The Book of Ruth? It’s Naomi’s Story
Who is the main character in the book of Ruth? The seemingly obvious answer given by most commentators is Ruth. For example, biblical scholar Tod Linafelt (Georgetown University) notes:
[E]ven though Ruth has no official power or authority in the book, she is the one who unofficially makes things happen. If the “hero” of any story is the person who acts decisively to resolve the central tension of the plot, then Ruth is our hero…. Ruth, through some very bold and even risky action, is (ultimately) able to provide the heir that both she and Naomi need in order to survive.
Linafelt has a good point: the book is named for Ruth, and the plot traces her journey through marriage, widowhood, and remarriage. As the mother of Obed, the ancestor of the future king David, Ruth also has a vital place in biblical history. And let us not forget her stirring statement of devotion, in which she pledges to adopt her mother-in-law’s people and God, until the day she dies (1:16–17).
Yet one might suggest that the main character of a literary work is not the one who “unofficially makes things happen” but the one around whom the plot revolves—the one who drives the action, and the one whose goals and emotions are the focal points of the narration. If so, then Naomi, and not Ruth, is the main character of this story.
Famine and Emptiness
As the book opens, the land of Judah is barren from famine, prompting Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, to move to Moab with his wife and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion (1:1–2). While their homeland may be suffering, the family’s life is full; with the marriage of Mahlon and Chilion, the family increases by two daughters-in-law and, one may infer, the hope of grandchildren to come (1:4a).
This hope is dashed, however by the deaths of all of the menfolk וַתִּשָּׁאֵר הָאִשָּׁה מִשְּׁנֵי יְלָדֶיהָ וּמֵאִישָׁהּ, “so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband” (v. 5). The focus here is on Naomi, who is now bereft of family, left barren like the land of Judah. To be sure, she still has Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law, who, presumably, are also in mourning, but the narrator does not draw attention to their grief.
Two Plot Tracks: Agricultural and Familial
The story moves forward on two tracks: an agricultural track, in which the movement is from famine to plenitude, and a familial track, which follows Naomi’s life situation, and her emotional state, from wife and mother, to childless widow, to (adoptive) mother and grandmother. These two tracks are at times parallel, at times intersecting, but they are not quite in sync. The agricultural track is always a step ahead of the personal track, foreshadowing the developments on the personal track. Both YHWH and Ruth have their roles to play in moving the plot along, but all is for the sake of Naomi.
The Famine Ends, but Naomi’s Losses Continue
An inflection point for both the land and Naomi occurs when the famine ends:
רות א:ו וַתָּקָם הִיא וְכַלֹּתֶיהָ וַתָּשָׁב מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב כִּי שָׁמְעָה בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב כִּי פָקַד יְ־הוָה אֶת עַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם לָחֶם.
Ruth 1:6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that YHWH had considered his people and given them food.
As the land returns to fertility, Naomi’s personal life initially takes a turn for the worse, this time through her own doing. She sets out for Judah with her daughters-in-law, but she apparently changes her mind and bids them to return to their mother’s homes (1:8–9), with thanks and blessings for the kindness they have shown her. The younger women protest but Naomi insists. They need to get on with their lives and find new husbands, which she herself cannot provide for them:
רות א:יא וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לָמָּה תֵלַכְנָה עִמִּי הַעוֹד לִי בָנִים בְּמֵעַי וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים.
Ruth 1:11 “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?
Naomi’s grounds for severing the family ties with her loving daughters-in-law are specious. She projects onto these young women an expectation of marriage to (new) offspring:
רות א:יב שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לֵכְןָ כִּי זָקַנְתִּי מִהְיוֹת לְאִישׁ כִּי אָמַרְתִּי יֶשׁ לִי תִקְוָה גַּם הָיִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה לְאִישׁ וְגַם יָלַדְתִּי בָנִים. א:יג הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ....
Ruth 1:12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 1:13a would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying?”
Yet surely their desire to accompany her to Bethlehem did not stem from such a blatantly unrealistic expectation. Her rejection of her daughters-in-law seems rather histrionic, but is perhaps excusable given Naomi’s own misery, which, in her view, is far worse than Orpah’s or Ruth’s:
רות א:יג ...אַל בְּנֹתַי כִּי מַר לִי מְאֹד מִכֶּם כִּי יָצְאָה בִי יַד יְ־הוָה׃
Ruth 1:13b “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of YHWH has turned against me.”
Just as she is about to hit rock bottom, however, Naomi’s fortunes begin to turn, though she does not yet realize it.
Inching towards Restoration
Orpah complies tearfully with Naomi’s demand, returning to her mother, her people, and her gods. Ruth, however, refuses, with her own theatrical speech, adopting Naomi as her mother and claiming Naomi’s people and God as her own (1:16–17). Naomi silently acquiesces to Ruth’s declaration:
רות א:יח וַתֵּרֶא כִּי מִתְאַמֶּצֶת הִיא לָלֶכֶת אִתָּהּ וַתֶּחְדַּל לְדַבֵּר אֵלֶיהָ.
Ruth 1:18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Indeed, as far as we are told, Naomi completely ignores Ruth along the way. When greeted by the surprised townspeople of Bethlehem, Naomi pours out her heart as bitterly as before:
רות א:כ וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן אַל תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד. א:כא אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְ־הוָה לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי וַי־הוָה עָנָה בִי וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי.
Ruth 1:20 “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 1:21 I went away full, but YHWH has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when YHWH has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
If Naomi is oblivious to Ruth, the narrator reminds the readers and listeners that, despite her claims of emptiness, Naomi is not alone:
רות א:כב וַתָּשָׁב נָעֳמִי וְרוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה כַלָּתָהּ עִמָּהּ הַשָּׁבָה מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב.
Ruth 1:22a Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.
Whether Ruth felt diminished or hurt by Naomi’s words we are not told.
Moving to Fruition: Naomi Accepts Ruth as a Daughter
From this point onward, Naomi’s fortunes improve steadily. This development is foreshadowed by the arrival of the harvest:
רות א:כב וְהֵמָּה בָּאוּ בֵּית לֶחֶם בִּתְחִלַּת קְצִיר שְׂעֹרִים.
Ruth 1:22b They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Ruth offers to go out to the fields in search of food, and Naomi grants her permission:
רות ב:ב וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָה נָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי.
Ruth 2:2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”
Naomi calls Ruth בִתִּי (bitti), “my daughter,” suggesting that she accepts Ruth’s redefinition of their relationship, from mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to mother and daughter.
Ruth gleans, and finds favor with Boaz, a development that greatly pleases Naomi:
רות ב:כ וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לְכַלָּתָהּ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַי־הוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַמֵּתִים וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי קָרוֹב לָנוּ הָאִישׁ מִגֹּאֲלֵנוּ הוּא.
Ruth 2:20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by YHWH, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.”
Naomi’s use of the first-person plural—לָנוּ (lanu), “of ours”—again acknowledges Ruth as daughter.
Naomi Takes Charge
Naomi, for her part, is transformed from a bitter widow to a take-charge mama. Ruth’s return from gleaning in Boaz’s fields with ample grain plants the seed for a plan that will secure the lives of both women. Naomi begins by enlisting Ruth:
רות ג:א וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי חֲמוֹתָהּ בִּתִּי הֲלֹא אֲבַקֶּשׁ לָךְ מָנוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לָךְ.
Ruth 3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.”
The women collude to manipulate Boaz for their own benefit. Naomi instructs Ruth to bath, perfume, and dress herself up (v. 3), and to sneak down to the threshing floor to lie down beside Boaz, and Ruth agrees:
רות ג:ד וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב שָׁם וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וְשָׁכָבְתְּי וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעַשִׂין. ג:ה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרִי אֶעֱשֶׂה.
Ruth 3:4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” 3:5 She said to her, “All that you say I will do.”
Implicit in the plan are Naomi’s clear-eyed recognition that Ruth is sexually experienced and Ruth’s own apparent lack of qualms about behaving in this way. Of course, Naomi has not actually told Ruth to engage in sex with Boaz, but she is certainly not ruling it out as a natural outcome of what Boaz might tell Ruth to do.
Perhaps Boaz understands that he is being manipulated, and if so, he is a willing, even eager, participant. Upon discovering Ruth at his feet (or “feet”), he immediately buys into the plan.
רות ג:י וַיֹּאמֶר בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ לַי־הוָה בִּתִּי הֵיטַבְתְּ חַסְדֵּךְ הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן הָרִאשׁוֹן לְבִלְתִּי לֶכֶת אַחֲרֵי הַבַּחוּרִים אִם דַּל וְאִם עָשִׁיר.
Ruth 3:10 He said, “May you be blessed by YHWH, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”
His amazed and delighted response to Ruth implies a degree of generational confusion. In calling her daughter, he is signaling their age difference, and also, indirectly, placing himself on a par with Naomi, who also calls Ruth her daughter.
But what exactly is he thanking Ruth for? Quite obviously, he is grateful that Ruth is pursuing him (for thus he understands her nighttime visit), when she could well have pursued younger men of her own generation. He is thrilled and flattered, in addition, of course, to being grateful. The sexual undertone is unmistakable. He then promises that he will do for her all that she asks:
רות ג:יא וְעַתָּה בִּתִּי אַל תִּירְאִי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרִי אֶעֱשֶׂה לָּךְ כִּי יוֹדֵעַ כָּל שַׁעַר עַמִּי כִּי אֵשֶׁת חַיִל אָתְּ.
Ruth 3:11 And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.
Boaz’s promise offers a counterpoint to Naomi’s earlier instruction for Ruth to do all that Boaz asks: He will do whatever Ruth asks. Boaz’s reassurance about Ruth’s reputation also tackles the question of sexual impropriety that might be considered the collateral damage to this otherwise fine plan. Conceivably one or more of the people among whom Boaz was sleeping by the threshing floor could have seen or heard Ruth approaching him.
Boaz’s Role in Naomi’s Restoration
Boaz appears to be as talented a schemer as his in-law relative Naomi; indeed, one suspects, the delightful idea of marrying Ruth has already crossed his mind prior to her coming to the threshing floor; he has already inquired about whether she has a nearer kinsman, which would present a potential barrier to such a union (v. 12). Boaz effectively promises to marry Ruth if the kinsman does not. He asks Ruth to stay with him until early morning, though she must depart early to keep her daring nocturnal visit a secret (v. 13).
Before she leaves, Boaz fills her cloak with a large amount of barley to take back to Naomi (3:15). This act would seem to give away her trip to the threshing floor: Where else would a woman have acquired such a large amount of grain?
Given the suggestive elements of this entire scene—the setting, the timing, the preparations, the instructions, and the euphemistic connotations of “feet” and the very act of lying together in the dark—one might entertain the possibility that Boaz has not only filled Ruth’s cloak with grain, but also filled her womb with human, male, seed as well. Nevertheless, the fruit of Ruth and Boaz’s relationship will emerge only in the last chapter:
רות ד:יג וַיִּקַּח בֹּעַז אֶת רוּת וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וַיִּתֵּן יְ־הוָה לָהּ הֵרָיוֹן וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן.
Ruth 4:13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. When they came together, YHWH made her conceive, and she bore a son.
Naomi Returns to Fullness
Just as it was the women to whom Naomi had proclaimed her bitterness and emptiness when she first returned to Bethlehem, so it is now the women who draw Naomi’s attention to her fulfilment:
רות ד:יד וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הַנָּשִׁים אֶל נָעֳמִי בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁבִּית לָךְ גֹּאֵל הַיּוֹם וְיִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. ד:טו וְהָיָה לָךְ לְמֵשִׁיב נֶפֶשׁ וּלְכַלְכֵּל אֶת שֵׂיבָתֵךְ כִּי כַלָּתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר אֲהֵבַתֶךְ יְלָדַתּוּ אֲשֶׁר הִיא טוֹבָה לָךְ מִשִּׁבְעָה בָּנִים.
Ruth 4:14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be YHWH, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 4:15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
Naomi then takes care of the child:
רות ד:טז וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת. ד:יז וַתִּקְרֶאנָה לוֹ הַשְּׁכֵנוֹת שֵׁם לֵאמֹר יֻלַּד בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי וַתִּקְרֶאנָה שְׁמוֹ עוֹבֵד הוּא אֲבִי יִשַׁי אֲבִי דָוִד.
Ruth 4:16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom and became his nurse. 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.
The plot has now come full circle. The fact that baby Obed is not biologically related to Naomi does not come into the picture at all. Having been born of Ruth, who adopted Naomi as her mother, Obed is as much Naomi’s as any child of Mahlon or Chilion would have been.
While the story is told from Naomi’s point of view, detailing how she went from despair to elation, emptiness to joy, it might just as easily have been told from the point of view of Ruth. Such a story would have begun with her marriage to one of Naomi’s sons (we are not told which one), her adoption of Naomi as her mother, her gleaning in Boaz’s fields, the threshing floor scene, marriage, and birth of her son. In theory, it could even have been told from the point of view of Boaz. It would have begun with the appearance of a lovely Moabite woman in his fields—the daughter-in-law, or perhaps now daughter, of his kinswoman Naomi—climaxed (so to speak) on the threshing floor, and ended happily in marriage and the birth of a son and heir. And yet, the author chooses Naomi as his focus, making her life, its challenges and triumphs, the narrative arc of the book.
Why, then, is the book named after Ruth if Naomi is in fact its focus? The name could highlight the genealogical connection between Ruth and her descendant David. Alternately, it could emphasize the charm of a younger woman who willingly joins her mother-in-law’s people and their God. Or perhaps whoever it was that named this book did not adhere to the convention of naming a book after its main character.
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Prof. Adele Reinhartz is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa, where she teaches in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. from McMaster University. Among Reinhartz’s nine books are Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John and Bible and Cinema: An Introduction (2nd edition 2022). She served as the General Editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature from 2012-18 and as President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2020.
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