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by Peter Pett
Commentary On The Book Of Ruth.
By Dr. Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Background to Ruth.
As well as containing spiritual guidance the book of Ruth is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly because it demonstrates how the lives of people in those days were often passed down either in oral (by family story tellers) or written form. We may ask, for example, why should the life of Elimelech have been remembered? There was seemingly nothing special about him, apart from his descent from Judah. He only became special when David became the great ruler of Israel, for then he became the forebear of David. And yet such details of his life were known and had been passed down. This suggests that people valued their family histories and remembered them in story form in some detail. The story gives an interesting insight into what life was like in the peaceful periods in the time of the Judges.
Secondly it is interesting because it demonstrates the importance to Israelites of their ancestry. Why should the book of Ruth be included among all the great tomes that outlined the history of Israel? One answer is, of course, that it portrays the ancestry of the great King David, the man after God's own heart, (and ultimately that of Jesus - Matthew 1:5). It demonstrates in an intimate way how God was moving through what seemed to be the most unfortunate of circumstances to the fulfilment of His purposes. It is a reminder to us that God works in mysterious ways His wonder to perform. Furthermore it underlines the fact that David came from a family noted for its godliness and righteousness. That was why out of Naomi’s darkest moments came light.
Thirdly it demonstrates how God can bring triumph out of tragedy, and how loyalty can bring its own reward. When Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died, and then even more tragically her two sons, the lonely, almost penniless, old widow (for only such would need to live by gleaning in the fields because she had no means of working the family land that we later discover she owns) returned to the land of her birth. With her went the noble Ruth, who was not an Israelite at all by birth, but a Moabite woman, who insisted on standing by her to the detriment of her own social position (she could have returned to her Moabite family with all the provision for the future it offered, including another marriage). She must have known that her chances of marriage in Israel as a Moabite were not so rosy. It must have seemed like just another story of the forgotten poor and a useless, though noble, sacrifice. Two childless widows clinging together in the face of adversity, and one a foreigner. Yet because of their faith in God there sprang from it a prosperous marriage and the descent of God's chosen king. Because of her loyalty, the despised Moabite becomes the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king.
Fourthly it demonstrates the grace of God in that He chose a Moabite woman to be the ancestor of both David, and Jesus Christ. The Moabites (and the Ammonites) were excluded from entering the congregation of Israel for ten generations because of the attitude that they had shown towards Israel at the time of the Conquest (Deuteronomy 23:3), and whilst this was strictly a restriction on the men, it did indicate a general attitude towards Moabites. It did not prevent them from becoming worshippers of YHWH. But it did indicate that they could not enjoy full acceptance as Israelites. It would, of course, be different for a woman marrying into an Israelite household, and becoming a Yahwist. There would be no bar on her. Nevertheless it does indicate that God’s love reached out to Moabites as well, just as it had to the Canaanite Rahab. And it further indicates that a Moabite woman such as Ruth could find acceptance among the Israelites, for there is no hint of any antagonism towards Ruth in the story (apart possibly from the truculence of the near kinsman when he learned that he would have to produce children through her).
Fifthly the author’s emphasis, both on the fact that Ruth was a Moabitess, and on the fact that she opted to follow YHWH rather than the god of her Moabite family, might suggest that he was seeking to encourage, by outlining Ruth’s story, the many ‘foreigners’ who were considering becoming Yahwists in the days of David’s power, assuring them that just as David’s great grandmother had been a Moabite who had turned to YHWH, and had found full acceptance, both by Israel and by Israel’s God, so they too could be sure that if they truly became members of the covenant God would smile upon them as He had on Ruth.
The final recension of the book was clearly not completed until the time of David, as the genealogy in Ruth 4:18-22 takes us up to the time of David, and it presumably indicated that by the time it was included David had become important enough for such a writing to be considered worthy of being preserved, and eventually ‘canonised’ (placed in the list of sacred Scriptures). But the fact that the genealogy does not continue with the great king Solomon may suggest that it was completed before he began his reign. This would point to a date during David’s reign for the completion of the work. The genealogy could, however, well have been added to an already written work when it was seen to be important as referring to an ancestor of David, thus the work itself may well have been in writing for a considerable period before that.
Another thing we have to take into consideration is the fact that the opening verse refers back to the time ‘when the Judges judged’. This would also indicate a time when kingship had now taken over. Once more, however, they were words that could have been added to an already existent work, possibly by the king’s recorder, so as to date it.
A third factor to be born in mind is that it was felt necessary to explain an ancient custom (Ruth 4:7). But once more this could have been a comment added at a later date.
On the other hand its portrayal of ancient customs prevalent in the time of the Judges, such as redemption by a kinsman redeemer, levirate marriage as an obligation (and as extended beyond the Mosaic prescription), and the handing over of a shoe in making contracts (compare Deuteronomy 25:5-10), point to the fact that the text is aware of such ancient customs. And this suggests an early rather than a later date, and this especially because their outworking did not conform to the norms laid down in the Law. The loose application in these situations of the Law of Moses would certainly favour a time when ‘every man did what was right in his own eyes’. In the light of the discoveries at Ugarit, Aramaisms cannot be seen as dating the book but in contrast archaic verbal endings and ancient idiomatic expressions do appear to point to an earlier rather than a later date, while in our opinion (admittedly subjective) it breathes the atmosphere of the Judges period.
Our conclusion is therefore that the work is, on the whole, early, dating from the time of the judges, although as updated by the introduction, explanatory comment, and conclusion added by a recorder in the time of David.
Place In The Canon.
The Book of Ruth is found in the hagiographa, or ‘the sacred writings’, the third section of the Jewish Canon. In the LXX, however, it appears to have been placed after the Book of Judges, but that was Hellenistic practise. The Talmud placed it in the hagiographa before the Psalms. Eventually, however, probably due to its use in the liturgy, it was place in the Megilloth (the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Lamentations) read at feasts.
There are no solid grounds for denying the historicity of the book. Contrary to some, it does not idealise the times of the Judges, but simply indicates that there were times during that period when life went on as normal, something which the Book of Judges itself confirms (e.g. ‘the land had rest for forty years’). Furthermore it essentially reads as though it had happened. On the other hand, the likelihood that any romancer at any stage in Israel’s history would make a Moabite woman the ancestor of David, if she were not so, must be considered remote in the extreme, and the reality of his connection with Moab may be seen as confirmed by the fact that David was later able to seek refuge for his father and mother in Moab (1 Samuel 22:3). Furthermore Ruth is named in genealogies which see her as a real person (Matthew 1:5). That the book presents itself as a piece of history the opening verse makes clear. Why then should we doubt the honesty of its author? It is astonishing to me how some scholars, whose own rectitude cannot be questioned, feel quite content to cast doubt on the rectitude of writers of an earlier age, and this when it is on matters of deep religious importance, as though suddenly the world has become more honest. And this must be seen as especially so as their Law continually emphasised the necessity of true witness. It is one thing to get something wrong, it is quite another to misrepresent it in the Name of the God of truth.
Summary Of The Story
The story relates how a man took his wife Naomi, and his two sons, from Israel to Moab in order to escape the ravages of a famine, where he unfortunately died. His two sons then married Moabite women. But sadly they also died, seemingly without bearing children. Early deaths were commonplace in those days. This left the man’s wife widowed, together with the two Moabite women. So Naomi finally determined to go back to Israel, and sought to persuade the two Moabite women to forget their family duty to her and return to their homes in order that they might have a future. One of the women was reluctantly willing to do so, but the other, Ruth, expressed her loyalty to her mother-in-law and swore to remain with her come what may.
Returning to Israel they found themselves in impoverished circumstances with the result that Naomi took advantage of Israel’s enlightened laws on provision for the poor and sent Ruth to gather barley which fell to the ground when the reapers had done their work (called ‘gleanings’). She chanced to select a field belonging to a relative of Naomi’s, and that relative, Boaz, received her kindly and behaved generously towards her and Naomi. Consequently, under Naomi’s shrewd guidance, Ruth laid claim to her rights under the law of levirate marriage, and offered herself as wife to Boaz in order to produce children on behalf of her dead husband. After following the requirements of the Law with regard to a nearer relative, Boaz accepted her and she became his wife. And the final result of their union was, after a number of generations, the birth of the great King David.
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