Today, I wish to continue looking at the small Book of Ruth. Yesterday, I introduced us to some preliminary things, especially the overall purpose of this Book: Ruth: An Interpretive Study Part One. I encourage you to read that post before you read today’s since everything is built on the introduction!
Today, I will cover some parts of the background to Ruth. There is much more that can be said about the background, but there are 500-page books written on that. So, I want to cover some basics.
Like all scripture, which needs to be interpreted correctly, the Book of Ruth requires certain historical and cultural details that were understood by the original readers, but not necessarily by the modern reader. These details include foreknowledge of the first seven books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges in order to understand the context of the time period before the judges, as well as during the period of the judges. Geography would also be helpful to the modern reader, as it pertains to where Israel is in relation to Moab or how far Naomi traveled when she went back home to Bethlehem. Agriculture, architecture, geography/people, politics, and religion will need to be understood before anyone could fully understand what this small book had to offer the original reader or the modern one.
Agriculture plays a big role in the Book of Ruth. From the devastation of a famine to Ruth gleaning, a barley harvest, and a threshing floor, agriculture makes a heavy impact on the content of Ruth. Famine is what brings Elimelech and his family to Moab in order to survive through a hard time. The significance of a famine, though, is what should catch the reader’s eye. In order to know why a famine might be significant, a previous knowledge of when famines occurred in the Old Testament before the time of Ruth would be helpful. The Book of Leviticus gives the reader a context why a famine was in the land during this time. Leviticus 26:14-20 and Deuteronomy 28 show what will happen if the people of Israel disobey the LORD. Famine is a key curse in both of these passages. Famine, also, could cause a people to have internal strife (Hudiburg 455-56). The time of the Judges, which will be drawn upon more deeply later, was not a time of peace for very long. This means a famine could also destroy any political structure that may exist causing other lands to take over a land (455-56). In this case, Israel has had quite a few invasions testing them! A famine would only intensify the hardship in the land of Israel.
Once the men in Naomi’s family have passed, she and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, move back to Elimelech’s homeland in Bethlehem. Ruth goes out into a nearby field in Bethlehem and starts to glean the left over grain that is not picked up by the workers. This practice was not frowned upon in the land of Israel because the law commands that the grain in the fields be left for the poor, fatherless, aliens, and widows (Lev. 19:9, Dt. 24:19). Gleaning was simply the practice of allowing the poor to follow the reapers in a field to pick up any grain that was missed, dropped, or discarded (Comfort and Elwell 533). It is interesting to note that Naomi and Ruth qualify in all the four categories above. Naomi was now poor and a widow. Ruth was a stranger in the land of Judah, a widow, poor, and had to leave her father once she went along with Naomi. So, without a doubt, Boaz allows Ruth to glean because she qualifies according to the law of the LORD.
The barley harvest is also an important event to note. The barley would be planted in the fall, October- early December, and then harvested in April (Borowski 150). Barley is known to be able to resist tough environmental conditions. This is important, for had barley not been able to withstand tough conditions, Ruth and Naomi would not have been able to collect any of the barley’s produce, causing them to eventually die of hunger. However, the LORD visits his people in Ruth 1:6, which then urges Naomi to move back because the LORD had given his people food.
The threshing floor is also an agricultural component to this book. It was the place where harvested grain was spread out to dry and then the seed would be separated from the chaff (Ackerman 1305). Boaz is found to be resting on the threshing floor by Ruth. Now, whether Boaz was sleeping on the threshing floor to protect his barley from thieves the reader does not know. What can be known, though, is that Boaz was the one out winnowing the barley and not one of his workers. This displays his dedication and his character as a worthy man.
Architecture has a brief role in Ruth. When the readers arrive at chapter four they will see a strange transaction occur between Boaz and the close relative at the city gate. In this time period, the people would go to the city gate during times of peace and perform business transactions, legal actions, or selling of various merchandise (Moyer 483-484). Ruth 4:7-12 demonstrates the custom of redeeming and exchanging business perfectly, which is mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:7-10. This transaction took place at the city gate making it a public affair with witnesses. Boaz can now legally marry Ruth and redeem Elimelech’s line in Israel.
The places mentioned in Ruth might also raise questions for the reader. Where is Bethlehem or Judah? Where is Moab? What kinds of people live in these lands? Israelites are the main people that are focused on in the Book of Ruth. Israelites are a nation that worships Yahweh. Yahweh is the one true God, who was the God of Abraham, and who gave the law to Israel to live a holy life. The Israelites were set apart from other nations because of the laws they followed. The town of Bethlehem, Judea is an Israelite territory. This was the home of a concubine mentioned in Judges 19 that caused a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and Judah. This civil war almost destroyed all of the tribe of Benjamin, but the tribe of Benjamin was looked at with compassion (Judges 21:15).
Moab was a nation hostile towards Israel. They did not fear the LORD or follow his commands. Judah was also taken over by the King of Moab in Judges 3. Since Ruth takes place in the time of the Judges, the event in Judges 3 would easily be remembered. Ruth is a Moabite. She does not, however, follow after Moabite gods. She follows Naomi back to Judah into the land of Yahweh’s people. This would be her act of committing herself to the ways of Yahweh.
The time of the judges could be the most critical information to understanding the background of this book. Yahweh himself, to lead the people of Israel in battle or other times of need, brought forth judges. The people of Israel would fear the LORD when there was a judge. However, once the time of war was over and there was no judge, the people did what was right in their own eyes (Viviano 753). Viviano suggests, that because the people of Israel would not consistently fear the LORD, they needed a more permanent leader, such as a king (753). The end of Ruth closes by offering the people of Israel a future king, David, unbeknown to them at the time of Naomi.
The background to Ruth is vital to understanding the book as a whole. Without understanding the culture’s agriculture, architecture, geography/people, politics, and religion the reader would be lost in a story; a story that they couldn’t visualize, understand, or believe to be real. The background to this book is found in the Bible itself. There are no other places one has to turn to get secret information. It can all be clearly found in God’s word and can be easily applied from the Book of Ruth. In order to understand Ruth, the reader must know what has happened in the Bible before this book and what did happen because of the results of the birth of Obed.
Ackerman, Susan. “threshing floor.” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000. 1305. Print.
Borowski, Oded. “Barley.” David Noel Freedman. 150.
Comfort, Philip W., and Elwell, Walter A. Tyndale Bible Dictionary.
Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2001. Print.
Hubbard Robert L. Jr. “g’l.” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. VanGemeren Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997. 789-94. Print.
Hudiburg, Alice Hunt. “Famine.” David Noel Freedman. 455-456.
Moyer, James C. “gate.” David Noel Freedman. 483-484.
Viviano, Pauline A. “The Book of Judges.” David Noel Freedman. 753.
Weber, Carl Philip. “chayil.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Ed. Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Vol. 1 Aleph- Mem. Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute. 1980. 624-625. Print.