I'm speaking of the Bible, of course, but note the plural. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are packed with amazing stories, cunningly told. Think of the adventures and wanderings of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Laban, of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers, of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, of Saul and the Witch of Endor, of David and Absalom, of Samson and Delilah, and so on and on. As centuries of commentaries have shown, these stories, like all good stories, are full of meanings. What I want to do in this essay is to show you the rewards that careful reading of these wonderful stories, prodigies of compression and implication, can yield to an attentive reader.
I must admit that my thinking owes much to my wife Jo Ann, a garden writer (The Old Fashioned Fruit Garden, Living with Herbs, The Heirloom Garden, Herbs in Bloom, Elegant Silvers, Gardens of Use & Delight) now completing a book about the ways the material life in the land influenced the ancient Hebrews. For instance, the pastoral life (think of the Twenty-Third Psalm), embodied in the careers of the Patriarchs like Abraham, created certain mores, patterns of thought and behavior that we can trace in the religious conceptions and laws. Since Jo Ann has been working on this manuscript for nearly two years and we always discuss our writing together, I have been thinking about this subject and how to introduce it to my readers for some time, and I think the best way to do it is to analyze the Book of Ruth, a short (just four chapters) and simple story, easily summarized: Naomi, a native of Bethlehem, long resident in Moab on the east side of the Jordan, now widowed and bereft of her two sons, returns to Bethlehem with one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth a Moabitess. Since Ruth is poor and a stranger, she is entitled by Jewish law to glean in the grain fields after harvest, which she does in the fields of Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi by marriage, (hence a kinsman of Ruth, too). Boaz instructs the reapers to drop grain for her deliberately, and when she returns home at the end of the day, she has two thirds of a bushel! Naomi sees opportunity and tells Ruth to spruce herself up and go to the threshing floor at night and cuddle up to Boaz, which she does. Next day Boaz goes to the city gate, and after making sure that a nearer kinsman, while willing to redeem Naomi's land, is unwilling to take Ruth, the way is cleared for him to marry her, and so she becomes the grandmother of King David.
Now let's look more closely at the narrative, and remember that these stories were told for generations before they were written down, and a folk audience would be alert to the slightest nuance, so imagine yourself listening to the words. It opens with the migration of Elimelech and Naomi because "there was a famine in the land" (1:1). (All citations from King James Version.) We know that, because the lands on the west side of the Jordan tended to be drier than those on the east side (Moab, present-day Jordan), they were subject to drought, so such migrations, more or less temporary, were common. In other words, the audience knows this is a commonplace event in a world familiar to them. After the deaths of her sons (her husband died some time before), Naomi hears that the famine at home is over ("The Lord had visited his people in giving them bread") (1:6), and determines to return, telling her daughters-in-law to go back to their mothers' homes. They weep and insist on accompanying her, but finally Naomi persuades Orpah to go back, and Ruth makes the extraordinary statement " . . . wither thou goest, I will go . . . thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (1:16). This whole episode is very important in setting the tone of the narrative. Note what Naomi says, charged with feeling, when she first tells them to go home:
The Lord deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me. The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband. Then she kissed them; and they lifted up their voice and wept (1:8,9).
When they still persist, she says she has no more sons for them. "It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord is gone out against me" (1:13). The first scene, then, is filled with emotion: the love between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, the tearful parting, Ruth's ringing declaration of fidelity, Naomi's implied bitterness at her bereft condition.
When they get to Bethlehem, the town is stirred with curiosity, and when they ask "Is this Naomi?" she is very harsh. "Call me not Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter]: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me" (1:20), and her grief is insisted on at the end of the chapter.
The first chapter can readily be seen in dramatic terms, and each scene is emotionally charged: Naomi's parting from her daughters-in-law, Ruth's moving declaration, Naomi's bitterness. Climatically, they arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest, a very significant event in Israel's agricultural cycle, celebrated religiously (it is associated with Passover). Looked at from the point of the view of the audience, the scene is momentously set.
The next chapter opens with the news that Boaz, Naomi's kinsman, is a mighty man of wealth, and Ruth asks Naomi's permission to go to glean. Here is where an explanation will help the uninstructed reader. In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy there are laws of gleaning (elaborated in the Talmud), a procedure by which "the stranger, the widow, and the orphan" shall gain some subsistence from the harvest. For instance, the harvester must leave the field's corners unreaped - but how large (or small) must the corners be? Well, there are laws that govern that. Anyway, Ruth goes gleaning "in the field after the reapers" and they are Boaz's fields. The audience of Hebrew villagers listening to the story would immediately know that she was violating the etiquette of gleaning: women were not supposed to follow the reapers or mix with men; they could glean only after men had gleaned, and only in the company of other women. So when Boaz appears, he notices the woman and asks about her. The overseer identifies her as
. . . the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi" (2:6). (Throughout Ruth is so designated, emphasizing her situation as an alien, which is very important in the ultimate meaning of the story.) Boaz notices Ruth because she's out of place, but it soon becomes clear that he knows who she is, and the alert reader will suspect that he is already attracted to her. He tells her to "abide here fast by my maidens," and adds "have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee" (2:8,9).
Ruth's strong reaction:
Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that you shouldst take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger? (2:10)
. . . is explained by the woman's situation: notice that the people of Bethlehem express no warmth toward Naomi on her return, only curiosity, and the fact that gleaning is for the poor and strangers and widows defines their situation, just as Naomi's bitter outburst about her name overshadows their return. And everyone, including Ruth, emphasizes that she is a stranger, a Moabitess.
Boaz's answer is magnificent, the dramatic turning point in the story. He says he knows how loving she has been to Naomi and how she cleaved to her "and art come unto a people which you knowest not heretofore" (2:11). Ruth responds graciously, again stressing her alien status, " . . . thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens" (2:13). Boaz invites her to the house at mealtime where she sits beside the reapers and he gives her food (both signs of favor). Afterwards he tells the reapers to let her glean among the sheaves (another irregularity), and even to let fall some grain deliberately. At the end of the day Ruth winnows out "about one ephah of barley" (2:17). She brings the extraordinary amount home to Naomi, and also gives her the leftovers of parched grain from her meal with Boaz. Naomi, very pleased with Ruth's account of her day, says of Boaz, "Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off his kindness to the living and to the dead" (2:20), stressing the theme of loving kindness. So Ruth continued gleaning and "kept fast by the maidens of Boaz" (2:23) through the barley and wheat harvests, about seven weeks (Shavuot in the Hebrew calendar, Pentecost in the Christian calendar).
Chapter three opens with Naomi's scheme to unite Ruth and Boaz. She tells Ruth to dress up and go surreptitiously to the threshing floor, watch out for Boaz, and when he has done eating and drinking and gone to lie down, then "uncover his feet and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do" (3:4). Naomi's psychology is astute. "And when Boaz had eaten and drank, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down" (3:7). Note "merry." He's a little tipsy. He awakes at midnight, discovers a woman at his feet, and asks "Who art thou?" (3:9), and Ruth's answer is essentially a proposal:
I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman (3:9).
Boaz is grateful, flattered:
. . . thou hast showed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as you followedest not young men . . . (3:10).
They lie together the rest of the night (she leaves before dawn - "let it not be known that a woman came into the floor" (3:14) - with her shawl stuffed with barley), and although the whole scene is sexually charged, I (and most commentators) do not think their union is consummated that night. Boaz explains that a kinsman has a duty to a widow to marry her so her husband's name will not die out of the tribe, but there is a nearer kinsman, so in the last chapter we see the final scene at the city gate when Boaz challenges the other kinsman to buy Naomi's land (from her deceased husband), and when the man says he'll redeem it, thus keeping the land in the tribe, Boaz adds that he must also marry Ruth "the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance" (her offspring will bear the name of her first husband). The man rejects Ruth, perhaps because she's a Moabite ("Lest I mar my own inheritance" 4:6). The people, now warm to Ruth, bless the union with Boaz. And Naomi is fulfilled in the end with the birth of Ruth's son:
And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it (4:16).
The dramatic organization here is intricate and very satisfying. In the beginning Naomi is at the dramatic center, making the decision to return to Bethlehem, sending her daughters-in-law on their way, and her character is strong, infused with loving kindness. Naomi provides the base upon which the rest of the story will rest. Then Ruth makes her amazing declaration and becomes the character to watch, although Naomi is a dramatic presence at the chapter's end with her bitter lament at being bereft.
For the rest of the book, Ruth takes center stage (with Naomi in the background as stage manager), although Boaz is a commanding figure at the city gate. At the end, the trajectory of Naomi's dramatic career comes to rest with Ruth's baby in her arms. So we can say that the whole story is about Naomi, but Ruth is the spirited heroine, the stranger who violates the laws and is rewarded for it! If one of the themes of this book is loving kindness, another might be described in the phrase, "The ethical impulse breaks the ethical law." That's why Ruth's Moabite origin is stressed, to make this theme even stronger.
I hope you've learned that while it is useful to know what the original audience would know, like the laws of gleaning and Levirate marriage (kinsman marrying a childless widow), it is not essential. By paying close attention to the text we not only enjoy a remarkable dramatic story, but we also understand it, and gain new respect for the Bible, and for the people who created these stories and bequeathed them to us.
In the next issue: Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. *