Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?

Q. Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

Pieter Lastman, "Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi"
Pieter Lastman,
“Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi”

To respond to this second question of yours, you’re right, Ruth’s words to Naomi really do stand out as Hebrew poetry, in parallel couplets.  It’s surprising that Bibles don’t format them this way:

Entreat me not to leave you
or to return from following you;

for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;

where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.

After elegantly concluding her poem by varying the you-I progression with a solemn final statement, Ruth swears an oath that she asks God to enforce:  “May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you!”

I don’t think this language is actually taken from an ancient Israelite marriage ceremony.  (The opposite is true: people have taken Ruth’s words and turned them into marriage vows.)  Rather, it’s characteristic of Hebrew narrative that when someone has something crucial to say, on which the story line turns, they say it in poetry. In the ancient oral culture, this would make the saying memorable and repeatable (kind of like an advertizing slogan today).

For example, when Sheba son of Bikri foments a rebellion against David, he shouts in poetry:

We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!

To give another example, David’s promise to Bathsheba about who will succeed him is also spoken in poetry, and it’s quoted several times at crucial points in the succession narrative:

Solomon your son shall reign after me,
he shall sit upon my throne in my stead.

Samuel speaks similarly in poetry when he announces God’s rejection of Saul as king and when he pronounces judgment on Agag.  The Israelites proclaim their refusal of Rehoboam as their king in poetry as well.

Examples like these show that poetry was used for important pronouncements in Hebrew narrative, probably reflecting the actual customs of the culture.  And we have to admit that among her many other qualities as a “woman of noble character,” Ruth was a fine poet.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

12 thoughts on “Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?”

  1. Oops … I see I had the wrong chapter when I sent in the question.

    Here’s what I hear you saying: 1) that as a general rule, the biblical writer inserts poetry into a prosaic narrative to indicate important moments in the story; and 2) the most likely reason for this (i.e. #1 above) is that the Hebrew culture was like this. Most likely, Israelites in their daily life would break into poetry when they wanted to express something that was especially important to them, such as the solemn promise that Ruth makes to Naomi.

    This sounds like a plausible explanation to me, but I wanted to make sure that I understood you right. On the surface it seems unlikely that people would spontaneously break into such exquisite poetry (such as Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel), but it’s far from unthinkable. I’ve watched young African-American boys free-style lyrics that it would take me days or weeks to think up, and they do it on the spot. Especially if poetry was an important part of their culture from a very distant past, it’s conceivable that the poetry we see in instances like this was improved at that very moment.

    I suppose we could ask the question whether the words recorded in the story are the actual words spoken by Ruth (or any of the other examples that you mention). I guess there’s probably not a way to answer that question for sure. But again, I suppose that it’s not unthinkable, if poetry was such an integral part of Hebrew culture and had been for centuries, that the people who improvised these poems could remember them later and write them down exactly accurately.

    At any rate, all of these thoughts are very interesting and enlightening. Thanks!

    1. I think your example of people in cultures today composing free-style lyrics is a good illustration of what went on in oral cultures like the ancient biblical one. And I think it’s reasonable to believe that we have something close to Ruth’s actual words preserved for us in the Bible because the whole point of these rhyming statements was to make them memorable. Thanks again for engaging on this subject.

  2. Concerning Ruths seduction to boaz,i see it more of divine orchestration, than exploitation or seduction, when we saw the way Ruth sticked to naomi from, moab after the death of her husband,father in law and brother in law,she never expected anything in return,hence this allowed her charafter to speak for her which boaz initally saw and mentironed,ruth2 v 11-12, i saw God permiting every steps of Ruth ,boaz may not even notice her and her seduction if she had being a woman of loose character n she wouldn’t have being a biblical reference point today,i saw d hand of God upon Ruth ,despite being a moabite the enemies of Israel.thanks

    1. Ruth been a moabite(enemy of Israel)but believed in and loved the people of Israel, gives her the grace of been favored by the God whom the Israelite serve.

  3. Did Boaz and Ruth have children after the birth of Obed.i have found no genealogy to support that they did and wonder if l am missing something. Thank you. M. Cumings

    1. No, you’re not missing anything. If Boaz and Ruth had more children, the Bible doesn’t tell us about them. They would have been David’s great-uncles and great-aunts, but they’re not mentioned in the narratives of his life. So we simply don’t know.

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