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A Literary Analysis of the Book of Ruth

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament use various forms to communicate, including story, music, and homiletics. Each of these forms deserves to be analyzed according to their genre. “Since both the Old and New Testaments are largely written in story form, narrative is the essence of biblical revelation… That makes understanding narrative essential for all interpreters of the Bible.”1 A literary approach is fundamental to understanding the Bible because many of the parts of the Bible are in literary form. In doing so, it is necessary to trace the action in terms of plot: “Correct interpretation of narratives depends in part on an appreciation of the plot as it marks out the beginning, middle, and end of both single and complex patterns and an appreciation of the pace of the narrative.”2 Further, the literary approach is able to appropriately appreciate the artistry of the Bible. “The artistic beauty of the Bible exists for the reader’s enjoyment and artistic enrichment. To ignore this aspect of biblical literature is to distort the Bible as a written document.”3 The Book of Ruth, as a story, deserves to be treated as literature in its study. On defining literature, Leland Ryken observes that

Literature does not, for example, discourse about virtue but instead shows a virtuous person acting. We might say that literature does not tell about characters and actions and concepts but presents characters in action. Literature not only presents experience but interprets it. The writer of literature selects and molds his material according to discernible viewpoints. Human experience is presented in such a way as to express, whether explicitly or by implication, a world view. Finally, literature is an interpretive presentation of experience in an artistic form. That is, the content of a work of literature is presented in the form of a novel, play, short story, poem, and so forth…A working definition of literature, then, is that it is an interpretive presentation of experience in an artistic form.4

In seeking to analyze the story of Ruth and Naomi according to its literary genre, this paper traces the plot and character elements in structures evident in early mythological writings as well as modern movies.5 In so doing, this paper will employ literary form and structure to analyze Ruth and its elements.

The Hebrew short story uses “an artistic and elevated prose containing rhythmic elements which are poetic,” takes an interest in typical people, and seeks to both entertain and instruct.6 “Especially important: they look at ordinary events as being the scene of God’s subtly providential activity. Fun and delight, pathos and violence, characterize the human portrayals; combined with the subtle divine dimension, the total effect is one of joy and seriousness together.”7 Ruth, in particular, displays artistry in the poetic prose of different speeches (i.e. Ruth’s vow to Naomi in 1:16-17),8 in word-play such as assonance and punning,9 and in the design of the story with its inclusios (i.e. ילד),symmetry (i.e. Ruth’s return from Boaz with grain in symmetrical scenes), and contrasts (i.e. the general disobedience of Israel characteristic of the time of the judges seen specifically in Naomi’s family abandoning the promised land contrasted with Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and God in times of trouble; empty verses full; helpless versus provided for and protected; death versus life).

Plot Structure

The universal monomyth contains four elements: romance and anti-romance, tragedy and comedy.10 These categories are evident in Old Testament stories: “In classical literature, and in the literature of the Old Testament itself, the existence of pregeneric [monomyth] plot structure is not only evident, but is intrinsically necessary to the development of that literature.”11Ruth, as a romance, displays the fulfillment of desire and, as a comedy, the upward movement from the unideal to the ideal. The book displays typical virtuous, beautiful ideals, villains that threaten the heroine’s ascent and final achievement of “the victory of fertility over the wasteland” of a comedy-romance.12 The final society reached at the end is the one that the “audience has recognized all along to be the proper and desirable state of affairs.”13 As a comic plot, “the protagonist encounters obstacles but eventually overcomes them through faith and/or divine intervention.”14 Its story is meant to “inspire, challenge, and encourage us.”15

One aspect of literature is its elements of recurrence in imagery and conventional actions.16 Rituals of conventional actions and that imitate nature’s cycle are organizing rhythms and patterns. These patterns represent the fulfillment of desire and the obstacles to it.17 Because the same sovereign God Who is ruling the affairs of men is also ruling the acts of the natural world, these cycles are “rooted in a divine reality beyond the natural world. There is a continual interpenetration of the supernatural into the earthly order, and God is a continual actor in human affairs. One effect of this is that life becomes filled with meaning, since every event takes on spiritual significance.”18 This coincides with Frye’s analysis of the imagery and cyclical elements of story. In short, the setting and details of Ruth are pregnant with meaning.

In Ruth, imagery such as provision is embodied in Bethlehem: Bethlehem (בית לחמ) literally means “house of bread.” This is ironic since at the opening of the book, Bethlehem was lacking in bread due to the famine! In 1:6, God visits His people with the purpose of giving them bread. Ruth and Naomi together sojourn to Bethlehem hoping for, and finding, provision through Ruth’s work of gleaning in the field, through Boaz’s generous gift to Ruth, through Boaz’s redemption of Ruth and Naomi’s field, and finally through Obed, the son who holds the hope for future provision. The book begins with a famine but ends with plenty. It is also interesting to note that Ruth’s marriage proposal occurs on the threshing floor, where the grain that provides is created. Not only does she return to Naomi after the marriage proposal with a promise of redemption but also with tangible evidence of grain. The use of the harvest cycle is also prevalent in Ruth. While the family tragedy is surrounded by famine, Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem when the famine has been abated at the beginning of the barley harvest, clueing the reader in to the hope they have.

Ruth exhibits both the typical initiation and death-rebirth cycles of the mythic plots. Naomi’s character, as the Hero Mentor on her own journey (see below), displays the death-rebirth cycle, which “involves a hero who endures death or a deathlike experience and returns to life and security.”19 As a helpless and childless widow, Naomi is in a “deathlike experience.” However, she passes to rebirth at the birth of Obed. Ruth’s character demonstrates both the death-rebirth and the initiation cycles. Like Naomi, she moves from the deathlike experience of the childless widow to the rebirth of marriage. This cycle is represented in miniature at Ruth’s Approach (occurring in the evening), Ordeal (at midnight), Reward (at dawn) (see below for further explanation of these stages).20 As a Moabitess seeking redemption in God’s community, she also undergoes the initiation cycle. “In an initiation story the hero undergoes a series of ordeals as he passes from ignorance and immaturity to social and spiritual adulthood.”21 Ruth’s character, while always exhibiting virtuous character, passes socially to the next level. In the beginning she is known as the Moabitess. However, in the end, she is recognized as an ancestor of the great King David of Israel.

The story of Ruth begins with death, moves toward marriage, and finds its ultimate fulfillment in birth. The Hebrew uses the same term ילדfor sons to show in inclusio Naomi’s loss of sons to her regaining of a child. The tension and tragedy lies in the empty and lonely Naomi. However, as a comedy, there is rebirth in the end, literally in Ruth’s son that is considered Naomi’s, and figuratively in Naomi, who is redeemed. The women in the story act as a Greek chorus, noting Naomi’s return in the beginning and commenting in the end both on Yahweh’s provision for Naomi of a son and on Ruth’s loving-kindness (חסד), which furnished the vehicle for Yahweh’s blessing (ironically).

The plot of any story revolves around overcoming obstacles. In Ruth, the obstacles consist of Naomi attempting to dissuade Ruth from coming; Ruth approaching Boaz; and the potential kinsman with first rights. From this, a plot structure can be derived. Pratt fits Ruth into a five-part plot structure.22 Specifically, the plot structure breaks into the following divisions: “I. Naomi’s Bitterness (ch. 1); II. Ruth Discovers Potential Kinsman Redeemer (ch. 2); III. Boaz Agrees to be Kinsman Redeemer (ch. 3); IV. Boaz Acquires Right to be the Kinsman-Redeemer (4:1-12); V. Naomi’s Blessing (4:13-17)”23 This analysis fits within the overarching comedy ternary form from the ideal (understood by the audience) to the unideal experience (the deaths of Elimelech, Kilion and Machlon leaving their three widows helpless, unprotected, and unprovided for), and the journey back to the ideal (Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, which redeems both her and Naomi, and Ruth’s child, who carries Ruth’s husband’s name24 and guarantees Naomi’s future).25 Further, because the story of Ruth exhibits elements of mythic structure as analyzed by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, it is helpful to understand how Ruth fits this form.26

1. The Ordinary World: This stage is understood by the audience as a time of blessing and provision.

2. The Call to Adventure: This occurs when the men Elimilech, Machlon, and Killion die and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem.

3. Refusal of the Call: While Ruth is set on going throughout, this stage is seen in Orpah, Ruth’s foil, who is discouraged by the Threshold Guardian and returns to Moab.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Herein lies the irony: Ruth’s meeting with the Mentor becomes her first test as a meeting with the Threshold Guardian (the one who attempts to barricade entrance into the first stage).

5. Crossing the First Threshold: Ruth swears an oath to Naomi to remain loyal to her and returns with Naomi to Bethlehem.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Ruth’s continued hard work in the fields wins her Allies in Boaz’s foreman and in Boaz himself. The Enemy exists in the Shadow, the idea of an unredeemed, unprovided for and unprotected life. This is embodied in the Mr. So and So, who refuses to redeem Ruth. “For this potential redeemer, the question placed before him was simply a matter to be decided on the basis of financial considerations. Love for the covenant and the preservation of a family in that covenant played no role in his calculations.”27

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: Naomi prepares and instructs Ruth regarding approaching Boaz.

8. The Ordeal: Ruth’s Ordeal comes in the form of a marriage proposal to Boaz. On a sub-level, this scene is the Call to Adventure for Boaz, who becomes the active Hero for the next few scenes.

9. Reward: Boaz promises to seek redemption for Ruth, whether through approaching the nearer kinsman-redeemer or redeeming himself. Boaz also gives Ruth grain to take back to Naomi so that she would not return empty-handed.

10. The Road Back: This scene is also Boaz’s Ordeal stage as he speaks with Mr. So and So, the nearer kinsman redeemer.

11. Resurrection: On Ruth’s journey, her Resurrection is her wedding with Boaz (thus using a life cycle to represent the fulfilled desire).

12. Return with the Elixir: Ruth, as the Heroine, provides a son, Obed, for Naomi, thus giving life to Naomi. For the Fallen Mentor (Naomi), who herself is journeying, this scene is the Resurrection of Naomi.

The Message of Ruth

Though the story treats Ruth as the heroine, the story revolves around the redemption of Naomi. The book begins and ends focusing on Naomi. This reveals God’s character in His faithfulness toward His covenant promise of protecting His chosen people, His loving kindness in providing for the helpless widow, and His sovereignty in the surprising twist of using the Moabitess to provide for Naomi.28 The sub-theme focuses on Ruth’s redemption and God’s mercy in grafting the Gentiles into His chosen people for redemption.29 The heart of the story is God’s provision, both in expected ways (providing for Naomi and ultimately Israel through Ruth’s line) and in unexpected ways (providing for Ruth, the Moabitess). While Naomi receives provision and blessing, Ruth is God’s instrument for this. It is the Abrahamic covenant in reverse: instead of the nations being blessed through Israel, Israel is blessed through a Gentile.

This story is a great tool for evangelism by drawing analogies between Boaz, the type of Christ, and the archetype, Christ Himself. It exposes the unbeliever to the loving grace of God and His provision of redemption through Jesus Christ. Old Testament narratives reveal the character of God.30 In Ruth, God is revealed as the Faithful Provider to the helpless. In this case, God provides through the גאל, the kinsman redeemer who plays the part of the Messianic figure. The Messiah figure is associated with various royal figures in the Old Testament (i.e. the bridegroom, the conqueror, and the leader who brings his people into their rightful home).31 In the story of Ruth and Naomi, Boaz represents the Messiah as the redeemer who is the bridegroom for Ruth and reclaims the rightful home for Naomi. Boaz is described as the one who redeems (גאל). BDB defines גאל as “redeem, act as a kinsman.”32 It is used to refer to God’s redeeming acts.33 This term refers to the kinsman “who is responsible for standing up for him and maintaining his rights.34 Boaz takes responsibility for Naomi’s land and the widows. In so doing, he provides an example of Yahweh, who is the redeemer of the widows and the orphans.35 As Ruth was delivered from poverty, unprotected and unprovided for, Yahweh also delivers His people from distress and ultimately from death through Christ’s sacrifice on and the cross and victory over.

This tale also provides an object lesson for the Christian on חסד, loving-kindness. The first chapter introduces Ruth’s sacrificial character. “Against the dark moral and ethical backdrop of the Judges period, the foreigner Ruth emerges as a paradigm of loyal love and of the kind of person the Lord is looking for to populate his covenant community.”36 Boaz notes this quality in Ruth in 3:10, blessing her for remaining loyal to Naomi and to Yahweh rather than finding her security in a Moabite husband.37 Because of Ruth’s loyalty and love, she is first blessed by Yahweh in her marriage to Boaz and then becomes Yahweh’s tool of blessing to Naomi (the helpless widow), to the nation of Israel through Ruth’s descendent, King David, and to the whole world through Ruth’s descendent, Jesus Christ.

Death in the beginning sets the story in motion. The action revolves around looking for the “missing piece” and restoring balance.38 The rescue consists of saving from a “death state.”39 Both Naomi and Ruth are in a “death state” in that they have no hope of provision or protection because they are widows and childless. Ruth recognizes wholeness in a life attached to Yahweh and His people rather than in an empty life of idol worship in Moab. Naomi considers herself cursed by God and sees no hope of security.

The character and function of the Hero should fall to Naomi who has the power to redeem Ruth by bringing her to God’s chosen people. However, it is Ruth who plays the Heroine and saves Naomi. “A Hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others, like a shepherd who will sacrifice to protect and serve his flock. At the root the idea of Hero is connected with self-sacrifice.”40 This definition more aptly fits Ruth, who sacrifices security and the likelihood of marriage in order to remain loyal to Naomi.41 Naomi’s role changes throughout the story: she is the threshold guardian attempting to dissuade Ruth from entering the “special world” in chapter one; she is the mentor who instructs and prepares Ruth for the marriage proposal in chapter three (the inversion of the threshold guardian); she is the recipient of the healing elixir in the end. While Ruth is the flat character who remains constant, Naomi presents a more complicated character of the Fallen Mentor. “Some Mentors are still on a Hero’s Journey of their own. They may be experiencing a crisis of faith in their calling…Such a Mentor may go through all the stages of a hero’s journey, on his own path to redemption.”42 Naomi, as Mentor, considers herself a special vessel of God’s wrath. However, Boaz is presented as Naomi’s kinsman (2:1); the hope of redemption is first seen through Naomi’s eyes (2:20); and the final redemption is defined in regards to Naomi (4:14-17). Naomi, as the Fallen Mentor, is actively involved in preparing Ruth for Boaz and becomes the Recipient of the Elixir given by Ruth. Thought the book is titled Ruth, the story revolves around Naomi and her perspective. Ultimately, it is about God and His loving-kindness to act as the Faithful Provider to His covenant people and to those who put their trust in Him for wholeness and salvation.

A literary analysis of this book enabled an enlightenment of the story development as well as the character development, which revealed the overarching and secondary messages of the Book of Ruth. It also allowed an appreciation for the beauty and complicity of the plot as unfolded by the author. These same categories can be applied to other stories in the Bible to unveil the central message that God wishes to communicate, understood according to their appropriate genre.

1 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Narrative” in Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament, ed. D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. (Nashville: Broadman & Holdman Publishers, 1995), 71.

2 Ibid., 73.

3 Ryken, Literature of the Bible, 14.

4 Leland Ryken, The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), 13.

5 Joseph Campbell analyzes the elements of myths and stories from different countries and different times in order to reveal the parallels of the basic plot. He lists segments of the common adventure as Departure (including the Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the First Threshold, and the Belly of the Whale), the Initiation (i.e. The Road of Trials), and the Return (consisting of such elements as the Rescue from Without, the Crossing of the Return Threshold, and the Freedom to Live). Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), ix-x. Christopher Vogler further clarifies these categories as well as characterization and applies them to modern-day story telling (i.e. plays and movies). Cf. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: The Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd ed. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998), throughout.

6 Edward F. Campbell, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, vol. 7, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 5.

7 Ibid., 5-6.

8 Ibid., 11.

9 Ibid., 13.

10 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 95.

11 Reg Grant, “The Validity of Pregeneric Plot Structure in Ruth as a Key to Interpretation” (Ph.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1988), 169.

12 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 193.

13 Ibid., 164.

14 Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 156.

15 Ibid., 157.

16 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 86, 104.

17 Ibid., 104, 160.

18 Ryken, Literature of the Bible, 17.

19 Ibid., 23.

20 Grant, “Validity of Pregeneric Plot Structure,” 180. Cf. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 160 for an explanation of the cycle of times and seasons as significant in plot.

21 Ryken, Literature of the Bible, 23.

22 This five-part plot structure is defined as problem, rising action (“raises tension”), turning point, falling action (“continues the unwinding initiated by the turning point”), and resolution. Richard L. Pratt, He Gave Us Stories: The Bible Student’s Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1990), 200.

23 Ibid., 301.

24 For the sake of ease, this musical takes Machlon as Ruth’s husband, although the biblical text never assigns which husband to which wife.

25 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 171.

26 Categories taken from Vogler, Writer’s Journey, passim.

27 S. de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, vol. 2, trans. H. Evan Runner and Elisabeth Wichers Runner (St. Catherines, Ontario: Paideia, 1977), 62.

28 The musical makes use of the bread metaphor found in the biblical account. In the beginning, Naomi worries about the lack of bread; she makes the announcement to Ruth and Orpah of her plan to return to Bethlehem while kneading bread (a hint of the hope she has in her return to Bethlehem); Ruth recognizes the provision of bread Boaz will bring with his agreement to marry her; finally, Naomi receives the announcement of Obed’s birth while taking a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven.

29 A second metaphor used in this musical is of the branch. Ruth recognizes that her life is in Yahweh’s tree, and therefore seeks to join His people. Ideally the set should be presided over by a large tree that blooms at the wedding ceremony.

30 Pratt, He Gave Us Stories, 130.

31 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 316.

32 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, eds., The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, reprinted (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 145.

33 It is also connected with the legal and social life of Israel. The legal acts of the Israelites reflect the acts of God.

34 Helmer Ringgren, “גאל,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, rev. ed., eds., G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. John T. Willis, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 351.

35 Ruth finds shelter both in the wings of Yahweh (2:12) and in the covering of Boaz (3:9), further associating Boaz’s role with Yahweh’s role (Grant, “Validity of Pregeneric Plot Structure,” 203-04.).

36 Chisholm From Exegesis to Exposition, 226.

37 Orpah provides the foil for Ruth’s character here. Her character is united with Ruth’s in the beginning, but the shallowness of her commitment “dissolves” this union (Grant, “Validity of Pregeneric Plot Structure,” 206). Orpah was more interested in her perceived well-being than in remaining loyal to her proper family ties (Deuteronomy 25:5 notes that a widow is not to remarry outside the family). It also shows her lack of a fear of Yahweh, Whom she abandons in order to return to her Moabite gods. Her decision highlights Ruth’s sacrifice.

38 Vogler, Writer’s Journey, 40.

39 Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 213.

40 Vogler, Writer’s Journey, 35. This definition also fits Boaz, who sacrifices his own self-interests (seen in his foil, Mr. So and So) to redeem Ruth and Naomi.

41 This jabbed the original Jewish audience. Ruth’s social status as not only a widow but as a Gentile Moabitess brought expectations of both a sinful and helpless character. However, her actions as well as the speech and thought of the story community proved her to be faithful, loyal, and sacrificial (cf. Pratt, He Gave Us Stories, 137-39 for categories of character revelation).

42 Vogler, Writer’s Journey, 52-53.

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