An Introduction to the Book of Ruth

Michael G. Wechsler
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As with several of the books in the biblical canon, the writer of Ruth is not identified in the book itself. According to long-standing Jewish (and hence Christian) tradition it was written by Samuel. One of the oldest strata of the Babylonian Talmud (Bava’ Batra’ 14b) records: “Samuel wrote down his own book [i.e., Samuel, up to 1Sm 24:22], Judges, and Ruth.” There is no reason to doubt this tradition, as the scribal/recording role of the early Jewish prophets—and Samuel in particular—is attested elsewhere (1Ch 29:29; 1Sm 10:25). Moreover, as recognized by scholars specializing in historical Hebrew linguistics, the style and phraseology of the Hebrew in Ruth are indeed that of the early biblical period, being similar to that attested in Judges, Samuel, and the earlier parts of Kings. As the writer, therefore, Samuel would most likely have written Ruth sometime toward the end of the 11th century BC, after the enthronement of David recorded in 2Sm 5:3 (or, at the earliest, after his anointing in 1Sm 16).


The purpose of the book of Ruth is not simply to provide us with information concerning the genealogy of David (and hence of the messianic “Son of David,” Jesus; see Mt 1). For that the last five verses of the book alone would suffice—and even they are not essential, as the same information is given in a fuller genealogical context in 1Ch 2:3-15. Rather, the purpose of Ruth is to present within the genealogy of David a positive case study of what may be termed an “anatomy” of faith in the present world. It encompasses the breadth of faith’s operation—i.e., those crucial moments when faith is tested, the much longer period of perseverance in faith, and the rewards for such that God may extend in this life. Moreover, with the exemplar of faith in this case being Ruth the Moabitess, the book also addresses the extent of faith’s application—i.e., that this operation of true faith and the blessing that attends it potentially applies to those who are not ethnic Israelites (descendants of Jacob).

Indeed, it is this latter point in particular that helps explain why this example of faith is presented within the genealogy of David. Her association with one of the most respected figures in Jewish history who is also, together with Abraham, the recipient of God’s most prominent messianic promises (see 2Sm 7), ensures that her Moabite (i.e., pagan) genealogy is not ultimately held against her (even though the kinsman closer than Boaz does hold it against her; see comment on Ru 4:6).

Rather, her Gentile status is in fact highlighted as a reminder of God’s divine intent in choosing Israel and establishing the Davidic-messianic dynasty in the first place: to bring the blessing of faith in the true God to “all families of the earth” (see Gn 12:3 and comments there). It is this same point, no doubt, that Matthew intended at the outset of his Gospel (Mt 1:3-5). There he explicitly, and very unconventionally, mentioned Ruth as the third of three Gentile women in the genealogy of David, and hence of Jesus. (The previous two were Tamar and Rahab, who was Boaz’s mother!) Thus, he underscores the universal scope of the Messiah’s ministry and the motivating breadth and depth of the Father’s love in commissioning Him.


In Christian Bibles Ruth appears among the “Historical Books,” the second of four divisions into which the Old Testament is divided. This follows the older ordering of books adopted by Hellenistic Jewry (i.e., Greek-speaking Jews living outside the land of Israel). This ordering is attested in the Septuagint (a Gk. translation of the Hb. Bible begun c. 280–60 BC), which reflects primarily a genrebased (i.e., stylistic) division and organization of the biblical books.

In the enduring Jewish tradition, on the other hand, Ruth appears among the books collectively known as the Ketuvim (lit., “Writings”). The Writings are the third and last division of the Hebrew Bible according to the tradition of the Jews living in the land of Israel (sometimes referred to as the “Palestinian” tradition). This tradition reflects primarily a thematic (and to a lesser extent liturgical) division and organization of the biblical books.

Within the Writings, moreover, Ruth is part of the smaller collection known as the “Five Scrolls” (hamesh megillot), comprising five small books that are traditionally read in the synagogue during one of the yearly Jewish holidays. As attested by the oldest complete and most authoritative manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is the first of these Five Scrolls and follows the book of Proverbs. It is read on the Feast of Weeks, known per Hellenistic tradition as Pentecost (see further in “Purpose”). The thematic—even homiletical—concern underlying this organization becomes evident when one considers that Proverbs closes with an ideal description of the “woman of valor” (eshet hayil; Pr 31:10). This expression occurs outside of Proverbs only in Ru 3:11, with reference to Ruth herself (see further “The Woman of Valor” below).


Several themes appear in the book of Ruth and figure in its interpretation.

(1) The Kinsman Redeemer.

The book provides the only clear biblical enactment of the Mosaic law concerning the “kinsman redeemer”—or, as the process is otherwise designated, “levirate marriage”—described in Dt 25:5-6 (where “brothers” probably signifies the closest male relations). According to this law, the closest male relative (yet in post-biblical practice only actual paternal brothers) of a woman’s dead husband is obligated to marry that widow if she has no son (yet in post-biblical practice no child, so that if she has a daughter the law does not apply). The practice of levirate marriage is well attested and legislatively expanded among post-biblical (including contemporary religious) Jewry. This law represents God’s compassionate codification and refinement of the pre-Mosaic custom attested in Gn 38:6-14, 26 (hence the comparison in Ru 4:12). It was intended to ensure that (1) the woman’s needs would be supplied in a proper way by a male provider, and (2) the “name” (i.e., reputation and inheritance; see comments on Gn 11:1-4, 1026) of the deceased husband would endure (i.e., “not be blotted out from Israel,” per Dt 25:6).

This law and its exemplification by Boaz is also significant as a further enhancement of the biblical image of God as “Redeemer,” since the legal term for “kinsman-redeemer” (go’el)—and hence the term applied to Boaz (in Ru 2:20; 3:9, 12; 4:14)—is also applied in the Bible to God. This occurs especially in the book of Isaiah with reference to His complete (i.e., spiritual and material) work of redemption, as in Is 49:6-7: “‘It is too small a thing that you should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer [go’el] of Israel and its Holy One . . .” (cf. also Is 44:24; 47:4; 48:17; 49:26; 54:58; 59:20; 60:16; 63:16; Jb 19:25; Ps 19:15; Jr 50:34).

2. The “Woman of Valor”

As noted above, in the predominant Jewish tradition of biblical organization (following the early tradition of Jews living in the land of Israel), the book of Ruth immediately follows Proverbs, thus highlighting the canonical-thematic link between the last pericope in Proverbs describing the ideal “woman of valor” (ēshet hayil; Pr 31:10) and Ruth. She is the only real biblical woman to whom that expression is applied (Ru 3:11).

As therefore might be expected, the various positive qualities and actions that characterize the “woman of valor” in Pr 31 are associated with Ruth at various points throughout the narrative, in some instances even employing the same terminology. Thus the woman of valor rises early in the morning to set about her work (31:5), as does Ruth (2:7; 3:14); the woman of valor works with dogged industriousness (31:27), as does Ruth (2:7, 17); the woman of valor is not dissuaded from difficult tasks, but rather “girds herself with strength” (31:17), as does Ruth (2:17-18, see comments); the woman of valor always takes thought to supply her family’s needs (31:15), as does Ruth (2:14, 18); the woman of valor is characterized by “the teaching” (i.e., the exemplary doing) of hesed (“lovingkindness”; 31:26), as is Ruth (1:8; 3:10); the woman of valor is blessed by her husband (31:28), as is Ruth (by her husband-to-be; 3:10); and because of her works the woman of valor is praised “in the gates” (i.e., by the city; 31:31), as is Ruth (3:11).

Considering Ruth’s background, moreover, the practical challenge of this canonical link and unique distinction is clear: If Ruth could achieve this status in the face of her many disadvantages (raised outside the community of faith, a new convert, a widow, and beset by poverty), how much more so should the Israelite (or Christian) woman behave who is not beset by these cumulative disadvantages?

3. The Doing of Chesed

One of the key words in the book of Ruth is the Hebrew term chesed, which may be variously translated/understood as “lovingkindness,” “kindness,” “favor,” or “grace.” Perhaps it is best described by the preeminent medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides (late 12th century): “the doing of good to one who is not entitled to it from you at all…[or]the doing of more good to one than that to which he is entitled . . . for which reason every good thing deriving from the Exalted One is designated chesed” (Guide of the Perplexed, ed. Qafih, §iii.53).

Significantly, of its three occurrences in the book of Ruth, Ruth herself is the doer and/or recipient of the chesed. Thus, in 1:8 Ruth and Orpah are presented as the past doers and potential recipients of divine chesed in Naomi’s statement, “May the Lord treat you with chesed just as you have treated those who are (now) dead and me.” Also, in 2:20 Ruth and Naomi (i.e., “the living,” which is plural); as well as Elimelech and Ruth’s husband Mahlon (“the dead,” likewise plural) are identified as the recipients of divine chesed in Naomi’s statement, “May he [i.e., Boaz] be blessed of the Lord who has not withdrawn his [chesed] to the living and to the dead.” Further, in 3:10 Ruth is presented as the doer of chesed in Boaz’s declaration, “You have shown your last [chesed] to be better than the first . . .” This consistent presentation of Ruth as the doer and/or recipient of chesed is both rooted in and reflective of the larger purpose of the book: to emphasize the extent of application (i.e., for Gentiles as well as Jews) of true faith and the blessing that attends it (see above).

For Further Reading:

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