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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Ruth

by Charles John Ellicott





I. Contents.—In the book of Ruth is presented to us a family, consisting of father, mother and two sons, which under the pressure of a famine in the days of the Judges, migrated from Bethlehem to the land of Moab. Here the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, took two Moabitesses, Ruth and Orpah, to wife. After a ten years’ sojourn, Elimelech the father, and the two sons having died, and tidings having come of the change of famine to plenty in the land of Judah, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set off to return. In spite, however, of her evident affection for them, and of their unwillingness to leave her,’ she unselfishly urges them to seek their own kindred, and not to venture on what must have been a long toilsome journey. After a struggle Orpah yields, but Ruth, with a devotedness which says almost as much for Naomi as herself, sinks all ties of home and kindred in the outburst, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Thus she takes her last look at the fertile fields of Moab, to enter a strange land, where the result of her devotion to her mother-in-law was to be, that from her line in ages to come should be born, David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, Solomon, the wisest of the sons of men, Zerub-babel, the later Moses, and the Messiah, the son of David, whom all these prefigured.

When Bethlehem is reached, the barley harvest is beginning, and Ruth, going to glean, chances upon the field of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of the family of Elimelech. Learning that the unknown woman was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, and having clearly been much impressed with the story of her devotedness, he bids her to continue to glean in his fields, and to make use of the food provided for his own people. Through the kindness of Boaz, she gleans barley, which when beaten out, is about an ephah, and so first the barley and then the wheat harvest pass by.

The end of the harvest having come, Naomi bids Ruth to claim a kinsman’s help from Boaz in his threshing floor, where he had been winnowing barley, and accordingly at midnight when Boaz awoke he found Ruth lying at his feet. He promises then to discharge the kinsman’s duty unless a still nearer relative should claim to do it. The case was brought into judgment on the following morning. The next kinsman, afraid of “marring his own inheritance, “declines to redeem the land that was Elimelech’s. Accordingly Boaz himself redeems it, taking therewith Ruth to wife to raise up the name of the dead Mahlon on his inheritance. The offspring of the marriage was Obed the father of Jesse, the father of David.
II. Date of events recorded.—It may be asked next, when are we to fix the period when the events here recorded happened. Here our data are sufficiently vague, being indeed but two. The famine broke out in the days “when the judges judged,” and if the genealogy be complete, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, that is, probably lived a hundred years before him. Of this last point, however, we can be by no means certain, both because we undoubtedly find sometimes gaps in the genealogies in the Bible, (see e.g., three generations omitted in Matthew 1:8) and because the number of generations from Pharez to David (given as ten, Ruth 4:18-22) seems insufficient to fill up the intervening space of over 900 years. It is probable that if there are any omissions in the genealogy, they are to be assigned to the period before Boaz.

It may be noticed that the father of Boaz is given as Salmon, (Ruth 4:21) who (Matthew 1:5) was the husband of Rahab, so that we should thus have Boaz born no great number of years after the taking of Jericho.

Josephus (Ant. v. 9. 1) refers the events to a time after Samson, in the days of Eli, but this must certainly be too late; and at any rate the date given above may be taken as fairly probable.

The various attempts to fix the date more closely (as for example, to connect the famine with the ravages of the Midianites, Judges 6:1 seq.) involve mere guesses, and rest on too uncertain grounds to warrant our entering into the discussion.

III. Date of composition.—We cannot speak with any degree of certainty as to the time at which the book was written. From Ruth 1:1, the reference to the Judges would suggest that they had now been replaced by the Monarchy, and from Ruth 4:17 it is clear that the book is not to be put before the time of David.

Whether we are to fix it later than David’s time, and if so, how much later, must be considered very doubtful. The Talmud (Baba Bathra, f. 14 b.) tells us, “Samuel wrote his own book, and Judges and Ruth.” This gives the earliest date possible, and in our opinion there is nothing in the phenomena of the book itself which renders this view inadmissible, though, on the other hand, it cannot be held that any great amount of positive probability attaches to it. Most critics have fixed the date later, and some much later, as for example Ewald, who supposes the book to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. The various arguments, however, on which these theories are built, are many of them most arbitrary, and need not be entered upon here. One point sometimes relied upon to prove the late date is the presence of a certain Aramaean element in the Hebrew of Ruth. To discuss this at length would be beside our present purpose, but it may be remarked here that it is at least as likely that these alleged Aramæisms are to be considered as dialectic varieties, mere provincialisms, or in some cases even as archaisms. It is curious also, that these occur in the dialogues exclusively, the narrative proper being in the purest Hebrew.

On the whole then, the book may indeed belong to a comparatively late period, but this certainly has not been proved; nor has anything been satisfactorily established by those who have maintained, as Ewald, that Ruth is a section of a larger work, the solitary surviving fragment, or that it is really part of the book of Judges, from which it somehow got separated. Such arbitrary theorising can only be considered as guessing pure and simple.
The main reason why the Book of Ruth is included in the Old Testament seems sufficiently obvious, namely on account of David, of whose lineage it may be remarked the books of Samuel make no mention. This definite association of the book with David may perhaps be taken as evidence of a comparatively early date, prior to the books of Samuel, in which it was not considered necessary to repeat matter already given.
IV. Place in Canon.—In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth forms the second of the five so called Megilloth [i.e., Rolls] (the others being, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). It has been thought by some, however, that this was not its original position, for Josephus (contr. Apion. i. 8) as well as some important early Christian witnesses to the Jewish Canon, as Melito, Bishop of Sardis in the second century, (cited by Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. iv. 26), and Origen, (cited by Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. vi. 25), reckoned the number of books of the Old Testament as twenty-two, counting Judges and Ruth as one book.[23] This might rather suggest that the original position of Ruth was immediately after the book of Judges. On the other hand, the Talmud (l.c.) includes Ruth in the Hagiographa, and mentions it first, preceding the Psalms. In the LXX. and Vulgate, the book of Ruth follows the Judges, and the same order is found in the English Bible, and in that of Luther.

[23] This was doubtless with the view of making the number of the books agree with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

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