The challenge of Ruth

What are we to make of this strange story whose characters constantly speak of a God who seems to be completely absent from their world?

By BEREL DOV LERNER
May 30, 2006 22:33

 
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Two books of the Bible are named after women: The Scroll of Esther and the Scroll of Ruth. In many respects, they are mirror images of each other. Esther was a Jewish woman who pretended to be a gentile, Ruth was a gentile woman who became a Jew. Esther takes place in the Diaspora, Ruth takes place in the environs of Bethlehem; Esther begins with a feast, Ruth begins with a famine. Esther triumphs in blotting out the last remnant of the Royal House of Agag, King of the Amalekites; Ruth founds the Royal House of David, King of Israel. It would not be difficult to add many more such contrasts to the list. PERHAPS THE most striking stylistic difference between the two books involves the number of their references to God. As the rabbis pointed, God is never explicitly mentioned in the Scroll of Esther, a peculiarity reflected in a famous midrashic play on words involving the name "Esther" and the Hebrew word hester [hiddenness]: God hides behind the human drama described by the book. The Scroll of Ruth, in contrast, is almost "promiscuous" in its frequent mention of God's name. Characters are constantly attributing the events of the story to God, and without any obvious reason. We are told that Boaz greets his field hands with the words, "The Lord be with you!" If my count is correct, the term "Lord" (the Tetragrammaton) appears no fewer than 12 times in the 80 verses of Ruth, and not even once in Esther's 167 verses. There is something ironic about the frequent mention of God's name in Ruth. While the characters persist in their theological interpretation of events, nothing even remotely supernatural ever occurs to them. A famine comes and goes, people die, people struggle, and a child is born. Compare this to the Scroll of Esther with its impossibly serendipitous coincidences: a Queen of Persia is dethroned, so that a Jewish girl - of all the maidens of the great empire - can replace her just in time to foil Haman's murderous plan. It is not really terribly difficult to imagine God's hand orchestrating these events from behind the scenes. The plot of Ruth, in contrast, involves only one small bit of luck; Ruth happens to go to Boaz's field to glean the grain left over by the reapers. Lest we think that God somehow directed her, the narrator informs us that this was a chance occurrence, vayiker mikreha, using the same word used to refer to the blind fate that vexed Ecclesiastes: For the same fate (mikre) is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good and pure and for the impure; for him who sacrifices, and for him who does not… (9:2). Or even more terribly: For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate… both came from dust and both return to dust (3:19-20). THE NARRATOR is certainly not attributing Ruth's chancing upon Boaz's field to the workings of a benevolent Providence. What, then, are we to make of this strange story whose characters constantly speak of a God who seems to be completely absent from their world? Consider the speech that Boaz makes to Ruth upon their first meeting in his field: I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge (2: 11-12). Despite Boaz's blessing, the Lord God of Israel is nowhere to be found. No miracle occurs to save Ruth and Naomi from impoverishment. Naomi can only hope that her kinsman Boaz will come to their rescue. Later, when Ruth surprises Boaz at night in the granary, she tells him: I am your handmaiden Ruth. Spread your wing over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman (3:9). In effect, Ruth has thrown Boaz's words of consolation back in his face. He had spoken of Ruth seeking refuge under the wings of the Lord God of Israel, and she tells him to spread his wings over her. She is telling him that those who speak of God's mercy and kindness must be prepared to serve as the instruments of that mercy and kindness. An exegetical thought experiment will help us see how this call for human action serves as the organizing principle of the whole story. Imagine that most of the text of Ruth was lost to us, and all we had were a few verses from the beginning and end of the book. From the first chapter, we would find part of the speech Naomi addressed to her daughters-in-law, who insisted on accompanying her as she returned to Bethlehem: But Naomi replied, "Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be for a man…" (1:11-12). From the last chapter, we would discover the verse: And the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, "A son is born to Naomi!" They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David (4:17). Just looking at these few verses, a common biblical motif comes to mind. It is the most common narrative framework for stories involving biblical heroines: it is the story of Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah. A woman is childless, but thanks to divine intervention she will give birth to a child by the end of the story. One could easily imagine a missing annunciation scene, in which an angel or prophet would bring good tidings of the upcoming birth. We might even hear Naomi laugh as did Sarah at the thought of conceiving a child at such an advanced age: Now that I am withered, am I to have this pleasure? (Genesis 18:12). We readers of Ruth know better. We know that there was no miraculous intervention, no heavenly sign, and no angelic visit. All that runs from the book's desperate opening to its joyous finale is a series of incidents and relationships in which human beings decide to treat each other in an exceptionally humane fashion. Ruth refuses to abandon her aged mother-in-law, and Boaz agrees to take a destitute and elderly female relation and a Moabite widow under his wing. The old story of childlessness has taken a new twist; God's kindness to His creatures flows through their own fearless acts of love. The sheer goodwill of Ruth and Boaz has produced a son for the aged Naomi. And so the line of Israel's messiah continues. The challenge of Ruth is clear. When, with cynicism or exasperation, we demand to be shown God's beneficent providence in this world, the Scroll of Ruth answers with demands of its own: Do you want to see the hand of God? By all means, become His instruments! The writer is a veteran immigrant from Washington, D.C. and a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in the Beit Shean Valley. He earned his Ph.D in philosophy from Tel Aviv University and teaches at the Western Galilee College in Acre.

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