“Ruth is an absolutely delightful little book. Mention its name and Bible readers gently smile, warmly praise its beauty, and quietly tell what it means to them personally” (Hubbard, 1988, p. 1). As accurate as this statement may be, knowing God’s purpose in Ruth takes priority. Proper personal application follows.
Ruth is a “short story” (Hubbard, 1988, p. 47), “an edifying short story” (Bush, 1996, p. 46), or “a Hebrew historical short story” (Howard, 1993, p. 145). “The Talmud attributed the book to Samuel” (Howard, 1993, p. 143). Therefore, Henry (1985) says, “It is probable that Samuel was the penman of it” (p. 252). This conclusion is possible. David was born in 1085 BC; Samuel secretly anointed David in 1070 BC; and Samuel subsequently died in 1060 BC (Jones, 2007, p. 279). Pratt (1990) concludes, “The earliest likely date for final composition is early in the beginning of David’s reign” (p. 300). Perhaps Samuel wrote this little story even before David became king over Judah in 1055 BC. Pratt (1990) adds, “It seems most likely that the genealogies in Ruth extended to the king who reigned in the time of the final composition. If this is so, the book came to its final form before Solomon’s rise to the throne” (pp. 300-301; cf. Young, 1964, p. 339; Archer, 1964, p. 268).
The coordinate question is that of Ruth’s place in the canon. “In the present Hebrew Bible, the book appears as … the first of the five megillot (‘scrolls’) … The five megillot were used liturgically—they were read at the major festivals” (Howard, 1993, p. 147). Ruth’s reading was at Pentecost, the harvest festival.
The Masoretic Text (MT) places Ruth after Proverbs. “The Masoretes were the scholars who between A.D. 500 and 950 gave the final form to the text [in contrast to the canon] of the Old Testament” (Archer, 1964, p. 56). Proverbs 31:10 asks, “An excellent wife [woman], who can find?” Boaz uses the same Hebrew terms to describe Ruth. “All my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence” (Ruth 3:11).
Finally, the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, places Ruth after Judges. “Most agree that it is our oldest evidence” (Morris, 1973, p. 230). Baldwin (1988) maintains “that the LXX potentially represents a Hebrew text older by a thousand years than the traditional Hebrew MT … ” (p. 38). Young (1964) adds, “The early date for Ruth seems further to be supported by the fact that it was early placed after Judges” (p. 340).
As observed above, Ruth is a historical narrative or short story, and we should analyze it as such. “Literary scholars identify the following character types: protagonists (central characters, those who are most indispensable to the plot), antagonists (the main adversaries or forces arrayed against the central characters), and foils (characters who heighten the central character by providing a contrast … )” (Matthewson, 2002, p. 58). In Ruth, the protagonists are Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Pratt (1990) reminds us, “Personal antagonists are not essential for well-formed stories; opposition may come from impersonal obstacles as well” (p. 144). In Ruth, “the problem of the story is the death and emptiness that have afflicted the life of Naomi” (Bush, 1996, p. 51). Ruth and Boaz join in overcoming this problem. The foils, which accentuate the roles of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, are the women of Bethlehem, Orpah, and the unnamed redeemer, respectively.
With this bit of character analysis, a danger looms large. Bush (1996) pinpoints it; Ruth is the “story of hesed,” covenant love (p. 52). “The story portrays in the dramatic and concrete form of the words and deeds of its protagonists what in the sphere of interpersonal and family obligations constitutes hesed while focusing sharply on the element of the imitable, ‘go thou and do likewise’” (Bush, 1996, p. 53). Taking the main characters’ point of view leads to focus on the imitable and moralism. “The common ‘Bible story approach,’ replete with moral lessons taken out of context, inevitably leads to widespread moralism (Woudstra, 1981, p. 5).
However, Ruth is what we call a third-person narrative. What does that mean? “Third-person narrative refers to all the characters impersonally and in this mode the narrator may display omniscience and omnipresence. Most narrative in the Bible is third-person omniscient narrative … ” (Longman & Dillard, 2006, p. 32). In light of the above and following description, think about Ruth. While the human author may have been Samuel, God is the actual narrator.
The narrator does not figure in the events of the story; speaks in the third person; is not bound by time or space in the telling of the story; is an implied invisible presence in every scene, capable of being anywhere to “recount” the action; displays full omniscience by narrating the thought, feelings, or sensory experiences of many characters; often turns from the story to give direct “asides” to the reader, explaining a custom or translating a word or commenting on the story; and narrates the story from one overarching ideological point of view (Rhoads and Michie, 1982, p. 36).
What do we conclude? In dealing with stories in the Bible such as Ruth, remember the Bible is God’s self-revelation. Always ask what He is doing. Getting the proper perspective and point of view brings us up out of the horizontal and avoids dealing with the characters only on the earthly plane. Part of the Bible’s wonder is that God gives us His point of view. To lift ourselves above this earthly plane and assume God’s point of view is not arrogance. It is part of our God-given privilege and task; we gain an appreciation for God’s plans and purposes. Having the proper point of view is vital to correct interpretation and application.
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Archer, G. L. (1964). Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody.
Baldwin, J. G. (1988). 1 & 2 Samuel. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity.
Bush, F. W. (1996). Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Henry, M. (1985). Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids: Fleming.
Howard, D. M. (1993). An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago: Moody.
Hubbard, R. L. (1988). The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Jones, F. N. (2007). The Chronology of the Old Testament. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.
Longman, T. & Dillard R. (2006). An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Matthewson, S. D. The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Morris, L. (1973). Ruth, An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity.
Pratt, R. L. (1990). He Gave Us Stories. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt.
Rhoads, D. & Michie, D. (1982). The Story of Mark. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Woudstra, M. (1981). The Book of Joshua. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Young, E. J. (1964). An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.