Historical Background to
The Book of Ruth

Many years ago, the BSM featured a suggested identification of the unnamed kinsman who declined to carry out his obligation, related in the Book of Ruth. Since then a more exhaustive investigation, generally confirming the original findings but including additional evidence offered by historical records not considered at the time, makes possible a revision which offers a more detailed picture of the probabilities.

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The Book of Ruth attaches no dates to the events it records; the only indication of when they occurred lie in the statements "in the days when the judges ruled" (Ruth 1:1) and that Boaz, a principal figure in the story, was the son of Salmon who was prominent in the tribe of Judah at the Conquest, the entry into the Promised Land. Hence the story has its setting during the first generation of Israel’s occupancy of Canaan. It is possible though to fill in this general picture quite a bit by a process of deduction from allusions in the story.

Positive data leading to the building of a timescale is very meagre, only that Caleb was 80 at the Entry to the Land and therefore 40 at the Exodus (Josh.14:6‑11), so that Joshua, his comrade in arms, the only other man over twenty years of age at the Exodus was probably about the same; he died at 110. (Josh.24:29) The Oppression under the Aramaic invader lasted eight years (Judg.3:8), and Mahlon the son of Elimelech had ten years of married life in Moab after his father died. (Ruth 1:4) Elisheba daughter of Amminadab the last "prince" (leader) of the tribe of Judah in Egypt, was the wife of Aaron the High Priest who was 83 at the Exodus so she must have been about 80  years of age at that time, with four sons born in Egypt. That is about all; not much on which to build conclusions. It is surprising however what careful attention to apparently unconnected fragments of Scripture can yield. In piecing together, the available data it must be borne in mind that recorded life spans differed from that which is usual today. The normal lifespan at the time of the Exodus was 100/120, not to speak of the redoubtable Caleb who at 85 had the strength of a 40‑year old and was still chief leader of the army (Josh.14:10‑12) besides being the father of the (probably) teenage daughter Achsah. Moses died at 120, Aaron at 123, Miriam at 137, Joshua at 110 and in secular history of the time there is Ahmose el Kab, Admiral of the naval fleet of Egypt in the time of Moses, who ended a strenuous naval career at 110 just after the death of Joshua, and Amen‑hotep son of Hapu, distinguished Egyptian statesman, who died at 130 just before the Exodus.

At this style of lifespan, the childbearing age of the women must have extended up to 75 or so, as is evidenced by Elisheba who.80 at the Exodus, must have been the firstborn of her father since her brother Nahshon had already succeeded him as "prince" of the tribe at the Exodus; and two of her four recorded sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were both under twenty at that time since they both entered into the Land forty years later. Salmon the son of Nahshon was prince of the tribe at the Entry so Nahshon must have died in the Wilderness and he himself have been born there, hence could only have been in his twenties at the siege of Jericho as is also evidenced by his marriage to Rahab of Jericho (Matt.1:5) who both from the nature of her calling and the fact that her father, mother, brothers and sisters are mentioned but no husband, could well be as young as 20.

The first time‑period noted at this stage of Israel’s history is the invasion and oppression of Chushan‑Rishathaim the ruler of Aram‑Naharaim, which is stated to have lasted eight years (Judg.3:8), but how long after the Conquest is not said. Under the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, however, invasion and subjection to enemies was one of the penalties of apostasy. Apostasy reared its ugly head during the later lifetime of Joshua, was suppressed, but returned in force after his death and that of "the elders who overlived Joshua" and "all that generation." (Josh.24:31; Jud.2:10‑11 RSV) Joshua died 30  years after the Conquest aged 110; not many of his generation were likely to have survived him by more than a few years and this gives time for the emergence of "another (new) generation...which knew not the LORD, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. " (Judg.2:10) Hence the beginning of the Chushan oppression can be put at say year 45 from the Conquest. It was followed by Othniel’s rule as judge for 40  years; Othniel would have been a young man at the Conquest when he married Achsah (Judg.1:13) but he had just led the victorious assault on Kirjath‑Sepher so could hardly have been less than 30; this would make him 118 at his death. Such age corresponds well with some of his contemporaries.

The famine which decided Elimelech to move into Moab (Ruth 1:1) would also have been a penalty under the Mosaic Covenant for apostasy so that must be taken as occurring at the same time or probably several years before—famine came first, with loss of crops and herds due to drought and so on, followed by invasion and subjection to their enemies. The "elders who outlived Joshua" (Josh.24:31; Judg.2:7‑10 RSV) Must Have Been under 20 when they left Egypt but even so would all be gone in another fifteen years or so after his death. The new generation which knew not the LORD, nor the works which he had done for Israel (Judg.2:10), now in their thirties and forties, were the ones who apostatised. The death of Joshua was the signal and before long idolatry appeared among the people. Hence year 45 from the Conquest could well be the start of the Chushan oppression with Elimelech taking his family into Moab four or five years before, when the famine struck. It is significant that there was apparently no famine in Moab only just next door, demonstrating that there was more than climatic deficiency in the matter. And it is clear that Elimelech was a man of no faith or an apostate or he would not so soon have abandoned the Land of Promise.

The first oppression of Israel by a foreign power after the Conquest was that of "Chushan‑Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia" (Judg.3:8), which lasted eight years. Until comparatively recent times the identity of this king with the terrifying name was quite unknown; none of the usual commentators so much as make a guess at it. With modern knowledge of the history of the times however it is known that at the time of Joshua’s conquest of the Land there existed a powerful state called Mitanni, situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, more or less on the present Iraqi/Turkish border. This state eventually gave way before the rising power of the Hittites soon after the time in question. Its last but one king, Tushratta, died fighting the Hittites, but there are letters from him in existence to the Pharaohs Amen‑hotep Ill and IV, and since the latest findings give the best dates for the reigns of these two Pharaohs as 1430 to 1360 B.C., and the entry of the Israelites into Canaan was in 1413 B.C., it is tolerably certain that "Chushan king of Mesopotamia" of the O.T., was in fact this Tushratta who oppressed Israel for eight years until driven out by Othniel. ("Mesopotamia" is the Greek form of the Hebrew "Aram‑Naharaim"—"Aram of the Rivers," the name by which Israel and Syria knew this land of Mitanni). After the defeat of Tushratta and his son and the Hittite annexation of their land, Suppiluliumas I king of the Hittites went on to attack Egypt and ten years later won a resounding victory at Carchemish. Attacked by the Hittites from the north and Othniel from the south, Tushratta obviously had little chance, hence Othniel’s victory. "And the land had rest forty years." (Judg.3:11)

On this basis the Chushan oppression ended in year 53 of the Conquest by the military prowess of Othniel, who delivered the nation and assumed rule. This deliverance, however, again under the terms of the Covenant, can only have been because the nation had repented and returned to God, and this is in fact so stated in Judg.3:9‑11. Likewise the news coming to Naomi, away in Moab, that "the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread" (Ruth 1:6) implied the same thing; the famine was over and the land was giving its increase in consequence of the nation’s return to the Lord. Naomi, perhaps unlike her husband, was definitely a woman of faith, and it only needed the death of, first, her husband, and then her two sons, to decide her to return to the land of Israel.

If, then, Joshua died at 110. 30  years after the Entry, and the elders who overlived him during the next 15  years, a period of about 45  years between the Entry and the Oppression as indicated by the former considerations would seem just about right. The hero of the Oppression was Othniel, who led the forces against Chushan‑Rishathaim. Othniel was the son of Kenaz, younger brother of Caleb. (Jud.3:9) Caleb.40 at the Exodus, would most likely be say 10  years older than Kenaz, so that Othniel, born in the Wilderness when his father was about 45, would be 25 at the Entry, perhaps up to 30 when he led the victorious assault on Kirjath‑sepher and married Achsah (Judg.1:13), about 78 when he defeated the Mitannian king and delivered Israel, and about 118 at death like so many of his compatriots.

Elimelech had died in Moab and at an unspecified time after his death his two sons had married Moabite girls and had ten years’ married life (Ruth 1:4) and then, both of them, also died. Ruth, one of the widows, is described throughout the story by a word which means a maiden or a young woman so that at this time she could not have been more than in her late twenties. If married at 18 she would have been 28. On the assumption that the two husbands were say 20 at marriage they could have been born in year 36 of the Conquest and their father Elimelech during the wilderness wanderings.

With Ruth’s arrival at Bethlehem at, say, the age of 28, Boaz comes into the story. Boaz was the son of Salmon (Ruth 4:21) and was also a blood relative of the dead Elimelech. (Ruth 2:3) Rahab probably had several sons, of whom Boaz was probably the youngest, both to fit the time scale and because he was still unmarried. On this basis Boaz could have been born to Salmon and Rahab after about 30  years of marriage when Rahab was in her fifties; this would mean that Boaz was about 35 when he met Ruth.

Boaz was related to, "of the kindred of Elimelech." (Ruth 2:3). Hardly his brother, or the fact would have been so stated; more likely in a different family line. This would have been the case if Nahshon had a younger brother, perhaps ten years younger; (Nahshon as the later "prince" of the tribe at the Exodus must of necessity have been the eldest). This unnamed son of Amminadab, brother to Nahshon, could be the father of Elimelech, who was thus cousin to Salmon. Mahlon, son of Elimelech, would then be second cousin to Boaz, son of Salmon. (Ruth 4:20‑21) Under the Levirate law which obliged Mahlon’s nearest living kinsman to marry Ruth and raise an heir to Mahlon’s property, such nearest kinsman, in the absence of living brothers (and Mahlon’s only brother was also dead according to the narrative) would be a first cousin. It could be then that if Elimelech also had a younger brother (who may not have left the land during the famine) that younger brother’s son, Mahlon’s cousin, might well have appeared after or about the time that Naomi had gone to Moab with her husband, which would account for Naomi’s apparent ignorance of this individual, who as Mahlon’s cousin was the "nearest kinsman" with the prior right, and her belief that Boaz was the nearest. Naomi would have known Salmon as the brother of her father‑in‑law and Boaz, as a young man, before her emigration. This "nearest kinsman," cousin to Mahlon, would then be about 20 at the time of the story, old enough for marriage but perhaps not too well disposed towards a woman nearly ten years his senior, and concerned withal as to the possible effect upon his own inheritance.

On the supposition that Elimelech was the eldest son of the unnamed brother of Nahshon, any further descendants of Mahlon’s generation in that line would be too young for marriage, so that upon the refusal of the only eligible cousin the duty passed from that family line into the line of Salmon. Presumably, the older sons of Salmon were already married so that upon Boaz, as the only unmarried son, second cousin to Mahlon although of about the same age, devolved the obligation of the gaal, the kinsman who should marry the deceased man’s widow, and this is what Boaz did do.

Event's map

Summing up: the famine and Elimelech’s migration to Moab was about 40  years after the entry into the land, some 10 years after Joshua’s death, and the invasion of Chushan‑Rishathaim 5  years later. Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem about 11  years after that when Ruth was 28 and Boaz 35. Boaz was second cousin to Mahlon whilst the unnamed kinsman was Mahlon’s cousin. Obed was the firstborn son of Boaz and Ruth, by which time Naomi, who took him in her arms, need have been no more than 80.

The value of this kind of Biblical deduction resides only in the testimony it offers to the historic accuracy and the interdependence of Bible narratives. If the Book of Ruth was a work of fiction or at best a compilation of ancient legends made, as has been claimed, in the days of King David, there would almost certainly be points which could not be reconciled with other Bible books written at other times. As it is the narratives can be shown to fit quite reasonably into the framework of Bible history, which is only what is to be expected if, as is declared by St. Peter, the compilation of these writings was guided and overruled by the power of the Holy Spirit.