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The חסד of Ruth

The חסד of Ruth

Introduction

A famine has riddled the land of Moab leaving many victim, including the lives of a husband and his sons. The story of Ruth begins with these deaths, establishing from the beginning that these are some insurmountable odds weighing against our protagonist and her two daughter-in-laws. There is nothing for an alien widow to do besides return to her homeland where hopefully she may be reunited with her kin and brought back under the protection of an Israelite man. However, before Naomi can set out on this journey, she must shed herself of the foreign weight left to her after her son’s deaths: their wives. What future could there possibly be for two Moabite childless widows on Judahite soil? For this reason Naomi discourages the women from following her to the land where the famine has ended, and rather to return to Moab, to their mother’s homes (1:8), where potentially they find a suitable future. Orpah, one of the daughters, decides to take the advice of her mother-in-law and “[return] to her people and her gods” (1:15). She is not condemned for this choice, but it should be noted that this is the last time the reader will hear of Orpah and her whereabouts. Rather, the author focuses on the contrast of Ruth’s response, who chooses to “cling” (דָּ֥בְקָה) to Naomi (1:14). It is interesting to pause and consider the verb used here, while frequently used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to individuals “clinging” to God, it only appears eight times in reference to one human “clinging” to another human; four of those eight are found in the book of Ruth (1:14; 2:8; 2:21; 23). Another important word that the author uses to define the relationship is the verb “love” (אֲהֵבַ֙תֶךְ֙) in 4:15, for this is the only reference in the Old Testament where a woman is said to love another woman.

Clearly the relationship between Naomi and Ruth is dynamic and this essay will spend a good amount of time determining the impact this relationship has on the rest of this brief narrative. The other aspect of this narrative that will be brought to the surface are Ruth’s famous words to Naomi in vv. 16-17 of the first chapter, which comes off as poetry and are among the most popular verses in the Hebrew Bible. Though this vow from Ruth is used in many wedding ceremonies and hangs on the walls of many homes as a source of inspiration and example of devotion, the implications of these words when set back into their original context have larger and far more complicated implications. The implications are twofold, both for the message itself and also for the participant and recipient of the vow. This is a vow from a woman to a woman, from a younger woman to an older woman, and even more impactful from a Moabite to a Bethlehemite. And Ruth, through this vow, breaks from her past, from her home, from her sense of security and leaps blindly into a life by her mother-in-law’s side, willingly absorbing Naomi’s nationality and deity in the process. This poignant gesture is done without the direction of God and without any promise of blessing from God afterwards. Ruth was left without reassurances from God that paramount patriarchs, including Abraham, had received plentifully (Gen. 12:1-3). Therefore the issues raised in this essay will be not only does the devotion of Ruth surpass that of Israel, personified through Abraham, but that Ruth sets in motion the restoration of Israel’s mistakes.

Ruth 1:14-1814 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Placement, Authorship and Dating

Before inquiring into the eloquent narrative written by a prolific storyteller, the placement of the idyllic calmness of Ruth nestled quaintly behind the grotesque and brutal book of Judges must be weighed. The primary focus of Judges is that of war and brutality as the Israelites are liberated from their captives in which they placed themselves due to their inability to hold steadfast in their devotion to Yahweh. By contrast, Ruth focuses on peace, and ironically the peace that might be found between families during the years of rest in the land. Thomas Paine, the eighteenth-century philosopher, descriptively labels Ruth this way: “The book of Ruth, an idle, bungling story, foolishly told, nobody knows by whom, about a strolling country girl, creeping slyly to be with her cousin Boaz. Pretty stuff indeed, to be called the Word of God! It is, however, one of the best books of the Bible, for it is free from murder and rapine” (quotation taken from a modern publication). This placement of Ruth is only found in Septuagint and Christian canon, but plays an important role in establishing the legitimacy of David’s kingship. This can be known from sequence of canonical books ending in statements regarding monarchy (Judges 21:25; Ruth 4:22; 1 Sam. 31:1-13). The book of Ruth leads readers to David by means of “an idyllic romance story featuring a Moabite heroine,” by peacefully reuniting the Moabites with the Israelites.

As is the case with other biblical narratives, the authorship and date of composition for the book of Ruth is not indicated in the writing itself. It is for this reason that a modern reader’s understanding of the historical context becomes crucial in understanding the narratives motives and purpose. Many rabbinic sources credit Samuel in the authorship of Ruth, alongside Judges and Samuel, but this is based simply on the knowledgable Hebrew and literary sophistication of these books. Literarily the author gives the narrative a historical setting by stating “in the days when the judges ruled…” (1:1) and concludes with the birth of Obed, the grandfather of David (4:17). At face value the narrative is placed in the tenth and early ninth century around the same time as David. Some scholars state that this would make sense in order to test David’s qualifications as king due to his Moabite ancestry, however others argue for a much later date setting it in the late pre-exilic or postexilic periods.

The dating and placement of this book plays an important role because of the socio-political matrix that is envisioned in the narrative. One of the stark markers in this ongoing debate is that the book exhibits no overt hostility towards foreigners, the Moabites particularly. In fact, at the end of the narrative, Ruth the Moabite has joined Boaz’s family through marriage and enters the lineage of King David. This is a sharp contrast to Deuteronomy 23:4-7 which explicitly forbids Moabites and their descendants in gaining membership into the Israelite family tree. The estrangement found between Israelites and Moabites dates back to antiquity. For example, Genesis 19:30-37 traces the origin of the Moabite people to the incest of Lot and his oldest daughter, which followed the destruction of Sodom. In fact, there are many correlations between these two stories as both portray two women seeking asylum for devastation with survival sought through procreation. Perhaps due to the negative connotation of the Moabite people, Ruth herself is consistently introduced as a Moabite throughout the narrative, even when that information is not necessary (Ruth 2:21). She eventually does shed this label, but it is not until the end of the narrative when Boaz took her to become his wife (4:13).

The Abolition of Abraham

Therefore, there must be something to Ruth’s foreign heritage. Ruth being a Moabite held great importance to the author and this story, which is the reason Ruth holds on to this label for so long. As noted, it is not until the end of the story, in an almost storybook-ending fashion, that she sheds her past through the unification of her and Boaz through marriage. This is so much more than a man and woman. This is a foreigner and an Bethlemite; a Moabite and an Israelite. Ruth’s conversion from her Moabite heritage to an Israelite plays a significant role in understanding the purpose of the book of Ruth. However,before one can look forward in understanding the purpose of Ruth’s narrative, they must look back at the Moabite and Israelite history. Moab was a territory east of the Dead Sea, in the southern part of what is today the country of Jordan. Biblical and extrabiblical sources concur that Israelites and Moabites were culturally related. Despite Moabites relation to Abraham’s cousin, Lot (Gen. 19:30-37), the predominant perception of Moabites in the Bible is negative. For example, Genesis 19:30-37 traces the origin of the Moabites to the incest between Lot and his older daughter, following the destruction of Sodom. This disastrous event, whether it can be credited as historically true or not is irrelevant to this argument, was only an effect from the chain of events that started with Abraham.

Genesis 13 introduces readers to a new Abram (Abraham). Rather than the timid man seen previously standing before Pharaoh, now Abram shows signs of leadership and faith as he deals with the potential quarrel between Lot and himself. Rather than playing the role of mentor or patriarch, however, Abram decides it would be best for Lot and himself to separate completely (Gen. 13:9). Scholars often say Abram’s actions should be exemplified stating: “Abram displayed compassion, confidence, and insight as he placed his nephew’s wishes above his own position and ambition;” however there are latent repercussions to his decision. Abram is separating something that was designed to remain united. Gershon Hepner states that “the reason Abram asks Lot to put a distance between himself and Abram reflects his unwillingness to have Lot marry into his family in the same way he does not want his servant to become his son-in-law.” However, what Abram could not predict the devastation that would begin to domino from his one decision to isolate Lot, and one of the last dominos that would fall would be the birth of the Moabite nation from Lot’s act of incest.

The separation of Abram and Lot is a personification of Israel separating itself from the Moabite nation. Israel as a strong animosity against the Moabites and the Ammonites, examples of this can be seen in the origins of these two heritages through incestous relationships and their exclusion from admission to Israelite assembly even down to the tenth generation (Gen. 23:3-6). Abraham has a strong obedience to the Deuteronomic law. This can be verified in his separation of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 9-21). Abraham causes Lot to separate from himself because the Deuteronomic law requires separation from Moabites and Ammonites (Deut. 23, 4). An analysis of Abram and Lot will provide a reflection of Deuteronomic law that prohibits the intermarriage of Israelites with these two foreign nations. Therefore, if one is to “un-personify” this story, the nation of Israel felt an obligation to separate themselves from the Ammonite and Moabite nations, establishing the prohibition in the Deuteronomic law, and through the actions of Abraham, set this separation in motion. Ruth then is a counter-action to this separation; Ruth sets in motion the restoration of these nations.

The Restoration of Ruth

Upon hearing of the end of the famine back home, and without any further security left for her in this foreign land, Naomi sets out to return from Moab to Bethlehem. One of the last things on her checklist before she can clear herself of her past is to call off her two daughter-in-laws, for what future might there possibly be for two foreign widows in Israel? Some scholars suggest that Naomi’s statement regarding her age and her inability to remarry and provide new husbands for her two daughter-in-laws is “surely a veiled allusion to the institution of levirate marriage.” Already at the beginning of Ruth there appears to be a counterbalance of Deuteronomic law and a sense of inclusivity that was not there before. The book of Ruth “refocused, or reframed attention, considering the appropriate role of ethnic boundaries formulating a communal identity.” Amongst the biblical authors, there were few who promoted ethnic and religious inclusivity, like that found in the Book of Ruth. Ultimately they developed a way of thinking that communal identity that was pluralistic and “considered fulfillment of the law apart from religious ritual.” This form of writing and thinking stood in stark contrast to the narrow ethnic purity found in the Ezra-Nehemiah ideology; Ruth purpose is far more inclusive. In the book of Ruth, the ethnic boundaries that are firmly established in the Ezra-Nehemiah ideology are blurred in Ruth by assigning David with characteristics that make him an “outsider” by the standards of the Deuteronomic law. The author of Ruth is establishing a new movement in order to construct view of reality for their audience of the “goodness” that was once limited to only insiders, is now being manifested in the outsider (3:10).

This “goodness” is only one of the traits found in Ruth, who, keep in mind, is not only a foreigner, but a woman and a widow. In the portion of Ruth this essay has been focusing the reader also finds a level of devotion from Ruth (1:14-18). Ruth’s decision to “go” with Naomi conjured that of Abraham, after he is told to “go forth” from his native land (Gen. 12:1). There also appears to be an echo of Rebekah’s pronouncement when she decides to leave her home, announcing “I will go” (Gen. 24. 58). Similar to these Israelite predecessors (insiders), Ruth (outsider) takes the risk of venturing into the unknown. However, unlike Abraham, she is not accompanied by family and wealth, nor guided by a promise of greatness. And unlike Rebekah she knows full and well that there is no protecting husband waiting to take her in. These are two thematic and verbal links the author uses to evoke the memory of these legendary stories of Israel’s history in order to magnify the singular power of Ruth’s “chesed” (חֶ֫סֶד). Indeed, unlike her predecessors, Ruth had nothing to gain, and only the risk of losing, by going with Naomi. She willingly made herself a stranger in a strange land so as not to abandon Naomi, who herself has been a stranger in Ruth’s Moabite homeland.

Ruth becomes the embodiment of “chesed” (חֶ֫סֶד). Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law inspires Boaz to show kindness and goodness beyond his call of duty. “Chesed” generates goodness which can be expressed in showing kindness to the foreigner. The “chesed” shown throughout Ruth seems to mirror the “chesed” Yahweh has shown to Israel. Despite their unwillingness to remain faithful, as epitomized in the Book of Judges, Yahweh remained faithful. Therefore, Israel should be willing to show the same level of kindness to the foreigner. For if a Moabite widow can show “chesed” to her Israelite Mother-in-law, then surely Israel can replicate. Ruth is an extraordinary story of a call to reconciliation and restoration of Israel with the opposing nations.  

Conclusion

The Book of Ruth takes place in some terribly dark days in Israel's history, for it was a time in Israel when there was no king and ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judg. 1:1). The men and women of Israel did not live by any form of law or moral standard, but according to their own impulse and inclination and the reader of this history enters into an continuous cycle of sin, divine judgment, redemption, and return to an even greater sin. This is where Israel’s heart rested, but even in the darkest times of Israel’s history there is light, but not where one might expect. The author of the Book of Ruth makes it clear that the heroine of the story is a Moabite woman. Ruth comes from a race that, according to Israelite history, derived from incentous relationships (Gen 19), from a man who selfishly took the plentiful land from his uncle (Gen. 13:11), who greedily cast his nephew away from his presence (Gen. 13:9). In fact, Moabites were even forbidden from entering into the assembly of the Yahweh to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:3), and Israelites were commanded to annihilate them and forbidden to enter into marriage (Deut. 20). Truly an enmity that runs deep in the hearts of Isrealites.

It is for this reason that the Book of Ruth came into existence and nestled itself between a grotesque period in Israel's history and the impending approach of King David. The author of Ruth takes it upon themselves to remedy the abuse given to those who are living thoroughly under the Torah by referring to different kinds of text from the Torah in order to legitimize their counter position. No longer can Israel be driven by animosity and isolation from surrounding nations. The story of Ruth springboards readers not only toward the unification of Israel under King David, but the theology of inclusivity that becomes prominent in Christ’s teachings. The author of Ruth is well aware of the problems of his/her time caused by prohibiting intermarriages and outcasting foreigners from the Israelite community. It is for this reason that the author evokes the memories of Abraham and Rebekah, who like Ruth left their kin, country, and, in Ruth’s case, even more so ger gods in order to obey and follow the commands of Yahweh. Ruth then trumps her predecessors by her willingness to obey despite the lack of promise from Yahweh.

The Book of Ruth, often described as the idyllic romance of two widowed women who, by the grace of Yahweh and a generous Judahite man, find redemption through marriage and child. However, now the story finds a different meaning and the genealogy at the end of the story leaves no room for this simplified interpretation. In the same way the two women, Leah and Rachel build up the house of Israel, now two women, Naomi and Ruth, build up the house of David. Beginning with the devotion to Naomi, and moving through the ins and outs of Israelite customs and Deuteronomic laws, the author positions Ruth to be not only a heroine, but a redeeming figure. As referenced by Fischer, and many other scholars who recognized the inclusive language of Ruth, the story begins with Elimelech, whose name means ‘my God is king’. However, after he and his son's death, the dead man’s name is being carried on by his wife and daughter-in-law “because the God of Israel lets the royal dynasty arise by means of the two women.” And not just women, but two women who had to overcome insurmountable odds to reach fulfillment; that is a story worth our canon.



Bibliography

Bush, Fredric W. , Ruth/Esther (WBC 9; Waco: Word Books, 1996).

Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, Ruth: the Traditional Hebrew Text   with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011).

Fewell,D. N. and D. M. Gunn “‘A Son is Born to Naomi!’ Literary Allusion and Interpretation in   the Book of Ruth.” (JSOT, 1988).

Fischer,Irmtraud, “The Book of Ruth: A ‘Feminist’ Commentary to the Torah?” in Ruth and   Esther: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, UK Sheffield Academic Press Ltd.).

Giles, Terry and William Doan, The Naomi Story--the Book of Ruth: From Gender to Politics,   (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016).

Gow, Murray D, The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose (Leicester: Apollos, 1992).

Hamilton, Victor P., Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,   2001).

Hapner, Gershon, "The separation between Abram and Lot reflects the Deuteronomic law   prohibiting Ammonites and Moabites." (Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche   Wissenschaft 117, no. 1:).

Hartley, John E., New International Biblical Commentary: Genesis (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000).

Hubbard, Robert L.,, The Book of Ruth (NICOT; Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1988).

Lawrie,Douglas, “Narrative Logic and Legitimized Interposition in the Book of Ruth.”

Paine, Thomas, Age of Reason (Secaucus, NJ: 1991)

Queen-Sutherland, Kandy, Ruth and Esther (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2016).

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