Thomas Hardy in Judea
Why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.
It’s impossible to describe the sound of good preaching in Hebrew. It’s not like the sonorous English of the King James Version, and it doesn’t have the soaring voice or the roars and whispers of preaching in the Baptist tradition. But in the hands of a master preacher and teacher, the Hebrew language yields colors, textures: the fields of the Bible take on shades of red and gold, and the women in the fields have names.
I once heard such a master, Rachel Keren, teaching the biblical book of Ruth to a group of seminary girls. I was the only man in the room; I can’t now remember why. She spoke about the dangers the widowed Ruth, a Moabite, faced on behalf of Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, when she went in the dead of night to lie in a harvest field in Judea. She was there to try to persuade Boaz, a cousin of Naomi’s late husband, to marry her and impregnate her with an offspring, thereby continuing the family line and incidentally saving both her and her mother-in-law from death by starvation.
So far, so convoluted. But Rachel Keren taught the Bible as if it were a slightly scandalous novel for young women. In fact a novel by the great and not so pious Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), set not in rural England but dry, rural Judea. There the color of the land was red or yellow unlike England’s green and brown, but scandal, hostile fate, and an ever-present chorus of gossiping neighbors were facts of life just as much as in Hardy’s fictional Wessex. There was also in Rachel’s version a full sense of the looming danger of rape or other injury as the young widow picked her way among the sleeping shepherd boys to the only one who counted, the one she had to marry in order to put her family history right. As Rachel told it, this was a living and immediate story that could have happened anywhere (but not, she gave the girls to understand, just between us, in Jerusalem where she came from, and certainly not if the mother-in-law had had her wits about her).
The story starts with Elimelekh, a rich man who leaves Israel at a time of famine. The rabbinic commentators ask: why? The answer: Elimelekh wasn’t leaving because he would starve, since he was too rich to starve. He was leaving because he didn’t want to meet his social responsibilities and help his neighbors. That’s not only why he left, but why he was wrong to leave, and why things went downhill from there.
and there was hunger in the land
and a man went from Bethlehem in Judea
to stay in the fields of Moab,
he and his wife and his two sons.
And the man’s name was Elimelekh
and his wife’s name was Naomi
and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Kilyon
of the house of Efrat, in Bethlehem, in Judea.
And they came to the fields of Moab and stayed there.
And Elimelekh Naomi’s man died
and she was left there with her two sons.
And they married themselves Moabite wives
one named Orpah and the other named Ruth
and they settled there for ten years.
and they, too, died, both Mahlon and Kilyon
and the woman was left without her two sons or her man.
And she rose with her daughters-in-law and returned from the fields of Moab
for she heard in the field of Moab
that God had remembered his people to give them bread.
And she went out from the place where she was
and her two daughters-in-law with her
and they walked on the way back to the land of Judea.
And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
“Go, return each woman to her mother’s house,
may the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have done by the dead and by me.
May the Lord give you something and find you rest
each woman in her husband’s home.
And she kissed them and they raised up their voices and wept.
And they said to her, “But we’ll return with you to your people.”
And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters?
Why should you go with me? Have I more sons in my belly
who could be husbands for you?
Return, my daughters, go
for I’ve grown too old to be with a man.
For even if I said I have hope
and this night could even be with a man
and then should bear sons too,
is it for them you’ll waste until they grow?
Is it for them you’ll be tied down, not being with a man?
Don’t do it my daughters for it is far bitterer for me than for you
for the hand of the Lord has come against me.”
And they raised their voices and wept more
and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. . . .
Up till now we have a fairly simple story of a man who leaves his home in Judea to “stay” in the province of Moab. He takes his wife and two sons. He dies and his widow chooses to extend the stay by settling in Moab when her sons take wives there. Then the sons die, and the three women start on the road back to Judea, the only place Naomi has anything left. And so far, it is a dog-eat-dog world that is exhibited. There are no social ties that bind, and the Almighty is not mentioned in the narrative until Naomi laments that He has struck her down. We are about to watch her be abandoned by the second of her daughters-in-law when the story takes an unexpected turn:
And she said, “Look,
Your sister-in-law is going to her people and her gods,
go back after your sister-in-law.”
And Ruth said, “Do not chide me to leave you,
to go back from following you
for wherever you go I will go
and wherever you sleep I will sleep.
Your people is my people and your God my God:
Wherever you die I will die
and there I’ll be buried.
So help me the Lord,
for only death will come between me and you:
This declaration of Ruth’s has been taken as the prototype of conversion to Judaism. But there doesn’t appear to have been a conversion in any sense understood by contemporary Orthodox Judaism. There is no rabbinical court before whom the convert makes a promise to obey the commandments. There is no ritual immersion. No subsequent adherence to Jewish practice is mentioned. So where is the conversion? The commentators find it in Ruth’s statement, “your people is my people and your God my God,” a contract sealed by her proceeding to take an oath using the Lord’s name—something that a non-Jew, the commentators observe, would not do. Ruth became a Jew by means of her statement, and as a Jew she took her oath, invoking the judgment of the Lord she had just invited to be her God, and knowing full well that He was not the easiest deity to get along with—as amply demonstrated by the experience of her mother-in-law.
What was in it for Ruth? To answer this question, you have to follow the story:
and stopped speaking to her.
And they both walked until they came to Bethlehem
and it was as they came into Bethlehem
all the city buzzed about them
saying, “Is that Naomi?”
And she said, “Don’t call me Naomi,
call me Bitter Woman
for Shadai has made me very bitter:
I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.
Why should you call me Naomi
when the Lord bore witness against me
and Shadai repaid me ill?”
And Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law
who had returned with her from the fields of Moab
and they came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.
These lines, at the end of Chapter 1, emphasize the problematic nature of Ruth as prototypical convert. Although she has taken an oath to join her mother-in-law’s people, she is still identified as a Moabite. And here we have the crux of the two women’s challenge. Ruth wants to join the Jewish people and Naomi wants a son, because only through a son can she eat. How will they achieve their goals? We still don’t know, any more than we know what role Ruth, in particular, is playing in the story.
a great and noble man
of the family of Elimelekh and his name was Boaz:
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and I’ll pick ears
behind whomever I take the fancy of.”
And she said to her, “Go, my girl.”
And she went and came there and picked in the field behind the reapers
and by happenstance she happened on the length of field
of Boaz who was Elimelekh’s relative.
And along came Boaz on the way from Bethlehem
and he said to the reapers, “God be with you.”
and they said to him, “God bless you.”
And Boaz said to his lad who was watching the reapers, “Who’s that girl with?”
And the lad watching the reapers replied,
“A Moabite girl who came back with Naomi
from the fields of Moab, and said, ‘Let me pick and gather between the sheaves
Behind the reapers,’ and she came and she’s been standing since dawn
and till now she’s hardly been home.”
And Boaz said to Ruth, “Do you hear, my girl?
Don’t go picking in another field
and don’t even wander out of this one
and that way you’ll stick with my girls.
Keep your eyes on the field they’re reaping in
and walk behind, because I told the boys not to lay a hand on you
and when you get thirsty go to the barrels and drink
from what the boys draw.”
And she fell on her face and bowed to the ground
and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes
to honor me when I am a stranger?”
And Boaz replied to her and said,
“I heard all about what you did for your mother-in-law
after your husband died and how you left your father and mother
and the land you were born in
and went to a people you didn’t know
the day before yesterday.
The Lord will pay you your due
and may your full reward come from the Lord God of Israel
under whose wing you’ve come to shelter.”
And she said, “Have I found favor in your eyes, milord?
For you’ve comforted me and bucked up the heart of your poor servant
and I’m not even fit to be one of your servants.”
And Boaz told her, “At eating time
you come right here and eat some of the bread
and dip your slice in brine.”
And she sat to one side of the reapers
and he gave her a pinch of roast oats
and she ate and was filled and left some over
and got up to pick and Boaz told his boys,
“Let her pick between the bundles, too,
and don’t make her feel embarrassed.
And even let drop a few drops for her from the bales
and leave them for her to pick and don’t say anything.”
And she picked in the field until evening
and she sorted what she had picked
and there was about ten days’ worth of food.
And she carried it and came back to town
and showed her mother-in-law what she’d picked
and brought out and gave her what she’d left after eating her fill.
And her mother-in-law said to her,
“Where did you pick today, and where did you stay?
May whoever distinguished you be blessed.”
And she told her mother-in-law who she’d worked with
and said, “The man’s name that I worked with today
is Boaz.” And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law,
“Bless the Lord
who did not withhold His kindness from the living and the dead.”
And Naomi told her, “He’s our relation, the man is one of our redeemers.”
And Ruth the Moabite said, “Not just that,
but he told me—Stick with my boys till they finish all the harvest.”
And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law,
“That’s good my girl
because you’ll go out with his girls
and they won’t hurt you in another field.”
And she stuck with Boaz’s girls as they picked
to the end of the barley harvest and the oat harvest
and she settled with her mother-in-law.
Here at least there is a nod to the presence of the Lord as someone other than a legal authority and a harsh judge. When the text says Ruth happened to chance into this particular field and Boaz happened to come along just then on the road, we have a strong suggestion of what in the Bible turns out to be benign divine intervention and what in Thomas Hardy inevitably signals the workings of malevolent fate. Which way will this novel turn out: Judea, or Wessex?
“My girl, haven’t I always been on the lookout for you to find a resting place
that’ll be good for you: and now isn’t Boaz our relation,
whose own girls you were out with,
sifting the barley grain right now, tonight?
Now you wash yourself and get yourself perfumed and put your best dress on
and go on down to the grain store.
Don’t let that man know about you till he’s done eating and drinking,
and when he’s lain down and you know where he’s lying
then come and uncover his legs
and lay yourself down
and he’ll tell you what to do next.”
And she said to her, “Whatever you tell me—I’ll do.”
And she went down to the grain store and did all her mother-in-law said.
This is the racy part of the novel, the part that reads most like scandalous Hardy. And in translating it I find the voice of Naomi coming through like one of those wise women in the blues, lamenting her woes and advising her sisters not to make the same mistakes she did. But we still can’t quite make out Ruth as she follows these worldly instructions. Why is she going to do what her mother-in-law tells her to?
and he came and lay down at the end of the pile
and she came softly and uncovered his legs and lay down.
And it was come the middle of the night that the man started up and reached out
and here was a woman lying at his feet.
And he said, “Who are you?”
And she said, “I am Ruth
now spread your cloak over your handmaid
for you are a redeemer.”
And he said, “God bless you my girl
you’ve done a better deed with your last than your first
by not running after the boys
neither rich nor poor: and now my girl you have no fear
all you’ve said I will do for you
for everyone who comes in the gates of town knows
that you’re a noble woman.
But now for all that I am next in line for redeemer
there is still a closer redeemer than I am.
Stay the night and come morning
ff he will redeem you, well shall he redeem
and if he doesn’t care to redeem, I’ll redeem you personally
I swear to God.
Lie you down until morning.”
And she lay at his feet until morning
and she rose before a man might know his friend
and he said, “Let it not be known
the woman came to the grain store.”
But he said, “Give me the kerchief about you
and hold it”—and she held it out
and he measured six measures of grain
and hung it about her neck
and he came to the town and she came to her mother-in-law
and she said, “Who are you, my girl?”
And she told her all that the man had done for her
and she said, “He gave me these six lots of grain
for he said, ‘Don’t come empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”
And she said, “Wait my girl until you know how it falls out
for the man won’t rest without settling it all this very day.”
In this passage we have both an explicit and an implicit answer to our questions about Ruth. In her bold offer to accompany her aged mother-in-law back to her home and her people, Boaz sees something essential about her character. He perceives it as an act of pure kindness, an act from which Ruth has nothing to gain. Likewise, he perceives, she has nothing to gain from offering marriage to an older man rather than one nearer her age. Though she is a foreigner, the kindness she has shown to Naomi and the diligence of her work has made an impression, as he notes, not just on his own harvest boys but on all the people of the city.
Unlike Elimelekh, but like Abaraham the founder of Judaism, Ruth is a generous person who goes out of her way to find and perform acts of kindness for others. It was in response to Abraham’s generosity to guests that God both promised him a son and consulted him about destroying the wicked city of Sodom. Because she behaves like Abraham, Ruth is the prototypical convert: one who in Judaism is called a son or daughter of Abraham.
That is the explicit answer. The implicit answer lies in the curious transaction that takes place after Boaz both accepts and sets a condition on Ruth’s marriage offer. On the one hand, he insists on legality, saying he must first offer her to his cousin who is a more direct heir and therefore should be offered the chance to redeem her. But then he does a curious thing, asking her to hold out her kerchief and weighing out six measures of grain that he ties about her. And the next thing you know, when Ruth goes back to her mother- in-law, Naomi does not seem to recognize her. What does this mean?
In giving Ruth the grain, I suspect Boaz has made a type of kiddushin, a betrothal—something the Talmud tells us can be done with a ring, a coin, or a gift of specific value. And why does Naomi not recognize her? I think it is because Ruth is no longer the same person.
Evidently, when she married Naomi and Elimelekh’s son back in Moab, Ruth did not thereby become connected either to the Lord or to other Jews. Then, later, she voices her wish to join her mother-in-law’s people and swears by the Lord. Her conversion is indicated by the declaration and the oath; but only now, in Chapter 3, does the text acknowledge her personal transformation. The declaration lies far behind, and the wedding is still to come, but in some mysterious way Ruth becomes a different person when Boaz weighs out those grains and gives them to her. With this betrothal she has truly joined the Jewish people as a Jew betrothed to a Jew who is connected to other Jews. So deep is the change, her mother-in-law doesn’t recognize her for a moment. I can find no other explanation for Naomi’s question, “Who are you, my girl?”
And so we reach the end, with its momentary shock of suspense before the final resolution:
and along came the redeemer Boaz spoke of, passing by.
And he said, “Turn aside and sit here, man who shall remain nameless,”
and he turned and he sat.
And he took ten men of the elders of the town
and said, “Sit here”—and they sat.
And he said to the redeemer, “The section of field
that was our brother Elimelekh’s
is for sale by Naomi who’s come back from the fields of Moab.
And I said I’d have a word in your ear
to say, ‘Buy it’ before those sitting here and before my elders.
If you will redeem, redeem
and if he who should redeem will not redeem
tell me so I know
for there is none but you in line to redeem
and I am after you.”
And he said, “I will redeem.”
And Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from Naomi
and Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s wife,
you buy also to raise the dead man’s name on his estate.”
And the redeemer said, “I could not redeem for myself
lest I ruin my own estate.
You redeem for yourself what I would redeem, for I cannot myself redeem.”
And this was in the days of old in Israel
when to redeem and to exchange and seal a deal
a man would slip off his shoe
and give it to his fellow
and this was the contract in Israel.
And the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself,”
and slipped off his shoe.
And Boaz said to the elders and all the people,
“You are witnesses today that I have bought
all that was Elimelekh’s and all that was Kilyon and Mahlon’s
from the hand of Naomi.
And also Ruth the Moabite, wife of Mahlon,
I’ve bought to be a wife for me
to raise the dead man’s name on his estate
so the dead man’s name shall not be lost among his kin
and from the gate of his town
you are witnesses today.”
And all the people at the gate and all the elders said,
“We are witnesses:
Let the Lord make the woman entering your house
like Rachel and like Leah who built the house of Israel
and do well in Efrata and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem
and may your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore for Judah
from the children the Lord gives you by this girl.”
And Boaz took Ruth and she was his wife
and he came to her and the Lord let her be with child
and she bore a son and the women said to Naomi,
“Blessed be the Lord who did not still your redeemer today
and may his name be renowned in Israel
and may he be a balm and succor for your old age.
For your daughter-in-law who loved you bore him,
who’s been better to you than seven sons.”
And Naomi took the child and put him in her lap and was his nursemaid.
And the neighbor women called him by name
saying, “A son was born for Naomi.”
And they named him Oved,
who is the father of Jesse
father of David.
When Abraham makes his contract with God in the book of Genesis, it is a contract to behave in a certain way. People who behave badly, for instance in Sodom and Gomorrah, bring down devastation upon themselves. Even Lot, who behaves decently but chooses to live in the wrong place, brings devastation on his family. In the book of Ruth we have a picture of Elimelekh who is selfish and chooses to live in the wrong place and brings devastation on his family.
Ruth, by a series of acts of kindness, restores the connection between Elimelekh’s family and the land of Israel, and indeed with Judaism. She helps Naomi return to the land, she gives her a child, and by her kindness builds the house of Israel, not coincidentally producing its greatest king: a king who survives everything because, whatever else he does, he loves the Lord and walks in his ways.
The question then arises: why is this particular book read aloud in the synagogue on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah? After all, nowhere in the entire book of Ruth is there any mention of the Torah.
The story is read on Shavuot because receiving the Torah is not enough. Ruth’s accepting the Lord as her God and swearing by Him: that is a theoretical business. Only when she performs an act of kindness, the act to which Boaz responds with a betrothal, does the contract become binding. By not acting like a Jew, Elimelekh had severed himself and all of his family from Judaism. It takes Ruth to come along and right that wrong. In the divisive times of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader of the Jewish people—and one of Ruth’s direct descendants—would put it succinctly by saying that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.
Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes), “Esther in Des Moines” (on the book of Esther), and “The Love of Their Youth” (on the Song of Songs), all accompanied by original translations.