Why was the Book of Ruth written?

On the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the season of the barley harvest, we read the bucolic tale of Ruth the Moabite lady, a poor widow exiled in the land of Judah.

A homemade cheese plate from Be’eri Dairy. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
A homemade cheese plate from Be’eri Dairy.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
On the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), the season of the barley harvest, we read the bucolic tale of Ruth the Moabite lady, a poor widow exiled in the land of Judah, gleaning in the barley field of Boaz, a rich landowner, who happens to be a distant relative. Ruth is gathering the gleanings for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi, who has returned to Bethlehem, where she is living in poverty, since the death of her husband Elimelech in a foreign land, the land of Moab. Naomi had lost her husband and two sons in Moab and has to rely on Ruth to scratch a living. Eventually Ruth manages to marry Boaz and the ladies then improve their circumstances and live in comfort. Ruth gives birth to the baby Obed who becomes the grandfather of the charismatic David, king of Judah and all Israel.
On the face of it, it is a straightforward tale and Rabbi Ze’ira of the 3rd century CE raises the question, “Why was Megillat Ruth written?” His answer is simple. It was to show the reward for good deeds. The heroine Ruth sticks with her mother-in-law Naomi and looks after her. Naomi helps Ruth to make a good marriage to the landowner Boaz and Boaz looks after Ruth, who has the honor of becoming the great-grandmother of king David.
But is the story really so simple and straightforward? Was it really just written to show the reward for good deeds, or was there a darker reason for its recording?
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
The key element seems to be the marriage of Boaz and the widow Ruth and the eventual birth of David, king of all Israel. The marriage is controversial, as Ruth was a Moabite girl, and the Torah law is quite clear: “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the Lord for ever” (Deut. 23:4).
The rabbinic explanation of the marriage is that Ruth had made a very sincere act of conversion, when she declared that she would follow Naomi to her land, which would be her land, and Naomi’s people would be her people, and Naomi’s God would be her God (Ruth 1:16).
Furthermore, the rabbis said that the Torah prohibition applies to the Ammonite and the Moabite but not the Ammonitess or Moabitess (B.Talmud Yebamoth 69a) so the marriage of Boaz and Ruth was not a prohibited one. However this Talmudic explanation is in the nature of a spin as the rule is repeated in the Book of Nehemiah (13:1), and Ezra condemns the marriage of Jewish men to foreign women (Ezra 9:1-3). So how is it that the Megillah of Ruth can celebrate a forbidden marriage?
On the face of it, this kind of “marrying out” is not condoned. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. No reason is given but the implication is that it was punishment for abandoning his home town of Bethlehem at a time when it was in crisis, suffering from famine. His two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who had married the Moabite girls Orpah and Ruth, also die.
They cannot be blamed for their father’s chosen exile, rather it seems to be implied that they die for having taken foreign wives. This makes it all the more poignant that when Boaz marries Ruth, the Moabite girl, their union is blessed and celebrated. Why?
There is an episode in later history where the royal line is continued through another forbidden marriage, when Rehoboam, son of Solomon, becomes king in the year 931 BCE. Thanks to the harsh rule of Solomon, which his son, at the great national gathering at Shechem, threatens to perpetuate and increase (“My father chastised you with whips, but I shall chastise you with scorpions,” 1 Kings 12:14), the northern tribes split off and Rehoboam remains king only of Judah. Like most of the other kings of Judah the name of his mother is carefully recorded. She was Na’amah the Ammonite princess (1 Kings 14:21) and she is specifically mentioned again at his death, 10 verses later.
As we have seen, the Ammonite is linked with the Moabite in the Torah prohibition, that they shall not come into the congregation of the Lord, even unto the tenth generation. So how to could the legitimacy of Rehoboam, product of a prohibited marriage, be confirmed as king of Judah?
It was pointed out by the historian Abraham Malamat that this marriage with Na’amah was probably imposed by his father David on the young Solomon as a political necessity. A treaty by marriage with the leaders of the tribe of Ammon would help to secure the eastern frontier of Israel, across the Jordan, where that nation lived and ruled.
Na’amah is the only one of Solomon’s wives mentioned by name and she was probably the first of his many wives, and for this reason it was her son, Rehoboam, who took his place on the throne after his father. Whether it was David or Solomon who made the choice of wife, it would have been a controversial one in the eyes of the court, and one that  required some explanation.
Other marriages of David himself would also have been somewhat controversial. He had married the non-Jewish princess Ma’acah, daughter of king Talmai of Geshur (2 Sam, 3:3), probably for political reasons, as her father’s petty kingdom lay on the east side of lake Kinneret, and would help to protect Israel from the power of Aram (Syria). Nevertheless it might well have been a romantic union, she must have been a very handsome lady, as both her children, Tamar and Absalom, are described in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as being of exceptional personal beauty (2 Sam.13:1 and 14:25).
In fact the union that produced Solomon was also controversial. It is likely that Bathsheba was of Jebusite stock, being married to Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3) but, whether a foreign woman or not, she was, in any case, married to another. And thus David’s taking her, from her bath by the palace roof (11:4), was a truly unjustified act. But was it just an act of royal indulgence on the part of David? Might one not say that it was a flagrant act of exhibitionism on the part of the beautiful Bath-sheba, to bathe openly by the roof of the royal palace, a somewhat provocative act, knowing David’s predilection for feminine pulchritude?
Whatever the reasons involved, Bathsheba became the mother of Solomon, the youngest of David’s sons, and eventually the one chosen by him to succeed to the throne.
If indeed David was led on by Bathsheba, this would have been another example of female seduction of a noble figure. It was the case with Boaz, where Ruth is advised by Naomi how to persuade him that he should marry her. She was to dress in her finery, to approach him in the granary when he was in jovial mood, uncover his feet (a sexual metaphor), and lie with him (Ruth 3:4). This she did and, at his request, stayed the night (3:13), and so the union was consummated even before the wedding.
And their eventual union is related back to another encounter of female seduction, when the people of Bethlehem bless Boaz and Ruth by saying, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore unto Judah – through the offspring which the Lord will give thee, by this young woman” (4:12).
This is indeed a curious blessing. Judah, after the death of his wife, was seduced by his daughter-in-law Tamar, acting as a prostitute by the wayside (Gen. 38:15), and their union produced Perez, the ancestor of Obed, grandfather of king David. In Torah and rabbinic terms the union of a father and his daughter-in-law is a forbidden one (Lev. 18:15) and any child would be considered to be a mamzer (child of a forbidden union), and not allowed to procreate with an Israelite.
Thus the Book of Ruth celebrates the forbidden marriage between Boaz and a Moabite woman, whose child is blessed like the offspring of another forbidden marriage and who, on the face of it, was a mamzer, or religious outcast. So when it comes to Solomon, child of the union of David and a foreign woman, and his son Rehoboam, offspring of Solomon’s union with an Ammonite princess, there is a powerful precedent in the marriage of Boaz to Ruth, the Moabite girl.
This is a reversion back to earlier precedent, which gives the royal line of David a legitimacy supplied by the history of Ruth, the Moabite woman, and her marriage to Boaz, a union that produced the forebear of the distinguished king David.
So what of Rabbi Ze’ira’s dictum? Let’s look at what he says in the Midrash Rabbah of Ruth (II, 14) in full:
“This scroll [of Ruth] tells us nothing either of ritual purity or impurity, nor of prohibition or permission. For what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of loving kindness [gemillut hasadim].”
On the face of it, Rabbi Ze’ira seems to have had in mind the kindness that Ruth showed in accompanying Naomi back to Bethlehem and caring for her there; that of Naomi in helping Ruth to get a good husband, and the kindness of Boaz to them both. But the term hasadim, is based on the word hesed which has a double meaning. Usually given as “loving kindness” it is better translated as “compassion,” which has overtones of both meanings. For hesed can also mean plain passion or even lust, as in the prohibition against a union with one’s sister, which is condemned as hesed (Lev. 20:17).
Thus perhaps Rabbi Ze’ira had in mind both meanings. There was loving kindness and compassion, but also passion and lust. When Ruth approached and lay beside Boaz, she aroused his lust. When Tamar lay in wait for Judah, she counted on his lustful character.
Similarly, it may be said that the union of Bathsheba and David started as a matter of passion, and perhaps the same may have applied to the marriage of Solomon and Na’amah, the Ammonite princess. And so it was the passion that Ruth aroused in Boaz and their subsequent union that served as a literary justification for these later royal but, on the face of it, prohibited unions.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.