Want to understand Ruth? Then, just look at where she's coming from. Literally. The Book of Ruth takes place in two different ancient locations. The main stage—Bethlehem—is where most of the action goes down. But, Ruth's hometown of Moab also provides some super important background to our heroine and her struggles. Shall we?
Our story opens in Moab because Naomi's family has fled Bethlehem in Judah to avoid famine. Moab is part of modern day Jordan and it was just a hop, skip, and a jump across the Dead Sea from Judah. That makes it a pretty convenient place to go when you're hungry.
Even though Naomi and company stroll into Moab and set up shop without any problems, Israel had a pretty long (and terrible) history with the people there. In fact some astute Bible readers might call them one of Israel's mortal enemies. The first time Moab is mentioned in Genesis, you know Israel doesn't have many warm and fuzzy feelings for them:
The daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. (Genesis 19:36-37)
Right. So, according to the Israelites, the people of Moab are Lot's incestuous offspring. Nice. Let's take a little tour of the rest of the Bible and see what other good stuff Israel has to say about Moab, shall we?
And trust us, we edited these mentions way, way down. Pretty much every time someone brings up Moab in the Bible, it's to point out how terrible it is and how much God loves Israel instead. Part of the reason for that is because the Moabite people worshipped a different god than Israel. Chemosh was their main deity and anyone who bowed down before him made Yahweh very, very unhappy.
That was part of the danger of inter-marrying with one of the lovely ladies of Moab:
The people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel. (Numbers 25:1-3)
King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite […] women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods"[…] When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God. (1 Kings 11:1-4)
The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from […] the Moabites[…] For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way. (Ezra 9:1-2)
In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of […]Moab; and they could not speak the language of Judah […] I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, "You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves […] Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?" (Nehemiah 13:23-27)
Marriage is a dangerous thing. And apparently those Moabite women are the worst. Except we know better, right? Clearly these haters have never met Ruth.
But, the Book of Ruth actually has a pretty lax attitude towards inter-faith marriage. Mahlon and Chilion marry in Moab and don't end up worshipping Chemosh (Ruth must not have been using her wiles correctly). In fact, marriage is the main reason Ruth comes to accept Yahweh as her God and Judah as her homeland. Score one for tolerance.
The story also paints a pretty nice picture of a people whom God compared to the junk that sits at the bottom of a dung-pit. The Moabites were obviously welcoming to this new Jewish family in town. Ruth herself is a shining example of faith, devotion, and courage. And, really, if it weren't for the pluck of a Moabite girl, there would be no King David or King Solomon or even Jesus.
So, how much do you hate Moab now, Israel? A lot still? Well, you can't win 'em all.
After leaving the warm, welcoming garbage can that was Moab, Naomi and Ruth travel back to her homeland. Naomi and company were from Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah. Today, it's part of the modern day Palestine and you can go there and visit all kinds of awesome Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sites in town.
Bethlehem has a pretty famous history in Jewish culture. It's known as the "City of David" (1 Samuel 17:12) because it's the birthplace of King David himself. So, it's fitting that his ancestors, Ruth and Boaz would meet and make their lives there. Later, Matthew (2:1) and Luke's (2:4) gospels go out of their way to show that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, because—naturally—the messiah would be born in the same place that David was. Yeah, Bethlehem was awesomesauce.
The story also takes places during the spring harvest of both barley and wheat. We're talking late April through June, which mean warm, sunny weather and lots of food.
This is pretty significant to our story. The family originally left during a famine and now Naomi and Ruth are returning just in time for the start of the harvest. Coincidence? We think not. Even though they're coming home on the heels of death and abandonment, the bounty of the harvest signals that things may be looking up soon.
And, of course, this also allows Ruth a chance to glean in the fields and meet her sweetheart-to-be, Boaz. Gleaning was a practice that allowed the poor to get some food during these times of plenty. Jewish law says, "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien" (Leviticus 23:22). Ruth qualifies on both counts.
According to the narrator, the story takes place "in the days when the judges ruled" (1:1). That means we're looking at sometime between 1200 BCE to 1020 BCE (source, p. 225). Yup, that's over three thousand years in the past. Hop in those time machines, y'all.
You can kind of tell from the narrative how life was for people back then:
In other words, things were… different. That's for sure. But, still Ruth and her friends somehow manage to navigate their way through to a happy ending.
Ruth's story also hinges on the idea that the folks around this time were practicing some form of Levirate marriage. It's kind of a weird concept. The Bible gives some instructions:
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband's brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6)
This isn't exactly what's happening in Ruth though. Boaz isn't Ruth's brother-in-law, but he is a male relative, so that seems to be good enough. Boaz is called a "goel," which means a "redeemer" (source, p. 240). Basically the idea is that, if a man died, his next-of-kin would finish his business for him. This also includes his baby-making business apparently.
In a way, these inner-family marriages could be a good thing for women. A lady who finds herself husbandless isn't forced to fend for herself in a world where fending was pretty tough for females. She's guaranteed support from her husband's family. Score.
But on the other hand, it's also part of a pretty terrible, oppressive, and controlling patriarchal system. The widow doesn't so much have the right to marry and procreate as the obligation. Deuteronomy makes it clear that a man can refuse to marry his brother's widow (though he gets publicly shamed for it according to Deuteronomy 25:7-9), but the woman doesn't really have any outs.
Ruth is sometimes called a love story, but marrying your dead husband's brother isn't usually what most modern people think of as love. Still, it's super important to understand that for Ruth marriage meant security and survival and didn't really have much to do with hearts, flowers, and candies on Valentine's Day. Romance wasn't ever in the cards because it hadn't come to life yet.