges, but not necessarily long after. It is interesting to note that in one of the oldest versions, the LXX, this book is added to the book of Judges without even a separate title, as if it were truly the concluding part of Judges, a kind of appendix. The position of Ruth in the present Hebrew canon is no valid argument for the lateness of its composition. The present Hebrew canon is itself of late origin, and the position of the book of Ruth in the early versions is the same as that in which we find it in the KJV, after the book of Judges and in some cases with no separate heading of its own. A detailed study has shown that the Aramaic words to which the critics have pointed as proof of a late origin occur also in other writings whose pre-exilic dating is uncontested. The genealogy at the close of the book of Ruth would not be satisfactory proof of postexilic origin unless it first be granted that certain portions of the books of Moses and Joshua are also of postexilic origin. The expression “in former time” may imply that the shoe ceremony and the redemption of land and of widows are of the past, but not necessarily of the long-forgotten past. In fact, a careful study of the book of Ruth has led many scholars to the conclusion that the book is likely to have been of pre- exilic origin. This is doubtless all that can be said as to the date of the writing of the book of Ruth. The written form of the book of Ruth, as we now have it, probably originated in the time of David himself, and it seems to fit best in the early days of his reign. Some have thought that Samuel was the author of the story in its present form. This would explain the position of the book of Ruth at the close of the book of Judges and preceding Samuel (see on Judges 17:1; 18:29). Its position in the later Hebrew canon would naturally be among the Writings, since it could not appropriately be included among the books of Moses or among the prophets. According to Jewish tradition, as recorded in the Talmud, the prophet Samuel wrote not only the books bearing his name but also the book of Judges and that of Ruth. Though not itself a prophecy, the book of Ruth may accordingly have been written by one of the greatest of prophets.
3. Historical Setting. The setting of the story is explicitly stated in the opening words of the book: “In the days when the judges ruled, ... there was a famine in the land.” Yet this statement is by no means definite, for there was more than one famine in the land of Palestine during the time of the judges. However, by comparing the genealogy of David as given in the last verses of the book of Ruth with David’s genealogy as given in the first chapter of Matthew, we discover Boaz’ mother listed as Rahab. There are no compelling reasons for supposing this to be any other than the Rahab of Jericho (see on Matt. 1:5). If she was his own mother, the book of Ruth would come rather early in the period of the judges. On the other hand, ancient tradition, followed by Josephus, places the events of the book of Ruth in the time of Eli, which would better fit Boaz as David’s great- grandfather. Either could be true, since “mother” and “father” can also mean grandparent or ancestor (see on 1 Kings 15:10; Ezra 7:1).
The picture of customs, society, and government reflected in the book of Ruth agrees with that given of the period of the judges as set forth in the book of Judges itself. This becomes more evident as one studies the details of the Ruth narrative. The suggestion that the famine mentioned is the one that occurred in the time of Gideon is most improbable, for there is no indication that the famine recorded in the book of Ruth was caused by armed invaders (Ruth 1:1, 2; cf. Judges 6:3-6). The book gives no hint of war; in fact, when Naomi decided to return home, it was because she heard that Jehovah had visited His people and given them bread (see on Ruth 1:6). This implies that the famine was not the result of war but of drought.
As already stated, the Greek translators of the Old Testament Scriptures made this book an appendix to the book of Judges, with no division or title of its own. Later editions of this translation, the LXX, inserted Telos ton kriton, “the end of the Judges,” to indicate where the break came between Judges and Ruth, and Telos tes Routh, “the end of Ruth,” at the close of the narrative. The book of Ruth occupies a different place in the present Hebrew canon. It is one of five rolls read in the synagogue on five special occasions or festivals during the year. In printed editions of the Hebrew Old Testament these rolls are usually arranged in the following order: Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Ruth occupies the second position because the book was appointed to be read at the Feast of Weeks, later known as Pentecost, the second of the five special festivals. As already noted, translators of the LXX appended Ruth to the book of Judges. This corresponds well with the time of Eli, the high priest, in the latter days of whose life Samuel was called to the prophetic office. An important act of Samuel’s life was the anointing of Saul, the first king of Israel. The last words of the book of Judges read, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Moab was, at this time, a district east of the Dead Sea, between the river Arnon and the brook Zered. Its eastern boundary was indefinite, being the great desert of Arabia. This region is a high, fertile tableland, averaging some 3,000 ft. (914.6 m.) above the level of the Mediterranean Sea and 4,300 ft. (1,311 m.) above the level of the Dead Sea. Though the rainfall is usually sufficient to mature the crops, people living in the uplands augment their supply of water by means of cisterns. Many of those used in ancient times are now in ruins. Formerly the population must have been far greater than now. The fertility of the country in ancient times is indicated by the numerous towns and villages known to have existed there, and mentioned in the Scriptures. The land of Moab still provides good pasture for sheep and cattle, as it did in ancient times. The Moabites were of Semitic stock, being descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Their chief deity was Chemosh, who seems to have been propitiated by human sacrifices (see 2 Kings 3:26, 27). We know but little of the history of the Moabites after the account of their origin, given in Gen. 19, until the time of the Exodus. Some time before the establishment of the kingdom in Israel, the Amorites occupied that part of Moab lying north of the Arnon, but Israel subdued the Amorites and occupied their part of what had been Moabite territory (see Num. 21:26; Judges 11:12-27; see on Num. 21:13; 22:1). When Balak, the son of Zippor, saw that the Israelites encamped upon the very borders of his country, he entered into an alliance with the Midianites and called in the aid of the apostate prophet Balaam.
An inscription of Ramses II on the base of a statue at Luxor boasts of the conquest of Moab. Israel was oppressed by Eglon of Moab, with the aid of Ammon and Amalek (Judges 3:13, 14), but Eglon was assassinated by Ehud, and the Moabite yoke was cast off. King Saul smote Moab, but did not subdue it (1 Sam. 14:47), for we find David placing his father and mother under the protection of the king of Moab when he was pursued by Saul (1 Sam. 22:3, 4). The fact that David’s great-grandmother, Ruth, was a Moabitess may explain why David would place his father and mother under the protection of the king of Moab when he fled from King Saul. But this friendship between David and Moab did not continue. When David became king he made war on Moab and completely defeated it.
There were two Bethlehems in ancient Palestine. One was situated in territory assigned to the tribe of Zebulun, the other in Judah. Because of possible confusion the writer of the book of Ruth definitely notes twice, at the very beginning of his account, that the Bethlehem of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons was Bethlehem-judah (ch. 1:1, 2). The Bethlehem in Zebulun is mentioned in Joshua 19:15 as one of the 12 cities in the inheritance of the children of Zebulun. There is still a small village in northern Palestine at the place where this Bethlehem is thought to have been situated. But it is the Bethlehem in Judah that interests us. It is a town of some 15,000 inhabitants, 5 1/4 mi. (8.4 km.) south of Jerusalem and about 2,400 ft. (731.7 m.) above sea level. It occupies an outstanding position on a spur running east from the watershed. It is just off the main road to Hebron and the south. The position is one of natural strength, and was occupied by a garrison of Philistines in the days of David (2 Sam. 23:14; 1 Chron. 11:16).
4. Theme. There is narrative that is historic, and narrative that is epic. The word epic is applied to narrative whose appeal is not primarily to our sense of information but to our creative imagination and to the emotions. An epic is usually written in poetic form. A peculiarity of Hebrew poetry, however, is that its verse system is based on parallelism of thought rather than on exact meter and rhyme. This characteristic also appears, to a lesser extent, in Hebrew prose. Thus, in Hebrew, the classification of literature depends more on the nature of the thought than on the form of expression. Hebrew epics are portions of the national history fitted into their proper place in the narrative. Appreciation of the Bible as literature calls for a recognition of the different forms of narrative used by Bible writers. The chief purpose of the book of Ruth is to give information concerning the immediate ancestors of David, the greatest of the kings of Israel, the one in whose line was to come the Messiah. Christ is to be the eventual ruler of the kingdom of Israel after the spirit, the leader of the eternal theocracy. Christ spoke of His kingdom as the kingdom of heaven, to distinguish it from the kingdoms of this present world. The book of Ruth thus provides a cheering link in the inspired narrative of the kingdom Christ came to establish. At the same time Ruth presents a most appealing picture of the blessings of the ideal home. There are two institutions that have come down to us from before the fall of man— the Sabbath and the home. The home was established by God Himself on the sixth day of the first week of time, and the Sabbath on the seventh day of the same week. The Sabbath is not Jewish, for, as the Creator Himself said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Both the Sabbath and the home have become the special objects of Satan’s attacks.
The relationship of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is a subject of amusement to many. But not so that of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. After a sojourn of ten years in the land of Moab, Naomi, whose husband and two sons had died, learned that a condition of plenty again prevailed in the land of Judah, and decided to return. Ruth, with a devotion that speaks almost as much for Naomi as it does for Ruth herself, broke all ties of home and kindred to accompany her. With a last look at the fertile fields of her homeland, Moab, and with an impassioned outburst to Naomi, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,” she entered a strange land, united with God’s true people, and became a worshiper of the God of heaven. This devotion to her mother-in-law resulted, finally, in her becoming one of the progenitors of David, the sweet psalmist of Israel; Solomon, the wisest of the sons of men; Zerubbabel, the later Moses; and the Messiah, the son of David. Finally the story is replete with superb examples of faith, piety, humility, industry, and loving-kindness revealed in the ordinary occurrences of life. Thus we have in the story of Ruth, not only a charming gem of Hebrew literature, but also a significant comment on a part of the genealogy of Christ (see on Matt. 1:4-6).
Israel should have been prepared by a study of this narrative to understand God’s plan for the salvation of individuals of all nations who would do as Ruth the Moabitess did— accept the God whose character had been represented to them by His servants. It was God’s plan that many would thus be so transformed in character as to be prepared individually to become citizens of the eternal kingdom of Christ (see COL 290).
I. Sojourn in the Land of Moab, 1:1–18. A. Naomi loses her husband and two sons, 1:1–5. 1. Famine in the land of Judah, 1:1.
2. Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons go to Moab, 1:2.