Slotted between Judges and 1 Samuel (thought the Jewish scriptures place it in the Kethuvim, or Writings), Ruth is a complete change of pace. The story is longer (for all that happens in it, it would have barely made a verse or two in any other book we’ve read so far), calmer, and it takes time to show the interactions between people. More refreshingly, it takes the time to show the interactions between women – between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, of course, but also between Naomi and the unnamed women of Bethlehem.

While Boaz is a major character and takes a central role in mediating the redeeming of Elimelech’s land, the focus of the narrative is clearly on Naomi and Ruth. The Ruth/Boaz plotline reads more like a business transaction, while the Ruth/Naomi relationship expresses love, loyalty, and friendship. Previously, we’ve only heard of the relationships between women when it’s negative, when the fights between women become so big that they impact the lives of men (such as the relationship between Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 21), but here, it’s the focus of the story.

It was also refreshing to read a “small story,” one that isn’t about clashes between ethnic groups or households, but just a pastoral story of politically insignificant (except insofar as their genealogies are concerned) people finding ways to survive.

Background

There are numerous connections between the story in Ruth and the Patriarchs of Genesis. Perhaps the most obvious is way Ruth’s story mirrors Tamar’s – both women wish to honour their late husbands through a Levirate marriage, but both are denied, though for different reasons. In both cases, the women hide themselves (Ruth does so literally, while Tamar hides her identity by disguising herself as a prostitute) in order to approach the man that they intend to use to fulfil the obligations of Levirate law. In so doing, both are rewarded with the son they sought. The connection between them is made explicit by having Boaz be descended from Tamar’s son.

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

As Adele Berlin points out, the “Book of Ruth, too, is about exile and return, land and people. Like Abraham, and like the family of Jacob (see the story of Joseph), the family of Elimelech was forced by famine to leave its home in the land of Israel and to preserve itself in a foreign land. When the famine abates, Naomi returns to Bethlehem.”

The dating of the story seems rather unclear. From what I’ve read, it seems that it mostly hinges on the political agenda the scholar is reading into the text. For example, the genealogy linking Ruth to David suggests to some that the text was written to explain why it’s okay for David to have a Moabite grandmother despite passages like Deut. 23:3.

Others see it as a postexilic text. As Collins explains:

On this reading, the story was composed as a polemic against the stringent rejection of marriage to foreign women by Ezra. The placement of the book in the Writings lends some support to the postexilic date, since many of the Writings date from this period. Against this view, however, Ruth does not read like a polemic, and the point of the story is not to affirm mixed marriages. Mixed marriage, in fact, is not acknowledged as a problem at all. It seems entirely natural that the sons of a man from Judah who grow up in Moab should marry Moabite women. When the women accept the God of Israel, as Ruth does, there is no problem whatsoever. The viewpoint of Ruth is entirely different from that of Ezra, but it does not necessarily follow that Ruth was composed as a polemic against Ezra. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.270-271)

I think it’s also important to remember that there are two separate filters – the original writing and the choice to include the book in the canon of scripture. It would be a mistake to assume that the motivations of both are necessarily the same.

I also think that the Book of Ruth contains enough details that would argue for its inclusion without there needing to be any political motive. In the beginning, the text situates itself in the time of Judges (Ruth 1:1). Then, the genealogy of Ruth 4:22 weaves the story into David’s history. These two details provide ample explanation for why a compiler, who may be interested in completeness, would have thought to include it.