The Book of Ruth

It’s a pity that last Sunday was All Saints’ because we missed the chance to hear the first reading in the lectionary cycle from the Bok of Ruth. This week’s proper (27) provides a brief synopsis of the denouement, of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz and of their son Obed, who would become King David’s grandfather.

Ruth is a wonderful piece of literature, a short story, or novella, full of drama and written with great skill. Scholars debate when it was written. There are those who argue for the monarchic period because it provides David with a genealogy and because it bears considerable similarity to the Book of Judges, which is when the story takes place. Other scholars argue for a post-exilic origin. Their rationale is that it seems to challenge the post-exilic opposition to intermarriage. And it does spectacularly by giving David a foreign great-grandmother.

It seems to me the provenance is unimportant. What is important is what it tells us about the author’s values. Yes, marriage between Jews (Israelites) and non-Jews is acceptable, but more important still is the treatment of those foreigners, and of widows, the marginalized. Naomi and Ruth are left homeless, without a safety net, but Jewish law provides them with one–the opportunity to glean what hasn’t been harvested from the fields, and the obligation of male relatives to take care of widows.

There is a strong patriarchal bent to the story. Levirate marriage (the requirement that a brother must marry his brother’s childless widow, in order that the family name might be preserved) is predicated on the priority of males, and the notion that a wife is in some sense property. But perhaps in the ancient near east, the alternative was even worse. A widow, who was brought into her husband’s family, could be turned out of that family if she had no sons, and might not be welcomed back by her parents and siblings.

Levirate marriage is alluded to in the gospels as well, in fact in Mark 12:18-27, the Sadducees pose a question of Jesus that presupposes Levirate marriage although it in fact is challenging Jesus about the resurrection of the dead.

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