The book of Ruth is a fascinating, beautiful story. Ruth’s story is placed after Joshua and Judges and before 1 Samuel because the story occurred during the period of the Judges — after the initial conquest of Palestine by the Israelites and before Israel had a king.
While Judges ends very depressingly with the horrible rape of a woman and the beginning of idolatry within Israel, Ruth is a positive, encouraging story. Matt Dabbs has recently argued that Ruth is the happy ending that Judges lacks.
Ruth is placed firmly in the context of the time of the Judges and concludes with a tiny glimmer of hope in the downward spiral that is the period of the Judges. Ruth has redemption. Ruth has love. Ruth has loyalty. Ruth points to king David and ultimately the Messiah. Judges on its own is pretty much a “hope-free zone”. But Judges/Ruth gives a fuller picture of what God is up to.
Part of the charm of Ruth is that the story gives a picture of life under the ancient customs of the Hebrew Bronze Age.
The tale (a true tale) begins with a Jewish woman named Naomi. Palestine suffers famine, and so she travels to Moab with her husband and two unmarried sons. Moab is a small nation east of Judah, on the opposite side of the Dead Sea. And there was no famine there.
“Naomi” means pleasant in Hebrew, and despite the famine, Naomi was a blessed woman. She had two sons, her inheritance was secure (because land passed to sons, who could be expected to honor their mother by caring for her in her old age), and the Moabites allowed her to escape starvation.
Both sons married Moabite women. The Moabites are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and so close kin to the Jews. The author of Ruth has no criticism of the marriages.
In fact, the Law of Moses only forbids marriage to the women of the seven pagan nations whose lands were to be conquered by the Israelites (Deu 7:1-3). Moab was not among the seven nations.
Recall that centuries later, some Jews would remain behind after the Assyrian Captivity, marry non-Jews, and so create the Samaritan race — considered half-breeds by the pure-bred Jews.
Moreover, when Ezra led a return of the Jews to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity, he required the Jews who’d taken foreign wives to divorce them. Since Ezra declares the marriages to violate the Law of Moses, we must assume that the women were from the seven forbidden nations.
Naomi’s husband died in Moab, as did both of her sons, leaving Naomi with two Moabite daughters-in-law and no blood family.
The text says that Naomi lived in Moab for ten years (Ruth 1:4). We don’t know when during those years Ruth married one of her sons. In those days, girls married shortly after reaching puberty. Ruth may have been as young as 12 when she married. She might have still been a teenager by the time Naomi returned to Bethlehem. She was surely no older than her early 20’s.
If Naomi were to return to her hometown — Bethlehem — she’d own no land because her husband’s land would have passed to his nearest male relative. Presumably, her husband had sold the land before leaving for Moab.
Nonetheless, Naomi decided to return home, and she urged her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and remarry. Naomi was too old to remarry and have children, and so all hope of an inheritance was lost.
One daughter-in-law chose to stay behind,
16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
This is a truly beautiful passage, so beautiful that it’s often read at weddings, even though this is a daughter-in-law speaking to her mother-in-law.
The effect appears to be for Ruth to become a proselyte. She devoted herself not only to the worship of God but to become a part of Israel. This was, of course, long before the age of the rabbis and the formulation of a formal ritual to become a proselyte. (The use of baptism to mark a proselyte can be dated with certainty only back to the First Century AD.)
And so, with that pledge, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, where Naomi asks to be called “Mara,” meaning bitter, rather than Naomi, meaning pleasant, because she had suffered so much loss.
In chapter 2, we find Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz. Boaz was a relative of Naomi. The poor — particularly the landless — were entitled under the Law of Moses to glean the fields of landed Jews. The owners of the land weren’t allowed to harvest all their crop. They had to leave some behind for the poor to glean — that is, to harvest for their own use.
Gleaning was a Mosaic form of welfare. The gleaners had to work for the harvest themselves but did not have to pay for what they gleaned. This was not a strictly voluntary system, as the Law required the landowners to leave crops behind for the gleaners.
Boaz noticed Ruth, a young widow, and commanded his field hands to leave extra sheaves behind for Ruth to glean. Interestingly, the text does not mention Ruth’s appearance as being the reason for her appeal to Boaz —
5 Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” 6 And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.”[
Rather, the men seem to appreciate Ruth for her youth — surprisingly young to be a widow — and her work ethic. She had worked hard all day except for a brief rest!
Boaz invited Ruth to eat with him, and then instructed his men to make sure that she would not be assaulted in the fields. After all, there was no central government and little in the way of an army or border security. Neighboring nations and thieves would be sorely tempted to steal grain at harvest time, and a young woman with no husband to protect her might well have been kidnapped by roaming marauders to be sold into slavery.
When Ruth brought her gleanings home, Naomi could tell from the amount of food she’d brought that Ruth had found favor with the owner. When Ruth told her she’d been gleaning the fields of Boaz, Naomi described Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer.
We see in chapter 2 a combination of the Mosaic Levirate marriage and kinsman redeemer laws.
The Law states that if a married man dies leaving no son, leaving his wife no heir and thus no land, the deceased husband’s brother was to marry the widow and produce children by her. If there was no brother, then the duty passed to the next closest male relative.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library —
The institution known as Levirate Marriage (called Yibum in Hebrew) requires that a man marry the childless widow of his brother to produce a child who will carry the deceased brother’s name, so that the deceased brother’s name will not be forgotten. Levirate marriage is detailed in the Book of Deuteronomy (25:5ff), “If brothers dwell together, and one of them shall die and have no child, the widow shall not be married to another man who is not his [her husband’s] kin. Her husband’s brother shall come unto her [have intercourse with her], and take her to him as a wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be that the firstborn that she bears shall carry the name of the brother that died so that his name not be blotted out of Israel.”
If the brother of the deceased refuses to marry the widow Deuteronomy (25:7-10) explains that the wife then must go to the gate of the city where the Elders sit, and inform them that her brother-in-law has refused to marry her. The Elders then must call the brother to them, and if he states, “I will not marry her,” the ceremony of the Removed Sandal (halitza) takes place. In this ceremony the widow loosens or removes the brother-in-law’s shoe, spits in front of his face, and says, “So shall be done to a man who refuses to build up his brother’s house.” Only after this symbolic act is the widow free to marry who she likes.
The account in Ruth is a bit different, in that the obligation of Levirate marriage passed beyond the brother to whichever male was the nearest kin. The refusal of the nearest male relative to honor his obligations under the Law did not free Ruth to marry anyone but caused the obligation to pass to the next-nearest male relative.
But the Law of Moses is often incomplete, modifying existing practices, rather than specifying customs that were already well known and practiced. We should not be surprised to see that the Levirate marriage had a tradition and rules beyond those specified in the Law.
Levirate marriage sounds odd, even outrageous today, but this was a time of arranged marriages. And survival depended on having sons with land that could be harvested for the widow’s support. By having a male heir by her husband’s kinsman, the family farmland could be inherited by her son and the widow could be supported by her son. And, of course, polygamy was common practice in those days, as well.
This was also an age where family lines and having descendants was nearly all important. This was partly about having an inheritance and so a means to make a living, but also because the culture saw continuation of the family line as an essential purpose of life. This is one reason that God’s covenant with Abraham is all about God blessing his descendants.
And there’s another principle at work here, the “kinsman redeemer.” Moses intended for land, once allocated to a family, to remain with that family forever. Even if sold, the land would be returned to the original family at the next Jubilee — which was supposed to occur every 50 years (Lev. 25 spells out the rules.)
But before the Jubilee year, a kinsman of the man who sells his land has the right to buy the land back — to “redeem” the land, returning it to the rightful family. (It was effectively a prepaid land lease, expiring at the next Jubilee year.)
In Ruth, we see that the kinsman redeemer is also expected to be the Levirate husband, that is, you can’t buy the land unless you take the widow who goes with the land!
If the nearest kinsman already has a son, then producing a son by another wife would divide the inheritance between the two sons, as the son of the Levirate marriage is considered an heir to both the deceased husband of his mother and her second husband.
At a time when the Jews had not yet possessed the fertile coastal plains, land plots were necessarily small, and a divided plot might not be sufficient to support a large family.