The Book of Ruth is a gem in the Hebrew Bible. In the midst of wars, hardship, divine punishment, and lots of really long genealogies, Ruth offers a break from all the craziness. For a few chapters at least, we get to curl up by the fire with a good book and just relax without worrying about who we're supposed to stone for breaking what law.
The author of the Book of Ruth is a bit of a mystery. Since the story probably existed in oral tradition for quite a while before it was written down, the original storyteller is pretty much gone with the wind. Even the nice person who gave us the story in its final version is nothing more than a question mark.
A few folks over the years have argued that Ruth's story might have actually been written by a woman. After all, the author is really good at writing believable and interesting female characters. The same can't be said for every book of the Bible. Of course, there's no evidence at all to support this theory, but, hey, Bible scholars can dream, can't they? (Source, p. 192.)
There's also tons of debate about the date that Ruth was written. Though the story says it took place between the 12th or 11th century BCE, the tale was obviously recorded many years after that. Probably the most widely accepted view is that Ruth was written sometime between 950 and 700 BCE. This would be after the reigns of King David and Solomon. Everyone would have been pretty anxious to craft some stories flattering the king and his awesome ancestors (source, p. 241).
Other scholars think the book might have been written between 600 and 500 BCE. The story might be a direct response to Ezra's advice against marrying foreign women (Ezra 9-10). Boy, was that guy wrong. It's also possible the story was written before David was alive and then the genealogy was just added later to give it more oomph. Nothing like some royal name-dropping to help a little story out (source, p. 241).
So, unlike other books in the Bible, Ruth isn't a piece of history or a religious tract trying to convert us (gospels, we're looking at you). Ruth is a work of fiction. But, that doesn't mean it doesn't have anything to bring to the table (source, p. 241).
Like the greatest novels and plays of all time, the fact that this story didn't actually happen doesn't take away from its awesomeness. Even if there was no Ruth or Naomi or Boaz, what their story has to say to us is still pretty kick butt. Courage in the face of adversity. Faithfulness in times of despair. The proper way to glean barley. Yup, Ruth is aces in our book.
Sure, the Book of Ruth can be read as a kind of prequel to David's life story. Here's what the mighty king's ancestors were up to before he was born. But, in reality, Ruth was probably just told for Ruth's sake. And because we're all suckers for a happy ending.
Ruth's characters are role models. Ruth is faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi, even when she doesn't have to be. Boaz is kind and generous to Ruth even though he's not required to be by law. Everyone who displays faithfulness, humility, courage, and wit ends up with what they want in the end. That's a pretty ringing endorsement for being a Good Person.
Ruth and her friends are also models for Jewish living. Just take a look at Ruth. We get the feeling this is how the author thinks everyone should be acting. We should all go above and beyond what is required, because the rewards and the barley perks are gonna be sweet and free flowing. Ruth is faithful in the same way God is faithful. And speaking of God…
Where's Yahweh in All This?
God is mentioned quite a few times throughout Ruth, though he doesn't actually do much in the story. Only twice does God directly intervene:
Ah, so God gives food and babies. Nice.
What does this mean? Well, God's name is clearly on the lips of all the characters. Not only is God the source of all blessings and goodness, he's also the one who's responsible for all the bad stuff. You can address your complaints to: Almighty God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.
When Naomi's whole (male) family is wiped out, she pretty ticked at God. She calls him out a couple times for turning against her:
The funny thing is, when Naomi's trash-talking God, no one tries to stop her. It's as if everyone's actually in agreement. Yeah, he sure has thrown you a curveball. Stinks to be you. God is a bringer of both good and bad times, but no one is really that thrilled about the bad.
In a way, it's sort of weird that Ruth even wound up in the Bible. It doesn't have any fancy tales to tell about kings or wars or epic escapes from slavery. Ruth's story is small. Almost as small as they get. Girl meets boy, girl and boy get married, and they live happily-ever-after.
But, this short story, like countless others, shows us much greater truths about love, courage, devotion, and trust. Ruth takes place on a small scale, but its message is anything but small. In four chapters, we've traveled through the valley of the shadow of death and back out again. That's heavy stuff.
And that's how this tiny little blink-and-you'll miss it story, still touches people's hearts over three thousand years after it was first told. Awwww.