Since Hebrew is not the second language of most of the educated world, the verbal virtuosity of the Scroll of Ruth is difficult to demonstrate and the average reader must take it on faith. It is nonetheless a nice irony that the poverty of Hebrew, whose vocabulary is mainly expanded by fusion and vocalic change, can achieve assonance, homophony, and alliteration impossible in English. The Scroll of Ruth pivots, as it were, on four words and inflections thereof: go, stay, return, redeem. Among English poets only Blake, in the Songs, attains such spareness and simplicity.
The story, a complicated one, is quickly summarized: Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Bethlehem in the famine-stricken land of Judah for Moab, where they remain for ten years. Elimelech dies, his sons marry the Moabites, Ruth and Orpah, die in their turn, and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. Heedless of Naomi’s protests, Ruth returns with her, and they arrive in time for the harvest season. The crops have flourished, especially in the fields of Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech, where Ruth goes to glean. Boaz notices her at once, is generous with her, tells his men to treat her kindly, and makes sure that she has extra grain to take home to her mother-in-law. At the end of the season, Naomi tells Ruth to go at night to the threshing floor, where Boaz has been celebrating with his men and where he will sleep, keeping watch over the tied and winnowed sheaves. Ruth, without letting herself be seen, is to take careful note of the place where Boaz lies and, when he has fallen asleep, to go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down. All this Ruth accomplishes, and when Boaz awakes she informs him that he is her next of kin, in short, that he has marriage claims upon her. This he contradicts, explaining that there is a closer kinsman with a prior right. He promises to discuss the matter with this person the following morning; if he is prepared to redeem Ruth and the land, well and good; if not, Boaz will do so. In the meantime he suggests that Ruth stay the night, leaving before dawn, however, to preserve her anonymity. She concurs: before she leaves she is given grain to take to Naomi. Returned home, she and Naomi await the encounter with the unnamed close relative, who, it transpires, must, because of inheritance problems, concede his right of redemption to Boaz. Amid praise and rejoicing, Boaz marries Ruth; a child is born to them, and the eventual line to King David firmly established.
Like all biblical stories, this one neither lingers nor moralizes, but records without stridency despair, courage, loyalty, love, and hope. It develops character, builds and resolves tension, and looks both backward and forward, its final verses not so much an ending as a continuation. Of greater formal significance, it is constructed like a sonata, whose central themes of death and restoration are restated and reworked so that form is inseparable from content: the two major melodies, or narrative threads, are played on verbal instruments that precisely match and further the action.
The resemblance to a classical sonata is exact. The first half is an exposition of the subject of death (in various forms: of the land, of husband and sons, of a family name), with a transitional passage toward the other theme, restoration; the second half develops the idea of restoration, recapitulates both themes, and adds a coda. The first, third, and fourth chapters—statement and recapitulation—are of similar length; the second chapter, leading to and expanding upon restoration, is longer than the others. Like the same movement in a sonata, it is written andante, is the most richly modulated, and has the most to do. Even so, this whole sonata-narrative is fully orchestrated in the space of eighty-five Hebrew verses, or a six-sonnet sequence with a verse left over.
In a kind of anticipatory counterpoint, Chapter 1 states the major theme of death and couples it with the minor one of return, which heralds restoration. Less forthrightly, but with the insistence of a chord played in the bass, the theme of waiting is inserted, and will recur throughout the book, either opening or closing the succeeding chapters. It mediates between death and restoration. Rilke says in one of the Duino Elegies that “staying is nowhere”; here staying or waiting is God-decreed, analogous to prayer, implying acquiescence and belief in the ultimate magnanimity of the Lord. While the great themes of death and restoration can be said to be in the tonic key, the supplementary theme of waiting is in the minor, always pulsing beneath the primary music.
Thus the first chapter uses, repeats, and modifies three of the four words that move the narrative from Bethlehem to Moab and back, that engineer both a marriage and a conversion, and that bring forth a historic child. They went to Moab; they stayed; they returned to Bethlehem. Eight times in twenty-two verses the word “go” or a variation of it appears; once, “stay” (a concept, however, that is reinforced by synonyms); twelve times, “return.” In Hebrew a single verb can do the work of several, both by inflection and nuance. Thus the word “restore,” besides being one of the two major themes, is also “return,” inflected. To the undisturbed root an intensifier is added. Even more subtly, “stay” (more commonly translated “sit” in modern Hebrew) plays upon “return”; the key sounds are identical, approximated in English by the words “sojourn” and “journey.” And best of all, perhaps, the Hebrew word for “seven” employs two of the same key letters as “stay,” in the same order, and becomes, in Chapter 4, a holy, even an oracular, number.
The tempo of the first chapter, with its emphatic going and returning, is lively. A family leaves its dying land only to be trailed by death in another. The husband dies, the sons die, the three widows are barren. Rumor stirs in the silent house: the Lord has once again given bread to the people of Bethlehem, literally “house of bread.” The phrasing of the rumor is liquid with “l’s” and “m’s” and is a rhymed couplet; its sound may be suggested by a loose translation like, “The Lord enlarged his land with largesse,” but the rhyme cannot be duplicated.
The narrative moves quickly forward. On the heels of the rumor, Naomi starts for Bethlehem, counseling her daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s house, not to stay with a woman empty of seed, empty of sons, too old to conceive. And were she young enough, she adds, clinching the argument, would her daughters-in-law wait until the sons she might bear grew to manhood? Over and over she exhorts them. Barren she may be, unrestorable, but she is full of words, long solo passages of explanation and entreaty. Orpah heeds her words, but Ruth, unmoved by her sister’s example, “clings” to Naomi, a concept that will be developed farther on in another context. Speaking the verses that most of us know, Ruth pleads to go with Naomi, to remain with her, raising the act of staying (although the verb is never used) to the status of primary theme. It will become apparent that Ruth, who embodies restoration, is, by her monumental ability to stay, to wait, to cleave to, to cling, the quintessential server, bearer of a son Obed, in Hebrew “servant.”
Except for Ruth’s plea, all the lines in this chapter are Naomi’s. It concludes with her tirade to the women of Bethlehem, gathered at the gate to greet her: “Call me Mara, the Bitter One, for the Lord has dealt ill with me.” Her lips are sealed only by the final passage, wherein she and Ruth, having returned from Moab, have returned at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Used twice in this last sentence, the word “return” doubly announces the theme of restoration, emphasized yet more insistently by the word “beginning.” Having opened his chapter with departure, the scribe closes with return, coming full circle geographically but preparing ideologically for a new departure, a new beginning.
And what a fanfare ushers in this second long, crowded, colorful movement, which will move unhurriedly toward the climax. “Naomi had a kinsman of her husband’s, a man of wealth . . . whose name was Boaz.” Boaz is named for strength, as Ruth’s late husband Mahlon was named for sickness, his brother for destruction. To the fields of Boaz the Strong, Ruth goes to glean, fields as alien to her as were the fields of Moab to Elimelech and his family, fields as prodigal now as ten years earlier they had been parsimonious. Will these fields, through Ruth, restore life to Naomi as they had restored sustenance to the people of Bethlehem? “Let me glean among the grain,” she says to Naomi, “after him in whose eyes I find favor” (a direct translation from the Hebrew, in which there is no other way to say “admire”).
The submissive Ruth, who asked only to stay with her mother-in-law, to wait upon the will of the Lord, has made her second positive move. Her speech, like her actions, is economical: two balanced sentences gave notice of her intention to return to Judah; a simple one of her intention to find both food and a man. The key to her relationship with Naomi, that woman of many words and many moods, is her quiet indomitability.
Luck is with her, because Boaz has chosen this day to visit his fields and spots her at once. He inquires of his foreman about the identity of this foreigner (the foreman is described as a young man, Ruth as a young girl, a Hebrew pairing that would be matched in English if we could transform “youth” into “youthess”). Told who she is, Boaz approaches her, calls her “my daughter,” advises her to glean in his fields and no other, and to stay close to the women. As Ruth had clung to Naomi, now she is to cling to the female harvesters; this is to the point. Boaz has a few more favors to bestow: drink when you are thirsty, he tells Ruth, and do not fear the young men, who have been charged not to molest you.
The ambiguities in Boaz’s speech are striking. His mode of address, “my daughter,” suggests the solicitude of a middle-aged man for a much younger woman; his warnings against the predatoriness of his fieldhands may even confirm this. But why “keep close to my maidens”; why “do not glean in another field”; why “drink when you are thirsty”—with their clear message of concern clumsily concealed beneath the sobriquet “my daughter”? Is Boaz thus stifling his rising regard, denying to himself an interest removed from the fatherly?
Whatever the answer, Ruth, normally so laconic in word and deed, falls on her face before him and, with a passion hitherto displayed only in her plea to Naomi, repeats as a question her earlier statement, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should notice me, a foreigner?” The sounds, superb in Hebrew, if translated phonologically yet preserving the essence, might read, “I, an alien, within your eyes lie.” The narrator exploits to the fullest the theme of restoration. He gives us a nubile young woman who has, so to speak, lain fallow, directs her to a field bursting with life, whose proprietor, though elderly, is stirred by the life in his own loins. Like King David who, when he was full of years, lay with the young virgin Abishag the Shunamite, Boaz finds comfort in Ruth’s freshness. While he invokes God’s blessing upon her—may God reward you, he says, and shelter you under his wing—he makes sure at the same time to confer his own, more mundane blessings: food and drink at his table, and something extra to take home to Naomi. In effect he has transsubstantiated God’s wing into his own.
However auspicious Ruth’s first day of gleaning, she is thereafter consigned to waiting. Her faithful trek each day to the field, her obedient trotting after the women, her reward of extra grain continue without further reference to her benefactor. Boaz never speaks to her again; indeed, so far as the narrator is concerned, he has appeared in the field for the first and last time. In spite of the fact that after his conversation with Ruth he has arranged with the foreman to let her glean wherever she wants—not only, in accordance with the law, at the edges of the field; in spite, too, of his provision that extra wheat be dropped for her from the sheaves bound for his own use, the reader’s hopes are dashed: expectation does not betoken fulfillment.
But the reader has reckoned without Naomi. Her busy brain has stored away all the information Ruth has brought her, has calculated the meaning of Boaz’s material kindness, and has found in it a cultivable promise. When Ruth came home on that first day and began to tell Naomi what had happened, a conversation took place, a bit breathlessly ingenuous on Ruth’s part and more than a bit promotional on Naomi’s, as she lavished praise on Boaz, reminded Ruth of his near kinship, and warned her to stay with the women and avoid being molested. Naomi’s voice as usual surrounds and engulfs Ruth’s; in answer to all Naomi’s questions, brief prayers, snippets of information, and torrents of advice, Ruth has spoken two short sentences, and the chapter’s penultimate verse is Naomi talking. The narrator silences her only to tell us that Ruth gleaned until the end of the barley and wheat harvests, and stayed with her mother-in-law.
She has continued to “cling,” continued to “stay”; to what purpose? Naomi has a yeasty substance in her hands that performs the task allotted, but can be self-starting, can rise unkneaded to challenge. Now the season is over; Boaz has vanished as thoroughly as the angel of the Lord, and Naomi sets about reversing the dictum that man proposes and God disposes. She begins with a variation on the restoration theme, asking whether she should find a home that “will be good” for Ruth. In Chapter 1 she had turned to the Lord, beseeching Him to find a home and a husband for Ruth and Orpah, a place of rest and a man in whose eyes they would find favor. (The Hebrew uses not “home” but “repose” or “resting place”; respite. Similarly, “rest” in Hebrew is an anagram of “favor,” so that they reinforce and complement each other.) Now, appealing directly to Ruth, Naomi shifts the responsibility from the Almighty’s shoulders to her own.
She does not wait for Ruth’s reply, but plunges immediately into exposition. With the harvesting at an end, Boaz and his men will be winnowing the grain tonight and celebrating the abundance of the yield. They will eat and drink, and afterward the men will leave and Boaz will lie down amid the plenty of the threshing floor to sleep untroubled until the first light of dawn. Wash, dress, anoint yourself, she tells Ruth, “and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.” She must see, yet not be seen, note Boaz’s precise position so that she can move stealthily, without signaling her presence, to the place where he lies. Then she is to uncover his feet, lie down, “and he will tell you what to do.”
Uncovering Boaz’s feet is a formal as well as a textual device. It is a kind of prior echo of the still unheard words of the climax. With the simple command, “uncover his feet,” Naomi has turned oracle. We have seen that she is less taciturn than most oracles and Ruth less verbose than the average supplicant; characteristically, then, to Naomi’s spate of four verses Ruth replies, “All that you say I will do,” four words in Hebrew, tersely impressive.
Now the pace deliberately and dramatically slows. We have rushed through Moab and Bethlehem, paused a moment while a rich old man and a shy young girl exchanged courtesies, have hardly had time to sorrow over the abortiveness of that meeting, have threshed and winnowed wheat and barley, and under and over and through it all have listened to Naomi’s voice, muted, hortatory, bewildered, seductive. Here it stops. Economy is sacrificed to tension, and the narrator repeats—not words, which he delights to do, but the entire previous section. Ruth goes to the threshing floor. Boaz eats and drinks—here an addition: “and his heart was merry”—and at last lies down. Ruth approaches and uncovers his feet. At midnight Boaz wakes, starts, cries, “Who are you?” And Ruth answers, her words playing on the silence like a single violin, “I am Ruth your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.”
The verbal density of her lines is richer in the Hebrew than in the English, because all the Hebrew words, or their variants, have been spoken before. In her first encounter with Boaz, Ruth wonders at his kindness to her and tells him that he has acted as though she were his maidservant, “although I am not your maidservant.” At this point she reverses herself: I am your maidservant and, she implies, I want to be treated so. Also in that first encounter Boaz says that because Ruth has clung to Naomi, he prays that the Lord, “under whose wings you have come to take refuge,” will reward her. Now Ruth, in yet another reversal, asks that Boaz—her lord—give her refuge under his wing, in the identical phrase used earlier by her benefactor. Finally, she informs him that he is next of kin, the redeemer; in short, entitled to her hand. This is extremely sophisticated synechdoche; it restates the theme of restoration by means of a word, redeemer, whose first and last letters are the first and second letters of “uncover.” (The same quantitative difference exists in the English “rip” and “repair.”)
But fulfillment is not yet. Ruth’s final thrust, “for you are next of kin,” is neatly parried by Boaz’s courteous blessing and especially by his mode of address: “my daughter.” But then he speaks a line that responds like a cello to Ruth’s violin. “This last kindness,” he tells her, “[is] greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether rich or poor.” The first evidence of Ruth’s devotion (a closer translation than kindness), he is saying, was to Naomi; the second, and more cogent, to himself. The importance of her coming to him in the night is not the act but the abstinence that preceded it: she has not sought the favors of younger men, whatever their station and however strong (it is implied) their attraction to her. And therefore he tells her, as Ruth has just told Naomi, “I will do all that you ask,” adding that the whole town knows that she is a woman of valor. There are not many so characterized in the Bible, and here Ruth takes her place in their radiant number.
Boaz cannot, however, make a commitment because of the complication of a kinsman closer than he, whom, for all her talking, Naomi has never mentioned. Having thus put the record straight, Boaz parenthetically suggests that Ruth stay the night (parenthetically because the suggestion is sandwiched between the disclosure about the nearer kinsman and the assertion that Boaz, if possible, will assume that kinsman’s rights). He leaves no room for doubt that he will yield if the prior claimant so demands or that he will himself fill the claimant’s place if given the chance. Having declared himself, he appears to think it appropriate to repeat his invitation, and once more, somewhat peremptorily, he tells Ruth to lie down.
The theme of restoration has been developed; Ruth will find her redeemer, but not yet and not necessarily Boaz. Who is this cunningly concealed closest of kin? Is he young or old, rich or poor, married or single? The reader questions, the narrator teases, but Ruth remains consistent. She lies down.
They awake very early, “before one could recognize the other,” and Boaz at once evinces his regard for Ruth by telling her to leave while it is still dark. Her reputation must be preserved, her distinction as a woman of valor unsullied. And something more. She is not to go empty-handed to her mother-in-law; the solicitude that Boaz has always shown for the health and sustenance of both women, though measured out in barley, transcends measurement. The narrator never lets the reader lose sight of Boaz’s courtliness and generosity; the night spent with Ruth is a fact of life, hardly mentioned and hardly worth mentioning; the gift of grain is a fact of spirit.
So Ruth apparently believes, because in answer to Naomi’s question, “How did you fare, my daughter?” she offers the sheaves of barley as proof of the bond she has forged, themselves symbolic of redemption. Does the fruitfulness of the land augur the fruitfulness of Ruth; the plenty of Boaz’s fields the potency of a childless bachelor? Events are fast concluding, but we are not yet to know how. We must, as Naomi tells Ruth, her words ending the chapter, as they began it, sit down and wait; for Boaz will not rest until the matter is settled.
As Ruth waits, so does Boaz. The final movement, the fourth chapter, plays another variation on the great minor theme of waiting: Boaz sits at the city gate, in the company of the elders, anticipating the arrival of the nearest of kin. Tension is high: the kinsman quickly appears; Boaz hails him, asks him to stop a minute; the tension heightens as in slow motion. Boaz seats the relative, gathers ten of the elders, invites them to sit, watches them do so. In excruciating detail he intones the story of Naomi, describes the parcel of land belonging to Elimelech, points out that it can be redeemed by the kinsman, or, if he does not want it, by Boaz, who is next in line. The kinsman says, “I will redeem it,” and the reader reels.
But the voice of Boaz is not stilled. Sometimes in a sonata, with all the instruments in a frenzy of crescendo, the winds suddenly descend and make a sober statement. So Boaz: “The day you buy the field, you are buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” And the next of kin: “I cannot redeem it lest I impair my own inheritance.” The shock of his original acceptance turns his refusal into anticlimax, and the narrator must create a diversion, cozen his audience, before he builds toward the finale.
He therefore inserts himself for a moment to explain that in those days it was customary in Israel to confirm a transaction by removing one’s shoe and handing it to the person with whom one is making the exchange. So that when the next-of-kin says, “I cannot redeem it . . . take my right of redemption yourself,” he conforms to custom and draws off his sandal. And thus the words of Naomi, “Uncover his feet,” are heard once again, this time with the poignancy of prophecy and fulfillment.
Still allowing us emotional breathing space, the narrator has Boaz say, his voice barely edged with triumph, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech. . . . Also Ruth the Moabitess I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance. . . .” In these two verses Boaz recapitulates a second time the themes of death and restoration; in the next two, the people at the gate expand upon restoration, not only of the line of Boaz but of the whole land, verdant now and rich in promise. They compare Ruth to Rachel and Leah, builders of the house of Israel, and pray that the house of Boaz will be great, like the house of Perez his ancestor, exalted by the children Ruth will bear.
They married: “And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” Now for the first time in this chapter, Naomi reappears, and for the first time in the book she is silent. The women do all the talking, thanking God for this child who “shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Ruth, in restoring Naomi, has restored Israel; Ruth, who is “more than seven sons,” has brought a son to Boaz, the seventh generation. Ruth, the one who waits, is glorified by the number seven, which in Hebrew reflects and plays upon the word “to sit,” “to wait,” as the combining form “sept” adds a consonant to “sit.”
Naomi warned in the first chapter that no more sons would be born to her. Now the women have the last word: “A son has been born to Naomi”: a son named Obed, father of Jesse, father of David, himself according to one tradition a seventh son. To the words of the women Naomi need add nothing.
But the narrator finds it necessary for the neatness of his design to append a coda. To remind us that he began his book by having Elimelech and his family stay ten years in Moab, to return us to the beginning, and to signal a future beginning, he recites the ten generations that started with Perez, Boaz’s ancestor, and will culminate in David, Boaz’s great-grandson.