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Ruth: a female genealogy

In the book of Ruth a pro-women position is ostentatiously taken, everything is focused on women: one almost has the impression that the Hebrew text is transmitting the idea that women are the “best beings”. Yet, in the Christian tradition of the last 2000 years, the Book was interpreted in a completely different way. In West-östlicher Divan (West Eastern Divan) Goethe describes it as “the most charming little collection... which has been epically and idyllically passed down to us”. In the collection of essays published in 1913 by Hermann Gunkel, an Old Testament scholar, we read: “It is the kind of story which people gladly listen to: sunshine after the rain!”. Many exegetes in their comments have adhered to this point of view: the story of a woman who suffers a destiny similar to that of Job and who, because of hunger, flees with her family abroad, where she loses both her husband and her two sons and goes home to her land so destitute that only gleaning, permitted to the poor by the law, can guarantee her survival, would thus be considered an idyll! Incidentally, the Book of Job also ends happily; but it would never cross anyone’s mind to describe it as “idyllic”. It would seem that for many commentators it is the sex of the characters which makes this story of salvation so idyllic.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld “Ruth in the Field of Boaz”

Ruth, in the book of that name, is not a historical figure. There is an awkward gap of about 500 years between the time recounted, in which the events take place, and the recounting of the story. Thus the book should not be read as a biography of two women, but rather as a worldmaking story (Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking), as a bridge between the histories of our first parents in Genesis and the Davidic cycle. These types of story form and establish identity through the time recounted, and interpret the present as anchored in the past, with narrative factors forming the community. Even events better documented historically are not remembered, except in those narratives which for the public condense the essential aspects and their meaning for the present time, just think today of the identity-forming narrative about the fall of the Iron Curtain. Ruth, therefore, is not interesting as a female figure of history of a hypothesized time of the Judges prior to that of the Kings – according to the classical Catholic tradition of interpretation – but, on the contrary, as an example to imitate.

As an example for the present time, in which in many countries of the world are constituted as gender democracies, this book is proof of a detachment from the traditional androcentrism, which perceives only men as important and sees women as mere accessories. Those who examine the extraordinary formulations in the Book of Ruth realize that it is “the” book of women in the Bible.

The presentation of the characters in 1:1-3 fully corresponds with the ancient Eastern tradition: a man and his wife and sons are described and they are all called by name. Because of a famine, he and his family become refugees in the neighbouring land of Moab. It seems as if they are accepted and integrated without problems for both the sons marry Moabite women. Very soon, however, their misfortune begins with the death of Elimelech, followed by those of the two sons, so that the whole family – contrary to the patriarchal order of society – is described through Naomi: she is bereft of both her husband and her sons (1:3-5). When, as a result of the end of the famine, she decides to return to Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, the close bond which has arisen between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law emerges. On the one hand Naomi thanks the two women and blesses them for their journey in their future life, on the other, they want to accompany her even outside their native land. Given the living conditions that can now be expected there, Naomi sends each of the two young women back to “Her mother’s house” (1:8) – not to the house of her parents or to her paternal home – from which for each one of them the God of Israel will be able to find “A home… in the house of her husband!”. Once again various relations of kinship are defined through women.

In all patriarchal societies genealogical trees follow the male line. Ancient Israel and the Old Testament, as also the New Testament (cf. Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38), make no exception. Even though in the numerous genealogical lists the sons are distinguished according to the mother, especially when it is a question of polygynous marriages, and the daughters are also cited (either summarily or by name), the legitimacy of the lineage passes from fathers to sons. A clear example of this is constituted by the “list of descent” at the end of the Book of Ruth, which records a purely male genealogy going from Perez, son of Judah (cf. Gen 38), to Isaiah and his son David, and ending with the root of “Jesse”, which later, in the Book of Isaiah, is interpreted in a messianic sense. This form of genealogy, the so-called “Toledoth”, undoubtedly continues the list of generations evoked in Genesis. Outside this book only Moses and Aaron in Numbers 3:1 and, precisely, the line of Perez which leads to David, have one of these “Toledoth”, and the institutions of the priesthood of Aaron and of the kingdom of David – and only they! – are thereby anchored in the narratives generating the world of the initial history of Israel and of humanity. To establish the Book of Ruth as an account with this precise function, such a genealogy of ten members should be recreated according to the one in Genesis and should therefore follow exclusively the male line. But in 4:15-17, before this male genealogical tree, the Book of Ruth introduces a “list of ten”, based on women: according to the testimony of the women of Bethlehem, who already in 1:19 represent the town, for Naomi Ruth not only replaces her two dead sons, but is even “More to [her] than seven sons”. Hence seven members are replaced by the faithful Moabitess; with Obed, Isaiah and David the real genealogy of ten members founded by a woman results thus. Not for nothing is Ruth mentioned in the genealogical tree in Matthew: the genealogy of the Gospel of Luke follows the genealogical tree of Ruth, and not that of 1 Chron 2:4-6. Jesus, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem, owes his human existence to the openness and cooperation of women rather than to men, and in this he resembles his ancestor David.

In the Book of Ruth, however, not only is the Davidian line made to pass through the two women, but Israel and Judah are also presented as founded by women. In the blessing of the marriage of Boaz and Ruth (4:11-12) we read: “Then all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, ‘we are witnesses’”. The elders added: “May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephrata and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman”. Thus according to the Bethlemite way of seeing things, Israel was not founded by Jacob, but by his two wives, Rachel and Leah, while the tribe of Judah was not founded by the founder of this name but on the contrary by Tamar. Then when the “posterity” of Ruth is mentioned, together with the wish that Boaz may obtain it from his Lord, the choice of words once again harks back to the creation of a new lineage through a woman.

Ruth in the mosaic of the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem;

In a context that is so focused on women, it is thus hardly surprising that Ruth would have known the people and also the divinity of Yahweh through Naomi, rather than through her husband: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God”, Ruth professes in 1:16, when she decides to spend her future life with her mother-in-law and, as Abraham once did, to leave her own people and her own country (see the analogy with Gen 12:1-4 in 2:11). If in Ruth 2:11 and 1:14 in the words “You left your father and mother”, and the uncommon term “clung”, there is an allusion to the hymn of the bride in Gen 2:23, this indicates that the most important relationship of Ruth’s life is and remains that with Naomi. It is obvious that Boaz is well aware of this from the outset when, in 2:11, on the occasion of his very first encounter with his future wife, he is acquainted with her extraordinary relationship with Naomi and acknowledges it: “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before”. Thus it is not surprising that with regard to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz love is never mentioned. However, the word “loves” is used to describe the relationship between Ruth and Naomi (4:15), and more precisely by the women of Bethlehem who, at the end of the Book, like a Greek chorus observe how Job’s destiny has changed. And again it is they who publicly announce that Ruth has borne a son “to Naomi” (4:17), and not “to Boaz”, which would correspond with the common formulation for the descendants of a patriarchal marriage.

In addition, as regards the juridical texts which in ancient Israel protected the right of the first-born and hence of the patriarchal family, in the Book of Ruth women are seen to be favoured: the levirate which, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, was to guarantee land rights to a man who died without having sons and therefore prescribed that his brother should beget a son with his widow to continue in this way the genealogical line of the deceased, , was centred on the interests of women, contrary to the words of the juridical text. In Ruth 1:11-13, Naomi, given the great gap in time, shows the absurdity of the possibility that these two Moabite women could still await the sons she might be able to bear. It may be deduced from other events, however, that Elimelech no longer had a brother alive, and that the levirate for his widow would therefore be quite impossible. Naomi thus presumes that she too, as a woman, could confer legitimacy on the so-called “marriage with a brother-in-law”.

When in 3:9-13, in the nocturnal scene at the threshing-floor, Ruth inseparably blends the two obligations of family solidarity, that is, the levirate (cf. Deut25) and redemption (cf. Leviticus 25), she is very creatively interpreting the law of Israel in favour of women. Indeed, the two women, Ruth and Naomi, must be maintained for ever and reintegrated into society. The institution of redemption helps Naomi in this regard since a field, evidently still available, is to be purchased; the institution of the levirate is useful to Ruth for her integration into Bethlehem. But from the strictly juridical point of view Boaz cannot contract a levirate with Ruth since he is not the blood brother of her deceased husband. When Boaz adopts the Moabite woman’s way of seeing things and, in chapter 4, when the assembly which decides on legitimacy confirms with its testimony the legitimacy of the juridical act (6-11), through the triple approval of the elders, a new interpretation of the law acquires validity: through this Halacha favourable to life, Boaz, with a single legal act can provide permanently for both women. Yet he also enables Ruth not to betray her promise of faithfulness for the whole of her life and after death (1:16-17), and not to be obliged to abandon her mother-in-law. How otherwise would it have been possible for them to marry and for the newly-weds to take the dead husband’s mother into their home? Today this idea is almost inconceivable!

The Book of Ruth is known for depicting all the characters positively, no one is reprimanded. But some behave better than others and in a manner more propitious to the lives of others, especially the proverbially virtuous woman, (3:11), Ruth the foreigner, who in her kindness equals the God of Israel (1:8; 2:20; 3:10) and makes possible the reintegration in Jerusalem of Naomi, who had fled abroad as a refugee in order to survive. 

Irmtraud Fischer

The author

Irmtraud Fischer is Professor of Old Testament Biblical Sciences at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Graz, Austria. Her curriculum vitae and her publications may be found on the University’s website. Her commentary on the Book of Ruth was published in Herder’s Theologischer Kommentar.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020