“The good are: the one’s who listen and put the Word of God into practice“.
A Commentary on the Biblical Book of Ruth —מגילת רות, Megilath Ruth, “the Scroll of Ruth”, and one of the Five Megillot—.
For the last few days I have quite randomly been chivvied by my inner voice to re-read the book of Ruth. I’m not at all sure what prompted the situation, yet on those rare and few occasions that I have been ‘prompted’ I have learnt the hard way, that it is best to not ignore it and do as prompted. So somewhat worrying as to how it might be perceived — here I write my very first ever biblical commentary on any book, starting with the book of Ruth, which, within the canons of the Christian churches is treated as a historical book. I learnt more about Ruth —after-all, women have often been overlook by the patriarchs.
Women have left their footprints in the desert sands of the early testament days and upon Christendom— therefore should we not get to know them better?
“Ruth from the Kingdom of 𐤌𐤀𐤁 Moab. Woman, stranger and mother”
The Book of Ruth describes her story, set in Judea at the time of the Judges (X century BC), of a gentile רוּת—Ruth, who was the ideal of piety, but, she was also the great-grandmother of the future King דָּוִד בֶּן יִשַׁי—David ben Yishay. Ruth, who had married a Jew who had emigrated to her country, had left Moab after she was widowed. Deciding to emigrate with her Israelite mother-in-law נָעֳמִי—Naomi, to the land of Israel. When she arrives she is met by a relative of her late husband, בֹּעַז—Boaz, son of שַׂלְמוֹן— Śalmōn and his wife רָחָב—Rahab. Boaz was a wealthy man, a landowner from Bethlehem in Judea, and relative of אלימלך—Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. Don’t you just love O.T. genealogies? Well, the plot thickens, Boaz unexpectedly decides that he wants to marry Ruth and redeem her from her desperate plight. The recurrent theme of these events throughout, is one of a very strong bond which exists between the young widow and her mother-in-law Naomi, also a widow, a bond that will ensure that the two women are never separated even during the most desperate of moments. Ruth, still a young woman sacrifices her last chance to rebuild a life in he homeland of Moab in order to remain and care for Naomi now a frail old woman.
The Names of Old Testament women in the New Testament
(Matthew 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23-38)
Among the many names in the genealogy of Jesus, with which Matthew begins his Good Announcement, unlike what almost always happened in Jewish genealogies, there are women’s names.
And these are quite particular women; not of those that exemplify the house of Israel, like those great figures of Rachel, Leah, Sarah.
Instead, and ‘In their place’ we find the names of Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and that of Bathsheba the wife of ‘Uriah’ the Hittite, and later of David.
It certainly cannot be a coincidence that Matthew places them in the Saviours genealogy, “forgetting” those who appear as the authentic “mothers” of Israel. The four he mentions are all, in one way or another, “last” women; but precisely in that “the last will be the first” and “God has chosen the poor, the weak of this world”.
Tamar daughter-in-law of Judah is mentioned in Genesis Ch. 38.
She is the wife of the firstborn of Judah, Er, the mother of Perez and Zerah, the ancestor of David and Boaz, the latter figure that we will find in the Book of Ruth. Rejected by Er, Tamar is forced to prostitute herself in order to have a son by Judas. The first woman that Matthew remembers is therefore forced to such an act to ensure that her offspring will lead to the same Saviour.
Rahab is a famed prostitute of Jericho. Knowing that the Lord has assigned her land to Israel, she confesses “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:11), and hides in her house those scouts whom Joshua had sent to Jericho to prepare for their conquest, thus rescuing them from capture and certain death.
Bathsheba is a sign of one of David’s mortal sins. Lusted after with indomitable passion by David, she is however also the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David desired her and made her pregnant. To conceal his sin, David summoned Uriah from the army in the hope that Uriah would lay with Bathsheba and therefore make him believe that he fathered the child. But Uriah was unwilling to violate the ancient rule which the warriors in active service undertook to remain celibate on campaign. After repeated and unsuccessful efforts by David to persuade Uriah to lay with Bathsheba, David order’s his general Joab, to place Uriah on the front lines of the battle, therefore sending Uriah to his death during the assault against the Ammonites. David did this to hide his sin. This displeased God, who commands Nathan the prophet to go and chastise David. The king ashamed, immediately confesses his sinful act and expressed sincere remorse. God punishes David by taking his new born son by Bathsheba. The unnamed boy, struck down by severe illness died a few days after his birth. David accepts the death as his punishment from God thinking it was over. The prophet Nathan reminds David that his house would further be punished for the murder of Uriah. Bathsheba later gave birth to David’s son Solomon.
Bathsheba is a profoundly different figure from those of Tamar and Rahab. As much as they appear to be effective, industrious and resolute, whilst Bathsheba submissive, meek and silent to us, a figure who suffers mysteriously, involved in events that seem to completely overwhelm her; Bathsheba is unable to prevent or judge.
And now we return to Ruth the Moabite. Among the women of the genealogy mentioned by Matthew she is one of the most disquieting, and quite “rightly” so! Because the First Covenant dedicates a very short yet fulminating book to Ruth from the Kingdom of Moab.
According to Genesis 19:30–38, the forefather of the Moabites was Lot by incest with his eldest daughter. Having escaped from a Sodom engulfed in flames, Lot takes flight with both his daughters to the mountains. His daughters decided to continue their father’s line by having intercourse with him. They get him drunk and lie with him; a situation that to some extent reminds us of Tamar’s own situation. The first of these daughters conceives Moab forefather of the Moabites, while the second daughter conceives Ben-Ammi forefather of the Ammonites. Therefore both, the Ammonite and the Moabite, will be referred to throughout biblical tradition as an incestuous peoples. They would not be allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord: “No Ammonite or Moabite may ever come into the assembly of the Lord, nor may any of their descendants even to the tenth generation come into the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:4). And here it is that a Moabite becomes the ancestor of King David and as a consequence and ancestor of the Messiah himself!
However, even before Matthew, Ruth figured among the ancestor of the great King David, and therefore a small portion, of the great Book is dedicated to her, which in the Hebrew Bible is placed among the כְּתוּבִים — Kəṯûḇîm or “Writings”, together with the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the Song of Songs. In my opinion this composition is much more in keeping with the character of the Book than our Christian layout, which places it, like the Septuagint, among the historical Books, but for entirely extrinsic reasons. It seems that the Book dates back to the IV-V centuries BC, a very significant period in the history of the Land of the Israelites, a period in which Israel struggles to defend the integrity of its faith against foreigners, cultures and traditions, a period of safeguarding, one might say, following the great catastrophe of exile. And this highlights even more the extraordinariness of the testimony that the Book of Ruth provides us.
Humility that Struggles
The contents of the book are known, but it is worth remembering. A man from Bethlehem in the Kingdom of Judah is forced to emigrate due to famine from his home to the Kingdom of Moab. He emigrates with his wife Naomi meaning “good, pleasant, lovely, winsome,” and also his two children. The family settles in the territory of Moab without any conflict with the natives who reside there (or at least nothing is mentioned), and yet he is mercilessly struck by the Lord. His fate is similar to that of Job. “Without reason” the Lord puts them through the hardest trials and tribulations.
After the death of her husband Naomi, she also has to mourn her children, one of whom was married to Ruth. Naomi then changes her name “Do not call me Naomi [‘Sweet’]. Call me Mara (מרא) ‘Bitter’, for the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20) and she tells Ruth: “my lot is too bitter for you, because the Lord has extended his hand against me.” (Ruth 1:13). Naomi feels utterly abandoned, alone and a stranger in the land of Moab. She invites her two daughters-in-law to abandon her, not to follow her on her desperate return to Judea.
Although saddened by having to abandon her mother-in-law, one of them decides to stay with her people. Ruth, on the other hand, without explaining the reason, apparently without any reason, does not detach herself from Naomi-Mara. “Do not press me to go back and abandon you!Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17). It is an absolutely unpredictable word, made of absolute love, a decision that calculates nothing, that exchanges nothing. Pure gift. And yet it is the testimony of a totally human and earthly love; Ruth unconditionally loves a person of flesh and blood. She did not convert to Naomi’s God, but since she loves Naomi she too makes her God her own. She reaches the God of Israel through love for her neighbour, for her most abandoned neighbour, desperate for her.And therefore Ruth leaves her land with her blood relatives, abandons all of her “her” to give herself entirely to the other.
Matthew could not fail to recall in this figure the radical words of the “decision” that Jesus himself made: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor…then come, follow me.” (cf. Matthew 19:21). So does Ruth: to follow Naomi, Ruth has to abandon her own god Chemosh —revered as supreme god by the Moabites—, Ruth humbles herself to the poorest trades, gathering behind the peasants, collecting that which is left over from the peasants work, just like the poorest of the poor in Israel.
Naomi without a husband and without children; Childless Ruth, widow, and a foreigner at that, not just any foreigner, but a Moabite, one of those incestuous and cursed people who will never enter the assembly of the Lord. Both have been brought down into utter humility: truly humbled into the humus, literally to the “soil, ground”.
But Ruth is of the stock of Tamar and Rahab. Her humility is also made up of struggle. She works in the countryside of Boaz meaning “in him is strength”. Although he is a relative of Naomi, he is not duty bound to look after her family. However, he gives food and work to the Moabite, welcomes her and slowly (mentioned in her story, although with great modesty) he feels affection for this foreigner, until he delivers her from her first relative and takes her as his wife. From the bond between Ruth and Boaz the father of King David’s father will emerge.
A disarming achievement
But how could Ruth “conquer” Boaz, the “strong”? Freedom does not come to the inactive nor the unmindful; it comes only to those who ardently want to conquer it. It is written: the kingdom of heaven will be of the “violent”, of the βίαιος (biaios) strong, violent, a Greek term that cannot be translated otherwise, originating from βία (bia), strength, force, violence; only through the narrowest door, is the kingdom of heaven “assailable”.
Therefore Ruth is both perfectly humble and perfectly determined to obtain her liberation. Like a daughter of Lot, she walks into Boaz’s bed to get him. Nor is Boaz surprised that Ruth wants to lie with him; if he does not touch her, it is because he himself understands that he wants her to be his wife and in front of her witnesses he says: “Behold, Ruth has become my bride” (cf. Ruth 4:9-11).
Openness and paradoxical nature of the biblical texts, free from any hypocrisy and moralism, truly free from bad common sense.
Ruth conquers her man with a “scandalous” gesture. And just this is blessed by the Lord! Thus was the son Obed born, who will be the father of Jesse, the father of David.
But this Obed is not only the son of Ruth, he is also the son of Naomi! “Naomi took the boy, cradled him against her breast, and cared for him. The neighbouring women joined the celebration: “A son has been born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:16-17). They named the boy Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. The bond between these two women was so great that it seemed as though they both gave birth to one child. I believe that Ruth’s adherence to her mother-in-law in 1:14 is now convey in a heartfelt vow of fealty, reaching its pinnacle in a formulary found frequently within Samuel and Kings; cf. principally 1 Samuel 20:13. Even death would not separate Ruth from Naomi: burial in Naomi’s family tomb means that they would remain together for eternity. The biblical tropes of an old woman, who had lost all, including all hope, yet still managed to give birth, is repeated here. Ruth’s pure gift of love to Naomi is “incarnate” within Obed.
The sacredness of the foreigner
Let us try to better understand the provocative charge within this book.
First of all, Israel’s exclusivity is “in crisis” here, of which within the Bible itself we find countless testimonies: Israel is alone, she is the pure bride that no one can defile, and so on. In Ruth we find the reverse side of that Great Code: a stranger (not just someone whom we host and who becomes a convert, that is, living with us as a member of the family, someone who is “unified” within us), a true and total foreigner, a stranger who is sacred. God does not want the stranger to harmed or meddled with. In truth, it is the stranger whom we must love. This is the biblical timbre that will be assumed with univocal purity in the words of Jesus Christ. Love overcomes all, differences of race, people, customs and traditions.
But Ruth’s account poses an infinitely greater radical problem.
We have already stated that Ruth follows Naomi and that only because of Naomi does Ruth convert and adhere to the God of Israel. But who is this God? Making this victorious God your own is simple; in classical antiquity it happened quite regularly; it is well known that when the Romans laid siege to a city, before they destroyed it, they invoked their god’s, invite them to come over to their side, inviting them to enter their Pantheon. It has always been easy to adhere to the god’s of conquerors. Ruth, on the other hand, steadfastly follows Naomi, yet Naomi has been abandoned by her God. Ruth follows the God of the vanquished and shares in the bitterness of his faithful. Thus Jesus on the cross obeys God the Father who abandoned him. Jesus, who was abandoned, wants us to follow the will of God, a God who abandons, the exact opposite of a God who manifests himself through signs of victory.
Let’s go a step further: the God who abandons is, in his essence, a “not my” God, He is a God that I can never “take possession of”. Yet this is the extraordinary truth of the biblical God. The biblical proclamation of a hidden God, of God’s silence, of God’s own “ire” which means nothing more, other than His complete silence and His abandonment of us, which ultimately demonstrates that the truth of the matter is that man’s relationship with God does not nor can it ever be based in terms of acquisition and possession. God can never be made to be an “entity” or “thing” upon which one builds a tranquil abode. God can never be reduced to a level of our firm foundation. And this is where the fundamental challenge of the book of Ruth lies.
Capable of perfect love she is a foreigner in the land of Israel; she reaches out to the God of Israel only by the virtue of love, or rather: genuine care for one’s neighbour; this God is not “hers”, since God can never be transformed or reduced to a foundation or a possession, because He is the Voice that asks us to follow, He asks us to abandon everything and everyone to follow Him; finally, to follow His Voice, to completely “liberate” ourselves to it, we have to have strength, vitality, we also have to appear “threatening” in the eyes of hypocrites and scribes, to the all “too human” portion of our own “laws”.
Some of the illustrations come from a wonderful book, a sample of which can be downloaded here in .pdf format by clicking on the image below. I’m actually not sure if it is available to purchase at this time/
The Book of Ruth: Medieval to Modern is organized by the Morgan Library & Museum and curated by Roger S. Wieck, Melvin R. Seiden Curator and Department Head of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript.
Wolff’s website and latest project, “The Book of Ruth,” has just been completed. It will be exhibited at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City early in 2020. The manuscript will become part of the Morgan Library’s permanent manuscript collection.
A short film clip of 45 minute video entitled can be viewed here:”Your People Shall Be My People,” describing the Book of Ruth and its production by the artist. The entire film will be screened at The Morgan during the exhibition.