The Book of Ruth is hardly a book, just four chapters, totaling a bit over 2,600 words. Nonetheless, the story is, writes Illana Pardes, “the most elaborate tale of a woman to be found in the Bible.”

In Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale, Pardes has written the biography of the biblical book and its rich and varied afterlives for Yale University’s Jewish Lives series.  Down the centuries, the character of Ruth has been adapted and depicted in many ways to fit contemporary concerns — as an ideal convert, as a feminine aspect of the Godhead, as a stranger, as a lesbian lover, as a Zionist pioneer, as an outcast. Pardes devotes much of her text to those afterlives, those adaptations.

The first quarter of the book, however, focuses on the biblical Ruth — the Moabite widow who accompanies Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law, from Moab to the older woman’s original home, Bethlehem, and, in doing so, turns her back on her homeland and embraces the difficult life of a poor foreigner in a strange land among the Hebrews.

The tale is set in the era of the judges (the eleventh to the thirteenth century BCE) although most scholars believe it was composed much later, in the fifth century BCE, as an argument in a dispute at the time over foreign wives.

When Ruth and Naomi settle in Bethlehem, Ruth, like other poor people, goes out in the newly harvested fields for gleaning, i.e., the picking up of wheat and other crops that were missed by the harvesters.  Gleaning was a poor person’s right under Hebrew law.

During the gleaning, she catches the eye of the owner of the fields, Boaz, and, after a seductive midnight meeting between the two, Boaz asks to marry her.  From their marriage results the birth of a boy, Obed, the grandfather of the future king David.

So, Ruth, a poor foreign woman, keeps the line of Boaz alive, thus enabling the David, eventually, to come into the world.


“Stunning portrayal of good people”

Pardes notes that the era of the judges was an age of lawlessness and strife during which ad hoc chieftains would attempt to rescue the Hebrew tribes from their enemies. But, even after the most successful battles, chaos was quick to return.

With its unique ambiance, the book of Ruth offers an alternative possibility, or, perhaps, a glimpse of a different chapter within this period.  We enter Bethlehem in the days of harvest, with no shadow of an enemy on the horizon.  People greet one another with respect in the fields, and legal matters are settled peacefully at the town’s gate.

Unlike most Biblical books — indeed, unlike most world literature — there are no villains the story of Ruth.

In fact, one of the tale’s stunning literary feats is its convincing portrayal of good people.  It is a rare world in which hesed [kindness] emerges as a cherished principle of human relations. Ruth is the primary agent of hesed.


“Wherever you go”

As a tale of goodness, the book of Ruth is, Pardes writes, something of a precursor of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of Middlemarch, “whose unconditional devotion to her husband, Casaubon, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.”  Pardes goes on:

Good characters are not flawless nor are their lives necessarily less miserable or devoid of tensions, but they have a unique light, an unimaginable generosity, that compels all who surround them, even those who try to deny their fascination.

The turning point in the biblical book comes as Naomi is heading back to Bethlehem, accompanied by her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah.  All three women are widows, but the two younger ones are young enough to have a chance of finding husbands if they return to their family homes.  “May the Lord grant that you find a settled place, each of you in the house of her husband.”

The two women cry and weep, not wanting to abandon Naomi.  But Orpah recognizes the truth of what her mother-in-law says and, with a kiss, departs back home.  Naomi tells her other daughter-in-law to do the same, but Ruth replies:

“Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you.  For wherever you go, I will go.  And wherever you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people is my people, and your God is my God.  Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.  So may the Lord do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.” 


“Taking an unfamiliar path”

It is only out of kindness, only out of love, that Ruth says these words.  This is an oath of deep commitment, of willingness to live the life of a foreigner in an alien land and to embrace the faith and the God of the people of that land in order to stay with and support Naomi.

When she refuses to leave Naomi, Ruth has no way of knowing that, in Bethlehem, she will meet Boaz. As a relative of Naomi, Boaz is capable of becoming Ruth’s “redeeming kin,” i.e., someone who finds a new spouse for a Hebrew widow or takes that role himself.  And that’s what happens as the story unfolds.

Pardes groups the book of Ruth with other oddities in the Hebrew Bible — Ecclesiastes, Job and the Song of Songs.

What seems to have contributed to the tipping of the scales in favor of these anomalous texts [entering the canon] is the exquisite literary power with which they present views that run against the grain….

We can imagine that Ruth’s tale of migration was in no small part canonized because no one could resist this literary gem — there was something utterly compelling about its call that we recognize what we might gain by taking an unfamiliar path, by seeing the world from the perspective of a migrant Moabite woman.


Kindness and love

There is much transgressive in the story of Ruth — a foreigner who is the founding mother of the Davidic dynasty, a woman in the biblical world of men, a woman who finds status and stability through an erotically charged encounter with Boaz on the threshing floor at midnight.

She is, culturally, an unruly figure, and, down the centuries, rabbis, artists and writers have sought, at times, to shape her into someone more manageable while, at other times, they have embraced her otherness, even to the extent of heresy.

The core of her attractiveness, it seems to me, is the kindness she extends to Naomi and, later, to Boaz — kindness and love.


The oath on the road

Indeed, as Pardes notes in Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale:

In many weddings of lesbian couples, of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, Ruth’s oath on the road is cited as an ancient vow of women’s love.

And, in such a setting, the oath is certainly evocative:

“Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you.  For wherever you go, I will go.  And wherever you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people is my people, and your God is my God.  Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.  So may the Lord do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.” 

And, yet, love is love.

This oath could just as easily be used in the wedding of a heterosexual couple.  And that’s a measure of the richness of the story of Ruth, a tale of touching goodness that deeply resonates with the human experience.


Patrick T. Reardon




Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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