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A short commentary on the Book of Ruth - In the light of Jewish Tradition
Benoξt Standaert, OSV
I. The Setting, 1:1
"and It happened" (wayehi) Wherever a Scripture begins with wayehi, (the Rabbis
say), a disaster is about to happen. This is confirmed by the second half of the sentence: "There was a famine in the land" (cf. Esther 1:1). Yet a story with such an unpromising start can hide within itself a secret hope: One cannot fall any lower but only hope for something better.
nu it happened in the days when the Judges judged that ' there was a famine in the [and, and a man went from Bethlehem in yudah to sojourn in the fields of Moab, he, his wife, and his two sons.
"In the days when the judges judged"
There are many midrashic comments on this phrase: Astonishment at its vagueness: The period of the judges lasted a goad two centuries. One tradition in the Talmud situates the story in a very precise historical context - at the time of lvtzan, the judge in Bethlehem (Judges 12:8). Boaz is then identified with lvtzan.(1)
Others explain that "Judges" in the plural without other qualification refers not to a specific generation but to every generation, including one's own. It goes beyond history to apply to all. This reading is confirmed by what follows: the messianic perspective of the story is open to every generation. No-one can disassociate themselves from it.
A third group finds a connection between "when the judges judged" and "in those days there was no king in Israel". It was a haotic period when veryone kept to his own udgment without reference to a higher authority (a royal one). Refer to he last verse of the Book of Judges (21:25) which, in he Greek Bible, comes immediately before the openng verse of Ruth. It is in fact a refrain running hrough Judges (17:6; 18:1; 19:1). The worst horrors and crimes in the entire history of Israel were committed, especially by the Benjaminites (Judges 18-20). The rabbis say: "There was a famine in the land" precisely on that account. Just punishment for the judges, who each judged as he liked.
But some discriminating readers say the fact that God sent a famine on the land does not necessarily mean that the entire generation was corrupt. God may justly put a good and zealous generation to the test, in order to make it even betted In this case, if it is reported that only one man with his wile and sons left the country, must we not conclude that tt was an excellent, indeed an exemplary generation?
Some exegetes are more surprised by the duplicated expression "the judges judged'. They take the judges as the object rather than the subject of the verb. It would then read "in the days when the judges saw themselves judged". There are then two possible meanings: they are judged by God, who wants to put an end to the iniquity of the judges (Ps. 82), or they saw themselves judged and challenged by their contemporaries. For example, if the judge says to someone: "take the straw from between your teeth', the other replies "take the beam from out of your eye!". The Midrash exclaims: "Woe to the generation whose Judges see themselves judged by their contemporaries, and woe to the generation whose judges must be judged by the one and only judge!"
This story has at least four possible threads of interpretation! It can be read at many levels: the historical and trans-historical, the moral and beyond all moral issues. It is a human history but a history from which God is certainly not absent. Such a text involves everyone no matter how remote in terms of time and space.
"a man went from Bethlehem in Judah"
Whenever you come across "and he went..." in the Scriptures the Midrash says it has to do with "adventure'. A medieval Spanish commentator goes further and says that it is messianic (a suggestion picked up by Armand Abecassis). This opening "and a man went from the house of..." strikingly recalls a key passage from the Torah, its only real parallel. When the story of Moses begins in Exodus 2:1 it says "A man" that is to say Aram, "from the house of Levy", "went" to take a daughter of Levy, that is to say Yokhebed. Aram, in the midst of the crisis when the people suffered under the Egyptian yoke, ventured forth and married a wife. He thus set in motion the history which would become salvation history under the leadership of the child born of this initiative Moses the first saviour. From the action of Elimelech a child, the grandfather of David, a messianic figure, would be born.2 This comes at the end of the book but it is present from the beginning if you know how to interpret the Scriptures.
"to sojourn in the fields of Moab"
"What treachery!" exclaim the rabbis, although not a single Church Father sees it this way! "What land could be better than the one promised to our fathers?" II there is a famine,
how could one desert it? Was not Elimelech an "ish", a person of importance in Bethlehem, a rich man, even as Naomi says in 1:21? Should he not have stayed and lived in solidarity with the others, especially those most stricken?
II. In the country of Moab, 1:2-7
Rabbi Meir reflects on the name Elimelech; he interprets it as "Royalty will be mine". The most obvious translation would be "My God (Eli) is king". But if in fact someone flees from the land in time of famine, how could God be king over such a one? Rabbi Meir's exegesis must have a deeper meaning. II not only takes into account the blameworthy conduct of Elimelech who takes to himself (eli) what belongs to God (a) but it goes further "Kingship will come back to me". In the end it is certainly through him and in spite of everything that David, figure of the royal Messiah, will see the light of day (4:17, 18-22). Nomen est omen. His name remains a portent.
According to Rabbi Meir God establishes his kingdom even through those who turn from Him and arrogate to themselves what belongs to Him. "God writes straight with crooked lines". The account which begins so badly nevertheless reaches its ultimate destination, God's messianic design is inscribed in the heart of all history even into the crevices of each proper name.
The People of Moab were born of an incestuous union. The story is told in Genesis, Chapter 19 (w. 30-38). Because their situation is so isolated the two daughters of Lot feel constrained to make theft father drunk with wine and to lie with him in order to ensure a progeny. The daughters each conceive a son: one was named "Moab" ("taken from my father"), the other "Ben Ammi" ("son of my kinsman"). These are the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites. Deuteronomic law is particularly severe in their regard: 'No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days for ever"(Deut. 23:36). This text is used to justify the condemnation of all mixed marriages during the reform under Ezra and Nehemiah after the Exile (Neh. 13:1-3; Et 10). Numbers 22-25, which describes the passage of Moses and the Israelites through the land of Moab before entering the Promised Land, provides some explanation for this severity. Deuteronomy 23:5-6 refers to this episode. Moab was a disaster: sacred prostitution with the daughters of Moab was a scourge which cost the lives of 24,000 sons of Israel. Elimelech by choosing to flee to Moab fills the pious reader, formed by the Torah of Moses, with revulsion. How could anyone fall so low, withdraw so far 'from the divine election?
Ruth the Moabite
This epithet echoes seven times throughout the book, What at first sounds ignoble will become a title of nobility, as unforgettable as Ruth's entire destiny. "Why are the wile and sons only mentioned at the end of the sentence?" ask the rabbis. The initiative to go was taken by Elimelech alone; in the first place the fault is his.
Sin and Hope, Death and Life
The story begins: in the moment of crisis an individual gets away from it all by fleeing the country, taking his wife and children with him. Jewish commentary shows how far his action deviates from the way of Torah, but also how, from a certain aspect, it gives rise to hope in spite of everything. The first five verses describe the fate of Elimelech with captivating brevity. He arrives in Moab and hopes to survive there in the temporary guise of "sojourner" (1:1); he finds death instead. After the death of the father, one son after the other marries a Moabitess. The reader remembers the horror of Baal Pew where "the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab" (Nums. 25:1). Now the sons must of necessity "settle down" there, instead of living as strangers like their father. Alienation follows and judgment likewise did not end: the two sons die in this strange land. "The woman was bereft of her two sons and her husband".
This lonely woman is filled with desolation: she is like Job, at the end of the prologue to the book of Job; or Jonah, who tried in vain to escape the mission given him by the Word. One can also think of the People itself at the end of the long Babylonian captivity. But rightly it is this lowest point of loneliness and alienation that becomes the very source of an unhoped-for beginning, and absolutely fresh start. From verse 6 the story is like a see-saw: if the ascent towards the highlands of Moab was in a curious way a precipitous fall, the most terrible of downfalls, from the first word of the following verse "she arose" the recovery will go from height to height, knowing no end until the coming, beyond the last verse of the book, of the Davidic Messiah.
Ruth and Jonah
Naomi "arose" (qum) "to return (sh0v) from the country of Moab", because she had heard what the Lord had done for his people. Jonah the prophet also "arose'. (1:1) but in flight and in order to escape from the Word addressed to him by the Lord. Both stories start in the same way (someone "sets out" after hearing a word) and follow the same line, although in diametrically opposed directions: Jonah must leave the land to prophesy in pagan Nineveh: Naomi returns from the pagan land of Moab to the land of her bathers. Jonah disobeys knowingly; the daughter-in-law of Naomi obeys no less freely. In the two accounts faith in the Lord occupies a central place.3 In both this faith opens up an Impressive space for the non-Jew, the Moabitess and the Ninevites. The universal and the particular are here thought of together, neither one being sacrificed to the other. The two texts are filled with the same spirit; although their literary styles seem to be so different, in reality they are very close bath in style and in thought.
III. On the Way Back, 1:8-22 Orpa and Ruth
On the road back (the verb sheaf occurs 12 times in this first chapter; it is a key word, with "conversion" and "return from exile" as echoes) a very lively discussion takes place between Naomi and her two daughters-in-law. Scripture does not lack parallel conversations during journeys: for example, Abraham and his son Isaac on the road to the mountain designated by God (Gen. 22). In the Gospels Jesus teaches his disciples while t ey are "on the road" (the expression forms a frame for the section Mark 8:27-10:52; Luke puts five blocks of Jes s' teaching in the "journey section" from 9:51-17:11; cf. 13:22. In Matthew a lively yet stern exchange takes pl ce between Jesus and two vacillating disciples at the moment of boarding the boat to cross over to the other side, 8:18-23).
Naomi put Ruth to the test three times and counselled her to return to her home (w. 8, 11, 12). The rabbis as well as the masters of the monastic life teach that easy access must never be given to those who want to enter a new community. On both sides is to be found the rule of testing the candidate "three times over" .4 Naomi's attempts to discourage Ruth have no other effect than to highlight the free and joyful confession of Ruth, ready to take on all the demands of Jewish life. The rabbis develop the dialogue set out in verses 16-17:
Naomi declares: "I am going to the land of Israel. there I will have to observe all the commandments".
Ruth replies: "Where you go, I will go, Where you spend the night, there will I spend it also".
Naomi: "Our people have received 613 commandments to fulfil",
Ruth: "Your people shall be my people".
Naomi: "Among us all idolatry is forbidden".
Ruth: "Your God shall be my God".
Whoever accepts the sovereignty of God, accepts the yoke of all the commandments. Throughout prophetic literature the covenant with its commands is translated by the beautiful expression 1 will be their God and they will be my people". Ruth says nothing less than this: "I will accept the covenant". "Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried". United both in life and in death, and this in the land of Israel the land from which Elimelech had nevertheless fled to die in a strange land: "Whoever is buried in the land of Israel is like someone buried under the altar (Talmud).
Ruth emphasizes her words with an oath. The formula is found elsewhere in the Bible. "May God do to me thus and more (what is unimaginable) if I do not keep my word". The oath serves to show how committed Ruth is. Such oaths usually use Elohim for the name of God. Ruth
chooses the Tetragram YHWH. She seems to know this Name which was revealed to Moses and takes refuge under the name of Mercy (YHWH) rather than under that of Justice (Elohim). Overcome by Ruth's unshakable resolution Naomi gives way and lets Ruth accompany her. "Here you learn that after the third time, you must no longer insist" (Rashi).
Ruth attaches herself to Naomi and through her to her people, her land, her God. Ruth commits herself but the text does not explain how or why. We readers are led to think she acts gratuitously, without counting the cost, for love. It is certainly difficult to build our lives and make our choices with such selfless altruism but such an attitude transforms all the rest. Right from the first chapter Ruth the Moabitess incarnates such disinterest. She can only speak the language of love: "Because you, you are you; because He, He is He..." The testing by Naomi reveals this quality in Ruth but also implies that Naomi herself is fully able to welcome it. There is a Ruth in the depth of every Naomi. The two widows continue the journey "together" (v. 19) (cf. Gen. 22:6), so different in their origins and so similar in their trouble. As to their destinies, they know that henceforward they are united in life and in death.
Who is Ruth and who is Naomi? To read the text is to appropriate it for the encounters of today. These differ from community to community and from generation to generation (Ruth the Proselyte, Ruth the Church of the Nations, Naomi the Community of !site; the Synagogue, etc.)? But the quality of the bond which unites Ruth and Naomi and the welcome it receives are a model for all encounters between persons or between different traditions as exemplified it what has been called "the era of Assisi" (1986). When a Christian nun welcomes a Buddhist monk, may we remember Ruth the Moabitess!
Return to Bethlehem
When they arrive in Bethlehem "the whole town is stirred". The Midrash asks "How does it come about that all the town assembled? What was the reason? Some answer "It was the day of the Omer, when the first fruits are brought" (cf. v. 22). Others say "When they arrived the burial of the wile of Boaz was taking place. The whole town was there for the funeral. While the first wife is being buried the other one arrives, the future..."
"Could this be Naomi?" She has become unrecognisable. She raises her voice in lament. She no longer deserves the beautiful name of Naomi ("My Delight"). "Call me Mara, Bitterness". She calls God Shaddai (cf. Gen. 17:1; Jab 27:2). Popular etymology interprets this name as follows: "El Shaddai is the God (El) who says "Dai" that is sufficient! You have suffered enough!" He sets a limit to suffering.
The final verse of the first chapter closes the circle. The movement of departure and return is complete and a hope for the future appears. "They came to B thl h t th beg - ning of the barley harvest". The rabbis say this also signifies that they arrived too late. They have not sowed, they will have nothing to harvest... the only thing left is to beg...
The barley harvest takes place in April/May. The reading of Ruth at Pentecost (the Feast of Weeks) is often explained in connection with this last verse (1:22). According to later tradition the birth of David is also commemorated on this day. Ruth leans itself to such a commemoration. The story begins in Bethlehem, the city of David (I Sam 16, Micah 5:1 ff.) and ends with a double mention of his birth (4:17,22). According to Synagogue tradition three converging motives justify the reading of Ruth at Pentecost: the time of the barley harvest (1:22), the feast of Pentecost itself, with the Covenant at Sinai, extended here to the Moabite, Ruth,the birth of David, descendant of Obed, the son of Ruth (4:22).
IV. At Bethlehem: The Gleaner, 2:1-3:5 In the Field of Boaz
Chapters 2 and 3 form a diptych. The two tableaux are played out, one during the day, the other at night. In both there is a meeting between Ruth and Boaz, the initiation of a partnership which annot be effectively concluded until the last tableau in Chapter 4. Naomi appears at the beginning and the end of each of the two tableaux. The centre stage is occupied by a dialogue between the young Moabite widow and Boaz, Elimelech's relation. There is parallelism and progression in both episodes. Ruth's initiation takes place 'n stages and the attributes of strictness (din) and goodness (hesed) accompany each new development in perfect harmony.
"Naomi had a relative through her husband". This information is important for understanding what follows and it brings a certain dramatic tension into the story: Ruth, the protagonist does not seem to be aware of the relationship between Naomi and Boaz. She works in hope of a small reward, one might say, disinterestedly, without calculation. Only in verse 20 does her mother-in-law tell her of the relationship between Boaz and Elimelech, the father of Mahlon, her dead husband. Ruth takes the initiative and goes to glean in the fields; she tells Naomi of her project and goes only atter she had heard "Go ahead my daughter". In itself her undertaking shows that she accepts her situation as a poor woman, reduced to begging. At the same time she supports her mother-in-law by doing this. The rabbis insist at this point on her hu mility ("anawah") for was she not a princess in Moab, daughter of King Egon?
Those reduced to poverty were allowed to glean the ears of corn behind the reapers. The Law prescribed that account should be taken, when harvesting, of the condition of the deprived and part of the field should be left unharvested for them (cf. Deut. 24:19; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22). It was essential that the poor should Sind favour with the landowners. Ruth set out with this hope: "behind someone in whose eyes I shall find favour (v. 2). Her great openness and vulnerability are striking. She is truly poor (anaw), in the rich meaning the word has acquired over the centuries in Israel. She accepts the hardships of her condition (din); everything in her is open to hesed, the benevolent generosity of the other. She waits and hopes that she will 'find favour in the sight of "others". This other, given the quality of her openness, will come into her life with the very characteristics of the Other. In fact this confidence and extreme vulnerability make it almost inevitable that she will find the one who can save both her and the house of Elimelech.
"under whose wings..."
During the dialogue, Ruth affirms who she is: "a foreigner, someone unknown (nachriyah), not even "one of your maidservants" (v. 13). What Boaz says in the middle of the chapter is truly praise of Ruth: she hears herself compared to Abraham for having "left her lather and mother and her native land", in order to become part of an unknown people. The expression "the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge" becomes, from then on,
the very definition of a proselyte. The "wings" of the Lord is an expression frequently found in the psalms (cf. 17:8; 36:8; 57:2; 63:8; 91:4, etc.). Jewish tradition often associated it with the sanctuary, i.e. with the wings of the Cherubim in the Holy at Holies. Christian exegesis reads it thinking of the open arms of the crucified Jesus. "Come and shelter under his wings". That means "Stand with Mary and the other disciple at the foot of the cross and enter the community born there". Psalm 91, prayed, traditionally, at nightfall, speaks of this divine protection lived in ''the shelter of the most High, the shadow of the Almighty, the wings of my God".
"Blessed be the Lord"
Ruth, the poor one, is given enough to eat, she is satisfied and has something left over. The Talmud comments "She 'ate' in this world; she was satisfied in the days of the Messiah; she had something left over in the world to come''. In this single verse the dynamism of all history is revealed Ruth's and that of our own time, a thousand years after the Talmud. In a single day Ruth gleaned a whole ephah, that is 36 litres of barley. What a blessed day, what a blessed meeting! Naomi welcomed her back and blessed the Lord unceasingly (w. 19, 20). In the book of Ruth, no matter how hard life is, it is shot through with benediction; everything is accepted with a blessing, as gift even suffering. In good times and bad times God blesses and is to be blessed. This is the great lesson to be learnt at the school of Naomi. Her very first word (1:8) echoes throughout the story.
The Go'el or Redeemer
"This man is closely related to us, he is one of our redeeming kinsmen". The relationship was mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 2 but Ruth did not know about it. Now she learns that according to the Torah this carries with it a duty which could provide a way out of the present hardship. However this does not work automatically. The man in question is not the only possible redeemer and one never knows if he will accept to act as one. But there is hope. Ruth had behaved in accordance with her position and without calculation. The man had recognized "all that she had done for her mother-in-law after the death of her husband (v. 11). If he had gone so far there is every chance that he will act justly.
"Until the end of the barley and wheat harvests". According to the Midrash this was a period of about three months. There were two or three weeks in between the two harvesls. "Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law". This static conclusion to the chapter gives rise to the contrasting action-filled scenario which follows in Chapter 3.
It is a matter of finding security (rest) for Ruth.
"My daughter, I must seek security for you, that it may go well with your (3:1). This time Naomi takes the initiative. Assured of Ruth's fidelity she sends her at night to lie at the feet of Boaz, when fatigue and the effects of a good meal will ensure a deep sleep. Remembering the origin of the Moabitess this project of Naomi's evokes the night spent by Lot's daughters. They made their father drunk on two consecutive nights, then lay with him in order to ensure a progeny (Gen. 19:30-38). Moab ("taken from my father") is the name of one of the two children born of this incestuous union. Is this what Naomi is asking of her? Must Ruth relive the night of her ancestress, in order to redeem the ignominy of the conception of her ancestor Moab? Ruth has only one response: "All that you say I will do" (v. 5; cf. 1:16-17), and she does it literally (vv. 6-8). What an astonishing combination of submission and freedom in this woman! She remains faithful in her extreme vulnerability and accepts the risk. Obedience and creative freedom are united in her dedicated life. The action of the story in its successive details as it moves from chapter to chapter brings out the deep-seated freedom which abides in Ruth. her simplicity and uprightness direct her towards a path where the greatest risks are run, joyfully and in confidence. For those who know how to interpret the text, din and hosed, strictness and vulnerability, are built into her every word and gesture. It should be remembered that hesed in hebrew can also mean "incest". Ruth will thus relive the incestuous night of her ancestors, but with the difference that she will act according to all the strictures of the Torah. In so doing, does she not make an act of tikkun, redressing the wrong. What does this night hold for her?
V. Boaz and Ruth during the night, 3:7-18
In the middle of the night Boaz wakes up (v. 8). his question "Who are you?" provokes one of the most beautiful declarations in the book: "I am Ruth, your handmaid: spread your robe (literally your wing) over your handmaid, for you are a redeemer!" Courageously and freely Ruth commits herself: "I am Ruth!" while remaining conscious of the distance between them and the true relationship: "your handmaid" (repeated twice). Frankly she gives the order: "spread your wing..." but backs it up with what she knows about the law and the Torah in Israel: "for you are a redeemer!" What can be more beautiful than this sentence, the beginning and end of which establish the bond, but also show clearly the confrontation: "I am Ruth... you are a redeemer".7
"May you be blessed, my daughter"
Boaz could have cursed her, says the Midrash, but God put it into his heart to bless her. "Poor or rich". Rabbi Shmuel ben Isaac says, "A woman often prefers a poor young man to a rich old one". Boaz was old, indeed the Mid-rash says he was eighty! "You are a woman of worth!" The expression is found at the beginning of the acrostic poem which closes the Book of Proverbs: "A Woman of Worth" "valiant" is often the translation used "Who can find?" (31:10). Here she is and she is a worthy partner for this ish hail this man of worth Boaz, according to what is said in 2:1.
But there is a final twist to the story: in the conversation Boaz reveals that there is another kinsman closer to Elimelech than himself. His rights, therefore take precedence. The more Boaz affirms that he is committed to Ruth, Naomi and Elimelech, the more he holds to respecting the prior right of this kinsman. Hesed and din, love and strict justice, once again overlap and oblige Ruth as well as Boaz to manifest the kind of love which forgets everything which is not of Torah.
"Lie down until the morning" without a husband (says the Midrash) because the following night you will no longer be husbandless.
Just as there were difficulties to be overcome in order to get near the sleeping Boaz during the night, so there are difficulties in getting back into the town. "Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor". Ruth's meeting with Boaz by night is, as it were, surrounded by a large black circle, such as can be seen in certain ikons of the Transfiguration, when the luminous Christ is shown through such a large black circle. The beauty of this night, about which the text maintains a perfect silence, will forever escape those who by a clever reading have suspected here some sensual insinuations. The "people of the town" must not know that this woman has come to the threshing floor, says the text. They will never understand. The rest is silence.
The last act of Boaz has provoked a good deal of Rabbinic commentary. "He measured out six
measures of barley and laid it upon her. A symbolic act which overwhelmed the little Moabitess, these "six barleys" (literally) have been identified with the six most illustrious descendants of Ruth: 1. David (I Sam 6:18); 2. Hezekiah (Is. 9:5); 3. Josiah (Jer. 17:8); 4. Ananias, Misael and Azarias (Dan. 1:6); . Daniel (dan. 5:12); 6. The Messiah (Is. 11:2).(8) Six measures: What measure must be imagined in this case? Six omers? but in that case Boaz gave less than on the first day! Six ephas? that would make some 215 litres! Six seahs this would come to 72 litres."
To which the answer is given "As ancestress of the Messiah, Ruth had quite enough strength to carry all that!" Another opinion considers "six" to be the equivalent of "a sixth" of a seah which is just enough to last two people tar one day. Boaz says: "Do not fear for tomorrow. Today I will settle the matter!"
Waiting in the "Today" of God
Ruth reported everything to her mother-in-law. The latter makes ready for what will follow. "The man will not rest, but will settle the matter today". Ruth does not do anything more. The spiritual lite is familiar with this stage where the right action consists in doing nothing, but waiting in joyful expectation for the secret movement of the Spirit. Everything is already vibrant, confident in the imminence of the Other.
VI. At the Gate of the Town, 4:1-22
The kinsman of whom Boaz spoke is summoned and new suspense he starts by accepting the duty to redeem. Boaz explains to him that as well as the redemption of the land, there is also the redemption of t e widow, which implies marrying Ruth. This time the man withdraws; financially this could ruin him. He leaves Boaz the opportunity to use his own right.(9)
In their commendation of Ruth the people and the elders refer to three women. Firstly "Rachel" and "Leah", the two wives of Jacob (it is significant that the order is reversed), and then to Tamar: "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah". By putting the good wishes in the mouth of the whole assembly, including the elders, the author of the book evokes some of the most famous pages in the history of the patriarchs. Perhaps it is here that the real object of the story appears with the greatest clarity. Why must the house of Boaz become like that of Perez? The birth of Perez is recounted in Genesis 38, where there is also a question of a levirate marriage. Tamar, a Canaanite woman, is the widow of Er, the first-born son of Judah. As Er died without children, it was necessary for Judah or one of his other sons to ensure descendants for Er by marrying Tamar. But none of them wanted to do so. Then Tamar made the first move. She dressed in a prostitute's veil and lay in wait for Judah as he was on the way to Tmnah. Judah saw her and, taking her for a prostitute, wanted to lie with her, not knowing that she was his daughter-in-law. Tamar conceived a son, this same Perez, and Judah had to admit publicly: "She is more righteous than r. Perez became the ancestor of Boaz and Ephratah (cf. 2 Chron. 2:5,9-12,18-19). The memory of Tamar, an exemplary Canaanite compared with Judah who was at first inconsequential and irresponsible, reinforces the argument of the whole story of the Moabitess, Ruth. Those who (like Ezra and Nehemiah) appeal to Deuteronomy 23 to forbid all mixed marriages and break-up all unions contracted with non-Jews, must be reminded that the history of both Judah and David was able to continue in accordance with the Torah thanks to the behaviour of a Cannanite and a Moabite! If God so directs its messianic history, how is it possible to rely exclusively on Deuteronomy 23 to forbid all alliances with foreigners (cf. Ezra 10, Nehemiah 13)?
The atmosphere of the ending of the story is reminiscent of the Patriarchal cycle in Genesis. Moreover, the names of Rachel and of Leah, Perez, Tamar and Judah are evoked. God is the master of life, he is the One who opened the womb el Ruth (cf. Gen. 29:31; 30:2, etc.). The women surround the mother and the grandmother like a chorus, recalling the explosion of joy that accompanied the birth of Isaac. The rabbis point out that Boaz, in the very night he consummated the marriage, kindled life in Ruth's womb and died immediately afterwards. With him as with her, everything is gratuitous, in accordance with the Torah, the accomplishment of the great duty. If she had not "pursued young men" neither had he abused of a young widow (cf. 3:10).
"She is more to you than seven sons". This word is very like that of Elkanah to his wife Hannah (I Sam. 1:8): "Am I not more to you than ten sons?". The two texts follow one another in the Septuagint. Barely ten verses separate them. The barren woman will be consoled because: "He raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, he gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes" (Ps. 113 & 118). The story calls forth praise of God; the canticle of Hannah (I Sam 2) is not far off.
Ruth gives birth, then disappears from the text. It is the women surrounding Naomi who give the child its name. He will he called Obed, which means "servant". It is an abbreviation of Obadyah "Servant of Yah". Ruth has been nothing but that since her "return", her conversion: "Your God will be my God". The child she brings into the world bears the name of her virtue. Mysteriously, this name announces the Messiah. One day a prophet in Israel, peering into the end of history and detecting in his own time the Messianic impetus, will trace an outline, both fragile and firm, carrying the name and title of Ebed Adonai: the Servant of the Lord. The messianic fecundity, as revealed by Ruth and Boaz, will finally assume the features of this servant who "will not lift up his voice" but will be indestructible so that although marked by suffering, he will become victorious, "bringing forth justice to the nations". We are now able to re-read those pages of Isaiah which describe and announce him (Is. 42, 49, 50, 53).
Finally a genealogical table traces the lineage from Perez to David, which could, strangely, recall
the forbidden "ten generations" of Deuteronomy 23! The names of Ruth, Naomi, Mahlon and Elimelech are not found there. The episode of Elimelech has, as it were, returned to its proper place. The final editor seems to be saying that God writes straight all the same, in spite of our crooked lines.
In the prologue to his Gospel, Matthew draws up the list of the ancestors of Jesse, "son of David, son of Abraham" (1:1). He takes up again the genealogical table in the last verses of Ruth but he is careful to include in it the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and "the wile of Uriah the Hittite. Jesus is born, fruit of a very human ancestry, from which neither grace nor sin are absent. The universal and the particular, Abraham and David, the hesed and the din - Messianic history is transmitted through a close union of the two aspects. The blessing of Abraham is thus passed on from generation to generation. Ruth and Obed pass it on to Jesse and David, and in Jesus and by Mary, it touches all those who believe in his name. The book of Ruth sheds light on one link in this messianic history. The light we have contemplated in it, the freedom that both Ruth and Boaz exercised in the shadow of the Torah, radiates as tar as ourselves and sheds light on our twentieth century histories: do we go right to the end of din as well as hesed in our encounter with the other -Jews and Christians, Christians and Muslims, children of Abraham and "pagans"? The peace of our tiny blue planet depends on it!
* Dorn Benet Standaert is a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of St. Andre in Bruges (Belgium). He is a biblical scholar and has published a doctoral thesis LEvangile selon Marc Composition et Genre Litteraire (Bruges 1978) as well as several exegetical and spiritual books. At present he is responsible for the Pastoral Institute "Gaudium et Spas" which has recently been founded at the Abbey of St. Andre in Bruges. He is also very active in the Jewish-Christian dialogue.
1. It is generally considered that the Bethlehem of lvtzan was in Zebulun (cf. Jos. 19:15), thus distinguishing it from "Bethlehem in Judah" referred to in Ruth 1:1.
2. When Jesus appears for the first time in Mark 1:19 the Evangelist uses the same expressions as Ex. 2:11 uses of Moses.
3. Compare e.g. Jon. 1:19 and Ruth 2:12; 1:16-17.
4. In his Rule St.Benedict lays down that a postulant should be left at the door of the monastery at least four or five days.
5. On this point cf. . Ph.de Robert, "Ruth et Ncernie" in Foi et Vie 8 85 (1985), pp. 16-22 apply Ruth to Jewish-Christian relations.
6. Cf. Jud. 3:19.
7. The style of writing recalls another dialogue which took place during a storm in Jonah 1:8-9. EL According to the Talmud, the six would be: David, Daniel, his three companions and the Messiah.
9. According to the Law there is no direct link between redemption of land and redemption by levirate marriage.
Most of the names in this short story have a clear significance which is often very pertinent. "Orpa" isthe one who "turns her back", thus showing the nape of her neck, and returns to her family. Mahlon and Chiron signify nothing good: their names mean "sickness" and "exterminationl"Boaz" can mean "he is strong" or again, from the arabic root bgz: "the fast one". Naomi is "my pleasure" and "my grace", cf. kecharitomene addressed to Mary at the Annunciation.
The name of Ruth remains mysterious. Modern exegetes hesitate over a contraction of re'uth "friendship" (cf. Ocih. 5:10; also Gen. 11:18: reb). In this case the name would mean "friend". Traditional Jewish commentaries contain at least three different explanations: 1) "Ruth" is derived from the verb ra'a ("to see) because she has truly seen the words of Naomi ra'atah; 2) R. Johanan: "because from her came David who "satisfied" (riwah from the verb rawah to water abundantly) the Holy One blessed be His Name by hymns and canticles"; 3) the mystical tradition reads the word Ruth backwards: Ruth = thur, which gives rise to the following commentary: "In the same way as the turtle dove (thur) is fitting for the altar, so Ruth was completely fitting to enter the community of God" (Zohar hadash).
Paul CLAUDEL, Introduction au "Livre de Ruth" de ?abbe Tardif de Moidrey, Paris 1938.
R JOUON, Ruth. Commentaire philologique et exegatique, Rome 1953.
J. DE FRAINE, Ruth, Roermond 1955.
Bible et Terre Sainte 48 Quin 1962) sur Moab et Ruth, pp. 1-10.
The Book of Ruth, Megillas Ruth. A New Translation with a commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, Mesarah Publications, New York 1969. Ce livre, traduit en frangais existe aux editions Colbo, Paris, sous le titre:"La Bible commentee".
D. BARSOTTI, Ruth. La parole et ?esprit, trad. E. de Solms, Tegui, Paris 1977.
Enzo BIANCHI, Lontano da chi? Lontano da dove? Gribaudi, Torino 1977, pp. 79-102.
Schrift 85 (Wrier 1983), pp. 140; 86 (avril 1983), pp. 6164.
V.I. BROCH, The Book of Ruth in Hebrew and English with a Midrashic commentary, Feldheim, Jerusalem and New York 21983.
A. CHOURAQUI, "Rout" dans L'univers de la Bible, Tome VI, Paris 1984, pp. 47-60.
B. STANDAERT, "Ruth" dans Heiliging34 (1984/4), up. 1- 30.
J.M.SASSON,"Ruth" in The Literary Guide to the Bible, (ed. R. Alte and F. Kerthode) Collins, London 1987, p. 320-28.