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Gershon Hepner

Ruth Rewritten

My favorite bible book, to tell the truth,

is short and sweet and called the book of Ruth.

Regarding what she looked like, whether short

and sweet to look at, there is no report.

About her looks I am an ignoramus,

but looks were not in fact what made her famous:

her lovingkindness had the highest titer

that would inspire any science writer,

and that became the essence of her glory,

and why I’ll recapitulate her story.

 

It happened in the days when judges ruled––

it’s hard to think of times when do they not––

that Elimelech, by the market fooled,

set out for Moab, no great patriot.

He died quite soon, perhaps since he’d displeased

the Lord by leaving Bethlehem, his home;

he’d never cared for those who were diseased

or hungry, quite a selfish gastronome.

His widow was Naomi, which means that

her disposition was extremely pleasant;

his two sons’ names came with a caveat,

implying that they soon would be decedent.

In Moab they lived well, there was no famine,

and both the sons to Moabites got married:

their consciences they hardly did examine,

for both their wives were sterile or miscarried,

perhaps because the Torah laws forbid

the Israelites to marry Moabites.

The sons died since they both backslid,

survived by wives who were not proselytes,

and therefore not commanded to obey

the Torah’s laws as both their husbands were.

When back at home the famine went away

Naomi decided she’d prefer

to live no more in Moab where she had

a lot of painful memories and go

to Bethlehem her home, no more nomad.

Her sons’ two widows said that they also

would like to go with her to where she’d dwelt,

for they were both reluctant to remain

in Moab where the two young widows felt

like aliens––people tended to disdain

them both, for though they’d not converted,

they’d chosen two Judeans and rejected

their fellow Moabites, and had deserted

their nation, as if they were disaffected.

 

Naomi said to Orpah, who was older:

“Go back to Moab, where you have your roots.”

Although she said the same to Ruth, Ruth told her:

“I’m leaving with you with my ticket and new boots,

and don’t intend to stay here one more second:

wherever you will go I will go with you.”
On such a course Naomi hadn’t reckoned.

Ruth wouldn’t, like her sister, say adieu,

although Naomi warned her she was far

too old for her to bear a son whom she could choose

to marry, and she warned her of the bar

that separated Moabites from Jews,

an ugly separation Nehemiah

enforced most strictly when the Jews returned

from exile, thus with Ezra causing dire

restrictions on the people whom they spurned.

 

Ruth said: “I beg you please do not entreat me

to leave you, for where you go so will I;

where you lodge I will lodge, you’ll meet me

wherever you may be, and when you die

I’ll find a grave that’s close and lie beside you,

and from today your God is also mine.”

Naomi said: “I cannot override you:

what’s mine is thine and what is thine is thine.”

That’s language from the Ethics of Our Fathers:

both women in such ethics quite excelled.

Ruth loved Naomi so much that she’d rather

be homeless than from Naomi expelled.

 

They walked together, neither of them straggled,

determined both to find in Bethlehem

some comfort, but when they arrived bedraggled,

the people whispered, ready to condemn

Naomi for the way she’d left Judea

when times were hard.  It would have been far fitter

for her to stay behind without the panacea

of emigration.  Rumors made her bitter,

and so she said: “Please do not call me Pleasant” ––

the meaning of her name –– “but Bitter Mara:

though pleasant when I left, I have a present

sweet as haroseth, Ruth, there’s no one fairer.”

Haroseth is a condiment that Jews

eat Passover to sweeten bitter herbs;

it made of sweet things than cause herbs to lose

the bitter taste that otherwise disturbs.

 

A paradox her words; a Moabitess,

thought Jews in those days, were as little use

as generations later felt for Titus,

destroyer of the Temple of the Jews.

Men frowned so much upon Ruth’s intermarriage

that Naomi and Ruth were shunned and sent away:

of justice there’d have been miscarriage

if Boaz hadn’t come to save the day.

To Elimelech he was close as kin,

but also he felt pity on the widow.

He thought her emigration was no sin,

and didn’t share his colleagues’ legal credo

that stated that a marriage with a stranger,

especially from Moab, was a no-no:

with sympathy he acted, not in anger,

and to the court he put his case pro bono.

 

The efforts that he made to give support

to both the widows caused resentful furor.

Naomi got a very bad report,

and Ruth the Moabite was labeled whore.

News spread those days as fast as it in Paris

would spread for people who were not enlightened,

fictitious stories tending to embarrass

the victims, into silence being frightened.

Rumor turned to gossip that spread faster

when people started publishing each libel,

attempting to prevent the great disaster

of marriage to a Moabite the bible

abhors, because it threatens the pollution

of Israel which could trace to Abraham

its roots, and did not want a revolution

like that in France that followed Uncle Sam.
While others thought the strangers bacchanalian,

inclined to alienate their men from God,

Boaz let Ruth glean, although an alien,

dressed modestly, with feet that were not shod.

He told his servants they should not embarrass

the Moabitess as she gathered barley:

any youth attempting to sex-harass,

would lose his job, and home, perhaps his Harley.

 

Naomi noticed all the small attentions

that Boaz paid to Ruth, and being clever,

determined to find out if his intentions

were serious.  To learn if he would ever

redeem young Ruth she sent her in the middle

of the night to lie beside him as

he lay inside his barn—then starts an idyll

between the future lover and his lass.

Naomi first instructed Ruth to put

on perfume and a very pretty dress

that flattered her when she exposed a foot,

a limb unmarried couples might caress.

It’s possible that she accompanied

the woman whom she called her daughter for

that’s what is written, though we do not read

these words aloud.  All Bowdlerists deplore

suggestions of such intimacy that

would echo daughters’ incest with old Lot,

producing ancestors whom both begat

although the law forbids this.  In the plot

describing how King David’s dynasty

occurred you should know bible authors claim

that Solomon and David were not free

of blemishes from antenatal shame.

Don’t think that Moab, Ammon, were exceptions,

for Judah with Tamar broke many laws.

It’s very clear the dynasty’s conceptions

can hardly be the reason for applause.

 

She came in secret, after Boaz ate

and drank some wine that made him somewhat sleepy,

a fact that was extremely fortunate,

for he would not have let her in his tepee.

Though Ruth spoke first, she tried to be discreet,

and sweetly asked him: “Are you my redeemer?”

He saw that she was lying at his feet,

and thought he must be drunk or just a dreamer,

then saw that Ruth had taken off the cover

that had been lying on his legs while dozing,

and said to her: “Though I’m not yet your lover,

hear now my plan that I am now proposing.

Your qualities are certainly quite stellar!

I’ve seen the lovingkindness you have shown

to your late husband and Naomi, valor

should be the middle name you rightly own.

You’ll be my wife of valor with a price

above all rubies, as our proverbs say,

as precious as the very fragrant spice

that on the altar priests twice daily lay.

However, though I dearly wish to marry,

you have a closer kinsman, so it seems:

I must give him a writ of certiorari

to see if he both marries and redeems.

If he refuses, then I may become

your husband, chief of dramatis personae.”

The name of the redeemer was Sir Dumb,

for that is the true meaning of “Almoni,”

the curious name he goes by in the chapter

with which the book concludes, as I’ll explain.

As spouse of Ruth her champion was far apter,

and Boaz when Dumb failed did not complain,

but gave the man at once a writ mandamus

for having failed to follow Holy Writ,

thus showing that he was an ignoramus––

the word for him in England is a twit.

 

He told her she should spent the night beside

his feet, but leave before the rosy lips of dawn,

for people might not trust his bona fide,

associating her with alien corn.

He gave her, just before she left, some barley,

which she gave to Naomi — who was thrilled,

for though the tryst was planned somewhat bizarrely,

it seems the union was what God had willed.

 

Next day the elders gathered by the gates,

in order to determine who’d redeem

the property of Elimelech: Boaz waits

prepared to activate his clever scheme.

The nearest kinsman I’ve called Mr. Dumb

says he’s prepared to do so on condition

that he’s not called to be the lucky groom

of Ruth, who’s of the Moabite tradition––

the word we use more often is persuasion,

a euphemism used by those whose pride

with prejudice looks always for occasion

to look for racial features to deride.

The opportunity he, dumb, declines,

explaining that he would not waste his seed

by mixing his blood with Ruth’s  alien lines

that would pollute the bloodlines of his breed.

He fears that he will waste his seed,

as Onan with Tamar had feared to do:

shahet, “destroy,” connects the former’s deed

to Mr. Dumb before he lost his shoe,

for once he told the elders, “I will not

redeem this woman,” she was told to take

his shoe and spit, to put him on the spot

since he had not shown kindness for her sake.

The fact that with the marriage come the farms

of Elimelech does not compensate

for marriage with a Moabite that harms

whoever should become Ruth’s lifelong mate.

 

As Torah law requires in such cases,

Ruth spat into the levir’s face to shame him,

and took his shoe off, cutting off its laces,

and with the elders started to defame him:

“Ruth’s conduct shows our disapproval

of all the levirs who refuse to build

their kinsmen’s houses.  ‘House of Shoe Removal’

shall be his name, his seed lost like that spilled

by Onan who would not redeem his brother

who in Tamar’s bed died without an heir.”

The stories do resemble one another,

for when Tamar reacted with despair

after Judah would not let young Shelah,

his third son, use his seed to be a levir,

she dressed up as a whore who meets a sailor

and lay with him, a ruse extremely clever,

performed close to two fountains called Enaim,

which echo one where in another saga

a man gave Laban gifts to satisfy him,

and in another God gave help to Hagar.

Tamar bore Judah twins, one Perez, who

was destined to be David’s royal ancestor,

like Boaz, who helped Ruth produce one too,

each man in royal lineage investor.

 

The author does not mention that Ruth spat,

but I believe she did so since the law

in Deuteronomy requires that

for men who on kinswomen shut the door.

Some people say the way that Ruth behaved

is not due to the law of Deuteronomy,

but I think Boaz thought she should be saved

by levir law, not by his bonhomie.

Recalling this connection the narrator

describes Ruth’s great redemption as temurah,

which means “exchange” but is an indicator

Tamar was in his mind, though Ruth was purer.

 

The dynasty of David has its sources

in acts of incest far worse than Tamar’s:

incestuous origin of Moab reinforces

the one of Perez that above we parse,

for Lot told both his daughters he would know ’em,

producing thereby ancestors not only

of David, the first king, but Rehoboam—

the man who thinks what’s moral must be lonely.

It seems the bible authors wished to quarrel

with kings descended from royal David’s line;

at least to me that would appear the moral

that to these stories readers would assign.

 

Once Mr. Dumb had publicly refused

to marry Ruth there stepped into the breech

her lover, Boaz, who then disabused

the racist elders with a rousing speech,

declaring he was quite prepared to marry

the Moabitess whom they had rejected

immediately. He didn’t want to tarry

a moment—this was hardly unexpected.

The people said that Ruth would be like Leah

and Rachel who were matriarchs of both

Judea where King David was a player,

and northern lines whom southerners would loathe,

predicting that with Boaz she’d achieve,

with what would be a matriarchal energy,

as much as Adam had with Eve,

for Ruth and Boaz had a sinless synergy.

They prayed the hero’s house should now resemble

the ones that Perez and Tamar had built,

and hinted that the building of the Temple

would by his great-great grandson soon be built.

 

According to the midrash, Boaz died

the night he married Ruth. How often joy

gives way to grief: when we in love collide,

we sometimes build and sometimes we destroy!

Though Boaz had produced three hundred sons,

he died like Onan on his wedding night,

not wasting seed, a vandal like the Huns,

but loyal to the primae noctis right

that every husband in the world enjoys.

Why did he then like Onan have to die?

The ones God loves are those whom He destroys;

ours ‘is not to reason why.’

 

The tree that starts with Perez and concludes

with David makes this book end unabruptly.

We see that there’s no one who now excludes

a Moabite who, pure and incorruptly,

had struggled to preserve her husband’s name

in places where she braved the alien corn,

and with adopted mother fanned the flame

until to Boaz, Obed, son, was born.

His name means “Slave,” a clue foreshadowing

that David, whom God chose to designate

as son once he had been anointed king,

was born in slavery before God made him great,

adopted by him just as Jacob had

adopted the sons of Joseph who had been a slave.

Slaves lose their kindred, lacking mom or dad

who bore them, sons to lay them in the grave,

which also is the reason why God said:
”My first born son is Israel!” He adopted

the nation Israel, which became, instead

of feuding tribes, His mom-and-popped top hit.

The slave name Obed means that Judah’s kings

were not descended from their ancestors;

the shoot of Jesse just like Israel springs

from people whose oppression law deplores.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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