This past month I’ve been teaching about the Book of Ruth in anticipation of Shavuot. I focused first on how the rabbis demonized Orpah for leaving Naomi and choosing the gods of Moab over the true God who resides in Judah. Then I focused on how Ruth had the potential to be a trafficked woman and how Naomi was in a sense her pimp. Fortunately, for both Ruth and Naomi, they ended up safe and sound and with a son (grandson) who was destined to be the progenitor of David. We discussed the threshing floor scene: That is, did Ruth and Boaz engage in pre-marital intercourse? We also noticed how the midrash dispatched Boaz after the marriage (actually the kinyan—purchase of Ruth). According to one source, he died on his wedding night, immediately after impregnating Ruth (Ruth Zuta 4:13). Clearly his only purpose was so that Naomi could get her land back and gain a new son. Men do not play a very important part in the Book of Ruth, although they do supply both food and the “seed” for progeny.
Over the past forty years of teaching and reading Ruth during the holiday of Shavuot, I’ve developed a relationship with all the characters. When I was younger, I did not like Naomi (even though we have the same name). I thought she was manipulative. She reminded me too much of my own mother. As I aged, I identified more with her and wondered, how did she manage the long trip from Moab back to Bethlehem. Nothing is said about the supply of water, food, transportation, bathroom stops. Did she talk to Ruth on the way? We do not know. As someone who both writes and teaches modern midrash, I try to humanize the biblical characters. A few years ago, I wrote a somewhat cynical modern piece which I am sharing with you. It is based on the fact that the opening words of the Book of Ruth set the story in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). I tried to imagine who was the judge when they left. Was he the same one judging when they came back to Judah, or was he a different one? I turned this judge into the narrator of my retelling of the book of Ruth. I hope you enjoy my retelling.
Ruth and Naomi: A Counter Midrash
“In the days when the judges ruled…” (Ruth 1:1)
They come in here like they own the place. Naomi keeps bragging about her new grandson as if he’s the new messiah. She drags Ruth out, commands her to bring her the baby and then pretends to nurse him. Disgusting, at her age to bare those old brown breasts.
Before they came, I had my eye on Boaz. I thought that he was ripe for a new relationship. Ever since his second wife died, I knew he was ready for the taking. He didn’t know it, but I did. But now it’s over—and just because of those two women. Actually, Ruth is okay—it’s just that she has no personality of her own. Naomi keeps telling of her loyalty to her—as if that is a big deal. Taking orders, following her. She claims she loves her. But I watch her carefully and she seems so colorless, like a lap dog.
It is clear that Boaz was entrapped. He and Naomi met, made a deal—she sent Ruth to him one night. Naomi was his kin and who knows what past they had in common. She must have offered him a package deal—a new wife and access to the land that once was hers. And now I’ve lost him to a woman who is a foreigner, not of our faith.
Naomi keeps teaching her our ways, our language. I see them out there everyday in the fields with the baby. Poor Ruth has no life of her own. She is still at the beck and command of Naomi. Marriage to Boaz didn’t free her from Naomi’s control. But she doesn’t seem to mind. She follows Naomi around. They say she converted to our religion, that she became a ger, when she chose to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem from her own homeland.
But I saw her the first day she arrived. She stood out from the rest of the sheaves like a stalk of unbowed wheat. She was tall and willowy and had light hair. She was light on her feet; she had an air of mystery to her. It was only later that I realized that it was a bluff and she had no personality of her own. When she said to Naomi, “your people are my people” that was because she really had nothing of her own.
It was Naomi who was ruthless and cunning. She wanted her land back and she wanted that baby and she wanted respectability. She was tired of being just a retired old lady. Like Sarah, Abraham’s wife, she was rejuvenated after that baby was born. She treated Ruth like a servant. If it had been up to her, she would have kicked her foreign daughter in-law out, just like Sarah kicked out her foreigner, her ger, Hagar. But she had no excuse. Ruth was never uppity—Ruth was always compliant. She did what she was told. She followed Naomi’s directions and my Boaz was ensnared.
She’s taken my baby. She acts as if Oved is hers. I guess he is in a sense. I would never have gotten this far with Boaz if not for her push. Why did I follow her back? I miss my best friend, Orpah who was like a sister to me. I wish she had come with us and then I wouldn’t be so lonely. All I am is a milk machine—and I have to do it in secret, so Naomi can pretend she is nursing Oved. I wonder if they understand the irony of his name. I am the slave (eved), the wet-nurse who works behind the scenes while she gets the glory. The last words I ever said of consequence were those in which I committed myself to follow her, to have her people be my people. But she’s used me. She brags about me; she says her daughter-in-law is better than seven sons. But she never refers to me by name. I will never forgive her for that long period of silence when I followed her—always ten steps behind—on that long trip from Moab.
To them I am always Ruth the Moabite. My identity to them is that of a convert and I have never been fully accepted. She’s right, I’m better to HER than seven sons. And what sons—those sickly men, Orpah and I married! Even their names, Mahlon and Chilion, implied disease. They were used up after ten years and they weren’t potent enough to give us sons. Orpah was smarter than me and went back. But I decided to take my chances, try my luck in a new place. You would think in a society such as this, I would be honored for having a son—but that honor has been taken away from me by Naomi. Boaz is of no use either. He’s either in his fields or with his men. He thinks of me as a daughter that he has to protect. He can’t believe his luck that at his age, a woman took interest in him and that he has finally become a father to a male child. But he gets no satisfaction from Oved either, since our child is always with Naomi. And she’s not even his biological grandmother. But that doesn’t stop her from taking over. Maybe when she dies, I’ll get a chance to be a mother to my own child. But I don’t see a way out, for she seems to be getting younger every day. Even the women neighbors have noticed. They say that God had a hand in not withholding a redeemer from her and that her grandson will renew her life and sustain her in her old age. They say that it is because he is born of ME, her daughter-in-law, who loves her and is better to her than seven sons. Yet the local feeling is that “A son is born to Naomi” not to me!
Hearing Ruth talk almost makes me feel sorry for her. But the fact remains that there is nothing left for me here. I will try my hand with some of the men who are going up north to the Dan district. I will get my family to arrange a marriage for me with one of them and then I will move on. I don’t think I can stand seeing Boaz becoming a laughing stock at his age.
When we arrived in Bethlehem, the whole city buzzed with excitement over us. The women said, “Can this be Naomi?” “Do not call me Naomi,” I replied. “Call me Mara, for my lot has been very bitter. I went away with full breasts, and now they are empty. How can you call me Naomi, when the Lord has not dealt pleasantly with me at all; when so much misfortune has befallen me!”
That’s how I returned from the country of Moab; I returned with my daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite. We arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. It was the end of the long silence between us. Now she was mine, ready to do what I needed to restore my place in society, to ensure that my name would be perpetuated.
My lot was indeed desperate: a sick husband, sick sons, no grandchildren, only two daughters-in-law. One of them turned her back on me. The other clung to me, even though I tried to discourage her. She made this long speech: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For 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 I will be buried.”
When I saw how determined she was to go with me, I stopped trying to convince her, and in fact, I stopped speaking to her until we got back to Bethlehem. Every time she tried to engage me in conversation, I turned my back on her. I didn’t want her to get the upper hand, to think she was in power, to think that she was taking pity on me. By giving her the silent treatment, I knew she would have no way of knowing what I was thinking, what I was planning.
When we arrived and Ruth offered to go to the fields and glean some grain, that’s when I spoke my first words to her, “Yes, daughter, go,” I replied; and off she went. What a piece of luck that the first field she came to was the piece of land belonging to Boaz, who was of Elimelech’s family. He knew she was related to me—the gossips had been at him already and so he was kind to her, because of our relationship. His wife had just died and he was ripe for the plucking. After the harvest was over, I convinced Ruth to go and seduce him. My plan was simple, I told her: “Daughter, I must seek a home for you, where you may be happy. Go to our kinsman Boaz, who will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor tonight. Go down to the threshing floor and hide until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do.”
Ruth went down to the threshing floor and did just as I had instructed her. When she came home, she told me how she went over stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down and what took place. When he asked who she was, she replied, “I am your handmaid, Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
He was impressed by her loyalty to me and flattered that she preferred an old man to a younger man. He reassured her that he would do what she asked. He told her to stay for the night. But he would have to check out that the person who was closer kin to her, who had more rights as a redeemer than he, did not want to redeem her. He promised: “If he does not want to act as redeemer for you, I will do so myself, as the Lord lives! Lie down until morning.”
Ruth did not really understand how complicated were our laws of redeeming the land. She did not understand the risk she was taking by spending the night. I never asked her what exactly happened that night. She might have ruined it for us, had our other close relative wanted the land enough to take her as well. But fortunately, he only wanted the land, not Ruth. So, Boaz married Ruth; she became his wife, and he officially cohabited with her. Only Ruth, Boaz and I knew what really took place the night before. I held it over her head for many years. I needed to keep the upper hand. I needed it so that I could have a new son, to replace my dead sons and my dead husband.
Boaz was first to die. Naomi lived on for a long time. Ruth faded away into history. We all know what happened to the descendants of her grandson. But what became of me? I too played a small part in the future of our people’s history, but not in Bethlehem. My scope was on the battlefield. Not the usual place for a woman, but then you may have noticed that I am a very critical person. My judgment of Ruth and Naomi’s characters are not in the history books. I found that I had a talent to see through men and women. I understood their motivation. Now that I am respectably married, I have set up a stand under a tree and judged—and this time I have been rewarded for my judgmental personality. In case you are wondering who I am, look in the book of Judges for MY story. I am Deborah the Judge, a.k.a. Boaz’s first flame, now known as eshet Lapidot.
A midrash goes as follows:
“And it was in the days of the judging of the Judges.” And who were they? Rav says: They were Barak and Devora. R. Yehoshua ben Levi says: They were Shamgar and Ehud. R. Huna says: They were Devora, Barak, and Yael. Shefot [would have implied] one, shoftim [would have implied] two, ha-shoftim [implies] three (Ruth Rabba 1:1).
It is interesting that according to the third opinion, that of R. Huna, we have a triumvirate: a triangle of two women and a man. In Ruth, there are also three: Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Both Yael the Kenite and Ruth the Moabite are foreigners. Both of them come to the rescue (one a situation of starvation and continuity of lineage and the other annihilating the enemy). Whereas Ruth continues the line of Naomi, Yael cuts off Sisera’s lineage. Naomi and Deborah are women of initiative. The two men, Boaz and Barak, are somewhat effeminate, in that they are the tools by which victory and ambition are procured. The women maneuver them for their ends. Naomi maneuvers Boaz into marrying Ruth, thus procuring for her the land and lineage and Deborah maneuvers Barak into being the victorious fighter by shaming him. If you wish to read more about the intertextuality between Judges 4 and 5 and the book of Ruth follow this link.