What would have been if for a moment, all was right: if inequalities disappeared, the past became not an encumbrance but an inspiration, the sins of ancestors were overcome by acts of kindness by their heirs, and people and their deity worked in harmony?
Long before science fiction contemplated revisiting and revising events of former years, the Bible did so, in the Book of Ruth. A carefully structured and well written tale, this book dared to rewrite the past while relating it. As so often in history, change took place not by replacement but by addition.
The book is written as a retrospective. A family facing famine emigrates to Moab, but returns only after the death of all the males involved. Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law struggle against objective financial difficulties and societal problems, to ultimately emerge with help from their relative, Boaz, to security and continuity. Ruth and Boaz become the great grandparents of King David.While the core story may date back close to the time of events described, the Hebrew of the book includes elements which could only have been used in Second Temple times, so that what we read is minimally an articulation written down then.
Revising History – The Book of Ruth absorbs into itself many former Bible tales. The description of Abraham having left his family and ancestral home to go to a distant land, is now reapplied to a woman, to Ruth. Women once drew water from a well for Jacob, but now young men do so for Ruth. Once, Midianites refused to feed the Jews leaving Egypt, and now Ruth the Midianite takes upon herself the task of getting food for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Most affected is the character of King David, whom the Bible traces on one side to the somewhat tawdry story of Tamar, dressed as a prostitute, bearing a son from Judah, and on the other side, (since David evidently had Midianite roots), to the story of Lot being seduced by his daughters in the dark while drunk, then bearing the child Midian. The Book of Ruth now gives David a different pedigree, wherein a young woman again meets an older man in the dark, while dressed up, and while he is slightly inebriated, she does not have a relationship with him, as the text moves toward marriage.
The Book of Ruth also offers a new conclusion to the Book of Judges, which ends with a horrific story of rape, murder, and near destruction of an entire tribe, all beginning in Bethlehem. The new ending is a story of love, kindness and creation of a positive future, also beginning in Bethlehem. This pattern of constant change is evident from the beginning of the Book of Ruth. Once, Abraham and Lot, the relatives, “separated” while looking out at the Dead Sea, and now Ruth – Lot’s descendant – refuses to “separate” from Naomi – Abraham’s descendant – at the same spot.
Balancing Gender Roles – It is no secret that the Bible is overwhelmingly androcentric. Not only is Ruth compared favorably with Abraham, but also to other forebears. The forefathers consistently went east, out of Israel, to seek a mate, while Ruth moves west, to Israel. Furthermore, the women are constantly central. Ruth and Naomi carry this book forward almost to the end. It is these women who plan, initiate and develop the plot.
Envisioning Perfection – A related phenomenon is seen in the characterization of Ruth. It is well-known that the Bible presents all human beings with their faults. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once pointed out, there is but one biblical character with no faults cited: Ruth. It is as if the book cries out that perfection is possible.
Accepting the Outsider – The Bible tells a mixed tale concerning integration and intermarriage. Both are clearly discouraged by a number of biblical texts for reasons ranging from religious, to ethnic, to historical. Nevertheless, at the same time, the Bible records numerous examples of integration and intermarriage, from the inclusion of the mixed multitude in the Exodus, to the marriages of forefathers and Kings, to many incidental mentions of children of mixed marriages (one of whom did all the copper work in the Temple). Indeed, there is a way for strangers to join fully in the Passover celebration, the laws are stated to be equal for Jews and strangers, and at the end of time, fellow travelers (Hebrew: nilvim) are to be fully integrated in God’s land as people and are to be rewarded by Him. Here, the Book of Ruth, in focusing on the full integration and marriage of the Moabite woman Ruth, takes its stance at the integrationist end of a biblical range of testimonies.
God in Human Hands – The subject of divine intervention in this world is multilayered, but in a broad manner of speaking it moves from the most direct acts in Genesis, to the guiding hand in historical books, to indirect communication through prophets, to the most indirect and hidden leadership (if at all) in Esther. Here, Ruth illustrates the stance that would ultimately most influence Jewish theology for millennia: God’s work is carried out through the kindness and initiative of good human beings.
Reward – The idea that kindness and a good life should be rewarded would seem to be an obvious emphasis of the Bible. Yet, in many places, including Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes, authors bemoan the lack of evidence of God’s support and reward. For over 2000 years, since the Talmud, scholars have noted that in the Book of Ruth kindness is rewarded, almost a response to the other books named.
A Flexible Law – While any law system must have a way to develop, the Book of Ruth provides perhaps the clearest example. The laws of land redemption (when land is sold for debt) and levirate marriage (to guarantee progeny for one who died childless) are revised (both to include additional relatives to solve problems) and combined, thus providing a more humane solution to a specific situation.
All of these changes are present in the Book of Ruth, which rearticulates an evidently well-known story concerning the ancestry of King David. The artistic genius of the book is evident at every turn: in parallel structures of the middle two chapters; in chiastic literary structures of the first and last chapters; in names of character chosen for their representational meanings; and in the careful use of words that echo from beginning to end. Ten barren years of tragedy become the 10 generations leading to King David; a woman mourning the death of her children at the end holds the child she will help raise; and Bethlehem (house of bread/food in Hebrew) moves from famine to the locus of celebration.
Starting by naming the two children who will die “Machlon” (sickly) and “Kachlon” (dying), the book announces from the beginning that it is an imaginative reconstruction of events here to tell the reader a story, one meant to instruct and edify. That does not make it less important, but more so.
Many cultures include tales in which their highest values are seen as having once existed (or, still in some isolation, apart from society): an ideal to be contemplated for all generations. For English chivalry, this was Camelot; in Tibet, this was Shambala (better known by its modern dramatic presentation, Shangri-La); in Greece, this was Arcadia. For the biblical Israelite society, the Book of Ruth is that story.
The Book of Ruth is a dream of what might be, presented as an exploration of what might have been. This book – with its moments of outstandingly new equality, of care, of flexibility, of lessons of responsibility and of hope for reward for kindness – provides in turn escape, solace, respite and aspiration. It is an island of tranquility at the end of our Bible, so often dwelling on conflict, suffering and angst. There is no better work to accompany the story of Mount Sinai on the holiday of Shavuot. We do not really understand perfection, but it is the glory of our liturgical calendar that these two moments thereof are brought together for us to contemplate, and it is certainly the glory of the tradition that we are asked to reread the Book of Ruth at least once a year.
The writer, a rabbi, is a former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. His latest commentary is The Book of Ruth: Paradise Gained and Lost (Gefen Publishing and the Schechter Institute).