Book of Ruth: Recasting David’s Foreign Origins
Leading Up to David
It takes 79 verses for the author of the Book of Ruth to make the book’s main point concerning the origin of King David. This makes the book in some sense an 80 verse birth story:
רות ד:יז וַתִּקְרֶאנָה֩ ל֨וֹ הַשְּׁכֵנ֥וֹת שֵׁם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יֻלַּד בֵּ֖ן לְנָעֳמִ֑י וַתִּקְרֶ֤אנָֽה שְׁמוֹ֙ עוֹבֵ֔ד ה֥וּא אֲבִי יִשַׁ֖י אֲבִ֥י דָוִֽד: ד:יח וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ תּוֹלְד֣וֹת פָּ֔רֶץ פֶּ֖רֶץ הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת חֶצְרֽוֹן: ד:יט וְחֶצְרוֹן֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת רָ֔ם וְרָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת עַמִּֽינָדָֽב: ד:כ וְעַמִּֽינָדָב֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת נַחְשׁ֔וֹן וְנַחְשׁ֖וֹן הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת שַׂלְמָֽה: ד:כא וְשַׂלְמוֹן֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת בֹּ֔עַז וּבֹ֖עַז הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת עוֹבֵֽד: ד:כב וְעֹבֵד֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת יִשָׁ֔י וְיִשַׁ֖י הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת דָּוִֽד:
Ruth 4:17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. 4:18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 4:19 Hezron became the father of Ram, Ram became the father of Amminadab, 4:20 Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon became the father of Salma, 4:21 Salmon became the father of of Boaz, Boaz became the father of Obed, and Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David.
Elsewhere in the Tanach we find that the last person in a genealogy is the protagonist of the story (see, e.g., for Saul 1 Sam 9:1-2; for Mordechai and Esther, Esth 2:5-7). The same is true of the book of Ruth.
But this is not the only reference to David in the book—he is foreshadowed in the very opening verses of the Scroll:
רות א:א וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵי֙ שְׁפֹ֣ט הַשֹּׁפְטִ֔ים וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ אִ֜ישׁ מִבֵּ֧ית לֶ֣חֶם יְהוּדָ֗ה לָגוּר֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב ה֥וּא וְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנָֽיו: א:ב וְשֵׁ֣ם הָאִ֣ישׁ אֱֽלִימֶ֡לֶךְ… אֶפְרָתִ֔ים מִבֵּ֥ית לֶ֖חֶם יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ שְׂדֵי־מוֹאָ֖ב וַיִּֽהְיוּ־שָֽׁם:
Ruth 1:1 “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 1:2 The name of the man was… Elimelech… they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.
This description is strikingly similar to the presentation of David in his debut-story as a warrior, the fight with Goliath:
שמואל א יז:יב וְדָוִד֩ בֶּן־אִ֨ישׁ אֶפְרָתִ֜י הַזֶּ֗ה מִבֵּ֥ית לֶ֙חֶם֙ יְהוּדָ֔ה
1 Sam 17:12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah.
Given the striking verbal similarities, the reader cannot but recall David when he reads about Elimelech.
Why did the author of the Book of Ruth write this story, focusing on David’s Moabite great-grandmother Ruth? Before answering this question, it is worth pointing out that Ruth is not an alternative backstory of David’s ancestry; it is the only one.
The Missing Opening of the David Story
Moses is saved from the Nile, Samuel is born to a barren woman, but where is David’s birth story? Abraham is introduced with a genealogy, King Saul is introduces with a genealogy, but, other than naming his father (Jesse), David’s genealogy is missing from the Book of Samuel, a book with more than 40 chapters dedicated to David’s life. The Bible tells us the names of the mothers of all kings in the Davidic dynasty but one – David’s mother is not mentioned.
Admittedly, no hard and fast rule exists that biblical heroes need to come with birth stories (neither Joshua nor Abraham have one) or genealogies. Nevertheless, such lack of information on David, the King of Israel, the founder of the Messianic dynasty, really calls for an interpretation (אומר דורשני!).
One Alternative: Presenting David as a Self-Made Man
The Israeli biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch suggests a birth story was intentionally omitted to glorify David as a self made man. According to 1 Samuel 17, David comes to public attention after killing Goliath, and wins the hand of the princess by killing 100 Philistines. King Saul doesn’t even know who his father is. Alternatively, if we concentrate on 1 Samuel 16, another account that introduces David, that story emphasizes that youngest son of a relatively unknown family in Bethlehem, but that “God sees the [person’s] heart” (י-הוה יראה ללבב; v. 7).
David’s Moabite Origins
I would like to suggest another possibility: the Bible doesn’t tell the story of his birth, give his genealogy, or talk about his mother because of a controversial element in his lineage which it prefers to avoid discussing. Specifically, the tradition found in Ruth of David’s descent from a Moabite woman is simply one version of an ancient tradition connecting David’s family with Transjordanian non-Israelites, specifically with Moab. In fact, two passing comments in the books of Samuel and Kings may imply that this tradition was already known to the authors of these works.
David Hides His Family in Moab
When David runs away from Saul he flees to various places, including to the Philistine city of Gath to become a mercenary soldier on their behalf. But when he wants to keep his parents safe, he chooses to send them elsewhere (1 Sam 22:3-4):
שמואל א כב:ג וַיֵּ֧לֶךְ דָּוִ֛ד מִשָּׁ֖ם מִצְפֵּ֣ה מוֹאָ֑ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר׀ אֶל מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֗ב יֵֽצֵא נָ֞א אָבִ֤י וְאִמִּי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵדַ֔ע מַה יַּֽעֲשֶׂה לִּ֖י אֱלֹהִֽים: כב:ד וַיַּנְחֵ֕ם אֶת־פְּנֵ֖י מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֑ב וַיֵּשְׁב֣וּ עִמּ֔וֹ כָּל יְמֵ֥י הֱיוֹת דָּוִ֖ד בַּמְּצוּדָֽה:
1 Sam 22:3 David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. He said to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.” 22:4 He left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold.
Why would a simple shepherd from a Judahite family hold such intimate connections with the king of Moab? Although at this point in the story David has already amassed a small army of 400 men, this is still not enough to justify how he could form an “alliance” with the king of a foreign country, especially since David doesn’t seem to offer any quid pro quo, as he does for Achish King of Gath, for whom David agrees to use his army as a mercenary service (1 Sam 28:1-2).
That the king of Moab agrees to protect David’s family is even more puzzling when we consider that Moab is described as a major enemy of the tribes of Israel in preceding parts of the Tanach. The king of Moab’s behavior would make more sense, however, if we assume that this account was part of a David tradition, which assumed David’s family ties to the Moabites.
In their midrash on Ruth, the sages pick up on this problem and explain that David’s great-grandmother Ruth was the Daughter of Eglon king of Moab, who was himself, according to the Sages, the grandson of Balak. This midrash may be a fanciful attempt to connect Ruth with the only named Moabite kings from the Bible from before the time of Ruth, nevertheless, it seems likely to me that the rabbis have picked up on the real tension in this story, the inexplicable behavior of David and the King of Moab. It may even represent a memory of the old tradition that David was Moabite. In either case, if the account were based on a tradition of family ties between David and Moab, this would be something the author of the Book of Samuel would not want us to know.
Solomon – A Chemosh Worshipper?
A passing comment (in fact 3 comments) on King Solomon’s sins also point to a strange proximity between the royal families on the two sides of the Jordan Valley. Of all royal transgressors of the divine law, King Solomon is the only one who is charged with the worship of Chemosh, the main Moabite deity, and not with the worship of the chief Canaanite deity, Ba’al.
Most people knowledgeable of the Bible assume that it depicts Solomon as equally worshipping a wide variety of pagan deities. A close look at the verses suggests otherwise (1 Kings 11:7‑8):
מלכים א יא:ז אָז֩ יִבְנֶ֨ה שְׁלֹמֹ֜ה בָּמָ֗ה לִכְמוֹשׁ֙ שִׁקֻּ֣ץ מוֹאָ֔ב בָּהָ֕ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל פְּנֵ֣י יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וּלְמֹ֕לֶךְ שִׁקֻּ֖ץ בְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן: יא:ח וְכֵ֣ן עָשָׂ֔ה לְכָל נָשָׁ֖יו הַנָּכְרִיּ֑וֹת מַקְטִיר֥וֹת וּֽמְזַבְּח֖וֹת לֵאלֹהֵיהֶֽן:
Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. He did the same/thus for all his foreign wives, who offered incense and sacrificed to their gods.
Does “וכן עשה” mean that he built these high places and others for his wives to worship? Or does it mean that King Solomon built the high places for Chemosh and Molech for himself, and then went on to build other worship sites “in the same manner” for the deities that his wives worshiped? The Hebrew is ambiguous but the sequence of the verses may imply the former. Either way, the specific prominence of the two Transjordanian gods Chemosh and Molech (=Milkom) is very striking.
David’s Moabite Ancestry in Rabbinic Literature
Whether they are extrapolating based on the tradition in Ruth, or whether they have preserved ancient traditions, the rabbis assume that David’s Moabite ancestry caused him problems.
For example, when Abner brings David forward to meet the king after his defeat of Goliath, Saul asks him: “Whose son are you, young man?” (בֶּן־מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה הַנָּ֑עַר; 1 Sam 17:58) Ruth Rabbah (4:9) interprets this not purely as a request for (benign) information. Saul was wondering if David was from Peretz or Zerach (the twin sons of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar); if the former he could be a king, but Doeg the Edomite, a villain in the biblical and rabbinic perceptions, responded that David could not be a king, since he is a descendent of Ruth the Moabite and therefore, from a tainted family—pesul mishpaha.
Ruth Rabbah (8:1) also includes a midrash on Psalms 4:5 that David used to suffer mockery from other Judahites that called him pesul mishpaha—tainted with regard to family origins—also because of his descent from Ruth.
Ruth as a Corrective to the David and Solomon Foreigners Tradition
If I am correct that the claim of foreignness haunted the Davidic line, perhaps the book of Ruth is meant as a corrective, not by denying but by embracing this tradition. By telling a story about the great grandmother of David, we find a pious woman who has adopted Yahwistic practices, rather than a Chemosh worshiping princess. Ruth’s author has penned a favorable and corrective evaluation of the tradition that may very well be historically accurate, that David was actually of Moabite descent.
In short, Ruth tells the story of David’s ancestry without the doubts or negative evaluations of David’s (and Solomon’s) foreignness. It retells the story of the David by taking the same elements that caused this tradition to be excised in the Samuel and Kings, and presenting them in a positive light.
Reading Ruth on Shavuot Because of David’s Yahrzeit and Birthday
The custom of reading Ruth on Shavuot is first attested in Masechet Sofrim (18), an eighth century non-canonical halachic treatise. The peculiarity of this tradition is noted in a 13th century midrashic collection, Ruth Zuta:
ומה עניין רות אצל עצרת, שנקראת בעצרת?
What is the link between Ruth and Azeret that it is read on Azeret?
The author of this midrash is impelled to ask the question precisely because no Talmudic tradition makes this connection, nor is there a reference to Shavuot in any of the Aggadic Midrashim on the book of Ruth. R. Moses Isserles too, in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, describes it as a custom, rather than halacha.
Most interpreters looking to explain the connection focus on the lessons that can be learned from Ruth, the convert, about love of Torah, since Shavuot, in rabbinic parlance, is “the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah.” However, in his commentary on Shulchan Aruch (494:7) called Shaarei Teshuvah, Hayyim Mordecai Margolioth (mid 18th cent. – 1818) quotes his grandfather, R. Alexander Sender Schorr (1673-1737), who offers a very different reason:
שנוהגין לו[מר] רות בשבועות וא[דני] א[בי] ז[קני] בבכ[ור] ש[ור] דף קכ”א כתב הטעם שלפי שדוד המלך ע”ה מת בעצרת והקב”ה ממלא שנותיהם כו’ ובודאי בעצרת נולד ומגילת רות נכתב לייחס דוד ע[יין] ש[ם].
It is a custom to read Ruth in Shavuot and my grandfather, [in his] Bechor-Shor (a commentary on tractate Hullin), p. 121, wrote the reason: as King David, may he rest in peace, died on Atzeret, and since the Holy One blessed be He completes their years, etc., surly he was born on Atzeret, and the Scroll of Ruth was written in order to provide the genealogy David. See further there.
This is a late tradition, but it serves as an important reminder of the possible purpose of the Scroll – to offer a “corrected” birth story to the greatest King of Israel.
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Dr. Yael Avrahami is a Senior Lecturer for Biblical Studies and Biblical Hebrew at Oranim: Academic College of Education. She holds a Ph.D. in Biblical studies from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University. Yael is the author of The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Experience in the Hebrew Bible, for which she won the Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise. She is also a co-author of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition. Her studies focus on Socio-cultural interpretation, Semantics, and Inner biblical interpretation. She is mostly interested in the windows that ancient texts open for us into ancient cultures and minds. She is also amazed by the extent to which reading ancient texts can improve our understanding of contemporary cultures and minds.
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