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Overview of the Book of Ruth

Question
Overview of the Book of Ruth
Answer

Overview of the Book of Ruth

Author: Unknown

Purpose: To demonstrate the legitimacy of David's kingship despite his Moabite ancestress, Ruth

Date: c. 1000 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God's providence is sometimes harsh, but in the end he works for the blessing of his people.
  • Familial love and devotion that are guided by God's law bring joy and happiness.
  • David's family was God's chosen, honorable royal line.

Author:

The author of the book of Ruth, which is named after its principal character, is unknown. Rabbinic tradition holds that the prophet Samuel wrote Ruth, as well as Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel. There is little evidence to commend this view, however.

Time and Place of Writing:

The book of Ruth reports events that took place during the period of the judges, but the explanation of a forgotten custom in Ruth 4:7 indicates that the book was written significantly later than that time period. The two references to David (Ruth 4:17, 22) point to a time after the beginning of his reign as the earliest possible date for final composition.

Establishing the latest possible date for completion is more difficult. Some interpreters have pointed to linguistic evidence as indicating a postexilic date (after 500 B.C.), but this evidence has been strongly disputed. It is likely that the genealogy of Ruth 4:18-22 extended to the king who ruled at the time of the book's composition; i.e., to David. For this reason, it is probably safe to conclude that Ruth was written during David's reign.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Various interpreters have proposed different central themes for the book. Among other possible purposes, Ruth has been understood as an explanation that (1) a proselyte (even a Moabite) could be truly faithful to the Lord and gain full acceptance within Israel; (2) qualities of loyalty and covenant faithfulness exemplified by a foreigner could serve as a model for Israel's response to the Lord; and (3) the Lord as Redeemer would redeem and restore the exiled family of Israel to its land.

All of these proposals reflect some of the major themes of the book. Yet in light of the reference to David in Ruth 4:17 and the genealogical reference to him (Ruth 4:18-22), the major objective seems inextricably tied to the support of David as king. The legitimacy of David and his house is established despite the presence of a Moabitess in his line. The Law of Moses insisted that Israel's king come "from among [their] own brothers" (Deut. 17:15), and Moses had warned against Moabite women (see Num. 25:1; 31:13-18). To address these potential problems with David's lineage, the book portrays Ruth as a woman of noble character (see note on Ruth 3:11) and as a true convert (Ruth 1:16), who entered Israel through the providence of God (Ruth 1:1-7) and the legal practice of levirate marriage (Ruth 3:1-8). Moreover, God approved of her by bestowing his blessing on her (Ruth 4:13-17).

A number of issues that have fascinated interpreters arise directly from enigmas in the narrative. These may be divided into the following categories: (1) questions about purpose that are related to difficulties in dating and origin; (2) inability to understand the background of various legal customs - especially the relationship between levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10) and kinsman-redemption responsibilities (Lev. 25) - and how each was practiced in Israel (cf. Gen. 38; Num. 27; 36; Jer. 32); and (3) internal difficulties, such as the relationship between Ruth 4:12 and Ruth 4:17 and the genealogy in Ruth 4:18-22. A wealth of literature addresses each of these areas, with little agreement at times. A remarkable phenomenon of Biblical research is that such important and even divisive debate does little to blunt the powerful impact of this simple account on every generation of its readers.

The book of Ruth may be described as a unified short story. It consists of the story itself and an attached genealogy that associates the story with David's house (Ruth 4:18-22). The five parts of the main plot form a discernable and intentional symmetry. "Naomi's Bitterness and Emptiness" (Ruth 1:1-22) is balanced by "Naomi's Blessing" (Ruth 4:13-17); "Ruth Discovers Her Kinsman-Redeemer" (Ruth 2:1-23) is balanced by "Boaz Becomes Ruth's Kinsman-Redeemer" (Ruth 4:1-12); and the centerpiece of the story is "Boaz Promises Ruth a Kinsman-Redeemer" (Ruth 3:1-18). Within each of these segments many other such structures appear. See "Introduction: Outline."

Although clearly an important historical document of its period, the narrative of Ruth is told with dramatic intensity and movement combined with light touches of the best of the Hebrew storyteller's art. Moving quickly and succinctly through various stages, each part of the account is spiced with elements of irony and suspense, which contribute to the symphony of divine providential fulfillment. Although the Lord is specifically cited as acting only twice (Ruth 1:6; 4:13), the reader is left with no doubt as to his presence in inspiring Naomi's return, Ruth's covenant faithfulness and Boaz's righteous adherence to the law.

Christ in Ruth:

Christ is revealed in the book of Ruth primarily in the way in which the book witnesses to the legitimacy of David's kingship. First, as this book legitimates David, it legitimates Christ as the great Messiah. Jesus acquired the throne of Israel because he was the perfectly faithful son of David (Mark 10:47-48; Acts 2:22-36; Rom. 1:2-4). Because the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke were deeply concerned with Jesus' genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38), followers of Christ can be assured of the New Testament claim that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus inaugurated David's kingdom in his ministry on Earth, he now reigns over and extends that kingdom and he will one day return to bring worldwide dominion to the house of David (Amos 9:11; Acts 15:14-19).

Second, the interest the book shows in the inclusion of Ruth, a Gentile, anticipates the expansion of the kingdom of God to Gentiles during the New Testament period. Because Ruth exhibited the faith of Abraham as she left country and relatives to travel under the Lord's care to a foreign land, she found the blessing promised to all the nations in Abraham's seed (Gen. 12:3). As Ruth became one with Israel, Gentiles and Jews are now reconciled to God in one body through their union with Christ (Eph. 2:16; 3:6).

Third, the ideal portrait of Boaz, Ruth's kinsman-redeemer, provides substance to the New Testament declaration that the church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:1-8; 22:17). Boaz demonstrated ardent, selfless love for two helpless widows, Ruth and Naomi. This characterization of Boaz offers insight into how Christ ardently and selflessly loves his dependent bride, the church.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).