The Book of Ruth: A Serious Comedy
The Book of Ruth is structured as a series of distinct scenes, each animated by dialogue that reveals the characters and advances the conflict-filled, tightly knit plotline. It fits squarely into Aristotle’s classic definition of the genre of drama, with the action progressing from a suspenseful wait to see whether the destitute widows, Naomi and Ruth, will find a “redeemer” to lift them out of their misery, to a climactic, tension-filled scene, in which the women’s daring plot to entrap Boaz may backfire and render them even more marginalized. It ends with an Aristotelian “denouement,” the resolution and untangling of the plot, in which Ruth is “redeemed” by Boaz and gives birth to a son.
More specifically, Ruth is dramatic comedy. The plot’s trajectory is from distress to happiness and it is peppered with incongruous moments, clever turns of phrase, trickery, and human frailty, all coalesce to evoke laughter. The fact that the central action is set in the spring season also adds to the book’s comedic spirit, since comedy has been defined as “the mythos of spring.”
Wordplay in the Names
Traces of macabre humor appear already in the rhyming names of Naomi’s sons, who die at the beginning of the story (vv. 1–5): מַחְלוֹן (Mahlon), “a little illness,” and כִּלְיוֹן (Kilyon), “destruction,” sound contrived, not given by loving parents. (See also the play on Naomi’s name later.)
Orpah’s synecdochic name is also a play on words, suggestive of עֹרֶף (ʿoref), meaning the “back of the neck,” which Orpah shows her mother-in-law when she turns to go back home (1:14). Later in the story, the kinsman who refuses to redeem Ruth receives another form of comic treatment when he is referred to by nothing more than the anonymous moniker פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי (peloni ʾalmoni), “so and so” (4:1).
Naomi’s First Speech: Humor in the Midst of Misfortune
After setting out to return home to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law, Naomi suddenly pleads with them to go back to their people in Moab:
רות א:יב שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לֵכְןָ כִּי זָקַנְתִּי מִהְיוֹת לְאִישׁ כִּי אָמַרְתִּי יֶשׁ לִי תִקְוָה גַּם הָיִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה לְאִישׁ וְגַם יָלַדְתִּי בָנִים. א:יג הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ....
Ruth 1:12 Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be married. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, 1:13a should you wait for them to grow up? Should you on their account debar yourselves from marriage?”
Her description of the improbable, that a woman past her childbearing years would marry a man that very night and get pregnant with sons who would eventually marry their bothers’ widows, is so outrageously exaggerated that it points to a different subtext. On the face of it, Naomi rules out any possibility of her daughters-in-law remarrying within her family, yet her protestations and comically absurd scenario infuse the action with intimations of yibbum, levirate marriage, and the hope that the unlikely might indeed come true.
When Orpah turns to leave, Naomi further enhances her subliminal message that a “redeemer” may still materialize by naming the familial relationship between the two widowed sisters-in-law as each other’s יְבָמָה (yevamah), related to the word for levirate marriage:
רות א:טו וַתֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה שָׁבָה יְבִמְתֵּךְ אֶל עַמָּהּ וְאֶל אֱלֹהֶיהָ שׁוּבִי אַחֲרֵי יְבִמְתֵּךְ.
Ruth 1:15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go follow your sister-in-law.”
In Deuteronomy, the feminine noun yevamah designates the childless widow in relation to her dead husband’s brother, who is the yavam, the levir or “redeemer.” By using the term yevamah in relation to sisters-in-law, Naomi creates a world with the force of her words and enhances the dramatic suspense as to how yibbum will come to play for the young woman in an unexpected manner.
To counter Naomi’s plea, with its comic exaggeration, Ruth responds with an overly solemn, almost morbid, oath of loyalty:
רות א:טז וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל תִּפְגְּעִי בִי לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ כִּי אֶל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. א:יז בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּמוּתִי אָמוּת וְשָׁם אֶקָּבֵר כֹּה יַעֲשֶׂה יְ־הוָה לִי וְכֹה יֹסִיף כִּי הַמָּוֶת יַפְרִיד בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵךְ.
Ruth 1:16 But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 1:17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may YHWH do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
Her effusiveness leaves Naomi unable to offer a counter-argument, and Naomi does not speak again until she reaches Bethlehem (vv. 18–19).
In Bethlehem, Naomi Challenges God and Cuts a Tragi-Comic Figure
Naomi’s next major speech comes in response to the women of Bethlehem, the counterpart of the Greek chorus, who barely recognize her when she arrives in town, exclaiming: הֲזֹאת נָעֳמִי, “Can this be Naomi?” (1:19) In contrast to the aura of joy and plenty in the town at the beginning of the barley harvest, the bereaved and diminished Naomi realizes the irony or even humor in the meaning of her name, “pleasant,” and she momentarily engages in self-ridicule, parodying the discrepancy between the wellbeing implied in her name and her dire current situation.
רות א:כ וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן אַל תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד. א:כא אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְ־הוָה לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי וַי־הוָה עָנָה בִי וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי.
Ruth 1:20 “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 1:21 I went away full, but YHWH has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when YHWH has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
As in Greek drama, the question of divine retribution comes up in the dialogue between the protagonist and the chorus. While she argues that her name should be altered (to “bitter”), Naomi actually challenges YHWH to change her situation so that her name, denoting comfort and pleasure, will comport with her circumstances.
The Comic Flaw of Boaz, the Patriarch, Is Exposed
The first encounter between Boaz and Ruth, when the wealthy owner of the field notices the young stranger among the gleaners, exploits the farcical possibilities in the prospect of an old man who is attracted to a young woman. Perhaps emphasizing the discrepancy in their ages, from the moment they meet, Boaz calls Ruth בִּתִּי (bitti), “my daughter”:
רות ב:ח וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז אֶל רוּת הֲלוֹא שָׁמַעַתְּ בִּתִּי אַל תֵּלְכִי לִלְקֹט בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר וְגַם לֹא תַעֲבוּרִי מִזֶּה וְכֹה תִדְבָּקִין עִם נַעֲרֹתָי.
Ruth 2:8 Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls.”
Ruth seems deferential, bowing and kneeling in front of Boaz, but she challenges him when she asks him why he singled her out from among the other poor:
רות ב:י וַתִּפֹּל עַל פָּנֶיהָ וַתִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָּנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה.
Ruth 2:10 She prostrated herself with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?”
Her question extricates from the unsuspecting Boaz the admission that he has known for some time about her arrival in Bethlehem with Naomi (implying that he was not previously moved to take action regarding his kin’s welfare):
רות ב:יא וַיַּעַן בֹּעַז וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הֻגֵּד הֻגַּד לִי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂית אֶת חֲמוֹתֵךְ אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אִישֵׁךְ וַתַּעַזְבִי אָּבִיךְ וְאִמֵּךְ וְאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֵּךְ וַתֵּלְכִי אֶל עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעַתְּ תְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם.
Ruth 2:11 Boaz said in reply, “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before.”
Boaz uses effusive, but somewhat formulaic and rigid, language in his praise of Ruth’s loyalty when she sits before him:
רות ב:יב יְשַׁלֵּם יְ־הוָה פָּעֳלֵךְ וּתְהִי מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּךְ שְׁלֵמָה מֵעִם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בָּאת לַחֲסוֹת תַּחַת כְּנָפָיו.
Ruth 2:12 “May YHWH reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from YHWH, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.”
Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields for both the barley and the wheat harvests, which occurred in April and May, respectively, but then she returns home to stay, and it seems that Boaz will again abandon Ruth and Naomi to their fate:
רות ב:כג וַתִּדְבַּק בְּנַעֲרוֹת בֹּעַז לְלַקֵּט עַד כְּלוֹת קְצִיר הַשְּׂעֹרִים וּקְצִיר הַחִטִּים וַתֵּשֶׁב אֶת חֲמוֹתָהּ.
Ruth 2:23 So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.
Boaz emerges as a man for whom talk is easy, using lofty language in his public speeches, but who is prone to inaction when it comes to resolving his kinswomen’s dire situation.
Naomi and Ruth as Creators of Comedy
The success of Naomi’s scheme to entrap Boaz and force him into some kind of a commitment is based in part on her familiarity with the local custom of communal festivities at the end of the barley harvest. Seasonal celebrations, characterized by chaotic breaking of social boundaries and moral rules, were prevalent in the ancient pagan world, as well as in later Christian societies, and were often integrated into theatrical comedies. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, the twentieth-century Russian literary critic, proposed the term “carnivalesque,” after the Middle Ages carnivals, to imply a temporary break in normal life, which allowed for farcical and physical humor, the mocking of authority and the law, and the inversion of social hierarchies.
There are intimations of a “carnivalesque” spirit in the book of Ruth’s harvest scene. In a spirit of unrestrained revelry, the men become so intoxicated that they are unable to return home to their own beds. This creates the conditions necessary for a comic breaking of class barriers, with the wealthy Boaz sleeping among his laborers by the threshing floor (3:7).
Anticipating these events, Naomi instructs Ruth to lie down beside Boaz unobserved:
רות ג:ג וְרָחַצְתְּ וָסַכְתְּ וְשַׂמְתְּ שִׂמְלֹתֵךְ עָלַיִךְ וְיָרַדְתְּי הַגֹּרֶן אַל תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת. ג:ד וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב שָׁם וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וְשָׁכָבְתְּי וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעַשִׂין.
Ruth 3:3 So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor. But do not disclose yourself to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 3:4 When he lies down, note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do.”
The similarity between Naomi’s plan and the stories of Lot and his daughters (Gen 19) and Tamar and Judah (Gen 37)—in which women arouse a man to impregnate them for the sake of the family’s continuity—highlights the more civilized nature of the Ruth and Boaz tale, which does not involve incest or prostitution and is about redemption that leads to a marriage. Yet physical bawdiness may also be detected in the present story, enhancing its carnivalesque spirit, especially if we read the verb in the phrase וַתְּגַל מַרְגְּלֹתָיו in the reflexive, as ותתגל, “she uncovered herself at his feet,” rather than as “she uncovered his feet” (3:7).
Naomi intends to take advantage of Boaz’s weakness, his “comic flaw” (the counterpart of the Aristotelian “tragic flaw”), which lies in the contrast between his status as an authority figure and his (comic) inclination to make grand public gestures with which he does not follow through, coupled with his somewhat awkward and excessive concern with his public image.
That Naomi has cleverly figured out Boaz’s personal vulnerabilities is made clear when he reacts with alarm when finding Ruth at his feet.
רות ג:ח וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה וַיֶּחֱרַד הָאִישׁ וַיִּלָּפֵת וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה שֹׁכֶבֶת מַרְגְּלֹתָיו.
Ruth 3:8 In the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back—there was a woman lying at his feet!
In a patriarchal, polygynous society, it is much more likely that the poor, shunned Moabite Ruth, who craves acceptance in Israelite society, would suffer damage to her good name and prospects of survival, rather than the wealthy, respected Boaz. Yet it is Boaz, not Ruth, who expresses concern that their encounter will be discovered:
רות ג:יד ...וַיֹּאמֶר אַל יִוָּדַע כִּי בָאָה הָאִשָּׁה הַגֹּרֶן.
Ruth 3:14b …For he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
Students of comedy distinguish between two comic types, the creator of comedy and the butt of it. Naomi and Ruth, women in a male-dominant culture hatching a crafty scheme to embarrass a powerful man, emerge as creators of comedy, while Boaz, the patriarch, becomes the object of it.
The Comic Reversal: Ruth the Moabite Teaches Boaz, the Israelite Elder
The climactic moment at the threshing floor, while carrying serious risks for Ruth and Naomi, can easily develop into physical farce when Boaz, usually buttoned-up and proper, wakes, perhaps disheveled from his drunken stupor, and is alarmed to find a strange woman at his feet. Ruth, on the other hand, is sober, and in response to Boaz’s startled exclamation, מִי אָתּ, “Who are you?” (3:9), she not only identifies herself but makes an almost audacious suggestion that sounds like an order:
רות ג:ט ...וַתֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי רוּת אֲמָתֶךָ וּפָרַשְׂתָּ כְנָפֶךָ עַל אֲמָתְךָ כִּי גֹאֵל אָתָּה.
Ruth 3:9 … And she replied, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe (lit. “your wing”) over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
A woman asking a man to marry her is inherently comic because it reverses the norms of patriarchal society. Further, Ruth teases Boaz’s use of lofty rhetoric and brings it down to earth; she alters Boaz’s reference to Ruth finding refuge under “YHWH’s wings” (2:12), which he used earlier when he commended Ruth, to the word’s physical and practical meaning of כָּנָף (kanaf), “wing,” as the corner of his robe or blanket, suggesting visually the act of Boaz marrying her. By harking back to Boaz’s esoteric phrase, Ruth boldly suggests that the wing that matters to her in her present predicament is the actual physical and economic security that she will gain when becoming his wife.
Labeling Boaz a Redeemer
In addition, Ruth designates Boaz as her גֹאֵל (goʾel), “redeeming kinsman.” Ruth could have asked Boaz to rescue her from poverty or save her honor because she has now been compromised. Instead, she evokes the levirate custom, making Boaz understand the spirit of the law, beyond its narrow meaning. Her actions also imply that she is looking to find salvation for herself within the Israelites’ religious law, the institution of the levirate marriage.
Boaz accepts Ruth’s broader interpretation of the levirate obligation to include not only the widow’s brother-in-law but also her more distant relative. Thus, Ruth teaches Boaz a lesson in the humanitarian interpretation of the law and creates a new reality with the aid of language; by naming Boaz a redeemer, Ruth makes him one.
The Happy Denouement: Ruth Is Integrated into the Israelite Nation
In the comedic “happy ending” of the tale Boaz finally does the right thing for his two relatives, thus claiming his dramatic role as the admirable protagonist. (In the present comedy, Boaz plays both the butt of the comedy and the hero.)
With the community’s approval, Ruth is fully integrated into the Israelite nation, and by bearing a male child she provides the missing link to her dead husband’s family continuity, and a grandson to Naomi. As in the comedic genre, there is a “scapegoat” that needs to be expelled, in this case it is פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי (peloni ʾalmoni), “Mr. So and so,” the relative who releases himself from the obligation of “yibbum.”
The Community’s Voice
The constant presence of the community’s voice, especially that of women, alsongside other evidence, suggests that the story originated among women. It introduces several shades of humor that add to its parodic or “carnivalesque” spirit and contains a hint of Schadenfreude when the women first express their surprise at Naomi’s changed looks, signifying the simple folks’ gloating at the fall of a once mighty family.
The drama reaches its conclusive ending only when the town’s women sincerely congratulate Naomi on the birth of a grandson and take on the important role of giving the newborn a name, this time with no hint of parody or mockery.
A Serious Comedy
The comic undergirding of the Ruth story does not take away from its serious themes, such as the responsibility toward the poor and the practice of yibbum, or its links to the gifts of the first harvest offered at the Temple, the reason why it is read during the holiday of Shavuot. Yet just as we recognize ancient nature festivities at the root of the major biblical sacred holidays, so we sense vestiges of comedy behind the sober matters of this tale.
At its best, comedy has always been very serious business, pointing out the absurdities of the human condition and highlighting human frailty and folly, while guaranteeing redemption and a happy ending. Ruth presents a universally familiar romantic comedy, rooted in the celebration of spring. It offers a humorous critique of law and authority, enfolded in a story of historical and covenantal significance to the people of Israel.
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Prof. Nehama Aschkenasy is Professor (emerita) of Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. She holds degrees in Hebrew and English Literature from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. Aschkenasy is the author of Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (U. of Pennsylvania, 1987), a Choice selection and winner of the Present Tense Literary Award, and Woman at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Wayne State, 1998). She is the editor of Biblical Patterns in Modern Literature (with David Hirsch, Brown, 1984), and Recreating the Canon: The Biblical Presence in Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Culture (a dedicated volume of the AJS Review, 28:1, Cambridge, 2004). She has also contributed numerous chapters and articles to edited books and scholarly journals, and served as Associate Editor of the AJS Review. Her teaching and research focus on the reappearance of biblical patterns in Hebraic and English literary traditions, literary art in the Bible, women in Hebraic literary tradition, and politics and society in contemporary Israeli fiction. For more, see her UConn profile.
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