Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE BOOK OF RUTH.
THE REV. R. SINKER, M.A.
INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF RUTH.
THE BOOK OF RUTH.
I. Contents.—In the book of Ruth is presented to us a family, consisting of father, mother and two sons, which under the pressure of a famine in the days of the Judges, migrated from Bethlehem to the land of Moab. Here the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, took two Moabitesses, Ruth and Orpah, to wife. After a ten years’ sojourn, Elimelech the father, and the two sons having died, and tidings having come of the change of famine to plenty in the land of Judah, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set off to return. In spite, however, of her evident affection for them, and of their unwillingness to leave her,’ she unselfishly urges them to seek their own kindred, and not to venture on what must have been a long toilsome journey. After a struggle Orpah yields, but Ruth, with a devotedness which says almost as much for Naomi as herself, sinks all ties of home and kindred in the outburst, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Thus she takes her last look at the fertile fields of Moab, to enter a strange land, where the result of her devotion to her mother-in-law was to be, that from her line in ages to come should be born, David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, Solomon, the wisest of the sons of men, Zerub-babel, the later Moses, and the Messiah, the son of David, whom all these prefigured.
When Bethlehem is reached, the barley harvest is beginning, and Ruth, going to glean, chances upon the field of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of the family of Elimelech. Learning that the unknown woman was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, and having clearly been much impressed with the story of her devotedness, he bids her to continue to glean in his fields, and to make use of the food provided for his own people. Through the kindness of Boaz, she gleans barley, which when beaten out, is about an ephah, and so first the barley and then the wheat harvest pass by.
The end of the harvest having come, Naomi bids Ruth to claim a kinsman’s help from Boaz in his threshing floor, where he had been winnowing barley, and accordingly at midnight when Boaz awoke he found Ruth lying at his feet. He promises then to discharge the kinsman’s duty unless a still nearer relative should claim to do it. The case was brought into judgment on the following morning. The next kinsman, afraid of “marring his own inheritance, “declines to redeem the land that was Elimelech’s. Accordingly Boaz himself redeems it, taking therewith Ruth to wife to raise up the name of the dead Mahlon on his inheritance. The offspring of the marriage was Obed the father of Jesse, the father of David.
II. Date of events recorded.—It may be asked next, when are we to fix the period when the events here recorded happened. Here our data are sufficiently vague, being indeed but two. The famine broke out in the days “when the judges judged,” and if the genealogy be complete, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David, that is, probably lived a hundred years before him. Of this last point, however, we can be by no means certain, both because we undoubtedly find sometimes gaps in the genealogies in the Bible, (see e.g., three generations omitted in Matthew 1:8) and because the number of generations from Pharez to David (given as ten, Ruth 4:18-22) seems insufficient to fill up the intervening space of over 900 years. It is probable that if there are any omissions in the genealogy, they are to be assigned to the period before Boaz.
It may be noticed that the father of Boaz is given as Salmon, (Ruth 4:21) who (Matthew 1:5) was the husband of Rahab, so that we should thus have Boaz born no great number of years after the taking of Jericho.
Josephus (Ant. v. 9. 1) refers the events to a time after Samson, in the days of Eli, but this must certainly be too late; and at any rate the date given above may be taken as fairly probable.
The various attempts to fix the date more closely (as for example, to connect the famine with the ravages of the Midianites, Judges 6:1 seq.) involve mere guesses, and rest on too uncertain grounds to warrant our entering into the discussion.
III. Date of composition.—We cannot speak with any degree of certainty as to the time at which the book was written. From Ruth 1:1, the reference to the Judges would suggest that they had now been replaced by the Monarchy, and from Ruth 4:17 it is clear that the book is not to be put before the time of David.
Whether we are to fix it later than David’s time, and if so, how much later, must be considered very doubtful. The Talmud (Baba Bathra, f. 14 b.) tells us, “Samuel wrote his own book, and Judges and Ruth.” This gives the earliest date possible, and in our opinion there is nothing in the phenomena of the book itself which renders this view inadmissible, though, on the other hand, it cannot be held that any great amount of positive probability attaches to it. Most critics have fixed the date later, and some much later, as for example Ewald, who supposes the book to have been written during the Babylonian captivity. The various arguments, however, on which these theories are built, are many of them most arbitrary, and need not be entered upon here. One point sometimes relied upon to prove the late date is the presence of a certain Aramaean element in the Hebrew of Ruth. To discuss this at length would be beside our present purpose, but it may be remarked here that it is at least as likely that these alleged Aramæisms are to be considered as dialectic varieties, mere provincialisms, or in some cases even as archaisms. It is curious also, that these occur in the dialogues exclusively, the narrative proper being in the purest Hebrew.
On the whole then, the book may indeed belong to a comparatively late period, but this certainly has not been proved; nor has anything been satisfactorily established by those who have maintained, as Ewald, that Ruth is a section of a larger work, the solitary surviving fragment, or that it is really part of the book of Judges, from which it somehow got separated. Such arbitrary theorising can only be considered as guessing pure and simple.
The main reason why the Book of Ruth is included in the Old Testament seems sufficiently obvious, namely on account of David, of whose lineage it may be remarked the books of Samuel make no mention. This definite association of the book with David may perhaps be taken as evidence of a comparatively early date, prior to the books of Samuel, in which it was not considered necessary to repeat matter already given.
IV. Place in Canon.—In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth forms the second of the five so called Megilloth [i.e., Rolls] (the others being, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). It has been thought by some, however, that this was not its original position, for Josephus (contr. Apion. i. 8) as well as some important early Christian witnesses to the Jewish Canon, as Melito, Bishop of Sardis in the second century, (cited by Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. iv. 26), and Origen, (cited by Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. vi. 25), reckoned the number of books of the Old Testament as twenty-two, counting Judges and Ruth as one book. This might rather suggest that the original position of Ruth was immediately after the book of Judges. On the other hand, the Talmud (l.c.) includes Ruth in the Hagiographa, and mentions it first, preceding the Psalms. In the LXX. and Vulgate, the book of Ruth follows the Judges, and the same order is found in the English Bible, and in that of Luther.
 This was doubtless with the view of making the number of the books agree with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.(1) When the judges ruled.—Literally, when the judges judged. This note of time is by no means definite. As we have seen, some have proposed to connect the famine with the ravages of the Midianites Judges 6:1); or, supposing the genealogy to be complete (which is more likely, however, to be abridged, if at all, in the earlier generations), then since Boaz was the son of Salmon (Salma, 1Chronicles 2:11) and Rahab (Matthew 1:5), whom there can be no reasonable grounds for supposing to be other than the Rahab of Jericho, the events must be placed comparatively early in the period of the judges.
Moab.—See notes on Genesis 19:37 : Numbers 21:13; Deuteronomy 2:9. The land of Moab seems to have been of exceptional richness and fertility, as allusions in the threats of Isaiah 16 Jeremiah 38, indicate. It was divided from the land of Israel by the. Dead Sea, and on the north by the river Arnon, the old boundary between Moab and the Amorites (Numbers 21:13). The journey of the family from Bethlehem would probably first lead them near Jericho, and so across the fords of the Jordan into the territory of the tribe of Reuben. Through the hilly country of this tribe, another long journey would bring them to the Arnon, the frontier river.
How far Elimelech was justified in fleeing, even under the pressure of the famine, from the land of Jehovah to a land where Chemosh was worshipped and the abominations practised of Baal-peor, may well be doubted, even though God overruled it all for good. It was disobeying the spirit of God’s law, and holding of little value the blessings of the land of promise.
And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.(2) Naomi.—The name is derived from the Hebrew root meaning to be pleasant (see below, Ruth 1:20). Mahlon and Chilion mean sickness and wasting, it may be in reference to their premature death, the names being given by reason of their feeble health. It is not certain which was the elder: Mahlon is mentioned first in Ruth 1:2; Ruth 1:5, and Chilion in Ruth 4:9. It is probable, however, that Mahlon was the elder.
Ephrathites.—See note on Genesis 35:19. Ephrath was the old name of Bethlehem. Why, in the present passage, the town is called Bethlehem-judah, and the inhabitants Ephrathites, does not appear.
And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years.(4) They took them wives.—This seems to have been after the father’s death. The fault of settling on a heathen soil begun by the father is carried on by the sons in marrying heathen women, for such we cannot doubt they must have been in the first instance. The Targum (or ancient Chaldee paraphrase) says: “They transgressed against the decree of the Word of the Lord, and took to themselves strange wives.” This act was to incur a further risk of being involved in idolatry, as King Solomon found.
Ruth.—This name will mean either “comeliness” or “companion.” according to the spelling of which we suppose the present name to be a contraction. The Syriac spelling supports the latter view. Ruth was the wife of Mahlon (Ruth 4:10), apparently the elder sou. The Targum calls Ruth the daughter of Eglon, king of Moab, obviously from the wish to exalt the dignity of Ruth.
And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.(5) And they died.—Clearly as quite young men. It is not for us to say how far those are right who see in the death of Elimelech and his sons God’s punishment for the disregard of His law. Thus Naomi is left alone, as one on whom comes suddenly the loss of children and widowhood.
Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread.(6) That she might return.—Literally, and she returned. Clearly, therefore, the three women actually began the journey; and when the start has been made. Naomi urges her companions to return. Then, as with Pliable in the Pilgrim’s Progress, so with Orpah: the dangers and difficulties of the way were too much for her affection.
The Lord had visited His people.—The famine had ceased, and Naomi’s heart yearns for the old home. Perhaps, too, the scenes where everything reminded her of her husband and sons, filled her with sadness (for it would appear that she set out immediately after her sons’ death), and perhaps, too, her conscience smote her for distrusting the mercies of the God of Israel.
Wherefore she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters in law with her; and they went on the way to return unto the land of Judah.(7) Her two daughters in law with her.—Both clearly purposing to go with Naomi to the land of Israel (Ruth 1:10), not merely to escort her a little way. Naomi had obviously won the affections of her daughters-in-law, and they were loth to part with her, since such a parting could hardly but be final.
And Naomi said unto her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother's house: the LORD deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.(8) Return.—Naomi’s love is all unselfish. The company of Ruth and Orpah would clearly have been a great solace to her, yet she will not sacrifice them to herself. They each had a mother and a home; the latter, Naomi might fail to secure to them.
The LORD grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice, and wept.(9) The Lord grant you . . .—A twofold blessing is invoked by Naomi on her daughters-in-law, made the more solemn by the twofold mention of the sacred name Jehovah. She prays first for the general blessing, that God will show them mercy, and secondly for the special blessing, that they may find rest and peace in a new home.
And Naomi said, Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?(11) The advice of Naomi thus far is insufficient to shake the affectionate resolve of the two women. She then paints the loneliness of her lot. She has no more sons, and can hope for none; nay, if sons were to be even now born to her, what good would that do them? Still her lot is worse than theirs. They, in spite of their great loss, are young, and from their mothers’ houses they may again go forth to homes of their own. She, old, childless, and solitary, must wend her weary way back to live unaided as best she may.
Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me.(13) It grieveth me much for your sakes.—A much more probable translation is, it is far more bitter for me than for you. An exact parallel to the construction is found in Genesis 19:9. The ancient versions are divided, the LXX., Peshito Syriac, and Targum support this translation; the Vulg. is rather loose in its rendering.
And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her.(14) Kissed.—Orpah, though unwilling to leave her mother-in-law, and though warmly attached to her, still thinks of the hardships of the journey, of the hardships when the journey is done; and the comforts of home detain her.
And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law.(15) Naomi, now armed with a fresh argument, urges Ruth to follow her sister-in-law’s example.
Her gods.—Naomi doubtless views the Moabite idols as realities, whose power is, however, confined to the land of Moab. She is not sufficiently enlightened in her religion to see in the Lord more than the God of Israel.
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:(16) Intreat me not.—Ruth’s nobleness is proof against all. The intensity of her feeling comes out all the more strongly now that she pleads alone: “I will undertake with thee the toilsome journey, I will lodge with thee however hardly, I will venture among a strange people, and will worship a new god.”
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.(17) The Lord do so to me.—Ruth clinches her resolutions with a solemn oath, in which, if we are to take the words literally, she swears by the name of the God of Israel. With this Naomi yields; after so solemn a protest she can urge no more.
So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?(19) They went.—The journey for two women apparently alone was long and toilsome, and not free from danger. Two rivers, Arnon and Jordan, had to be forded or otherwise crossed; and the distance of actual journeying cannot have been less than fifty miles. Thus, weary and travel-stained, they reach Bethlehem, and neighbours, doubtless never looking to see Naomi again, are all astir with excitement. It would seem that though the news of the end of the famine had reached Naomi in Moab, news of her had not reached Bethlehem.
They said . . .—The Bethlehemite women, that is, for the verb is feminine. Grief and toil had doubtless made her look aged and worn.
And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.(20) Call me not Naomi, call me Mara.—Here we have one of the constant plays on words and names found in the Hebrew Bible. Naomi, we have already said, means pleasant, or, perhaps, strictly, my pleasantness. Mara is bitter, as in Exodus 15:23. The latter word has no connection with Miriam or Mary, which is from a different root.
The Almighty.—Heb., Shaddai. According to one derivation of the word, “He who is All Sufficient,” all sufficing; the God who gives all things in abundance is He who takes back (see Note on Genesis 17:1).
Hath dealt very bitterly.—Heb., hemar, referring to the preceding Mara. The pleasantness and joys of life are at an end for me, my dear ones passed away, bitterness and sadness are now my lot.
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter in law, with her, which returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest.(22) Barley-harvest.—God had restored plenty to His people, and the wayfarers thus arrive to witness and receive their share of the blessing. The barley harvest was the earliest (Exodus 9:31-32), and would ordinarily fall about the end of April.