The Book of Ruth Tells a Story of Covenant, Land, and Peoplehood Fundamental to the Bible’s Message

August 2, 2018 | Adele Berlin
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Stylistically, the book of Ruth is unlike any other book in Scripture; even the talmudic rabbis were moved to ask why it should be considered part of the canon. Adele Berlin argues that its major themes are in fact deeply tied to those underlying the Tanakh as a whole: God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, His promise to give them the land of Israel, the development of Abraham’s family into the Jewish people, their settlement in and possession of the land, and their exile and return. She writes:

The book of Ruth, too, is about exile and return, land and people. Like Abraham, and like the family of Jacob, the family of Elimelekh was forced by famine to leave its home in the land of Israel and to preserve itself in a foreign land. When the famine abates, Naomi, [the wife of the now-deceased Elimelekh], returns to Bethlehem. Far from being a casual move, the importance of returning is emphasized in the first chapter by the repetition of the root shuv, “return,” twelve times as Naomi bids her daughters-in-law [Ruth and Orpah] return to their families in Moab and as she returns to Judah with Ruth. . . .

Land [likewise] plays a large role in the book of Ruth. First, Ruth establishes a physical connection with her newly adopted land as she gleans in Boaz’s field. Second, and more complicated, Naomi offers for sale or redemption a parcel of land that once belonged to her husband, Elimelekh. . . .

However, the family and people part of the covenant theme is more prominent than the land part in the book of Ruth. At first it would seem that the ties that bind Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah [the widow of Naomi’s other son] after the deaths of their husbands do not make them a family in any customary sense. [Yet] Ruth’s poetic words [to Naomi], “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge,” are rightly famous, both for their beauty of expression and for their sentiment.

“Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” is a radical thought because it signals that Ruth is changing her identity in a world where that was almost inconceivable. The ancient world had no mechanism for religious conversion or change of citizenship; the very notion was unthinkable. . . . But from Ruth’s point of view, she is becoming an Israelite. She is joining herself to Naomi not only on the private family level, but also on the national peoplehood level.

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