The story of Ruth, read on the holiday of Shavuot – the time of the giving of Torah — centers around a “redeemer”: a “redeemer” in the financial sense, a male relative to retrieve the land holdings of a widow; and a “redeemer” in broader understandings, encompassing messianic hopes and God as ultimate Redeemer of Israel. And the story of Ruth itself is a powerful redeemer in its own right.
- Ancestresses of Ruth’s Story: Tamar and Lot’s Daughters
- Recognition and Choice
- Redeeming Lot and Judah
- Punch Line, Concluding Note
Ancestresses of Ruth’s Story
Ruth is one in a line of women – including Lot’s daughters (Gen 19:30-38) and Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) – who use their sexuality, one of the few powers women could employ in the world of these ancient texts, to accomplish crucial goals for themselves, their families, and all Israel. Boaz is one in a line of men – including Lot and Judah – who are seduced by younger women as part of larger schemes in which the men function chiefly as seed-providing tools.
Lot and his unnamed daughters flee Sodom as it is destroyed. According to some commentary, Lot knew that only a few cities, including their own, had been destroyed; his daughters, however, feared that they were the last people on earth. In an effort to continue the human race, each, in turn, plies their father with drink and then seduces him in order to conceive. Lot, in a drunken sleep throughout both incidents, is “not aware of her lying down or her getting up” (Gen. 19:33, 35).
We’re told that the sons of Lot’s daughters become progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite peoples. Israel is later forbidden from allowing these peoples into their congregation, for reasons linked to these peoples’ behavior and not to their conception. (Deut. 23:4; rabbinic tradition later determines that only men of these peoples were banned). But the Genesis story moves on before we learn anything about the lives of Lot and his daughters post-seduction. top
Tamar dresses as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law after he delays in giving his third son to her in leverite marriage. Judah has thus prevented her from conceiving a child to support her in life; denied his own son (her first husband) the chance for an heir, and, in some understandings, a rebirth of his soul; and added another obstacle in the birth of the child who was to become – and some say Tamar knew would become – an ancestor of the Davidic dynasty.
Tamar is veiled, and Judah does not recognize her during the time he is intimate with her. Later, when Tamar is pregnant and on trial for sexual misconduct, she sends out Judah’s wrap, staff, and signet – which he’d given her as pledge in lieu of her “prostitute’s fee.” Only at that point does he recognize the woman with whom he fathered a child. He takes that opportunity to say, “she is right” (Gen. 38:26). top
Recognition and Choice
In the Book of Ruth, as in Genesis 19 and 38, a younger woman seduces an older male relative to conceive a child. Alicia Suskin Ostriker calls the story of Ruth an “idyllic pastoral replay (redemption?) of the story of Lot’s daughters” (The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, Rutgers, 1994, p.175).
Ruth stealthily appears where an older male relative, sated with food and drink, is sleeping (Ruth 3). Although the older man, Boaz, had obviously noticed Ruth earlier in the day – he had a conversation with his overseer about her and then actually spoke with her (Ruth 2) – in the dark, he now asks, “Who are you?”
Ruth identifies herself and explains that he is a redeemer, a close relation of her mother-in-law, Naomi. Boaz recognizes her, understands the implications of spending the night with her, blesses her for choosing a redeemer for her mother-in-law and for her dead husband – rather than going after “younger men, rich or poor” (Ruth 3:10) – promises to marry her, and sends her off before daylight in an effort to protect their reputations.
Traditional readings – see Ruth Rabbah, chapters 6-7 e.g. – are divided as to whether Boaz and Ruth engaged in sexual activity constituting a betrothal. In one midrash, the exclamation “there was a woman lying at his feet!” (3:9) follows questioning of Ruth to determine that she was not a demon, married or niddah [forbidden due to laws of family purity]. In another, Boaz takes great pains to overcome any “evil inclination” that night, waiting to be sure that the closer redeemer will not choose to marry Ruth. In every reading I’ve encountered – from ancient to modern – however, Boaz is awake, sees who is before him, and chooses.
Ruth, too, chooses her actions. She chooses to follow Naomi, even when Naomi makes it plain that a life in Bethlehem is likely to be one without status or resources (Ruth 1). She listens to Naomi’s instructions about approaching Boaz but deviates from them: instead of waiting for Boaz to tell her what to do, she tells him what she seeks. top
Redeeming Lot and Judah
In a genealogical sense, Obed, the child of Ruth and Boaz, represents the redemption of the earlier stories. Ruth, as a Moabite, is a descendant of Lot’s older daughter. Boaz descends from Perez, the child of Tamar and Judah. Obed – arising from the two stories of desperation and deceit – becomes grandfather of David, first king of Israel.
In addition, Solomon, son of David and second king of Israel, marries Naamah, an Ammonite, descendant of Lot’s younger daughter. It is Rehoboam, son of Solomon and Naamah, who continues the royal dynasty and messianic line. In this way, both Ammonites and Moabites contribute to the Davidic line and, therefore, to the survival of the Jewish people. And so, the two peoples forbidden from joining Israel, in Deuteronomy, are linked – through the story of Ruth and Boaz – to Israel’s ultimate redemption.
From a narrative point of view, the Book of Ruth also redeems the earlier stories.
Lot is insensate and Judah is blinded by a veil as they father children. Boaz’s “heart was merry” after the harvest celebration (Ruth 3:7), but he isn’t unaware of Ruth or confused about her identity.
Lot’s daughters perceive but one choice for survival of the human race. Tamar faces very limited choices as a woman twice-widowed and still bound to marry Judah’s third son. The Book of Ruth tells us nothing about Moabite custom, but we are meant to assume that Ruth could have had a future among her own people and instead opted to follow Naomi.
Of the three stories, only the Book of Ruth gives both the man and the woman consciousness of themselves, their partners, and their choices. The ancestral stories of trickster women and befuddled men stumbling into pregnancy are redeemed, in a powerful sense, through the story of Ruth and Boaz: a woman and a man acting together with eyes wide open. top
Forward into the Unknown
Also note that Obed’s forebears include Nachshon ben Aminadab, famous for a midrashic story which takes place as the Israelites, who have just escaped Egypt, are trapped between Pharoah’s army and the Sea of Reeds. It is Nachshon, grandfather of Boaz and great-grandfather of Obed, who walks into the sea, while Moses and everyone else falters. Nachshon forges ahead until water covers even his nostrils, in the belief that God will make way for them…. which, of course, God does do.
Obed’s line – the one from which our ultimate redemption is said to arise – seems to have inherited from all sides of the family, from the women and from the men, some extraordinary survival skills:
- a willingness to jumpstart action when the more powerful are not moving;
- a tendency to view a dead-end as just another hurdle; and
- a belief that approaching Torah together, with eyes wide open, will illuminate a path, even when a likely way forward is not immediately evident.