The Book of Ruth:
Origin and Purpose
As a last option for understanding Ruth, I would offer that Ruth does fit well when set against the background of the early post-exilic period. The literature on this time is vast and continues to grow, but it is safe to say that the small community in Judea in the late 500s to early 400s B.C.E. conflicted over various societal issues, one of which was how they should define the boundaries of their community. The prophet Zechariah believed that Jerusalem would throng with foreigners who would count as Yhwh’s people (Zech 2:15[EV 11]), but other persons from the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative feel that foreigners have no part in the community (Ezra 4:1-3; 9:1-4; Neh 13:1-3). This is not to say that Ruth reacts directly to the Ezra-Nehemiah text, nor should we read Ezra-Nehemiah uncritically as plain history, but it is reasonable to hold that community cohesion and in-group/out-group questions were live topics at the time. Within this debate, we can see how Ruth provides a counterfactual to a certain exclusivist perspective toward outsiders. The text is not so bold as to claim that all non-Israelites/Judeans should count as people of Yhwh, but it does demonstrate that there are cases where a foreigner can reasonably measure up to the standard of a true Israelite.
See Also: Reading Ruth in the Restoration Period (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).
By E. Allen Jones III, PhD
Associate Professor of Bible
If we were to inquire into the origin and purpose of the biblical book of Ruth, it may seem like a simple and straightforward question. As modern readers in highly literate communities, we are accustomed to asking “why” – why did an author write this book? To whom were they speaking and what were they trying to communicate? Modern authors follow established practices – they include their names with their publications. They identify the year in which they produced a work. They will even include prefaces and/or introductions that help orient readers to their thoughts. Understandably, we suppose such information should be equally as important to and equally accessible for the books that we find in the Bible. Sadly (or happily, depending on one’s interpretive sensibilities), such information is not generally on hand for biblical books. The biblical texts, at least those found in the Hebrew Bible (HB)/Old Testament (OT), are technically anonymous. Traditions do come to be associated with various figures (Neh 8:1; Mark 12:26), but biblical books do not include title pages that identify an author(s) or date of publication. Yet, despite the fact that such information is illusive when it comes to biblical texts, the intuition remains among laypeople and scholars alike that it is likely relevant to how we understand the HB/OT. So it is for the HB/OT broadly, and so it is for the book of Ruth. Fortunately for the reader of this short essay, we will restrict our investigation herein to an exploration of the various scholarly arguments on the origin and purpose of Ruth. Thus, certainty may evade us, but time travel back into the ancient world of Israel will not be necessary.
Framing the Problem
When it comes to specifying either a possible publication range and/or articulating a purpose for Ruth, biblical scholars traverse all areas of the proverbial map. On the matter of dating, our oldest manuscripts for Ruth come from the 1st cent. B.C.E. (Campbell, 1975), but the story tells of events that are set in the Judges period (pre-1000 B.C.E.), which allows for a much earlier point of origin. Two clues from within the story – mention of (King) David and the “sandal ceremony” (Ruth 4:6-8) – suggest that our author was somewhat removed from the events of the story, but it is hard to say by how far. Thus, we have a window of some 800-900 years during which the story could appear, and scholars have made full use of the possibilities. Murray Gow (1992) represents one end of the spectrum, setting the book right near the beginning of the monarchic period. Erich Zenger (1992) holds down the other pole in the spectrum, claiming that Ruth comes from the Maccabean period (i.e. after the expulsion of the Greek occupiers in Israel and before Rome’s domination of Palestine). Considering the purpose of the book, again, scholars vary widely. Some refer to the story as an idyllische Novelle (Kaiser, 1969). Others hold that it is a political apology for David’s lineage (Gow, 1992), and still others see it as a subversive cultural commentary (Fewell and Gunn, 1990). Though Ruth has been with us for anywhere between 2,000-3,000 years, it is clear that space remains to discuss how we should view the book.
Framing the Solutions
Taking into account the difficulties outlined above, there are broadly two stances that scholars have taken regarding Ruth’s origin and purpose. On the one hand, some opt not to pursue a date of origin, which, in turn, means they may also pass over considering what the book’s original purpose was. This approach can stem from a post-modern reading strategy (Greenstein, 1999) or from an ecclesial commitment to the ongoing witness of Ruth (Lau, Goswell, 2016), but for others it is a matter of admitting the limits of our evidence. In his very recent commentary on Ruth, Jeremy Schipper (2016) eventually settles on the early Persian period (late 500s-early 400s B.C.E.) as the date of Ruth, but he qualifies his claim saying, “no single piece of evidence definitively determines the date,” and that his case is “extremely tentative” (p. 22). On the other hand, there are scholars that try to build a cumulative case for a particular origin and purpose, drawing on linguistic, legal, and literary evidence. Put more precisely, these scholars try to evaluate the form of Hebrew used in Ruth – is it the more ancient Standard Biblical Hebrew, or is it the younger Late Biblical Hebrew? They look for genetic-developmental relationships between various law codes in Torah and those described in Ruth to establish a relative dating. Last, they try to match the various details and/or the wider argument of the book with a reasonably paired moment in Israel’s history (i.e. “message fit”). As the logic goes, any one of these components may suggest the probability that Ruth comes from a particular period and that it may address a particular matter.
Following these lines of investigation, scholars tend to date Ruth to one of three periods: the monarchic period, the exilic period, or the post-exilic period (a.k.a. Second Temple period); with each categorization largely correlating with a particular view on the book’s purpose. Kirsten Nielsen (1997) is representative of a strand within the monarchic group, arguing that Ruth would have served to neutralize any claims against David/the House of David over its association with Moab, a traditional enemy of Israel. Edward Campbell (1975), who also dates Ruth to the monarchic period, takes a simpler view and says that Ruth was most likely a didactic text that encouraged readers to emulate the kind and loyal (hesed) behavior of the story’s characters. Filling a minority position, Christian Frevel (1992) and Tod Linafelt (1999) position Ruth in the exilic period. Frevel hears in Ruth a call to exiled Judeans to return from Babylon to the homeland, which makes his position analogous to Campbell’s exhortation toward positive behavior. Alternatively, Linafelt believes that Ruth’s author composed the book with Samuel in mind. In the same way that Samuel highlights some of the negative impacts David had on Israel, Ruth highlights some of the ambiguities in David’s ancestry. Samuel and Ruth work together to force the reader to consider the conundrums of the monarchy. Finally, a good number of scholars (Zakovitch, 1990; Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky, 2011) set Ruth in the post-exilic period, believing that it came to counteract exclusivist tendencies among particular groups within the return community (cf. Ezra-Neh).
Evaluating the Evidence
While there has been a recent revival of interest in the historical development of ancient Hebrew and in the creation of typological periodizations within the language (cf. Rezetko and Young, 2014), such investigations have long been a part of research in Ruth (Driver, 1892; Eissfeldt 1964). Scholars have postulated that if Ruth consistently employs an old form of Hebrew, then it is likely a more ancient text. It would be akin to Shakespearean plays in Western literature – they continue to circulate at present, but their language indicates that these stories have their origins in an earlier time. Alternatively, if Ruth includes late forms and constructions, then the book (though not the characters and events in the story) would come from later in time. An analogy here would be encountering a text that is littered with emojis – we would quickly recognize the text as “young” as it employs recently created linguistic symbols. Unfortunately though (at least for those who desire certainty), Ruth appears to have a mix of both ancient and recent linguistic features. At times, characters speak in “thee”-s, thou”-s, and “thine”-s, but in other places the story has the equivalent of modern slang. With evidence on either side, interpreters suggest explanations (cf. Fischer 2001; Campbell), but none have been able fully to win over the other side.
In addition to investigating Ruth’s Hebrew, scholars have also examined the apparent legal customs/activities that play such a key role in the book. Somewhat like the linguistic argument, the hope is that if we can establish a relative position for a practice in Ruth vis-à-vis a related practice in another book – particularly a book whose date we can fix with certainty – then we will have at least a relative date for Ruth. In ch. 2, Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields (cf. Schipper), and in ch. 4, Boaz seems to suggest that Naomi is/has been in possession of land (cf. Matthews and Benjamin, 2006), both of which relate to various law codes in Torah, but the greatest amount of attention has gone to Boaz’s legal transaction in the city gate (Ruth 4:1-12). The story appears to engage levirate law (Deut 25) and redemption law (Lev 25), which strongly suggest Ruth’s interaction with core legal traditions, but here again scholars debate the significance of the connections. There is one camp that sees a linear development to the levirate custom moving from a broad pool of potential redeemers (i.e. Ruth), to a narrower pool of just eligible male family members (i.e. Judah and Judah’s sons in Gen 38), to the narrowest pool of only brothers who live together (Deut 25) (Carmichael, 1979; Weisberg, 2009). Alternatively, there is another camp that has accepted the restrictive move from Gen 38 to Deut 25, but which then sees Ruth as a voice reacting to Deut 25 and its limiting stance. Ruth comes to throw the doors open to participation in the levirate custom (Davies 1981; Zevit, 2005). So we see that both camps use the same evidence to argue for competing relative positions for Ruth, and the debate remains at a standstill. Before moving on to arguments related to “message fit,” it is worth noting that two studies (Embry, 2016; Jones, 2016) have come out in recent years that try to relate Ruth’s marriage to Zelophehad’s daughters (Num 27, 36) and the desire to let women inherit while also protecting family land holdings (cf. Tobit). These studies may provide a new point of reference against which to compare Ruth and its practices, but as of yet, there has not been enough time for scholars to critically engage these new ideas.
Finally, we are left to argue over whether we can ascribe a particular argument or message to Ruth, and if this is possible, if we can associate this message with a circumscribed moment in Israel’s religio-intellectual development. Of all the lines of argument for Ruth’s origin and purpose, this approach is noticeably the most vulnerable to circular reasoning – if one’s date for the book influences one’s belief about its message or vice versa, then we are assuming our conclusion – but the effort will still be valuable if it helps us probe aspects of the text. Further, while open to the charge of circularity, it is also possible that we could hit on a historical accuracy through this investigation.
If the reader will allow the author to step more overtly into the frame of this study, I would suggest that we should begin by rejecting the idea of Ruth as a simple didactic tale or idyllic novella. Ruth certainly is a model character within the story, and Boaz also seems to go beyond what Torah strictly requires of him. However, there is ample reason to see a darker shade to the remaining characters in the story. As background, the un-named crowds of Bethlehemites appear either to be ambivalent towards Ruth, or they are a menace to her. The typical field hand poses a threat to Ruth’s personal safety (Ruth 2:9, 15-16, 22), the closest redeemer backs out of his deal to procure Naomi’s land when he learns that Ruth comes with the deal (Ruth 4:6), and the elders of the town say nothing when this man shirks his responsibility. Some may suggest that the elders do bless Boaz’s marriage to Ruth (Ruth 4:11-12) and that the town’s women rejoice at the birth of Ruth’s child (Ruth 4:14-15, 17), but certain portions of their “blessings” seem suspect. The elders compare Boaz and Ruth to Judah’s liaison with Tamar (Ruth 4:12), which may be a backhanded reference to the scene in Ruth 3, and the women of Bethlehem cut Ruth out of the relationship in their final attribution of Obed’s parentage (Ruth 4:17). Moving closer to home, Naomi initially tries to separate from Ruth in ch. 1 (vv. 8-18), and then she allows Ruth to go and glean in the fields in ch. 2 without warning her of the danger that she faces, though she is well aware that it exists (Ruth 2:22). More poignantly, Naomi is the one to mastermind the plan in ch. 3 – a transparent attempt to have Ruth seduce Boaz and thereby gain his provision (Zakovitch, 1979; Yavin, 2007). Thus, it seems to me that Ruth is not simply a story holding forth characters for emulation. However, this is only one of the three possible arguments that scholars ascribe to the book. We must introduce a further form of analysis to discount the idea of Ruth as a political apology.
In recent years, scholars of the HB/OT have become interested in how certain biblical books reference other biblical books (“re-use” or “inner-biblical citation/interpretation”), a path of study that Ruth scholars have willingly followed (Beyer, 2014). Through careful analysis of repeating motifs/themes and unique phrases, interpreters now argue that the author of Ruth has intentionally cast various characters as re-embodiments of great figures from Israel’s history (Jones). There is not space here to evaluate the evidence for each connection, but we can outline the following as possible re-uses: Ruth is a new Abram, a new Patriarch (Isaac, Jacob, Moses) of Israel, a new Rebekah, a new Tamar, and a renewed mother of Moab. Alternatively, Elimelek and Naomi stand out as re-enactments of the failures of the ancestors. Elimelek follows Abram’s example by abandoning the land during a famine, while Naomi mirrors Judah’s attempts to send away a foreign daughter-in-law with a legitimate claim on a levirate partner. These observations, then, provide a second perspective through which to evaluate the message or argument of Ruth. Those that place Ruth in the pre-exilic period frequently argue that the author was trying to demonstrate that, while David did have Moabite ancestry, his ancestor Ruth was an exceptional Moabite, and so David (or the Davidic scion) is still acceptable as a ruler of Israel. The author’s decision to cast Ruth in the mold of Israel’s greatest heroes and heroines would certainly support such a reading of Ruth, but this is only one strand within the story. If a pro-David writer was trying to win over skeptics, it is less clear why this person would associate the Bethlehemite community (sans Boaz) with the failings of the ancestors. Such a literary creation seems just as likely to turn non-Judahites against Bethlehemites/Judeans (i.e. the other half of David’s parentage) specifically, or to offend them all together and turn them against the story.
As a last option for understanding Ruth, I would offer that Ruth does fit well when set against the background of the early post-exilic period. The literature on this time is vast and continues to grow, but it is safe to say that the small community in Judea in the late 500s to early 400s B.C.E. conflicted over various societal issues, one of which was how they should define the boundaries of their community. The prophet Zechariah believed that Jerusalem would throng with foreigners who would count as Yhwh’s people (Zech 2:15[EV 11]), but other persons from the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative feel that foreigners have no part in the community (Ezra 4:1-3; 9:1-4; Neh 13:1-3). This is not to say that Ruth reacts directly to the Ezra-Nehemiah text, nor should we read Ezra-Nehemiah uncritically as plain history, but it is reasonable to hold that community cohesion and in-group/out-group questions were live topics at the time. Within this debate, we can see how Ruth provides a counterfactual to a certain exclusivist perspective toward outsiders. The text is not so bold as to claim that all non-Israelites/Judeans should count as people of Yhwh, but it does demonstrate that there are cases where a foreigner can reasonably measure up to the standard of a true Israelite. For her part, Ruth is surprisingly Torah pious – she honors her mother, she follows gleaning law, she avoids fornication, and she encourages redemption. There are even parts of her life that mimic events in the lives of the nation’s founders. On the other hand, it is also true that bonafide members of the community can fail to follow the basic standards of Israel’s identity. The Bethlehemites do not treat a foreigner in their midst well, and Elimelek and Naomi appear to repeat the mistakes of the ancestors. The only figure to run counter to this characterization is Boaz. He goes out of his way to support Ruth, and in so doing, Yhwh takes him up into her storyline and allows Boaz to participate in the ancestry of David – Israel/Judah’s archetypical king (cf. Zech 12:8). If this reading of Ruth is on the correct track, it suggests for us both a date and a purpose for the book that accounts for the varying characterizations within the story and for the impact that an author may have sought to have on his/her community of readers and hearers.
Beyer, Andrea. Hoffnung in Bethlehem: Innerbiblische Querbezüge als Deutungshorizonte im Ruthbuch. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 463. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.
Campbell, Edward F., Jr. Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary. Anchor Bible 7. Garden City: Doubleday, 1975.
Carmichael, Calum M. Women, Law, and the Genesis Traditions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979.
Davies, Eryl W. “Inheritance Rights and Hebrew Levirate Marriage: Part 2.” Vetus Testamentum 31, no. 3 (1981): 257-68.
Driver, S. R. An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament. 4th ed. International Theological Library. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1892.
Embry, Brad. “Legalities in the Book of Ruth: A Renewed Look.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41, no. 1 (2016): 31-44.
Eissfeldt, Otto. Einleitung in das Alte Testament unter Einschluß der Apokryphen und Pseudepigraphen sowie der apokryphen- und pseudepigraphenartigen Qumrān-Schriften: Entstehungsgeschichte des alten Testaments. 3., neubearbeitete Aufl. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1964.
Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky. Ruth: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011.
Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David M. Gunn. Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.
Fischer, Irmtraud. Rut: Übersetzt und ausgelegt. Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament. Freiburg: Herder, 2001.
Frevel, Christian. Das Buch Rut. Neuer Stuttgarter Kommentar, Altes Testament 6. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1992.
Gow, Murray D. The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose. Leicester: Apollos, 1992.
Greenstein, Edward L. “Reading Strategies and the Story of Ruth.” Pages 211-31 in Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader. Edited by Alice Bach. London: Routledge, 1999.
Jones III, Edward Allen. Reading Ruth in the Restoration Period: A Call for Inclusion. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 604. London: Bloomsburry T&T Clark, 2016.
Kaiser, Otto. Einleitung in das Alte Testament: Eine Einführung in ihre Ergebnisse und Probleme. Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1969.
Lau, Peter H. W., and Gregory Goswell. Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth. New Studies in Biblical Theology 41. Downers Grove: Apollos, 2016.
Linafelt, Tod. “Ruth.” Pages xiii-90 in Ruth and Esther. Tod Linafelt and Timothy K. Beal. Berit Olam. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.
Matthews, Victor H., and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Fully rev. and exp. 3d. Mahwah: Paulist, 2006.
Nielsen, Kirsten. Ruth: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Translated by Edward Broadbridge. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
Rezetko, Robert, and Ian Young. Historical Linguistics & Biblical Hebrwe: Steps Toward an Integrated Approach. Ancinet Near East Monographs 9. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014.
Schipper, Jeremy. Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 7D. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Weisberg, Dvora E. Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism. HBI Series on Jewish Women. Lebanon: Brandeis University Press; University Press of New England, 2009.
Yavin, Zipora (Zipi). “Ruth – The Fifth Mother (A Study of the Scroll of Ruth): The Semantic Field as a Ground of Confrontation between Two Giants: The Ephraimite Author against the Judean Author.” [Hebrew] Jewish Studies 44 (2007): 167-213.
Zakovitch, Yair. “Between the Threshing Floor Scene in the Scroll of Ruth and the Tale of Lot’s Daughters.” [Hebrew] Shnaton 3 (1979): 29-33.
. Ruth: With an Introduction and Commentary. [Hebrew] Miqra le-Yisrael. Tel Aviv: Am Oved Publishers, 1990.
Zenger, Erich. Das Buch Ruth. Zücher Bibelkommentare 8. 2. Aufl. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1992.
Zevit, Ziony. “Dating Ruth: Legal, Linguistic and Historical Observations.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 117 (2005): 574-600.
 Much of the content in this essay is a review of the work that I have done in Reading Ruth in the Restoration Period: A Call for Inclusion.
 We should note that some scholars have tried to assign Ruth a date by positioning it relative to the books that it cites. However, dating other books in the HB/OT can be as difficult as dating Ruth, so such attempts remain in dispute.
 This point seems to create similar problems for the minority of scholars that set Ruth in the exilic period.