Warning! This is a rather long read, so I apologize. I want to cover the interpretive issues that one will encounter when they read the Book of Ruth. These are not issues such as contradictions, but rather issues that affect how the story is interpreted. If you miss these some of these things you might just miss the point of this Book! Also, if this is your first time reading this series please note that this is part three! Parts One and Two should be read first and can be found here:
The Book of Ruth follows the pattern of being a historical narrative in the Bible. A historical narrative consists of an exposition, conflict, and resolution. Each of these three parts, in the narrative of Ruth, becomes essential to the development of the plot structure. The plot is not the only part of the narrative of Ruth though. This book includes character development and the setting in which these characters interacted.
When and where this narrative takes place is the first part to consider in correctly interpreting the Book of Ruth. The first verse informs the readers that it is in the days of the judges (Ruth 1:1). The original readers of this narrative would recall that there was no king in Israel, so God brought judges forth to rule the people. These were not happy times, however. The people didn’t listen to their judges and turned away from God, doing whatever they pleased (Judg. 2:16-17). So, when the Book of Ruth states that this narrative takes place in the days that the judges ruled, the original reader would see that this was not a time where the people were pleasing Yahweh.
Where this narrative occurs is another aspect that informs the reader of the condition of Israel. There was a famine in the land, which causes an Israelite family to move from Judah to pagan Moab. Moab was a land that was previously strengthened by the LORD to rise up against Israel (Judg. 3:12). This was Israel’s punishment for doing evil in the eyes of the LORD. Moab was not a nation that worshiped the LORD, but the LORD used them to discipline his own people. When an Israelite man decided to move to Moab, a pagan land that did not worship Yahweh, the original reader would have flinched in fear of what not trusting in the LORD would bring upon the family. After the discipline of the LORD, the two widows travel back to the land of God. Bethlehem is the town where the two widows arrive after traveling back from Moab. The remainder of the narrative focuses on their time in Bethlehem and the fields of Boaz.
The plot consists of what happened and how it happened. The narrative begins with background information about what had been happening in the lives of the sojourning Israelite family up to the point where conflict occurs. The exposition introduces the readers to the time the narrative takes place, what was happening in that time period, and the main characters of the narrative. Conflict occurs soon after the introduction of the main characters (Ruth 1:3-5). The death of Naomi’s husband and her two sons brings the harsh reality of no heirs to continue Elimelech’s line. During the period of conflict, the reader sees the unfolding of the characters of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
The climax and falling action of the narrative occurs during the interaction of Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor (Ruth 3:6-13). A solution to Naomi’s despair is starting to come together, which then is resolved in Ruth 4. The resolution to the conflict happens quickly after the climax to the narrative, making the falling action seem non-existent. Ruth 4:1-12 provides the solution of redemption. By the last ten verses of this narrative, the solution has already taken effect.
The character development in this narrative of Ruth is rather interesting. The only character that seems to have any depth to her would be Naomi. Throughout the book, she is described having different emotions, different actions, and the changing of her mood by the time the narrative concludes. Ruth is shown as a loyal daughter-in-law to Naomi and a woman who displays a Yahweh-like love toward Naomi. Boaz is described as a worthy man and he demonstrates his honorable character from the moment he is introduced. These three characters are the focus of this narrative, yet Yahweh is not left out. The LORD may seem to be in the background, but his actions are shown throughout the life of Naomi.
The Book of Ruth has many important words that contribute to the interpretation of the narrative. The original Hebrew words ga’al and chayil aid in understanding the message of Ruth. Both words are used to describe the character of Boaz.
The word ga’al, or kinsmen redeemer, has a clear meaning in the Book of Ruth. In Ruth 3:9, ga’al means that Boaz was a relative of Elimelech and had certain duties that he could perform. A redeemer in Old Testament times had a wide range of meanings which affect how the Hebrew word ga’al is translated. Even with a wide range of meanings throughout the Old Testament, this passage in Ruth has enough evidence in the context to provide an answer to what Boaz could provide to Naomi.
In Hubbard’s article on ga’al, he lists the variety of meanings the word has throughout the Old Testament. A redeemer could be used in legal contexts like in Leviticus 25 and 27. These texts pertain to redeeming sacrifices or a brother’s land or house that was sold due to poverty (Hubbard 790). Ga’al could be used to refer to the redemption of one who sold oneself into slavery due to debt and is redeemed by a blood relative (790). In Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 19, and Joshua 20, a redeemer is a man that avenges his blood relatives murder by carrying out the execution of the murderer (791).
Boaz does not seem to be following after any of these forms of being a ga’al. He does help a widow to whom he is a close relative. Boaz begins to act like a redeemer by providing protection and provision of food to Naomi and Ruth. In Ruth 3:9, Ruth proposes, in a way, to Boaz. She informs him that he is ga’al, hoping that he would carry out his duty. There is a ga’al that is closer than Boaz, so Boaz goes out to find him (3:13).
The closer redeemer chooses not to uphold his responsibility and Boaz is able to take the responsibility himself (Ruth 4:6). The meaning of ga’al in Ruth 3:9 and the whole book would point to the conclusion that Boaz acquires the land of Elimelech from the closer redeemer. He also marries Ruth in order to redeem Elimelech’s line in Israel. So, as ga’al, Boaz provides the possibility to continue a man’s name in Israel, which will eventually bring forth a King that will restore Israel.
Chayil is another word that is used of Boaz. This word is used in the Old Testament 243 times in the King James Version. Since chayil is used so many times it can be assumed that this word has a wide range of meanings. It has been translated as army, man of valor, host, forces, valiant, strength, riches, wealth, power, substance, might, strong, able, and virtuous.
In Ruth 2:1 and 3:11 chayil is used to describe Boaz. The ESV translates chayil as worthy in Ruth 2:1 and again in 3:11 toward Ruth. The possible meaning of chayil, in the context of the narrative of Ruth, would rule out any translation relating to armies or warriors. With that being said this leaves the descriptors valiant, strong, rich or wealthy, powerful, virtuous, and worthy as viable translations of the word chayil. In Ruth 2:1, the word is used of Boaz. Boaz has a field and reapers working for him in that field. He is honorable in all that he does and how he interacts with Ruth in chapter three. This would give the word chayil a few further meanings. He would be a man of wealth, he is honorable or virtuous and had some authority.
Ruth is described by Boaz in Ruth 3:11 to be a worthy woman. So, in this context, Weber suggests that chayil reflects all the attributes of her male counterpart, Boaz (Weber 625). She has been loyal to her mother-in-law, she has been a faithful worker, and she has a positive reputation in Bethlehem.
So, chayil, in the context of the whole Book of Ruth, would refer to Boaz being a rich, authoritative, and virtuous man. When chayil is used describing Ruth, the word’s meaning can be just a reflection of Boaz’s character. Ruth would then be a virtuous woman.
There are key themes that the modern reader will have to understand that the original reader would already have understood. The period of the judges, covered in the Background section, and the coming of a King are important themes in the Book of Ruth. Any other key themes have been covered in the background and message sections.
The coming of a King is an important theme because of the time period in which Ruth occurs. In a time where the Israelites are all going their own way, a king would bring stability and enforce God’s law. Deuteronomy 17 includes laws concerning Israel’s kings. Yet, at the time that law was written, Israel had no king. The LORD was anticipating the people of Israel requesting a king, so he made laws concerning future kings that he would put over the people. Ruth ends with the line of Obed and the coming of King David. The original readers of Ruth would be able to see how Saul did not follow the LORD’s decrees and if King David were beginning his reign, they would understand that he was to follow the LORD with all his heart.
In a time where no one was following the LORD whole heartedly, a King that would follow the LORD’s commands fully would be a significant change. At the end of Ruth, there is no mention of the first king, Saul, but of the second, David. This would be a beacon of hope for the original reader. They would see that the time of the judges was a time of disorder. A King that followed after the LORD would be a King that would bring order. Order was the hope that the Israelites in the Book of Ruth want. The original reader would see the order which the people in that time would have needed.
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.