Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


Ruth and Naomi

Ruth and Naomi By Phillip Ratner

Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death part me from you’ (Ruth 1:16-17).

God is a vivid but shadowy present in this theologically oriented love story. (1:6,17; 4:13) This is in great contrast to the other Book named after a woman, the Book of Esther. The Book of Ruth reverses Jewish  success in a foreign land – as in the case of Esther as well as Joseph and Daniel - Ruth is a foreigner who succeeds in the land of Israel. It has the theme of reversal where Ruth and more importantly her mother-in-law Naomi fate are reversed.

The first theme of the book is of ‘chesed’ meaning kindness. Naomi is the female equivalent to Job. But as opposed to Job and his adversarial ‘friends’ Ruth concentrates on the chesed done to a stranger and in fact a forbidden woman.  Does the law requiring the poor to glean apply to foreigners? Boaz accepts Ruth’s gleaning. Is a levirite marriage applicable to a foreigner? Tamar, an ancestor of Boaz felt so as  does Boaz.  Boaz acts as a ‘go’el’ a redeemer to preserve land, and to marry Ruth, but Ruth does not own the land. This book is the best example in the Bible of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. The fact that the book tells us that David, the ultimate King within Judaism is born of Canaanite woman and a Moabite woman is the proof text.

Naomi’s husband Elimelech leaves Bethlehem with his family including two sons and dies, apparently soon thereafter. The two sons marry Moabite women, Oprah and Ruth. After ten years of marriage with no children both sons die. Naomi explains to her daughters-in-law that they should leave her and return home for ‘the hand of the Lord is against me’ (1:13). She states she cannot get more children, even if she could why should they wait the many years until their maturity. Oprah after first refusing to leave accepts Naomi’s logic.  Ruth refuses to leave and returns with Naomi to Bethlehem. Naomi says call me Mara - for bitterness. ‘I went out full and the Lord brought me back empty . . . the Lord testified against me and done evil to me’ (1:21). She blames God for her problems.

Ruth tells Naomi - ‘I am going into the field to glean ears of grain after someone in whose eyes I find grace’ (2:2).    Does the ‘whose eyes I find grace’ mean only to glean or something more? Does she recognize that she needs a husband for herself and for Naomi? She ends up in the field of Boaz. He tells her not to glean elsewhere and he tells the  young men not to touch her. He then invites her to drink from his wells. Ruth bows to him and asks why he cares. He says he knows she left her family (like Abraham - Gen. 12:1) and God will return your coming to His people.  She thanks him for your finding grace in his eyes (2:2). At mealtime he invites her come eat with us - that is he and his men and the women servants. He again states his protection and then tells the men to  let her gleaning be easy. Ruth brings back grain to Naomi and Naomi states that Boaz may be their redeemer.

Naomi says Boaz is our relative (3:2), from her late husband’s family. Naomi develops a strategy to save the family name and the two women. She tells Ruth: ‘Wash and anoint yourself, put on your finest dress, and go down (va’yeradite) to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he lies down and go and take your clothes off at the place of his feet (the usual reading ‘uncover his feet’ is an unlikely reading) and lie down (va’shekhbte) - and he will tell you what to do.’ (3:3-4). The sexual overtones dictated by Naomi are obvious. Following Naomi Boaz awakens to find a woman in his bed.  He said who are you, she said I am Ruth your servant. She does not wait for him tell her what to do to, but says ‘spread your cloak over your servant for you are a redeemer’. Boaz calls her a ‘virtuous woman’, (3:11) a code word for a potential wife (Proverbs 31:10) responding positively.

When Ruth returns Naomi says ‘Who are you my daughter? She is asking what has happened. Who seduced who in this story? He is an older man who has not found a wife; Naomi is to old to bear children. Ruth needs a husband; Boaz needs a wife.

Given what Naomi instructed Ruth - to undress herself - (3:4); the possibility of sex is implied. And to await what ‘he will tell you what you must do’. Boaz calls her a virtuous .
woman and  tells her he will redeem her. His does not appear to be impatient for sex.
Sex occurs  appropriately later (4:13).

The next morning Boaz goes to the gate of the city and says to an unnamed closer redeemer do you wish to redeem Elimelech’s land? 1 He says yes. Boaz says it also requires acquiring (kanite) Ruth.  The widow of Elimelech is Naomi, not Ruth. Naomi is too old for more children and thus would not impact on the unnamed redeemer’s current children’s inheritance. Why does redeeming the land of his kin Elimelech involve marrying Ruth, a foreign Moabite widow. Moabite woman are forbidden to marry Israelites. The issue of the land redemption is unrelated to marrying except to Naomi. Ruth is not Naomi! But Naomi in a sense adopted Ruth as a member of her own family. The redemption of land is a separate issue from the Levirite marriage?  Mr. So and So accepts Boaz’s interpretation and says no to marrying the fertile Ruth being concerned of the impact on the  inheritance for his own children

A better reading is that Boaz says I will acquire Ruth (kaniti in Hebrew). Kanite means you must acquire while kaniti means I (Boaz) will acquire. As In the ancient Hebrew text written without vowels could be read either way. If that reading is correct then the  child of Boaz and Ruth can be considered  the son of Mahlon (Ruth’s dead husband and the son of Elimelech) and possibly the land goes back to the child. 2  Thus the unnamed redeemer will have wasted his money.
With either reading Mr. So and So declines to redeem the land and Boaz redeems the land and marries Ruth. The elders who approves this say two interesting statements:

‘May God grant that the woman who comes into your house be like Rachel and Leah who together built up the house of Israel’. The only two women involved here are Ruth and Naomi. However Leah was veiled to appear like Rachel to Jacob. Here, more openly, Ruth is masqueraded as Naomi, in a levirite marriage. The two women are as if they were one.  As we shall see later Naomi, the Israelite is called the mother of Obed (4:17).

‘May your house be as the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Israel’ who as noted later in the text is in fact the ancestor of Boaz. In a sense the comment makes it clear that everyone understood the game being played: The elders acted for God will redeem the chesed Ruth did to Naomi by joining the Israelite people.  Just as Tamar sought the justice of Israelite law so did Naomi using Ruth as her surrogate.

Ruth is not of Elimelech’s family but a forbidden and foreign woman very much like Tamar, the Canaanite daughter-in-law of two of Judah’s dead sons.  Tamar saved the Judah family from extinction. Her sons with Judah include Perez is noted as an ancestor of Boaz. Since Boaz is elderly and unmarried his line as well as Elimelech’s may be doomed for extinction. Ruth saves Boaz family and indirectly Elimelech’s.

There is a symbiosis of Naomi and Ruth. Both Boaz and Naomi call Ruth my daughter. (3:10,11,16). When Naomi instructed Ruth to go down to Boaz’s place of sleeping let us note the Hebrew text. Both the ‘va’yeradite’ (go down, 3:3) and ‘va’shekhbte’ (lie down, 3:4) end in the Hebrew text with a ‘yud’. The ‘yud’ means I will go down and I will lie down. If Naomi said you go down there would be no ‘yud’.

The usual translation of  Ruth 3:3-4 is ‘Wash and anoint yourself, pit on your finest dress, and go down (va’yeradit) to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, mark the place where he lies down and go and uncover the place of his feet and lie down (va’shechbt) - and he will tell you what to do.’  L Cheryl Exum translates the verses (eliminating the last vowel in each sentence as follows: ‘‘Wash and anoint yourself, pit on your finest dress, and I will go down (va’yeradite) to the threshing floor. Do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, mark the place where he lies down and go and uncover the place of his feet and I will lie down (va’shechbti) - and he will tell you what to do.’  Indeed a sublime change.3 Clearly Naomi did not go down or lie down in Boaz’s bed, Ruth did. After the birth of Obed the women say ‘There is a son born to Naomi’ (4:17) and Naomi nursed the child (4:16), a symbol of joint motherhood.

The emptiness of Naomi’s life is fulfilled.   When Ruth has her child the women proclaim ‘A son was born to Naomi; (4:15). Despite the levirite marriage Obed is called the son of Boaz (4:21), not Mahlon, Ruth’s deceased husband.  The question remains did  Elimelech’s family name continue or did Boaz’s family name replace his?

Noami, Ruth and Oprah
Chagall - Noami, Ruth and Oprah

All the names in this book have meanings: Elimelech is God is king; Naomi is sweetness; Naomi’s first son Mahlon is sickly; her second son Chilion is deathly;
Orpah is back of neck; Ruth is to see and Boaz is strength. These meanings make the first redeemer named ‘Ploni Almoni’ with can best be translated as ‘Mr. Son of Mr. Son; extremely odd in a Book where every name has a significance. We will repeat what we noted in our chapter on David.

Ahinoam Bat Ahimaatz
Who is Ahinoam?  King Saul was reported to have a wife named Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaatz (I Sam. 14:50), while David after his exile from Saul’s court took a wife called Ahinoam of Jezreel (25:43). Is it reasonable that these are two different women with the same name?  Given that  this is an otherwise unique name, that does not appear elsewhere in the Bible, it seems unlikely. In Hebrew, both names are not only unique but quite odd  - Ahinoam, i.e. ‘the brother of Noam’. Is there a Noam and who is he?  Who is her father Ahimaatz  - ‘the brother of Maatz’?  Is there a Maatz and who is he?  The use in Hebrew of names which connect two thoughts is not unique - Abimelech means father of the King. Only once is the connector name (‘ahi’) used twice as in Ahi bat Ahi, Ahimelech ben Ahitub. In this case it means the brother of the king, son of the brother of good (I Sam. 22:9). In no other case does the latter part of the name refer to another name.

In the Book of Ruth we find the first mention of David. ‘There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed, he is the father of Jesse, the father of David’ (Ruth 4:17). But Ruth is the mother of Obed, not Naomi who was Ruth’s mother-in-law from a previous marriage and therefore Obed’s surrogate grandmother.  I would like to suggest that the Naomi may be the female of Noam; Noam itself as noted above is an unknown name in the Bible.   The name Maatz is also unknown in the Bible, but the name bears a remarkably similarity to Boaz. In Hebrew the last letter of Boaz is a ‘zayin’ and the last letter of ‘Maatz’ is a ‘tzadik’, but both have a very similar sound, and have occasionally been used interchangeably. Boaz is an elderly man marrying a young woman  (Ruth 3:10) and David is a young man marrying an older woman (Ahinoam). There is only one relevant comparison in the Bible that can be made to the ‘Ahi bat Ahi’. When Boaz meets the man who is a closer redeemer than he, a man he refers to as his (ahi) ‘brother’ (but he is not his brother) he calls him ‘Ploni Almoni’. This is a Hebrew euphemism for Mr. No Name the son of No Name or Mr. So the son of So. (The ben of Ploni ben Almoni is omitted.) Thus in the Book where every name has deep significance we have a character named ‘No Name’. This man is a closer redeemer for Naomi’s land and her dead husband’s name than Boaz. But he refuses to redeem Naomi’s name and marry Ruth. The latter three letters of each of his No names are ‘oni ben oni’. This can be compared to ‘Ahi bat Ahi’

The author of the Book of Samuel (who may have also been the author of the Book of Ruth) was aware of the names used in the Book of Ruth and played a subtle pun on them when he decided to name Saul’s wife Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaatz and then use the same name as another woman David married. Why would the author of Samuel give the same name to Saul’s wife and to one of David’s wives if he did not intend for us to infer a connection? His aim was to help the reader draw the conclusion that David married her. In the immediate verse after we are told that David married Ahinoam the reader is told that Saul married off his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to ‘Phalti the son of Laish’ (1 Sam. 25:44). Just as David married Saul’s wife, Saul married off David’s wife to another man. Apparently even in Davidic times the adage of what is good for the goose is good for the gander applied. The key question is when did David Marry Queen Ahinoam? If this event occurred after Saul’s death and David’s appointment as King of Judea, then it is in the usual way of a Queen marrying the successor King. The interesting question is why the author places this event during Saul’s life and thus suggests that David kidnapped the Queen.

When Nathan, the prophet admonishes David for having taken Bathsheba he says in the name of God ‘I gave you your master’s household and your master’s wives into your arms’ (II Sam. 12:8).  The master is clearly Saul. What does ‘wives’  mean if not that Ahinoam, wife of Saul who became David’s wife? In one of Saul’s angry outbursts against Jonathan he calls him the ‘son of a rebellious woman’ (I Sam. 20:30). Is Saul suggesting that Ahinoam also loved David? 4 Did David with his enormous charm and magnetic charisma succeed in seducing Jonathan, Michal and Ahinoam? 5

Ahinoam bat Ahimaatz, this very odd combination of names suggested that the author of the Books of Samuel played a very subtle series of word puns to suggest that David inherited or kidnapped Saul’s wife and then married her as a partial means of getting his kingship.

Ruth and Naomi
The Symbiosis of Naomi and Ruth by He Qi 


1 It is interesting that the land which belonged to Elimelech long dead still seems to belong to Naomi, his widow.

2 Sasson, J.M., Ruth, (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1979) pg. 194.

3 Bal, Mieke, ed., The Practice Of Cultural Analysis, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999), Exum,  ‘Is This Naomi’ pg. 200-201.

4 Saul may be using a slang such as ‘son of a bitch’. In addition Saul is irrational and thus this evidence alone would not be sufficient.

5 The author recognizes the radical nature of the suggestion that David married the wife of Saul, that the two Ahinoam’s are the same person. It would mean that David married a woman twenty or so years older than himself and the mother of his friend Jonathan and his wife Michal. The evidence is clearly speculative but the evidence is also consistent.  It adds to the explanation of Michal’s anger and as we shall see later may also help explain Amnon’s raping of his sister Tamar. It also explains why the author of the Books of Samuel would choose such an extremely odd name for two, of wha at first appears two different women.