Ruth (fl. 1100 BCE)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Ruth (fl. 1100 bce)

Moabite widow of the Old Testament, model of unwavering devotion, who moved with Naomi, her mother-in-law, to Judah where she met and married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. Flourished around 1100 bce; born in Moab; possibly the daughter of King Eglon of Moab; married Mahlon (son of Naomi and Elimelech); married Boaz; children: (second marriage) son Obed (grandfather of King David).

According to the Book of Ruth, during the time of the Judges a famine ravished the land of Judah, and Elimelech, an Israelite of Bethlehem, Naomi , his wife, and two sons, sought their livelihood in neighboring Moab. While in Moab, Elimelech died, and ten years later his sons followed him to the grave. Now Naomi was left alone with her two daughters-in-law, Moabite women whom her sons had married while in exile. Destitute, Naomi decided to return to her homeland in Judah where the famine which drove her family out had subsided. She urged her sons' wives to return to their mothers' homes and seek new marriages with Moabite men. Despite their tears and pleas, Naomi insisted, explaining that she was too old to bear more sons who might become husbands to the two widowed women. One daughter, Orpah , reluctantly heeded her mother-in-law's entreaty and, kissing Naomi, returned home. But the other daughter, Ruth, steadfastly refused to leave, insisting that wherever Naomi went she would go, where Naomi found shelter, so would she. Naomi's people would be Ruth's people and Naomi's God, Ruth's God. Where Naomi died, so would Ruth. The two arrived empty-handed in Bethlehem, and when the women of the town asked, "Could this be Naomi?," the widow insisted that she now be called "Mara," which means "bitter," because of her misfortune. She did not realize that, through God's ineffable agency, redemption stood right beside her in the person of Ruth, her foreign, widowed, and childless daughter-in-law.

It was the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth agreed to go to the fields to glean the grain the reapers left behind; this was, by law, a privilege of the poor (Lv 19.9–10; Dt 24.19–22). She happened onto the land of a particular farmer named Boaz, meaning "in him is strength," who was a wealthy kinsman of Naomi's husband. Ruth waited for hours to meet the proprietor and seek special permission to glean his fields and collect grain from among the sheaves. Boaz not only confirmed Ruth's right to glean, but told her to stay close to his servant girls, drink from his workers' jars, and share the midday meal with his reapers. This way the men in the field would not bother her. He even instructed his reapers to intentionally abandon, in Ruth's path, grain that had already been reaped. Boaz had heard of the Moabite's kindness to Naomi and sought to reward it, even though Ruth was a foreigner and from a tribe unfriendly to Judah. She thanked her benefactor who, she claimed, had treated her as one of his own "maidservants." At the day's end, Ruth returned to her mother-in-law with her abundant gleanings. When she told her about Boaz, Naomi praised God for his goodness, for she knew that Boaz was in a position to act as her gō'ēl (redeemer) because of his relationship to her husband. A gō'ēl was a relative who had particular obligations within the kin-group, one of which was to purchase a relative's land if that land had to be sold out of economic need; this way property was maintained within a clan (Lv 25.25, 47–55). Naomi began to devise a plan.

Ruth continued to glean in Boaz's fields through the barley harvest and into the wheat harvest. At the end of the season, Naomi revealed her daring scheme to her daughter-in-law. Ruth was to bathe, perfume herself, dress in her finest clothes, and go stealthily to the threshing-floor where Boaz would be spending the night near the piles of newly winnowed grain. She was to keep herself concealed until Boaz was fulsome from eating and drinking; when he lay down to sleep, Ruth was to "uncover his feet." Naomi concluded her instructions with the enigmatic: "He will tell you what next to do." Ruth followed her mother-in-law's instructions. Around midnight (in the Bible, the time of reckoning), she sidled up to Boaz, lifted his blanket, and lay beside him. He awoke startled and asked who was there. Ruth revealed her identity, "I am your handmaid." She urged Boaz to spread his robe over her—thus becoming her protector—and also to act as gō'ēl to Naomi, that is, to buy her land. Boaz was pleased by both requests; he was no longer young, and he praised Ruth for placing duty before vanity. Instead of seeking a young, more attractive mate, Ruth had considered Naomi's welfare, for only by marriage within Naomi's clan could Ruth be the instrument of her mother-in-law's security. However, Boaz informed Ruth of an obstacle to her second request; there was another man in town who was a closer relative to Naomi's husband than he, and that man had first rights as redeemer. Boaz assured his would-be bride that he would see what he could do. The two spent the night together on the threshing floor, and in the morning Boaz filled Ruth's shawl with six measures of barley and helped her slip away unnoticed.

Naomi (fl. 1100 bce)

Biblical woman. Name variations: Noemi. Born in Bethlehem, in Judah; married Elimelech; mother-in-law of Ruth; children: Mahlon (who married Ruth); Chilion (who married Orpah).

Said to be an outstanding beauty, Naomi made her home in Bethlehem with her husband Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Chilion, until the great famine forced the family to migrate to Moab, east of the Dead Sea. Over the next ten years, Naomi lost both her husband and her sons, after which she made plans to return to her homeland. Although she told her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah , to return with their families in Moab and find new husbands, Ruth, Mahlon's widow, insisted on accompanying her mother-in-law, saying, "Wherever you go, I will go" (Ruth 1:16). The women reached Bethlehem at harvest time, and Ruth went to work gleaning in the fields. There she met Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi's late husband. Having no claim to Elimelech's estate, but hoping to keep it in the family, Naomi encouraged Ruth to seek the favor of Boaz. Ruth and Boaz eventually married and had a son Obed, who was the grandfather of King David.

That day Boaz went to the town gate, the venue for legal translations in ancient Judah, and found Naomi's kinsman (not named in the text) who had legal rights with regard to the property of Naomi. Before ten elders Boaz asked the kinsman if he wished to buy Naomi's land, which presumably she could not work herself, to keep it from leaving the clan. When the kinsman replied, "I shall redeem it," Boaz informed the witnesses that he himself would "acquire" Ruth and that their first son would be pledged to Ruth's dead husband, Mahlon, "in order to perpetuate the memory of the deceased upon his estate." In other words, the property in question would be inherited by the child of Ruth and Boaz (acting as proxy for Mahlon). This changed the circumstances; the kinsman withdrew his offer to buy the land so the property fell to Boaz. To seal the bargain, a sandal was exchanged between the two men, according to the legal customs of Israel.

All in Bethlehem were pleased by the turn of events. The townswomen praised the once-alien Ruth, and compared her to the most esteemed matriarchs of Israel: Rachel , Leah , and Tamar. The couple had a son, Obed, who would carry on the line of Elimelech and Naomi and become the grandfather of the great King David. Naomi was no longer "bitter." The women of Bethlehem professed, "Blessed be the Lord who, on this very day, did not deny you a redeemer."

The Book of Ruth is one of only two canonical Biblical texts named after a woman. Its length (four chapters); simple, symmetrical structure; and modest narrative style belie the ideological and literary complexity of this masterful tale. Scholarly research on Ruth has centered on the date of its composition, the role of divine intervention, the genre or literary mode of the story, social and legal features, and, most recently, on feminist issues. (When the word Ruth is italicized in this entry it refers to the Biblical book rather than to Ruth, the character.)

Ruth was accepted into the canon in the mid-2nd century bce. In the Jewish tradition, the book belongs to the third division of the Hebrew Bible known as the Writings, and it is among a smaller collection of Megilloth (five scrolls) which, since the early Middle Ages, have been recited at major festivals, Ruth being read at Shavu'ot, the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost), which marks the harvest festival of the first-fruits in mid-April. This is most likely because the story starts during the barley harvest and ends with the wheat harvest. In most Hebrew Bibles, Ruth follows Proverbs which ends with a poem in praise of a "worthy woman." The placement of the Book of Ruth is controversial because of the uncertainly of the date of its composition. The first line of Ruth reveals that the events occurred "Long ago, in the time of the judges" (c. 1350–1050 bce), but it is not at all clear whether this assignation is literal or fictive. Also, although the last six verses of the book place the events three generations before the life of King David (c. 970), many scholars argue that the genealogy of David was tacked on after the tale was composed and so provides no sure information about the book's composition.

The date of Ruth is important because the historical context of its production could provide insight to the author's message. Scholars tend to divide into two broad groups as to the date of the book: those who believe it to have been written before the Jews were carried into exile in Babylon (587 bce), and those who argue that the book is post-exilic, written after the Jews returned from Babylon (537 bce), likely in the 5th or 4th century bce. Most of the arguments for the date of Ruth are based on three factors: linguistic clues, legal customs, and external evidence. Ruth contains some Aramaic words, and Aramaic began to supplant Hebrew only after the Babylonian exile, but this evidence is not conclusive because well before the Babylonian period, Hebrew included a few Aramaic loan-words and phrases.

Those hoping to date Ruth based on legal traditions note that the laws of property transaction and marriage described in the story do not square with Israelite practices as laid out in Deuteronomy (25.5–10), written in the 7th and 8th centuries bce. For instance, there has been some confusion over the trading of the shoe ceremony at the gate when Boaz redeems Naomi's property. More important, the custom of levirate marriage (the arrangement whereby the brother of a deceased man marries the man's widow and raises children in the name of the deceased) is broadened or misinterpreted in Ruth. Modern scholars are by no means agreed on whether levirate marriage plays a role in the story at all. Many translations of the scene at the city gate have Boaz telling the next-of-kin that if he acts as gō'ēl and buys Naomi's land he must also marry Ruth to perpetuate Mahlon's line. But neither the kinsman at the gate nor Boaz are brother-in-law to Ruth, so neither is obliged to marry her under the obligations of levirate marriage. In whatever way the puzzling scene at the gate is interpreted, the legal evidence in Ruth is no more conclusive than linguistics in dating the book. Ruth could have been written before the marriage laws articulated in Deuteronomy were set, i.e. before the 8th century. Or, as those who claim the book is post-exilic argue, the imprecision about marriage and property laws may mean the book was written when the legal customs it describes were archaic, had undergone development, or were no longer understood or enforced. After all, the author prefaces the sandal ceremony with, "This was formerly done in Israel," which presupposes the readers' unfamiliarity with the ancient procedure. But some writers counter that Ruth was intentionally placed in an ambiguous, distant past to give it a hoary, mythic quality. Another possibility is that the story of Ruth experienced a long period of development and transmission (either oral or written) and was finally recorded in its present form after the exile; this could account for the inconsistencies and snippets of law, language, and custom from various periods of Israelite history.

Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. … Nothing but death shall divide us.

—Ruth to Naomi (1.16–17)

A third criteria for dating has to do with Israel's relationship to Moab. The Book of Ruth is audacious in its celebration of a Moabite heroine. Not only is Ruth a woman of great merit comparable to Israel's matriarchs, Leah and Rachel, but she is the ancestor of King David. This is startling because Moab and Israel were traditional enemies. Moabites refused to feed the Israelites when they were starving, and Moab was the home of Balak, who summoned Balaam to curse Israel (Nm 22–24). The Moabites battled with Saul (1 Sm 14.47), and Moabite women corrupted Hebrew men (Nm 25). Deuteronomy 23.2–6 says no Moabite "shall enter the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation." On a moralistic level, the Moabites were thought to be polluted as the race came about as a result of Lot's incest with his unnamed eldest daughter (Gn 19.30–38), and both Ezra (9–10) and Nehemiah (13.23–29) forbid marriage between Israelites and Moabites. It has been suggested that Ruth must have been written during a period when relations between Moab and Israel were tranquil: late 5th to mid-4th century bce. By the same reasoning, some date the book to the much earlier monarchical period (c. 1000), when many neighboring peoples were incorporated into the political kingdom of Israel without rancor.

Controversies over dating and interpretation are closely related in an important issue concerning Ruth's marginality: she is a woman, without a male protector, childless, and foreign. Much is made of her foreignness; it is mentioned several times. When Boaz first sees Ruth in his fields, he asks, "To whom does she belong?" The response summarizes her status: "This woman is an unmarried Moabitess." In the Middle Ages, rabbinic commentators (Jewish religious leaders) were uncomfortable enough with the ethnicity of Ruth that they tendered various proposals to bring the story into line with Biblical proscriptions; hence, some Rabbis said that it was only Moabite men whom the Book of Deuteronomy forbade becoming Jews. Others claimed that Elimelech did not allow Mahlon and Chilion to marry Moabite women; they did so after their father died, and this violation of deuteronomic law was the cause of their deaths. Also, Elimelech himself was punished with death for escaping to Moab during famine.

How and why, then, was a poor, childless Moabite woman raised to the status of Israel's national heroines? One possibility is that the Book of Ruth was written partially as a protest against Israelite exclusiveness or xenophobia. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 537 bce, they allowed the Jews held captive in Babylon to return to their homeland. These returning refugees faced the challenge of reintegrating themselves into the population which had remained in Judah and of reorganizing society under Persian overlordship. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, attitudes rigidified as to who was a "legitimate Jew" and who a foreigner. Both Ezra and Nehemiah categorically exclude from legitimacy the progeny of mixed marriages between Moabites and Israelites. For some, the Book of Ruth, despite its serene, nonpolemical tone and idyllic surroundings, is a critique against this kind of particularism. Another explanation for elevating Ruth, of such objectionable heritage, to a position of honor is that it was well known that King David had a strain of Moabite blood; therefore, it behooved the Rabbis to come to terms with this "fact" and to bolster Ruth's fitness as progenitor to Israel's greatest king by presenting the Moabite ancestress in the best possible light. They attempted to underplay Ruth's foreignness by focusing on her conversion or comparing her with Abraham—both were foreigners, chosen by God to leave their homelands and become forbearers of illustrious individuals. Though not implied in the text, she was said by the Rabbis to be lovely like a girl of 14, modest (she gleaned sitting down, not bending over), and the daughter of King Eglon of Moab. Ruth became, at the hands of medieval commentators (both Jewish and Christian), the ideal of female beauty and comportment.

But was she such a model of perfect womanhood? Some feminist commentators agree with the opinion of the Rabbis but evaluate the merit of her character differently. They view Ruth as a poor role model, arguing she is too submissive and obedient. For this group of scholars, the premise of the Book of Ruth is that the protagonist willingly and uncritically submits to the "degrading" custom of levirate marriage which ensures the patrilineage of a dead male, and, in this case, fills a gap in the patriarchal hierarchy leading up to King David. Most feminist scholarship, however, tends to see Ruth in a more "favorable" light as courageous, inventive, pro-active, and even subtly subversive. For them Ruth is a story of two female protagonists, fiercely loyal to each other, struggling to survive in and transform their patriarchal world.

It is the women in Ruth who play the dominant, active, and morally commendable roles. Jack Sasson, in his folkloric analysis, has determined that Ruth plays the part of "hero" which is traditionally filled by a male. She actively pursues her goals, overcomes adversity, and brings her quest to a successful conclusion. While in Moab she refuses to leave her mother-in-law, despite being pressed to do so three times. Ruth makes sure she meets Boaz face to face on her first day of gleaning; she will not glean without his permission, although that permission is not necessary. On the threshing floor, she exceeds the instructions given her by Naomi and, through creative improvisation, initiates the chain of events that not only provides her a husband, but assures her mother-in-law an heir and the ownership of her property. Boaz, the prominent male in the story, is always a secondary character and largely a foil for Ruth. His sluggishness highlights her virtues to good advantage (the Jewish Midrash portrays him as 80 years old and has him die after only one day of marriage). Although the author does not censure Boaz for dereliction of duty in not recognizing his clan responsibility, he is passive and dependent on the imaginative manipulation of the women. "He has patriarchal power, but he does not have narrative power. He has authority within the story but not control over it" (Trible 176). He sleeps while Ruth acts.

In opposition to the view of some feminists that Ruth deconstructs the gender boundaries of the rigid male-dominated culture in which the character finds herself, it can as easily be said that Ruth, above all characters in the book, is the most prescient and solicitous of the needs of the patriarchy. She becomes the agent for mending broken bonds and assuring the permanence of God's ordained social order. For this reason, Ruth is paralleled to Tamar (Gn 38), a woman who also understood the necessity of continuation of the male line. Tamar was the wife of Er, son of Judah. When Tamar's husband died, she married his brother, Onan, according to the demands of levirate marriage. Onan also died, and Tamar was returned to her "father's house." She was distraught because the imperative of fostering sons in the name of her deceased husband weighed heavy on her. Tamar dressed herself as a prostitute and, veiled, seduced her father-in-law, Judah. When she became pregnant, he voiced the judgment of the Jewish tradition in his praise: "She has been more just than I." She recognized her duty to family.

Tamar (fl. 1100 bce)

Biblical woman. Flourished around 1100 bce; married Er (son of Judah, died); married his brother Onan (son of Judah, died); children: (with Judah) twin sons, Perez and Zerah.

Ruth is also compared to Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob, who resourcefully satisfied the demands of the patriarchal laws of their culture and in so doing proved how thoroughly they comprehended God's mandates. Jacob loved the beautiful Rachel, who appeared to be barren, and shunned the less alluring but fertile Leah. The two women recognized that Jacob's trivial preferences and their own jealous competitiveness were standing in the way of God's designs: the building up of his people. Therefore, with one another's help they both had children, who fathered the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Gn 30.1–25). Just as these two women working together built God's elect nation, another pair of women collaborated to restore it. (Naomi and Ruth sometimes even are conflated in the text. For instance, when Ruth has Obed the townswomen say, "Naomi has a son.") Lot was the son of Abraham, who, well before the time of Ruth, separated from his father's people on the Plain of Jordan (Gn 13.7–13). Lot was the father of Moab, who was born of Lot's eldest daughter. She seduced her father by "trickery" in order that his line might not die out (Gn 19.30–38). Lot was forefather to Ruth the Moabite, and Boaz was the descendent of Abraham. Therefore, in Obed, Ruth's son, the ancient rift was mended for the blood of Lot and Abraham mixed in his veins. Further, through a harmonious collaboration, or as the text says, by "clinging together," Ruth and Naomi become the ancestral mothers of the king who united and led the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The women featured in Ruth (Rachel, Leah, Tamar, Naomi, and Ruth), each in her own way, weave together the torn fabric of family and thereby restore and redeem the Lord's people.

Both historical commentators and modern scholars have noted that the women extolled in Ruth employ sexual stratagems to achieve their ends. (Even the male protagonist, Boaz, is associated with dubious carnal activity; he is the son of the prostitute Rahab [Mt 1:5; Heb 11.31].) The vignette of Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor has attracted attention because of the sexual tension caused by its ambiguity. Those who see Ruth as a model of virtue—ancestor of both David and Jesus (Mt 1.5–16)—are anxious to interpret the scene exactly as written: Ruth uncovers Boaz's feet and lies by them. In so doing she follows her mother-in-law's instructions and makes herself a symbol of great humility. But a careful philological investigation reveals that the metaphoric language may be meant to describe the couple's betrothal and its consummation. One scholar, referring to Naomi's instructions to Ruth, interprets the Hebrew gillit margelotaw (which is usually translated "uncover his feet") as "take your clothes off at the place by his feet." "Foot" ( regel) is a common Biblical euphemism for penis. When Boaz awakens startled and asks who is there, Ruth responds, "Ruth, your aāmāh," which means "marriageable woman." She implores Boaz to "spread [his] cloak over [his] maidservant," asking that Boaz take her as his woman. The word for cloak is kānā, which also means "wing," and the phrase Ruth uses is a Biblical metaphor for betrothal (Ezekiel 16.8). After the discussion the two "lie down." Whether they sleep the night away or consummate their secret betrothal is left provocatively ambiguous. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373 ce), a Christian theologian, felt no confusion about the activities of Ruth and Boaz that night, nor did he question the virtue of their motives. In his Hymns of Nativity Ephrem wrote, "The throbbing coal went up and fell down in Boaz's bed. She saw the high priest who was hidden in his loins: fire for his incense. She ran and was a heifer for Boaz. She would bring forth [Christ], the fatted calf" (15). The comparison the men at the gate make between Ruth and Tamar reinforces the likelihood that Ruth and Boaz had intercourse that night on the threshing floor. In both cases, the woman, adorned and anointed, takes the initiative to the same worthy end. The grain Boaz gives Ruth in the morning, which is possibly a betrothal gift, is meant also for Naomi who came back from Moab "empty." Now she will have both grain and children. When Ruth returns home, Naomi asks her the strange question, "Who are you?," which some have read as, "Whose wife are you?" Naomi is asking her daughter-in-law whether the betrothal has been accomplished. Ruth relates "all that the man had done to her."

Traditionally, Jewish scholarship has attributed the authorship of Ruth to the prophet Samuel (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b), the same man who purportedly wrote Judges, but that seems unlikely because Samuel died before David became king. Recently, convincing arguments have been proffered that Ruth was authored by a woman, possibly an old wise-woman, which may account for the book's empathy with Naomi. One scholar identifies the writer as Tamar (fl. 1000 bce), daughter of King David. However, attaining proof that the person who actually committed the story to writing was a woman is less promising (perhaps less interesting) than the studies that investigate the way that Ruth reflects a woman's culture, voice, and textual authority. Authorial activity and literacy need not be equated. There is a decided absence of androcentrism in the story; women—their concerns and perspectives—comprise the substance of the narrative. For instance, while in Moab Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth to return to their mothers' houses, not the more common "father's house."

Another hint that Ruth may be authored (if not actually committed to writing) by a woman/women is the role of the Bethlehemite female "chorus" which provides the communal voice. Although the townswomen do not have the legislative or judicial power that the men exercise at the city gate, they have authority and the capacity to assess and articulate group values. It is they who pronounce for the reader the final judgment on the events of the narrative, interpreting the impact of the elders' legal decisions and harmonizing them with the women's world around which the narrative revolves. Although the climax of the story and the point at which all of its elements are integrated is the birth of a son, the women of Bethlehem pronounce Ruth worth more even than the "fullness" of seven sons.

There are many issues in Ruth upon which consensus has not been reached, but scholars tend to agree on the import of the book's theology. In Ruth, God's universal causality and lordship are ever-present, though hidden—expressed not through miracles, revelations, or displays of power, but within the lives of common people of unpretentious, even unsavory, backgrounds. The ancient historian Flavius Josephus (d. around 100 ce) wrote, "God … advanced David [to dignity and splendor], though he were born of such mean parents" ( Antiquities V.ix.4). God is an invisible character in the story, but he does direct human action and finally answers all prayers. In the barley fields, when Ruth asks Boaz why he is taking notice of her when she is a foreigner, the term she uses is nochria which means "someone who is seen." She is seen because she is strange. She describes herself from Boaz's perspective because she knows that she is dependent on his gaze, just as she is dependent on God's gaze or grace. In this sense Ruth epitomizes the position of all humans with respect to God.

A second theological function of the book is to celebrate particular virtues, such as faithfulness (both human and divine) and hesed, meaning "just charity," or "duty willingly performed." The setting of the story is likely the period of the Judges because those were dark days; the Israelites were disregarding their covenant, and moral leadership was lacking. "In those days Israel had no king, and everyone did as he saw fit" (Jgs 21.25). By contrast, Ruth puts duty first, and, through her offspring, Israel is supplied the leadership it lacks. For many Israelites, the most important word of the book was the last one: David.

The genre of Ruth is debatable. It has been called an idyll, a simple pastoral story with no evil characters, comedy, historical novel, subversive parable, folk tale, short story, old Canaanite oral poem, and nursery tale. It is well suited to public performance; no other book in the Hebrew Bible has a higher ratio of dialogue to narrative text. Like ancient story-telling, only two characters engage in conversation at a time. The text is skillfully constructed with a classical literary configuration employing careful patterning based on numerology, chiasmi, assonance, punning, and play on names. Stylistic factors have been employed in efforts to date the book. The delicate psychological portrayal of characters similar to court histories of David, the gracious manners, and even specific phrases resemble the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, Samuel, and Kings.

Some scholars view Ruth as, at base, folk mythology artificially freighted by redactors and commentators with political and theological overtones. Many have looked for parallels to the story's heroines in the literatures of neighboring cultures. Ruth has been compared with near eastern "deceptive goddesses" associated with motifs of sexual exchange, drunkenness, and feasting. Sasson suggests that Boaz was frightened of Ruth when he was awakened on the threshing floor because he thought she might be the female demon Lilith. The text calls Naomi both "the pleasant one" and "the bitter one," a pair of appellations known as an epithet of Anat, a Canaanite goddess. Some writers also have seen a connection to the Greek myth of Demeter: Naomi and Ruth are the two sides of womanhood—youth and age—like Demeter and Persephone, and the story is set during the harvest. Naomi has been compared to the Egyptian Isis, a widow who seeks an heir for her deceased husband. Ruth may be connected to fertility myths of Canaanite origin: Bethlehem means "house of bread" and clan territory around Bethlehem is Ephratha meaning "fertility." The famine mentioned at the beginning of Ruth may originally have been the result, not the cause, of Naomi's departure.

The compelling story of Ruth has inspired surprisingly little great art and literature. The most famous medieval artistic treatment is from the 12th century Admont Bible which treats the subjects of Ruth gleaning and the couple's marriage. Nicolas Poussin's (d. 1665) portrayal of Summer shows Ruth among the gleaners, and Rembrandt van Rijn's (d. 1669) The Jewish Bride is likely a representation of the nuptials of Boaz and Ruth. The widows' return to Judah is commemorated in the Dutch painter Willem Drost's (d. 1680) Ruth and Naomi. William Blake (d. 1827) produced a watercolor of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah in Moab, and Jean François Millet (d. 1875) portrays Boaz instructing Ruth to lunch with his reapers in Harvesters Resting.

Both Jewish and Christian commentaries on Ruth were produced in the Middle Ages, and in the modern period a few plays and poems in Spanish, French, German, and English have been based on the tale. John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819) mentions Ruth: "Perhaps the self-same song that found a path/ Through the sad heart of Ruth when, sick for home,/ she stood in tears amid the alien corn," and one of the most moving poems in Victor Hugo's La légende des siècles (1859), "Booz endormi," explores the elderly Boaz's mysterious experience of love. Two contemporary novels by American authors have appeared since World War II: Ruth (1949) by Irving Fineman, and The Song of Ruth: A Love Story from the Old Testament (1954) by Frank G. Slaughter.

Most modern discussion about Ruth focuses on its date and author and how that author understood and reflected his or her own culture. However, a story as rich as Ruth is not limited to the function it had in its original place and time. In any milieu Ruth is a woman to be revered for her devotion and admired for her spirit. Although she is cooperative and selfless, we need not see Ruth as subservient because she supports community values; quite apart from subverting a narrow patriarchy, she appropriates and humanizes it.

sources:

Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1994.

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist Companion to Ruth. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

Campbell, Edward F. Ruth. 2nd ed. The Anchor Bible, vol. 7. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

Fewell, D.N., and D.M. Gunn. Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1990.

Knight, Douglas A., and Gene M. Tucker, eds. The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985.

Larkin, Katrina J.A. Ruth and Esther. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sasson, Jack M. Ruth: A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and a Formalist-Folklorist Interpretation. 2nd ed. The Biblical Seminar. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1978.

Wolde, Ellen van. Ruth and Naomi. Translated by John Bowden. Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 1998.

suggested reading:

Brenner, Athalya, and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes. On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible. Leiden: Brill, 1993.

Gow, M.D. The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose. Leicester: Apollos, 1994.

Gray, John. Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986.

Hals, Ronald M. The Theology of the Book of Ruth. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1969.

Hubbard, R.L. The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Jöuon, Paul. Ruth: commentaire philologique et exégétique. 2nd ed. Biblical Institute Press. Rome, 1986.

LaCocque, André. The Feminine Unconventional: Four Subversive Figures in Israel's Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990.

Myers, Jacob M. The Linguistic and Literary Form of the Book of Ruth. Leiden: Brill, 1955.

Zakovitch, Y. Ruth: A Commentary. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990 (for Jewish reading of Ruth).

Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon

More From Encyclopedia.com


You Might Also Like