Blogging The Bible

Why It’s the Most Popular Book in the Bible

Thanks for all the excellent e-mails about the Song of Songs. Several of you argued that the maiden’s “navel” is not her navel, if you get my (southward) drift. My brief research didn’t settle the question. Some sources say the Hebrew word means both “navel” and “vulva,” and thus navel is a legit translation. Others say navel is a lame, euphemistic translation, and it definitely should be vulva. I leave it to the scholars to settle this with shivs in the parking lot. A couple of readers razzed me for mocking the man’s comparison of breasts to twin fawns. The funniest response came from Cecily: “I’ve always thought that the [breasts]/twin fawns comparison is more that they are soft-looking and symmetrical. And, in her case, similarly colored. If you see a fawn, don’t you want to pet it? Especially two of them?”

Also, lots of you reminded me of other Bible passages written from a woman’s point of view, notably the song of the prophetess Deborah in the Book of Judges and the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel, Chapter 2.

The Book of Ruth

Since I started the blog a year ago, I’ve been getting regular e-mails from people urging me to pay special attention to the Book of Ruth. With the possible exception of  Job, Ruth is the most popular Bible book among Slate readers. So I have been looking forward to it for a long time! (A word of explanation for Christians: Ruth comes near the beginning of Christian Bibles and near the end of Jewish ones, which is why it took me so long to get here.)

Chapter 1

It’s during the time of Judges. There’s a famine in Bethlehem, so Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons immigrate to Moab. Elimelech promptly dies. The sons marry Moabite girls—a brave move since we know how the Lord feels about intermarriage with filthy idol worshippers. Both sons die, though the deaths are not attributed to divine disapproval of the mixed marriages. This is our first signal that Ruth is not like other Bible books. God is not the prime mover here. The characters in Ruth are faithful, but they make their own fate; the Lord does not make it for them. This makes Ruth a great book for agnostics since it shows how good people should behave even when they don’t expect God to intervene.

Naomi is heading back to Bethlehem, but before she leaves she gently tells her widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their Moabite homes and remarry. Naomi isn’t trying to ditch them for selfish reasons. On the contrary, Naomi knows that she herself is too old to remarry, and she doesn’t want to be a burden to the young women. They insist on going with her anyway. Naomi orders them not to follow her. Orpah finally leaves, but Ruth sticks to her like glue and delivers one of the most moving speeches in the Bible: “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.” This speech is incredible in many ways but perhaps most because of its insight into how people choose a religion. Ruth does not come to the Lord because He is the Lord. She comes because she loves Naomi. If Naomi worshipped Baal, Ruth probably would have become a Baalite. Sometimes the theologians forget that religion is not a calculation: Almost always we come to God or Allah or the Buddha not because we have carefully analyzed the relevant laws, texts, and miracles but because someone we love and admire leads us to them. Relationships, not theories, make religions grow.

Chapter 2

Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at barley harvest time. They’re flat broke. Ruth goes to glean in the fields, collecting the grain left behind by the harvesters. (Leviticus, Chapter 19, orders farmers to leave gleanings for the poor. This is one of many examples of Ruth showing us Bible laws in practice.) Ruth doesn’t yet know it, but she happens to glean the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s dead husband Elimelech. (Like all good love stories, Ruth begins with a case of confused identity.) Boaz shows up in the field and hears that Naomi’s daughter-in-law has been gleaning. He immediately invites her to drink his water and glean from all his fields. He calls her “daughter”—another brilliant plot device since it distracts us from the idea that they could ever marry. She asks why he’s being so kind to a stranger, and he says he heard how good she was to his kinswoman Naomi. He invites her to eat and drink with him and quietly orders his workers to leave extra stalks so she can glean more.

Chapter 3

Clever Naomi decides Ruth needs to remarry, and Boaz is the right guy. In an odd but lovely episode, she has Ruth wash and dress up, then go to the barn where Boaz is spending the night, in preparation for a big day of threshing. Naomi instructs Ruth to uncover his feet, then to fall asleep at them. Ruth does this. He wakes up astonished, and asks who she is. She tells him to put his robe over her—a euphemism for “have sex with,” perhaps?—for he is “a redeeming kinsman.” This means he is a male relative of her dead husband and thus has an obligation to marry her. (Remember the “levirate” marriage laws from way back in Genesis, illustrated most spectacularly in  the story of Onan?) No spring chicken, Boaz is evidently thrilled to find a lovely young lady throwing herself at him. (His first response is to thank her for not seeking a younger man.) Then he hesitates. Because he’s a deeply good and law-abiding man, he knows he can’t say yes. Full of regret, he tells her that there is a “closer” male relative than him, who gets first dibs on her. He invites her to spend the night anyway. (As friends! At his feet! Don’t get the wrong idea! Boaz is not trying to get in her pants. He’s actually trying to safeguard her reputation.)

Chapter 4

The next day, Boaz waits for the other kinsman by the town gate. When he arrives, Boaz offers him the deal: You buy Elimelech’s land and marry Ruth, but the son you have with Ruth will inherit the estate. The relative is tempted but says no. He offers Ruth and the land to Boaz. Without hesitating a second, Boaz accepts. They seal the deal with the other kinsman removing his sandal. (Way back in Deuteronomy, I made fun of the weird law in which a man refusing a levirate marriage has his sandal removed and is known as “the unsandaled one.” And now, here we are!) The townspeople cheer Boaz’s announcement that he is marrying Ruth—he is clearly the beloved old bachelor of Bethlehem, and everyone is overjoyed that he’s finding happiness in his declining years. (No one blinks at the idea of him marrying a Moabite: By her actions, Ruth has made herself as much a Jew as anyone.)

They marry and have a son. The women of Bethlehem congratulate Naomi, telling her that her daughter-in-law Ruth “is better to you than seven sons.” True enough! Naomi becomes a second mother to the boy, who is named Obed. He grows up to be the father of Jesse, who is the father of King David.

And that’s it. That’s the whole story. No smiting. No prophecies. No laws. No kings. No God. Just the story of one family and its two good women.

Never having read the book before, I didn’t understand the fierce loyalty it inspired. But now I do. Like the Song of Songs, Ruth is massively different from everything else that precedes it. For starters, it inspires modern observant readers because it shows Bible laws in action. We see how a nice family follows the Bible’s (peculiar) rules about gleaning and levirate marriage and thrives because of it. The law is no longer an abstraction; it’s alive, and it’s good.

What’s even more important and unusual about Ruth is its domesticity. Grand national and religious politics are absent. Ruth instead revels in the details of family life, in the small moments where love is forged. It holds out the prospect of redemption—for the young foreign widow, for the poor, kind mother-in-law, for the lonely old bachelor. Ruth is the quietest of all Bible books, a short story that manages to combine extraordinary power and extraordinary serenity. Like an old country song, it leaves you feeling calm, joyful, inspired, and also a little bit melancholy—sad that the world can’t always be so sweet.

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