Prelude to Ruth
N.B. This web version does not contain the footnotes with references and additional information present in the book.
The Book of Ruth, known in Hebrew as Megillat Ruth, the Scroll of Ruth, traces a climb from personal and national tragedy toward redemption and joy. The depth and humanity of its three central characters and the ubiquity of their situations and values have rendered its three short chapters among the most beloved passages in all of biblical literature. Yet as touching and memorable as its characters and their story are, Megillat Ruth plays an even more dramatic role in Jewish tradition, laying the groundwork for King David. We have already explored the literary qualities of the text in Arnold Band’s essay. Now, before immersing ourselves in the text and illuminations, let us explore the nature of the story, its cast of characters, and their lives on the land, along with the sources brought to bear in understanding the text and its cultural value. All these matters underlie the illuminations that I present here.
Rabbinic tradition, expressed in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Batra 14b), states that Megillat Ruth was composed by the prophet Samuel, who identified and anointed the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. Much modern scholarship agrees that the text dates to c. 950–c. 700 bce, shortly after Samuel’s eleventh-century bce lifetime. Storytellers, however, probably transmitted the tale orally for some time before it was written down. The text of the Megillah contains phrasing that biblical scholars consider to be “archaic,” that is, late imitations of biblical phraseology meant to make the text look more authentically “biblical.” Scholars debate whether several linguistic constructions and political themes indicate Aramaic influence and necessarily later dating; some suggest that the period of the restoration of the Jewish kingdom under Ezra and Nehemiah is more likely. However, it is possible that an oral tradition of Megillat Ruth, if not a written text, dates to the early monarchic period. Bible scholar Edward F. Campbell suggests that the tale may have been composed in the Solomonic period and written down as part of the reforms enacted by the Judaean king Jehoshaphat in the mid-ninth century bce (see 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 17–20 for accounts of Jehoshaphat’s actions):
The language of Ruth is language of the monarchic period, tinged with the archaic. The archaic features may be due to a “cultural lag” in the countryside, but the overall impression is one of close relationship to stories stemming from the tenth and ninth centuries, the time of J and E and the Court History. On language alone, one would be justified in leaning toward the earlier part of our spread 950–700 bce.
Literary scholar Susanne Klingenstein, who describes Megillat Ruth as “Samuel’s family romance,” suggests that that the values expressed in the book underpin the Israelite monarchy, and thus make an early composition date and authorship by Samuel aesthetically satisfying:
Other authors and times of composition have been proposed, but none is as satisfactory and pleasing to readers with literary minds as the one the Talmud suggests…. Samuel will be recognized as the author of the Book of Samuel (Shmuel), the Book of Judges (Shoftim), and the Book of Ruth (Megillat Ruth). He is a man concerned with the political fate of Israel and the idea of just government. In Megillat Ruth, which the Christian tradition places cleverly between Shoftim and Shmuel, the prophet describes an ideal state. The genre of Megillat Ruth is the idyll. Nevertheless, it is a political book. What Samuel, who as prophet is a political writer, has to say about genealogy, and hence Israel’s elite, is provocative for those with more conventional ideas about royalty.
Ruth’s Moabite origin, the issues raised by this intermarriage within King David’s lineage, has raised arguments for both early and late dating for the text. Some scholars have seen the goal of the tale “to exonerate David’s foreign origin or promoting popular acceptance of the Davidic dynasty with the active role of foreigners under David and Solomon.” While this notion supports the theory of composition during the Solomonic era (tenth century bce), other theories regard the book’s acceptance of integrating the non-Israelite woman into Judaean society as part of a debate raging during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of the Judaean community under Persian rule (fifth century bce).
While arguments have accrued for dating Megillat Ruth both early and late, most current scholarship, based on the work’s language, sociopolitical mores, relationship to other biblical works and to King David, holds that Megillat Ruth was written shortly before or shortly after the Babylonian exile, that is, during the sixth to the fifth century bce.
A number of scholars, as early as the celebrated historian S. D. Goitein writing in 1948, suggest that the book’s unusual focus on the lives of women may indicate that it was written by a woman. Tamar Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky note that “the book provides a female perspective in the way that the story unfolds, even though we cannot determine the author’s name or gender. With its strong female perspective, the book canonizes women’s experience and embeds it in the otherwise more androcentric Bible.”
The opening of the book of Ruth plunges the reader into pain and disaster, both national and personal, simultaneously economic, moral, and emotional, all playing out against the backdrop of the social and political disorder of the period of the Judges. The biblical text does not record which judges or chieftains ruled at the time, but the rabbis posit three ideas: Barak and Deborah (Judges 4–5); Shamgar and Ehud (Judges 3); or Deborah, Barak, and Yael. A wealthy Bethlehem landowner, Elimelech, has fled Judaea during a famine, and resettled with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Maḥlon and Chilion, in nearby Moab. The first word of the book, vayyehi, “and it happened,” alerts us to the possibility of impending disaster; midrash tells us that every time that term begins a story in Tanakh, either trouble or great happiness is brewing. While the tale ends in joy, it clearly opens in deep sorrow.
At some point after resettling in then-fertile Moab, to the southeast of Judaea, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with two grown sons. Maḥlon and Chilion marry—not Israelite women but Moabites, Ruth and Orpah, in a move perhaps unsurprising, given the circumstances, but directly defying the Israelite law expressed in Deut. 23:3–4. Within ten years of their father’s death, the younger men themselves die, and Moab sinks into famine, leaving all three women suddenly and shockingly defenseless and destitute. While Orpah reluctantly returns to her own family, Naomi and Ruth struggle to find new security in a return to Judaea, marshaling all their wit and energy and, above all, their love and devotion to each other. As we learn, their personal journey plants the seeds of Israel’s national salvation from the chaos of the period of the Judges. The fruit of their bravery and loving-kindness will be the golden epitome of Israelite leadership, of love between humankind and the divine, David.
Were the deaths of the three men random? The tradition thinks not, and these quickly disposed-of characters immediately reveal the dominant theme of the book. Elimelech’s very name tells us that he knew that “my God is King,” while a midrashic interpretation asserts that the name echoes his conceit that “to me shall the kingdom come. Yet he leads his family away from the chosen land, and allows his sons to marry women from their new home in Moab, one of the seven enemy nations. The tradition roundly criticizes Elimelech, a wealthy man, for abandoning his community in their time of severest need; the family’s misfortunes stem directly from his irresponsibility. In the main collection of midrash on the book, Ruth Rabbah, which will be discussed below, the rabbis describe a chain of events leading to the ultimate punishment: death and the blotting out of the direct family line. Drawing upon Leviticus 13–14, they compare Elimelech’s punishment to the gradual damage from plague spots: if a man does not repent his sins, he first suffers the stones of his house to be removed upon priestly orders, and then the house is demolished. Then the garments develop plague spots and must be cleaned, then the spots are torn out, and then the garments are burned. Only then does plague come upon his body, with the possibility of the guilty one’s rejection from community. “And so it was with Maḥlon and Chilion also. First of all, their horses, their asses, and their camels died, then Elimelech, and lastly the two sons.” The sons’ names given in the story foreshadow their destruction: Maḥlon (nimhu, “blotted out”); and Chilion (kalu, “perished”). The name of the surviving mother, Naomi, in contrast, tells us that she is “pleasant and sweet.” In contrast to Elimelech’s negligence, loving-kindness and responsibility imbue Boaz’s every deed, echoing the providential love between God and the people of Israel.
So Megillat Ruth is not simply a biography, or a women’s story, or even an unusual love story, but a complex moral tale. Let us briefly explore the issues within the text that these paintings illuminate, the sources brought to bear in its interpretation, and the book’s role in Jewish traditions, ancient and modern.
At even the most cursory reading, the profound emotions expressed in Megillat Ruth have bound millennia of readers to its characters. As Arnold Band demonstrates, the very spareness of the story’s language and the way in which emotions are revealed through action rather than declarations (with one notable exception, of course) heighten its impact. The story begins with timeless pathos and desperation as the three women lose their husbands. Naomi and Ruth’s situation indeed resembles that of another set of literary heroines familiar to us, three millennia later: devotees of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility remember the plight of the Dashwood women, suddenly impoverished at the death of their husband and father, unexpectedly cast from wealth and comfort onto the kindness of strangers. However, unlike widowed and disinherited women of early nineteenth-century England, Ruth and Naomi can fall back on a communal legal code that offers some chance of relief. From shock, pain, and desperation, the emotions move to determination and hope and finally to joy as Naomi and Ruth first find acceptance and sustenance within the Bethlehem community, and ultimately love, security, and fulfillment within Boaz’s home. While the story describes the Bethlehemites’ surprise at Naomi’s humbled condition, since we read nothing of ostracism or attack, we understand that the townspeople received the women kindly. Throughout their entire ordeal, Ruth and her mother-in-law express only love and devotion to each other—even Orpah, despite her reluctant compliance with Naomi’s pleas that she return to her family, feels warmly toward her mother-in-law. Throughout the book, we experience the characters’ emotional responses to the highs and lows of human existence.
Just as Megillat Ruth is imbued with emotions felt and expressed by women and men, it is also suffused with a quiet love of the earth—in particular, the “land flowing with milk and honey,” which, the midrash tells us, was created all of a piece with the Torah and the people of Israel. Bible scholar Ellen Davis observes that Israel’s territory is fragile, marginally arable land, in contrast to the rich farmlands of the flanking Nile Delta and Mesopotamian lands. Plentiful harvests required rain, which might be unreliable and whose arrival thus signaled divine favor:
Fragility belongs essentially to the character of this land and may even contribute to its value. Seasonal aridity and periodic drought, a thin layer of topsoil, susceptibility to erosion—these mark the land of Canaan as a place under the immediate, particular care of God. Thus Moses instructs the Israelites in the wilderness:
For the land into which you are entering to take possession of it—it is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come out, where you would sow your seed and water with your foot, like a vegetable garden. The land to which you are passing over [the Jordan] to possess it is a land of mountains and valleys. By the measure of the rain from the heavens it drinks water [or: you will drink water]. It is a land which YHWH your God looks after; always the eyes of YHWH your God are on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Deut. 11:10–12).
Elimelech and his sons die in a foreign land after abandoning the Promised Land in a time of its own need; the famine at the outset is implicitly linked to the misdeeds of Israel during the era of the Judges. Ruth and Naomi enter Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest—at the moment, as the Mishnah (Menahot 10:1) and the midrash tells us, on the day before Passover when the sheaves are being bundled for the Omer sacrifice that would be offered on the second day of Passover. The Israelites experience their relationship with the land through agriculture, working the soil, herding their animals on its hills and valleys, and through its produce feeding their families and offering sacrifices to their providential God. Just as Deuteronomy promises the Israelites agricultural sustenance and plenty as a reward for compliance with the divine covenant, it warns of drought, famine, and plague when the nation ignored its obligations to God. Even today, despite two millennia of Jewish urbanization, the second paragraph of the Shema, the centerpiece of Jewish prayer, publicly restates that relationship three times each day. Every plan and deed of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz is predicated upon the centrality of agriculture in their culture. The Israelites express their love of the land through the careful tending of their crops and herds on its fields and hillsides, and only then reap the bounty due them upon fulfilling the covenant.
More than crops sprang from the land that Ruth’s Israelite community worked. Ruth and Boaz would become the great-grandparents of David—shepherd, poet, warrior, and king, “the beloved” of God. Thus Megillat Ruth became the foundational story of the Davidic dynasty that drew order from the chaos of the days of the Judges, under whose rule Israel once most fully realized its destiny as “light to the nations” and, according to Messianic doctrine, shall realize again in the future. Indeed, we might observe that by beginning the story in drought and famine, and ending with lush fertility, the author is also alluding to the chaos and fruitlessness of the era of the Judges, transforming, with Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, into the fresh growth of the Davidic line. Israel’s idealized king springs not from a line of ferocious warriors; nor does he miraculously appear from nowhere, dropped to earth by an eagle; nor is he the result of some scandalous coupling of god and woman: he was born naturally into a family of farmers and shepherds, close to the land that yielded food for sustenance and sacrifice.
Those farmers and shepherds that gave rise to King David lived their lives according to the code of biblical law to which sensitive readers find reference throughout Megillat Ruth, which lay at the root of their kindness and ethic of community responsibility. We remember that Elimelech brought death upon himself and his sons as punishment for abandoning his community at its time of need, abrogating tradition and law. In contrast, Susanne Klingenstein notes, the formal requirements of Jewish law underlay the compassionate behavior of the Bethlehem community and Boaz in responding to Naomi’s and Ruth’s needs and, in particular, Ruth’s conversion to acceptance of the Israelite God and Torah. Naomi is not accepted back, nor is Ruth accepted into the Israelite community out of simple goodwill. Rather, specific dictates of Torah create a system through which the expatriate Jew and the otherwise-forbidden Moabite must be accepted into the Israelite nation—and conversely, absent the fulfillment of any one part of that system, Ruth could not have been accepted. The story, she observes, traces the gradual fulfillment of the four crucial commandments that bring Naomi “from the outskirts” of the Jewish community of Bethlehem to which she returns with Ruth, into full acceptance at its center: 1) matanot ani’im—agricultural gifts to the poor, Ruth’s gleaning; 2) geula, redemption of property within the clan (Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz as a redeeming kinsman); 3) yibbum, Levirite marriage (Boaz marries Ruth to continue Maḥlon’s line); and 4) acceptance of the georet, the converted Moabite (Ruth’s entrance into the community). Klingenstein notes that the formalities of Jewish law are essential drivers of the plot. The story moves forward upon community structure, governance, and law, in addition to hesed and perhaps even love: “Boaz’s acceptance of Ruth as his wife is formulated in purely legal terms to demonstrate that Jewish law has now embraced Ruth officially: ‘Also Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Maḥlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his native place’ (4:10).”
With its stark human dramas and bold actions, it is almost impossible to read Megillat Ruth without intuitively carrying away lessons about noble behavior, even without particular sensitivity to allusions to biblical law. However, the rabbis who guided the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during the oppression of late Rome and early Byzantine rule certainly did understand the role of biblical law in Ruth. Indeed, they used the story as a prooftext for envisioning the value of Torah, rabbinic leadership, and halakhah (the rabbinic code of Jewish law) in creating kind and caring communities. These lessons were developed through discussions among rabbis of the day, conveyed to their synagogue congregations through homiletics and sermons, and later compiled and recorded.
Probably the earliest compilation of rabbinic commentary on Megillat Ruth is preserved in the Targum, or Aramaic translation and paraphrase of the biblical book. While the timing of its composition is debated, Targum Ruth most likely dates to the era of the tannaim, the early rabbis whose analyses of biblical texts resulted in the Mishnah, the early codification of Jewish law accomplished by about 200 ce. In this period, centuries before books were inexpensive enough to provide to every synagogue congregant, the public readings of prescribed Hebrew biblical selections were interspersed with readings from a vernacular version of the text. And, given that the Jews of the Land of Israel eastward through Babylonia spoke Aramaic, Targumim in that language were composed for each book of the Pentateuch and those Writings (Ketubim) publically read in full as part of synagogue ritual. You may note that I described the Targum as a “vernacular version,” rather than a translation. While the formal texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings had been canonized by this time (give or take minor variations in orthography or scribal error), Jewish literature of this Hellenistic period includes a wide array of retellings of biblical text, as well as outright novelistic treatments of related tales whose variations on the central theme were often meant to add religious emotion or other dramatic elements to the biblical subject. The writer of Targum Ruth used his community’s need for a vernacular translation as an opportunity to embellish the biblical tale with other materials that similarly flesh out its emotions and heighten its religiosity. See, for instance, the following, part of Ruth’s beloved declaration of loyalty to her mother-in-law:
Ruth said, “Wherever you lodge I will lodge.” Naomi said, “We are commanded to keep six hundred and thirteen precepts.” Ruth said, “What your people keep I will keep as if they were my people from before this.” Naomi said, “We are commanded not to engage in idolatry.”
The italicized words represent the Targum’s additions to this text. As far as this paraphrase strays from the literal sense of the story, it colored the way that non-Hebrew-speaking Jews heard the story, at least in synagogue. All in all, the embellishments to the central text more than double the size of the book in Targum Ruth, and elements of its interpretation of Megillat Ruth echo through the later rabbinic interpretations of the text.
The most comprehensive collection of rabbinic interpretation of Megillat Ruth is Ruth Rabbah, part of the greater collection of midrash on the Pentateuch and Megillot known as Midrash Rabbah, which presents these homiletic remarks in the order of the specific biblical verses that inspired them. As with other works of midrash, it is very difficult to precisely date or identify the author of Ruth Rabbah. This compilation of rabbinic discussion and homiletics grew over decades and perhaps centuries, and no records remain to date (or even establish authors) for its final redaction. Analysis of the rabbinic sources cited—notably, the lack of references to figures and references from the Babylonian Talmud, as well as similarities to Song of Songs Rabbah—suggests that the final redaction dates to a similar period and place as that of the Jerusalem Talmud, the Land of Israel around 600 ce.
Within Ruth Rabbah, as indeed throughout the whole body of midrash, any word or phrase of the book of Ruth may be interpreted in the light of verses from anywhere else in Tanakh, drawing together all the values from across all of Torah to interpret the text and, beyond that, to guide the community. Jacob Neusner analyzed this “rabbinization” of Megillat Ruth, “the introduction of the generative myths and symbols particular to Rabbinic Judaism,” as a far more momentous task than simply picking legal points out of Ruth’s brief chapters. Instead, Ruth Rabbah links Megillat Ruth (and hence the Davidic dynasty) to the whole body of Torah: “ ‘To rabbinize’ is to see matters all together and all at once, complete, in proportion and in balance: systemically and systematically. It is to grasp the Torah, not just the components of the Torah one by one: to tell the story not bit by bit but whole and start to finish, as no one before them had done, and as no one after them would again have to do.”
Ruth Rabbah took shape against the background of the early Christian Roman rule, when the rabbinate struggled to define the nature of Judaism in the light of the Christian claim at being the true inheritor of Jewish tradition. Their discussions recorded here probe successive phrases of the story, the deeds and statements of each character, and their relationship to the totality of the Bible, for their value in expressing the centrality of Jewish belief, law, and observance in defining Jewish identity.
Ruth Rabbah became highly influential in later rabbinic understandings of Megillat Ruth. The word-by-word analysis of Megillat Ruth written by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, Troyes, 1040–1105), whose commentary on Tanakh has remained the lens through which all traditional Jewish textual scholarship views the Hebrew Bible, based his understanding of Megillat Ruth directly on this midrashic work. As we will see through the midrashic symbolism that I employ within the illuminations and explain in the commentary, the overarching theme in this central collection of midrash on Ruth is the eponymous heroine’s eager acceptance of Torah and Jewish law, and the law’s—and, by extension, the rabbinate’s—role in promoting order and loving-kindness within the Jewish community. Thus, the midrash analyzing this tale of King David’s great-grandparents links the roles of Torah and halakhah in regulating Jewish life to the past and the future Davidic dynasty and, by extension, the eternal Jewish community.
As we have seen, Ruth’s willing reception and acceptance of Torah, of the Jewish law that shapes Jewish community, forms a primary theme of both the Megillah and its midrash. Jewish tradition includes a public reading of Megillat Ruth seven weeks after the beginning of Passover, during morning services on the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost), which is celebrated not only as the spring harvest festival, the culmination of the fifty-day Omer cycle, but is even more importantly regarded as the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai, the communal reception and acceptance of Torah. The Maḥzor Vitry, a celebrated prayer book from Rashi’s followers in early-twelfth-century France, included Megillat Ruth in the order of Shavuot readings. The Gaon of Vilna (1720–97) held that the book should be read publicly from a parchment scroll rather than a printed book, indicating its special importance. One classic compilation of the rabbinic thought underlying Jewish holiday custom explains the rabbis prescribed reading Ruth on Shavuot, otherwise known as Atzeret, celebrating the labor of the harvest, “to teach you that the Torah is acquired only through suffering and affliction, as was the case with Ruth when she was converted.”
In 1941, three millennia after Ruth pledged her fidelity to Naomi, Winston Churchill dined with Harry Hopkins, a close adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and architect of the Lend-Lease plan, to request American armaments to fight Hitler’s armies. Churchill’s biographer Roy Jenkins describes Hopkins’ response to Churchill’s plea: “Hopkins, at the end of dinner, no doubt influenced by the emotion of the day and the quality of the hospitality, but nonetheless very committingly, quoted the Book of Ruth on the future of Anglo-American relations: ‘Whither though goest I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.’ ‘Even to the end,’ Hopkins added.”
As we open these illuminations, we immerse ourselves again in the chaotic Israel of the era of the Judges, now with a story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, of how kindness and responsibility can germinate a shoot of fresh green growth through the ashes of chaos.