Ruth: A Reading of Scripture?
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the story of Ruth in terms of the usages it shares, often uniquely, with single verses or discrete contexts elsewhere in the canons of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. A review of its broadly symmetrical structure precedes a listing of more than a dozen such links, mostly with Genesis, Samuel, and Job. Wider allusions follow: to the ideal woman of Proverbs 31, the scandal at Gibeah (Judges 19), and the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25). It is argued that the meaning of Hebrew g’l, conventionally “redeem,” must be recovered within the story rather than imported from other texts. While obviously a women’s book, the role of Boaz as exemplar of biblical tradition should not be underplayed.
This chapter explores the story of Ruth in terms of the usages it shares, often uniquely, with single verses or discrete contexts elsewhere in the canons of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. A review of its broadly symmetrical structure precedes a listing of more than a dozen such links, mostly with Genesis, Samuel, and Job. Wider allusions follow an interim balance: to the ideal woman of Prov 31, the scandal at Gibeah (Judg 19) and the levirate law (Deut 25), and the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27 and 36). In seeming tension with this deep indebtedness to other “biblical” books, it is argued that the meaning of Hebrew g’l, conventionally “redeem,” must be recovered within the story rather than imported from other texts. While in some senses Ruth is obviously a women’s book (the female cast is particularly strong), the role of Boaz as a fine exemplar of biblical tradition should not be underplayed. Comparing and contrasting the book of Ruth with Judges 19–21 helps focus on different canonical options. Translations are my own, except where noted.
The biblical book called Ruth is a very finely crafted short story. Although there are good reasons for the traditional title of the book, Ruth herself is named only twelve times over the course of the story, while the two senior characters are mentioned more often: Naomi, twenty-one times, and Boaz, twenty times. A case could be made for renaming it “Naomi.” Naomi features even more widely throughout the narrative, from beginning (1:2) to end (4:14–17), while Ruth is mentioned first in 1:4 and last in 4:13. Ruth as title focuses on the means, while Naomi would direct our attention to the end—the restoration of a devastated Bethlehem family.
It is now very widely recognized that the medieval chapter divisions correspond to four natural stages in the story. These stages are underscored by verbal links at the end (p. 216) of these “chapters” (Korpel 2001: 222): “at the start of the barley harvest” (1:22), “until the end of the barley harvest” (2:23), and “unless he has ended the matter today” (3:18). In the traditional Hebrew text (MT), as represented in both the most ancient codices, only one major break is noted: by leaving a space at the end of 4:17. This comes at the end of the narrative, and it marks off the closing genealogy (4:18–22) as separate material. Critics are divided over whether this genealogy of ten names (nine generations) from Perez to David (the details agree with 1 Chr 2:4–15) is original and integral to the book. Be that as it may, Perez is already mentioned in 4:12, and David is the last word of 4:17.
Chapter 1 reports a family forced out of Bethlehem by famine and taking up residence in Moab. Father Elimelech dies there; his sons both marry Moabite women, but within ten years of leaving home both also die, still childless. On hearing that the famine is over, their mother Naomi starts home to Judah. On the way, she asks her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers’ homes: Orpah eventually leaves, but Ruth insists on continuing with Naomi. When they reach Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest, the townswomen recognize Naomi, but they ignore her companion (Gitay 1993: 182–183).
Chapter 2 informs us before we meet him that Boaz is a man of substance who is related to Elimelech. Ruth proposes, supported by Naomi, to glean in the harvest fields; and she “just happens” (v. 3) on Boaz’s field. When Boaz arrives and is told that the stranger in his field is the Moabite who has come back to Bethlehem with Naomi, he treats her generously; and Naomi understands the significance of Ruth’s report to her.
Naomi prompts Ruth (ch. 3) to offer herself at night to a relaxed Boaz at his threshing floor. He accepts Ruth’s challenge to act as redeemer. However, pointing out that he is not the closest relative, he insists that their tryst remain secret. Naomi again understands Ruth’s report of what Boaz has said and the meaning of the barley she brings from him.
At the city gate next morning (ch. 4), Boaz asks the unnamed potential redeemer to join him, recruits a quorum of elders, and announces that Naomi is selling her late husband’s land. The redeemer is willing to buy till he learns that a future claim on this land may come from Ruth’s offspring. Boaz is left free both to redeem the field and marry Ruth. Their son Obed is credited to Naomi by her neighbors, who are now loud in their praise of Ruth; and Obed turns out to be grandfather to the future king David.
The narrative has often been characterized as broadly symmetrical. Balanced structure is more obvious in the two central chapters: each features talk between Ruth and Naomi (2:2; 3:1–5) that leads to an encounter between Ruth and Boaz (2:3–16; 3:6–15), then Ruth’s report back to Naomi (2:17–22; 3:16–18). Boaz expresses a wish for Yahweh’s intervention in both 2:12 and 3:10. The earlier wish ends by noting that Ruth has come seeking refuge under Yahweh’s “wings” (knp); and Ruth uses exactly this word (which literally means an “edge” or “extremity”) when she asks Boaz to spread over her the “skirt/edge” of his garment (3:9). Boaz demonstrates complete understanding of Ruth’s situation, and he functions as representative of Yahweh. He also speaks like a king or prophet in Samuel-Kings when he emphasizes what he says both directly to her (2:11) and to his staff about her (2:16) by using the cognate infinitive absolute.
There are several links between the outer chapters, too. The story opens in the period of the judges and closes with mention of David. It starts with the death of all the men in an Ephrathite family (1:2) and finishes first with a wish for children in Ephrath (p. 217) (4:11) and then the report of a birth and a (short) genealogy (4:13–17). Yahweh intervenes explicitly only twice in the book: to return food to Bethlehem (1:6) and to ensure conception for Ruth (4:13). And the women of Bethlehem, rather like a Greek chorus, greet both Naomi’s return from Moab (1:19) and the birth of Ruth’s (or Naomi’s!) child (4:14–17). These similarities between first and last chapters throw into relief one principal difference: all the speaking in the first is done by women, while in the last it is almost all by men with the women’s chorus as sole exception.
Korpel has offered the most sustained account of the structure of the book of Ruth, which she describes as a narrative text in poetic form. In the main, the cola in Ruth are shorter than in classical Hebrew prose, and “parallelism accounts for many of the seemingly superfluous repetitions” (Korpel 2001: 223). She notes, however, that still greater balance can be achieved in the structure she has detected if both 1:12b–13a and 1:16b are recognized as later supplements, and it is agreed that a report of Ruth naming her child was suppressed (after 4:13) when the fuller ten-name genealogy (4:18–22) was added. She bases her analysis on the full resources of the Masoretic text—not just its consonants and their vocalization but also the traditional accentuation that defines phrasing. And she finds wide ancient support for the implied paragraphs (or Subcantos) in other ancient versions: not only the Aramaic Targum and Syriac Peshitta (both close to the Hebrew tradition) but also the Greek LXX. On the latter point, it is true that the start of each of her thirteen “Subcantos” does correspond to the start of one of the forty-eight divisions in our earliest Greek manuscript (LXXB) marked by the scribe with a negative indent; but the same is not always the case at her lesser levels of “canticle” or “strophe.”
Ruth taking the initiative with Boaz at his threshing-floor (ch. 3) recalls two stories in the book of Genesis. First, Ruth’s own forefather Moab had been produced by Lot’s elder daughter getting him drunk and lying with him (Gen 19). Then, second, Tamar, who tricked Judah into performing his family duty by her (Gen 38), is explicitly mentioned (4:12), and Perez, her son, was an ancestor of Boaz. And Ruth’s grandson David would send “[his] father and mother” to her land for safety (1 Sam 22:3–4). Such “genetic” links in the storyline encourage further probes of the book’s lexical DNA.
The first probe is of the several words or phrases that occur just once within this short story and once (or rarely) elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Some of these individual links appear significant as soon as they are mentioned. Considered together, their force is all the more compelling.
1. The opening words, “in the days when the judges judged,” resonate in different directions, giving an early indication of what we may expect of other significant words and phrases. First, the cognate subject and verb (“judges judged”) appear together again only once: in the report of Josiah’s reformed Passover (but only as reported in 2 Kgs 23:22, and not in the parallel passage in 2 Chr 35:18). And Passover was (p. 218) celebrated at the time of barley harvest (1:22; 2:23). Then the final chapters of the book called Judges (17–21) deal with scandalous events related to Bethlehem.
2. As the story of Ruth begins to unfold, it may appear unremarkable that two refugees from Judah in Moab should marry “Moabite wives.” However, only two other “biblical” contexts mention “Moabite wives”: each within a larger list of “foreign wives,” because of whom first Solomon (1 Kgs 11:1) and later men from Judah (Neh 13:23) are blamed.
3. Only Job (27:2) and Naomi (1:20) make “the Almighty” (šadday) subject of “brought bitterness.” This divine title is used almost twice as often in Job (thirty-one times) as elsewhere in HB together (seventeen times); and it is only in Job (nine times) and Ruth (twice) that we find šadday as subject of a verb. Naomi names God “the Almighty” again in 1:21, blaming him for causing her evil.
4. Rizpah was another remarkably strong woman, courageous in support of her family. After David had seven members of Saul’s family killed, Rizpah protected their exposed corpses, action that shamed David into granting them burial. The story in which she features also started in a grievous famine (2 Sam 21:1), and it was at “the beginning of the barley harvest” (only 21:9 and Ruth 1:22) that her relatives were killed.
5. Apart from Ruth 2:2, the only biblical passage in which the words for “glean” and “ears of grain” are linked is Isa 17:5, within an oracle about the diminished glory of Jacob. There the harvest scene is set in the valley of Rephaim, which has Jerusalem at its head and Bethlehem nearby.
6. “Native land” (or “land of [your] birth”) is a phrase used only in 2:11 and Gen 24:7, where Abraham recalls he had been taken by Yahweh from “his father’s house and his native land,” and instructs his servant to return there and find a wife for his son.
7. The only close parallel to Boaz’s wish for Ruth (2:12), that “Yahweh may repay your deed,” is spoken in Job 34:11—“deed” (pa‘al) is object of “pay” (šlm, piel) only in these two verses. In Job, the implied subject of “repay your deed” must be El or Shaddai, as both divine names are used in the two adjacent verses (34:10, 12). Naomi had cited Job himself in Ruth 1:20 (3 earlier), and Boaz now responds to Ruth using words of Elihu.
8. The next key term in Boaz’s wish for Ruth (2:12) takes us back to the book of Genesis. The Hebrew word for “wage” is found again only in the reports about the bargain struck by Jacob and Laban in Gen 29:15, where their deal is made; and in 31:7, 41, where Jacob complains about Laban’s trickery. The last of these Genesis parallels provides yet another link with Ruth. Had God not intervened against his father-in-law who was always changing his “wage” (31:41–42), Jacob would have been sent away “empty[-handed].” Naomi had used the same word when she complained against Yahweh (1:21) that he had “brought her back empty” to Bethlehem (Beyer 2014: 153). And Boaz will acknowledge the problem when he counts out six measures of barley, telling Ruth that she should not return to her mother-in-law “empty[-handed]” (3:17). The adjective šlm, meaning “full/complete,” nowhere else in HB modifies a term for payment; but its use in 2:12 alongside “wage” effects a nice juxtaposition with the piel form of the verb šlm in the previous clause (7 earlier). (p. 219)
9. We have already noted the play on kanap, introduced by Boaz in 2:12, when he mentions that Ruth has “come to shelter under [Yahweh’s] wings.” “Shelter under his wings” is found only once more (Ps 91:4), early in a psalm whose opening verse ends “will lodge in the shade of the Almighty (šadday).” Only one other psalm uses that divine title (68:15), and we shall discuss later (18) the significance of “lodge” in Ruth 1:16; 3:13. But we can add here that the only two occurrences in Ezekiel (1:24; 10:5) of “the Almighty” (3 and 7 earlier) are also associated with the “wings” [of the cherubim].
10. “. . . who has not abandoned his ḥesed” is said only of Yahweh in Gen 24:27 and again in Ruth 2:20, though verb and noun are also linked in Jonah 2:9. (At 6 earlier, another link with Gen 24 was noted.)
11. Outside Ruth 4:9–11, Josh 24:22 provides the only example of the challenge “you are witnesses” being met by the one-word response “[we are] witnesses.”
Other relevant links are with words or phrases which occur in Ruth and more often elsewhere, but just in one or two contexts.
12. When Ruth swears “So may [God] do” in 1:17, she uses an oath formula found elsewhere in HB only in Samuel-Kings (eleven times). It is in fact uttered by her grandson David more than any other character. Normally “God” is the subject: only one more time (1 Sam 20:13) is “Yahweh” the subject, and there as here it introduces a pledge of commitment (Campbell 1975: 74–75).
13. The noun “chance” (miqrēh) is found outside Ruth 2:3 only in 1 Sam 6:9; 20:26 and in Qoh 2:14, 15; 3:19; 9:2, 3. In Qoh 2:14, 15, the cognate verb “happen” (qrh) is also used; and this verb is found on its own in Esth 4:7; 6:13. The Philistine diviners propose a test (1 Sam 6:9) for deciding whether the plagues that had afflicted them after they captured the ark were a matter of chance or were caused by Yahweh. However, a reader of Ruth within the biblical tradition will not readily accept that binary choice: what appeared to Ruth at the time to be pure chance was in fact divine guidance.
14. Only three women are described in HB as washing (rḥṣ); two of them are certainly foreign, the daughter of Pharaoh (Exod 2:5) and Ruth the Moabite (3:3), while Bathsheba (2 Sam 11–12) is wife to Hittite Uriah. Washing is only one of several similarities between the stories of Ruth, grandmother of David, and Bathsheba, mother of Solomon. Naomi instructs Ruth to wash and anoint herself and then, after Boaz has eaten and drunk and lain down, to uncover his “legs” and herself “lie down” (3:3–4). David instructs Uriah to go to his house and wash his “legs” (2 Sam 11:8); and Uriah’s seemingly knowing refusal (11:11) includes the words “shall I go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie down with my wife?”
15. A daughter-in-law “better for you than seven sons” (4:15) may have double resonance in 1 Sam: echoing both Elkanah claiming to Hannah (1:10) he is better for her than ten sons, and also David chosen by Samuel in preference to seven elder brothers (16:6–13).
(p. 220) Preliminary Assessment
If we assume that that these links represent conscious borrowing or allusion, then the following intertextual reading may be sketched of the book of Ruth in its biblical context. Ruth’s risqué approach at night to a Boaz who had been celebrating harvest-home risked evoking national[ist] memories of the provocative sexuality of Moabite women (Num 25) and even the DNA of their foremother, who had encouraged her sister to join with her in sleeping with Lot, their father (Gen 19). However, by means of a dense series of deliberate allusions to portions of Genesis (6, 8, 10), Joshua (11), Samuel-Kings (1, 2, 4, 12, 13, 14, 15), Isaiah (5), Psalms (9), Job (3, 7), Qohelet (13), and Nehemiah (2), Ruth’s behavior is warmly supported. And we are also reminded that Boaz’s own ancestor, Perez, had similar origins in Tamar’s entrapment of a similarly celebrating Judah, and that David, his descendant, would make a similar attempt to entrap Uriah.
The story of Ruth may be set “in the days when the judges judged”; but it is with Samuel (and Kings) that the closest word links exist: not only the two indicators of time (1, 4) but also the oath-formula Ruth uses (12), the happenstance of her choice of Boaz’s harvest field (13), and the claim of Bethlehem’s women that Ruth was better for Naomi than seven sons (15). The opening time reference deftly evokes both days of old and the precise season of Passover at barley harvest (1). When this is reinforced by a specific mention of barley harvest, the wording also recalls Rizpah and her courageous care of the corpses of her dead menfolk throughout a hot summer (4). Abraham following divine promise and guidance from a distant land (as well as the hope that Rebekah will follow suit) are recalled from Gen 24 (6 and 10). Naomi has protested against the Almighty like Job himself (3), and Boaz answers Ruth in Elihu’s words from the same book (7).
Of the fifteen close links in wording noted earlier, almost all seemed immediately relevant to Ruth’s story. We move next to identify cases where the same cluster of features occurs in Ruth and in one (exceptionally two) other biblical context(s).
16. There are several echoes through Ruth of the end of Gen 2 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked . . .”)
• Naomi tries to send both women back to their mother’s homes (1:8)
• Ruth instead “clings to her” (1:14)
• “and you left your father and mother” (2:11)—the verb “leave” governs this double object (father and mother) elsewhere only in Gen 2:24
• Ruth requests covering from Boaz (3:9)
(p. 221) 17. “A woman of substance” (’ēšet ḥayil) is found in HB only in Ruth 3:11 and Prov 31:10; and this phrase is only one of several links between our short story and the acrostic poem that concludes the book of Proverbs (31:10–31).
(a) Each uses šll (normally “spoil” or “plunder”) in a striking way. The woman’s husband (31:11) will not lack šll (NRSV softens the noun to “gain”). And a literal translation of Boaz’s instruction to his servants (2:16) would be “and also really plunder for her from the sheaves.”
(b) “Her husband is known at the gates, taking his seat with the elders of the land” (31:23) is richly echoed in Ruth 4:1–2, where Boaz goes up “to the gate,” “sits down” there, and gathers ten men of the “elders” of the city.
(c) “The teaching of ḥesed is on her lips” (31:26); and, while Naomi attributes this quality to Yahweh (1:8; 2:20), Boaz attributes it to Ruth (3:10).
(d) The closing words of Proverbs, “and let her works praise her in the gates” (31:31), resonate with Boaz’s words to Ruth (3:11): “the whole gate of my people knows that you are a woman of substance.”
18. The verb “spend the night” (lîn) is used twice at key points in Ruth: first within Ruth’s solemn declaration to Naomi in 1:16 (“where you lodge, I will lodge”), and then within Boaz’s response to Ruth on the threshing floor in 3:13 (“stay here tonight”). The biblical story is which this verb is most densely used (as often as eleven times in seventeen verses) concerns the Levite whose partner would be grossly abused in Gibeah (Judg 19); and it also features in contexts already discussed earlier: Gen 19 and 24 (6 and 10) and Ps 91 (9). The tale told in Judg 19 also starts in Bethlehem: the Levite returns there to “speak to the heart of” the woman (19:3), words used by Ruth in appreciation of Boaz (2:13). And eating, drinking, and making merry (like Boaz in 3:3, 7) was the entertainment offered to the Levite both by the woman’s father in Bethlehem (Judg 19:4, 9) and by their host in Gibeah (19:21–22). The idiom “speak to the heart of” is used eight times more in HB, and the situation is generally a fraught one. In three of these, a man is making overtures to a woman: Hamor to Dinah, whom he has just raped (Gen 34:3); the Levite to his partner, who has run away from him (Judg 19:3); and Yahweh to Israel, his wife who has committed adultery (Hos 2:16). In three more, Joseph, now viceroy in Egypt, reassures the brothers who had earlier got rid of him (Gen 50:21), King David is urged to win over the troops he has insulted (2 Sam 19:8), and Yahweh comforts banished Jerusalem (Isa 40:1–2). In 1 Sam 1:13, a distraught Hannah is speaking to her own heart; and it is unclear what is intended in Hezekiah speaking to the heart of the Levites (2 Chr 30:22). In two of these passages (Gen 50:21 and Isa 40:1–2), as also in Ruth 2:13, the idiom “speak to the heart of” follows and intensifies the verb “console”; but only in the book of Ruth (in 4:15) does it go on to share with Gen 50:21 the verb “provide for.” And the linkage between Ruth and the Joseph story is even closer: in Ruth, the provision is precisely for Naomi’s old age (literally “gray hair”), (p. 222) while Jacob’s other sons had earlier (Gen 44:31) begged Joseph not to imperil their father’s gray hair by insisting on seeing Benjamin. The four verbal links between Ruth and Judg 19 serve to underline how different the Moabite woman’s treatment by Boaz just outside the town of Bethlehem was from the Bethlehemite woman’s fate at the hands of Gibeathites inside the “protection” of their own town.
19. When Boaz declares that he is taking Ruth as wife (4:10) “to raise the name of the deceased over his property, so that the name of the deceased be not cut off from his brothers,” his language seems to draw on two sources. The most obvious link is with the law in Deut (25:5–10) about levirate marriage: (a) The terms “wife of the deceased” and “name of the deceased” are found only in Ruth 4 and Deut 25. (b) The eldest son of a levirate union of widow with brother-in-law “should rise over the name of his deceased brother, so that his name is not blotted out from Israel” (25:6). Just as English “raise” and “rise” are linked in both sound and sense, so too Hebrew hāqîm (“raise”) is a causative form of the verb qûm (“rise”). But there is one interesting change: Boaz replaces “not blotted out” with “not cut off.” The latter verb is a key component of the divine promise relating to the house of David: “a man of yours shall not be cut off from before me, seated on Israel’s throne” (1 Kgs 8:25||2 Chr 6:16; and similarly 1 Kgs 9:5). This royal man of promise is called (Yahweh’s) “servant” (‘ebed) in almost every verse of the whole paragraph in 1 Kgs (8:23–30); and the name Obed (‘ôbēd) that will be given to Boaz’s son (4:17) is cognate and means “Server.” In the very same breath as Boaz declares he is doing his duty as (stand-in) brother-in-law, he is also anticipating the divine promise to David.
20. The legal problem relating to the property of Zelophehad, who died having fathered daughters only and no sons, is treated twice in Numbers: first in Num 27:1–11 near the end of an earlier version of that book, and then in Num 36, which closes the canonical version. The noun naḥalâ, meaning “[heritable] property,” and often translated “inheritance,” is used very widely in these chapters (six times in Num 27:1–11, and eighteen times in Num 36); and the same term features in Ruth 4:5, 6, 10. A second linguistic similarity is the use seven times in Ruth (1:82, 9, 11, 13, 19; 4:11) and twice in Num 27:7–8 (though never in Num 36) of apparently masculine plural forms in contexts where feminine would be expected (Embry 2016: 38). I am not aware of a grammatical explanation that works well in both books; but it is interesting that the same oddity is part of both principal biblical contexts where, in the absence of sons, women play a central role relating to property.
The story of Ruth is also unique in drawing together levirate responsibility (ybm) and “redemption” (g’l). Apart from the legal paragraph in Deut 25:5–10, only Gen 38 uses the verb ybm, which means “perform the duty of the brother-in-law”: Onan refuses to “brother-in-law” Tamar, widow of his elder brother (38:8). (p. 223) The story of Tamar is recalled in the way the story of Ruth is told, from beginning to end. When Naomi urges Ruth to follow Orpah back to her mother’s house (1:15), she describes Orpah as ybmtk (“your sister-in-law”)—outside Deut 25 that noun is used nowhere else. When she declares she is too old (even if she had a husband) to produce further sons for the widows to wait for (1:11–12), she implicitly recalls Judah asking Tamar to wait (in her father’s house!) for Shelah, his youngest son (Gen 38:11). Then, at the end of the book (4:12), Judah and Tamar are finally named along with Perez their son. And yet, despite hinting at levirate (ybm) in 1:15, the solution that Naomi actually voices to Ruth is “a redeemer” (g’l). “Redeem” (g’l), with “redeemer” and “redemption,” does not receive a mention until the middle of the story; but, once introduced (2:20), usage of this group of related words multiplies.
When Ruth finishes reporting to Naomi on her generous reception in the harvest field, Naomi utters a brief blessing on the one who had paid attention to her (2:19). When Ruth goes on to name this benefactor, Naomi’s blessing becomes much more profuse; and the older woman adds that Boaz is “near to us” and (hence) among those with the right and responsibility to “redeem” them (2:20). Accordingly, when the woman Boaz discovers with him at night on the threshing floor identifies herself as Ruth, she asks him to spread the skirt of his garment over her “because you are redeemer” (3:9). It may just be that her prosecution of this key theme (g’l) is already (3:7) hinted at in the words describing her approach: wtglmrgltyw wtškb (“and she uncovered [the place of] his legs and lay down”)—each of the first two Hebrew words contains the first and last letters of g’l together. In any case, after praising her and accepting her challenge (3:10–11), he points out that there is another redeemer still closer (3:12). “If he will redeem you, good—let him redeem; and, if he is not willing to redeem you, I myself will redeem you, as Yahweh lives” (3:13). After this proliferation of the term (six times in Ruth 3), the usage of g’l becomes still more intensive: fourteen times in 4:1–8, as the two potential redeemers meet in front of ten elders. Finally, in rather clumsy wording, the women of Bethlehem address Naomi with a blessing of Yahweh “who has not stopped for you a redeemer today” (4:14). Both Boaz and Yahweh himself could be discerned as intended in these strange words (the implied double negative has a possible parallel in Lev 2:13); but the women go on to make clear (4:15) that Ruth’s baby will be Naomi’s redeemer. Boaz had “comforted” Ruth and “spoken to her heart”; but it will be Obed who “provides for” Naomi’s old age, so completing the parallel with Joseph’s declaration at the end of Genesis (end of 18 earlier).
The prevalence of words related to g’l in the second half of the story would appear to support the claim (Bronner 1993: 167) that Ruth is about redemption (g’l), not levirate (ybm). And yet it also presses the question whether “redeem” is after all the right way to translate this most common term in the book. Elsewhere, it is used in a relatively small number of quite different biblical contexts. Common to most (but not all) of the literal usages is action taken in family solidarity by a near relative:
• In Lev 25, g’l is one of several terms used for the support necessary within a wider family to recover the well-being of impoverished members who have had to sell their land, their children, or themselves.
• Leviticus 27 uses g’l for the recovery of property “vowed” or “consecrated” to Yahweh—what we might now call “mortgaged. “ Such property made over to the deity (for safekeeping) could be reclaimed for a percentage fee.
• Numbers 35, Deut 19, and Josh 20 are all concerned with temporary sanctuary for an alleged homicide in flight from the “blood-avenger” (g’l hdm).
• Many Psalms and the second half of Isaiah apply g’l metaphorically to Yahweh, who acts in support of Israel as if recovering his kinsfolk.
Pinpointing the meaning of the term g’l within Ruth is important for understanding the development of the plot of this short story. Naomi is the first to use it. When she says of Boaz: “He is related to us, he is one of our gō’ēls,” presumably her second remark develops the first—but precisely how: (a) as a relative, he has certain family responsibilities toward us? Or (b) as a relative, he could make a move specifically towards recovering our land? Similarly, when Ruth takes up the issue with Boaz at night, and says “Spread your skirt over me for you are gō’ēl,” has she offspring in mind, or is she talking about Naomi’s land, or both? When Boaz takes the issue to the more closely related gō’ēl, he first raises the matter of Naomi selling her field; only later does he mention the claim on this property that a son of Ruth would have. By approaching the discussion this way, is he confirming for us that “[property] redeemer” is the basic sense of gō’ēl, or is he somewhat deviously persuading an even closer relative that it is not in his interest to undertake this particular “family duty”? And when the townswomen assure Naomi that Obed as gō’ēl will provide for her old age, do they mean simply that he will be a willing and responsible family member, or do they assume that he will have available to him the resources accruing from the land she once owned? This overview of the story suggests that, at each stage, offspring and land are integrally linked. It appears that Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz at night to offer sex with the aim of encouraging him to act over the family land. Her uncovering of his legs is integral to what Naomi has called “redemption.” And yet the priority for Boaz is that she stays with him all night—the land question can wait till morning.
Naomi seems conscious of the story of Judah and Tamar in her dealings with her daughters-in-law. She ends the first chapter complaining like Job of bitterness brought by the Almighty (3 earlier), but by the end of the second she is recalling Yahweh’s loyalty in the words of Abraham’s servant (10). Ruth’s oath to Naomi will often be uttered by David (12); and she tells Boaz he has given her reassurance like Joseph to his brothers (18). But it is Boaz himself whose language is most “biblical.” He compares Ruth’s journey to Abraham’s (6) and borrows Elihu’s words to call for a reward fairer than Jacob received from Laban (7). She should enjoy the divine shelter promised in Ps 91 (9), for she is the epitome of the fine woman praised in Prov 31 (17). Though he both speaks to Ruth’s heart and also eats, drinks, and is merry, Boaz behaves wholly differently from all the men in Gibeah that fateful night (18). When he declares the significance of his marriage to Ruth, he splices together the levirate law and the divine promise (p. 225) to David (19). And at the gate he calls for witness corroboration like Joshua at Shechem (11). In short, this Bethlehemite, this ancestor of David, is an exemplar of biblical tradition at its best (Wetter 2015: 93–94).
A Women’s Book?
Despite this prominent role played by Boaz, the book has been called after Ruth since ancient times. The story starts with a couple and their two sons being forced by famine out of Bethlehem. It finishes with the birth of a boy who will both complete the restoration of his grandmother’s well-being and be grandfather of king David. And it has at its core the steady, generous, presence of Boaz, affirming in practice the values that much of the biblical tradition holds dear. And yet—and surprising within that tradition—the female cast is even stronger. There are not only the two central characters of Naomi and Ruth; but, among the minor figures, Orpah and the women of Bethlehem play as large a role as Boaz’s steward together with the unnamed gō’ēl and the elder witnesses.
Some readers have discerned a homosexual component in the relationship between Ruth and Naomi: in the younger woman “clinging/cleaving” to the older (1:14), in Ruth’s marriage-like declaration of loyalty till and through death (1:16–17), and in the realization among Naomi’s neighbors that Ruth “loved” her mother-in-law (4:15). Leaving father and mother (2:11) and cleaving to a wife is part of heterosexual marriage as envisaged in Gen 2:24. However, if the opening chapter depicts the younger woman as something of a husband to the elder, by the end (at least as viewed by the neighbors) she has become surrogate mother, for the child she has produced is reckoned as Naomi’s (4:17). Certainly the roles of Ruth and Boaz do not conform to patriarchal stereotypes. Yet, on the other side, their roles and Naomi’s too are repeatedly compared to other biblical characters.
Canonical Function and Placing
We have noted a large number of links between Ruth and other “biblical” books. Several of these resonate with end-pieces in other books.
(a) The empathetic concern and practical care in Ruth 2:13 and 4:15 are expressed in the same terms as Joseph’s declaration near the end of Gen (50:21)—and it is of course famine that has also driven Joseph’s brothers to Egypt.
(b) Women’s rights to land where a father dies without sons are legislated for in Num 27 (possibly an earlier conclusion of Numbers) and again in Num 36 (which certainly now ends that book).
(c) The exchange about witnesses (Ruth 4:9–11) has its only analogue in the final chapter of Joshua (24:22). (p. 226)
(d) The narrative about the Levite and his concubine occupies the final chapters of Judges (19–21).
(e) Rizpah’s care for her brothers’ corpses is recounted as the start of the coda to the book of Samuel (2 Sam 21–24).
(f) And it is in the final chapter of Proverbs that we find the virtuous woman with whom Ruth is implicitly compared.
Final chapters by no means always contain the latest additions to a biblical book. Yet, at the very least, this set of associations suggests that the author of the book called Ruth knew Genesis, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Proverbs as separate entities. Given that all three elements of Joseph’s reassurance to his brothers (Gen 50:21) are echoed in Ruth (two by Ruth talking about Boaz and the third by Naomi’s neighbors talking about Obed) and that Joseph’s next words to his brothers (50:24–25) concern taking his body home from Egypt, it will be no accident that Josh 24:32 reports his burial in Shechem just after Joshua has called Israel as witnesses (24:22).
Comparing and contrasting Ruth with Judg 19–21 may permit greater precision. Edenburg, in a careful and detailed study, has proposed that the end of Judges was drafted in two main stages: the first included all of Judg 19 and an earlier version of 20–21; the second comprised a substantial rewriting of Judg 20–21. She explores the first draft in relation to Abraham and Lot (Gen 18–19), the battle at Ai (Josh 7–8), the Saul narratives, the laws of Deuteronomy, the rape of Tamar (2 Sam 13:11–17), several isolated parallels, and the earlier outer structure of Judges (1 and 17–18), and finds at almost every point of connection that the authors of Judg 19–21 were the borrowers. She “view[s] the story as a reflection of conflicting interests between rival groups within Yehud—those who advanced the restoration of Jerusalem against those who backed the relatively new pre-eminence of Benjaminite towns” (Edenburg 2016: 330).
The author of Ruth has drawn on a similarly wide range of “biblical” materials, including several links with Judg 19. Ruth, accordingly, must have been written later than the first draft of the final appendix to the book of Judges. (Similarly the linguistic link with Zelophehad’s daughters was with the earlier Num 27:1–11 and not the later Num 36.) Another observation points in the same direction. The Ruth narrative might itself have been included within the book of Judges, had the tale of the outrage at Gibeah and its consequences not already been there. If the purpose of that narrative was to besmirch the reputation of Benjamin’s towns, and especially Saul’s birthplace at Gibeah, a key aim of Ruth had been to revive the reputation of Bethlehem. In Judg 17, Bethlehem had been home to a Levite who had shown himself prepared to become priest at an impromptu and irregular shrine in the north. In Judg 19, by contrast, Bethlehem (that would be home to David) featured as a town where hospitality was more generous than in Gibeah (that would be home to Saul). And this rehabilitation of David’s town is further and vigorously promoted in the book of Ruth.
(p. 227) In the Christian Bible, and at least since the earliest bound Greek codices available to us from the fifth century ce, the story called “Ruth” is found between Judges and (what the Greek Bible calls) Kingdoms (Samuel-Kings in Hebrew or English). The situation in Jewish tradition is more complex, and for two reasons: the earliest book-like codices we possess of the “Hebrew Bible” are much more recent, from around 1000 ce; and liturgical reading in synagogue was and is from scrolls. The relationships between individual scrolls are more flexible. Only when bound in a large volume does a biblical “book” receive a fixed location between prescribed neighbors.
Most often, Ruth is reckoned one of the five Megillôt or “Scrolls,” each read in its entirety once a year at a major festival; and these Megillôt are a subgroup within the “Writings” (the collection of varied books that are neither “Torah” nor “Prophets”). In Sephardi tradition, Ruth comes first, as related to the earliest historical period of the five, and is followed by Song of Songs and Qohelet both related to Solomon. In Ashkenazi tradition, the order follows their use in the liturgical year: Ruth, read at the feast of Weeks, follows the Song of Songs at Passover. Jonah (within the Prophets) is also read once a year, during the Day of Atonement. It is suggested that the five Megillôt were selected from the six scrolls read at festivals to correspond to the five “fifths” of the Torah, which are also read in their entirety in the course of each year. Within codices or large volumes, Ruth can also be neighbor to other books. Ruth is ancestress of David, and her book can be found before the Psalms. The several links between her and the fine woman at the end of Proverbs (17 earlier) led to her book being set immediately after Proverbs.
It has been argued (Stone 2015: 180–181), in support of its position in ancient Greek and continuing Christian Bibles, that Ruth was deliberately written to link at its start with the end of Judges (“lift” rather than normal “take” a wife in Judg 21:23 and Ruth 1:4), and at its end with the beginning of Samuel (“better than n sons” in Ruth 4:15 and 1 Sam 1:8). However, we have noted so many unique and apparently significant intertextual links with several other biblical books that it seems unwise to concentrate on these two.
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