Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for May 2014

Ruth IMDb>
If you were making a movie of the Book of Ruth, how would you spin it?

Characters in order of appearance

It is the period of the Judges, after the Israelites have settled in the land, but before the time of the kings. Elimelech comes from Bethlehem, which makes it likely he’s from the tribe of Judah. This is confirmed when we learn that his relation, Boaz, is from the tribe of Judah.

Elimelech left the Land of Israel because of famine and went to live in Moab which was geographically roughly where Jordan would be today. The Moabites were often hostile to the Israelites, but they had a distant shared ancestry, being descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The Moabites were polytheists and their chief god was Chemosh. According to 2 Kings 3:27, human sacrifice was not unknown.

Chapter I verse 3-4 of Ruth gives the impression that Elimelech died before his two sons married Moabite women.

He was survived by his wife Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon (מחלון) and Chilion (כליון).

Like his brother, he was born in Bethlehem. His name is associated with a Hebrew verb which means ‘to blot out, or erase. Although saddled with this unfortunate name, he survived ten years after his marriage to Ruth the Moabitess, during which time, they continued to reside in Moab. Another view of the name Mahlon is that it derives from mehilah, forgiveness, but I think this may be a Talmudic rather than a biblical word.

His name is associated with being completed or finished. He also married a Moabite woman, Orpah, and lived ten years in Moab. Like Mahlon, he died without having children. We do not know his age at death, nor the age of his brother. It seems likely that they the brothers were adults when they got married as it is unlikely their father would betroth them from childhood to non-Israelite women.

The two brothers are something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; there is not much discernible difference between them.

The scriptwriter could do what he or she wishes, in order to differentiate their characters.

Bereaved of husband and sons and learning that the famine in Judah is over, Naomi resolves to leave Moab and return home. She is well-disposed to her daughters-in-law and wishes them a happy furure, but neither expects nor needs them to accompany her. She is bitterly aware that it is too late for her to have more children, but reminds her daughters-in-law that it is not too late for them. She accepts the situation when Ruth insists on going with her.

When she and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem, she is so changed by time and suffering, that the women say ‘Is this Naomi?’ The name Naomi means ‘pleasant’ and she answers the women: ‘Don’t call me Naomi, call me Marah (bitter), because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.’

She encourages (lah lechi biti) Ruth to go to the field to glean corn, which was a means of livelihood for the indigent. It is only when Ruth comes back talking of Boaz that Naomi realizes the positive implications. She knows that Boaz was a kinsman of her late husband, and that he has responsibilities to herself and Ruth. She advises Ruth to glean only in Boaz’s fields.

Before long, Naomi tells Ruth that, seeking her well-being, she has a cunning plan: Ruth should dress up, then go to Boaz in the night and lie down with him. When she says to Ruth ‘He will tell you what to do,’ she may be thinking that Ruth will prompt Boaz to awareness of his duty, as a kinsman to the women, just as Tamar the ancestress of Boaz, prompted Judah to awareness.

Naomi does not, in so many words, tell Ruth to seduce him. The scriptwriter of this film must decide how to write this piece of dialogue between Naomi and Ruth.

The first thing Naomi asks, when Ruth returns from her night with Boaz, is ‘Who are you, my daughter?’ It is an enigmatic question.

Ruth has complete trust in Naomi, and tells her everything.

We learn that Naomi has inherited some land from Elimelech. Whoever buys the land from Naomi must marry Ruth, for this is the duty to Elimelech and his deceased sons.
Boaz buys the land and marries Ruth. When their son is born, the local women rejoice for Naomi, as if this were her grandchild, which, indeed the child is in a way, although they do not have DNA in common. So strong is the connection between Naomi and her daughter-in-law and so strong the obligation of Boaz to the family of Elimelech, that the women say ‘A son is born to Naomi.’

Like Ruth, Orpah clings to Naomi and resists going home, yet Naomi’s words persuade her to turn back to her own people.

There’s a midrash which makes Ruth and Orpah sisters, princesses, daughters of king Eglon of Moab. Another midrash makes Orpah very promiscuous, and the mother or grandmother of Goliath.

I suggest that the bible offers enough drama for our film, and that, if we turn to midrashim, the volume of possible sources will complicate matters.

What we see from the biblical account is that Orpah was fond enough of Naomi to want to stay with her, and had sufficient ties with her country and people to want to be with them.

If you think we should use midrash to flesh out Orpah’s story, we can show her liaison with a character who appears in my cast list as Rowdy Philistine.

Her significant relationships, as far as we can tell, are with Mahlon, Naomi and Boaz. We do not know if she loved her husband Mahlon, or mourns for him, but we know that she wants to stay with Naomi, until death parts them, living with her, converting to her religion, and being buried near her. During ten years of marriage to Mahlon, she did not convert to Judaism, so why now. If I were writing the film script, I would have a scenario where ruth is in love with Naomi.

In Bethlehem, Ruth wants to glean in the fields for their subsistence. She responds gratefully and modestly when Boaz, the land owner, shows her kindness and generosity. She is frank about being a foreigner.

She goes home, shares the barley she gleaned with Naomi and tells her everything that has happened.

She obeys Naomi without question, going to the threshing-floor where Boaz is asleep.
So honest is Ruth that she explains her presence next to him thus: ‘I am Ruth, your handmaiden. Spread your wing/covering over your handmaiden for you are a redeemer/near kinsman.’ This is a direct reference to a verse in Leviticus:

If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold

Leviticus 25:25

The wing metaphor recalls Boaz’s words about Ruth taking refuge under the wings of the God of Israel. Alternatively, she may be asking him to spread his covering over her, but, although this is more intimate, the word canaf, meaning wing, is the word Boaz used about God’s protection.

Obeying Boaz, Ruth leaves the threshing-floor early in the morning. She is laden with barley which she takes home to Naomi and tells Naomi, as the bible says, ‘everything the man had done to her.’ (Ruth 3:16)

Ruth does not have a speaking part after this but we learn that Boaz marries her and they have a son, Obed,who will be the grandfather of David. The name Obed means servant. By chance, it resembles the word ‘obedient’ in both sound and meaning, but obedient comes from Latin, obedire (connected with audire, to listen).

The book of Ruth may have been written as a justification of marriage between Israelite men and Moabite women. Ezra and Nehemiah were strongly against such unions, but not everyone agreed, and, if King David’s grandmother was a Moabitess, this consideration would tilt the scales in favour of this kind of mixed marriage.

Rowdy Philistine
This extra-biblical character need only appear if you wish to develop Orpah’s story line.

Bethlehemite Women 1 and 2
These are both single line parts.

First woman: Is this Naomi?
Second woman: No way!

They recognize Naomi, but notice the great change which tragedy has wrought.

When casting Boaz, you will need to consider his age and the nature of his interest in Ruth. According to some midrashim, Boaz was elderly (Ruth Rabbah 6:2) and did not even survive his wedding night. So you might want to think twice before casting George Clooney, or an even younger man. I’d quite like to see Sir Ben Kingsley as Boaz.

You could also use dramatic licence to make Naomi rather than Ruth the object of his affection.

The bible describes Boaz as a mighty man of valour or of substance: this could refer to a military past, wealth or personal probity. He certainly owns land and employs reapers, who are in the charge of a servant.

I am picturing Jean Valjean during his period as Monsieur Madeleine, the factory owner.

We see from direct speech Boaz is a devout and kindly man, esteemed by his employees. (Ruth 2:4)

He enquires about Ruth and the servant tells him that she is a foreigner from the land of Moab, specifically a young woman (naarah). So if we think the ten years of marriage have brought Ruth beyond girlhood, this seems not to be the case.

Boaz then tells Ruth to stay in his fields and glean freely, among the other girls, who we assume are Israelite, or Ruth’s foreignness would not have been mentioned by the servant. He tells Ruth he has forbidden the young men, workers or gleaners, to touch her.

Does he single her out because she is foreign (love the stranger), or because he knows of her loyalty to Naomi or because he is attracted to her?

Ruth bows in gratitude and asks Boaz precisely this question, what has she done to deserve his kind attention? His answer is that he knows about her praiseworthy conduct. He says

‘…a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”

At meal time, he asks her to sit near him, where she could reach the best things on the table. Ruth, who is modest and unassuming, sits beside the reapers, who pass the food to her. The reapers are Boaz’s staff, while Ruth is one of the poor people gleaning in the corners of the field. A question for the director and scriptwriter: does Boaz sit with the reapers and is Ruth actually sitting close to Boaz, as invited, or has she maintained some distance between them?
Boaz makes sure that Ruth has access to the best of the corn. One could certainly be excused for thinking he was smitten.

Boaz, a hard-working and hands-on land owner, sleeps on the threshing floor where the grain is threshed. He has eaten and drunk and is feeling good as he falls asleep. The authors of a midrash said that he felt good because he’d been studying Torah, not, in case you thought it, because of drink. I couldn’t possibly comment.

His reaction when he wakes to find Ruth beside him does not sound lustful; on the contrary, her presence reminds him of his halakhic duty to his late kinsman Elimelech. By Ruth’s few words, ‘…for you are a near kinsman,’ he understands her purpose and his duty. He praises her because she has not taken an interest in any of the young men, another indicator that he is well past youth and says he will do all she says – although Ruth seems to have said so little.

He explains that there is a nearer kinsman than himself and he will approach this man to see if he will fulfil the duty of the goel. If not, Boaz will marry Ruth. It is hardly a romantic scenario, and although Boaz asks Ruth to remain until morning. Is this to avoid being seen? It seems more likely that she will be seen if she slips away in daylight. Boaz gives her a present of barley, a large, heavy quantity to take back to Naomi.

The same day, Boaz goes to ‘the gate’ where public and commercial affairs are conducted. He finds the nearer kinsman there and calls to him, addressing him as ‘You,’ or ‘So-and-so’ or possibly ‘Yo, dude.’ The Hebrew term is Ploni Almoni, the biblical and Talmudic equivalent of John Smith, Joe Bloggs or Jon Doe. Alternatively, boaz addresses the man by his name, but the scriptural author does not choose to record it.

Boaz explains the situation, an aspect, which we, the readers, did not know: Naomi is selling land which she inherited from her husband. Ploni Almoni has first refusal. Only when Ploni Almoni has jumped at the chance of land acquisition does boaz make it clear that the land comes with marriage to Ruth. You can’t have one without the other.

The kinsman now withdraws and Boaz declares to the elders and witnesses at the gate that he himself will marry Ruth, the widow of Mahlon, so that the name of the late husband will not be lost.

Boaz and Ruth have a son, Oded and the book of Ruth ends with a genealogy which shows David’s descent from Ruth and Boaz. Mahlon’s name is not mentioned in the list of David’s forbears.

Ploni Almoni
This is called a ‘placeholder’ name – according to Wikipedia, most languages use this device, officially or unofficially to denote someone whose name is irrelevant or unknown.

In the Septuagint, Boaz addresses him as ‘Secret one’: Ὠδε κρυφιε.

Rashi, the 11th century commentator on Tanakh and Talmud, had an interesting view. Ploni Almoni’s name was concealed from posterity because he was at fault in rejecting Ruth. When he worried about ruining his heritage by marriage with a Moabitess, he was misinterpreting Torah, which forbids marriage with an Ammonite or Moabite – masculine nouns – but does not forbid marriages with the women of Ammon and Moab.

Ploni Almoni removes his shoe in the presence of witnesses as a sign of renunciation. This became the procedure of yibbum, according to the Mishnah and the Talmud. Boaz now takes command of the situation and redeems the land, Ruth and Naomi, the total inheritance of Elimelech.

Ploni Almoni may be concerned about what people will think, or perhaps he is already married with children. We do not know his reasons, but we know that Ploni Almoni is not a very respectful epithet.

I picture him as a fussy character, worried about appearances, not unlike Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Our script writers however may have other ideas.

The well-wishers (to Naomi) in Chapter 4
Due to budget restrictions imposed by our studios, we have reduced the several well-wishers at the end of Chapter 4 to just one woman. This woman has quite a long speech and I think the rôle should be given to some well-known actress, as a cameo.

The women bless Boaz and Ruth, saying ‘May God make her like Rachel and Leah’; more unusually they say ‘Let your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah.’

They bless God who has provided a near kinsman for Naomi, in this context, referring to the child of Ruth and Boaz. This baby will be a restorer of Naomi’s nefesh – life, or soul – for Ruth say[s] the women/woman is better to her than seven sons. Strangely enough, it is these women/this woman who name[s] the child, Obed. Stranger still, they/she say[s] ‘A son is born to Naomi.’ Ruth is viewed as a surrogate for Naomi. Remember that Ruth is a Moabitess. Is she regarded as being more acceptable as a surrogate than as a mother?

We will add some text, saying that Ruth was the grandmother of David. I would like to add that Ruth also makes it into the Christian scriptures, in the genealogical list at the beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew. Apart from Mary, only three women are mentioned in the long, mainly patrilinear genealogy. These are Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute so that Judah would do his duty by her as a near kinsman; Rahab, the prostitute who helped Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho, and Ruth.

In the illustrious company of these women, who have fallen only to rise, one wonders what really went on between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor.

This is one of the most difficult readings in the Torah and it bears a resemblance to an equally difficult passage in Deuteronomy, which likewise lists the punishments due to the people of Israel, if they reject God and His commandments and follow the gods of the neighbouring peoples. They are known by the Hebrew word Tochechot, which means ‘warnings.’ The preceding verses are a series of blessings which God will bestow if the people keep His commandments, so the passage which we are going to read is a counterbalance – the stick and not the carrot.

The blessings, like the punishments, are collective and it is the people, rather than individuals, who are spoken of as being faithful to God or turning away from Him. In fact, all the warnings are in the second person plural, being addressed to all Israel.

The bottom line is God’s warning that He will punish the people with famine to the extent that they will have recourse to cannibalism. The scriptural author must have had experience of famine, indirect if not direct, as he or she was aware that cannibalism is sometimes a consequence of famine.

Can this be our conception of God? Or is it recognizable as human interpretation of catastrophe, where disaster is seen as the retribution of God and the wages of sin?

Bechukkotai threatens other punishments: exile, subjugation by enemies, sickness, weakness and terror. We find in this Torah reading the saying ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall pursue [those left among you] and they shall flee as in flight from the sword and fall, with none pursuing.’

Then the tone changes. So deep is the abyss that is threatened, that up is now the only possible direction. The sins of Israel will be expiated by confession and suffering, and God will remember his covenant with the Patriarchs. The patriarchs are named here as Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, reversing the usual order. The first named, Jacob, stands for Israel more so than Abraham or Isaac, from whom other nations besides Israel are descended.

This passage suits the temperament of at least two kinds of reader. There are those who make a superstitious connection between catastrophe and retribution. Then there are the critics of bible and particularly Tanakh, who denounce the cruelty of what they often call ‘the God of the Old Testament.’

How can we say those interpretations are unreasonable, given the text, in black and white, on our sefer Torah?

I am not able to answer this, but I can see that the first view, of extreme punishment being deserved, tends to be favourable to cruelty; the second view is certainly critical of cruelty but it is perhaps a facile way of reading of scripture.

There is in today’s Torah portion a binary division: reward and punishment, good and evil, strength and weakness, remembering and forgetting.

It reflects a noticeably binary or dual aspect to the stories of Genesis, with its pairs of brothers from Cain and Abel onwards and the adversarial pairing of women: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, and the less famous Adah and Zillah, before the flood. We see it too in the story of the raven and the dove sent out by Noah. In the sacrificial system of Leviticus, we find pairs of birds and pairs of goats; one is chosen for sacrifice, the other discarded and sent away, not unlike Cain and Ishmael, the discarded partners of Abel and Isaac who, each in his own way, is associated with acceptable sacrifice. Here, in Bechukkotai, we have blessings and curses in close juxtaposition.

My view is that our reading of the Torah should be informed by a perception of grey areas and in-between realities. Enlightened interpretation of scriptural texts has been a characteristic of the modern age, if you regard the modern age as beginning around the time of the seventeenth century, when the Jewish philosopher Spinoza got into trouble for his non-literal interpretation of the bible.

There is great complexity in our politics, our ethics, our wars, our relationship with God and, above all, our perception of cause and effect. The Torah is indeed our inheritance and I think it’s desirable that we read all of it, but we should read it carefully. The tradition is to read these reproofs in an undertone and in orthodox tradition, as a single aliyah. Adam Frankenberg, a rabbinical student at LBC, writes:

All the curses are read within one aliyah and verses which are not curses are read before and after them, which not only means that reading them is completed as quickly as possible but also that the curses themselves are not blessed.

It seems to me that, if we are going to read this passage, that is the way to read it.

  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith.
  • keithmarr: Dearest Gillian < div dir="ltr">Not only do you manage to read all this filth without throwing up but you manage to make me laugh
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Unless they are members of the group in general agreement with the Labour manifesto of 2019 but against the excesses which are often found in these gr