The three faces of Ruth

The three faces of Ruth

A new look at the relationship between Ruth and Naomi

The book of Ruth is of course a story about choosing – about choosing us. It’s read, correctly, as the story of a woman who forsakes her own people to join the Israelites, leaving familiarity and safety for the terrifying rollercoaster life of a Jew, becoming the ancestor of King David as her reward.

That is a beautiful and satisfying story.

But I read mysteries, not works of uplift, and to anybody brought up on Sherlock Holmes and his descendants, a question intrudes itself – why does no one seem to see Naomi and Ruth together? Why, when they walk back to Bethlehem, do the women talk only to and about Naomi? Why does Ruth vanish from the story as soon as she gives birth to a child, which is given to Naomi? Why do the women talk only to Naomi about the baby? Why are the two women together in Bethlehem only when they are alone?

Go back to Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, that righteous man who decides to decamp from Bethlehem, the house of bread, when it became breadless, and to take his wife and sons with him. Elimelech soon dies in Moab, and so eventually do Naomi’s two presciently named sons, the sickly Mahlon and Chilion. Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law, Orphah and Ruth.

So how old is Naomi? Old, we assume, or at least middle-aged; who else has married children? But wait. We don’t know how old Naomi was when she left Bethlehem, but we know that people married young. We know her sons were married, but we know that parents betrothed children when they were very young. The text does not betray any surprise that the sons died childless. So, rethink.

Naomi was very young when she went to Moab; ten years later she was still young enough to bear children. “Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be married,” she tells Orphah and Ruth. But then, in the very next breath, she reconsiders. “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?”

Physically, there is hope. Emotionally, there is none.

Her daughters-in-law are children; they are still virgins; their marriages were not consummated; their mothers will take them back. Naomi is aged by misfortune, by grief, by death, but not by time. She is not old.

Next comes the one stretch in this retelling, the one place where a leap of imagination is demanded. Imagine, then, that after Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to go, hoping they’d stay, after Orphah thinks better of staying and goes, Ruth makes that same choice.

Something snaps in Naomi.

And then something reconfigures.

Fine, they’re gone. Ruth, gone. Orphah, gone. Mahlon, Chilion, Elimelech, gone gone gone. The only one left is Naomi.

And she’s going too. She’s going home. She’ll make the journey alone – except if she can split herself. She can separate out the young part, the physical part, the part still capable of bearing a child, of having hope, from the defeated part.

“Wherever you go, I will go,” Naomi tells herself, breaking into poetry as she has broken into bits. “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.”

She has decided that she can rely on absolutely no one but herself. So what if she talks to herself on the long walk home? Who cares?

The text’s narrator used the plural to describe what happens next. “When they arrived in Bethlehem,” it says, “the whole city buzzed with excitement.” But the women know better. “Can this be Naomi?” they ask. She’s alone.

And when she answers, she makes it clear that she knows about changing identities. “Call me Mara,” bitter, she says. Who is she now? Naomi, whose ways are pleasant? Ruth? Or Mara? Or all three at once?

When she arrives alone in Bethlehem, it is the time of the barley harvest. Everyone young is out in the green and gold fields, under the blue sky with its white clouds; dark hair, red hair, yellow hair, brown and blue and green eyes, gold and silver and lapis jewelry jangling as they stoop to pick the crops. The English translation of the book of Ruth often describes the workers in the field as servants, but in the Hebrew each servant is a na’ar. A youth. The fields are alive with the young, who are as bright, as shiny, and as fertile as the crops they pick.

And Ruth, who still is young, tells withered, bitter Naomi that she would like to go to the fields too. “Yes, daughter, go,” Naomi tells herself, and off she goes, back straight, eyes gleaming, because after all it is spring, to glean behind the reapers, leaving the room empty.

“As luck would have it,” the text tells us, the fields just happen to belong to Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, one of the few people who could save Ruth or Naomi. But is that luck? Naomi may see through Ruth’s eyes, but it’s her own brain at work.

Boaz notices Ruth. She is demure; she intrigues him. “Listen to me, daughter,” he says to her. Daughter! That’s what Naomi calls her – that’s what she calls herself when she talks to herself, alone, aghast and a bit thrilled. “Don’t go to glean in another field,” Boaz continues. “Don’t go elsewhere. Stay here, close to my girls.” So how old is Ruth now? How old is Naomi? She seems to be one of the girls. And it’s bright daylight out. Boaz can see her.

He knows her to be a foreigner, and he admires her strength and courage. He tells her what he knows about her, how she “left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before.” That was true of Ruth; it was true of Naomi as well, going in the other direction, toward Moab, before everything was lost.

She stays near him; “dip your morsel in the vinegar,” he tells her, at least in translation sounding for a moment more like an 18th-century rake than an elder at an Israelite harvest. She does as she is told, and goes home full, with much to share.

At home, Ruth and Naomi talk to each other: Naomi counsels herself from her store of hard-gained advice as the Ruth part of herself, still giggly and excited, discounts what she knows to be true. But something is changing. Ruth and Naomi want the same thing. They are no longer so different. They want to be married – with marriage comes at least some security, at least for a while, at least when compared to not being married. So Naomi tells Ruth what she has learned about snagging a man.

This night, this mistress of disguise covers up still further; after bathing she anoints herself and dresses up, in preparation for being anointed and then undressed by someone else. Then she follows her own advice. “She went out stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back – there was a woman lying at his feet!” A woman, moreover, who immediately asked him to “spread your robe” over her.

Clearly this was no quaint threshing-floor custom. If it had been, if women routinely were strewn about at men’s feet, Boaz would not have been surprised. But there is no reason to assume that it was not his feet that were uncovered, that a foot is a biblical euphemism for a penis just as surely as a limb was a Victorian euphemism for a leg. Feet and legs are symbolically important to Jews – that is how we leave home, that is how we come back home, that is how Abram and Sarai left home, how Naomi went to Moab and came back to Bethlehem. All on foot. Just a little later in the book of Ruth, in fact, Boaz declares his willingness to redeem Ruth by taking off his sandal in public, uncovering his foot. So it’s as logical for Ruth to have uncovered the organ of going as the organ of coming.

It is dark. Ruth – Naomi – is shrouded by that darkness.

But what Boaz says next that makes it clear that he sees her anyway. “Your latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first. You have not gone after young men, poor or rich.”

Boaz, old and rich, expects youth to trump wealth, there in the field of youth. He is grateful to Ruth; he is grateful to Naomi, who after all is not old. He will do anything for her. And Ruth – Naomi – is not old, but she is older than the young people, the terribly young people, who surround her. She knows so much more than they do; she knows so much more than she hopes they will ever have to know.

Boaz takes care of the redeeming kinsman (unusually, he, unlike the women in the story, is unnamed). Then “Boaz married Ruth; she became his wife, and he cohabited with her. The Lord let her conceive, and she bore a son.” Then Ruth disappears from the text; she is referred to once more, by function (the baby is “born to your daughter-in-law, who loves you,” but that’s the same sleight of hand that’s been going on all along). After that, Ruth is gone. Gone like Elimelech, like Mahlon and Chilion, like Orphah. Gone. Vanished. Disappeared.

But the baby! The women, that Israelite chorus, gush and coo. “Blessed be the Lord, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today!” they tell Naomi. Naomi “held it to her bosom” – the better to feed you with, my dear! She became his foster mother, we are told, and when the women give the baby a name (and when the women give the baby a name?!), Obed, they say, “A son is born to Naomi!”

And there it ends. No more Ruth; after this, there is not even any more Naomi. We go straight to the genealogy, the King Jamesian list of begots that move us from Obed to his son, Jesse, to David the king. No more mothers, no more chorus of women. Just the end of Naomi’s story – and the continuation of ours.

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