The Book of Ruth

An Old Testament story to inspire believers of all faiths

Bible: the story of ruth
19th-century illustration of the story of Ruth. clu / Getty Images

The Book of Ruth is a fascinating short story from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) about a non-Jewish woman who married into a Jewish family and became an ancestor of David and Jesus.

The Book of Ruth in the Bible

The Book of Ruth is one of the Bible's shortest books, telling its story in just four chapters. Its main character is a Moabite woman named Ruth, the daughter-in-law of a Jewish widow named Naomi. It's an intimate family tale of misfortune, crafty use of kinship ties, and ultimately, loyalty.

The story is told in an odd place, interrupting the grand sweep of history found in the books around it. These "history" books include Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. They're called the Deuteronomistic History because they all share theological principles expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy. Specifically, they're based on the idea that God had direct, intimate relationships with the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, and was involved directly in shaping Israel's history. How does the vignette of Ruth and Naomi fit in?

In the original version of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, Ruth's story is part of "the writings" (Ketuvim in Hebrew), along with Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Contemporary biblical scholars now tend to categorize the books as "theological and didactic historiography." In other words, these books reconstruct historical events to some degree, but they tell the histories by means of imaginative literary devices for purposes of religious instruction and inspiration.

Ruth's Story

During a famine, a man named Elimelech took his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, east from their home in Bethlehem in Judea to a country called Moab. After their father's death, the sons married Moabite women, Orpah, and Ruth. They lived together for about 10 years until both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving their mother Naomi to live with her daughters-in-law.

Hearing that the famine had ended in Judah, Naomi decided to return to her home, and she urged her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in Moab. After much dispute, Orpah acceded to her mother-in-law's wishes and left her, weeping. But the Bible says Ruth clung to Naomi and uttered her now-famous words: "Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).

Once they reached Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth sought food by gleaning grain from the field of a kinsman, Boaz. Boaz offered Ruth protection and food. When Ruth asked why she, a foreigner, should receive such kindness, Boaz replied that he had learned of Ruth's faithfulness to her mother-in-law, and he prayed that the God of Israel would bless Ruth for her loyalty.

Naomi then contrived to marry Ruth to Boaz by invoking her kinship with him. She sent Ruth to Boaz at night to offer herself to him, but the upright Boaz refused to take advantage of her. Instead, he helped Naomi and Ruth negotiate some rituals of inheritance, after which he married Ruth. Soon they had a son, Obed, who fathered a son Jesse, who was the father of David, who became king of a unified Israel.

Lessons from the Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth is the kind of high drama that would have played well in Jewish oral tradition. A faithful family is driven by famine from Judah to the non-Jewish land of Moab. Their sons' names are metaphors for their misery ("Mahlon" means "sickness" and "Chilion" means "wasting" in Hebrew).

The loyalty that Ruth shows Naomi is richly rewarded, as is her fealty to the one true God of her mother-in-law. Bloodlines are second to faith (a hallmark of the Torah, where second sons repeatedly win the birthrights that should pass to their elder brothers). When Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of Israel's heroic king, David, it means that not only could a foreigner be completely assimilated, but he or she might be God's instrument for some higher good. 

The placement of Ruth alongside Ezra and Nehemiah is interesting. In at least one aspect, Ruth acts as a rebuke to the others. Ezra and Nehemiah demanded that Jews divorce foreign wives; Ruth shows that outsiders who profess faith in Israel's God can be fully assimilated into Jewish society.

The Book of Ruth and Christianity

For Christians, the Book of Ruth is an early echo of the divinity of Jesus. Connecting Jesus to the House of David (and ultimately to Ruth) gave the Nazarene the imprimatur of a messiah among early converts to Christianity. David was Israel's greatest hero, a messiah (God-sent leader) in his own right. Jesus' lineage from David's family in both blood through his mother Mary and legal kinship through his foster father Joseph lent credence to his followers' claims that he was the Messiah who would liberate the Jews. Thus for Christians, the Book of Ruth represents an early sign that the Messiah would liberate all of humankind, not solely the Jews.

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Astle, Cynthia. "The Book of Ruth." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Astle, Cynthia. (2023, April 5). The Book of Ruth. Retrieved from Astle, Cynthia. "The Book of Ruth." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).