The Book of Ruth begins, like many a legend, on a “once upon a time long ago” note: “In the days of the judges there was a famine in the land. And a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to sojourn in the land of Moab, and his wife and his sons.”
What follows is a brief tale – just a vignette really – about a pair of women from different nations who form a bond of love and respect. Naomi, the wife mentioned in the opening lines, survives her husband and both her sons, along with the sons’ wives, Orpah and Ruth. Ruth, against her mother-in-law’s advice, travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem and takes a job as a farm worker to support them.
The work that Ruth does, gleaning, is the lowest task in the farming hierarchy. Basically, she follows the threshers and collects what is left over at the edges of the field or dropped along the way. It’s a task set aside for society’s lowest members, the illegal alien migrant farm workers of their day. It’s a task appropriate for Ruth, a member of a hated enemy tribe despite her marriage to a Bethlehem Jew.
Despite her low status, Ruth attracts the attention of the field owner, a relative of Naomi’s late husband, and ultimately marries this wealthy man, cementing her relationship to the Jewish people.
Although the narrative of Ruth can be read satisfyingly as a one-off, a standalone short story, the genealogical connections within the story link it to both the genesis of the Jewish people and to the birth of Christianity. Importantly, I think, these connections involve some of the Bible’s most disturbing stories.
Ruth herself is a Moabite, a descendant of the nation founded through the incestuous union of Lot and his elder daughter, who (along with her sister) seduced her father in desperation because she believed that her family was all that was left of humanity after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve written previously that naming the Moabites as descendants of this incestuous union (in Genesis 19) seems to me a gratuitous ethnic slur. That Ruth, one of the most famous heroines of the Bible, is identified as a Moabite is particularly striking.
Ruth’s second husband, Boaz, with whom she has a child, is descended from the illicit relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who posed as a prostitute in order to deceive him. Tamar had first been married to Judah’s eldest son, Er, who was killed by God because “he was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Judah then married Tamar off to his second son, Onan, who in short order was also put to death by God, evidently for the sin of masturbation. By this time, Tamar seems to have acquired a black widow reputation; although Judah has a third son, Shelah, he does not marry this one off to Tamar, “Lest he also die like his brothers”. Instead, Judah tells Tamar to remain a widow in her father’s house until Shelah is grown. The frustrated Tamar then disguises herself as a prostitute and sells her services to the widowed Judah. She becomes pregnant, and Judah orders her to be burned to death for adultery. Before that happens, she reveals her act of deception and is allowed to live because Judah recognizes his error in not giving her to his third son.
Tamar is carrying twins, and when it’s time to give birth we are treated to one of the strangest images in all of Genesis. A hand of one of the babies emerges and the midwife ties a scarlet string around it. But then the hand is withdrawn and the other twin emerges, followed by his brother whose hand was the first to appear. The twin who “broke through” and was born after the emergence and withdrawal of his brother’s hand is Perez, great-great-great-great-grandfather of Boaz, as we are told at the end of the Book of Ruth.
The son born to Ruth and Boaz is Obed, the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king and, as described in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, the most significant ancestor of Jesus. These two towering figures, arguably the most significant in Biblical history, are thus descendants of illicit relationships and intermarriage of the chosen people with a despised adversary.
So much for ethnic purity.
In this episode, the Bible makes the point that we are all mongrels, impure mixtures -- even the most exalted among us. Furthermore, those we most revile are a part of us. We can’t view ourselves as separate or better because those “others” both sprang from us and have been reabsorbed back into us.
Given the history of ethnic strife over the past several millennia, one has to wonder whether these cultural implications of the Book of Ruth have been much studied. How do today’s anti-immigrant activists, who seem to generally think of themselves as serious Christians, square their views about illegal aliens with the lessons of Ruth? Had the Bethlehemites dealt with Ruth the way modern xenophobes would like to deal with the undocumented, we might not have either David or Jesus.
Ruth’s low standing in Bethlehem is indicated by the episode in which Boaz negotiates with a relative over a field that had belonged to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. Boaz suggests that the man, who is evidently Elimelech’s closest living male relation, purchase the field; and says that if this man will not purchase it, Boaz himself, who is next in line, will do so. The unnamed relative intends to make the purchase until Boaz tells him he must take Ruth as well, “so as to raise up the name of the dead through his inheritance.” At this point, the man demurs, saying, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I ruin my own inheritance. You redeem my right of redemption for yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” The man takes off his sandal, in what is described as an ancient custom, and gives it to Boaz to seal the agreement.
He would be ruined if he took the Moabite woman. Boaz, not concerned about this, buys the land, gets Ruth as a wife in the bargain, and the rest is history. Boaz makes a public proclamation to which the witnesses respond, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel and wrought mightily in Ephrathah. She will have a name in Bethlehem. And out of the seed which the Lord will give you from this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
The Bible is full of accounts of ethnic wars among the Seminitic tribes – the Jews, Canaanities, Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Midianites, etc. Ruth offers a counterpoint, a call for understanding and acceptance as well as acknowledgement that when we meet our enemy, the enemy is us.
By the time of Ruth’s descendant Jesus, the Jewish people’s chief enemy was the hated occupier, Rome, but there was still room for discord between closely related tribes. One of the most famous New Testament stories involving two antagonistic groups is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, at the well of Jacob.
Christians generally focus on the Samaritan woman’s realization that Jesus is the Messiah, but there’s a lot more to this story, as Jack Miles brilliantly explains in Christ: A Crisis In the Life of God. Miles focuses on the troubled relationship between the Jews, descendants of the tribe of Judah, and the Samaritans, descendants of Joseph who believe themselves to be the true chosen people. The schism between the Samaritans, a small community of whom survive today, turns on several issues, including the proper site for animal sacrifice. Samaritans hold that they are descended from Hebrews who were left behind when the majority of the population was transported to Assyria and enslaved.
Galileans, Miles writes, were an “in between” group, not recognized as fully Jewish but not set apart like the Samaritans. Some Galileans were true Jews, worshiping in Jerusalem, while others evidently held with the Samaritans, who held (and continue to hold) that the northern town of Shechem, site of much of the patriarchal narrative and the final resting place of Joshua and Joseph, should be the site of worship. It is in Shechem, in fact, where the encounter with the Samaritan woman occurs.
Although Matthew and Luke take great pains to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David (and of Ruth), he was raised in Nazareth, a Galilean town, a fact that made him suspect among Jews, even though he clearly . Note the famous quote from Nathaniel in John 1:46: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of the gospel of John is the longest dialog that Jesus has with any woman in the gospels. And, Miles argues, it is a teasing, almost flirtatious banter about the discord between the Jews, the Samaritans and the Galileans. It results in the woman’s acceptance of Jesus as Messiah, but Miles makes it clear that with a few minor turns of phrase it might have moved in another, more carnal, direction.
Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman occurs at a well, one of the few places in which women of the time could appear in public unaccompanied by a man. The fact that he speaks to her privately is potentially scandalous; his disciples “marvel” at the fact that he talked with a woman even though, John says, they chose not to mention it to him.
Ruth and the Samaritan woman are two prime examples of the status of women in biblical times, both made more striking in that the women are also members of unpopular ethnic groups.
It’s worth noting that Ruth’s message of acceptance has been taken up by another group often unpopular in religious circles: While researching Ruth for a church lesson, I came across several internet posts indicating that the book is a favorite in the gay and lesbian community. Evidently the Hebrew words used to describe the relationship between Ruth and Naomi are those used to describe the relationships between heterosexual married partners. In particular, the Hebrew word “dabaq”, translated in the King James Version as “cleave”, used in Ruth 1:14 when Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi while her sister-in-law Orpah returns to her birth family, is the same as that used in the famous passage of Genesis (2:24) often quoted in wedding ceremonies: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.”
Ruth’s words to Naomi in 1:16 are seen in this view as more like those a lover would speak than what one would expect from a daughter-in-law: “Do not ask me to leave you, or turn back from following you; for wherever you go I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. And wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord cause this to happen to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”
Til death do us part, indeed.
One essay I read notes that while Leviticus forbids a man to lay down with another man as with a woman, it says nothing to forbid same-sex relationships between women.
If Naomi and Ruth were lovers, why would Naomi promote the relationship between Ruth and Boaz? Naomi goes so far as to send Ruth to the threshing floor -- a place notorious for the prostitutes who came there to service the agricultural workers (see the book of Hosea)—to spend the night with Boaz. Naomi’s actions are explained in these alternative readings by the status of women in ancient society; without a man in their lives, Naomi and Ruth had no protection, no hope of a decent life.
Let’s finish with a puzzler -- How do we square the acceptance of Ruth into the Jewish community with this dictate from Deuteronomy 23: “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor from Mesopotamia to curse you.”
I don’t know, other than to say that clearly the Deuteronomist and the author of Ruth weren’t on speaking terms. Given the differing messages, I’ll take Ruth's.