“For the sparrow hath found herself a home…” A Commentary on Ruth

Reading Time: 18 minutes

The following was a college essay written by Katherine Stoeckl. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Katherine Stoeckl, Texas A&M University

The book of Ruth is a beautifully constructed story about working through tragedy, love and loyalty to hold a promise and become part of a community. Ruth is constantly reminded of her identity of a “Moabite woman” in such a way that the reader is constantly reminded of the universality of the embrace of salvation. In the Greek and Latin canons, Ruth follows Judges because it is written about the same time and precedes Samuel to serve as a transition from Israel as a tribal unity to a monarchy. 

Dialogue makes up nearly two thirds of the story and its sheer drama draws the reader into a deeper contemplation of the human and divine relationship. The beauty of the construction of the story delights the reader and begins to soften the heart to the realities which the story is seeking to convey. The intellectual desire of understanding the writing of Ruth is not contradictory to the appreciation of the characters. The two pursuits are intimately united to one another by the passions possessed by human beings. Furthermore, these pursuits are actually the pursuit of beauty. Beauty has the ability to direct the passions and compel one to dive deeper into our ultimate fulfillment of what it is to be a human being. Human beings are essentially relational and the ways that Ruth treats Naomi and the way Ruth is treated by Boaz draw the reader into the embrace of the family: the basic unit of society. 

The hospitality of Boaz is intentionally part of the culture of the people of the time. Furthermore, his care and concern for Ruth displays a different side of the God of Israel than has been displayed thus far in the books of Moses. This shift is outwardly accompanied by the shift in government structure from tribal unity to a greater unity under a monarchy. This promotion of unity among larger and larger groups of people displays the reality that Biblical themes all lead to one truth, one beauty, and one good unified in the personhood of God. 

These themes among others find their place within the larger concentric and linear structure of the work as divided into twelve parts and as a whole. The underlying faithful pursuit of justice through the legal institutions of the levirate marriage and redemption is bookended by genealogical discussions of first the family at hand and then the royal family of King David. Thus, the work as a short story or novella allows one to grasp the movement of life as a teleological daily endeavor. A discussion of the genre of the book allows one to orient an exegesis of the text by its intended meaning and by its placement in time as well as placement after Judges and before Samuel.

Though the book of Ruth has been previously defined as merely an idyllic and epic, it is more fittingly and thoroughly described as a short novel or short story. A short story is defined as a fully developed story which is shorter than a novel and longer than a fable. A short story often has a few characters in the plot and presents one aspect of the life of a character. It could be an incident, an event, a description of a feeling, or even a simple act. A short story can also impact a reader and even inspire them. This classification allows the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz to accomplish all that it sets out to do. 

Given the paragraphs concerning the Moabites as a people, the book of Ruth might be commenting on the way of life of the Jews and their relationship to the law. The legal stipulation for excluding Moabites from the chosen people of Israel no longer holds, the stipulation being that the Moabites did not give the people of Israel bread and water on their journey through Moab, because the hospitality shown to Naomi and her family in Moab. This extension of care for the physical needs of Naomi is faithfully perpetuated by Ruth. Ruth chooses to remain with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and honor her place in the family of Elimelech. Furthermore, Ruth confesses belief in the God of Israel and leaves both her father and mother to consider Naomi’s family as her own. Ruth also recognizes her responsibility and right to a levirate marriage. By remaining with Naomi, she is eventually rewarded with an opportunity to bring about the continuation of her family’s household. Upon Naomi and Ruth’s return to Bethlehem where Boaz, a prominent kinsman of Naomi, resides, Ruth requests to go and glean in his fields as it was harvest time. As dictated in Leviticus 19:9-10, farmers were to leave a little of their harvest in their fields so that the poor and the alien had some grain to gather. Ruth’s dedication in the field is seen and inquired about by Boaz who extends hospitality to her because of the lengths to which she had gone for Naomi. Ruth returns to Naomi with physical sustenance and Naomi brings to Ruth’s attention that Boaz is a relative of theirs, supplying Ruth with the knowledge that may provide her with a means of fulfilling her right to a levirate marriage to continue the line of Elimelech. The continuation of his line also entails that the nearest kinsman also inherits the land of Elimelech which Naomi had put up for sale because of her poverty. Leviticus 25:25 permitted the nearest kinsman to redeem said land and thus preserve the family patrimony. Boaz virtuously acknowledges that there is a man of closer kin than he and so he takes care to involve this man in the legal proceedings at the city gate detailed in chapter four. This unnamed nearer kinsman would like the land, but not anything else so he cedes his next-of-kin obligation to the levirate marriage and redemption to Boaz. Of this rightful marriage between Boaz and Ruth comes Obed who is said to be a grandson, born of Naomi who takes him as her own and thus the line from Perez to David is upheld. The presence of the genealogy is disputed as it is thought to be an addition to the original story, but it will be treated later. The situation of Ruth’s narrative in such close dialogue with Levitical law argues for its historical accuracy and appropriate place in the Old Testament. This argument for legitimacy and the neatness of the composition and content are not mutually exclusive. Instead, it is quite possible that such an advantageous series of events took place in a time of peace which were plenteous in the time of Judges.

In the Greek and Latin canons, Ruth is located between Judges and Samuel, as opposed to its placement in the third division of the Hebrew Bible, also called the writings. The former placement will be our focus as the English Bible shares the literary goal of our exegesis. 

The story of Ruth begins three generations before the end of the period of the Judges in a time of famine with a man, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, departing from Bethlehem of Judah to the plateau of Moab. Sometime after their arrival, Elimelech unexpectedly dies. Mahlon and Chilion marry Orpah and Ruth, from among the Moabite women, but also perish. Naomi, having no husband or sons, moves in search of food to return with her daughters-in-law to Bethlehem. 

The narrative moves as the women are on the road back to the land of Judah, Naomi speaks in appeal to her daughters and asks them to return to the stability of their homes in Moab and blesses them in the name of the Lord. The non-verbal action of kissing, raising voices, and weeping ensues. Naomi appeals again that they return as there is no hope for husbands for them nor any acts of kindness from God. Again, they kiss, raise their voices, and weep and Orpah returns to Moab. Naomi appeals to Ruth again and Ruth pledges an oath to Naomi in the name of the Lord. The two of them return to Bethlehem from Moab. 

In Bethlehem resides Boaz who is blessed by his harvesters upon inquiring as to the identity of Ruth whom he has noticed for her activity of gleaning. Boaz invites her to drink and she requests favor as a foreigner. Boaz praises Ruth’s behavior and blesses her because of her acts of kindness, fidelity, and charity towards Naomi. Ruth requests his continued favor and asks to be one of his maidservants. Boaz echoes his earlier invitation for drink by inviting her to eat. Ruth again returns to the field to glean before returning to Naomi who in turn echoes the blessings for Boaz first offered by his harvesters. This third segment ends with a focus on Boaz as a relative and potential redeemer: a plan offered by Naomi.

Naomi believes that Boaz will provide the solution to their unfortunate situation and instructs Ruth’s action concerning Boaz. Ruth does as she is instructed, and the story moves to Boaz eating at the granary and coming to the place where Ruth comes to him in secrecy to enact his responsibility to the levirate marriage. Boaz seeks the identity of Ruth and she identifies him as the one who is to redeem her. Boaz again praises Ruth’s charitable act and promises her the act of charity.  Boaz confirms his identity as one who may fulfill the next-of-kin duties to the levirate marriage and redemption, but virtuously discloses that he will only do so if possible, thereby reintroducing the narrative tension. Ruth reactivates the symbol of responsibility by remaining at his feet until early morning when she will leave him in secrecy as no one must know that she has been there. Before she leaves, Boaz offers another image of fullness as he pours out grain for Ruth. Upon returning to Naomi, Ruth reports what Boaz did for her and his instructions concerning Naomi. Thus, Boaz is the solution to their situation either by offering the closer relative or himself in fulfillment of the law.

The elders are summoned to the gate where the issue is presented, and the means of solution is offered in front of witnesses to the kinsman who agrees to the land issue. The land issue is further explained, and the marriage issue is disclosed. Ruth’s redemption is not at stake, not just the land’s, and the kinsman refuses and extends the offer of purchase to Boaz. Boaz buys the land and receives the kinsman’s shoe as a symbol of the witnesses. Boaz has now bought all to raise the name of the dead Elimelech upon his inheritance to the agreement of the elders.

Following this agreement, the people invoke the Lord’s blessings upon Ruth, Boaz, and their seed, especially that line which is traced back to Judah. Boaz took Ruth and she became wife and bore a son. The women praise and bless the Lord and invoke blessing on the child who will become great. The women again bless the child to restore him to Naomi and praise Ruth. Naomi took the child and became his nurse. The women praise Naomi for her grandson and trace his line forward to David who is of Bethlehem. 

The concentric structure, also called introversion, is composed of repetition of certain ideas, words, or situational details. It serves the purpose of highlighting what lies at the middle of each circle of events. While by nature, this form seems to contradict the forward movement of a story, this apparent obstacle is only so to the western literary tradition whereas ancient Hebrew texts are filled with this literary device. The author in knowing the importance of a reader’s literary competence allows the linear progression of the story’s events to move along the roughly seven chiastic segments.

The chiastic style takes the form of A B / B A or some version of reversed parallelism and is characteristic of biblical poetry and prophecy. Chiasmus is essentially the repetition of words or phrases once they are grammatically altered. This structure is related to an antimetabole which is a figure of speech in which a phrase is repeated, but the words are reversed. It is generally used to convey paradoxes and irony, to strengthen an argument or to show in a novel how two ideas relate to one another. The word antimetabole comes from a Greek phrase meaning to “turn about in the opposite direction.” Generally speaking, chiasmus allows more complexity than antimetabole because antimetabole needs to repeat the same words where chiasmus only requires the ideas to be similar. Because of their specific grammatical structure, both chiasmus and antimetabole are often short and concise statements that have layers of meaning and produce powerful arguments. 

As previously discussed, the book of Ruth is best read as a short story: a genre to be read for enjoyment and for provoking thought or inciting action. The mixture of narrative and active sections allows the reader to gain insight about the background of the story while still witnessing the action. This third-person objective viewpoint remains free of bias regarding the validity of the laws enacted but does through the central theme of acts of charity and its end in the royal David line offer its moral. The enjoyment of a short story comes from the presence of a few characters focused on a single incident which may be set up by a series of smaller events involving those same characters and few others. The short scenes in the book are broken up naturally by changes in setting or the resolutions of smaller conflicts leading up to the scene at the gate where more characters are introduced for the sake of the law, who remain unnamed and are short lived.  

The chiastic style of the story is one which mirrors the repetition that characterizes daily life and while the immense amounts of dialogue magnify the significance of the events therein. In addition to the familiar rhythm put forth by the chiastic style, the antimetabolic nature of the issues at hand and their unfailing solutions provide a concentrated example of the greatest gift of kindness bestowed upon man by God which was the breath of God breathed into Adam that was perfectly received and reciprocated by Jesus Christ. While each act of kindness is logically sound in that it plays out according to its nature being a gift bestowed, received, given, and then again received, it helps that the story focus on just a few, namely Ruth’s dedication to Naomi and Boaz’s hospitality, to allow the reader a palatable look at how the covenants established before its place in the canon are to be fulfilled eventually in the person of Jesus Christ. 

In addition to the book of Ruth being a captivating short story laden with chiasmus, it may also be described as exegetical literature. Exegesis is typically described as an in-depth examination, explanation or interpretation of a text. The forward movement of the story rests upon the right of a widow to the legal institutions of the levirate marriage and redemption. While the levirate marriage had been pursued and successfully executed by women before Ruth, perhaps most memorably by Tamar, the issue of redemption had not been notably explored. 

The institution of redemption allows for a man who becomes impoverished or destitute to be extended the privileges of an alien or servant so that he may continue to work and to live. He also retains the right to be restored to his former stature at the moment he is able to pay the price of his land or his kinsman is able to do so. Regardless of whether the man allowed to remain as an alien or tenant is able to be redeemed, he shall be released together with his children in the jubilee year. The Lord sets up these stipulations because the priests of the tribe of Levi, those to whom the book of Leviticus is addressed, are themselves aliens who have become God’s tenants.

In agreeing to marry Ruth, Boaz undertakes Naomi and the redemption of her land. Not only is it fitting that Boaz should be the one to fulfill and restore Elimelech solely because he has a heart, but also because the name Boaz means “by strength or by means of a place or agent of safety.” While his name among others, such as Ruth meaning “companion or friend,” Elimelech, “My God is King,” Mahlon, “sickly,” Chilion, “frailty,” whose deaths can now be anticipated, and Orpah, meaning “neck, or stiff necked” whose return to Moab can also be predicted, could be the result of a happily fictitious narrative, it is more consistent to situate the book as valid history accompanied by this normalcy of significant and meaningful names alongside the rest of the Old Testament figures who either begin with meaningful names or are bestowed such names. 

Boaz’s two-fold resolution allows for a legal hierarchy to be addressed. In its apparent amendment to the Deuteronomic law restricting the Moabites from inclusion into the people of God, the narrative could be offering a new way of life or means of interpretation of the law. It was because of the hospitality afforded Elimelech and Naomi in the land of Moab and Ruth perpetuated loyalty and confession of belief in the God of Israel that this law is disregarded by Boaz. In this way the text not only takes a close look at the institutions of the levirate marriage and redemption of property, but also posits those two laws as unchanging whereas the treatment of the Moabites was situationally located in an extension of hospitality or lack thereof to the Israelites. As has been seen, one could easily write it off as “the loveliest little epic and idyllic entity.” However, this does not seem plausible given its historicity. One could also think that its significance ends with the linkage of the time of Judges to Samuel. However, the toledot given belatedly to the line of Judah resolves the genealogy begun in Genesis 37:2 and brings about the absent family tree marking anyone of Israel’s descendants as the chosen line.

In its look backwards, the book of Ruth also sets up for what is to come. By displaying a rarely before seen characteristic of God’s personality, the reader is left to contemplate the reality that charitable acts can both restore the law and fulfill covenants. While the book may be a mere 84 verses long, its implications are lasting and can be ruminated upon ad nauseum. In other words, the beauty of the narrative and the multifaceted structure of the story draw the reader in to probe the significance of the text. 

The first segment begins with a lack of food and a move in pursuit of it. The death of Elimelech is mirrored by the death of his sons on the other side of their marriages. These marriages are the central event of this section which ends with a move back to Bethlehem, “the land of bread” in pursuit of life for Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. Ruth is introduced at the nucleus of this segment through a marriage and is thus both set up as an important figure and legal institution moving forward.

The second segment has a mirrored, or chiastic structure as well and centers itself on Naomi’s words to her daughters that she has no hope of husbands for them and she implies that there is neither hope for any acts of kindness from God. Naomi heightens the importance of husbands and marriage in this section and the read, if previously unaware of the ramifications of being a widow and the redemptive power of the levirate marriage is caught up to speed. Here, Naomi discloses that she believes that God has “extended his hand against [her]” because of her sin as was the common view of punishment in the Old Testament. 

The third segment revolves around Boaz’s praise of Ruth for her acts of kindness and faithfulness towards Naomi. This praise is flanked by Ruth’s reception of drink and food from Boaz who also bestows the Lord’s blessing upon her, ensuring that her kind acts merit the Lord’s favor.

The fourth segment has Ruth identifying Boaz as the one who will do the work as the next-of-kin and perform the greatest act of kindness present in the story, namely the restoration and continuation of Elimelech’s line as its epicenter. This exchange sets up the fulfillment of Naomi’s plan for the redemption of Elimelech’s line. The dynamic of plan and fulfillment summarizes the movement of the entire canon of scripture where God faithfully renews His covenant with man, sends prophets to direct His people, and eventually gives the people a means of upholding their end of the promise in the person of Jesus Christ. An inking of this movement would be evident to any reader at the time the book of Ruth was written. The exact date is disputed, but the fact that the lineage looks forward all the way to David allows for anyone, particularly those from the land of Judah, to recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah regarding “a shoot [that] shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father.

The fifth segment hinges on Boaz’s disclosure of the information that a levirate marriage accompanies the redemption of property, thus the full act of kindness is denied by the other close relative. Here, both the needs are brought forth and the act of the next-of-kin becomes two-fold. The redemption of property for the sake of Naomi’s ability to live and the restoration of the familial line is a work of satisfaction and merit. Satisfaction is the payment, usually of a debt, in full, or in the moral order, an acceptable reparation of honor offered to the person offended that implies penal or painful work. Boaz’s purchase of the land and marriage of Ruth effectively restored all of Elimelech’s property back to the family. This satisfactory act which Boaz chose to accept was due primarily on behalf of restoring honor to Naomi and Elimelech’s line and is paralleled by Christ’s eventual voluntary sacrifice on the cross whereby He became expiation for their sins and died the death that is meant for sinners as punishment for their sin in fulfillment of and accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant., This justice restores honor to the people on whose behalf the satisfaction was offered. 

The sixth segment is laden with blessings of the Lord invoked on Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and Obed and focuses on praising the Lord and the great name that will come from Ruth and Obed, both descendents of Naomi. This blessing strengthens the connection between the words of the prophet Isaiah and allows the potential for more redemptive and salvific work to be done in this line as the name Obed means “someone who works or serves.” Repeatedly we see Ruth’s acts of kindness and charity praised and blessed by Boaz who also acts with charity and is blessed. In this sixth section, we see that the women who bless Naomi and her family turn to also bless the Lord and praise His name. They readily encapsulate the pursuit and location of justice in the Lord whose charity present in people is the source of their meritorious acts. While Ruth and Boaz acted virtuously and justly, their ability to do so came from their cooperation with the Lord’s plan. Thus, the providence of the accuracy and happy ending to this short story may not simply be attributed to a gifted storyteller, but rather a team effort as God inspired the author who in turn wrote it all down. This cooperation lays a foundation for the Incarnation, where God chose to enter humanity and dwell among his people, which must have preceded His sacrificial death. Through the Incarnation, Christ’s whole life expresses his mission: “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,”, which reminds us of Obed who is “someone who works or serves.” This action of service and giving can be likened to חֶ סֶד, the charity and acts of kindness at the nucleus of many of the chiasms which give off an air of completion. The ultimate חֶ סֶד to be offered in response to God’s gift of self in creation had to be of human and divine nature in order to be fitting “recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment, [also called merit.] Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.” The merit of man before God arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. Such free association harkens back to the free gift of self a couple makes in marriage and the choice Boaz made to marry Ruth. Their marriage as being right and just according to the law and their natural inclinations prefigures the wedding of the soul and God at the wedding feast of the Lamb glimpsed in the sacrifice of Christ. The nuptial covenant between God and his people Israel had prepared the way for the new and everlasting covenant in which the Son of God, by becoming incarnate and giving his life, has united to himself in a certain way all mankind saved by him, thus preparing for “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.”,

The seventh segment is strictly linear but does return to the broader location of Ruth in the canon. Where the story begins three generations from the end of the Judges, Boaz is seventh in the line of the ten from Perez to David. As evident in the concentric, or chiastic structure of the book as a whole, each of the six segments previous to the linear lineage form miniature concentric pieces of the story. The legal backbone of the story allows it to progress and come to an end while offering truths from a different perspective.

The Moabite’s initial hospitality to Elimelech’s family was the first instance where the condition of the Deuteronomic law concerning the Moabites was negated. Boaz acted upon the witness to kindness offered by Ruth towards Naomi by extension of hospitality and work to Ruth. Jesus, the descendent of Obed also danced this sort of dance with the law in more than a few places such as the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath or when His disciples picked heads of grain on the Sabbath. In both of these passages, Jesus is offering restoration to the Levitical regulation not be restrictive as dictated by the Pharisaic tradition added to the law, but rather beneficial for Israel. Following this revised interpretation of the Mosaic law, Ruth comes to Bethlehem and the house of Boaz as a foreigner and is invited into the household by familial relation through Naomi and by her kind acts. This movement is paralleled by the people of God who are also foreigners in a foreign land that are welcomed into the household of God by the merits of Christ who was both God and man. In both cases, households were expanded to offer a place prepared for all who live compelled by charity. 

The renewed truths disclosed by a beautiful and complex narrative direct all efforts to the underlying good. In the story, this underlying good was an act of kindness in accordance with the law. In the great scope this book bears witness too, this logically sound exchange of charity is found in the Trinitarian God who is complete within Himself yet desires to invite man into this perfect communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. Their reciprocated gift of love is fruitful and overflowing and is to be received and reciprocated by the people of God who are enabled and unified under Christ, the head.

All things considered, through the evident end of the linear story, the aura of completeness given off by the chiastic nature of its construction, and its essence as a short story that draws all things to itself in looking backward, in the present and ahead, the book of Ruth begs one to contemplate unity and completeness. Harkening back to the first occurrence of parallelism, repetition and idyllic scenes in the English Bible, Genesis calls out the biblical theme of order and perfection. As Genesis sets the biblical narrative in motion by means of beauty, Ruth continues it by bringing to life the legal infrastructure and leaving us with a cliffhanger of who the God of Israel may bring from the line of Jesse as He continues to bless Boaz, Abraham Isaac, and Jacob. In the same way that a fruitful marriage was needed to continue Elimelech’s line and fulfill the law, so too does the covenant between God and His people need to be consummated. While one could hardly say this marriage is levirate, it is redemptive. As Boaz purchased Naomi’s land so that she might no longer be destitute by his marriage with Ruth and all may be incorporated back into the family and the line of Elimelech live on, Jesus Christ purchased the reward of eternal life so that the people of God may no longer suffer from the depravity wrought by the effects of original sin, but rather live in the eternal celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The historicity and artistry of the book of Ruth appeals to man and draws him out of himself to contemplate the divine realities thereby acting as an efficacious means of influencing man and his way of thinking and feeling and consequently influencing the culture.

Works Cited

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Schwartz, Sarah. “Narrative Toledot Formulae in Genesis: The Case of Heaven and Earth, Noah, and Isaac.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 16 (2016): 3. https://doi.org/10.5508/jhs.2016.v16.a8.

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