The book of Ruth gives the impression of being a simple, charming folk tale. But don’t be fooled. Its author was one of the finest literary stylists in the Bible. Yet she managed to turn this episode from the genealogy of King David into an enduring work of literature. Careful readers, though, will see what ancient Israelite readers saw—the tenuous chain of events that turned Ruth into David’s great-grandmother. If just one of the many links in that chain had broken, there would have been no King David. Many reversals of expected gender norms suggest strongly that this author was a woman—for example, Naomi tells Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s house (
The story in a nutshell is this: Naomi, a woman from Bethlehem, moves to Moab with her husband and two sons. The sons marry Moabite girls, but then all three men die. When Naomi decides to move home, the girls decide to come with her. She tells them to go home (
When they arrive in Bethlehem, they are penniless, but it is the time of the barley harvest. Ruth can support them by gleaning—as
The foreman explains, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi” (
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” (
These words make clear that Ruth was on her way out of the field when Boaz showed up. She is poor, without a male protector, and—most important for this story—a foreigner, making her easy to victimize; but she was tired of being groped and had decided to look for a safer place to work. Had Boaz stayed in town for one more cup of coffee, Ruth would have been gone and they would not have met, married (at Ruth and Naomi’s initiative, not Boaz’s), and produced David’s grandfather.