Book of Ruth

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A fragment of Ruth, c. 80 BCE.

The Book of Ruth, often called simply, Ruth, is an ancient Jewish writing canonized into the Five Scrolls section of the Ketuvim. Christians later appropriated it into their old testament. The book was written by an anonymous author possibly between the 6th-4th century BCE. The story focuses on a loyal and naive young woman having to win the affections of an older family member so he'll buy her hand in marriage so she and her mother-in-law won't starve to death. It's generally viewed as a story of religious conversion and romance by religious people.

Title

The book doesn't have a title. It has been referred to as "Ruth" as a matter of convenience for centuries.

Source Title Transliteration Translation
Hebrew מגילת רות‎ Megilath Rut Scroll of Ruth
Greek Septuagint Ρούθ Roúth Ruth
Latin Vulgate Ruth
Early Modern English Ruth
Modern English Ruth

Authorship and Dating

The author doesn't identify himself, and there is no evidence to attribute the book to any individual, however, religious tradition attributes it to Samuel. The date of origin is estimated to be in the Persian period, anywhere from 6th to 4th century BCE. There are no historical events mentioned in the book or contemporary manuscripts to date, so historians estimate the date solely on the content of the book. Jews of the time were increasingly self-isolating and the taboo of marriage to women outside of their culture was growing, so this book could have been a means to teach young Jewish men the "proper" type of non-Jewish woman they can marry.

There are various textual differences among the extent manuscripts, but nothing severe. It is generally agreed upon by scholars that the genealogy at the end of the book, which doesn't fit with the rest of the book's content or theme, was tacked on later as a priestly addition to tie the character's genealogy to King David.

The oldest surviving manuscript of Ruth is from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Based on the Hasmonean style of writing used, it is dated to around 140 BCE to 37 BCE.

For reasons unknown, this book was completely excluded from the Codex Sinaiticus, an early Christian bible written around 350 CE.

Content

In the story, there is a famine in Bethlehem (ironic since Bethlehem means "house of bread"), so a family with two sons leaves their home to live in Moab (a land described as evil in other sections of the Tanakh). While there, the family's sons marry Moabite women, but both sons and the father die. The mother, Naomi, hears that the famine has ended and prepares to return to Bethlehem alone. One daughter-in-law remains in Moab to find a new husband, but Ruth, who converted to Judaism, follows Naomi back. They return to Naomi's home, but the land is technically not hers, because Yahweh's commandments forbid women from inheriting property. In order to not die of starvation, Ruth tries to find a man in the city kind enough to let her gather food among his farming scraps. As luck would have it, she gathers fallen grain from the field of Boaz, who is a wealthy family member of Naomi's dead husband. Boaz treats Ruth with kindness and gives her food so she doesn't starve. When Naomi learns this, she tells Ruth to bathe herself and wear her best clothes and perfume and go to Boaz in the night and do whatever he tells her to do. Ruth obeys and Boaz, is pleased by the fact that Ruth seems interested in him instead of men her own age, and Ruth uncovers Boaz's "feet," and the two sleep together while Boaz refers to Ruth as "my daughter." Later, Boaz wants to buy Naomi's land, but an older relative has first claim on it. Boaz reminds the relative that whoever buys the land also buys Naomi and must be her caretaker, so the man surrenders his claim and lets Boaz buy the land. Boaz buys the land which makes Ruth become his wife, and everyone is so impressed by Boaz's purchase, that he becomes famous, not just in Bethlehem, but in all of Israel.

Status

This book is in the public domain. I have several translations of this book from various bibles and have read the NIV translation.

Review

Good

  • Nothing.

Bad

  • Ruth's statement to her mother-in-law, Naomi, beings with loyalty, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people..." but then becomes a scary abandonment of identity, "...and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (1:16-17)
  • Naomi directly blames Yahweh for the death of her husband and sons, a rebuke Christians of today would find blasphemous, but her Jewish kinsmen don't seem bothered by, implying they also believe Yahweh curses his chosen people on the regular (which certainly fits with their scripture!). (1:20-22)
  • Upon buying Elimelch's land and his widow and daughter-in-law, the elders offer propaganda-level praise to Boaz saying, "May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem," (4:11) and later, "May he become famous throughout Israel!" (4:14) Boaz didn't solve world hunger, he just bought some property and an eager naive young woman. That act hardly deserves national acclaim.
  • From the way Boaz is described, being well established with land, workers, and servants and being a kinsman to Naomi's husband, he is probably much older than Ruth, at least by a generation. In 3:10, he even describes Ruth as "my daughter." This kind of takes away the romantic vibe of the book.
  • The story has a lot of evidence of redaction and/or being a parable:
    • There are several textual variants among the surviving manuscripts, though nothing severe.
    • There is messy repetition in the intro (1:1-3).
    • The son's who immediately die are named Mahlon and Chilion which is Hebrew for "Sickness" and "Wasting." (1:2)
    • There is an editor's note explaining an old Jewish custom (4:7).
    • The genealogy was most likely tacked on (4:18-22).

Ugly

  • Although religious people tend to view this book as romantic, I find it to be more along the lines of fetish erotica. The book was written by older men, for older men. Ruth is a naive young women at the mercy of a rich older family member, and, when they're alone at night she uncovers his "feet," and must do anything he tells her to do in order survive. Ruth's feelings for Boaz are never brought up, only her dire situation. Upon finding her acceptable, the older family member buys her as property. This makes me wonder, what if Naomi returned without Ruth? Would Boaz has been so eager to buy the land if it was the older Naomi uncovering his "feet?"
  • This story contains several passages which illustrate how the ancient Jews saw women as property rather than people. "Whose young woman is that?" (2:5) "Stay here with my servant girls." (2:8) "You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant—though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls." (2:13) "So she lay at his feet until morning..." (3:14) "On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man's widow..." (4:5) While religious people tend to dismiss all this misogyny as the result of an ancient culture, according to the Torah, Yahweh personally designated women as property and said they can't own land.
  • Because Ruth, a non-Jew, became a proper Jew in the story, some Jews started to allow Jewish men to marry non-Jewish women with the purpose of them converting to Judaism. However, Jewish women were still forbidden from marrying non-Jewish men.

Links

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