The Structures of Ruth

V. Propp’s classic work Morphology of the Folktale (University of Texas, 1968) argues that one of the basic structures of folk literature is “lack, lack liquidated.” A king sets out to look for a wife, and the tale ends with a wedding. Often, the hero sets out on some business and finds himself lacking the tools that he needs to accomplish his mission; the tools are later provided in some miraculous or at least unexpected way.

This pattern has a multifaceted application to the book of Ruth. The book begins with a whole series of “lacks,” all of which are “liquidated” in the course of the book. There are, however, indications that Ruth was written as something more than a charming folk tale. The chronological indicator in 1:1, especially when combined with the references to David in 4:17 and 22, show that the author was concerned with God’s dealings with Israel as a whole, not just with the individual characters of the story. Ruth is redemptive history, not merely an ancient short story.

In the context of the redemptive-historical framing of the book, Naomi stands as a representative of the nation of Israel, and the Lord’s redemption of Naomi is emblematic of God’s dealings with Israel. In the background is the fact that Israel is God’s bride. When, during the time of the judges, Israel’s sins drove the Lord from her midst, Israel became a widow. The book of Judges also shows the priests of Israel were unfaithful; in this sense too, Israel had no husband. Thus, Naomi represents the nation of Israel, bereft of the protection of either a divine or priestly husband. Naomi’s “lacks” are symbolic of Israel’s; the “liquidation” of those lacks is the Lord’s promise to His people.

Each of the descriptions in the first five verses of Ruth is reversed by the end of the book. As we have already noted, the book begins in the time of the judges, a time when there was no king in Israel, and ends with a genealogy of David. Thus, Ruth shows that the Lord was at work even in the time of the judges to move Israel forward to another stage in her history.

The story begins with famine. This famine is especially noteworthy since it takes place at Bethlehem, the “house of bread.” God’s judgment has fallen upon apostate Israel. It hits the breadbasket. But early on God visits His people in mercy (1:6), and Boaz, the redeemer, later provides abundant food for Ruth and Naomi (2:17; 3:17).

At the beginning of the story Elimelech and Naomi leave the land. Though Ruth and Naomi return to the land at the end of the first chapter, their recovery of “rest” in the land is not accomplished until the final chapter, after Boaz (again!) acquires the ancestral land. The theme of the recovery of land is given an especially pointed twist in chapter 1. Clearly, we have an exodus pattern: Elimelech and Naomi leave the land and Naomi returns with Ruth. But it is in many ways an unusual exodus. Instead of multiplying in the land of sojourning, as Jacob did in Haran and as Israel did in Egypt, Elimelech and his sons die, leaving Naomi with no seed. Instead of becoming enriched, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel did, Elimelech and Naomi are impoverished. Jacob flees from Esau with only a staff, and comes back with two companies; he goes out empty and comes back full. Naomi goes out full and comes back empty (1:21). Though Naomi is back in the land, there has really been no exodus, no redemption. These contrasts with the patriarchal exoduses support the traditional rabbinic notion that Elimelech sinned in leaving the land. Ruth 1 also makes it clear that physical residence in the land is not the same as rest in the land.

As the beginning of the story sets the stage, Elimelech and his two sons die. Moab, east of the land of promise, is a place of death. But after returning to the land, and after the intervention of the redeemer, Ruth gives birth to a son. This death-resurrection pattern is related to a transition from barrenness to fertility. Naomi is literally past childbearing years; Ruth is not barren, but she has no husband. By the end of the book, the seed is born. Obed is described as Naomi’s redeemer (4:14); barren Naomi is made a mother of children. All this reflects the patriarchal stories where there is a threat to the birth of the seed. As in Genesis, God intervenes to provide a seed in a miraculous way. God provides the “redeemer,” the seed who will eventually produce the Seed who will crush the serpent’s head. Barren Israel will, by the power of the Spirit, come alive, and bear a son.

As the beginning of the story concludes, we find three widows. As suggested above, widowhood symbolizes of the condition of Israel during the time of the judges. By the end of the book, however, Ruth the widow has become Ruth the bride. And she has given birth to the grandfather of David, who would become a husband and protector of God’s bride.

These broad structures and themes are reinforced by the writer’s repetitive use of key words. Several important words are used only twice, but at such key points in the story that they highlight some of the themes mentioned.1

The word “lads,” for example, is used first in 1:5, where it is said that Naomi was bereft of her two sons. The use of the word “lads” stands out here because it is the only place in the OT where this word is used of grown and married men. The other use of the word comes in 4:16-17, where Naomi takes the “lad” and becomes his guardian or nurse, and his adoptive mother. The lads that Naomi lost are now restored in Obed.

The word “empty” likewise occurs only twice. Naomi’s bitter complaint against the Lord is that she has been emptied (1:21). She is an empty vessel in every sense: she will no longer bear children, she has lost her husband, sons, and land. But this is not the final word. After his midnight covenant-making with Ruth, Boaz measures out barley, telling Ruth that she ought not return to Naomi empty-handed (3:17). Naomi complains of her emptiness, but Boaz makes sure that she gets filled.

Finally, the word “wings” occurs twice. In 2:12, Boaz expresses a wish that the Lord would reward Ruth, who has come under the wings of Yahweh. This means that Ruth has come under the protection of the Lord’s covenant and become a sojourner in the Lord’s land among the Lord’s people. Similarly, Ruth’s request of Boaz is that he spread his wing over her (3:9). This is a request that Boaz cover her with the protective covering of a marriage covenant. Married men and women are covered with a single garment because they are one flesh. The linguistic connection of 2:12 and 3:9 suggests that Lord is providing His protection and refuge through Boaz. Ruth comes under the Lord’s wings practically by coming under the wing of Boaz.

Once these patterns are made clear, the book of Ruth emerges as a proclamation of the gospel. The Lord, by His sheer mercy (2:20) intervenes in a world full of death, emptiness, chaos, and sorrow, and, through a near Kinsman, a Greater Boaz, brings life, fullness, peace, and joy.

Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons


  1. For further discussion of the repetition of key words, see Edward F. Campbell, Ruth, The Anchor Bible [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975] ↩︎
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