The Book of Ruth has a relatively small volume and includes only four chapters. However, it occupies a special position in the Old Testament. Its fascinating story, a magnificent literary style, and a rich spiritual content always attract the attention of many commentators and preachers. The study of this book can bring substantial benefit to any community. It is an evident fact that the basis of all preaching is a thorough study of God’s Word. Without the diligent study of the Scripture text, it is necessary to examine the general context of the entire book. If one does not consider its overall content and historical background, he can misinterpret all the other verses in the book. To proceed with the study of the Book of Ruth, this paper will consider the following types of context. First, the paper reviews the author’s context, which includes the learning of the author and the time he wrote the book as well as the objectives pursued by the writer. Second, the study reveals the historical context that addresses the period of time described in the book, political and economic situation, which existed at that time. Third, the geographical context involves the examination of the places and events described in the book as well as the way it affected further interpretation. Fourth, one should consider the literary context and such issues as genre, its storyline, and its major sections. Fifth, one should review the exegetical context, which involves the questions raised in the book, its main theme, through the prism of its whole content. Sixth, the theological context includes theologically important topics discussed in this story. A careful study of the entire context will help to understand deeper and more accurately, what the author wanted to express. However, one should be familiar with the general context in order to avoid any errors in the interpretation of the Bible books, and hence the application of truths to the modern listeners. This paper will examine the Book of Ruth reviewing its grammatical, lexical, laterally-historical, biblical, and theological contexts.
Grammatical and Lexical Data Vocabulary
The author of the Book of Ruth uses poetic vocabulary in prose. The story stands as a prototype of the messianic redemption. The stylistic principle of exceptional simple constitutes the Book of Ruth in the most different aspects. This applies even grammatical forms, such as an atypical use of the most common prepositions, as well as in the broader sense. All the heroes of the Tanakh use all tenses in the direct speech, but only Ruth speaks in the future tense from the beginning till the end. Thus, the author does not characterize the woman in a book and puts her only in a messianic context.
The specific vocabulary plays a significant role in the Book of Ruth. For example, a concept related to redemption is expressed by the Hebrew verb ga’al, which means to redeem, to atone. This differs from the synonymous verb p’dâ by that fact that ga’al usually implies privileges or duties relating to close relatives1. For example, the responsibility of the Kinsman-Redeemer was to redeem the field, sold in times of need, or to take revenge for the murder of a family member. If after husband’s death, a wife remained childless, the brother of her husband had to marry her, and the aim of such marriage was that the children had to keep the name and ownership of the deceased person. The fact that ga’al root is found in the book of Ruth 21 times shows the importance of the concept of a related redemption for the plot2. However, in the translation, the author transmits it in different ways, not always with the desired degree of accuracy.
In the book of Ruth, Boaz acts as a Kinsman-Redeemer ga’al, who redeems Naomi’s field as well as marries Ruth, thus restoring the name and inheritance of Mahlon. This redemption is the prototype of the acts of Christ for His people. Kinsman-Redeemer should be in blood relationship with those he frees, as Christ became a blood relative to the humans through the Incarnation. He must possess sufficient profit to buy the retained property, as Christ’s righteousness is enough to pay for humans’ sins. The relative must be willing to redeem the inheritance, because although ga’al had the right of redemption, he was compelled to make the repayment. Christ gave willingly His life for sinners. Finally, according to the story of Ruth, a redeemer must be ready to marry the wife of a deceased relative, as Christ is also the bridegroom of the Church in Scripture.
It is an interesting fact that in the messianic chapters of the prophet Isaiah, the same verb ga’al is met: ‘Sing, sing together, waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, redeemed [ga’al] Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52: 9.). This shows that God in Scripture is a relative-redeemer who undertakes to redeem his people. In Jesus Christ, the atonement was accomplished completely.
Genre, Form, and Structure
Despite numerous attempts to refer the Book of Ruth to any genre involving a significant share of fiction, nobody managed to provide a conclusive evidence to support this assumption. Currently, the genre of this book is best described as a historical narrative1. Usually, the genre of the Old Testament has the following four characteristics. First, the texts are written in the style of sublime prose with some poetic elements, especially in the dialogues. Second, the main characters of the stories are ordinary people. Third, the purpose of the historical narrative is not only to attract the attention and interest of the readers, but also to convey the instruction. Normal everyday life events are the arena, where subtle God’s providence acts. Fourth, the story combines spiritual meaning and literary art. The Book of Ruth manifests all these traits in the narrative. The story consists of seven main sections, which are separated from each other by changing the characters, locations, times, topics, speakers, activities, etc. (Naomi loses family; Ruth decides to stay with Naomi; Naomi and Ruth, deprived of all, come to Bethlehem; Ruth meets Boaz; Ruth proposes Boaz; Boaz redeems Naomi’s property and marries Ruth; Naomi’s family recovers)
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It is worth noting that many literary techniques scattered on the pages of the story. Although, it is appropriate to draw attention to them within the overall context of the book, it is possible to trace some of them at the beginning. Moreover, several structural patterns cover the entire book or significant fragments thereof they may be overlooked, when considering the individual parts. First, it is worth noting that the theme of bread is present throughout the book. The name of the city, where the story begins and ends, is Bethlehem. In translation from Hebrew, it means house of bread. Due to the problem of shortage, Elimelech’s family leaves the House of Bread, to find their bread in the country of Moab. After the death of her husband and two sons, Naomi heard that the Lord gave the bread to his people. In addition, the theme of bread conveys some important nuances referred to meaning that are not immediately apparent, when reading the translation. First, it is unreasonable to leave the House of Bread and to find the food in another place. Friends of Naomi remained in Bethlehem and did not die of hunger. Moreover, if the Lord was able to care about her at the end of the story, it was obvious that He could protect her family at the beginning. Second, using the example of the vital human needs, such as need for bread, the author shows that people depend on God even in the routine situations they experience every day. The Lord sends a famine and crop, takes the bread and returns it later. At the same time, wonderful dispensation does not exclude human responsibility: in order to get food, Ruth had to go to the field and glean. In the story, God’s Providence acted not only through the impersonal forces of nature but also through the goodwill and charity of Boaz.
Background of the Passage
The Book of Ruth is one of three stories associated with Bethlehem during the period of the Judges. The first story is present in the Book of Judges, which depicts the life of a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who became a priest at Micah. He began conducting religious ceremonies willfully in isolation from the tabernacle. In addition, he did not hesitate over idolatry. This story clearly shows that during the period of judges, the religious customs of Bethlehem were not better than those in the other parts of Israel. Another shameful page of Israel’s history is linked to Bethlehem, described in the 19th chapter of the Book of Judges. A Levite’s concubine was from this town. A Levite came to take his runaway concubine from Bethlehem. From this city, they started their journey and arrived in Gibeah of Benjamin, where the concubine died from violent actions against her. The story of Ruth rehabilitates the reputation of Bethlehem. In this case, there are two good men, whose faith and virtue demonstrated an example for entire Israel.
Placement and Function
The Book of Ruth was regarded as part of Scripture in Jewish and Christian circles. It has been included in the canon of sacred books, when the Church started this practice in the second century B.C.E. Moreover, the respective references in the Gospels show that during the period of writing, it was an authoritative source. In the Septuagint and Vulgate, the Book of Ruth follows the Book of Judges. However, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is the third part in the canon of the Old Testament and is the second of five scrolls, which people read in synagogues during worship in the sixth century B.C.E. The book Song of Solomon is the first, because people used it at Easter time, whereas they read the Book of Ruth on Pentecost. Babylonian Talmud begins the hagiographers with the Book of Ruth, and it is followed by Psalm. In some texts, the Book of Ruth is the first of five scrolls, because it is the first among the series of the described chronological events. Obviously, it was originally a part of hagiographers, and only later it was transferred to the section of historical books, taking place between the Judges and the Books of Samuel. Finally, the Book of Ruth occupies a unique position in the Old Testament canon that can be associated with the canonical purpose of this book. On the one hand, it complements the unique details of the Book of Judges, which describes the same period. On the other hand, it serves as a preface to the Book of Samuel (1st and 2nd Kings). Without the Book of Ruth Kings, the narrative would be incomplete, because the lineage of David is not present in these respective books.
In the Christian canon, the Book of Ruth occupies the place between the Judges and the First and Second Samuel. Thus, the compilers describe it in a historical, not a liturgical context. Notwithstanding the existing opinion that such an arrangement is late (on the basis of Jewish tradition), it suggests that writing the book was precisely due to the need to link the Book of Judges and First Samuel. Accordingly, it serves as a transitional connection between the tribal and the monarchy, as evidenced by mentioning King David in the Book of Ruth.
Unlike many other books of Scripture, where the names of the authors are present in the text, the book of Ruth does not reveal its originator. The Talmud ascribes authorship of this book to Samuel. Theoretically, it is possible, because Samuel did not only live till the time of David, but also anointed him as king. However, neither internal nor external evidence allow determining the author with precision. This book does not mark explicitly the objectives of the author, unlike some other books of the Bible. However, due to its content, one can assume that the author’s intent is connected with that of David, because the author does not only describe the story of Ruth, but also presents it as a genealogy showing the relationship of the protagonist with the future king of Israel2. On the other hand, if the author wanted to show the origin of David, it was not necessary to provide such a detailed description of the hardships and blessings experienced by one of his grandparents. It is obvious that the author’s intent must somehow combine all the characters namely, the Moabite Ruth, David, and king of Israel. Obviously, the aim of the author was to explain how a representative of a pagan Moab people, who were hostile to Israel, appeared among the ancestors of David. Explanation of the David’s origin and the assertion of his rights to the throne can be theocratic purpose of the Book of Ruth. Such an explanation can be rather appropriate at the beginning of the David’s career, when Samuel anointed him King3.
The author shows that the appearance of Ruth in the royal lineage was sanctified by God’s Providence. It is an evident fact that the blessed royal dynasty must be descended from Judah the Patriarch, whose descendant was Boaz. However, Judas begat Phares, when he had levirate marriage with Tamar, whereas Boaz had to produce a royal offspring through levirate marriage with Moabite Ruth4. At the same time, the theocratic goal is not contrary to the instructive aim. Perhaps, the author did not only explain the appearance of Moab blood in the veins of David, but also taught his contemporaries a spiritual lesson. Indeed, the Book of Ruth describes a sincere appeal of Gentile Moabite, whose faith is worthy of being an example to Israel.
Social, Economic and Political Settings
At the beginning of the book, the action takes place in the period of the Judges. It was a time of political instability and economic decline. In those days, there was no King in Israel. Every man behaved in a way, which he considered right. In the absence of a centralized management, each tribe of Israel, and even each city, often lived independently. The book of Ruth shows the life of one city in Israel. The time of Judges was also a period of religious decline. Book of Judges repeats the same words that the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord. It was a period of weak faith and irresponsible behavior. As punishment for the wickedness of the Israelites and their infidelity to the covenant, the Lord sent robbers and enemies to them. Sometimes, the actions of enemy troops resulted in the deaths of harvest and famine in the land. However, the reason of hunger was not only the destruction of crops by the hostile nations. It is an evident fact that the famine in Palestine could occur as a result of the drought. Curiously, one of the curses of the Mosaic covenant violation was exactly the drought. Obviously, the famine that forced Elimelech and Naomi to leave Bethlehem was the result of the general decline in Israel.
The events described in the Book of Ruth unfold against the background of several different staging. The action starts with Bethlehem, flows smoothly into the fields of Moab, and returns to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a small town in the territory of the tribe of Judah, about 10 kilometers to the south of Jerusalem. It was first mentioned in the Bible in connection with the death of Rachel who was buried not far from the city. After that, there is virtually no other mention about to the city till the period of the Judges. Bethlehem acquired the greatest value after the events of the Book of Ruth, when the future King of Israel, David was born in this city, with whom God made a special covenant. The prophet Micah predicted that small Bethlehem will be more magnified because the greatest descendant of David – the King-Messiah will come from that place. This prophecy fulfilled with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.
Further, the action of the book takes place in the fields of Moab. Moab is located in the east of the Dead Sea. It was a border state of Israel. Depending on the settlement of Elimelech’s family, the path from Bethlehem to Moab lasts from four to six days. Naomi and Ruth required relatively the same time to return. The Moabites were descendants of Lot’s eldest daughter. On the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelis have passed Moab. However, fearing them, Moabite King Balak hired Balaam, the Mesopotamian caster, to curse them. Therefore, they forbid the Moabites to enter the congregation of the Lord. Thus, a visit to Moab was not a spiritually neutral event for the Israelis. Concerning the entry the Moabite Ruth into the congregation of the Lord, it was possible only because she turned to Yahweh and adopted the religion of Israel. The religion of Moab had originally similar ideology as in the land of Canaan but later acquired its own unique features. Although the Moabites worshiped different gods, their main god was Chemosh. The veneration of this deity was firmly associated with Moab, and the citizens of this country were called the people of Chemosh. Considering the above-mentioned facts, it is clear that during ten-year stay of Elimelech’s family in Moab, the environment was not religiously neutral.
After the events described in the Book of Ruth, the history of Moab developed as follows. During the reign of Saul and David, Moab and Israel periodically fought with one another. Solomon brought his harem to Moab and built a shrine for Chemosh. After the division of Israel, Moab gained independence, but after some time, the kings of the northern kingdom of Omri, and later Ahab, took control over the Moabites. In sixth century B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Kingdom of the Moabites.
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Among the archeological findings of Moab, the most famous is Moabite Stone or Mesha Stele. It is a black basalt artifact containing an inscription made by the King of Moab in the 8th century. He discovered the stele in Jordan. The inscription on the Moabite language had more than 35 lines. From them, the first thirty have perfectly preserved, others contain only snatches of conversation, and at least two final lines are completely lost. Now, Moabite Stone is in the Louvre. This is the most detailed inscription, which tells the story of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Moab language was very close to the Hebrew of the Old Testament. One can assume that in the days of Boaz and Ruth, the similarity of these two languages was even greater. Not surprisingly, Elimelech’s family did not meet any problems, when moving to Moab, while Ruth the Moabite did not feel the language barrier coming to Bethlehem.
Reviewing the issue of dating, it is most likely that the book was written during the reign of David, because the genealogy appears before David, while Solomon is not mentioned. If the Book of Ruth had appeared earlier, the name of David could not have been mentioned. If it had been written later, then the author would have had certain reason to include the eminent descendant Solomon in the genealogy. However, it is difficult to establish the exact date of writing. It can be any point during the period between the rule of David (near 1000 B.C.E.) and the time of reckoning the Book of Ruth to the canonical books of the Bible (second century B.C.E.). They often refer it to the period after the capture, in particular, to the fourth-fifth centuries B.C.E, when it could be an expression of protest against the narrow nationalism of Ezra and Nehemiah. The presence of Aramaic words in Hebrew was a sign of later writing. It seems that the author lived much later after these events, perhaps during the reign of Solomon, which allowed him to see them in perspective. One has suggested that the author could be the prophet Nathan. Thus, it is impossible to name the exact date of the events described in the Book of Ruth. However, knowing the time of the reign of David, one can count three generations back and assume that Ruth lived in the days of Judge Jair (1126-1105 BC. E.).
Biblical and Theological Context
The starting point of the story is the removal of a Jewish family of Bethlehemite Elimelech to Moab as a result of hunger, which stays in contact with the general Israeli history. Thus, Lord sent a hunger into the land of Judah. Characteristic of time of the Judges is that every man did what seemed right to him. The Lord creates the straitened circumstances as a response. In this case, he sent a famine in order to return people to the ways of the Lord in order his people cried out to God under straitened circumstances. However, Elimelech chose to go to the people of the land of Moab. In the hope of finding food, he leaves the city, which name means ‘city of bread’. He did not inquire of the LORD and tried to solve the problem of the family. Elimelech acted irresponsibly when leaving Bethlehem and going to live in the country of Moab. However, God Hand befell the family and Elimelech died. His sons married, taking wives Orpah and Ruth from among the people of Moab. Having lived 10 years, they die. As the conclusion of this section, one can see, circumstances where Ruth comes into this family. The degree of permissiveness in Israel was extremely high. In contrast, in the book of Ruth, events are shown through the prism of a completely different look. There are people who deeply believe in the fact that nothing can be hidden from the Almighty, controlling everything that happens in the world.
A person always feels the need to worship. This is a process that never stops. The choice is always what the most important one for a person is. The application of the passage is faith. It gives the direction of faith to all the Christian. The passage urges all both believers and non-believers to reflect on the questions what their life in the eyes of their loved ones is or what their life in the eyes of the family is. It directs the thought to the question whether the choice of my family affects the personal life and heather they choose Him whom they worship. It is known that God has given His love through the Holy Spirit, how this love is implemented. A person is standing on the threshold of choice every day, and he decides which way he goes in (in the flesh or in spirit).
Purpose of the Passage
Considering the purpose to write the book, one can assume that the procedure described in the story does not need any didactic interpretation. On the contrary, it contains certain moral principles and has a clear theological orientation. The interpreters of the Bible did not meet difficulties in finding this direction; the complexity is to narrow a polyphony of ideas to a dominant motive. The Book of Ruth is a reference in those cases when it is necessary to note the following facts. First, a proselyte (even the Moabite) can be truly faithful to the Lord and to gain complete acceptance of Israel’s environment. Second, the alien qualities as loyalty and devotion to the covenant may serve as a model for Israel in its relation to the Lord. Third, the Lord will redeem and restore the people of Israel in its land. However, considering the respective circumstances of writing, more characteristic of the period of David, one can assume that the main purpose for writing the book lies in the confirmation of the legitimacy of David’s ascent to the throne. After Prophet Samuel anointed David King, a serious problem arose. Actually, this dilemma existed even before his accession. The Jewish society did not accept David. Moreover, his own family did not welcome him. The fact is that the nationality of the Jews is passed through the maternal line. Considering his mother’s side, David was not a Jew to the Jewish people. His ancestor was Ammonitess Ruth. The Ammonites were most unacceptable people to the Jews because the Torah (Five Books of Moses) says: “Ammonite … cannot enter into the congregation of the Lord”. Notwithstanding the desperate, but reasonable move to Tamar, the primacy of Judah genealogy has been already approved in Israel. Now, David grounded his rule grounded similarly, despite the presence of Moabite in his genealogy. Boaz is a sample of Kinsman-Redeemer, while Ruth, seeking refuge under the wings of the Lord and, at the same time, clinging to the heart of Naomi and the God of Israel, gives the Lord the opportunity to show His love and mercy. The fact that God has lovingly used all these disparate strands to bless the origin lineage of David, it can serve as the main reason for further confirmation of David’s right on the throne.
The main theme of the Book of Ruth, in the light of which one should consider the whole story, , and which permeates the entire contents of the book, is a topic of turning to true God. Despite the threat of poverty and loneliness, the Moabite Ruth left their gods and turned to Yahweh, who did not reject her. Regardless of the initial difficulties, the Lord allows Ruth to occupy an honored place in the history of the chosen people and become the great-grandmother of the greatest King of Israel, namely David. Moreover, Ruth is one of the few women mentioned in the genealogy of the Messiah. It is obvious that the Lord not only accepted her but also crowned with glory before the entire population of Israel.
It should be noted that the conversion of the Gentiles and their acceptance by God is somewhat a difficult topic for Israel. Jews perceived it reluctantly despite the fact that the Lord raises often this subject in the Scriptures. At different times, even the best representatives of God’s people perceived negatively the fact that God accepted the Gentiles. One may notice mistrustful attitude towards Gentiles, reflected in the surprise of the Jews Christians, that God can give the Holy Spirit to other peoples: ‘And the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles …’ (Acts 10: 45). Moreover, Jewish tradition provided proselytes, directed to Judaism at the lowest level, below the priests, Levites, and ordinary Israelis. Notwithstanding the given background, the Book of Ruth proclaims in the fascinating, poetic, and clear way the same truth, which Jesus repeatedly said to the Jews – if Gentile sincerely returns to the Lord, He will bless him and will take him into His glory.
The theology of the Book of Ruth refers to the theme regarding the salvation of the Gentiles because the main character is a Moabite. In addition, the story pays special attention to the issue of turning to God, as Ruth and Naomi come back to Yahweh and join God each at their respective level. In the Book of Ruth, one may reveal the amazing providence of God, mysteriously and imperceptibly guiding all the events in order to fulfill the will of the Lord. The plot of the story begins with leave of Elimelech’s family from Bethlehem. The author triggered this fact by an event, which the he mentions almost in passing: ‘… there was a famine in the land.’ However, this short note is the action of Divine Providence, since there was famine because the Lord created it. Then, the book describes the death of Elimelech and his two sons. The author does not emphasize the causes of their deaths, and the reader learns later that Naom saw the hand of God in these events.
The Book of Ruth is about suffering. Both, Naomi and Ruth have experienced the death of their loved ones. To bury a son or a husband is one of the most difficult emotional experiences that can befall a woman. In addition, women experienced the problem of poverty. Only the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in ancient Israel reached such a humiliation to glean in a foreign field. The book shows that God sometimes allows His children to experience rather difficult life situations. Moreover, it becomes clear that one may associate turning to God with difficulties and hardships, as it was with Ruth. One of the intriguing questions that arise when reading this book is how two women, who did not have husbands and children, were able to survive in ancient Israel. However, the story the joy of deliverance replaces the suffering as God cared about His children.
Book of Ruth illustrates God’s mercy. Among all the people, who could hope to enter the Messianic bloodline, Ruth was the least likely candidate. She was the one from a pagan nation, which, in addition, had a tense relationship with Israel. In the law of Moses, there was a special order referred to these people: ‘An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD, and the tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever …’. Moreover, Ruth was a poor widow. Considering the human standards, her past life consisted of aggravating circumstances. However, the Lord has chosen her among all her contemporaries. He did not opt for any other rich Israeli woman. There is a single explanation to this fact: the grace of God, which often elects foolishness, weakness, base things, vile and meaningless to confound meaningful, and that there is no flesh to glory before God (cf. 1 Cor 1:.. 27-29).
This paper addressed the overall context of the Book of Ruth. In particular, it considered historical, geographical, literary, exegetical and theological types of context described in the book. Despite the fact that the paper can present more information regarding each type, it helps to obtain the general picture of the book if one explores deeper the text, and to avoid many mistakes connected with its respective interpretation. It is obvious that the sermon on the Book of Ruth is able to bring a great blessing to any of the local community. Explaining this book in church sermons clearly shows to the people the biblical doctrine of repentance, which is manifested in the rejection of their former gods and intention to join God’s people. The Book of Ruth can caution the church from credulity, proving that one may associate an appeal to the Lord with the occurred difficulties and hardships. It is able to reveal deeper the teaching of God’s fishery in an invisible way, which is behind all the circumstances of the human lives, not depriving a person of free will and responsibility. Sermon based on The Book of Ruth can provide the church with a strong consolation in suffering, which every man faces during his life. Finally, The Book of Ruth directs individuals to God’s grace, which creates the holy people of God, burdened with the unworthy past.
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