Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Book of Ruth

Click to enlarge

Ruth, BOOK OF, one of the proto-canonical writings of the Old Testament, which derives its name from the heroine of its exquisitely beautiful story.


—The incidents related in the first part of the Book of Ruth (i-iv, 17) are briefly as follows. In the time of the judges, a famine arose in the land of Israel, in consequence of which Elimelech with Noemi and their two sons emigrated from Bethlehem of Juda to the land of Moab. After Elimelech’s death Mahalon and Chelion, his two sons, married Moabite wives, and not long after died without children. Noemi, deprived now of her husband and children, left Moab for Bethlehem. On her journey thither she dissuaded her daughters-in-law from going with her. One of them, however, named Ruth, accompanied Noemi to Bethlehem. The barley harvest had just begun and Ruth, to relieve Noemi’s and her own poverty, went to glean in the field of Booz, a rich man of the place. She met with the greatest kindness, and following Noemi’s advice, she made known to Booz, as the near kinsman of Elimelech, her claim to marriage. After a nearer kinsman had solemnly renounced his prior right, Booz married Ruth who bore him Obed, the grandfather of David. The second part of the book (iv, 18-22) consists in a brief genealogy which connects the line of David through Booz with Phares, one of the sons of Juda.


—In the series of the sacred writings of the Old Testament, the short Book of Ruth occupies two different principal places. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the English Versions give it immediately after the Book of Judges. The Hebrew Bible, on the contrary, reckons it among the Hagiographa or third chief part of the Old Testament. Of these two places, the latter is most likely the original one. It is attested to by all the data of Jewish tradition, namely, the oldest enumeration of the Hagiographa in the Talmudic treatise “Baba Bathra”, all the Hebrew MSS. whether Spanish or German, the printed editions of the Hebrew Bible, and the testimony of St. Jerome in his Preface to the Book of Daniel, according to which eleven books are included by the Hebrews in the Hagiographa. The presence of the Book of Ruth after that of Judges in the Septuagint, whence it passed into the Vulgate and the English Versions, is easily explained by the systematic arrangement of the historical books of the Old Testament in that ancient Greek Version. As the episode of Ruth is connected with the period of the judges by its opening words “in the days … when the judges ruled”, its narrative was made to follow the Book of Judges as a sort of complement to it. The same place assigned to it in the lists of St. Melito, Origen, St. Jerome (Prol. Galeatus), is traceable to the arrangement of the inspired writings of the Old Testament in the Septuagint, inasmuch as these lists bespeak in various ways the influence of the nomenclature and grouping of the sacred books in that Version, and consequently should not be regarded as conforming strictly to the arrangement of those books in the Hebrew Canon. It has indeed been asserted that the Book of Ruth is really a third appendix to the Book of Judges and was, therefore, originally placed in immediate connection with the two narratives which are even now appended to this latter book (Judges, xvii-xviii; xix-xxi); but this view is not probable owing to the differences between these two works with respect to style, tone, subject, etc.


—As the precise object of the Book of Ruth is not expressly given either in the book itself or in authentic tradition, scholars are greatly at variance concerning it. According to many, who lay special stress on the genealogy of David in the second part of the book, the chief aim of the author is to throw light upon the origin of David, the great King of Israel and royal ancestor of the Messias. Had this, however, been the main purpose of the writer, it seems that he should have given it greater prominence in his work. Besides, the genealogy at the close of the book is but loosely connected with the preceding contents, so it is not improbably an appendix added to that book by a later hand. According to others, the principal aim of the author was to narrate how, in opposition to Deut., xxiii, 3, which forbids the reception of Moabites into Yahweh’s assembly, the Moabitess Ruth was incorporated with Yahweh’s people, and eventually became the ancestress of the founder of the Hebrew monarchy. But this second opinion is hardly more probable than the foregoing. Had the Book of Ruth been written in such full and distinct view of the Deuteronomic prohibition as is affirmed by the second opinion, it is most likely that its author would have placed a direct reference to that legislative enactment on Noemi’s lips when she endeavored to dissuade her daughters-in-law from accompanying her to Juda, or particularly when she received from Ruth the protestation that henceforth Noemi’s God would be her God. Several recent scholars have regarded this short book as a kind of protest against Nehemias’s and Esdras‘s efforts to suppress intermarriage with women of foreign birth. But this is plainly an inference not from the contents of the book, but from an assumed late date for its composition, an inference therefore no less uncertain than that date itself. Others finally, and indeed with greater probability, have maintained that the author’s chief purpose was to tell an edifying story as an example to his own age and an interesting sketch of the past, effecting this by recording the exemplary conduct of his various personages who act as simple, kindly, God-fearing people ought to act in Israel.


—The charming Book of Ruth is no mere “idyll” or “poetical fiction”. It is plain that the Jews of old regarded its contents as historical, since they included its narrative in the Septuagint within the prophetic histories (Josue-Kings). The fact that Josephus in framing his account of the Jewish Antiquities utilizes the data of the Book of Ruth in exactly the same manner as he does those of the historical books of the Old Testament shows that this inspired writing was then considered as no mere fiction. Again, the mention by St. Matthew of several personages of the episode of Ruth (Booz, Ruth, Obed), among the actual ancestors of Christ (Matt., i, 5), points in the same direction. Intrinsic data agree with these testimonies of ancient tradition. The book records the intermarriage of an Israelite with a Moabitess, which shows that its narrative does not belong to the region of the poetical. The historical character of the work is also confirmed by the friendly intercourse between David and the King of Moab which is described in I Kings, xxii, 3, 4; by the writer’s distinct reference to a Jewish custom as obsolete (Ruth, iv, 7), etc.

In view of this concordant, extrinsic and intrinsic, evidence, little importance is attached by scholars generally to the grounds which certain critics have put forth to disprove the historical character of the Book of Ruth. It is rightly felt, for instance, that the symbolical meaning of the names of several persons in the narrative (Noemi, Mahalon, Chelion) is not a conclusive argument that they have been fictitiously accommodated to the characters in the episode, any more than the similar symbolical meaning of the proper names of well known and fully historical personages mentioned in Israel’s annals (Saul, David, Samuel, etc.). It is rightly felt likewise that the striking appropriateness of the words put on the lips of certain personages to the general purpose of edification apparent in the Book of Ruth does not necessarily disprove the historical character of the work, since this is also noticeable in other books of Holy Writ which are undoubtedly historical. Finally, it is readily seen that however great the contrast may appear between the general tone of simplicity, repose, purity, etc., of the characters delineated in the episode of Ruth, and the opposite features of the figures which are drawn in the Book of Judges, both writings describe actual events in one and the same period of Jewish history; for all we know, the beautiful scenes of domestic life connected in the Book of Ruth with the period of the judges may have truly occurred during the long intervals of peace which are repeatedly mentioned in the Book of Judges.


—The Book of Ruth is anonymous, for the name which it bears as its title has never been regarded otherwise than that of the chief actor in the events recorded. In an ancient Beraitha to the Talmudic treatise “Baba Bathra” (Babylonian Talmud, c. i), it is definitely stated that “Samuel wrote his book, Judges, and Ruth”; but this ascription of Ruth to Samuel is groundless and hence almost universally rejected at the present day. The name of the author of the book of Ruth is unknown, and so is also the precise date of its composition. The work, however, was most likely written before the Babylonian exile. On the one hand, there is nothing in its contents that would compel one to bring down its origin to a later date; and, on the other hand, the comparative purity of its style stamps it as a pre-exilic composition. The numerous critics who hold a different view overrate the importance of its isolated Aramaisms which are best accounted for by the use of a spoken patois plainly independent of the actual developments of literary Hebrew. They also make too much of the place occupied by the Book of Ruth among the Hagiographa, for, as can be easily realized, the admission of a writing into this third division of the Hebrew Canon is not necessarily contemporary with its origin. But, while the internal data supplied by the Book of Ruth thus point to its pre-exilic origin, they remain indecisive with regard to the precise date to which its composition should be referred, as clearly appears from the conflicting inferences which have been drawn from them by recent Catholic scholars.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!