Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Last week’s commentary on Ruth 1:1–18 outlined the centrality of Naomi in the book of Ruth. The present entry will give attention to the theological implications of reading the narrative from Naomi’s perspective.
The book of Ruth was most likely composed during the early postexilic period (for example, 6th–4th centuries CE), during a time when particular theological understandings were predominant. Both implicit and explicit references abound in the book to theological assertions made in others books of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Deuteronomy. Indeed, a Deuteronomic theology underpins the entire narrative—notably the belief that obedience to God leads to blessings, while disobedience results in curse. Moreover, the faith-filled belief that God hears and cares for the people of Israel—the assurance of divine providence—undergirds the story.
These theological perspectives are evident in Boaz’s speech and actions. Throughout the narrative, Boaz invokes God repeatedly in conventional blessings and greetings, substantiating the claim that he represents a theological and societal constant for the reader.
But these theological assertions are challenged by Naomi. There are several exegetical points to make here:
- Naomi speaks about God more than any other character in the narrative. She alternates between using the divine name, YHWH, and another moniker, “Almighty” (Hebrew Shaddai). The latter term’s use is ironic, being used in other Hebrew Bible stories of fertility and blessings. By using the term, Naomi challenges the work and even identity of God as the one who brings blessings and life.
- Notions of “sin” or “guilt” do not factor into the narrative. While the country of Moab is often presented negatively in the biblical narrative (for example, Deuteronomy 23:3–6; Isaiah 15–16), there is no indication that the decision to seek refuge in that place or that the marriage of Naomi’s two sons to Moabite women is somehow the cause of her grief (a form of punishment). The fact that the narrative leaves out any explanation for her grief and suffering intensifies the reader’s empathy for Naomi.
- The absence of explanation also amplifies her complaints, highlighting the disconnect she feels from God. In chapter 1, Naomi openly states that God’s will has come out against her (verse 13), that God has made her bitter (verse 20), that God has returned her empty to Bethlehem (verse 21), and that God has testified against her (verse 21). It is noteworthy that she makes her complaints about God rather than to God. Other biblical figures—Job and Jeremiah—are known to have made similar complaints, but they speak directly to the Deity. Naomi’s experience of abandonment is so great that she can’t even bear to look at God right now.
- Her speech to her daughters-in-law in 1:8–9 illustrates this. First, in verse 8, she makes a surprising—often glossed over—claim. She says, “May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me.”1 Reading between the lines, Naomi wishes that her daughters-in-law’s actions might serve as a model for God, whose actions thus far, in her experience, have contradicted her understanding. Complications continue in the Hebrew text of verse 9, in which the sentence cuts off and begins again quite abruptly—as if midway through Naomi changes her mind. We don’t see this disruption in the English. Jeremy Schipper renders the Hebrew in this way “May YHWH give to you … [Oh, forget it!] Find rest, each one in the household of your husband!”2 Her uncertainty with regard to God’s presence and working in her life is clear here.
- The uncertainty of Naomi’s blessing in 1:8–9 finds an unexpected answer in 3:1–5. It is Naomi herself that will seek Ruth’s “rest” or “security” (Hebrew manoakh): “My daughter, shouldn’t I seek security [Hebrew manoakh] for you, so that things might go well for you?” (3:1).
- As noted in last week’s commentary, Naomi’s silence at the end of the narrative (4:16–17) highlights the continuation of her grief. It also suggests that her perspective on God remains unchanged even in the midst of new blessings.
- Throughout the book of Ruth, Naomi repeatedly presents us with a theological perspective that is rooted in questions, challenges, and even doubts. She struggles to comprehend the world that she is experiencing—the pain, struggle, grief—because it contradicts her preconceived Deuteronomic theologies.
It is important to acknowledge that Naomi’s theological perspectives are not condemned in the book. Whereas they are countered by Boaz’s, they are not subsumed by them. Both are upheld as valid. In the end, Naomi still receives the blessings of children and redemption (see last week’s commentary for the pastoral implications of this). The book of Ruth from Naomi’s point of view offers a theological perspective that embraces questions and leaves space for anger and frustration.
The book of Ruth also presents human agency as a theological response. Given the uncertainty felt with regards to God’s presence and actions, both Ruth and Naomi partner with one another—and with Boaz—for security, redemption, and wellbeing. Both step up, acting for one another in ways that God does elsewhere in biblical literature. Ruth calls upon Boaz to be a comfort for her and Naomi in 3:9, using the language of God’s prevenient care (see also 2:12).3 Naomi seeks “security” (Hebrew manoakh) for Ruth on her own, abandoning her blessing in 1:9. In doing so, she shows the transformative power of human agency.
The theology of the book of Ruth celebrates the ways in which we can care for one another when the world seems to be crashing down around us, amidst even our doubts. Throughout the narrative, Ruth and Naomi both “cling” (1:14; Hebrew dabaq) to one another. Both women are “women of worth” (3:11; Hebrew eshet khayil) and the narrative honors both of their experiences.
- Unless otherwise noted, all English translations derive from the CEB translation.
- For a more detailed discussion of the complexities of Ruth 1:8–9, see Jeremy Schipper, “The Syntax and Rhetoric of Ruth 1:9a,” Vetus Testamentum 62 (2012): 642–645.
- Boaz praises Ruth for seeking favor and refuge under God’s “wings” (Heb. kanaf) in 2:12. In 3:9, Ruth will use the same term in reference to Boaz’s cloak, indicating that she seeks refuge from Boaz specifically rather than God
November 7, 2021