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The Dark Side of the Book of Ruth: Sexual Harassment in the Field

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Jonathan Rabinowitz

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The Dark Side of the Book of Ruth: Sexual Harassment in the Field

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The Dark Side of the Book of Ruth: Sexual Harassment in the Field

When Boaz sees Ruth gleaning in the field, and learns who she is, he offers her protection from his own workers’ predatory behavior, giving us a glimpse at what poor women, gleaning in the field, had to contend with.

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The Dark Side of the Book of Ruth: Sexual Harassment in the Field

Study for Ruth Gathering Wheat, (adapted) Edwin Long, 1829–1891. Wikimedia

The book of Ruth begins with famine in Bethlehem, which prompts Elimelech to move his family to Moab. Things go from bad to worse when Elimelech dies, followed by his two sons, leaving only the matriarch, Naomi, and two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. As Naomi returns home to Judah, she fails to convince Ruth to do the same and to return to Moab, leading to the integration of Ruth into Israelite society.

On the surface, everything works out for Ruth with relative ease. Once settled in Judah, Ruth gleans with other impoverished people on the fields of the wealthy, the standard charity practice at the time, as mentioned in the Torah (Lev 19:9–10; Deut 24:19–21).[1] Boaz, the owner of one field, a relative of her late father-in-law and husband, takes notice of her. He is kind to her, and the story leads to their levirate marriage and the redemption of the field; the story thus has a happy ending and, on the surface, a positive valence.

In line with this reading, Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963) writes that the Book of Ruth is “an idyll that is all peace and tranquility.”[2] And yet, if we slow down the action and look closely at the scene in which Ruth and Boaz meet, we can see that the story has a dark underbelly.

Ruth Needs to Find a Protector in the Fields

After arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth suggests that she will go collect grain with the other poor people, and Naomi accepts the idea:

רות ב:ב וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָה נָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִּׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי.
Ruth 2:2 Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose eyes I may find favor.” “Yes, daughter, go,” she replied.[3]

While it is the right of the poor to glean leftover grain on other people’s land, Ruth’s language suggests that she must rely on the largesse of a wealthy farmer to succeed in the endeavor. By “chance,” Ruth ends up in the field of a relative of Naomi’s late husband named Boaz:

רות ב:ג וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתָּבוֹא וַתְּלַקֵּט בַּשָּׂדֶה אַחֲרֵי הַקֹּצְרִים וַיִּקֶר מִקְרֶהָ חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה לְבֹעַז אֲשֶׁר מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ.
Ruth 2:3 And off she went. She came and gleaned in a field, behind the reapers; and, it chanced to happen, it was the piece of land belonging to Boaz, who was of Elimelech’s family.

Ruth Rabbah, a mid-first millennium midrash collection, based on a Hebrew pun that is sensitive to the unusual phrasing here sees sexual overtones in Ruth’s working on the field, glossing the phrase וַיִּקֶר מִקְרֶהָ (vayiqar miqrehah) “it chanced to happen” as referring to the reaction of the fieldhands:

רות רבה (לרנר) ד:ד א"ר יוחנן, מי שהיה רואה אותה היה מיריק קרי.
Ruth Rabbah 4:4 Rabbi Yohanan said: “Whoever would see her, would ejaculate seed (meiriq qeri).”

While this is a midrashic reading of the verse, Rabbi Yohanan is picking up on the danger of Ruth’s being treated like a sex object by countless men, unless she can find protection.

Why Does Boaz Notice Ruth?

When Boaz arrives, he immediately notices Ruth:

רות ב:ה וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז לְנַעֲרוֹ הַנִּצָּב עַל הַקּוֹצְרִים לְמִי הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת.
Ruth 2:5 Boaz said to the servant who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose girl is that?”

Why does Boaz ask about her? The simple reading may be because this was a small town, where everybody knows everybody, and she was a stranger. Ruth Rabbah suggests that she stood out for her modesty and propriety:

רות רבה ד.ו וְלָא הֲוָה חַכִּים לָהּ, אֶלָּא כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאָה אוֹתָהּ נְעִימָה וּמַעֲשֶׂיהָ נָאִים, הִתְחִיל שׁוֹאֵל עָלֶיהָ, כָּל הַנָּשִׁים שׁוֹחֲחוֹת וּמְלַקְּטוֹת וְזוֹ יוֹשֶׁבֶת וּמְלַקֶּטֶת. כָּל הַנָּשִׁים מְסַלְּקוֹת כְּלֵיהֶם, וְזוֹ מְשַׁלְשֶׁלֶת כֵּלֶיהָ. כָּל הַנָּשִׁים מְשַׂחֲקוֹת עִם הַקּוֹצְרִים, וְזוֹ מַצְנַעַת עַצְמָהּ. כָּל הַנָּשִׁים מְלַקְּטוֹת בֵּין הָעֳמָרִים, וְזוֹ מְלַקֶּטֶת מִן הַהֶפְקֵר.
Ruth Rabbah 4.6 He didn’t know her, but when he saw that she was pleasant and her behavior was admirable, he started to ask about her. “All the women chat as they gather, but this one sits and gathers. All the women raise up their skirts [to make walking easier], but this one keeps her skirts down. All the women flirt with the reapers, but this one acts modestly. All the women gather between the sheeves, but this one gathers from the abandoned grains.

A different approach, put forward by the Bible scholar, Michael Carasik, suggests that Boaz asks about her because he notices that Ruth is upset and leaving, and wants to know what happened.[4]

The Servant’s Response: A Moabite Woman

The servant responds to Boaz that Ruth is not a local:

רות ב:ו וַיַּעַן הַנַּעַר הַנִּצָּב עַל הַקּוֹצְרִים וַיֹּאמַר נַעֲרָה מוֹאֲבִיָּה הִיא הַשָּׁבָה עִם נָעֳמִי מִשְּׂדֵה מוֹאָב.
Ruth 2:6 The servant in charge of the reapers replied, “She is a Moabite girl who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.”

The 16th century commentator, R. Moshe Alshech suggests that the servant was picking up on Boaz’s possible interest in the woman, and was trying to quelch that by noting she was a foreigner:

אלשיך על רות ב:ו כי בשמעו שאול שאל האיש למי הנערה הזאת והוא היה אלמון והיא פנויה יפה עד מאד אמר בלבו אין זה כ"א עיניו נתן בה וחשק בה לקחתה לו לאשה ולא טוב הדבר בעיני הנער.
Alshech Ruth 2:6 For when he heard [Boaz] ask “Whose girl is that?” and he (=Boaz) being a widower and her a very pretty woman, [the servant] said to himself that it must be that [Boaz] has cast his eyes upon her and desires to take her as a wife, and that was not a good thing in the servant’s eyes.

Carasik, however, reads the servant’s reference to Ruth as a Moabite as an excuse for bad treatment of her, saying essentially to Boaz: “so maybe the boys went a little overboard with her, but she’s only a Moabite girl, not one of us.”

This attitude toward Ruth comports with other biblical stories that present Moabite women as licentious: their ancestor Moab is said to be born of incest (Gen 18:37) and one of the major sins in the wilderness was Israelite men “being seduced” by Moabite women (Num 25:1). Thus the servant’s excuse can also be read as victim blaming, “you know what Moabite women are like.”[5]

The Stuttering Servant

The servant continues with more details about Ruth’s behavior:

רות ב:ז וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלַקֳטָה נָּא וְאָסַפְתִּי בָעֳמָרִים אַחֲרֵי הַקּוֹצְרִים וַתָּבוֹא וַתַּעֲמוֹד מֵאָז הַבֹּקֶר וְעַד עַתָּה זֶה שִׁבְתָּהּ הַבַּיִת מְעָט.
Ruth 2:7 “She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ She has been on her feet ever since she came this morning. This one has rested but little at home.”

On the surface, the servant presents Ruth as unassuming and hardworking.[6] Nevertheless, the grammar is off in the servant’s comment. If by “this one” he meant Ruth, he should have used the feminine זאת and not the masculine זה. Also, the word שבתה is an unusual form. This has led to a serious debate among interpreters about how to translate the phrase.

In his Anchor Bible commentary (ad loc.), Edward Campbell uses empty brackets instead of translating the phrase, explaining that, “It is likely that the precise meaning here will permanently elude us.”[7] Daniel Lys divides the four words into two sentences: “this [field] has been her dwelling; the house [has meant] little.[8] Michael Moore, suggests that שבתה is used as word play with Shabbat, to highlight her conversion.[9]

Derek Beattie sees the word זה as a midrashic gloss, with the word “this” to be understood as “this means” or “this is because.”[10] Avi Hurwitz, who wrote in response to Beattie, suggests that the man is stuttering, and the writing is purposefully incoherent, to show he is nervous.[11]

Like Hurwitz, Carasik reads the phrase as a kind of nervous stutter, but explains it as due to bad treatment Ruth received: “This fellow [=the guy who assaulted her], um... she’s just going home for a bit.” In Carasik’s reading, Boaz sees Ruth leaving upset, and catches his foreman in the embarrassment of having to explain why.

Boaz’s Instructions Not to Touch Ruth

Whether because he’s attracted to her, impressed with her behavior, or embarrassed by how she has been treated, Boaz offers her reassurance:

רות ב:ח וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז אֶל רוּת הֲלוֹא שָׁמַעַתְּ בִּתִּי אַל תֵּלְכִי לִלְקֹט בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר וְגַם לֹא תַעֲבוּרִי מִזֶּה וְכֹה תִדְבָּקִין עִם נַעֲרֹתָי. ב:ט עֵינַיִךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר יִקְצֹרוּן וְהָלַכְתְּ אַחֲרֵיהֶן הֲלוֹא צִוִּיתִי אֶת הַנְּעָרִים לְבִלְתִּי נָגְעֵךְ וְצָמִת וְהָלַכְתְּ אֶל הַכֵּלִים וְשָׁתִית מֵאֲשֶׁר יִשְׁאֲבוּן הַנְּעָרִים.
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. 2:9 Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to naga you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.”

Boaz makes several points: Ruth should not to go to any other field. While this could simply be an expression of largesse—he wants to be the one to support her—he may also be warning her that elsewhere she will not get the same protection he is about to offer. Even on his field, she should stay near his girls, i.e., not his men. As earlier we are told she was “behind the (male) reapers,” and did not walk with the girls in Boaz’s field, this is a new development, putting her in a safe position.

Boaz further promises her that she will be safe from the men when she leaves the women to go to get water—perhaps implying (following Carasik) that this is how the trouble began. Note that in the story of Moses and the daughters of Reuel, we see that leaving the safety of home to get water can be dangerous for women:

שמות ב:טז וּלְכֹהֵן מִדְיָן שֶׁבַע בָּנוֹת וַתָּבֹאנָה וַתִּדְלֶנָה וַתְּמַלֶּאנָה אֶת הָרְהָטִים לְהַשְׁקוֹת צֹאן אֲבִיהֶן. ב:יז וַיָּבֹאוּ הָרֹעִים וַיְגָרְשׁוּם וַיָּקָם מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹשִׁעָן וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאנָם.
Exod 2:16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; 2:17 but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.

“Touch” or “Molest”?

Most revealing is that the men have been warned not to נ.ג.ע her. The term נ.ג.ע can mean “touch” (e.g., Lev 11:39), or “strike” (e.g., Josh 9:19), or as the Vulgate translates, “molestus,” meaning, “annoy or trouble.” Here, נ.ג.ע probably has a sexual connotation. When Abimelech takes Sarah as a wife, for instance, God stops him from “touching her,” i.e., initiating sexual contact with her:

בראשית כ:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ מֵחֲטוֹ לִי עַל כֵּן לֹא נְתַתִּיךָ לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ.
Gen 20:6 And God said to him in the dream, “I knew that you did this with a blameless heart, and so I kept you from sinning against Me. That was why I did not let you touch her.”

Similarly, in Proverbs, we read:

משלי ו:כט כֵּן הַבָּא אֶל אֵשֶׁת רֵעֵהוּ לֹא יִנָּקֶה כָּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהּ.
Prov 6:29 It is the same with one who sleeps with his fellow’s wife; None who touches her will go unpunished.

Here נֹּגֵעַ refers to unwanted sexual contact.[12] Gila Vachman of the Hebrew University uses the Hebrew term הטרדה, “harassment” to describe the concern. She further points out that, as a foreign woman with no social status, Ruth would have been an easy target for sexual harassment by the workers in the field and notes that from Boaz we learn of a bleak reality. As Vachman notes, one can only wonder about the situation for other poor women who were working at the sides of the fields and had to withstand the rape culture that likely pervaded the male pickers: crassness, insults, and physical harassment.[13]

Boaz’s Further Instructions: The Problem of Shaming

At mealtime, Boaz instructs Ruth to break bread with him and the reapers and partake in some of the tastier food (verse 14). When they all go back to work, Boaz issues instructions and warnings to his crew:

רות ב:טו וַתָּקָם לְלַקֵּט וַיְצַו בֹּעַז אֶת נְעָרָיו לֵאמֹר גַּם בֵּין הָעֳמָרִים תְּלַקֵּט וְלֹא תַכְלִימוּהָ. ב:טז וְגַם שֹׁל תָּשֹׁלּוּ לָהּ מִן הַצְּבָתִים וַעֲזַבְתֶּם וְלִקְּטָה וְלֹא תִגְעֲרוּ בָהּ.
Ruth 2:15 When she got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, “You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without shaming her,[14] 2:16 but you must also pull some [stalks] out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.”[15]

From Boaz’s instructions of what not to do, we learn what would generally happen if a poor person were to gather in the wrong way. The environment was thus not simple for the poor, who would have been nervous to offend the reapers and be put in their place through public humiliation. In Carasik’s reading, Boaz allows Ruth to take food and glean wherever she wants, not only out of his interest in her or Naomi, but as reparations of a sort for how she has been treated thus far.

Naomi’s Understanding: Not Just “Touch”

Naomi’s reaction when Ruth returns home with an overflowing bag is indicative of the challenges she expected Ruth to face, just to be allowed to glean:

רות ב:יח ...וַתֵּרֶא חֲמוֹתָהּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר לִקֵּטָה וַתּוֹצֵא וַתִּתֶּן לָהּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הוֹתִרָה מִשָּׂבְעָהּ. ב:יט וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ חֲמוֹתָהּ אֵיפֹה לִקַּטְתְּ הַיּוֹם וְאָנָה עָשִׂית יְהִי מַכִּירֵךְ בָּרוּךְ...
Ruth 2:18 …When her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned, and when she also took out and gave her what she had left over after eating her fill, 2:19 her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be he who took such generous notice of you!”

Ruth tells Naomi that the man was Boaz, and Naomi is surprised and excited, as she apparently did not expect anything good to come from him:

רות ב:כ וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לְכַלָּתָהּ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַי־הוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַמֵּתִים וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי קָרוֹב לָנוּ הָאִישׁ מִגֹּאֲלֵנוּ הוּא.
Ruth 2:20 Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of YHWH, who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead!” And Naomi said to her, “the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen.”

Ruth’s Naiveté

Ruth then shares additional details about her interaction with Boaz:

רות ב:כא וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה גַּם כִּי אָמַר אֵלַי עִם הַנְּעָרִים אֲשֶׁר לִי תִּדְבָּקִין עַד אִם כִּלּוּ אֵת כָּל הַקָּצִיר אֲשֶׁר לִי.
Ruth 2:21 Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.’”

Notably, Ruth has misstated Boaz’s instructions: Boaz told her to walk with the girls, not the boys. Yair Zakovitch, in his commentary, suggests that this is simply a scribal error for נערות,[16] but notes that the midrash makes hay of this misstatement:

רות רבה (לרנר) פרשה ה א"ר חנן בן לוי, בודאי מואביה היא. הוא אומר, וכה תדבקין עם נערותי (רות ב:ח) והיא אמרה, עם הנערים אשר לי תדבקין.
Rabbi Hanan bar Levi said: “Clearly she is a Moabite. He said (Ruth 2:8) “stick with my girls” and she said [that he said] (Ruth 2:21) “stick with my boys.”[17]

Naomi discerns Boaz’s meaning, however, and reiterates his actual point, using a more descriptive verb:

רות ב:כב וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי אֶל רוּת כַּלָּתָהּ טוֹב בִּתִּי כִּי תֵצְאִי עִם נַעֲרוֹתָיו וְלֹא יִפְגְּעוּ בָךְ בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר.
Ruth 2:22 And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and they not paga you in some other field.”

Naomi uses the verb פ.ג.ע instead of נ.ג.ע. While the former term can have the neutral connotation of “meet” (e.g., 1 Sam 10:5),[18] here, with the preposition be, it typically has the negative meaning of “assault.”[19] Indeed, even with the translation “meet,” sexual assault is likely what is envisioned. For example, in Deuteronomy rape is depicted as something that takes place when a man encounters a woman alone in the field:

דברים כב:כה וְאִם בַּשָּׂדֶה יִמְצָא הָאִישׁ אֶת (הנער) [הַנַּעֲרָה] הַמְאֹרָשָׂה וְהֶחֱזִיק בָּהּ הָאִישׁ וְשָׁכַב עִמָּהּ וּמֵת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר שָׁכַב עִמָּהּ לְבַדּוֹ. כב:כו (ולנער) [וְלַנַּעֲרָה] לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה דָבָר אֵין (לנער) [לַנַּעֲרָה] חֵטְא מָוֶת כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָקוּם אִישׁ עַל רֵעֵהוּ וּרְצָחוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כֵּן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. כב:כז כִּי בַשָּׂדֶה מְצָאָהּ צָעֲקָה (הנער) [הַנַּעֲרָה] הַמְאֹרָשָׂה וְאֵין מוֹשִׁיעַ לָהּ.
Deut 22:25 But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the party who lay with her shall die, 22:26 but you shall do nothing to the girl. The girl did not incur the death penalty, for this case is like that of one party attacking and murdering another. 22:27 He came upon her in the open country; though the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her.[20]

Thus, we see the precarious position of Ruth, as an unprotected foreign young woman working in a field with men.

Ruth and the Concubine from Gibeah

In Tanakh as we have it now, the book of Ruth is part of the Five Megillot [scrolls], each of which (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) is read on a different Jewish holiday. In the LXX, however, Ruth was placed immediately after Judges, and Josephus, who lists 22 biblical books (Against Apion, 1:8), seems to think of Ruth as part of Judges, the time in which the story is set:

רות א:א וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ...
Ruth 1:1 In the days when the Judges ruled, there was a famine in the land…

If we read Ruth as an appendix to Judges, it follows immediately after the story of the violent gang rape of the concubine of Gibeah, whose husband offers her to the mob to protect himself, and which leads to a civil war ending in the kidnapping of girls from Shiloh.[21] The rape culture is endemic to both stories. In the concubine story, however, the woman is betrayed by her own husband, while in Ruth, Boaz comes to her rescue, and protects her. As Orit Avnery notes,

The Book of Ruth is a hopeful alternative to the terrible story of the concubine, who was left outside—unsuccessful in her attempt to cross the threshold and pass the night in peace. In Ruth, we find that even concerning a foreign woman, in every sense, there is a moral imperative for individuals and society to take care of her, as Boaz decided, and ensure that she survives the night (metaphorically and literally). The entire congregation, and in effect the entire future kingdom, will benefit from this process. Ruth represents an opportunity for rectification and continuation…[22]

Published

May 23, 2023

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Last Updated

December 31, 2023

Footnotes

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Prof. Jonathan Rabinowitz is the Elie Wiesel Professor at Bar Ilan University. His Ph.D. is in Social Welfare and Statistics. Rabinowitz is a fellow of the American College Neuropsychopharmacology and a member of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.