Ruth is a sudden and extreme departure from everything we have read until now. First of all, the Book is the story of a woman with a name. Second, in the very first chapter, we are introduced to three women all with names, none prostitutes, and are told of the closeness and loyalty of their relationships. It’s hard for me to express just how wildly unprepared for this tonal shift we are by anything that has come up in the Bible thus far. It is as if we have been reading XXX Big Jugs and Extreme Car Crashes magazine, and suddenly there is a long personal essay about raising an abandoned baby bird by hand.
Ruth was written in Hebrew in the 6th-4th centuries B.C. Traditionally, it was held to have been written by Samuel, but it probably wasn’t; we don’t really know who wrote it.
The story begins with a family who leaves Israel during a time of famine and journeys to Moab to live there. While there, the man and both of his sons die, and the woman, Naomi, is left with only her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi tells the women that she is going to go home to be with her people, and that they should return to their own families. These women are close, and they cry at the idea of separation and ask to stay with Naomi. She tells them that she has nothing to offer them — she is old and will not remarry and will have no more sons, so she cannot help them to remarry. They should go home. Orpah does, but Ruth says she will stay with Naomi, and I find this famous verse very beautiful, so I will quote it here (there’s undoubtedly a prettier translation than the one in this King James version I’m using):
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whether thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where those diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.
Now, I doubt many of us feel this way about our mothers-in-law, but I hope everyone has the opportunity to feel it about someone.
They travel back to Bethlehem, and Naomi, who is going through it, instructs everyone there to call her Mara from now on, for the LORD has dealt bitterly with her.
The two women are broke because they’ve got no mens, and Bethlehem’s social safety net is little better than America’s today — the succor given to widows and lepers and other impoverished folks is that they are allowed to walk behind reapers in the field and pick up the leavings to eat. So, Ruth goes out to the corn fields and follows behind the reapers of Naomi’s husband’s kinsman, Boaz, who is very rich. Boaz notices her and asks his workers who she is, and they tell him, so he goes over to her and says that from then on, she is welcome to always follow behind his men and pick up the leftover corn, and moreover, he will tell none of his men to rape her, and she can also drink some of their water when she gets thirsty.
Ruth literally falls on her face with gratitude over this meagre offering, like we did when Jeff Bezos donated the equivalent of his pocket change to coronavirus research. She asks what she ever did to deserve such incredible munificence and Boaz says he’s heard how great she’s been to Naomi (who he apparently has not helped in any way). He invites her to lunch with the workers, and then after that, he instructs them to leave her some really nice ears of corn behind. And she goes home and tells Naomi, who is very happy about this, as well.
Then, as so often in the Bible, things get weird. Naomi advises Ruth to pull off a sort of bizarre maneuver re: Boaz. She tells her to go to the threshing barn where Boaz will be winnowing the barley harvest and disguise herself, and when Boaz eats and gets drunk and then lies down for the night, to uncover his feet and lie down at them, and then he’ll tell her what to do. I thought I knew where this was going, but in the event, she does literally exactly that, and Boaz wakes up later and notices her and asks who she is, and she tells him that she’s Ruth and she’s done this because he’s a close relative. He agrees, but says that he knows a closer relative, and because she has been very kind to him, an old man, rather than choose a younger man (did they fuck or not?), he will ensure this mysterious closer relation performs his part toward her. So she slips off before daybreak so no one else knows she was there, and tells Naomi what went down.
So Boaz goes up to the city gate and talks to the closer relation who happens by, and basically says, hey, we need to buy some property from these women — are you going to, or am I? It’s Naomi’s husband’s land, but we also need to put her daughter-in-law’s name on the contract (or something). And I don’t really follow this, but I think the closer relation says he’ll buy the land from Naomi but he can’t from Ruth, and so Boaz says that he will, and he will also buy Ruth for his wife. All the men in the city come around and congratulate him on his match! Later, he tells Ruth about it, and they have a son, Obed. This is all presented as being primarily done out of respect and charity to Naomi, and everyone says Naomi has been extremely blessed by the LORD because even though all her menfolk died, she still wound up with a boy baby in this unlikely way.
Also of note from this exchange:
Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things: a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor: and this was a testimony in Israel.
And that’s the book of Ruth! I have to say, this ended really abruptly! I was astonished we would have a whole Book about a woman, but I guess this explains it; it’s like five pages long. Still, we got one! We’ll keep our fingers crossed for Esther.