Character Study: Ruth 1-4
The story of Ruth is a familiar story for all regular readers of scripture and mostly treasured as a example of godly qualities. However, there requires careful thought and analysis on this narrative. Despite its relative shortness, Ruth has attracted many varying criticisms and opinions. This study of Ruth intends to outline the themes and intents of this book and explore more deeply the character of Ruth.
To explore the themes of Ruth, this study will engage three separate papers on the book of Ruth. The first is “Family and Covenant in Ruth 1:16-17” by Mark S Smith. The second is “Self Interest as Holy by Ruth”. The third is “Ruth – A pure dove of Israel” by Frieda Clark Hyman. To help engage with specific passages, Robert’s L Hubbard Junior’s book “The Book of Ruth” will be both referenced at various points. All references to Scripture are taken from the Jewish Study Bible, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler.
Family and Covenant in Ruth 1:16-17
Mark S Smith describes Ruth 1:16-17 as “…one of the most inspiring expressions of interpersonal solidarity found in the Bible” and poses the question on how these words would be understood by the original readers (Smith, 2007, pg 242) . Rejecting the suggestions of Ruth’s conversion to the religion of Naomi and an ancient employment contract to Naomi, Smith suggests this is a conventual declaration where similar language can be found on the royal level (Smith .
A comparison can be made to passages in 1 Kings 22:4 and 2 Kings 3:7. In these passages, Smith notes a parallel with Ruth’s words (Smith, 2007, pg 255). For example, Jehoshaphat says to Ahab in 1 Kings 22:4 “I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops, my horses shall be your horses” (Jewish Study Bible) where Ruth says to Naomi in Ruth 1:16 “Your people shall be my people, and your god will be my god” (Jewish Study Bible). These words are personal and they bond the two parties together. In the earlier part of Smith’s study, he makes a special note on this comparison:
It is not family bonds that are simply like international treaties or covenants, but rather covenants and treaties, whether at the individual, group, or international level that constitute interfamily relations across family lines. (Smith, 2007, pg 255)
This would suggest that such bonding of family ties are understood at all levels of in the minds of the original readers. While the context for both situations are different, they both express the same intimacy that comes with bringing two families together. Later on in this study, it will be suggested that Ruth may be acting simply out of her own self interest. However, they do not take away the weight of these words and the intended emotion it would bring. These words would ultimately pave the way for Ruth’s future status in her new homeland.
At this point, Ruth chooses to forsake her Moabite origins and declares she will share in the identity and struggles of her mother in law. Smith makes a point that this falls short of Ruth becoming Judean, noting that the Judean ethnicity and religion plays no role in the story. It is simply a bonding at the family level, a level that would be well understood and appreciated by the early readers.
The final verses maintain the intimacy between Ruth and Naomi. Most readers would be excused to believe has no place in Ruth’s new fortune but the women in the narrative declare that Naomi has a son. This is such a contrast with Mara at the start of the book, whose sadness is brought on by the deaths of the male members of her family. This son reverses Naomi’s sadness and was enabled by the bonding initiated by Ruth’s words. Hubbard writes:
Thus, Ruth’s unusual action was one last gift to Naomi, the gift of a son to care for as her own – a sone to replace the deceased ones, a son who would later reciprocate her aare as she grew old (v15) (Hubbard, 1988, pg 266)
So while the recorded words of Ruth to Naomi are short, they have a lasting effect on the lives of both women. Through them, Ruth declares her desire to devotion to Naomi and brings great joy to both parties.
Self interest as Holy in Ruth
Despite the intimate ties as discussed above, careful reading should be done on the motivations of Ruth. Jon Haug notes the five occasions where there seems to be a silence and a lack of intimacy between Naomi and Ruth, despite the passionate words of Ruth in 1:16-17 (Haug, 2008, 169). Haug reports that four silences belong to Naomi and one silence belongs to Ruth. It could be that these moments are silences are simply the author attempting to create a concise narrative, but there may initially be a lack of intimacy between the pair. As controversial this may be, careful reading proves that this is not an unreasonable conclusion.
Based on this, Haug suggests then that Ruth’s motivations may simply be a matter of self preservation (Haug, 2008, 172-173). This may be contrary to what the majority would normally from the Ruth’s narrative. With careful thought and analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that Ruth has all to gain, and nothing to lose, when she follows Naomi into Bethlehem and gives herself in marriage to Boaz.
Regardless of these motivations, Haug suggests that this story does not work at all if the characters, including Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, did not pursue their self interests (Haug, 2008, pg 173). Without the actions of all the characters, there is no story where the redemption of a Moabite, the continuation of a family line and ultimately the existence of the messianic figure of King David. Haug writes:
…without all those self-interested acts, we would never get the subversive message that speaks of all of God’s community, including those who are typically excluded. (Haug, 2008, pg 173)
Effectively, Haug argues that the ends justify the means (Haug, 2008, pg 174). The result is a family restored and a lineage that results in the King that would bring glory to the nation. Furthermore, the Christian has a greater significance in this narrative as the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, will come out of this family.
However, the means may not be so ignoble. It is then a widely Christian and Jewish virtue that brings forth this Ruth’s preservation. As many can read from both the Old and New Testament, the people of this world are instructed and encouraged to call out for their preservation and salvation. The people of Israel are instructed to cry out to their God for their self interest while Christ calls all people to call out to him for their own self interest. This is not defined as selfishness but as faithfulness and humility.
Ruth is then still a character that deserves rightful honour and esteem, despite any perceived display of protecting her self interests. Throughout scripture, individuals are called not to trust in their own strength and depend on the strength of the Creator, the God of Israel. For any foreigners, who have no exposure to Scripture, the obvious choice is to turn to the nation where God is worshipped.
Ruth – A Pure Dove of Israel
In her paper titled “Ruth a Pure Dove of Israel”, Hyman argues for the theme of redemption in considering the significance that the events have for the nation of Israel. Despite the fact that Ruth is a Moabite, a despised foreigner and enemy of Israel, she displays qualities and virtues that uplift her in the eyes of the many characters of the narrative, and most importantly to Naomi and Boaz. The story concludes with the genealogy that confirms the special role Ruth had in the royal bloodline that would lead to Israel’s Redemption. Frieda Clark Hyman writes:
The theme of Megillat Ruth is unequivocally, Redemption. There is nothing subtle about it. The final paragraph, indeed, the final verse, spells it out, summing up, as it does, the generations leading to King David. (Hyman, 1989, pg 54)
However, even before the crucial conclusion, the events are narrated such to give special status to Ruth that can be comparable to other heroes of the Old Testament whom also have stories of redemption. Firstly, Hyman compares Ruth with Abraham. Both characters had left their homeland to go to an unknown country. While Ruth does not receive the clear divine instruction that Abraham enjoyed, Ruth displays the same faithfulness to follow Naomi and forsake the Moabite gods to follow the same God of Naomi. Hyman wries:
Ruth’s deeds are so evocative, they remind us of our Father Abraham. She left her land, as did Abraham, her homeland, as did Abraham, her father’s house as did Abraham, to go to an unknown country, as did Abraham. (Hyman, 1989, pg 54)
After Boaz’ intervention, the Elders and villagers are written to have said:
“We are. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Leah and Rachel, both whom built up the house of Israel! Prosper in Ephrathah – and perpetuate your name in Bethlehem!” (Jewish Study Bible)
Ruth, a Moabite, is gifted with the blessing to be married into the tribe of Judah. This would have been the case if Mahlon or Kilion had not died. However, this marriage comes with the blessings of the Elders and villagers who accept Ruth as one of their own and compare her to the mothers of the tribes of Israel, Leah and Rachel.
Hyman writes deeply of Ruth’s background as a Moabite and the scandalous origins that the Moabite people have with the incestuous relationship that Lot had with his daughters that bring forth Moab, the father of the Moabites. On Lot and his daughters, Hyman writes:
The Bible does not judge them, but neither does it dignify them with a name; just the Elder and the Younger, as though any other designation were unmerited. To us, they are the incestuous mothers of Moab and Ammon, while Lot is a figure of ignominy and disgrace. All three are worth citizens of Sodom. (Hyman, 1989, pg 58)
However, scandal and depravity is not exclusive to Ruth’s side of the family tree. Hyman brings up Tamar’s schemes and her seduction of her father-in-law, Judah. Hyman points out that, like Ruth, Tamar is subject to Levirate marriage, where a widow marries the relative of her deceased husband to continue the bloodline of the family. On Tamar’s actions, Hyman writes:
But this is more than deceit; it is an incestuous act, and she knows it. Like lot’s daughters, she rapes a father, in her case, a father-in-law. (Hyman, 1989, pg 60)
The scandalous narrative concludes with the birth of Tamar’s twins, Zerah and Perez. Tamar schemes her way to be part of Judah’s family and in turn, the tribes of Israel. Perez is the ancestor of Boaz and so, Baoz’ family also contains a forbidden relationship.
So it may be strange that the lineage of David may be prefaced with stories of individuals with such background. Hyman writes:
Sure, it must seem a curious choice; the House of David a House of gerulah, of Redemption. Were there not families within the tribe of Judah more worthy of kingship? Why would Scripture seized upon the scion of such dubious ancestry. (Hyman, 1989. Pg 62)
But Ruth is written of highly. She is a character who, despite the stigma that would have come with being a Moabite, displays the desired qualities that all sons and daughters of Israel would have been commended and blessed for. Many in the Old Testament had forced their way into history dishonest and less desirable means but Ruth is patient and is rewarded. Hubbard, junior, makes an excellent point on Ruth’s final place:
In a climactic closing, the women heaped one last accolade on Ruth. They compared her to seven sons, the Israelite ideal number of sons; Such a male host would certainly have guaranteed both the continuation of a family line and a widow’s care in old age. In Naomi’s case, however, Ruth had proved better (lit. “is/has been better”) than the ideal. Hence to say that one woman was wroth seven men was the ultimate tribute – particularly in a story so absorbed with having a son! (Hubbard, 1988, pg 273)
As with many parts of the Old Testament, the story of Ruth begins with controversy and the outcome is the continuation of the initial blessings that the people of Israel were promised through Abraham. Ruth then finds herself part of the redemption of herself and her people.
Ruth is only four chapters long in the English translation but contains a complexity and depth that many have sought to understand and write about. It is a concise and brief narrative which contains great value in material to understand more about the nation of Israel and ultimately God whom cares and protects his people.
Berlin, A., & Brettler, M. Z. (n.d.). The Jewish Study Bible.
Haug, J. (2008). Self-interest as holy in ruth. Journal of Religious Thought, 60-63(1-2), 167-IV.
Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/1313216052?accountid=10344
Hubbard, R. L. (1988). The book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
Hyman, F. C. (1989). Ruth–A pure dove of israel. Judaism, 38(1), 53. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/200406955?accountid=10344
Smith, M. S. (2007). “Your people shall be my people”: Family and covenant in ruth 1:16-17. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 69(2), 242-258. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/docview/220272281?accountid=10344