Achieving Justice Through Narrative
The Back-Story to the Legal Dispute
Many readers of Ruth focus on the initial chapters, on the beautiful statement of Ruth in 1:16-17, or on the relationship between Ruth and Naomi. But the book’s climax is in its conclusion, and the initial chapters serve as a long prelude to the legal procedure that is found in the final chapter. According to the premises of the book, the closest living male relative has the right (or responsibility) to redeem the deceased’s land and to marry his widow, if they had no children, thus establishing the line of the deceased relative on his land.
Presenting a legal procedure as a narrative allows for a model of justice to emerge that is distinct from the paradigm of justice afforded by the formal law of statutes and legal institutions. The narrative unveils the back-story to the legal action of the final chapter: it emphasizes the tragedy that occurred to Naomi, and in so doing sets the scene for her restoration.
A Family Destroyed
During a famine in Judah, Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their two sons flee to Moab, but this does them no good. The account of this family’s experience in Moab is bleak. Elimelech dies. The names of her sons, Mahlon and Chilion, “illness” and “wasting away,” foretell their deaths, and they do indeed die shortly after their father. Perhaps even bleaker is the fact that they die with no third generation on the horizon.
Naomi’s return to Bethlehem embodies the misery current in her life. The townspeople cannot hold back their consternation and dismay, and Naomi responds by noting that she left full but has returned empty. This is, of course, not completely true: she has returned with her daughter-in-law Ruth, her one source of hope. It is through Ruth that Naomi will be redeemed and her suffering and humiliation relieved.
Reshaping Legal Institutions to Help Widows
Three legal institutions, inheritance, redemption, and levirate, come into play in the book of Ruth. They do not necessarily operate for the benefit of widows, but the narrative reshapes these institutions because its ultimate goal is justice as it should be, the protection and vindication of two widows. It aims for restorative justice, justice that focuses on repairing the harm caused to the injured party and to the community.
Naomi is portrayed as having limited title to her husband’s land (Ruth 4:3), and this is not disputed by any of the participants in the legal case. This contradicts the law of Numbers 27:8-11, which stipulates that the nearest male relative inherits and implies that the widow is bypassed. A number of scholars have argued that the description in the book of Ruth reflects changes in inheritance laws, that a widow was not bypassed and did received (part of) her husband’s estate.
Additional evidence for widows inheriting is found in the apocryphal book of Judith, whose title character is portrayed as very wealthy. Moreover, the legal archive of Babatha, contains documents dating from the time of Bar-Kochba in which a woman files many lawsuits for control of her husband’s estate.
Because Naomi is depicted as having this (limited) title to the land, she can use it to gain financial security by taking advantage of the institution of redemption, over which Boaz and the nearest kinsman contend.
The institution of redemption provided for the nearest male relative to act on behalf of a person who found himself/herself in constrained economic circumstances. He was responsible to reclaim land sold by a member of his extended family (Lev 25:25; Jer 32:7-8) and to buy the freedom of a relative sold into slavery (Lev 25:47-49). In either case, he did not obtain title to the land but the relative on whose behalf he operated gained title to the land.
If the narrative of the book of Ruth were to have followed the law of Numbers 27, the nearest kinsman or Boaz would have inherited the property (because the widow did not inherit). However, according the restorative model of justice the narrative offers, the nearest kinsman or Boaz must serve as redeemer, not as heir. The property will not be theirs.
The narrative is also trying to reshape the law of yibbum or “levirate marriage” (from the Latin word levir, meaning “husband’s brother”), which stipulates that the deceased husband’s brother, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, or even the deceased’s father, according to Genesis 38. If levirate followed these rules, Ruth and Naomi would be out of luck. But the narrative interconnects the institutions of inheritance, redemption, and levirate so that one widow (Naomi) holds title to land and a redeemer redeems the land from her and marries the widow of child-bearing age (Ruth).
The narrative has created a situation in which levirate does not apply, according to statute, but where it should apply. In the case of a widow with no living brothers-in-law or father-in-law, the levirate marriage should take place with more distant relatives because levirate provides security for widows, according to the narrative. Widows are portrayed as eagerly pursuing levirate but men are hesitant and see only the harm it will do to their estates.
The one man who is an exception to this is not Naomi’s unnamed closest relative but the more distant relative, Boaz, and while the reason given for levirate is “to perpetuate a man’s name,” the line of descent in 4:18-22 mentions Boaz, not Ruth’s deceased husband, Machlon.
Who Will Help Naomi?
The book concludes with Naomi’s restoration. She is returned to the position she enjoyed at the beginning: she is portrayed as the mother, even though she is the grandmother. The chorus of townspeople that decried her impoverished and tragic position now affirm her new good fortune. The women celebrate the birth and, unusually, they name the child, who must have been the subject of much discussion among them (Ruth 4:14-17). Naomi lost her sons, but the women proclaim that Ruth is better than seven sons. The grandson himself is termed a redeemer (גואל, 4:14), a person whom Naomi was seeking throughout the story, and is called a משיב נפש, “the one who restores to life” (4:15).
The narrative has lured us into the back-story, the hurt and the humiliation—the need for Naomi to be “redeemed.” It has revealed what law cannot, the internal misery and agony, and in so doing, it shapes the characters and plot so that Naomi’s wounds will be healed and she will be restored to her previous prosperity and good standing. The “hero” will be the man who steps up and “redeems” that family by, literally, redeeming Elimelech’s land and his line.
As we learn in the 3rd and 4th chapters of the book, Naomi’s nearest kinsman should have been the one to help her, but the narrative shows that at times the person who has the duty to help shirks his responsibility. He is the one who should have taken the initiative to help her, and we should have heard about him earlier. He is portrayed as reluctant when Boaz manipulates him into court, revealing why Naomi did not even bother to contact him. The turn of events reflects just how difficult it is to make those with legal responsibilities act on and fulfill those responsibilities. The narrative demonstrates the flaw in the system: the nearest kinsman should have been the one Naomi calls upon, but she gives up on him before she even starts.
A Laborious Legal Process
The way to the resolution of the legal issues in the narrative is depicted as laborious. Nothing is straightforward, nothing is easy. From the time Boaz is first mentioned in the text, forty-seven verses elapse before the successful conclusion to the legal process is announced, before Boaz can announce that he has acquired the estates of Naomi’s dead husband and sons (Ruth 2:2 – 4:9). This delay signals how convoluted the legal process was perceived to be. Moreover, various episodes end in tension, reflecting the vagaries of human behavior: The harvest ends with Naomi and Ruth still waiting for an advocate (2:23), and even after Ruth recounts to Naomi the night encounter with Boaz (3:16-18), we still wonder how it will be resolved in the morning. The path toward resolving legal matters can be a labyrinth.
A bereft widow might just find herself forlorn, but the narrative shows that justice can be achieved when individuals go beyond the confines of normal activity, as Ruth does when she creeps up next to Boaz in the night and lays down next to him, whether she is intimate with him or just lying there suggestively.
Initially, Boaz’s interest is limited to helping Ruth glean more stalks of grain and making sure that gleaning is not unpleasant for her (2:14-16). Just as the unnamed closest relative does, Boaz lets the matter slide, and much time passes: the wheat and barley harvests are at their end without Boaz assuming a legal role or pushing the closest relative to do so (as he will do later in the story). Only when Ruth makes her extraordinary appeal with its sexual overtones does the narrative portray Boaz as newly attentive to Ruth and Naomi in ways both large and small. He promises to resolve the problem that very morning, and he makes sure not to send Ruth back to Naomi empty-handed. Boaz’s inaction was reversed by Ruth’s exceptional act.
Protecting Widows: How Narrative Helps Law to Be More Just
The book of Ruth has transcended the confines of statutes, customs, and norms in order to portray justice and legal process as they ought to be. The focus is on the suffering parties and restorative justice, not the delinquent party and retributive justice. The book could have been devoted to the nearest kinsman and the need for him to be punished; instead he remains nameless and is at best a tertiary character in the story. The ultimate goal is to protect the two widows and provide them with justice.
The reality of the negligent relative is made public, the grievance of the injured parties is acknowledged, and Naomi and Ruth are granted the opportunity to feel relief. The narrative has furnished a remedy for the unquantifiable and intangible harm, the despair, the grief, not just for the financial loss. It has sought justice that focuses on repairing the harm caused to the injured parties and has provided a cure for healing their spirit.
Narrative vs. Law
Narratives, like that of the book of Ruth, unveil the disorderly and unpredictable side of life. They shed light on the emotional texture and moral dimensions that law strains to recognize and handle. And although biblical narrative utilizes conventions, like type-scenes and typical characters, it seeks to transcend them in order to open vistas into human nature. By contrast, law fashioned by statute and custom tries to fit the multiplicity of human actions into a limited set of categories. It attempts to organize human behavior and tries to provide predictable results. It reduces the complexity of human actions and makes them fit patterns, principles, and remedies. Law aspires to the predictable, to expected results and outcomes, to known cases and expected penalties.
By its very nature, narrative can offer a different model of justice emerge that is distinct from the paradigm of justice afforded by the formal law of statutes and legal institutions. It can overcome the gap between what is prescribed by statute and custom and what is just. It can go beyond the accepted pathways of the law to find a better remedy to a legal problem. The narrative is a portrayal of justice as it should be.
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Prof. Rabbi Pamela Barmash is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Biblical Hebrew at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a B.A. from Yale University, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Laws of Hammurabi: At the Confluence of Royal and Scribal Traditions (Oxford 2020) and Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge 2005). She is the co-editor of the Exodus: Echoes and Reverberations in the Jewish Experience, and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law. She is the editor of the scholarly journal Hebrew Studies, and she serves as co-chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and as a dayyan on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative/Masorti movement.
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