The Book of Ruth: Origin and Purpose
As a last option for understanding Ruth, I would offer that Ruth does fit well when set against the background of the early post-exilic period. The literature on this time is vast and continues to grow, but it is safe to say that the small community in Judea in the late 500s to early 400s B.C.E. conflicted over various societal issues, one of which was how they should define the boundaries of their community. The prophet Zechariah believed that Jerusalem would throng with foreigners who would count as Yhwh’s people (Zech 2:15[EV 11]), but other persons from the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative feel that foreigners have no part in the community (Ezra 4:1-3; 9:1-4; Neh 13:1-3). This is not to say that Ruth reacts directly to the Ezra-Nehemiah text, nor should we read Ezra-Nehemiah uncritically as plain history, but it is reasonable to hold that community cohesion and in-group/out-group questions were live topics at the time. Within this debate, we can see how Ruth provides a counterfactual to a certain exclusivist perspective toward outsiders. The text is not so bold as to claim that all non-Israelites/Judeans should count as people of Yhwh, but it does demonstrate that there are cases where a foreigner can reasonably measure up to the standard of a true Israelite.
See Also: Reading Ruth in the Restoration Period (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).
By E. Allen Jones III, PhD
Associate Professor of Bible
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