The Book of Ruth: When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Set in the season of the barley harvest, the story of Ruth presents a widowed mother and daughter-in-law, returning immigrants to the mother-in-law’s home in Bethlehem. It was probably composed in the post-exilic period, a time when several thoughtful literary compositions were produced by ancient Judean writers. Considerations about the performance of ethical behavior, that of human characters and the deity, are at the very core of this story.
After moving to Moab to escape a famine, Naomi loses her husband and two sons. The text never explains why the famine occurred, and why Elimelech and his sons died; this is just the reality that Naomi faces. Soon thereafter, Naomi learns that the famine which plagued Bethlehem (literally “House of Bread”) in Judah is over:
רות א:ו וַתָּקָם הִיא וְכַלֹּתֶיהָ וַתָּשָׁב מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב כִּי שָׁמְעָה בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב כִּי פָקַד יְ־הוָה אֶת עַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם לָחֶם.
Ruth 1:6 She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that YHWH had taken note of His people and given them food.
Here too, the text leaves unexplained why YHWH decided now to end the famine and provide the people with food, but as this is the case, Naomi decides to return home.
Naomi’s Bad “Moral Luck”
The first dialogue in the story takes place in the land of Moab, when Naomi speaks to her two Moabite daughters-in-law, urging the younger women to return to their people in Moab and try to restart their lives there:
רות א:ח וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לִשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ לֵכְנָה שֹּׁבְנָה אִשָּׁה לְבֵית אִמָּהּ (יעשה) [יַעַשׂ] יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם חֶסֶד כַּאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם עִם הַמֵּתִים וְעִמָּדִי. א:ט יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה לָכֶם וּמְצֶאןָ מְנוּחָה אִשָּׁה בֵּית אִישָׁהּ וַתִּשַּׁק לָהֶן...
Ruth 1:8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May YHWH deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me! 1:9 May YHWH grant that each of you find security in the house of a husband!” And she kissed them farewell…
Her use of the word chesed might be translated “kindness;” this word is frequently applied to the acts of loving kindness that God performs for Israel and Israelites in the context of their covenantal bond. This term underscores relationships and reciprocity, as does her wish that her God, YHWH, will repay their kindness with kindness, by ensuring they find new husbands.
The young women for their part do not want to leave Naomi, so she tries again to convince them. She notes that they cannot possibly continue as part of her family, since she has no more sons to give them, and even if somehow, she were to remarry and become pregnant that very night, would they really wait husbandless until the babies are born and become adults? She ends this second attempt with stating:
רות א:יג ...כִּי מַר לִי מְאֹד מִכֶּם כִּי יָצְאָה בִי יַד יְ־הוָה.
Ruth 1:13 … My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of YHWH has struck out against me.
She does not suggest she is a sinner so that she deserves what has befallen her or that the deity is somehow unfair. Rather, YHWH is the source of what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “moral luck.” Matters beyond one’s control may affect moral agency and how much we can be viewed as morally responsible for what we do.
It is best for the younger women to leave her, says Naomi, since her moral luck has been bad. Orpah, relents, kisses Naomi, and goes on her way, but Ruth clings to her.
YHWH at the Center of the Conversation
Naomi tries again to convince Ruth, this time invoking the fact that they have different gods:
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.”
The role of the deity in these exchanges informed by the characters’ emotions, their love for one another, and their desire to do the good and right thing for each other, is quite explicit. Ruth’s desire to stay with her mother-in-law and perform the role of daughter includes her acceptance of the older woman’s homeland, people, and significantly her God:
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.”
Both characters reflect on the power of YHWH to determine their fate. Naomi believes that Ruth leaving her will be safer for her, since YHWH has it in for Naomi, while Ruth insists that she is adopting YHWH as her God and will share Naomi’s fate, whatever it might be.
YHWH Has Made Naomi’s Life Bitter
When arriving home to Bethlehem, the neighbors are shocked at Naomi’s plight, prompting her to publicly reflect on her bad moral luck, and YHWH’s role in that.
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 “Do not call me Naomi [=Pleasant],” she replied. “Call me Mara [“Bitter”], for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. 1:21 I went away full, and YHWH has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi, when YHWH has dealt harshly with me, when Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me!”
Naomi explains that left Bethlehem full and returns emptied out, emotionally and materially, and all on account of YHWH/Shaddai. Is there some implicit recrimination against God here? Perhaps, but there is also acknowledgment that bad things happen and if the deity is the source of all things, then he must somehow be responsible for Naomi’s personal troubles, but for reasons we may not be able to fathom.
Ruth’s Hard Work and Boaz’s Appreciation
Ruth and Naomi’s lives reflect the unstable situation of refugees. Naomi had migrated to Moab because of a famine and returns to Bethlehem with Ruth, as an impoverished refugee in her own land. Ruth, however, proves to be hard-working, taking the initiative to glean so that she can feed herself and Naomi.
Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman in whose portion of land she “happens” to be gleaning, notices Ruth, as do his workers, who describe the way וַתַּעֲמוֹד מֵאָז הַבֹּקֶר וְעַד עַתָּה “she has been standing from early in the morning until now” (Ruth 2:7). Boaz urges her to glean in his field, tells her that he has ordered the young men not to harass her, and suggests she stay close to “his young women,” presumably the women of his household, which would include members of his extended family and servants.
The concerns over possible mistreatment of Ruth, implicit in the voice of Boaz, admits of the grim realities concerning the lack of workplace safety for women. That Boaz recognizes her plight and tries to provide her with safety and reassurance, and not to allow abusive behavior, is a sign of his personal ethics. We further see Boaz’s worthiness in how he expresses appreciation for the way Ruth has cared for her mother-in-law since the death of Ruth’s husband:
רות ב:יא וַיַּעַן בֹּעַז וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הֻגֵּד הֻגַּד לִי כֹּל אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂית אֶת חֲמוֹתֵךְ אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אִישֵׁךְ וַתַּעַזְבִי אָבִיךְ וְאִמֵּךְ וְאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֵּךְ וַתֵּלְכִי אֶל עַם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעַתְּ תְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם. ב:יב יְשַׁלֵּם יְ־הוָה פָּעֳלֵךְ וּתְהִי מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּךְ שְׁלֵמָה מֵעִם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בָּאת לַחֲסוֹת תַּחַת כְּנָפָיו.
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. 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 shelter!”
He recognizes her as a foreigner who has come to a new land, leaving her people and place. Once again, the deity, “God of Israel” is invoked as a protector who can reward those who “seek shelter under his wings.”
Ruth’s capacity to call upon YHWH through her adoption of her mother-in-law’s homeland, culture, and customs, all of which are associated with YHWH, is another positive aspect of explicitly religious ethics as it applies to Ruth. She is, in Boaz’s view, worthy of God’s reward.
Ruth with Boaz at the Threshing Floor: Gender Ethics
The famous scene at the threshing floor is erotic. Ruth comes to Boaz in secret, in the night during the fecund season of ripened grain, and she uncovers his feet— in the Bible, feet or legs are frequently euphemisms for genitals. The scene is filled with romantic implications and potential and has implications for the ethics of gender and religious ethics.
On one hand, it is a bold and brave move for a woman to present herself alone to a man in the silence of night in order to further her cause. It is indeed her wise and well-meaning mother-in-law who sends her to Boaz, advising her in preparation to wash and anoint herself and wear her best or festive clothing.
The older woman means only good for her daughter-in-law, and essentially counts both on the decency of Boaz and the expectations of the patriarchal social structure to set into motion an arrangement that will benefit all. As she tells the younger woman about Boaz (Ruth 3:4), וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂין “He will tell you what you should do.”
Boaz does not take advantage of Ruth’s vulnerability alone in the dark, and praises her for her wise interest in him, a mature good provider:
רות ג:י וַיֹּאמֶר בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ לַי־הוָה בִּתִּי הֵיטַבְתְּ חַסְדֵּךְ הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן הָרִאשׁוֹן לְבִלְתִּי לֶכֶת אַחֲרֵי הַבַּחוּרִים אִם דַּל וְאִם עָשִׁיר.
Ruth 3:10 He exclaimed, “Be blessed of YHWH, daughter! Your latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich.”
Ruth offers herself in exchange for economic well-being; such is the nature of marital exchange in traditional cultures. Each participant brings embodied, social, or economic capital to the deal but this sort of exchange is in tune with ethical expectations and allowances as Naomi knows so well.
On the other hand, there are acknowledgments about propriety and fear of what the neighbors might say about the moral rectitude of the foreign, especially Moabite, woman:
רות ג:יד וַתִּשְׁכַּב (מרגלתו) [מַרְגְּלוֹתָיו] עַד הַבֹּקֶר וַתָּקָם (בטרום) [בְּטֶרֶם] יַכִּיר אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אַל יִוָּדַע כִּי בָאָה הָאִשָּׁה הַגֹּרֶן.
Ruth 3:14 So she lay at his feet until dawn. She rose before one person could distinguish another, for he thought, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
Presumably women do not generally turn up at the threshing floor by night to negotiate their own match. Boaz, however, and the reader, appreciate what Ruth is doing to seek a good future for herself and Naomi.
He makes clear moreover that he will follow custom concerning the levirate duty, which in this late biblical account seems to allow that the duty of raising children in the name of the deceased husband falls upon his closest living male relative (not only upon his surviving brothers as described in Deuteronomy 25:5 and Genesis 38).
The Ethics of Lived Religion
Through the actions of the story’s characters, the Book of Ruth thus explores the ethics of “lived religion,” which Robert Orsi defines as having to do with “people’s sense of place in their immediate world,” with people’s “intimate concerns.”
From the composer’s perspective, all is thus on the up-and-up ethically in terms of proper behavior within the contours of the social structure, and the events as narrated underscore the rights of women and responsibilities of men in this androcentric world. Moreover, from the perspective of gender, women are positively portrayed to take independent action to secure their futures albeit within the boundaries of this system.
The Marriage: YHWH’s Role?
The tale ends with Boaz indeed taking Ruth as his wife and her bearing him a son. In this happy conclusion the women of the town operate as a kind of Greek chorus:
רות ד:יד וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הַנָּשִׁים אֶל נָעֳמִי בָּרוּךְ יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁבִּית לָךְ גֹּאֵל הַיּוֹם וְיִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. ד:טו וְהָיָה לָךְ לְמֵשִׁיב נֶפֶשׁ וּלְכַלְכֵּל אֶת שֵׂיבָתֵךְ כִּי כַלָּתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר אֲהֵבַתֶךְ יְלָדַתּוּ אֲשֶׁר הִיא טוֹבָה לָךְ מִשִּׁבְעָה בָּנִים.
Ruth 4:14 And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be YHWH, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today! May his name be perpetuated in Israel! 4:15 He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.”
Ruth’s son with Boaz takes the place of one of Naomi’s sons, cut down in their youth. Do things work out well because ultimately YHWH simply has compassion? Does the deity appreciate and reward the moral backbone of Ruth and Naomi?
More likely, it is once again a matter of moral luck pointing to a world in which the deity lets the good happen, just as he allows the bad. The women, like the agricultural environment Naomi had left, have gone from barren emptiness to fullness, from alienation to the embrace of a loving community and the care of a now generous God.
Bad Things Happen to Good People: Coping and Overcoming
A trenchant theme in the Bible, and perhaps in all religious traditions, addresses the ways in which bad things happen to good people, offering possible explanations, questions of fairness, and deep matters of worldview. A strong thread in the Bible blames hardship on sins, variously defined.
Most striking in Ruth is that Naomi does regard God as the source of her troubles—indeed the deity controls all that happens—but she does not blame herself or Ruth. And just as the inscrutable God causes or allows her to suffer, the same deity reverses her fortunes for the good.
The message of Ruth as it relates to ethical questions ultimately seems to reinforce the positive value of people’s resilience, their capacity on their own to choose the good. Ruth supports her mother-in-law, who finds herself alone in the world, and she works hard within the contours of the law and local ethos to achieve goals and improve her life. Her boldness to ask for help and the belief that it might be given calls forth Boaz’s generosity in protecting and helping the women, in appreciating their pluckiness. YHWH has provided humans with these capacities but ultimately, they carve their own path. The narrative encourages readers to have hope even in the face of poverty, exile, depression, and other life challenges.
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Prof. Susan Niditch is Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College. She hold’s a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and her research deals with the cultures of ancient and early Judaism. Her particular interests include the study of ancient Israelite literature from the perspectives of folklore and oral studies; biblical ethics with special attention to war, gender, and the body; the reception history of the Bible; and the rich symbolic media of biblical ritual texts. Her most recent book is The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (Yale 2015). She is currently working on a new commentary on the Book of Jonah for the Hermeneia Series.
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