Ruth could not be budged. She had shared loneliness, anxiety and grief with Naomi, and now that the older woman was completely alone, Ruth would not abandon her. Young People in the Bible
Ruth – the world she lived in
The Book of Ruth is a protest story against the conservative purity laws of Ezra and Nehemiah. These laws forbade Jewish men to marry non-Jewish women, and ordered Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives.
Ruth was Moabite, not Jewish, but despite this she became an ancestress of Israel’s great hero, King David.
Exile in Babylon
The situation had arisen because Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 586BC and carried off the aristocracy, members of the upper classes, and all the leading families of Judah. They were forced to live in exile in Babylon for a period of about fifty years.
In Babylon these families were well-treated. They were allowed to live together, and given land.
They were not forced to intermarry or become slaves, but were respected members of the Babylonian empire. They adopted Babylonian names, the Babylonian calendar and the Aramaic language (this was the language that Jews such as Jesus spoke in later times). They assimilated well into Babylonian society, but maintained their Jewish identity.
Their living conditions may have been good, but they were faced with a theological dilemma: if they were Yahweh’s Chosen People, why had he allowed the destruction of Jerusalem and his Temple, and the scattering of his people? What had they done to deserve the terrible things that had happened to them? How could such an event be prevented in the future?
Their prophets and wise men reasoned that disaster had struck because they had not completely abandoned the fertility gods Asherah and Baal in favour of Yahweh as they should have – this must be why Yahweh had given them up to their fate.
It followed that if they repented, Yahweh would forgive them. Hopefully they would be reinstated, first in his favour, then in their homeland.
With this in mind, the priests edited and rewrote the Jewish Scriptures so that the focus was on radical monotheism, the exclusive worship of one god – thus effecting the development of religious thinking to this very day.
The exiles return to Judah
In 538BC Cyrus the Great of Persia issued an edict allowing the Jewish captive population to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. This was part of an empire-wide resettlement program, but the Jewish captives saw it as evidence that Yahweh was giving them a second chance.
Over a period of time they returned to Jerusalem, and then set about the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple, the Second Temple (the first Temple had been built by Solomon). They no longer had kings to govern them, but were led by prophets.
Figurines like this probably expressed ordinary people’s hopes for a good harvest and years of plenty, but they were hated by the priests of Yahweh who believed passionately in one God, universal and all powerful
Two of these prophets, Ezra and Nehemiah, carried out sweeping social reforms that had a direct bearing on the lives of many women.
Women’s lives in this era
Ezra demanded that worship of the fertility gods be completely abandoned. Only Yahweh was to be worshipped.
This was not as difficult to enforce as it might previously have been. Worship of the forces of Nature and fertility had been strongest in the northern agricultural provinces, and the dispersal of these people by the Assyrian conquerors had led to a decline in the popularity of the gods and goddesses like Baal and Asherah.
The problem for women was that religion was now centered on a god whose essence was power and majesty. This deity was a genderless spirit force, neither male nor female, but because power and strength were seen in human terms as male attributes, the deity was increasingly described in male terms.
Poetic images of Yahweh had previously used female references, likening Yahweh to a mother and saying that Yahweh’s love was as deep as a mother’s. These images of Yahweh were increasingly pushed aside in favor of male images. Sin was linked with impurity and with images that was demeaning to women, for example the reference in Ezekiel 37:17 to menstruation. When wickedness was presented in human form it was female, as in Zechariah 5:7-11.
Nehemiah demanded that all foreign-born wives who had returned to Jerusalem with their Jewish husbands be divorced. The purpose of this edict was to emphasize and purify Jewish identity. Women were judged on their clan background rather than on their personal merits, which undermined respect for women as human beings.
The social reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah were accepted by the people, but not without protest. For example, the stories of Ruth and of Esther, written in this period, make particular points about women, that:
they were intelligent human beings not disposable chattels
they were as capable of being God’s instruments as men were.
The story of Ruth was a protest against the radical conservatism of the prophets.
For additional information on the lives of women in the Bible, see the links to