As Naomi sets out to go back to her homeland, her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah set out with her. They are native Moabites, and it is unlikely that they have ever been to Israel. However, several times, the account points out they are "returning" to Israel.

Ruth 1:7 Wherefore she went forth out of the place where she was, and her two daughters in law with her; and they went on the way to return unto the land of Judah. [KJV]

Ruth 1:10 And they said unto her, Surely we will return with thee unto thy people. [KJV]

Ultimately, Orpah turns back to her ancestral household in Moab, but Ruth continues on with Naomi.

Ruth 1:22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter in law, with her, which returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest.

The Hebrew word here is shub. Is there a greater meaning in the word than simply moving from one geographic place to another (at least in this context)?

  • You probably know it's etymology better than the rest of us. Have you done any study on the "Ruth Test"(ie: the process by which one converts to Judaism)?
    – Tau
    Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 1:26
  • @user2479, I actually did a whole paper on proselytism while in seminary and repentance in the OT (which uses shub) for part of another. I'm hoping for other insights to shub.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Aug 9, 2014 at 2:45
  • I've touched on this already, but give me a couple of days and I'll try to get to giving you a full answer. Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 3:39
  • @BruceJames, I look forward to it.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 13:53

2 Answers 2


Your question is not a new one, but was asked centuries ago by the rabbis. The answer depends upon whether you are looking for a literal or metaphoric meaning.

Ruth 1:22 says:

וַתָּשָׁב נָעֳמִי וְרוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה כַלָּתָהּ עִמָּהּ הַשָּׁבָה מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב וְהֵמָּה בָּאוּ בֵּית לֶחֶם בִּתְחִלַּת קְצִיר שְׂעֹרִים

"So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in- law, with her, who returned from the fields of Moab-and they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest."

The question focuses on the second use of the verb "to return" (highlighted in the text), which has a literal meaning -- as to return to the place you once lived -- or a metaphorical meaning -- as to repent, and thereby return to God. Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra (known in Jewish texts as the "Ibn Ezra") (Toledo, Spain 1089-1164), in his commentary cleaves to the literal meaning of the word and says that the second use of the verb must apply to Naomi, since Ruth had never been to the Land of Israel. His commentaries, however, tend to rely on literal translations. But he is supported by the Midrash which suggests that the second reference is the people of Israel commenting about Naomi, pointing to her saying (according to the Midrashic tradition) "this is the one who returned from the fields of Moab." See Ruth 1:19.

Rav Shmuel de Uzeda, the 16th century Kabbalist from Safed, and author of the encyclopedic commentary on Ruth called Iggeres Shmuel, says that the second "return" refers in fact to Ruth. As a Moabite, Ruth was a descendant of Lot who had a level of righteousness, from his connection to Abraham, that was sufficient to spare him from the destruction of Sodom, but he gave in to lust and fathered children with his daughters. Her ancestors also refused to trade with the Israelites of the Exodus as they were returning to Israel. So in this case, "who returned" should be translated as "who repented" for the sins of her ancestors. Moreover, following the logic that the souls of all righteous converts to Judaism had been present with those of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, Iggeres Shmuel says that the literal meaning of "who returned" can also be understood to apply to Ruth because her desire to be part of the Jewish people was so great, it was as if she was born in Israel. From Rav Shmuel's perspective, Ruth's sincere conversion to Judaism caused the reunification of the families of Israel and Lot, making possible the kingship of David.


Shub appears over a thousand times in the Old Testement. Much like our own word "return," it has many, many meanings, both literal and figurative.

This is what Strong's Concordance has to say: (7725)

A primitive root; to turn back (hence, away) transitively or intransitively, literally or figuratively (not necessarily with the idea of return to the starting point); generally to retreat; often adverbial, again -- ((break, build, circumcise, dig, do anything, do evil, feed, lay down, lie down, lodge, make, rejoice, send, take, weep)) X again, (cause to) answer (+ again), X in any case (wise), X at all, averse, bring (again, back, home again), call (to mind), carry again (back), cease, X certainly, come again (back), X consider, + continually, convert, deliver (again), + deny, draw back, fetch home again, X fro, get (oneself) (back) again, X give (again), go again (back, home), (go) out, hinder, let, (see) more, X needs, be past, X pay, pervert, pull in again, put (again, up again), recall, recompense, recover, refresh, relieve, render (again), requite, rescue, restore, retrieve, (cause to, make to) return, reverse, reward, + say nay, send back, set again, slide back, still, X surely, take back (off), (cause to, make to) turn (again, self again, away, back, back again, backward, from, off), withdraw.

So we need not think of the verses as reading that Ruth physically returned to a place that she had physically been to before. Notably, in Joshua 1:10, the word is used to refer to the Israelites "returning" to the Holy Land, where almost none of them had ever been before.

Most likely, the use of the word is intended to be a read in a similar manner as someone saying "My friend Johannes returned to Germany for his mother's funeral, and I returned with him." The actual "returning" is being done by my friend, but I'm a party to the journey, so I'm also "returning."

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