Seeking a Home in the Book of Ruth

Ruth and Naomi, Orpah Departing, 1902
by Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833-1898)

The little Book of Ruth works in rattlesnake fashion upon all poetically productive minds; one cannot refrain from rearrangement, paraphrase, and enlargement of the subject-matter, which is certainly very pleasing, but nevertheless lies very far out of our way.

-Johannes Goethe

Some of the first stories I read, and knew off-by-heart, were from the Bible. I poured over my hardcover children’s Bible with its cartoon images, which presented prophets, thieves, and the Son of God alike with bulging round eyes and vibrant tunics. I loved reading about the well-nigh swashbuckling adventures of David, the miraculous recovery of Lazarus, and the rivalries of the sibling and the soul that were Mary and Martha. As a modern Canadian child in the 1990’s, I was basically the target audience of this “beginner’s” Bible. The venerable text was the first that demanded a (modest) consideration of the Cultural Other. Of course, I took for granted that the Bible was the result of my own culture. Learning my first Bible stories was much like learning my first words of English. Though I did not realize it, my beginner’s Bible was the teacher of a new, conceptual language; it used simple words, delivered in high, excited tones to keep my infant soul entertained and, more importantly, engrossed.

Raised in the United Church, with its extensive history of thoughtful social engagement, there was an emphasis on story-telling. Of course, our congregation’s story-time was reminiscent to reading my children’s Bible, which saved the most challenging semantics for a future decade. Indeed, there would have been many wide-eyed children returning to their pews had our minister, informally referred to as “Bill,” read the stories of the Holy Bible that I have since read. “Mom, why was Noah so mad when his son covered his drunken, naked body?” (Gen. 9:20-27). “Daddy, why couldn’t Samson have used firewood to burn those fields and orchards, instead of tying torches to the tails of 300 foxes?” (Judges 15:4-5). “But Bill, shouldn’t Jesus have just sent all the demons to hell instead of putting them in a herd of pigs?” (Luke 8:31-33). I am always delighted when I’m reminded that the Bible is the mystery that keeps on giving.

The Book of Ruth is barely longer than its children’s Bible counterpart. Ruth is nestled between two striking books (and eras), Judges and Kings, although the story purports to take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). While the judges ruled, famine dictated the movements of many in Bethlehem (Heb. “house of bread; Arabic “house of meat”). Elimilech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons leave Judah for more prosperous lands in Moab, where each of the sons takes a Moab wife. After the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons, she urges her sons’ widows to go back to their own people and gods. While Orpah agrees and returns to her family, Ruth refuses, saying, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17). This resolute request is always included in children’s Bibles, and it’s a request that Bollinger (1994) calls “one of the unusual instances where the Bible depicts profound female solidarity” (368). Indeed, as a child I was normally drawn to stories portraying female Biblical protagonists.

Naomi and Her Daughters-in-Law, 1866
by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Naomi returns to a much different Bethlehem, which is just beginning a successful barley harvest. A Moabitess in a strange land, in order to support herself and her elderly adopted mother Ruth gleans grain in the fields. It happens that the fields Ruth works belong to a kinsman of Elimilech, named Boaz. Boaz notices the beautiful Ruth gleaning in his fields and learns that she is caring for the widowed and sonless Naomi. Due to Ruth’s kindness to Naomi, Boaz takes measures to ensure that Ruth is safe and prepared in the fields. Eventually Ruth and Boaz fall in love and marry, eventually producing a child. The birth of the child is a particular delight to Naomi, who had almost succumbed to bitterness after losing her husband and sons.

There are some wonderfully startling and revealing moments in the Book of Ruth, à la drunken, naked Noah or fiery fox-wielding Samson. One such moment is actually not found in the Book of Ruth, but in the rabbinic literature known as midrash. Rabbinic literature has not been particularly kind to Orpah, whose name literally means “nape” – a reference to her turning her back on Naomi and returning to Moab. According to Rabbi Yitzchak, “all that first night after Orpah separated from her mother-in-law, she became involved with the Gentile lewdness of one hundred men” (Machon HaMidrash HaMevo’ar, 107). This uncomfortable union brought forth the giant Goliath, who would later be slain in battle by Ruth’s descendent David, chronicled in 1 Samuel 17:41-54.

David with the Head of Goliath, 1606-1607
by Caravaggio (1573-1610)

The Book of Ruth does not give any specific reason why Orpah returns to Moab, aside from the comfort that one’s own people can provide, and the fact that Naomi told Orpah to leave. Naomi gives both Orpah and Ruth a specific reason why they should not wait expectantly on Naomi: “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should have hope, even if I should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying?” (Ruth 1:11-13). This matter-of-fact statement, “to the point of being grotesque” (Wojcik, 147), makes reference to the levirate law that states that any widow will not be turned away, but married to her dead husband’s brother so that she may conceive a child in her dead husband’s name. As both of Naomi’s sons are dead there is no chance that this law can be observed, so Ruth and Orpah will have a better chance at finding a husband in their homeland. As Wojcik observes, while Orpah accepts her relationship to Naomi as Naomi herself has defined it, Ruth refuses this definition and provides no justification for her decision: “The rationale for her decision remains as hidden as the thoughts of Abraham when he is about to sacrifice his son” (Wojcik, 148).

This levirate law is referenced in only two other parts of the Bible. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 declares that “if brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel”. A less explicit reference of this levirate law is in Genesis 38. After Judah’s wicked son Er is smote by the Lord, his brother Onan is directed by Judah to go to Er’s widow, Tamar, “and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her” (Genesis 38:8). Rather than impregnating his brother’s widow with a child that will not even be his, Onan spills his seed on the ground, incurring another smiting from the Lord. Detecting an emerging pattern (but not the crucial pattern) Judah denies Tamar his sole surviving son. This refusal leads Tamar to trick Judah himself into sleeping with her, and thus she secures a child in her husband’s name, fulfilling the levirate law. Indeed, the story of Tamar and Judah is invoked at the end of the Book of Ruth (Ruth 4:12). There was no depiction of the story of Tamar in my children’s Bible.

Tamar, Beautiful Daughter of Judah, 1960
by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

After Ruth has gleaned in Boaz’s fields for some time, Naomi urges Ruth to go into Boaz one night and lie at his feet. Naomi assures Ruth that Boaz “will tell [her] what to do” (Ruth 3:4). The amazed Boaz discovers the beautiful Ruth lying at his feet, who then explains that he is Naomi’s next of kin. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Boaz knows what to do, more than Naomi realizes. Boaz warns Naomi that he is actually not the next of kin, that there is a man that holds that honour. If this kinsman refuses his obligation to Ruth, Boaz “will do the part of the next-of-kin” (Ruth 3:13). There is a provision that allows a kinsman to disassociate himself from his duty. The brother-in-law may publicly declare in front of the elders that he does not wish to take his brother’s widow and provide her with a child. The widow in question would then “go up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’” (Deut. 25:9). Essentially, the brother of the dead man takes the place of his brother, so that he fathers a child on behalf of his brother. This means that unless the shoe loosed in the manner described above, the widow is an adulteress if she conceives by any man other than the next-of-kin (Rowley, 93). It is indeed fortunate that Boaz knew of this man who was nearer than himself in kin. Rowley points out that before it is known that Judah is the father of Tamar’s child, the immediate response was to burn Tamar (93).

The story of Ruth closes with the nearer unnamed kinsman refusing to fulfill his obligation to Ruth and Boaz accepting the responsibly. Bertman (1965) draws an interesting parallel drawn between Orpah and the unnamed kinsman of Ruth’s husband, both of whom break ties (166). Boaz and Ruth eventually produce a child named Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David the king. Rowley makes the case that it is unlikely that Boaz was previously married, or that he had ever had children (97). Says Rowley, “Certainly if the brother-in-law were previously unmarried and the widow became his full wife, so that her first child was also his first child and the fruit of a legal marriage, it is almost unthinkable that such a child would not be his own heir”. Not only does this make Ruth’s son Obed and Obed’s grandson David direct descendants of Boaz, but it makes Jesus a direct descendent of Boaz (Matthew 1:5). During the time that the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah were written, intermarriage with gentiles was frowned upon, to say the very least. After Ezra recognizes that “the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the land” (Ezra 9:2) he prays to the Lord, “for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). It may be that the Book of Ruth “is a post-Exilic creation used as propaganda against the racial particularism of Ezra-Nehemiah” (Staples, 145), although Staples (1937) believes this to be unlikely. This being said, Wolfenson (1911) admits that many believe the entire point of the Book of Ruth to be “that unions with foreign women were permissible” (298).

There are some marked dissimilarities between the levirate law as given in Deuteronomy and the law as executed in the Book of Ruth, or, for that matter, in Genesis. In both cases the men who fulfill the law, Judah in Genesis and Boaz in the Book of Ruth, are not the brothers of the dead men. Rowley states that it is granted that Ruth’s marriage “must be linked with the question of levirate marriage […] though this is clearly not strictly a case of levirate marriage, since Boaz is not a brother-in-law” (77). In the Book of Ruth and Genesis it seems as though the closest kinsman would do just as well; Wells (1883) states that “the word ‘brother’ as found in the Law is not to be construed literally” (87). This flexibility of the law raises the question why Naomi immediately attempted to send the women away. Indeed, she makes it seem as though the women have a greater obligation to her than she to them, since, as Naomi points out herself, all of her sons are dead and she is unlikely to produce any more in a timely fashion.

Boaz Meets Ruth, 1865
by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

While the ceremony of the loosed show is performed, there are differences between this depiction of the execution of the law and the law as given in Deuteronomy. Ruth is not present when Boaz goes to the gate to speak with the elders, which Wells suggests may be due to her exotic origins (88). The unnamed kinsman takes off his own sandal and the expectorating is omitted entirely. There is the possibility that these stories were written at different times and thus the custom or law had changed significantly during the time that each of these texts were written. Rowley reminds us that “customs arise out of a complex situation, for life is always complex, and they are retained for complex reasons, though in different areas and ages different elements of the complex may be more prominent” (81-82). Thompson and Thompson (1968) point out that any contradictions are indicative of the form of the text and not necessarily the practice of the tradition, since Deuteronomy is a legal text and Ruth and Genesis are stories (79).

At any rate, Rowley is right when he says that “motives and ideas that gather round any custom are less simple than our tidy minds desire” (81). The same epitaph could be written in the front matter of any book, to serve as a useful reminder. This isn’t to suggest that the Book of Ruth, or the entirety of the Bible, cannot hold inherent meaning or wonderful peculiarities for other cultures. Is it strange that we should imagine that Ruth existed? It would be stranger still to imagine a time when Ruth has not existed. In the tidiness of my children’s Bible I took a first step into the messy but satisfying world of the foreign myth and the ancient folk tale.

Law’s Daughters

Be it falsity or deity,
The cause of turning nape?
That led to the birth of giants,
And cause tight shoe to gape?

Does the strength of Chemosh’s call
Cloud mortal ear and eye,
Or do the words of Samuel
On foreign faith rely?

Perhaps friend trails without mem’ry
Of thriving native lands,
Perhaps love’s pull is stronger still,
Than rich yet lonesome sands.

With every ear of grain that’s gleaned
Strange soul is made native,
For the feast yielded cannot be
Purely vegetative.

O, Woman, behold your daughter;
The inverse of your coin.
That bond which blood could not unite,
Rending and reaping join.

Though the future kingdom swells and
Meaty lodging be tight,
Blessed maidservants work and rest
Within His gracious Might.

2011 © Kate MacKeigan


Bertman, S. (1965). Symmetrical design in the Book of Ruth. Journal of Biblical Literature, 84(2), 165-168. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Bible. (1974). R.S.V. (4th ed.). New York: Penguin Group.

Bollinger, L. (1994). Models for female loyalty: The biblical Ruth in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 13(2), 363-380. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Goethe, J.W. (1887). Goethe’s letters to Zelter. Trans. A.D. Coleridge. London: George Bell and Sons, 226.

Machon HaMidrash HaMevo’ar. (2003). The Midrash Rabbah. Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers.

Rowley, H.H. (1947). The marriage of Ruth. The Harvard Theological Review, 40(2), 77-99. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Thompson, T. & Thompson, D. (1968). Some legal problems in the Book of Ruth. Vetus Tesamentum, 18(1), 79-99. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Wells, N.W. (1883). Ruth and the new criticism. The Old Testament Student, 3(3), 86-90. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Wojcik, J. (1985). Improvising rules in the Book of Ruth. Modern Language Association, 100(2), 145-153. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

Wolfensen, L.B. (1911). The character, content, and date of Ruth. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 27(4), 285-300. Retrieved July 28, 2012 from JSTOR.

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