Was Ruth Barren?

The New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth

Ruth was probably barren before she had little Obed. This is something I haven’t heard before, or at least I don’t remember hearing. However, after studying the text and consulting some commentaries, I do believe that before Ruth conceived and gave birth to Obed she was most likely unable to have children. Why do I say this?

First, notice the text of Ruth 4:13: the LORD enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son (NET; NIV, NASB similar). The HCS says the LORD granted conception to her and the NLT puts it this way: the LORD enabled her to become pregnant. The Hebrew is pretty straightforward: “Yahweh gave (נתן) to her conception (הריונ) [or pregnancy].” This is not the common way in the Hebrew Bible to say a woman became pregnant. This is more like the language of Yahweh’s direct intervention.

Second, Ruth had been married to Mahlon for around 10 years before he died. She came back with Naomi to Israel childless. To be married for around 10 years in the ANE and not have children was uncommon unless the couple was unable to have children.

Third, this would also help explain the depth and bitterness of Naomi’s grief (cf. Ruth 1:20-21). Not only did her husband and sons die but all she had left was Ruth, who was unable to conceive, thus cutting off all hope for Naomi’s future security (e.g. inheritance, provision, land, and progeny). Also, Ruth’s barrenness helps explain the sheer joy of the women in Bethlehem when they heard she had finally had a child (Ruth 4:14-15).

Here’s how Daniel Block states it:

…“[T]he Lord gave her [Ruth] conception” (literal rendering). This is only the second time in the book where the narrator has God as a subject of a verb (cf. 1:6), but how significant is this statement! The expression hērāyôn, “conception, pregnancy,” occurs in only two other Old Testament texts: Gen 3:16 and Hos 9:11. But the present idiom, “to grant/give conception,” is unique. This statement must be interpreted against the backdrop of Ruth’s apparently ten-year marriage with Mahlon, for whom she seems to have been unable to conceive. Now, in fulfillment of the prayer of the witnesses in the gate (vv. 11–12), Yahweh graciously grants Ruth pregnancy as a gift. This is the narrator’s modest way of identifying a miracle; she who had been unable to bear a child for Mahlon has conceived for Boaz.

Daniel Isaac Block, Judges, Ruth, vol. 6, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 725–726.

Matthew Henry said it like this:

Ruth a mother: The Lord gave her conception; for the fruit of the womb is his reward, Ps. 127:3. It is one of the keys he hath in his hand; and he sometimes makes the barren woman that had been long so to be a joyful mother of children, Ps. 113:9; Isa. 54:1.

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 380.

More could be said, for sure, but this is further proof of God’s sovereign and amazing providence at work in the story of Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and Obed – which is ultimately the lineage and line of Jesus, Messiah, David’s son. Nothing can stop God’s plan of salvation in and through his Son!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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