A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke (Edited 7th June 14.18 by RichardE)

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795

Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men. Only two have the names of women: Esther and Ruth.

Esther and Ruth are not only distinguished by the names of the books but also by being free-standing narratives springing from Judean history.

The characters, Esther and Ruth, are “women in alien lands”.

Authorship and Date.

When we read a book, we usually want to know who wrote it and when it was written. This is difficult for books of the Bible.

W. Lambert: “Biblical narrative exhibits such a rage for impersonality as must lead to the conclusion that its writers actively sought anonymity…Its culture’s and its own remarkable powers of memory encompass everything but the names that produced it”. The writer never refers to himself or herself.

At one time, there were two schools of thought about the dating of the book of Ruth.

  • Some felt that the interest in David and levirate marriage pointed to it being written at an early date during the monarchy well before the Exile. Edward Campbell still favours this.
  • The other extreme was to argue that the book’s positive attitude to foreigners and foreign marriage was a counterblast to the views of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which forbade foreign marriages in the Fourth Century BC.

Language does change and develop over time. Frederic Bush has an excellent summary of this. The book of Ruth exhibits 10 features of Standard Biblical Hebrew and 8 features of Late Biblical Hebrew.

This suggests that the writer must have lived no earlier than the transitional period between SBT and LBT i.e. from just before the Exile in Babylon to the beginning of the return from Exile. Therefore Ruth’s writing is contemporaneous with the writing of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The Second Isaiah (from the Exile) and the book of Jonah also show positive attitudes to foreigners.

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld agrees with Frederic Bush. She suggests that the book of Ruth emphasizes instruction concerning the community’s view of outsiders. David is foregrounded as a means of legitimizing an inclusive attitude towards foreigners and foreign women.

It could have been written

  • Just before the Exile when the Deuteronomic History (Judges-Kings) was being written to counter its emphasis against relationships with Canaanites, or
  • Just after the Exile when it addresses tensions between Jewish returnees from Babylon and those who remained in the land after the fall of Jerusalem.

Text and Unity.

The Book of Ruth has always been included in the Hebrew Scriptures but there is some debate about its positioning.

The text has been very well preserved – only the last eight words of 2:7 present a conundrum.

All who have worked on Ruth think it is a unity. At one time, there was a consensus that the genealogy was a later addition. However, now most commentators believe that the genealogy, with which the book ends, is an integral part of the Book of Ruth.




Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men.

How many bear the names of women?


What is the Book of Judges like?

What do we know about Moab and the Moabites?

Departure for Bethlehem


Can you think of any other passages where women discuss amongst themselves in the Bible?

First Speech and Response Cycle (1:6-10)

Why might Orpah and Ruth choose not to return to Moab?

Second Speech and Response Cycle (1:11-14)

What do you think about the reactions of Orpah and Ruth?

Third Speech and Response Cycle (1:15-18)

What do you think about Ruth’s commitment?

Does it compare with that of Abraham’s?

Do you know of anyone who has made a comparable life-changing choice?

Why does Naomi stay silent?

Arrival in Bethlehem


Does Naomi’s lament remind you of other such reactions in the Bible?

Who is the most important character in this chapter?

Are there any signs for Naomi to hope in this chapter? (verses 6 & 22).

Comments from Reverend Christopher





The book of Judges presents this era as one of repeated bloody battles between Israel and its Canaanite, Philistine and other enemies. There was also warfare among the various Israelite tribes.

The entire story of Ruth serves as a counterpoint to this picture of the era of the Judges. We move from the level of the tribe to the level of the family.

Famine in the land. Famine and migration because of famine are recorded elsewhere in the Bible but the destination is Egypt (Abraham; Joseph story).

Irony as Bethlehem means “house of bread” or “house of food”.

Moab was among the oppressors of Israel in the era of the Judges.

Moab = “would have been freighted with meaning”. Close but difficult, often hostile, relations. [England & Ireland]. The Moabites are presented in the Bible as descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with one of his daughters. They are hostile to Israelites in Numbers. In Deuteronomy Moabites and Ammonites were not admitted to the worshipping assembly.

The choice of Moab by Elimelech is strange and the consequences quite unsurprising.

“A reader or hearer is even more quickly drawn in when the story’s character makes an improbable decision or takes improbable action in the very first line”.

The long-standing negative view of Moab influences everything that happens in the story and explains the negative attitude of the field workers to Ruth as well as the refusal of the nearer redeemer to get involved. It magnifies Ruth’s decision and Boaz’s behaviour.

Ephrathite can mean someone from the northern area of Ephraim, but here it refers to the geographical or sub-tribe unit that Elimelech’s family falls into. 1 Samuel 17:12 describes this as David’s heritage as does Micah 5:2.

This Bethlehemite family is on the verge of extinction: three women from different homes and two different countries are now a household of widows.

Departure for Bethlehem


Part of the appeal of the Book of Ruth is the woman-to-woman relationship. Conversations between women are extremely rare in the Bible. The book of Ruth devotes more verses to speech between women than the rest of the Bible combined. The first words are Naomi’s to Ruth and Orpah. The last are those of the townswomen to Naomi. [The other extended conversation is in the NT = Mary and Elizabeth. There is also Mary and Martha].

First Speech and Response Cycle (1:6-10)

Naomi is both displaced and bereft. She seems to have second thoughts on the journey.

Naomi instructs Ruth and Orpah to return to Moab and blesses them. The blessing incorporates the first of many references to hesed = kindness, lovingkindness, faithfulness, loyalty. It is the most important theme of the book. It may have been a general wish but it is probably a benedictory invocation of divine faithfulness.

Naomi alludes to their kindness to her and to the dead men of the family.

Verse 9 is a prayer. Although the story of Ruth is one of women making decisions and taking action on their own, their action takes place in the context of this traditional assumption about women’s place in socio-economic structure.

It ends with Naomi’s farewell kiss, weeping and Ruth and Orpah’s rejection of Naomi’s proposal.

Interestingly Ruth and Orpah talk about “returning” with her to her people even though, of course, they have never been to Judah.

Second Speech and Response Cycle (1:11-14)

Naomi reiterates her exhortation and elaborates upon her arguments. She picks up on “return” and uses it in its more expected way i.e. return to Moab.

Scholars have long discussed Naomi’s rhetoric and its relevance to levirate marriage. They probably do not relate to the latter. They are just a heightened rhetorical expression of pain and frustration about her inability to care for her daughters-in-law.

Verse 13 = Naomi speaks of her bitterness because God’s hand is against her. She seems to argue that she is worse off than her daughters in law because if they return to Moab, they could marry again.

Finally, Naomi’s outcry blames God for what has happened in her life. Unlike Job, she is not portrayed as being interested why calamity has struck. Unlike the laments in the psalms, she is not portrayed as asking God for a change in her condition. Her spirit has been crushed beyond the point of prayer.

The second cycle concludes with another time of weeping, followed by Orpah’s departure. Although the narrator contrasts Orpah’s separation kiss with Ruth’s clinging to Naomi, there is no negative judgement on Orpah’s action. Indeed, she is, after all, doing Naomi’s bidding. She is the obedient one and Ruth the disobedient one. Ruth’s power of feeling to leave behind her birth family and nation for a new loyalty is extraordinary.

Third Speech and Response Cycle (1:15-18)

A third time Naomi speaks to Ruth. This time, she argues that Ruth should stick to the Moabites and the Moabite religion. Naomi seems convinced that Ruth should save herself by leaving this God-forsaken household.

Then we have Ruth’s truly remarkable commitment. If she could easily have married in Moab, Ruth has chosen an old woman over a young man. Even if the prospects were not good in Moab in Ruth’s view, it is still a striking decision.

Ruth promises that Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God will be hers as well. Ruth must have been aware that the people of Judah would not readily accept her. Ruth’s decision offers encouragement to present day migrants. Ruth’s formal commitment to a different religion would involve a difficult process. Jews see Ruth as the great example of conversion to Judaism and her statement is the basis for those who wish to convert to Judaism today. For life-long Jews and Christians, Ruth’s decision may be hard to understand. On the other hand, for those who regard all religions as “basically alike” will also find her decision difficult. Finally, Ruth says she will live, die and be buried with Naomi. That is a life-long commitment and burial away from home is a momentous decision in the Middle East. Ruth’s promise concludes with an oath before the Lord = Naomi’s God. There was no belief in an afterlife at the time of writing, so Ruth commits herself permanently and with strength – to even beyond Naomi’s death. Rabbis therefore set Ruth alongside Abraham. Phyllis Trible argues that Ruth’s commitment is even greater because there has been no specific promise or revelation from God.

However, we do not know what the attitude of Ruth’s family to her was like. In the Middle East, the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is very strong. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi is a model of loyalty in other relationships.

Once Naomi realized that Ruth would not be moved, “she said no more to her”. Ruth has not followed her advice and Naomi makes no mention of Ruth in the next scene. “Ruth’s presence is as much a reminder of tragedy as it is of potential comfort”.

Arrival in Bethlehem


At their arrival, the whole town is excited. Travellers would not have been common perhaps – and two women arriving alone was a strange sight. Naomi is recognized but Naomi responds with irony. Her name means pleasantness but Naomi says she should be called bitterness. Like Job, Naomi can see no reason and no way forward. Like Jeremiah, in his laments, she lays her plight as God’s doing: God has caused the calamity. Unlike Job and Jeremiah, Naomi does not ask why and she does not ask for redress. Naomi talks of leaving Bethlehem “full” and coming back “empty”. The presence of Ruth goes totally unremarked.

Those who have grieved deeply, or accompanied those who have grieved, can argue that this book is about Naomi as much as Ruth.

[Frederic Bush believes Naomi is the main character of the book]. Kathleen Robertson Farmer argues that Naomi is the character who “ most closely mirrors the attitudes and experiences of the people of God, including both Israel and the church”. She is a character who is redeemed by the actions of other people. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. No-one ever chides Naomi for her honesty = psalms.

However, the final words of the narrator hold some hope: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest”.

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