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.)
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."
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."
So what was the original point of the story? Says Ochs: "Though women are pleased to tell it, the story's point is to tell how our hero [King David] was born. If it were only a story of how women worked together to sustain themselves, I don't believe for a minute that it would have been a canonized story. It is a legend used to justify the power of a kingship."