Here’s a look at some interpretive questions from the book of Ruth with some help from the ESV Expository Commentary. This is a soon-to-be twelve-volume commentary series that provides introductions, outlines, comments, and responses on every book in the Bible. Keep reading for a taste of what this succinct and accessible commentary series has to offer.

1. Does Elimelech’s decision in famine to leave Bethlehem with his family and relocate to Moab express unfaithfulness on his part, godly wisdom, or morally neutral pragmatism (1:1–2)?

In the first clause of 1:1 the narrator identifies the drama’s broad temporal context: “in the days when the judges ruled.” This period of Israel’s history occurs between Joshua’s death and Saul’s coronation and is chronicled mostly in the book of Judges. Judges evocatively summarizes this era’s spiritual and moral atmosphere: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Spiritual and moral anarchy seemed to prevail.

The second clause of Ruth 1:1 reports the specific occasion precipitating the events reported in the setting: a famine. Famine in the Promised Land does not bode well. It not only creates an obvious crisis but also is possibly connected to divine judgment. Through Moses the Lord promised to reward Israel’s covenant faithfulness with blessing (including the land’s fruitfulness; Deut. 28:1–4) and to judge covenant unfaithfulness with curse (including famine; Deut. 28:15–68; cf. Gen. 3:17–19). While the narrator does not explain the origin of this particular famine, a famine in Judah at this point in redemptive history may imply some kind of unfaithfulness among the people, though not necessarily among Elimelech’s family in particular.

The focus then narrows to a “man of Bethlehem in Judah” who leaves famine-struck Bethlehem with his wife and two sons to “sojourn in the country of Moab,” east of the Dead Sea. The narrator offers no explicit evaluation of Elimelech’s decision to leave Bethlehem, so readers must draw their own conclusions. The fact that the famine ironically strikes “Bethlehem” (“house of bread”) intensifies the tone of tragic deviation from idealized covenant life in the land. Moreover, an Israelite’s choosing to leave Canaan to sojourn in Moab likewise casts a foreboding shadow.

2. Does the narrator characterize Naomi in scene 3 as a manipulative, reckless schemer or as a shrewd woman taking godly initiative (3:1–4)?

A number of weeks likely separate Ruth and Boaz’s initial encounter (Ruth 2) and their threshing-floor encounter (Ruth 3). Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem “at the beginning of barley harvest” (1:22), and Ruth keeps gleaning in Boaz’s field “until the end of the barley and wheat harvests” (2:23). The two harvests together probably involve about two months from beginning to end. Scene 3 transpires when the harvested barley brought to the threshing floor is winnowed. Winnowing barley involves tossing it into the evening breeze with a winnowing fork to separate the stalk from the chaff and straw, which the wind blows away (3:2; cf. Isa. 41:15–16).

Whereas Ruth’s plan initiates action in scene 2 (Ruth 2:2), Naomi’s plan initiates this scene’s events, though Ruth will play the lead role in executing that plan. Naomi first asks a rhetorical question articulating her intent to “seek rest” and good for her “daughter.” Naomi aims to help bring about the very blessing she prayed for on behalf of her daughters-in-law (cf. 1:8–9). Naomi’s second rhetorical question specifies the means by which she envisions the procuring of Ruth’s security: through Boaz, “our relative” (not “my relative”; cf. 2:20), who has enabled Ruth to glean alongside his female workers. That Boaz is a relative means he might exercise the redemption right and buy Naomi’s land (cf. 2:18–22). For reasons not explained, exercising this right also entails marrying Ruth.

Naomi’s Plan

Naomi then clarifies her plan, which involves a number of risks for Ruth. Having made herself attractive to signal her marital availability, Ruth must brave the darkness by going stealthily down to the threshing floor and remain hidden until the opportune time. Once Boaz enjoys a good harvest-time meal and falls asleep guarding the grain, Ruth must approach him quietly, lift the blanket at his feet to expose them to the evening breeze, lie down at the place of his feet, and wait for the cold air to awaken him. When Boaz awakens, Ruth should follow his instructions, which Naomi expects him to give.

Several priorities converge in Naomi’s strategy. In line with her maternal role (cf. 1:8), she seeks marital security and stability for Ruth. She therefore designs a private encounter between Ruth and Boaz, hoping it will prompt Boaz to marry Ruth. Even though Naomi’s plan is fraught with risk, however, it avoids moral and public disgrace. She devises, for example, for Ruth to engage Boaz in intimate, candid dialogue about marriage but without improperly touching him (only his blanket) or initiating open, public discourse with him. Because Naomi is confident in Boaz’s righteous character (cf. 2:1), her plan, though decidedly risky, is neither reckless nor risqué.


Not all agree about how to interpret the characterization of Naomi in 3:1–4. Does Naomi’s plan negatively illustrate maternal manipulation and ungodly pragmatism (cf. Gen. 16:1–6)? Or does Naomi’s plan positively illustrate godly shrewdness, that is, her bold initiative showing the compatibility of faithful human initiative/agency and divine providence? The latter view seems better in the whole-book context. Naomi’s plotting expresses a growing hopefulness in her outlook. Ruth complies with Naomi’s instructions. While Ruth undoubtedly desires “rest” for herself, she could pursue a different man, which Boaz plainly acknowledges (v. 10). Ruth’s love for and desire to provide for her bereft mother-in-law motivates her pursuit of Boaz (cf. 3:10–13). By willingly risking her own reputation and safety to propose to him, this young Moabitess continues epitomizing self-sacrificial, covenant loyalty. In meekness, she counts Naomi’s interests as more significant than her own.

3. To what extent ought one interpret Ruth’s actions at the threshing floor as sexually provocative (3:6–9)?

Having verbally complied with her mother-in-law’s commands, Ruth now diligently follows them. She goes down to the threshing floor and waits, shrouded in secrecy. Just as Naomi envisaged, Boaz lies down with a contented heart after enjoying his harvest. Ruth then comes softly to Boaz, pulls the blanket back to expose his feet to the evening breeze, and lies down (cf. 3:1–5). The stage is now set for a dramatic turning point. Under the cover of darkness, Ruth awaits Boaz’s awakening.

Darkness, hiddenness, and seclusion obscure recognition and heighten dramatic suspense. At midnight, evening’s darkest point, Boaz awakens disconcerted, presumably wincing at the cold breeze blowing over his feet. When he repositions himself, likely to adjust his blanket for warmth, he is further disconcerted by discovering “a woman” lying at his feet. He calls the woman to disclose her identity.

Ruth takes full advantage of this critical moment of disclosure. More than merely presenting herself as eligible for marriage, she intimates that he ought to marry her. She states her name (“I am Ruth”), rank (“your servant”), request (“spread your wings [or “corners/edges,” i.e., of his garment] over your servant”), and rationale (“for you are a redeemer”). Ruth is summoning Boaz to provide protection and security through marriage. By alluding to Boaz’s prior blessing (cf. 2:12), Ruth petitions Boaz to become the Lord’s human instrument of fulfilling that previous blessing. That is, having taken refuge under the Lord’s “wings,” Ruth now entreats Boaz to spread his “wings” over her in marriage as the Lord’s agent. Undoubtedly influenced by Naomi (cf. 2:20; 3:2), Ruth appeals to the kinship principles underlying the institutions of redemption (cf. Lev. 25:24–55) and levirate marriage (cf. Deut. 25:5–10; 4:3–8).

4. Does Ruth’s marriage proposal to Boaz indicate that the institutions of redemption and levirate marriage are somehow interrelated during this era of Israel’s history (3:9)?

Boaz recognizes Ruth’s speech as a marriage proposal and responds with affectionate blessing (“my daughter”; cf. 2:8–13). He discerns her righteous resolve to assist her mother-in-law and realizes that she is seeking marriage with him largely for her mother-in-law’s sake. In Boaz’s estimation, Ruth’s “last kindness” (i.e., seeking to marry a redeemer for Naomi’s sake) demonstrates even greater covenant loyalty to Naomi than “the first” kindness (i.e., clinging to Naomi; cf. 1:14b–18). The word for “kindness” (3:10) is that rich covenantal term often translated “steadfast love.” Consonant with Boaz’s strong character, Ruth’s selfless love only intensifies his admiration for her. It takes character to see character and admire it.

After blessing and commending Ruth, Boaz responds to her specific request (v. 11). He comforts Ruth and immediately alleviates tension by promising to honor her petition (cf. 2:13). Boaz casts his decision as a response to Ruth’s righteous character (cf. 2:11), about which all Bethlehem knows. Specifically, the whole town knows that Ruth is a “worthy woman.” And so, while the threshing-floor setup entails Ruth’s hiddenness and secrecy, once she steps into Boaz’s view he praises the broad recognition of her noble character. Significantly, in one major Hebrew canonical tradition, the book of Ruth immediately follows Proverbs, which concludes with an acrostic portraying an archetypal worthy woman (Prov. 31:10; cf. 12:4). Whereas the book of Proverbs envisions an idealized worthy woman, the book of Ruth narrates the history of an actual worthy woman. And who is this woman who embodies covenant righteousness? An impoverished Moabite widow!

Who Will Redeem Her?

Having assured Ruth that he will honor her request, Boaz reveals a complication that once again heightens suspense. In ancient Israel, a certain order among relatives dictated who might first exercise the redemption right. Complicating matters for Ruth and Naomi, a nearer kinsman to Elimelech has priority in claiming the redemption right regarding Elimelech’s estate (and thus in marrying Ruth as a redeemer; cf. 4:3–8). Therefore Boaz solemnly promises Ruth that she will be redeemed, but he cannot ensure that he will be the one to do it. Boaz aims to honor Israel’s laws and customs (cf. Matt. 5:17–19). In the meantime, Ruth must “remain tonight” at the threshing floor and “lie down until the morning” in the interest of safety and decorum, as darkness continues veiling her presence.

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