The Famine, the foreigner and the threshing floor

By Guy Brandon 29 Sep 2015

Faithfulness in the book of Ruth

The book of Ruth has prompted much discussion and controversy. It’s an unusual book, dealing with themes that other biblical authors don’t treat with such sympathy, including the integration of foreigners and sexual norms.

Hollywood might interpret it as a happily-ever-after romance, and Christians also typically present the book as a biblical love story. This is, of course, an over-simplification that stems from our cultural obsession with romantic and sexual love as the highest form of relationship and misses the real importance of the book.

The famine

512px-Kingdoms_around_Israel_830_map.svgThe narrative takes place ‘In the days when the judges ruled’ (1:1), when ‘Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.’ (Judges 21:25) Elimelech and his family – his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion – leave Bethlehem for Moab because ‘there was a famine in the land’ (Ruth 1:1). Israel had had a mixed relationship with their immediate neighbour over the years. Moab was known for its pagan fertility rituals (Numbers 25:1-3) and human sacrifice (e.g. 2 Kings 3:27), and Moabites were excluded from Israelite religious life for their opposition to the conquest of Canaan (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). However, the situation was not always this clear-cut in practice. David sent his parents to stay with the king of Moab until he was safe from Saul (1 Samuel 22:3).

(Credit: Richardprins, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ten years after leaving Israel, Naomi returns to Judah. Ruth, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, decides to stay with Naomi, despite this meaning she will have to leave her home country. It also means a change of faith (1:16-17). She apparently did not convert to Yahwism when she first married into the Israelite family, with Elimelech and his sons presumably assimilating to Moabite culture and religion to some degree instead. Notably, it is Ruth’s loyalty and love for Naomi that brings about both her journey and her conversion.

The foreigner

There are broadly two kinds of foreigner discussed in the laws of the Hebrew Bible. One is the ger, the vulnerable migrant who is generally willing to integrate with Israel’s culture and religion. The ger is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible alongside other groups of poor and marginalised people – the orphan, the widow, the hired worker (e.g. Zechariah 7:10). Then there is the nokri, the ‘true’ foreigner, who is economically independent and who has little interest in becoming a part of Israel. (In fact, the nokri – especially nokri women – are treated with extreme caution because they represent a threat to Israelite religion, as in the case of Solomon’s hundreds of foreign wives.) With no family inheritance of land or means to support herself, Ruth definitely falls into the category of ger, though she describes herself as a nokri (2:10), implying she views herself as an outsider to Israelite life. Although Ruth’s Moabite roots are kept in plain sight, nowhere is any explicit criticism of her made; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

'Ruth Gleaning', James Tissot 1896As a ger, Ruth is dependent on the goodwill of others. Welfare in biblical times was not a matter of state provision, though tithes would be centrally collected and given out. Like many ‘public services’, welfare was distributed across all levels of society, from the extended families who adopted migrants, day-labourers and other poor people, to the laws that governed the provision of interest-free loans and the overall structure of the economy.

One of the ways in which the poor were supported was by communities leaving crops at the side of the fields for the poor to collect, though this was plainly seen as a dangerous business. The book acknowledges the risks routinely experienced by women without family or advocates to protect them, who are gleaning out in the open field. ‘Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with his girls, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”’ (2:22)

The threshing floor

Hoping to secure provision for Ruth in Boaz’s house, Naomi instructs her daughter-in-law to ‘go down to the threshing floor… Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.’ There is much discussion about what Ruth actually does and particularly the meaning of ‘uncover the feet’. Euphemistically this means to have sex with (Jeremiah 2:25), and there are overtones of Canaanite fertility rites about the threshing floor (Hosea 9:1). Given the statement in Ruth 3:7, ‘when he had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits…’, the book’s early audience might also be keenly aware that Ruth was from Moab, a nation that supposedly came about through a drunken and incestuous encounter (Genesis 19:30-38).

Whilst this is the kind of question that exercises biblical critics, the fact that Ruth waits for Boaz to wake up after ‘uncovering his feet’ suggests that they’re on the wrong track (though the fact she is present at all makes her intentions clear). She then asks him to ‘Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer’ (3:9). The same term is used for marriage in Ezekiel 16:8, ‘I spread the corner of my garment over you…’ and also in Malachi 2:16.

Boaz recognises that Christmas has come early, but there is a due process to be followed: ‘there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I.’ (3:12) It must first be established that this man (he is identified only by the term Ploni Almoni, the biblical equivalent of Joe Bloggs) does not want to take on Elimelech’s estate, including his former wife. (The role of the kinsman-redeemer is described in Leviticus 25:25-28. Although this is not a levirate marriage, since Boaz is not Ruth’s brother-in-law, there are similarities with the process described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.) Joe Bloggs is willing to buy the land but not take on the dead man’s wife, leaving Boaz free to marry Ruth.


Love is a theme of Ruth, but not romantic love. It is the term hesed that occurs repeatedly and that underpins the narrative. Hesed is often translated ‘mercy’ in English, but means something more like ‘loving-kindness’, ‘faithfulness, ‘Covenant love’. It is a core character trait of God himself, describing his relationship with Israel and humanity (Exodus 34:6-7).

Naomi uses the word hesed of Ruth and Orpah’s kindness towards her. ‘May the Lord show hesed to you, as you have shown to your dead and me.’ (1:8) Naomi recognises Boaz’s kindness in his treatment of Ruth (2:20), and Boaz praises Ruth’s kindness (3:10). ‘This hesed is greater than that which you showed earlier.’ It is noteworthy that both the subject and object of this hesed is not an Israelite, but a Moabite woman.


Ruth is often described as a ‘biblical love story’. The marriage is clearly seen as a blessing in itself (3:10; 4), but there is far greater significance to it. Ruth is a story of hesed, faithfulness or Covenant love, and its themes point to a series of applications for us today.

Immigration. Ruth is a migrant: the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, without family or provision. Not only that, but she comes from Moab, a country towards which the Israelites were hostile. She relies on the dangerous and hard business of gleaning and the goodwill of strangers to gather what she needs to support herself and Naomi.

The journeys to Moab and back in the book of Ruth are driven by the most basic needs. Elimelech and his family leave their country, their property, their extended family and community to go to a foreign land that practises pagan religion, simply because they are hungry. It is a reminder to us that most people don’t leave their own countries and homes lightly. Many routinely face hardship and danger. They may have been displaced or be fleeing persecution or natural disaster, or perhaps they are just unable to support themselves or their families. According to the UN, more than 50 million people are now living under forced displacement. The majority of the world’s migrants – more than 232 million in 2013 – simply travel to seek better economic conditions. Seeing people primarily as migrants or basing our view of them solely on their country of origin overlooks their stories, motivations, intentions and behaviour.

Conversion. Ruth’s strong relationship with Naomi drives her conversion to Israelite religion, rather than an intellectual argument. It is also interesting that religion – especially conversion – plays almost no overt part in the book. But perhaps it has greater impact for the fact that it stays between the lines: Ruth is repeatedly identified as ‘Ruth the Moabite’, tacitly reminding the reader that she might be expected to play by different rules. In fact Ruth, a foreigner from a hated land that practised the worst kind of pagan religion, turns out to be an exemplar of godly living. Anyone who read the book of Ruth and judged her on her nationality at the beginning would have had to rethink their assumptions by the end.

Hesed. Modern interpretations often suggest that Ruth was very beautiful, though there is little to support this in the text. What apparently impresses Boaz at first is Ruth’s loyalty to what remains of her family (Naomi), and her work ethic (2:6-12). In 3:11 he calls her a ‘woman of noble character’, ’eshet chayil, a term also found in Proverbs 12:4 and 31:10, ‘A wife of noble character who can find?’ The same passage in Proverbs goes so far as to say, ‘Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.’ (31:30)

Similarly, the emphasis on a romantic plot to Ruth overlooks God’s blessing in the story. Rather than only showing God’s concern for the couple, Ruth and Boaz, the significance of what happens is that through Ruth, Naomi has a son to continue her family line in place of her own dead sons (4:16-17). ‘A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in his holy habitation. God makes a home for the lonely; he leads out the prisoners into prosperity.’ (Psalm 68:5-6) Ruth thereby becomes the great-grandmother of King David, and the ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5-6).

Thus Ruth’s acceptance by the community in Bethlehem and the redemption of the land and its owner’s widow not only foreshadows but enables the unification of Israel under David, and ultimately the redemption of humanity as a whole through Christ, demonstrating God’s hesed through that of an unlikely human couple’s hesed.

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