Was Ruth Barren?

Ruth in the Fields of Boaz
by Francesco Hayez (1853)

Last week my wife and I were visiting a church in our neighborhood. It was Sunday and it was Mother’s Day. In his sermon the pastor was finishing a series of sermons on the book of Ruth. On the day we visited, his sermon was on Ruth, Chapter 4.

I had missed the sermons on chapters 1 to 3, but he said something in his message on chapter 4 that caught my attention. After preaching about Boaz’s purchase of the land that belonged to Naomi and her dead husband, and how Boaz also acquired Ruth and the right to raise the name of Ruth’s dead husband by exercising the right of kinsman-redeemer, the preacher discussed the birth of Ruth’s and Boaz’s son.

The preacher said that Ruth was barren and that she tried very hard to have a child, but unsuccessfully. But, after she married Boaz, the Lord opened her womb and she conceived and gave birth to a son whom the women of Bethlehem named Obed (Ruth 4:17).

The statement that caught my attention deals with Ruth being barren. The statement intrigued me because I had just posted on my blog a study on Rachel and her struggle with barrenness. In that post I mentioned that the Old Testament lists five women who were barren. The five barren women were Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:30), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2), and Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother, cf. Judges 13:2). The New Testament says that Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist was also barren (Luke 1:7).

The Hebrew word for “barren” is עֲקָרָ֖ה, ‘aqārāh. The word appears 11 times in the Old Testament, however, the word is never used in the book of Ruth. So, how did the preacher come to the conclusion that Ruth was barren?

There are two possible clues in the book that may indicate that Ruth was barren and unable to have children. The first clue is found in Ruth 1:2-4. The text says that Elimelech and his wife Naomi had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Because of a famine in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Elimelech and his family moved to the country of Moab and lived there many years. In Moab, Mahlon and Chilion “took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years” (Ruth 1:4).

After the death of Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi returned to Bethlehem with Ruth, while Orpah decided to remain in Moab. Thus, since Mahlon and Ruth were married ten years, and Ruth had no children, it is possible that the preacher believed that Ruth was barren.

The second clue is found in Ruth 4:13, where it says that after Ruth married Boaz, “the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.” The idea here is that since the Lord blessed Ruth with conception, then, it is possible that Ruth was barren and unable to conceive before the Lord blessed her.

However, there are several clues within the book of Ruth that may indicate that Ruth was not barren. Although these clues may not be conclusive, I believe they point to the fact that Ruth was not barren. Below are my reasons for affirming that Ruth was not barren.

1. The names of Naomi’s two sons may indicate the root of the problem. The name Mahlon comes from a Hebrew word hlh which means “to be weak,” or “sick.” It is possible that Mahlon’s name indicates that he was a sickly child. The name Chilion comes from a Hebrew word that means “failing,” or “consumption.” Consumption is a wasting disease such as tuberculosis. Thus, it is possible that Naomi’s children were sick from infancy and that their disease did not allow them to father children.

2. Both Ruth and Orpah were married to Naomi’s sons and the biblical text seems to indicate that both Ruth and Orpah did not have children when their husbands died. So, if Orpah was childless when she became a widow, it is possible that the reason that caused Ruth to be a childless widow was the same reason that also caused Orpah to become a childless widow. That reason was their husbands who probably were sterile because of their illness.

Naomi mentioned to Ruth and Orpah the possibility of levirate marriage, where the two widows could have children through another son by Naomi. But Naomi said she was not pregnant and that she was too old to remarry and give birth to children. Naomi’s words clearly indicate she believed that Ruth and Orpah could become pregnant if they remarried.

3. When Ruth married Boaz, it is quite possible that Boaz was an old man. When Boaz called Ruth “my daughter” (Ruth 2:8), this may indicate that there was an age differential between Boaz and Ruth. The age issue appears again in Ruth 3:10. Boaz said to Ruth: “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”

Thus, when Boaz married Ruth, Boaz was older than Ruth. After the marriage, Ruth had no problem becoming pregnant: “So Boaz married Ruth and had sexual relations with her. The LORD enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13). The fact that the Lord enabled Ruth to conceive was not because she was barren, rather because the child was seen as a gift from God.

The idea that the child was God’s gift is seen in Ruth 4:12. After the wedding, the women of Bethlehem blessed Boaz with the following words: “May your house become like the house of Perez, the son Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring the LORD will give you by this young woman.” The reference to “your house” and “the offspring the LORD will give you” may indicate that Boaz was a childless man, and that God blessed him by allowing his new wife to give birth to a son.

Thus, it is my firm conviction that Ruth was not barren.

NOTE: For other studies on Ruth, read my post The Book of Ruth.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary



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19 Responses to Was Ruth Barren?

  1. >This makes sense. Although I don't know nearly as much Old Testament as yourself, I agree with you about Ruth. Even if the etymology of names is dismissed regarding the husbands of Orpah and Ruth, the fact that levirate marriage is enough to hint that Ruth is not barren in and of itself.


  2. >Mitchell,Good point. I think the text clearly shows that Ruth was able to conceive a bear children.Thank you for your comment and welcome to my blog.Claude Mariottini


  3. God's Truth says:

    Why then did Ruth and Boaz have only One Child? Or did they have more children? Because it doesn’t seem like they use any form of birth control? It seems birth control is not even a thing in biblical days or is it? I’m. Not sure please leave your wisdom on this subject.


    • Dear Friend,

      Thank you for your comment. It is possible that they had other children, but the others are not mentioned because the writer was trying to present the genealogy of David only. On the other hand, it is possible that Boaz was an old man and that they had only one child. Everyone used some form of birth control in antiquity. The form of birth control was generally counting the days of fertility and avoiding intimacy on those days.

      Claude Mariottini


  4. Charm Ewart says:

    thank you, very insightful article


  5. Judy Garrett says:

    Ruth was a priestest of the Moabites who offered up children to be scraficed. She may have kept herself from becoming pregnant in fear of seeing that child scraficed or GOD wanted her to wait until she married Boaz before having a child. Either way, God’s way is best.


    • Judy,

      You statement that Ruth was a priestess of the Moabites is pure speculation. You cannot find any evidence, either in the Bible or in secular literature that Ruth was a priestess of the Moabites. It is this kind of statement that make people ridicule the Bible and those who believe that the Bible is the word of God.

      Claude Mariottini


  6. Dawn Stark says:

    As a woman who’s walked through a 23-year infertility journey due to male factor infertility, I noticed that Ruth first marriage did not result in her becoming a mother. I’ve read other writers who speculate that though the text mentions a time period of 10 yrs (vs.4), those 10 yrs speak to the time that Naomi was in Moab, not the length of Ruth’s first marriage. In any case, I appreciate your perspective on this story, especially how the word barren cannot be found tied to Ruth. Infertility is so often and incorrectly blamed on the female, which is only the case approximately 1/3 of the time. The idea that Ruth’s story *might* contain an example of male factor infertility is meaningful. Thanks for sharing your insights!


    • Dawn,

      Thank you for your comment. It is clear from the text that Ruth was not barren; her husband could not give her a son. The preacher was wrong putting the blame on Ruth.

      A few days ago I saw a movie where a man divorced his wife because she could not give him a son. He said she was not a “full woman.” In the movie, the man married another woman and the divorced woman married another man. The divorced woman had three children and the man and his new wife had no children. She was not the problem; he was.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


  7. Buellas Tibbs says:

    This was a very good read !! I’ve heard the story of Ruth and Naomi , but I guess I never caught the part that she was barren possibly because later in the story she conceived a son ….
    We are fascinated with the first part of the story
    that she left her family to go with Naomi so some of us being myself didn’t receive the other part❤️🙏


    • Buellas,

      Thank you for your comment. This happens many times. We tend to dwell on one part of the story and fail to notice other things that are also part of the story. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


  8. christinefellows@ymail.com says:

    I only spotted that both the sons’ wives had no children after what seemed to me to be 10 years of marriage to Naomi’s sons. I might have misunderstood, but two barren daughters-in-law was strange. So I googled the point and found your article. Anyway, Deuteronomy 7.14 enables us to infer that infertility can apply to men as well as women. ‘You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you or among your livestock.’


  9. Jean claude says:

    Thanks for your teaching sir, i don’t want to be controversial,but i bet to disagree point you made “The fact that the Lord enabled Ruth to conceive was not because she was barren, rather because the child was seen as a gift from God”. Even though biblically, Ruth was not seen as a barren woman,her circumstances indicated she could be. Firstly, assuming Naomi’s children were sick and couldn’t father, for the fact the Bible specifically stated, Boaz and ruth consumation led to pregnancy via God’s enablement shows that, there was a supernatural intervention.this wasn’t a natural or mere conception it was divine!. We know children are heritage of the Lord, even our lives belongs to Him,the air we breathe etc..belongs to God, there are several instances in the Bible whereby a man will knew his wife and conceive naturally, Genesis 16:4,Genesis 4:1, Genesis 4:17 etc.. And morever God had already declared to Adam and eve to be fruitful and multiply, Genesis 1:27–28, so there was a standing order for procuration. There could have been possibilities that Naomi’s boys were steriled but their wives too could have been infertiled .if God had to intervene in ruth’s conception after declaring us to be fruitful and multiply, then it shows her womb was closed and God had to unlock it.


    • Jean,

      I do not have a problem to the fact that you disagree with me. What you write is also possible. Children are a gift from the Lord and Ruth was blessed by God when she conceived and became the mother of a son.

      Thank you for reading by blog from France.

      Claude Mariottini


  10. Nic says:

    I noticed you didn’t mention David’s wife Michal I’m your list of childless women. 2 Samuel 6:23


    • Nic,

      Thank you for your comment. The reason I omitted Michal was because I was writing about the barren women of the Old Testament. Michal was not a barren woman. Michal was childless because David refused to have a child with Michal. The reason for David’s refusal was politically motivated.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


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