She was purportedly the great-grandmother of David, Israel's greatest king. But Ruth, the woman from Moab, remains an enigma. Was she a trophy wife who slept her way to economic security? Or a proto-feminist who used her wiles to survive in a male-dominated ancient world? Is hers a story of inclusiveness? Or an apologia for assimilation? For such a short book—just 85 verses—and straightforward tale, the book of Ruth lends itself to myriad and often contradictory interpretations.
"What you see in it depends a whole lot on what you bring to it," says Carolyn Pressler, a professor of biblical interpretation at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Certainly the ambiguous writing style employed by the anonymous author of Ruth encourages disparate conclusions. Perhaps the writer was inviting readers to fill in the story's many gaps. Or, perhaps, the author used a kind of contextual shorthand that would have been less baffling to an ancient audience. Despite the head-scratching the book evokes, Pressler calls it a masterpiece of short-story telling. "Art that clobbers you over the head with what it's trying to tell you is not great art. Most classic pieces of art are open to multiple interpretations."
So what happens in Ruth? Not much, and a whole lot:
Famine is devastating Judah, so Elimelech of Bethlehem takes his wife, Naomi, and sons Mahlon and Kilion to live in Moab. (Moabites, by the way, were despised by the Jews, who claimed they originated from Lot's incestuous relations with his daughter. Moabite women were considered loose. So, it was an interesting choice of destination for Elimelech's clan.)
After Elimelech dies, the boys marry two local girls, Orpah and Ruth, but 10 years later, the sons also die. Destitute and starving, Naomi and her daughters-in-law set out for Judah, now free of famine. En route, Naomi kisses them and tells them to return to their people, but they refuse. When she insists, Orpah agrees to turn back. Ruth, however, swears that not even death will separate her from Naomi. "Your people will be my people and your God my God," she vows. When they reach Bethlehem, Naomi meets old friends and tells them she's bitter because "the Lord has brought me back empty."
It's harvest time, so Ruth heads for a field to "glean," or scavenge for bits of grain missed by the harvesters. The field's owner, Boaz, a wealthy man of standing in town, notices her. His foreman tells Boaz who she is and recounts how hard she has worked the field for food. Boaz introduces himself, says he's heard of all she's done for Naomi, and blesses her. He not only tells her to continue gleaning his field throughout the harvest but gives her lunch. She returns to Naomi with about a bushel of grain and recounts the day's events. Naomi then springs a surprise: Boaz, she explains, is a close relative.
After the harvest ends, Naomi tells Ruth she wants to find her a home where she'll be well-provided for and hatches a plan for Ruth to seduce Boaz. Naomi instructs Ruth to put on her best clothes and perfume and go to Boaz's threshing room. Once he's eaten and drunk his wine and goes to sleep, Naomi says, "uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do." ("Feet," scholars note, is most likely a euphemism for genitals.)