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Gary Rendsburg





Boaz Married Ruth at the Threshing Floor: A Grammatical Solution to Ruth 4:5



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Gary Rendsburg





Boaz Married Ruth at the Threshing Floor: A Grammatical Solution to Ruth 4:5






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Boaz Married Ruth at the Threshing Floor: A Grammatical Solution to Ruth 4:5

Boaz’s speech to the unnamed kinsman (Ruth 4:5) is difficult. By interpreting one element as an enclitic mem, as found in Eblaite, and by making use of the alternative textual option known as the ketiv, a new meaning for Boaz’s claim emerges.


Boaz Married Ruth at the Threshing Floor: A Grammatical Solution to Ruth 4:5

Ruth and Boaz, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ca. 1855. Wikimedia

The book of Ruth constitutes one of the most idyllic narratives in the Bible. The scene is lovely, the harvest is bountiful, the narrative is delightful, and the storyline proceeds from sorrow to joy (Hebrew: [1]מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה). Many teachers of Biblical Hebrew select Ruth as the first story to read with their students, since the prose is relatively simple and straightforward.[2] One major exception to this simplicity and straightforwardness is the opaque wording in Ruth 4:5.[3]

The Setting of Ruth 4:5

The setting of Ruth, ch. 4, is as follows: Boaz and the unnamed closer relative to Elimelekh (we shall refer to him henceforth as ‘the kinsman’) are sitting together at the city gate, in the presence of a quorum (vv. 1‒2). The legal issue at hand is the disposition of the land once owned by Elimelekh, which since his death, has passed to his widow.[4] Naomi now wishes to sell the land, especially since she is not in a position to work the soil.

While in theory land could be transferred to non-relatives, the ideal established by the social and legal system in ancient Israel was for land to remain within the family.[5] Since the kinsman was a closer relation to Elimelekh than was Boaz, it falls upon him, accordingly, to redeem the land. If the kinsman wishes not to redeem, then the duty would fall to Boaz.

With everything clearly outlined by Boaz, the kinsman states simply, ‎אָנֹכִ֥י אֶגְאָֽל ‘I will redeem’ (last two words of v. 4). The legal matter would seem to be resolved thereby, but then Boaz makes a declaration that changes the kinsman’s mind. The problem is that it is difficult to determine the exact meaning of what he said because of two obscure elements in the middle phrase (in yellow):

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר בֹּ֔עַז בְּיֹום־קְנֹותְךָ֥ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד נָעֳמִ֑י
And Boaz said: “On the day of your acquiring the field from the hand of Naomi,
וּ֠מֵאֵת ר֣וּת הַמֹּואֲבִיָּ֤ה אֵֽשֶׁת־הַמֵּת֙ [קניתי] קָנִ֔יתָ‏*
ume’et Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the deceased [kaniti] kanita*
לְהָקִ֥ים שֵׁם־הַמֵּ֖ת עַל־נַחֲלָתֹֽו׃
in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.”

Much of the plot hinges on the proper elucidation of this verse, and thus it demands our close attention.[6] Let’s start with the second problem.

Ketiv/Qeri—The Tense of the Verb

In the Hebrew above, I included two forms of the verb, one in brackets without vowels and one with an asterisk next to it with vowels. The one without vowels is called the ketiv, meaning “that which is written,” and the one with vowels is called the qeri, meaning “that which is read.”

In ancient times, the Bible was transmitted in two forms:[7] a consonantal written form, copied by scribes,[8] and an oral form, passed down by tradents,[9] who mastered the oral reading tradition and thereby were able to intone the biblical text. While 99.9% of the time, the ketiv and qeri of the (Masoretic) text matched, the scribes and the tradents were only human, so that over time, errors crept into one or the other version.[10]

During the 9th century C.E., the Tiberian Masoretes created a system of vowel points and accent/punctuation marks, to graphically record the oral reading tradition.[11] As part of this system, they established the ketiv/qeri to cover cases where the written and oral systems diverged.

The ketiv is what one finds written in Torah scrolls and in the main text in codices, while the qeri is read out loud in public Torah readings and is written in the margins of codices.

Ruth 4:5 as presented in the Aleppo Codex, fol. 293v, column 3, lines 6-10 from the bottom. Note that the qeri קנית is written in the right margin and marked as such, while the ketiv is in the main text, but is written with the vowels of the qeri.

In this case, the ketiv and the qeri are both qatal-verb forms of the same root, ק.נ.ה, meaning ‘buy, purchase’. The ketiv uses the 1st person common singular ‘I purchased’, and the qeri uses the 2nd person masculine singular ‘you purchased’.

Almost all English (and other) translations, follow the qeri form קָנִיתָ. In doing so, these translations follow the time-honored Jewish tradition of preferring the oral reading tradition over the written scribal tradition.[12] In fact, almost always the qeri does present a better reading than the ketiv,[13] but in this case, I will argue that the ketiv retains the better reading.[14] To understand why, we need to first turn to the other difficult term in the verse.

“From Ruth”?

The second issue with Ruth 4:5 is the seemingly problematic word וּמֵאֵת, which would typically be simple to understand: conjunction vav ‘and’, followed by the compound preposition meʾet ‘from’. Thus, in the phrase וּ֠מֵאֵת ר֣וּת, the sense would be ‘and from Ruth’. This is how the NJPS Tanakh translation, following the Greek LXX,[15] understands the phrase “When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite.”

Putting aside the ketiv/qeri question about who does the acquiring, this reading is problematic for two reasons. First, this rendering totally ignores the Masoretic punctuation. The phrase מִיַּ֣ד נָעֳמִ֑י ‘from the hand of Naomi’ is marked with an ʾatnaḥ, the accent/punctuation mark which indicates the major pause within the verse, somewhat akin to our semi-colon. The Masoretic punctuation indicates that the phrase ‘from the hand of Naomi’ should end the first half of the verse, and should not run on into the next phrase.

Second, and perhaps more crucially, the field does not belong to Ruth, but to Naomi. To my mind, Ruth cannot possibly own a field (or a portion thereof) in the land of Judah, notwithstanding the fact that she was married to Maḥlon son of Elimelekh, the original owner of the field. Moreover, Boaz states clearly in v. 3 that Naomi is selling the field; and then later in the story, in v. 9, he again states clearly that he has obtained the field from Naomi. Ruth is not involved in the transaction, full stop.[16]

What, then, can the phrase ומאת רות possibly mean?[17]

Enclitic mem in Hebrew and Ugaritic

There exists in Hebrew a grammatical particle known as enclitic mem, attached to the end of nouns and verbs, with what appears to be a focusing function. Modern scholars noticed this particle first in the Ugaritic texts, with the presumed pronunciation -ma (based on cognate Akkadian material), and then they applied that knowledge to explain various “stray” mems in the biblical text.[18]

A classic example, posited by many scholars, is found in Psalm 29:6. The Masorah (by which I mean the Oral Reading Tradition, writ large), unaware of the existence of enclitic mem, over time re-analyzed the verse thus:

וַיַּרְקִידֵ֥ם כְּמוֹ־עֵ֑גֶל
לְבָנ֥וֹן וְ֜שִׂרְיֹ֗ן כְּמ֣וֹ בֶן־רְאֵמִֽים׃
He makes them skip like a calf,
Lebanon and Sirion like a young wild-bull.

Once scholars realized that the mem was not the accusative object ‘them’, but rather the untranslatable enclitic mem, the verse was reinterpreted as follows:[19]

וַיַּרְקִידֵם כְּמוֹ עֵגֶל לְבָנוֹן
וְשִׂרְיֹן כְּמוֹ בֶן רְאֵמִים
And He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
And Sirion like a young wild-bull.

Naturally, there is no proof that such was the verse as it left the hand of the psalmist, but the resultant lines are balanced and work well as a poetic couplet.

As the Ugaritic enclitic mem comes only at the end of the word, scholars generally did not apply this approach to problematic mems that occur in non-final position. Quite remarkably, though, years before cognate evidence came to light, Francis Andersen proposed that several inexplicable ומ- wm- forms at the beginning of words should be parsed as conjunctive vav with enclitic mem. וּמֵאֵת in Ruth 4:5 was one of his prime examples.[20]

Enclitic mem in Eblaite

Scholars barely had time to react to Andersen’s proposal when cognate evidence in support thereof emerged from the Ebla tablets discovered in the late 1970s. Ebla was a major city in northern Syria during the 3rd millennium B.C.E., which controlled a large swath of territory.

Map of the Fertile Crescent in the 3rd millennium B.C.E., showing the location of Ebla and the region it controlled. Wikipedia

The excavations there, conducted by an Italian team led by Paolo Matthiae, discovered a large archive of cuneiform tablets, especially in Palace G.

Sample Ebla tablets. Source: Bible Review 8:2 (April 1992). Photo by Erich Lessing.

The language reflected in these tablets is known as Eblaite, a previously unknown Semitic language.[21] This language attests to a grammatical feature previously unknown, namely, the form ù-ma, that is, the conjunction ù- followed by enclitic ma-, confirming Andersen’s proposal.

The Proper Parsing of ומאת in Ruth 4:5

Immediately, Cyrus Gordon applied the discovery of the presence of ù-ma in Eblaite to elucidate Ruth 4:5.[22] He proposed, correctly in my view, that וּמֵאֵת in our verse is comprised of three separate morphemes:

וּ- = conjunction ‘and’
-מֵ- = enclitic mem
אֵת- = direct object indicator

In the wake of Gordon’s article, the present author wrote a longer article, which: a) called attention to Andersen’s proposal; b) analyzed his examples afresh and in greater detail; and c) offered several further examples. In addition, I suggested therein that the form ומ- wm- functions as an emphasizing conjunction, bearing the nuance of ‘indeed, even, verily, yea’.[23]

The vocalization in MT as me in Ruth 4:5 does not follow its Eblaite vocalization ma, but this is easily explained: While the Masoretes were heirs to a thousand-year-old oral reading tradition handed down from generation to generation in the most accurate manner,[24] since they no longer were familiar with this form—the morpheme had totally disappeared from the Hebrew language during the post-biblical period—they incorrectly understood the mem as the more familiar preposition ‘from’ and pointed the text accordingly.[25] This led to the shift in pronunciation from a presumed original u-ma-ʾet to Masoretic וּמֵאֵת u-me-ʾet, a form that appears elsewhere in the Bible with the meaning ‘and from’ (Lev 16:5, Num 35:8, etc.).[26]

Boaz Bought Ruth as a Wife

Now that we understand the phrase ומאת רות, as ‘and indeed, Ruth’, with Ruth serving as the direct object of the verb קנית ‘you purchased’ (qeri) or קניתי ‘I purchased’ (ketiv), we must decide which reading is more probable.[27] From the context of the book of Ruth, it seems clear that it is the ketiv, since it is Boaz, not the kinsman, who has “purchased” Ruth.

To explain, in ch. 3, Ruth visits Boaz at night alone at the threshing floor (3:6), “uncovers his feet” (a euphemism) (3:7), and having spent the night, returns home before dawn, lest the matter be known (3:14).[28] Clearly, the scene is sexually loaded, even as the text never explicitly states that Ruth and Boaz had intimate relations.[29]

While the Bible does not state so explicitly, we know from the Mishna that there are three ways in which a man may obtain a wife.[30] The relevant portion of M. Qiddushin 1:1 reads as follows:

הָאִשָּׁה נִיקְנֵת בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה דְרָכִים . . . נִיקְנֵת בַּכֶּסֶף וּבִשְׁטַר וּבַבִּיאָה.
A woman is acquired in three ways . . . she is acquired by money, or by a document, or by intercourse.[31]

We cannot know if the Mishnaic law was operative in ancient Israel, but it is likely.[32]

The Proper Rendering of Ruth 4:5

Putting together the pieces from above, i.e., the enclitic mem and the ketiv reading, leads to the following translation:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר בֹּ֔עַז בְּיֹום־קְנֹותְךָ֥ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד נָעֳמִ֑י
And Boaz said, “On the day of your acquiring the field from the hand of Naomi...,
ומאת ר֣וּת הַמֹּואֲבִיָּ֤ה אֵֽשֶׁת־הַמֵּת֙ קניתי
indeed Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased, I have acquired
לְהָקִ֥ים שֵׁם־הַמֵּ֖ת עַל־נַחֲלָתֹֽו׃
in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.”

Admittedly, my translation does not produce a smooth reading, as indicated by the ellipsis, but that is fine. As I reconstruct his speech, Boaz commences with the first half of the verse, but then truncates his thought, and instead moves to the second half of the verse, with the declaration that he (already) has obtained Ruth.

We the readers were not privy to everything that transpired in ch. 3, not only because of the issue of voyeurism, but for the literary effect as well. Had we known that Boaz had ‘acquired’ Ruth through sexual intercourse in ch. 3, our hero’s surprise declaration in 4:5 would not be, well, a surprise.[33]

This is a well-known literary device, whereby the characters know something that the readers do not know – what we may wish to call the inverse of dramatic irony (in which the readers know something that the characters do not know).[34] Just as we the readers are surprised to learn that Boaz already has “acquired” Ruth, that is, they are married, so is the kinsman.

Why the Kinsman Changed His Mind

The declaration has the desired effect. Once the kinsman learns that Boaz already has ‘acquired’ Ruth, he changes his mind about the land redemption. While in v. 4, he was ready to redeem the land, with the new information now at hand, he changes his mind (v. 6):

‎וַיֹּ֣אמֶר הַגֹּאֵ֗ל לֹ֤א אוּכַל֙ [לגאול] לִגְאָל*־לִ֔י פֶּן־אַשְׁחִ֖ית אֶת־נַחֲלָתִ֑י גְּאַל־לְךָ֤ אַתָּה֙ אֶת־גְּאֻלָּתִ֔י כִּ֥י לֹא־אוּכַ֖ל לִגְאֹֽל׃
And the redeemer said, “I am not able to redeem for myself, lest I destroy my inheritance; redeem for yourself, you, my inheritance, for I am not able to redeem.”

Boaz’s statement must be what changes his mind.[35] The kinsman assumed that by obtaining the land, he also would obtain Ruth, in a “package deal,” as it were – since through Ruth he thereby could start a new family, including children who one day would grow up and be able to tend to the land. Without Ruth, however, the kinsman would need to spread thin his current family, in order to tend to whatever land he already owned, in addition to the new land under negotiation.

This is the intent of his words פֶּן־אַשְׁחִ֖ית אֶת־נַחֲלָתִ֑י ‘lest I destroy my inheritance’ (v. 6). Note, of course, that Hebrew נַחֲלָה naḥala connotes more than simply English ‘inheritance’, as it incorporates estate, legacy, land holdings, inalienable property, and more (NJPS and Alter use ‘estate’).

Alternatively, as several scholars have proposed, [36] the kinsman may realize that while the field would be his for the nonce, eventually Ruth and Boaz would have a child of their own, perhaps within one year, in fact – and thus the field would revert to this child-to-be-born, who in some fashion or another would be considered a grandchild of Naomi and Elimelech. In fact, when said child, Obed, is born, the townswomen proclaim ‎יֻלַּד־בֵּ֖ן לְנָעֳמִ֑י ‘a son is born to Naomi’ (4:17).[37]

Hence, with either or even both of these thoughts in mind, once the kinsman learns (according to my reading, per the ketiv) that Boaz already has obtained Ruth, he quickly changes his mind. Boaz tricked him, as it were, by marrying Ruth, a fact that he (Boaz) knew, but which the kinsman (and the reader!) did not know.

To my mind, the sum of the points made above is greater than the whole of its parts, for it allows us to interpret the verse without textual emendation and to make sense of the entire story.[38] With the reading offered here, everything falls into place and we gain an even greater appreciation for the literary brilliance of the ancient writer who allowed us only a peek at the action in ch. 3, and then disclosed all through the voice of one of the lead characters in ch. 4.

Dedicated to the memory of Francis I. Andersen (28 July 1925 – 13 May 2020)
polymath scholar, lover of life,
אוהב ישראל.


May 27, 2020


Last Updated

July 7, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.