Beyond Sighing and Swooning: Love in the Hebrew Bible

Although it does not seem to be about romantic attachment at all, the tale of Ruth and Boaz is the quintessential example of a biblical love story.

From Ruth in Boaz’s Field, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828. Wikimedia.

From Ruth in Boaz’s Field, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828. Wikimedia.

Observation
Jan. 12 2017
About the author

Alan Rubenstein is a director at the Tikvah Fund and teaches a great-books seminar called “Windows on the Good Life” at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Where in the Hebrew Bible can you find expressions of human love and the part it plays in life? There’s Jacob and Rachel’s enchanting kiss at the well in Genesis; there’s the Song of Songs, that fantastic and mysterious poem of sexual and romantic longing. And then of course there’s the book of Ruth, the most complete example of a biblical love story: a tale of two highly sympathetic characters, Boaz and Ruth, one an older bachelor and the other a young widow, who navigate a series of obstacles that seem to prevent their union from ever taking place until, in the end, it does—and, in a final scene, bears fruit in the birth of a child.

In short, the quintessential love story. Or is it? According to the Israeli scholar Yael Ziegler, the book of Ruth is not a love story at all and should not be read as one. Is Ziegler right? Borrowing heavily from her excellent recent study, From Alienation to Monarchy, I’ll present her case and then argue against it.

Exhibit A in the anti-love-story case is the character whose plight is front and center in the book: neither the Moabite Ruth nor the Judean Boaz but Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi’s husband Elimelekh and both of her sons have died in Moab; her daughter-in-law Orpah has heeded her urgings to seek another husband in Moab; and Naomi is now returning to Bethlehem penniless and bereft of all but Ruth, who in contrast to Orpah has rejected her mother-in-law’s instructions and instead “clung” to her. The Hebrew word is davak, which implies more than a physical holding-on, being used most often to describe the ideal relationship between Israel and God:

And Ruth said, “Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my people, and your god is my god. Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. So may the Lord do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.”

Such is Ruth’s exceptional love of Naomi, and such indeed is the only kind of love that, in this reading, is central to her book. Reinforcing this impression—the case continues—is Ruth’s behavior throughout. In the book’s second chapter she sets out to glean like a pauper so that she and Naomi can eat. Returning from the field, she shares generously of her bounty, obtained at a field belonging to the compassionate Boaz. Chapter 3 shows her setting out again—this time to debase herself, at Naomi’s request, by seducing Boaz. We’ll return to this scene later, but for now the point is the extent of Ruth’s self-denying efforts to support Naomi and raise her up. And so it goes with her act of marrying Boaz. Only once in the book is the word “love” (ahav) actually used: in the immediate sequel to Boaz and Ruth’s marriage where the love referred to is Ruth’s for her beloved Naomi.

And Boaz? Is he smitten by the lovely young widow? Well, for one thing she is never described as lovely; in fact we’re given no physical description at all, even of the minimalist kind common in the stories of the matriarchs of Israel. For another thing, Boaz refers to her affectionately throughout as “my daughter” (the same term used by Naomi), even in response to her seductive arrival alone and in darkness on the threshing floor. That he admires Ruth is emphatically clear—he offers her immense and unexpected kindness on the day they meet and repeatedly praises her for her benevolence and bravery. But one would be hard-pressed to show that this implies romantic love.

So why does he marry her? The answer, Ziegler reminds us, is not hard to find. Boaz is a dutiful man. Those who come to glean in his field are treated generously; is this not the law? Other landowners may flout the law—his own foreman seems reluctant to let the Moabite beggar girl exercise her right to pick from the fallen produce—but not Boaz. More importantly, he is also a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelekh, which places on him an obligation to redeem the family’s land. He must step up, and, being a dutiful man, he will.

In the episode at the center of the fourth and final chapter, Boaz alerts a man who is also a kinsman—a nearer kinsman—to Naomi that he can (or must? or should?) play the part of the redeemer. But to this he adds a caveat: it is impossible, he claims, to buy Naomi’s land, and thus save her from destitution, without also choosing to marry Ruth. This strong connection between the law of redemption (g’ula) and that of levirate marriage (yibbum) is not drawn anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Could it be an invention of Boaz’s on the spot, contrived to bring about a better outcome for Ruth and Naomi than that offered through land redemption by this “near kinsman” alone? Boaz knows, as others in this book seem to know as well, that restoring Naomi to her land will yield her little unless she has an heir to pass it on to.

At this the other kinsman demurs, and so Boaz and Ruth marry. But most of the joy attending their union is owing not to the satisfaction of their own ambitions for mutual happiness but to their shared desire to see Naomi lifted out of poverty and family ruin. When the curtain falls on the book’s final scene, it is the grandmother, Naomi, and not Ruth who holds the infant in her arms, and it is the women of Bethlehem, not Boaz, who look approvingly over her shoulder. Nor do we hear again about Boaz and Ruth being in each other’s company or even conversing; their good fortune seems to have dissolved in the selfless act of restoring Naomi’s fortunes.

All of which leads to a simple conclusion: the book of Ruth is a heroic story of human sacrifice and goodness. But it is not a love story.

 

To this I say: plausible, but it can’t be so. The argument advanced by Zeigler and elaborated above is based on the premise that a love story must focus on the unfulfilled needs of the lovers, and on an emotional vulnerability that can be resolved and surmounted only by their union. Can a story about two individuals who are in a fundamental sense already complete still be a love story? I believe it can, and that this is exactly what we have in Ruth. To recognize this, we must suspend our normal expectations. Panting, swooning, and infatuation might be the usual condition of men and women in the throes of erotic attraction, but time and again Boaz and Ruth are revealed as two exemplary human beings if not giants among mere men, comporting themselves with the dignity that suits their greatness.

Take a closer look at some key moments. Boaz is introduced at the start of the second chapter in these words: “And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, a man of worth from the clan of Elimelekh, and his name was Boaz.” The phrase translated here as “a man of worth” is ish gibor ḥayil. Ish: a man; Gibor: a hero. Ḥayil: a word that can mean wealthy but can also mean manly, brave, or noble.

The phrase fits him. The first word off of Boaz’s tongue is the holy name of God, offered in greeting to lift the spirits of his workers. When he hears his foreman deriding Ruth, and no doubt speaking for others as well, he adroitly shows them how a woman like her should be treated. He is kind to her not merely as one should be kind to a pauper according to the laws of Israel. He is extraordinarily solicitous of her because he recognizes human virtue—that rare commodity—when he sees it. When Ruth asks him to explain his kindness to her, he replies:

It was indeed told me all that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband’s death, and that you left your mother and your father and the land of your birth to come to a people that you did not know in time past. May the Lord requite your actions and may your reward be complete from the Lord God of Israel, under Whose wings you have come to shelter.

Ruth’s very act of loyalty, which we, the readers, have already been led to admire, is seen by Boaz exactly as if he had been there on the plains of Moab, hearing her pledge, “wherever you go, I will go,” and resonating to the heroic spirit it bespeaks.

And notice Boaz’s unique perspective here. “It was indeed told me,” he says, but we’ve been given no reason to think that this recognition of Ruth’s greatness is shared by others. The other Bethlehemites, after all, seem content to have left Naomi and Ruth in their state of destitution and misery. In claiming to speak for other putative admirers of Ruth, what he is doing—and he does it repeatedly—is legislating. Others will think what he asserts they think because he is that kind of man wielding that kind of authority: an ish gibor ḥayil.

Now consider Ruth’s visit to the threshing floor in chapter 3. It is clear what Naomi has in mind, having charged her to bathe and anoint herself and her garments, to wait until Boaz has become drunk, and then to lie down and “uncover his feet” (or legs). In seducing him, she will in a sense be fulfilling a destiny set for her by her birth. She is, after all, a Moabite woman—a descendant of Moab, who was born from the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter (Genesis 19). That daughter also waited until the man she meant to seduce became drunk. In the dark of night, Lot, we are told, “knew not when she lay down or when she arose”—though, on some level, he knew enough to acquiesce. The seduction succeeded.

Consider, too, the line from which Boaz comes. His ancestor is Judah, son of the patriarch Jacob, specifically through Judah’s union with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38). Like Lot’s daughter, Tamar also found herself in a position where the seduction of an older man in her family seemed the only way forward. Dressed as a prostitute, she stood by the road as Judah, himself very likely drunk from the celebration of a sheep-shearing, was passing by.

Women in desperate straits take advantage of men’s inability to restrain their lust: such appears to be the lesson about love common to the two lines that have respectively produced Ruth and Boaz. But something very different happens on Boaz’s threshing floor. Ruth has been told by her mother-in-law that Boaz “will tell you what you should do.” But when Boaz awakes to discover Ruth at his uncovered feet, it is she who tells him what to do:

And he said, “Who are you?” And she said, “I am Ruth your servant. May you spread your wing over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”

“May you spread your wing over your servant.” At their very first meeting, Boaz had solicitously prayed that Ruth herself be granted a complete reward “from the Lord God of Israel under whose wings you have come to shelter.” Now Ruth instructs him: it is not from God’s wings that I seek shelter and reward, but from yours. Boaz’s reply rises to and wholly matches her artful expression of high-minded affection:

And he said, “Blessed are you to the Lord, my daughter. You have done better in your latest kindness than in the first, not going after the young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid. Whatever you say I will do for you, for all my people’s town knows that you are a worthy woman.”

 

“A worthy woman”: eshet ḥayil—a brave, noble woman. Boaz here echoes and applies to Ruth the very description offered earlier of him. She and he are joined by a shared excellence. Eschewing the role that Naomi and her own family history have assigned to her, Ruth is no daughter of Lot; she seeks more from Boaz than a night’s encounter. Boaz’s restraint in the face of sexual temptation demonstrates that he is no Judah; he will possess Ruth only in the context of marriage and law.

Again we hear Boaz assert that his own esteem for Ruth is shared by others: “All my people’s town knows,” he says, and again we have reason to doubt the truth of his statement. But it will soon be demonstrably proved by the very public show Boaz will make of his devotion to this Moabite damsel. To understand the episode about to take place at the town gate, we need to ask a simple question: where did the land come from? Naomi has returned from her sojourn on the plains of Moab in total destitution. Now we learn that she has land to sell; what explains the discrepancy?

I believe we can answer this question, and confirm our sense of Boaz’s unique authority, by postulating that in taking Naomi and their sons away from Bethlehem, Elimelekh likely did not make any legal arrangement for the (probably barren) land he left behind. Years passed—Naomi sojourned in Moab for at least a decade. By the time she returns, the famine in Judea has abated and others have moved in to sow the land and reap its crops. They are not about to give up the property they’ve taken possession of in this chaotic era “when the chieftans ruled.”

Some such scenario is likely to have prompted Boaz’s forceful convening of the town elders and his initiation of a legal proceeding that will publicly acknowledge Naomi’s right to dispose of Elimelekh’s land. She may not be able to evict the unlawful tenants, but a redeeming kinsman would be obligated to buy back the land on the family’s behalf. So says the biblical law of redemption, and, more importantly in these circumstances, so says Boaz. And that is not all. The redeeming kinsman must give the family of Naomi an heir through Ruth. So, in a way, says the law of levirate marriage, and, again more importantly, so says Boaz.

When the kinsman balks, Boaz steps in to take his place. At this public display of his willingness to turn the world upside down for the hand of Ruth and the security of both her and Naomi, the town mood changes and Ruth is extolled as the heroine Boaz always knew her to be.

 

So is this a love story? If a love story requires focusing on the emotions of the would-be lovers and the tensions inherent in their unresolved longing for each other, then no, it is not a love story. That is, not a romantic love story. But if a love story can be one that reaches its happy end by presenting the uplifting union in marriage and procreation of two excellent individuals who can be said uniquely to deserve each other, then this is a great love story indeed.

At the end of the book of Ruth there comes a positively shocking revelation:

And the neighbor women called a name for [the child], saying, “A son is born to Naomi,” and they called his name Obed. He was the father of Jesse father of David.

Only here, and only in the most understated way, does the book reveal that Ruth and Boaz, these two extraordinary figures, are the great-grandparents of David king of Israel. The union that might not have been, that has been accomplished against such tall odds, is a union of the utmost national importance. Which raises a final question: are we meant to learn something about David from this story of his forebears?

It may be so. David is another individual who stands head and shoulders above those he interacts with. Like Boaz, he possesses the power to change people’s conception of what is possible—to legislate—by force of his will and his charisma. Moreover, at the core of several central episodes in his life, when he is acting according to his own law, we can discern a species of overpowering love: ecstatic love of God as he brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem; passionate love of a woman when he brings Bathsheba to his palace; deep, familial love when he mourns Absalom, his rebel son, in spite of all the harm Absalom has done him. Even if these are not unambiguously salutary moments in David’s life, or as readily applauded as are the superior actions of Boaz, they show an expansiveness of soul that makes him, too, a giant among men.

The story of Boaz and Ruth is bathed in light, giving us a glimpse of love at its sunlit peak. But, as in life, so in history, dark shadows lurk around that peak, and a properly comprehensive account of love must reveal those as well. David’s story of love, or perhaps more properly of eros, is morally more questionable than the story of Boaz and Ruth, and for this reason it is perhaps also more complete. But lest we mistake David’s erotic acts as the mere failings of a lustful descendant of Lot and Judah, two men for whom the story of love is one of unopposable appetite, the book of Ruth interposes in the family history a portrait of love in full bloom—love built on the foundation of human excellence.

More about: Book of Ruth, Love, Religion & Holidays