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This introductory course is designed to provide key insights into the book of Ruth by pulling together a number of key resources: overview videos from The Bible Project, helpful contextual information from The ESV Study Bible, commentary recommendations from The Gospel Coalition, a single sermon that sums up the book from beginning to end by Mark Dever, and much more. By watching, listening to, and reading these resources, you’ll be better prepared to read, study, teach, or preach the book of Ruth.
Author & Date
The book is named for its main character, Ruth, a Moabite widow who married the Bethlehemite Boaz. She became an ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:17, 22) and thus an ancestor of the Messiah (Matt. 1:1, 5–6). The author of Ruth is never named in the Bible. According to rabbinic tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14a–15b), Samuel is the author. This is unlikely, however, since Samuel died before David actually became king, and Ruth 4:17–22 implies that David’s kingship was an established fact at the time of writing.
The mention of David (Ruth 4:17) and his genealogy (Ruth 4:18–22) places the writing after David’s accession to the throne (2 Samuel 2) in c. 1010 B.C. The narrator’s explanation of a custom once current “in former times in Israel” (Ruth 4:7) distances him from the story’s events, which occurred “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Therefore, the book could have been written any time after 1010 B.C. by an author using accurate oral or written material as historical sources.
In terms of compact storytelling, Ruth is a masterpiece of narrative art. It is densely packed, yet the charm of the book is evident even to the most unsophisticated reader. The book of Ruth is the classic love story of the Bible. Few stories in the Bible are told from a woman’s viewpoint, but in the story of Ruth, not only is a woman the protagonist but the world of the story is a woman’s world, and the writer gives attention to feminine values and feelings. Of course Boaz in his role as kinsman-redeemer cuts a striking figure as a man who embodies the Lord’s own kindness. The story exalts virtuous womanhood and strong manhood.
The overall genre is story or narrative, but several further subtypes converge as well. Ruth is a love story. It is also an idyll, i.e., a brief story describing a simple, pleasant aspect of rural and domestic life. As that definition suggests, Ruth has affinities with pastoral (rural) literature, and in this case the idealized rural world provides a setting for the idealized romance of the book: even though readers know from the first verse that the story is set in tumultuous times, these do not come into view. The story is also a hero story built around the life of an exemplary heroine as well as featuring an idealized male hero. Boaz is a rarity in the Bible, a character who gets a uniformly positive portrayal; most other characters reveal their flaws. But this reflects the literary function of Boaz as the embodiment of the Lord’s kindness.
The plot of the story of Ruth is a quest story in which the stated goal is to find Ruth a home (Ruth 1:9 and Ruth 3:1). The plot follows the conventional U-shape of literary “comedy,” with events first descending into potential tragedy and then rising to a happy ending as obstacles to fulfillment are gradually overcome.
This book highlights how God’s people experience his sovereignty, wisdom, and covenant kindness. These often come disguised in hard circumstances and are mediated through the kindness of others.
Kindness. Ruth shows Naomi kindness (Hb. hesed, see ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 3:10), particularly in leaving her country and family to care for her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:16–17; 2:11, 18, 23), because she loves her (Ruth 4:15). Then Boaz shows kindness (see ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 2:20) in his welcome to Ruth, acting as a kinsman-redeemer (Ruth 4:9–10) and marrying Ruth (Ruth 4:13). Human kindness reflects the kindness (or “steadfast love”) that the Lord shows to his people (cf. Ex. 15:13; Deut. 7:8–9; Ps. 103:4; 106:7, 10; 136:10–15).
Redemption. Redemption is bound to kindness and is at the heart of the story (Ruth 2:20). “Redeem” (Hb. ga’al), “redeemer” (Hb. go’el), and “redemption” (Hb. ge’ullah) appear 23 times. The book of Ruth describes two legal institutions combined in one practice (which the Law of Moses does not require), namely, property redemption by a near kinsman and the “levirate” marriage. Property redemption by a relative assured that land would not remain in perpetuity outside the family (see Lev. 25:23–25). Levirate marriage (from Latin levir, “husband’s brother”) involves a childless widow marrying her husband’s brother to provide an heir for the dead husband (Deut. 25:5–6; cf. note on Matt. 22:24). Differences in Ruth, as compared with these laws, reflect customs applicable to particular circumstances. Boaz, a close relative (but not the closest), redeemed the property (Ruth 4:9), married Ruth (Ruth 4:10, 13), and fathered Obed (Ruth 4:13, 17), who became heir to the property of the deceased.
Once redemption occurred, Ruth and Naomi’s desperate conditions radically changed (Ruth 4:13–17). This reversal is highlighted by contrasts: living/dead (Ruth 1:8; 2:20); find/seek rest (Ruth 1:9; 3:1); pleasant/bitter (Ruth 1:20); full/empty (Ruth 1:21; 3:17; see ESV Study Bible note on Ruth 4:15); last/first kindness (Ruth 3:10). The resolution to the narrative conflict is Boaz’s act of redemption (Ruth 4:9–10), resulting in blessing for Ruth (in marriage, conception, and giving birth; Ruth 4:13) and for Naomi (in restored and nourished life in her old age; Ruth 4:14–15). Redemption also brought blessing to the community (Ruth 4:11–12) and—through David—to the nation (Ruth 4:14, 17).
Given the book of Ruth’s interest in all Israel (Ruth 4:7, 11), it may have been written in hopes that the 12 tribes, which divided into two nations c. 930 B.C. (see 1 Kings 12:1–20), would reunite. The story itself takes place in the time of the judges (after the conquest and before c. 1050 B.C.), before a king was in place to reign over a united kingdom. This book explains the providential ancestry of David, who would become such a king.
History of Salvation Summary
As a foreigner and ancestor of David (Ruth 4:17, 22), Ruth is a forerunner of the universal blessing that Christ’s redemptive work ushered in. Many OT prophecies anticipate a new David (e.g., Jer. 33:15, 17; Ezek. 37:24; Hos. 3:5; Zech. 12:7–10) reigning over Israel and incorporating the Gentiles into his benevolent empire (e.g., Isa. 55:3–5; Amos 9:11–12). This expectation is fulfilled in David’s “son,” Jesus the Christ (or Messiah; cf. Matt. 1:1–6; Luke 3:31–33; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3–5). In him, the “gospel” preached beforehand to Abraham (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 15:8–12; Gal. 3:8), that all nations will be blessed, is fully realized (Rom. 4:9–12; Gal. 3:7–9, 14). Through Christ, David’s throne is reestablished forever (Acts 15:16; Rev. 3:7; 5:5; 22:16). Christ’s reign is universal (Matt. 28:18–20; Rom. 1:5; 15:8–12). In him, redeemed people of all nations, no longer strangers and aliens, become fellow citizens in God’s household (Eph. 2:11–22).
In the period of the judges, Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons leave Bethlehem because of a famine to sojourn in Moab (see map on ESV Study Bible p. 475). Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, dies there. Mahlon and Chilion, the sons, marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Ten years later the sons die too, leaving no children. Naomi is bereft of family (Ruth 1:1–5). Learning that the famine in Israel is over, she decides to return to Bethlehem; Orpah stays behind, but Ruth accompanies Naomi (Ruth 1:6–22). At harvest time, Ruth goes to glean in a field that happens to belong to Elimelech’s relative, Boaz (Ruth 2:1–23). Naomi knows he is an eligible kinsman-redeemer. Following Naomi’s daring plan, in a midnight encounter at the threshing floor Ruth boldly asks him, as a redeemer, to marry her (Ruth 3:1–18). After a closer kinsman refuses to take Ruth, Boaz redeems all the property of the deceased and marries Ruth (Ruth 4:1–12). They have a son, Obed, who becomes the grandfather of King David (Ruth 4:13–22).
Ruth’s words in the book (as compared with Naomi’s or Boaz’s) are surprisingly few; the story, however, hangs on them. Ruth expresses her lifelong commitment to Naomi, “May the Lord do so to me . . . if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:17), which takes her from Moab to Judah. She resolves to provide for Naomi (“Let me go . . . and glean,” Ruth 2:2), which brings her from Bethlehem to Boaz’s field. She invites Boaz to “spread your wings over your servant” (Ruth 3:9), which leads her from childless widowhood to marriage and motherhood (Ruth 4:13).
Introduction: Naomi Bereft of Family (Ruth 1:1–5)
Scene 1: Naomi Returns to Bethlehem with Ruth (Ruth 1:6–22)
Scene 2: Ruth Gleans in Boaz’s Field (Ruth 2:1–23)
Scene 3: Ruth, at the Threshing Floor, Asks Boaz to Marry Her (Ruth 3:1–18)
Scene 4: Boaz Arranges Redemption at the Gate (Ruth 4:1–12)
Conclusion: Naomi Blessed with a New Family (Ruth 4:13–17)