The book of Ruth is a beautiful love story. It is the love story of a Hebrew man and a Moabite woman. It is the story of forbidden love. The story of Ruth and Boaz is a story of forbidden marriage because the Law of Moses did not allow the Moabites to enter the assembly of the Lord, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:3).
The assembly of the Lord refers to the gathering of the people of Israel for worship and for the celebration of festivals. The book of Deuteronomy excludes the Moabites from the assembly of the Lord because of their hostility against Israel and their hiring of the false prophet Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22–24).
The story of Boaz and Ruth is a story of redeeming love. Boaz was willing to circumvent this prohibition, redeem Ruth, and marry her. One reason Boaz was willing to marry Ruth was because her people were willing to accept Elimelech, Naomi, and their family during their stay in the land of Moab at a time of need and distress caused by the famine in Bethlehem.
Maybe because of the love of Boaz for Ruth or maybe because King David was born out of this forbidden marriage, eventually, this law of Deuteronomy was revoked when Yahweh made a promise to foreigners.
Yahweh said, “The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6–7).
The author of the book of Ruth is unknown. Because the book mentions “the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1), Jewish scholars believed that the prophet Samuel was the author of Ruth. However, it is unlikely that Samuel wrote the book. The mention of David’s genealogy in Ruth 4:17–22 indicates that the book was written at a later period, during the time of the monarchy.
The story of Ruth is set during a specific historical period in the history of Israel. The opening verse of the book indicates that the events narrated in the book took place in the days when the judges ruled Israel.
The time of the judges was a period of religious and moral depravity in Israel. Joshua and his generation had died and “another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). The people’s apostasy led to the worship of other gods, “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals” (Judges 2:11). The result of this apostasy was the recurring oppression by foreign invaders.
The book is named after one of the primary characters in the story, a young Moabite woman named Ruth. Nothing is known about Ruth’s family nor about her background. According to the movie “The Story of Ruth” (see review of the movie below), Ruth came from a poor family who sold her to become a priestess in the temple of Chemosh, the Moabite god. This, however, is just a creative view of Ruth’s background and finds no support in the Bible.
The book of Ruth begins with the tragic story of an Israelite family. During the days of the judges, Bethlehem was stricken with a drought which caused a great famine in the land, threatening the family of Elimelech, forcing him, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to become refugees in the land of Moab. Elimelech died in Moab. After the death of their father, Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite women, whose names were Ruth and Orpah.
Some time after their marriage, Mahlon and Chilion also died in Moab, leaving Naomi and the two widows alone and without the support from their husbands. Agnethe Siquans states, “Without a male head of the family the status of the Israelite woman in Moab as well as the status of her daughters-in-law is no longer assured. Therefore, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, probably because she has male relatives there who are obliged to help her” (Siquans 2009: 445). With the loss of the economic support provided by her husband and her sons, Naomi made the decision to return to her native land, to Bethlehem, the place she was forced to leave because of the famine.
As Naomi prepared to return home, she told her two daughters-in-law to return back to their homes. Naomi told them to return to their families so they could get married again. Orpah decided to return home to her family, but Ruth decided to go to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law. Although Naomi insisted that Ruth return to her family, Ruth decided to follow Naomi to Bethlehem.
Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16–7).
Ruth’s decision to follow Naomi was a radical decision, a decision to abandon her country, her family, and her god. Her decision to go to Israel with Naomi was an indication that she was making a commitment to the God Naomi served. Ruth was willing to adopt Naomi’s people as her people and Naomi’s God as her God. Ruth’s commitment was a lifetime commitment, “Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.”
Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth asked Naomi permission to go to the field of anyone who would be kind to her and allow her to gather the grain left behind by the reapers. With Naomi’s approval, Ruth went to the fields of Boaz who was a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s husband. Boaz noticed Ruth working in the field and he inquired about her. Once Boaz knew that the woman was a Moabite, related to Naomi, Boaz urged Ruth to remain with the women who were working in his field. Boaz also commanded his servant not to molest her, thus ensuring her safety.
Boaz’s action ensured that Ruth would be able to reap safety. Ruth had found favor in the eyes of Boaz. After a successful day of gathering grain, Ruth went back to town. Ruth returned with plenty of food for her and for her mother-in-law. When Naomi saw how much grain Ruth had brought back, Naomi was surprised. Naomi asked Ruth where she had been gleaning. Ruth told her in the fields of Boaz. Naomi uttered a blessing on Boaz saying, “‘Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!’ Naomi also said to her, ‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin’” (Ruth 2:20).
Naomi told Ruth that Boaz was one of their close relatives and their goel. A goel was a kinsman or a close relative who could rescue or redeem a family member in times of crisis, “If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold” (Leviticus 25:25).
According to the law of redemption in Leviticus, if a member of the family fell into hard times and needed to sell his property, the goel, the redeemer, would purchase the land and give it back to the member of his family who had sold his land. Boaz was Naomi’s goel. He upheld his duty as Naomi’s redeemer. He married Ruth and redeemed the land that had belonged to his kinsman Elimelech.
By redeeming the land that belonged to his kinsman Elimelech, Boaz also assumed the responsibility to care for Ruth and provide an heir for Mahlon. By marrying Ruth, Boaz would keep the ancestral inheritance in Mahlon’s name (Ruth 4:5).
After Boaz married Ruth, she conceived and gave birth to a son. The women of Bethlehem came to Naomi and said to her, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him” (Ruth 4:14–15).
In the Old Testament, generally the parents named the child, but in the book of Ruth, the celebrant women of Bethlehem are given this honor, “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17).
In his commentary on Ruth, Edward Campbell wrote, “This son, so much needed in order that caring responsibility be extended to two widows for the rest of their days, this son of a Moabite woman and a worthy man of Bethlehem who lived as persons are meant to live, this son who so easily might not have been, this son was David’s ancestor” (Campbell 2008: 169–170).
The book of Ruth begins with tragic events. A famine that forced a family from Bethlehem to take refuge in a foreign land. A woman who lost her husband and then her two sons. Behind these tragic events, God was at work to accomplish his work in the world. God used a Moabite woman to show redemption in the land of Israel.
Behind the story of Ruth there was the foundation for a greater story of redemption. Ruth became the great-grandmother of David and the great-great-grandmother of Jesus Christ:
“Salmon was the father of Boaz. Boaz was the father of Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David” (Ruth 4:21).
“This is the list of ancestors of Jesus Christ, a descendant of David . . . Salmon and Rahab were the father and mother of Boaz. Boaz and Ruth were the father and mother of Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of King David” (Matthew 1:1, 5–6).
Ruth was only one of many foreign women who became great-great-grandmothers of Jesus.
The posts below deal with several topics in the book of Ruth.
Campbell, Edward F. Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.
Siquans, Agnethe. “Foreignness and Poverty in the Book of Ruth: A Legal Way for a Poor Foreign Woman to Be Integrated into Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 128 no. 3 (2009): 443–52.
Studies on the Book of Ruth
The Genealogy of Jesus According to His Great-Grandmothers
A Woman Who Was Better Than Seven Sons
The Story of Ruth – A Movie Review
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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J. F. Millet is known for his paintings of 19th century peasant farmers. I have a framed, slightly enlarged section of “Harvesters Resting” that depicts just Ruth and Boaz (three feet high by two feet) taken from the full painting. Actual size of the full painting is 67 cm high by 119 cm wide. HarvestersRestingRuthBoazMillet – Jean-François Millet – Wikipedia
I find the story of Ruth and Boaz to be an example of how believers ought to live. To me, the Book of Ruth is the most powerful type of the gospel from the Old Testament. When I go to worship, I don’t wish to be taught or reprimanded or told illustrative stories. For worship, all I desire is to hear over and over the stories of biblical redemption. I never tire of How Jesus redeemed me from sin and of His glory. That proclamation always is accompanied by the Spirit of the Lord. The story of Ruth is always accompanied by the Spirit of the Lord.
Yours is a powerful post.
Thank you for your nice comments. The story of Ruth is one of the most beautiful stories of the Old Testament. Thank you for the link. I may use that picture in a future post.
I really appreciate you statement that my post was “powerful.” Thank you for this statement. I hope others will enjoy this post as much as you did.