Ruth: Bridges and Boundaries
This contemporary yet textually faithful literary commentary offers new insight into the inner workings of the text of Ruth as literary masterpiece. Academic yet accessible, this work provides tools for readers of Ruth and the field of biblical narrative in general.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- The Book of Ruth’s Dating and Objectives
- The Structure of the Book of Ruth
- Artistic Structure
- Theology in the Book of Ruth
- Attitude Towards the Law
- The Narrative’s Employment of Legal Discourse
- Intertextuality Reflecting Violation of the Law
- The Story of Judah and Tamar
- Time and Space in the Book of Ruth
- Introduction to Chapter 1
- Exposition (1:1–6)
- The Long Way Home: Naomi and Her Daughters-in-Law (1:7–18)
- Naomi’s Second Soliloquy (11–14)
- Naomi’s Third Soliloquy (15)
- “Wherever You Go, I Will Go” (16–17)
- Silent Acquiescence (18)
- Naomi (and Ruth’s) Return to Bethlehem (1:19–22)
- Introduction to Chapter II
- Ruth and Boaz’s Encounter in the Field (2:1–23)
- The Solitary Gleaner (2–3)
- Boaz and His Boy in the Field (4–7)
- Boaz Addresses Ruth (8–9)
- Ruth’s Response (10)
- Boaz’s Response (11–12)
- Ruth’s Reaction (13)
- Lunchtime Conversation (14–16)
- The Remains of the Day (17)
- Ruth’s Return to Naomi (18–22)
- The Structure of Ruth 2
- Introduction to Chapter III
- Ruth and Boaz’s Encounter at the Threshing-Floor (3:1–18)
- Naomi’s Suggestive Suggestion (1–5)
- Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing-Floor (6–13)
- Boaz’s Reaction (10–13)
- Daybreak (14–15)
- Uncovering and Covering
- Ruth’s Return to Naomi (16–18)
- Naomi’s Reaction
- The Structure of Ruth 3
- Introduction to Chapter IV
- Before the Law (4:1–12)
- Gathering at the Gate (1–2)
- The First Dialogue – the Redeemer Consents to Redeem the Field (3–4)
- The Second Dialogue – From Redemption to Acquisition (5–8)
- “The Wife of the Deceased” – From Two Widows to One Couple
- From the Redeemer to Boaz
- Boaz’s Declaration (9–10)
- The People’s Blessing: Security and Estate (11–12)
- Two Mothers in Bethlehem (4:13–17)
- Marriage and Birth (13)
- The Choiring of the Town: Let Your Name be Called (14–15)
- The Feminine Signature (14–17)
- “The Father of Jesse the Father of David” (17)
- Appendix – The Lineage of Peretz (4:18–22)
- Reading the Story in Light of Winnicott
- Series index
Opinions regarding the time of the book of Ruth’s composition are polarized, generally falling under one of two adamant approaches: some date its compilation to the period of the united monarchy, during David or Solomon’s reign,1 where others postpone its writing to the period of the Second Temple (although some argue that it originates in between, during the reign of Hezekiah or Josiah).2 Obviously, ← 9 | 10 → as many have commented, the question of its dating colors the understanding of its objectives. Those who claim that Ruth was written during the united monarchy tend to place emphasis on the themes of kindness, or upon David’s genealogy; those who date the book to the period of the Second Temple tend to read it in polemical discourse with Ezra’s condemning of marriage with foreign women. While I do not wish to address the question of Ruth’s dating in these pages, I nonetheless seek to distinguish between the latter and the question of the narrative’s objectives. Of course, it is not always possible to do so, given that different periods raise different issues that must be addressed.3 This is evident in the relationship between the two parameters in the context of our narrative: whoever is convinced that the ← 10 | 11 → text’s main objective is to legitimize marriage with foreign women will favor the period in which this issue comes to a head,4 but the reverse order may also transpire: as mentioned above, one who is certain that the text was compiled during the period of the Second Temple will seek out social conflict that the text seems to address, and the question of foreign women is an obvious candidate. Even so, I believe that the interdependence of these parameters may be severed – so that dating the text to the time of the Second Temple, say, does not necessitate the conclusion that the issue of marriage to foreign women forms the underlying basis for its compilation, for those who returned to Zion faced other challenges, particularly in relation to their conception of the reinstitution of the Judean kingship. Therefore, even if the question of dating is left open (similarly to Harrison, and others),5 there is room to address the question of the story’s objective. I will first review some of the main positions that have emerged in relation to the story’s objective.
Some scholars have contested the very idea of looking for an “objective” within the book of Ruth. Yehezkel Kaufmann, for example, writes that “within the book, there is no hint of an ‘objective,’ nor the faintest suggestion of the tension of a religious denominational war. The story is idyllic, all peace and tranquility… Ruth’s fate is told for story’s sake, without “objective.”6 However, I favor the more accepted position in research, which holds that Ruth does in fact harbor “objectives.” It can be reasonably posited that attempts ← 11 | 12 → to detect the story’s objective stem – consciously or unconsciously – from the book’s integration into the biblical canon. Thus, for example, Moshe Weinfeld attempts to justify his search for the story’s objective: “We have not found stories in the Holy Writ that serve no kind of religious-didactic purpose.”7 The conflicts hinted at within the story touch upon ethical-ideological issues (notably, attitude towards the Other), and the characters are illuminated through their attitude to the Other, presenting the reader with models of appropriate behavior, and behavior that the author frowns upon. It is therefore problematic to say that the story is lacking in didactic objective.8 However, Jack Sasson is correct in asserting the difficulty of pinpointing a single, exclusive objective within the book of Ruth9 – like every good story, the story of Ruth is multifaceted and multilayered, and several themes can be traced within it.
- The Genealogy of King David. The story ends with the presentation of Obed as David’s grandfather (4:17), leading some to conclude that these lines are the main objective of the entire story.10 Driver and Hubbard read the book of Ruth as “an introduction to Davidic kingship” that fills in the genealogical gaps of David’s line in the book of Samuel, one that glorifies David through his ancestry.11 Hals considers the genealogical objective of the book of Ruth in a theological light: divine providence led to his birth.12 A different formulation of this approach claims that this book was written in order to reinforce the Davidic line during periods in which it was challenged (even, perhaps, after the split between Judea and Israel).13 Indeed, the story’s conclusion encourages this reading, although, as others have commented, linking the Davidic dynasty to a Moabite woman does not help justify his descendants’ right to reign, and if this were indeed the narrative objective, then Ruth’s origins would more likely have been downplayed.14
- A Moral Message – the Importance of Hesed, Kindness: There is no doubt that the theme of kindness and compassion is central to ← 13 | 14 → the narrative, and already in Midrash Ruth Rabbah, Rabbi Zeira comments that the story comes to teach about the importance of kindness and its great reward (2:14).15 Many modern scholars have adopted this approach, such as Goitein, Rebera, Davis, and Garsiel, who show how the theme of kindness is in fact the backbone of the entire story;16 or Vellas and Würthwein, who emphasize the elements of kindness in the story that relate to family loyalty.17 However, even though the theme of kindness and family loyalty is ← 14 | 15 → inarguably central to the story, it does not necessarily serve as the story’s objective – rather, it may serve another objective that is reinforced by the thread of kindness woven throughout the story.18
- Encouraging Observance of the Law of Levirate Marriage and Redemption. Gray, who holds this view, argues how the narrator already emphasizes Boaz’s family ties in his introduction in the beginning of chap. 2, thus paving the way towards the redemption which is fulfilled at the end of the story.19 Indeed, the story’s culmination in Ruth and Boaz’s marriage strengthens the argument that this marriage is the purpose of the story, but once again, let us differentiate between a central motif – even a particularly prominent one – and a story’s objective. Central motifs are designed to reinforce ← 15 | 16 → the objective and are therefore necessarily related to it, but they are not necessarily the actual objective that motivates the writing of the story in the first place.
- A Polemic Against Ezra’s Opposition to Marriage with Foreign Women.20 According to this approach, Ruth’s foreignness (her Moabite-ness, no less!) is emphasized, so that the reader can trace the process of her acceptance into the Israelite community and her transformation into a role model to the extent that she merits bearing King David himself. This reading, too, is not unproblematic. Rowley already argues that the story can equally be read as one that supports the exclusion of foreign women, seeing as how Ruth is presented as an obvious exception, who commits to a sincere covenant with the God of Israel, and it is therefore difficult to use her character and marriage as an example for intermarriage in general.21 Some have claimed that the book of Ruth is completely lacking in polemical tension – in the words of B. M. Vellas: “A book which was written in those troubled times of Ezra and Nehemiah as a protest against those men could not possess that beautiful atmosphere and those idyllic surroundings which, so skillfully, the author of Ruth creates, nor could it be possible to possess an unforced, serene and calm tone of style.”22 I am not convinced by Vellas’s claim that the narrative is completely “serene and calm,”; that Ruth’s reception in Bethlehem is completely “idyllic” and devoid of social tension as she struggles for acceptance in Bethlehemite society ← 16 | 17 → (tension reflected, for example, in the words of the supervising boy in 2:6–7); nor do I accept the assumption that polemical arguments cannot be presented in “serene, calm” guise, although Vellas is correct in stating that the subject of marriage with foreign women is not discussed openly in the story. Indeed, many have vehemently rejected this approach, for example, Weinfeld, who writes that this theory has “absolutely no basis in the text,”23 or as Kaufmann puts it: “The question of mixed marriages is not at all hinted to. Ruth is unique and special in her character, her kindness and her love. How can this story be of any use in defending mixed marriages in general?”24 In fact, in a certain sense, there are hints scattered throughout the text that reflect a critical stance of intermarriage. This is most strongly conveyed through the unexplained death of Naomi’s sons in the exposition – unexplained but immediately preceded by the information that they married Moabite women and settled in Moab (which I discuss below). This reading is not binding, but it is highly unlikely that the narrator would have juxtaposed the sons’ marriage and death to allow such interpretation if his objective was to legitimize marriages of this very kind. I very much identify with Athalya Brenner’s summary of this issue: “In the book of Ruth, there is no explicit opinion regarding the question of mixed marriages with foreign women. Ruth’s tale, as it is told, may serve as ammunition against both advocates and adversaries of exogamous marriage.”25
- Justification of Ruth – and the Davidic Dynasty’s – Moabite Origins. This approach is favored by Gerlemann, Gow, Singer and Schwab. Using similar terms, all four express how the story seeks to validate Ruth, the mother of the Davidic dynasty, despite her Moabite ← 17 | 18 → origins.26 In contrast to the previous approach, advocates of this objective do not read the text as a legitimizer of intermarriage in general, but rather as a validating exploration of Ruth and her acceptance within Israel. According to this approach, the objective is indeed polemic, but is not directed against the separatism of Ezra – rather, it addresses those who undermine David’s right to rule: “to justify King David’s partially foreign ancestry and to purify him and his House from the stain of assimilation.”27
The different approaches mentioned here are all based on narrative components, but, as Singer comments:
In general, the various topics that comprise the work, such as kindness, the law of levirate marriage and redemption, the loyalty to the land of Israel and so on and so forth, neither practically nor conceptually govern all its narrative components, and therefore do not convey its complete message.28
The book of Ruth, for all its brevity, is a rich and profound work comprising an intricate network of themes, and the various approaches mentioned do not, I believe, encompass and unify these themes, do not illuminate this work as an organic unit, for they are all based on specific themes within this network. I wish to propose an objective that does unify the multiple strata in this work, one that does touch upon the profound depth of this rich, enduring tale. The theme that weaves the story’s narrative threads together is the concept of compassion towards the Other, and it is this compassion which serves as a preamble to Israelite monarchy, to the birth of David. Ruth, in this ← 18 | 19 → work, represents the ultimate “Other”29: her foreign origins are noted at several crucial turning points in the story, not in order to raise the question of intermarriage but to discuss the general question of how to relate to the foreigner, to the underbelly of society. Ruth is a woman, a widow, a foreigner, lodging with her widowed mother-in-law, and without each other’s help, and without the help of society, they would not be able to survive;30 the book of Ruth is, in the words of Marques, a “survival guide.”31
The story presents Ruth’s kindness and compassion towards her mother-in-law and Boaz’s kindness and compassion towards Ruth, and this itself serves as David’s lineage, as a process which culminates in the founding of the Israelite kingship: monarchy has a place so long as the king is concerned not with himself but with his subjects, and with the weak and needy among them in particular.
The book of Ruth’s objective, therefore, can be defined as a bridge suspended between the book of Judges and the book of Samuel.32 The book explicitly opens in the period of the Judges (“And it came to pass in the days when Judges ruled”), and is embedded with other, gentler allusions that invite the reader to read the story against ← 19 | 20 → a backdrop of the concluding stories of the book of Judges (chaps. 17–21).33 In contrast, the story concludes with the mention of David, and its final verses subtly allude to the opening of the book of Samuel – the townswomen’s description of Ruth to Naomi: “Who is better to you than seven sons” (4:15) echoes Elkana’s words to Hannah: “Aren’t I better to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam 8),34 and the elders’ blessing to Boaz: “through the offspring that the Lord will grant you from this girl” (Ruth 4:12) recalls Eli’s blessing to Elkana: “May the Lord grant you offspring from this woman” (1 Sam 2:20).35 This story is most conveniently placed, therefore, where it is placed in the Septuagint: between the book of Judges and the book of Samuel. Bezalel Porten claims that Elimelech’s very name – which opens the story – is consistent with this framework: “The story opens in the period of the Judges and with Elimelech, whose name means ‘My God is King, and ends with David, the king chosen by God.”36 David Jobling, in a more drastic proposition, offers the book of Ruth as an alternative to the story of Saul’s kingship – for it presents a journey parallel to the beginning ← 20 | 21 → of the book of Samuel, one that skips over Saul’s reign and arrives directly at the kingdom of David.37
If so, the book of Ruth’s objective is to sketch out a fitting model of behavior towards the weak and underprivileged member of society, one that serves as a bridge between the anarchic havoc of the end of the period of the Judges and the beginning of the Israelite Monarchy.38 Moreover, this objective is yet more specific. The question of relation to the Other is set within a world of legal and social conventions that do not allow the full realization of compassion. Each scene in the narrative presents a set of conventions that must be bent or broken in order to advance Ruth’s acceptance into Bethlehemite society. The author of Ruth seems to hold the conviction that accepted norms must be shattered in order to allow compassion towards the weak to be fully realized.
This objective is consistent with the claim that Ruth was compiled at the beginning of the Monarchic period, but it is also easily reconciled with the argument that its compilation dates to the period of the Second Temple. While the exiled Judeans who returned to Jerusalem were conscious of the need to renew the monarchy, they were faced with severe social obstacles. The figure of David must have served as a monarchic prototype to aspire to: “There were certainly those who wished to restore the Davidic dynasty to its rightful place, a goal which became historically evident with the immediate appointment of Sheshbazzar the son of Jeconiah.”39 Even if this was not Davidic kingship in its fullest sense, hope for a renewed monarchy no doubt filled the hearts of the exiles who returned home: “Once the political framework had collapsed, there was no practical, historical need for monarchy. But now the concept of monarchy took on the ideal form ← 21 | 22 → of the re-blossoming of a branch from the tree of Jesse, and became an embodiment of hope that former glory would be restored.”40 The crisis that emerged as a result of such hopes colliding with the harsh political, economic and social reality speaks for itself. In this context, the upper class’ exploitation of the weaker sectors of society deserves special mention:
On the day of your fasting, you do as you please, and exploit all your workers… Is this the kind of fast I have chosen… Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? … Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Thus the book of Ruth is especially fitting for the time of the Second Temple: the author seeks to convey that the founding of kingship in Judea must be preceded by mutual compassion; that enduring monarchy can only be established when all the hungry are sated; when all those in tatters are clothed; when the poor wanderer is provided with shelter.
The objective I propose weaves various accepted opinions into one complex moral message: the book of Ruth is a bridge between anarchy and monarchy that can only be crossed through kindness and compassion towards the Other: kindness and compassion which break convention to privilege the spirit of the law over its letter.
The main plot of the book of Ruth follows the structure of the classic story: the narrative opens with a description of Naomi’s great strife ← 22 | 23 → following the death of her husband and sons (rising action; conflict), and, following two encounters between Boaz and Ruth, Naomi’s family is built anew (falling action; resolution).
In fact, the plot rests on two narrative complications, both of which are solved through Boaz. The exposition already presents two separate crises: famine and death. While Naomi only returns to Bethlehem after she hears that “the Lord had taken note of His people and given them bread” (1:6), both problems remain. Upon her return to Bethlehem she is still a destitute widow. When Ruth encounters Boaz in the field (chap. 2), the problem of sustenance is solved when Boaz shares his bounty with Ruth and entreats her to glean on his field for the rest of the harvest season. In this respect, Boaz takes the place of the providing husband who cares for his wife’s needs. In the scene at the threshing floor, which is resolved at the gate scene (chaps. 3–4), the problem of continuity is solved when Boaz takes Ruth for a wife and she bears a son – Obed.
Each of the three protagonists take on a certain role, which they play on both narrative threads:
- Naomi is the “victim,” the suffering figure in need of salvation. She is passive in relation to the two other protagonists of the story, and the narrator reveals very little information about her. Her soul-baring soliloquy in chap. 1 conveys, above all, her role as suffering victim – and she will be saved only through the actions of the other characters in the story, who act for her sake. This is the case in both chap. 2, when Ruth goes out to the field to glean to provide for them both, and in chap. 3, when Ruth steals away to the threshing-floor. Although Naomi is the one who propels the plot by urging Ruth to go to the threshing-floor, events actually unfold far away from her, without her knowledge or supervision. Her absence and distance from the action is not merely geographical, but rather reflects how unfolding events stray from her original intentions. This process is consistent with the general narrative ← 23 | 24 → tone: the one in need achieves salvation through the kindness of others – the victim is unable to bring about her own redemption.41
- Ruth represents the figure of the heroic mediator: she is the one to bring salvation to Naomi’s doorstep, fulfilling this role on both narrative axes. She ventures out into Boaz’s field to glean (chap. 2) and through her the family line is resurrected (chaps. 3–4). In this context, the first words that the narrator has Naomi utter in the narrative: “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” (1:8) relate not only to her past relationship with her daughters-in-law, but also anticipates the entire plot. The kindness realized in the story as a result of Ruth’s deeds is twofold: she returns to Naomi’s house bearing grain to fill her empty stomach, and a child to fill her empty arms.
- Boaz is the “saviour figure.”42 While Ruth must spur him to action to solve both their hunger (until Ruth comes to glean in his field, he has not helped Naomi out of his own initiative) and their bereavement (Ruth must approach him upon the threshing-floor to move him to take action), in both cases he immediately reacts to her needs with kindness that far exceeds her expectations, acting to end the two widows’ distress out of choice. K. M. Saxegaard reads Boaz as the one who “brings God’s blessing into the ← 24 | 25 → narrative,”43 and her words are justified in the text (2:4,12 ; 3:10), but as I will show in a theological discussion of the story, the relationship between the actions of God and people is more complex.
Thus, all three protagonists play the same role on both narrative strands of the plot. Between Naomi the victim and Boaz the savior stands Ruth the Moabite, the foreigner, as mediator. She is no mere mediator walk-on; she is presented in an unusually heroic light, and every single one of her acts is performed for another’s sake.44 She is the one who brings Boaz’s seed into Naomi’s house: seed from his field that she has gathered in her arms; and seed she carries in his womb to perpetuate the name of Naomi’s deceased sons – “a son is born to Naomi” (4:17). Each scene, in fact, concludes with Ruth presenting Naomi with a gift from Boaz – in chap. 2, she gives her leftover parched grain that Boaz hands her; in chap. 3 she gives Naomi the six measures of grain that Boaz has folded into her apron; and in chap. 4 she presents her with Boaz’s son. Moreover, she is the sole mediator between them – Boaz and Naomi do not meet within the narrative, nor is any dialogue related between them. Despite the fact that they never meet, they use similar language and expressions throughout the narrative,45 which reflects their similar backgrounds and mindsets ← 25 | 26 → – and nonetheless, two Israelites from Bethlehem need the help of a Moabite girl in order to communicate with each other. Regardless of any technical explanations for their failure to meet (perhaps Boaz resented Elimelech and Naomi’s departure from Bethlehem in time of famine; perhaps he thought that the closer redeeming kinsman was taking care of them, etc.) this disjunction plays a clear literary role, one that allows Ruth to fulfill her role as dedicated mediator who offers her very self as a solution to both problems.
As it often happens, the straightforward linear plot also conceals a complex artistic-literary pattern. Frederic Bush argues that the book of Ruth contains four main sequences (according to the number of chapters), and each sequences is composed of three scenes.46
Others have commented that the story’s structure is even more complex, and arranged in a chiastic structure. While there is dispute regarding the precise division into components, the general structure can be presented thus:47 ← 26 | 27 →
|Death in Moab
|Ruth’s voluntary commitment to Naomi (in contrast with Orpah); The women of Bethlehem speak to Naomi, who gives herself a new name
|Ruth and Boaz’s encounter in the field
|(Ruth asks Naomi if she should go to the field, and Naomi consents /
|Ruth arrives at the field / Boaz inquires after her identity / Boaz urges Ruth to remain in his field, blesses her and gives her food / Ruth reports back to Naomi, who reacts).
|Ruth and Boaz’s encounter at the threshing-floor
|(Naomi urges Ruth to go the threshing-floor and Ruth consents / Ruth goes down to the threshing-floor / Boaz inquires after her identity / Boaz urges Ruth to remain at the threshing-floor, blesses her and gives her food / Ruth reports back to Naomi, who reacts).
|Ruth is legally recognized as part of Naomi’s family (Boaz as opposed to the anonymous redeemer). The women of Bethlehem speak to Naomi and give a name to Naomi’s heir.
|The family is re-established in Bethlehem
According to this structure, the story can be divided into two main parts: chaps. 1–2, and chaps. 3–4.48 Bertman is convinced that the significance of this structure is purely literary: an aesthetic convention; designed to produce narrative balance, and so on and so forth.49 Nielsen proposes that this structure is designed to create the impression of order: the great tragedy that opens the story serves as a platform for redemption so great that it leads to the birth of a royal dynasty in Israel. This order contributes to the sense of divine providence, of the hand of God that sends forth famine and salvation at will.50
This chiastic structure emphasizes the theme of reversal, of renewal: in context of both plot and character. The story opens with death, and ends with birth and life; the grave loneliness of two childless ← 27 | 28 → widows is healed with a new family; tragedy is transformed into the promise of royalty.
This reversal is especially apt in the framing units of the story (a-b/ b’-a’). For now, it suffices to mention the motif of “naming,” which is noticeably repetitive in these units:
“The name of the man was Elimelech/ the name of his wife was Naomi/ and the name of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion…and they married Moabite women, the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other was Ruth (1:2–4).”
This motif can be traced throughout the story, culminating in the final scene of the narrative in chapter 4:
“to perpetuate the name of the dead on his estate…and I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, wife of Mahlon for a wife, to perpetuate the name of the deceased on his estate, and the name of the deceased will not be cut off from amongst his brothers and the gate of his hometown…be valiant in Ephratah and let your name be called in Bethlehem…and the women said to Naomi, Blessed is the Lord, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today, and they called his name in Israel… and the neighbors gave him a name, saying, A son is born to Naomi, and they called his name Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David (4:5–17).
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2015 (June)
- Naomi Boaz Peretz Two mothers in Bethlehem
- Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 348 pp.