The book of Ruth presents us with the charming story of a dedicated daughter-in-law, which contains a serious message about a horrible practice in ancient Israel. Some of the commentary I’ve read suggests Ruth was written in the Second Temple period when Israelite men were being pressured by the authorities returning from exile in Babylon to abandon their wives who came from outside the tribes of Israel — along with the children of those wives — in order to marry proper Israelite women. Ruth, specifically identified as a Moabite, demonstrates immense loyalty and kindness, which ultimately brings her good fortune, and provides her mother-in-law, to whom she’s devoted, with a male heir to carry on her family’s legacy.
Ruth is unlike Genesis and other early books of the bible, in that God does not physically appear in the narrative, nor are any of the tragedies directly attributed to anything God has done. While Naomi laments her sad state to God, at no point does God show up, nor speak to anyone, nor attempt to help or hinder the action of the story. We’re not given a specific reason for the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons, all that’s stated is that they died or were killed, leaving their wives and mother alone. The actors in the tale go about their business according to established Jewish law, and the writing suggests that the intended audience was well-acquainted with the law as described.
Despite beginning with the tragedy of Naomi losing her husband and sons, Ruth maintains a light tone throughout. It moves quickly into relating the devotion of Ruth to her mother-in-law, Ruth’s refusal to abandon Naomi, and her willingness to accept Naomi’s religion and customs to remain with Naomi. We also learn of several interesting customs in ancient Judah, such as the giving of one’s sandal to finalize a transaction. While it is not specifically detailed why people did this, I conjecture that it’s because removing one’s sandal and giving it to another is a very specific action a person wouldn’t do under normal circumstances, and therefore it’s less likely to be misconstrued. It’s here we also have evidence that this story was written long after the events it depicts, given that the author inserts a parenthetical note explaining the custom. Footwear seems to have much significance in the area once known as Babylon, now known to us as Iraq, even into the modern era, though its significance has evolved over time. Some years ago, an Iraqi journalist threw his shoe at President George W. Bush as an insult, and in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, those opposed to him beat pictures of him with the bottoms of their shoes as a sign of disrespect. In the book of Ruth, they’re used for much less nefarious purposes.
Throughout the narrative, Ruth shows herself to be an individual of high character, who constantly impresses those around her. When she presents herself to Boaz the first time, he’s given a very glowing report of her actions with regard to her mother-in-law, which prompts him to offer his protection. He tells his workers not to hinder her as she gathers grain from the field, and instructs her to use the same water as the men working there. We also see the very tenuous position of women in their society, in needing to find a male family member to watch out for them. Naomi encourages Ruth to present herself to Boaz, who’s identified as a relative of Naomi’s husband, and Boaz becomes determined to redeem Naomi’s land, even though he’s not her closest relative. Leviticus 25 established the obligation of male relatives to redeem property on behalf of a family member in dire straights, and Boaz approaches Naomi’s closest relative to do just that. In buying the land, however, the relative also “acquires” Ruth as a wife, so as to continue the family line of Naomi’s husband and son. This proves to be a deal-breaker for the man Boaz has approached, as he doesn’t wish to complicate his own estate for his sons, by adding another heir. He relinquishes his obligations to Naomi, instructing Boaz to buy the land instead. Boaz agrees, and receives the good wishes of elders who witness the transaction.
In the end, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife, and it’s here that the point of the story is finally brought home, as we learn that Boaz and Ruth were the parents of Obed, who was father to Jesse, the father of King David. By having Ruth become the great-grandmother of perhaps the greatest of old testament heroes, the author seems to be instructing his or her fellow citizens against the practice of denying wives who come from outside the established tribes. This brings us to the genealogy of David, showing his descent from Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, representing ten generations from the sons of Israel.