The Substance of Kinship: How Ruth the Moabite Became a Daughter in Judah
The book of Ruth as a whole narrates the gradual transformation of Ruth the Moabite into an Israelite, and her integration within the Judahite clan of Elimelech in Bethlehem. The stages of Ruth’s processual transformation begin with her decision to remain with Naomi and move with her back to Judah. Ruth’s decision is articulated in the form of a loyalty oath that she swears to Naomi, her land, her people and her god:
רות א:טז 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 Do not urge me to abandon you, to return from following after you. For where you go, I will go and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your god, my god. 1:17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may YHWH do to me and more if death separates me from you.
Mark Smith, a scholar of biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies at Princeton University (formerly at NYU), has argued that through this oath, Ruth seeks a “change of identity” from Moabite to Judahite. This change will be accomplished as part of a process, in “the steps of life that the two women take together” in the remaining scenes of the story.
Family, Food, Foreigners and Fields
Chapter 2 introduces the character of Boaz, a wealthy member of the extended family of Elimelech, Ruth’s deceased husband, and immediately juxtaposes him with Ruth the foreigner:
רות ב:א וּלְנָעֳמִי (מידע) [מוֹדַע] לְאִישָׁהּ אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר חַיִל מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ וּשְׁמוֹ בֹּעַז. ב:ב וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה אֶל נָעֳמִי אֵלְכָה נָּא הַשָּׂדֶה וַאֲלַקֳטָה בַשִּׁבֳּלִים אַחַר אֲשֶׁר אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ לְכִי בִתִּי.
Ruth 2:1 To Naomi there was a man, known to her husband, a man of wealth and prominence, from the clan of Elimelech, and his name was Boaz. 2:2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi “Permit me go to the field so that I might glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose eyes I might find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”
Before Boaz’s name is spoken, two words identify him as an insider connected to Naomi through her husband: He is a “relative” or “someone known to” (מידע or מודע) Elimelech, and he is part of the “family” or “clan” (המשפחה) of Elimelech. In contrast, verse 2 begins by describing Ruth as המואביה “the Moabite,” but ends with Naomi calling her בתי “my daughter.” These two verses capture the transitional phase that Ruth finds herself in when she and Naomi arrive destitute in Bethlehem.
As the story continues, Ruth happens upon the field that belongs to Boaz, a gibbor ḥayil (גבור חיל)—literally “a powerful hero” but meaning something like “a man of substance”—and he arrives to find this new woman gleaning in his field. After learning Ruth’s identity, Boaz immediately grants her permission to glean and offers her his protection. Both of these acts present Boaz as a kind and generous benefactor, and the text continues with Boaz giving Ruth three directives, each of which I will examine in turn.
1. Stay in My Field
Addressing Ruth as “my daughter,” Boaz tells her to remain in his field:
רות ב:ח הֲלוֹא שָׁמַעַתְּ בִּתִּי אַל תֵּלְכִי לִלְקֹט בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר וְגַם לֹא תַעֲבוּרִי מִזֶּה וְכֹה תִדְבָּקִין עִם נַעֲרֹתָי. ב:ט עֵינַיִךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר יִקְצֹרוּן וְהָלַכְתְּ אַחֲרֵיהֶן...
Ruth 2:8 Listen my daughter, do not go to glean in another field, and don’t cross over from this one. Rather, stay close to my young women 2:9 Keep your eyes on the field where they are reaping, and follow behind them….
As noted by André LaCocque, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible at Chicago Theological Seminary, the narrator repeatedly links Ruth to “the notion of ‘field.’” Ruth goes to the “field” to glean and happens to end up in the “field belonging to Boaz” (2:3). When Boaz asks who she is, his servant identifies her as “the Moabite” from “the fields of Moab.”
The centrality of the field is not limited to this passage, but functions as bookends for the narrative portion of the book. Chapter one identifies Ruth as coming from “the fields of Moab”(1:1, 2, 6, 22), and in chapter four, Boaz ties her to the field of Elimelech, indicating that the kinsman who redeems this field will also acquire “Ruth the Moabite as a wife” (4:3-6). For LaCocque, “Boaz’s field symbolizes the land of Israel,” and Ruth’s “assimilation among Boaz’s ‘young women’ is her integration in Israel.”
Anthropologist James Leach, whose ethnographic research focuses on the Reite people on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea, uses the term “placedness” to emphasize the importance of “place” in the formation of a person and in the establishment of kinship bonds. He speaks of a person and a land being “enfolded” into one another in a “process of becoming.”
In this process of becoming, it is not the kinship categories of lineage and descent that are important. Instead, “the life cycle, and particularly the ascription of identity and relatedness through activities” construct relatedness between people. People and places impact and shape each other, such that “places enter directly into the generation of persons, while persons – through their work – engender places.”
This might explain why we don’t find Ruth sitting around in the house of Naomi. Instead, we see her immediately go out and work the land; she gleans and gathers in the field belonging to Boaz. By keeping her eyes on his field and staying close to his women, she enacts part of her loyalty oath, enfolding herself into a new land and a new people.
2. Drink Water Drawn by My Men
Boaz’s second directive to Ruth is to drink water from his vessels drawn by his men.
רות ב:ט הֲלוֹא צִוִּיתִי אֶת הַנְּעָרִים לְבִלְתִּי נָגְעֵךְ וְצָמִת וְהָלַכְתְּ אֶל הַכֵּלִים וְשָׁתִית מֵאֲשֶׁר יִשְׁאֲבוּן הַנְּעָרִים.
Ruth 2:9 I have ordered the young men not to touch you. If you are thirsty, walk over to the vessels and drink from those that the young men have drawn.
Offering Ruth water goes far beyond what was expected of a landowner in his position and is not necessary if the goal of the storyteller is simply to present Boaz as generous. Several commentators, among them Lacocque, have noted that this command is a reversal of the Rebekah story where Rebekah draws water for Abraham’s servant and for his camels (Gen 24: 15-21). Noting this reversal, he marvels, “a Judean serves a Moabite and a woman drinks water drawn by men.” Kirsten Nielsen, professor at Denmark’s Aarhus University, comments, “drawing water is a woman’s job, women draw water for men, even male servants.”
Moreover, by serving a Moabite woman water, Boaz flouts common wisdom. Proverbs 5 warns against allowing outsiders to steal one’s wealth, “lest foreigners sate themselves with the product of your labor” (פֶּן יִשְׂבְּעוּ זָרִים כֹּחֶךָ; Prov 5:10). It then recommends,
משלי ה:טו שְׁתֵה מַיִם מִבּוֹרֶךָ וְנֹזְלִים מִתּוֹךְ בְּאֵרֶךָ.
Prov 5:15 Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well.
This suggests a belief and practice of insularity and protectiveness with regard to a family or clan’s proprietary water source.
Why does the text show the honorable Boaz, a gibbor ḥayil, worrying over a foreign worker’s water source? Again, we appear to have a symbolic act here that demonstrates that Boaz does not consider Ruth a foreigner, but kin. This tension regarding Ruth’s identity is made explicit in a conversation Boaz and Ruth have immediately after this directive.
Stranger or Kin?
In the verse just following Boaz’s offer of water, Ruth deploys a pun when she exclaims in gratitude:
רות ב:י מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה.
Ruth 2:10 “Why have I found favor in your site, that you should take notice of me when I am a foreigner?”
The wordplay and assonance between these two words suggest that the “foreigner” or “the unrecognized one” (הנוכריה) has become one who is “recognized” or “known,” (להכירני).
Boaz responds by telling Ruth that he has heard her story, and by giving her a lengthy blessing that further solidifies Ruth’s claim to the land of Israel by tying her migration to that of Abraham and by placing her under the protection of Israel’s god:
רות ב:יא 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 It has surely been reported to me all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband. How you abandoned your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and went to a people that you did not know. 2:12 May YHWH reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from YHWH, the god of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!
Following this blessing, Ruth refers to herself for the first time as “your maidservant” (שפחתך), a term that subtly enfolds her within the clan (המשפחה) of Boaz (2:13).
3. Sit Beside My Reapers and Eat Bread
At mealtime, Boaz adds a third and more far reaching provision, when he personally invites Ruth to eat with his workers:
רות ב:יד גֹּשִׁי הֲלֹם וְאָכַלְתְּ מִן הַלֶּחֶם וְטָבַלְתְּ פִּתֵּךְ בַּחֹמֶץ
Ruth 2:14 Come here and eat some of the bread, and dip a morsel in the sour wine.
Ruth then “sits beside the reapers” (וַתֵּשֶׁב מִצַּד הַקּוֹצְרִים), not with Boaz’s young women or with the other gleaners. She has a seat beside the male workers who do the main harvesting. Boaz then serves Ruth:
ב:יד וַיִּצְבָּט לָהּ קָלִי וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּשְׂבַּע וַתֹּתַר.
2:14 He handed her the roasted grain, and she ate until she was satisfied and there was still some leftover.
In this mealtime scene, Boaz invites Ruth to take part in the staple starch produced in his fields, bread. He invites her to share in the product of his clan labor, and he personally serves her “roasted grain” grown on his fields. In fact, the repeated tying of Ruth to “fields” noted earlier also emphasizes the significance of the food produced on those fields through the labor of humans associated with that field.
The importance of Boaz’s directive to eat together with him is best understood in the context of anthropological theories about the role of food and shared food consumption in kinship formation.
The Processual Nature of Kinship
Anthropologists focusing on kinship studies in the last several decades have moved away from the idea that birth into a family establishes one’s kinship with that family for all time. Instead, they have asserted that kinship or “relatedness” is best understood as processual.
Anthropologists Monica Janowski, who conducted fieldwork in Malaysia, asserts that “sex merely initiates a person.” It is the ongoing feeding of a person throughout life that “is vital in the production of a human being.” Relatedness must be “built up through appropriate feeding throughout life.” Similarly, Janet Carsten, who also conducted fieldwork on Malaysia, argues that “It is through living and consuming together in houses that people become complete persons – that is, kin.” “Personhood, relatedness, and feeding,” she argues, “are intimately connected.”
Emphasizing the importance of the shared consumption of “everyday food,” Janowski marks a division between the “core starch” and “fringe” elements of the diet. She notes that the core starch—rice in Malaysia—is grown on one’s own land and produced with significant difficulty through one’s own labor. Janowski suggests that the reason that rice is such a powerful substance in Southeast Asian societies – in her words “rice constructs kinship” – is that rice is a crop that requires “human help to allow it to grow.”
Bread: Ancient Israel’s Core Starch
For ancient Israel, the staple starch was bread. Nathan MacDonald, professor of Bible at the University of Cambridge, estimates that “For the typical Israelite, bread or other grain-based foods such as porridge probably contributed over half their calorific intake, with estimates varying between 53 and 75 percent.”
Jennie Ebeling, an archaeologist at the University of Evansville focusing on the Iron I village economy in the Central Highlands, lists “barley, wheat, and lentils” as the “main crop” in ancient Israel with vegetables, grapes, olives, and pomegranates as the supplementary food items. Carol Meyers, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University, calls the grains of cereal crops “the mainstay of the Israelite diet for most people throughout the Iron Age.”
In the ancient Israelite village economy, growing and harvesting grain and processing it into bread was a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that required the participation of an entire family. By the time a family gathered around a table to share a loaf of bread, each member would likely have contributed significant labor “by the sweat of their faces.”
Boaz’s directives to Ruth to stay on his land, drink from his well, and most significantly, to eat of his grain, must be understood in this context.
Integrating into Judah and Boaz’s Clan
The sequence of events in the book of Ruth is significant for demonstrating the role of food and feeding in the processual transformation of Ruth the Moabite from foreigner to family. The book highlights the centrality of bread at the very beginning. The story starts with the announcement of a famine:
רות א:א וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ...
Ruth 1:1 In the days when judges ruled, there was a famine in the land…
The famine occurs in Bethlehem (בית לחם), “The House of Bread,”—the book of Ruth delights in wordplay—and ends when YHWH “remembers to give bread (לחם) to his people” (Ruth 1:6). Eventually, Ruth will marry the man who gives her of his grain and will become part of his clan.
This is further highlighted by the book’s use of the imagery of fields, as noted above. In chapter one, Ruth swears a loyalty oath to Naomi and relocates from the “fields of Moab” to “the land of Judah.” In chapter two, she finds herself on the “field belonging to Boaz,” where she contributes her labor through gleaning and regularly partakes of the produce of those fields by eating Boaz’s bread and parched grain and drinking water from his vessels. Also, the important scenes in which Boaz blesses Ruth, and in which Ruth appears by his feet at night and asks for redemption, all occur in his fields.
Fields and grain, of course, are intimately connected, and the main action of the narrative, from Naomi’s return to the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, all take place in during the approximately two months spanning the sequential barley and wheat harvests. During this time, Boaz provisions Ruth from the grain he grows on his fields, which his workers cook, and Ruth eats with his people.
This means that by the time Ruth and Boaz marry and conceive Obed (Ruth 4:13), Ruth is already well into the process of becoming substantively Judean. Obed, the grandfather of David, could, at the very least, be considered a little less Moabite on account of Ruth’s food-based transformation.
Ruth and Shavuot
The book of Ruth is read by Jews on Shavuot, ostensibly because of the wheat harvest connection. As Jews the world over celebrate the festival, they will gather around a table adorned with fresh flowers and greens and enjoy a family feast rich in dairy. As family members tuck into the cheese blintzes, they should realize that through the shared ingesting of the flour-based crepes, they are reaffirming their kinship ties in a way reminiscent of Boaz and Ruth’s simple meal of roasted wheat dipped in sour wine. Can somebody please pass the blintzes?
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May 21, 2020
January 18, 2021
Prof. Cynthia Chapman is the Adelia A. F. Johnston and Harry Thomas Frank Professor of Religion and the Chair of the Jewish Studies Program Committee at Oberlin College where she has taught biblical studies for eighteen years. She is the author of The House of the Mother: The Social Function of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2016) and The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (Eisenbrauns, 2004). She has also produced a course for the Teaching Company’s Great Courses series called The World of Biblical Israel and has served as co-editor with Michael D. Coogan on A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament and The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019). Her current research traces the growing importance of maternally specific kinship categories, including food-based kinship, during the post-exilic period in order to document the origins of defining Jewishness through the mother.
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