By Rabbi Tuly Weisz
According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Zeira, the Book of Ruth was included in Hebrew scripture in order “To teach us the greatness of the reward for acts of lovingkindness.” However, there is another opinion that explains the need for this book. According to the Zohar Chadash, the Book of Ruth was written to present the lineage of King David. This is supported by the fact that the book concludes with the genealogy of King David (Ruth 4:16-22).
Other major characters in the Bible, such as Abraham, Moses and Samuel, are introduced with a genealogy, but the genealogy of King David is introduced with the words v’eileh toldot, “These are the generations of” (Ruth 4:18). While this phrase is commonly used in the Book of Genesis, it only appears twice in the rest of the Bible.
What is unique about the genealogy of King David that it is introduced with these words?
The genealogy of King David is more than just the origin story of a particular king. The genealogy in the Book of Ruth provides the origins of the very institution of Jewish monarchy! This is why the lineage is introduced with the phrase v’eileh toldot. The first time it is used outside of the Book of Genesis is in Numbers 3, where it introduces the priestly genealogy. The second time is here, at the end of the Book of Ruth, where it introduces the royal genealogy. These two genealogies are the only two times that a family is selected for a specific role to lead the nation, and hence they are introduced with the same phrase.
There is a well known debate about the Bible’s approach to monarchy. On the one hand, when the Jewish people request a king in the Book of Samuel, Samuel is very upset. God seems to agree with him that the request is inappropriate, and tells Samuel that in requesting a king they are rejecting God (I Samuel 8:4-9).
However, in Deuteronomy the Bible seems to allow, and some say even command, that the Jewish people appoint a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). In fact, at the very beginning of the Bible we see that God considers monarchy a blessing. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be kings: “and kings shall come forth from you” (Genesis 17:6). He makes a similar promise to Jacob: “kings shall issue from your loins” (Genesis 35:11).
Commentators explain that the legitimacy of a monarch hinges on the people’s motivation in appointing the king. The problem in the Book of Samuel was that the people demanded a king in order “to govern us like all other nations.” Since their motivation was to be like the other nations, the request was improper. However, if the purpose of appointing the king is to keep the people on the path of God, then such a king is not only legitimate but beneficial.
Throughout the Bible, however, we find uneasiness with monarchy. On the one hand, it is necessary to maintain order, an idea which is clearly expressed in the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). A king is also needed to further the national purpose of the Jewish people: to bring about a universal recognition of the Divine and to disseminate this recognition throughout the world. Succeeding in this mission requires a strong and stable government.
On the other hand, we see throughout the Bible that monarchy is fraught with challenges, and that concentrating the power of the kingdom into the hands of one individual has the potential to corrupt. Indeed, there was not even a single righteous king from among all of the northern Israelite kings! This is why the Bible places restrictions on the king, which are meant to serve as a system of checks and balances in order to keep the king on the right path and prevent him from abusing his power.
The Book of Ruth provides a solution and proper framework for the institution of monarchy. As we have shown previously, Ruth serves as an extreme example of kindness and selflessness. Through her actions, she models the type of behavior that is expected of a king of Israel. With this “kindness DNA” in their genetic makeup, the kings that descend from the Davidic line have a chance to overcome the challenges and temptations that come alongside absolute power. They have the ability to put aside their own egos in order to look out for the good of their subjects and their country, and to lead the people in their Divine mission of bringing Godliness and morality to the world.
With this understanding, we can reconcile the two reasons given for why the Book of Ruth was recorded in the Bible. It was written to teach the importance of kindness, as Rabbi Zeira asserts, and specifically the type of kindness that was essential to create and sustain the Davidic dynasty.
May we soon see the return of David’s line, and the redemption of Israel and the entire world!