Is Ruth a Lesson in Loyalty or an Excuse for Patriarchy?

Mixed messages.


Without protest, Ruth agrees to the plan. Boaz doesn't stir until midnight, then he's startled by the girl's presence. Ruth identifies herself and asks him to act as a "kinsman-redeemer," or as a provider. Boaz blesses her as a "woman of noble character" and eagerly agrees to her request. But, he adds, there is another closer kinsman who must first be dealt with. He tells Ruth to spend the night, then sends her back to Naomi laden with grain and a promise to settle the matter quickly.

Boaz finds the other kinsman and gathers around 10 elders as witnesses. He tells the kinsman that Naomi is selling a parcel of land that belonged to Elimelech and that the kinsman has the right of first refusal, ahead of Boaz himself. The man says he'll buy it. ok, Boaz says, but that means he'll also acquire the widow Ruth. The putative buyer balks at this arrangement: It "might endanger my own estate." Boaz then announces that he will acquire the land and Ruth.

They marry and have a son. The village women rejoice that "Naomi has a son," whom they name Obed. The story ends with Naomi caring for the boy and with no further mention of Ruth. Moreover, it notes, Obed eventually sires Jesse, who is David's father.

The story has its critics. It's attacked by some feminists for excusing patriarchy. Patricia K. Tull, author of Esther and Ruth, rejects that view. A male-dominated world was the only one Ruth and Naomi knew: "It's not as if there were an alternative society they could have moved to. It's not as if they could have started a chapter of now—that wouldn't have solved their hunger problem."

The book has also been chided for endorsing assimilation, because Ruth gives up her heritage, her family, and her god, then disappears at the end. But Tull says Ruth made those decisions voluntarily. "There was no proselytizing going on."

  • Women of the Bible
  • Daughters of Eve
  • Old Testament

    • Eve: The First Rebel
    • Sarah and Hagar: Dueling Mothers
    • Zipporah: The Woman Who Stood Up to God
    • Bathsheba: Wife, Mother, Queen, Object of Royal Lust
    • Jezebel: The Reigning Icon of Womanly Evil
    • Esther: A Clever Heroine
    • Ruth: Mixed Message
    • Dirty Rotten Men
    • Delilah: One Fiesty Femme
    • Deborah: Facing Down ‘900 Chariots of Iron’
    • A more widespread view, even among feminists, is that it's not incorrect to read Ruth as a tale of feminine resourcefulness, love, loyalty, and strength. And, Pressler says, that's something that ancient readers would have noticed, too, given the paucity of biblical stories about women. Indeed, there's speculation that the author of Ruth was a woman. Vanessa L. Ochs, director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia, finds that theory plausible, though she herself doubts that it is true. "Ruth and Naomi know the rules and how to manipulate them—and that's a story that women tend to tell."

      Ochs, however, advises against calling Ruth and Naomi feminist icons, because each has negative characteristics. Naomi initially fails to appreciate Ruth's steadfastness. And Ruth, Ochs says, behaves essentially like a prostitute. "She has to go sleep with an old man—that's the old casting couch." The seduction scene is certainly vexing for modern readers. "You don't want [her] to be a role model for our children," admits Pressler, who prefers to stress that Ruth acted in service to her family. And Ruth's other good qualities—her kindness, for instance—somewhat mitigate her wanton behavior, Ochs says.

      But why was Ruth's story included in the Old Testament? One widely endorsed theory says the story was written to implore Jews to reject xenophobia and welcome foreigners. Ochs, however, says if that were the case, the story wouldn't end with Naomi suckling Obed while Ruth and her Moabite ancestry seemingly disappear. "Ruth is just a vessel," she says. The Jewish Naomi is the real main character, she says, and it's partly a justification of levirate marriage—the ancient practice of having a dead man's brother marry a widow in hopes of producing a son to carry on the dead man's name. "This is Jewish reincarnation."