Naomi’s Child: The Movement toward Kingship

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler

 

MEGILLAT RUTH

By Dr. Yael Ziegler

 

Shiur #35: Naomi’s Child: The Movement toward Kingship

 

 

And Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. And he came to her and God gave her pregnancy and she gave birth to a son. (Ruth 4:13)

 

            Ruth’s pregnancy is undoubtedly one of the climactic moments in the narrative. The book opened with little hope for Ruth’s future in Bethlehem. Having made her choice to stay with Naomi, Ruth’s prospects for marriage and a family seem meager indeed. And yet, like other biblical women in a similar predicament, Ruth does not remain childless.[1] Her situation is remedied and the ill-fated woman gives birth to a son. The divine source of Ruth’s remedy may itself be unsurprising, but the actual formulation of her conception is no less than shocking. While other women are “remembered” or “heard” by God so that subsequently they become pregnant (e.g. Bereishit 21:1; 30:22-23; I Shmuel 1:19-20), Ruth is actually “given pregnancy” by God.[2]

 

If God’s direct intervention is unusual for biblical descriptions of conception, it is even more unexpected in Megillat Ruth. Despite the frequency with which God is mentioned by various characters in the Megilla, there are only two occasions in which God actually directly intercedes in the story. The first occasion is at the very opening of the Megilla, when Naomi hears that God has remembered His nation and given them bread (1:6). God’s only other direct involvement is in our verse (4:13), where He is said to give Ruth conception.[3] The same verb for give (natan) is used in both descriptions.[4] It is fitting that God intervenes to resolve both the problem of food and the problem of progeny. As we have seen, these are the two major problems facing Naomi and Ruth. In chapters two and three, it appears that Boaz is the source of food and progeny for Ruth, while Ruth presents to Naomi what Boaz has given her. But the original source of both food and progeny is, of course, God.

 

Boaz functions as a conduit for God’s blessings in the narrative, distributing the food and seed (zera) which God provides. This idea is conveyed in several ways. Each time that Naomi blesses Ruth with divine favor, it is Boaz who brings this blessing to fruition. For example, Naomi blesses Ruth[5] that God should reward her in two ways: first, He should do kindness with her, as Ruth herself did with the living and the dead, and second, He should give her repose (menucha) in the house of her husband (1:8-9). Naomi’s blessings are fulfilled not by God, but by Boaz. The quest for Ruth’s repose (mano’ach) centers on Boaz (3:1-2, “ha’lo avakesh lach manoach…ve’ata ha’lo Boaz...”), who gives her food (and recognition) in his field. Naomi acknowledges that her blessing to Ruth has been fulfilled by blessing Boaz with the same words: “Blessed is he [Boaz] to God, who has not abandoned his kindness with the living or the dead” (2:20). The ambiguous referent – who here has done kindness with the living and the dead, Boaz or God?[6] – underscores the deliberate blurring of roles between Boaz and God. Boaz becomes the human medium of divine will in this narrative.

 

A second way in which we can detect Boaz’s role as an agent of God’s blessings is in his bid to confer upon Ruth God’s divine reward: “God shall repay you your deeds and your reward shall be complete from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to get protection” (2:12). Ruth later amends Boaz’s blessing, informing Boaz that he is the one who should spread his wings over her (3:9). In this way, Ruth shifts responsibility from God onto Boaz, suggesting once again that Boaz is the vehicle through which God consummates His Will.

 

Boaz’s role in this story prepares us for the monarchy. One basic idea of the monarchy is that the king functions as a representative of God. God is the actual king, but the divinely selected king does God’s Will and provides the nation with God’s bounty. The king fights wars as a representative of God,[7] provides food as an agent of God,[8] and offers blessings in God’s name to the nation.[9] This is one critical component of Boaz’s role in the story. By acting as the vehicle of God, Boaz paves the way for his descendants, the Davidic dynasty, to function in a like manner.

 

Ruth also prepares her royal descendants for their relationship with God. The king is also meant to teach the people how to interact with God. He does this by modeling exemplary behavior in the religious and social realms. The social interactions of the king can also be a model to instruct humans how to interact, not simply with each other, but ultimately with God. We noted this idea when we examined the description of Ruth cleaving to Naomi (1:14) using the word “davak,” “to cleave,” which is generally employed to instruct humans on their relationship with God. It thus appears that Ruth and Boaz each function in a manner that is meant to prepare the kings from the Davidic dynasty for their primary role as an intermediary in the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.

 

Love and Blessings

 

And the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is God who has not withheld from you a go’el today! And his name shall be called in Israel. And he shall be for you someone who restores your life and provides for your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you, has given birth to him, and she is better for you than seven sons.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

 

The women offer Naomi a speech of joy and hope, birth and fertility. Naomi has been revived, can expect good instead of misfortune, and has received love and protection. The birth of this child solves both problems which with the book opened: continuity and food. Moreover, this is a speech of acceptance, a speech that approves of Ruth, and facilitates her entrance into the community of Israel.

 

Two turns of phrase in the women’s speech deserve special mention. One is the phrase “meishiv nefesh,” “a restorer of life.” The root shuv (to return or restore) was a key word in the first chapter, appearing twelve times. In that chapter, the word shuv describes Naomi’s return to Bethlehem (1:6-7),[10] her attempts to persuade Ruth and Orpah to return to their own people (1:8, 11, 12, 15), and her reluctant acceptance of Ruth’s “return” to Bethlehem alongside her (1:10, 16, 22). In Ruth 2:6, the foreman employs this word (perhaps ironically) about Ruth in a manner that underscores her foreign status in Bethlehem. The verb is used only once in a causative sense, when Naomi bitterly declares that God has returned her empty (1:21). This ubiquitous word all but disappears from the narrative, resurfacing in the women’s blessing in its only other appearance in the causative form (4:15). In this way, the phrase “meishiv nefesh” recalls Naomi’s despondent complaint. Here, however, the child restores life, reversing the emptiness that Naomi had claimed God caused. The despair that characterized Naomi’s return in the first chapter has thus been reversed.

 

The second word that merits our attention is the word “ahav,” to love. Oddly, for a narrative that has marriage as its focus, this verb has not yet appeared in our story. Even more surprising is the fact that the word ahav never describes the relationship between Boaz and Ruth. Instead, this word appears at the culmination of the narrative to describe Ruth’s unusual devotion to her mother-in-law – but not in the context of Naomi’s feelings for Ruth. This, then, is the real anchor of the story. This story is not a romance between a man and a woman, nor a story of love that has expectations of reciprocity, but a story of one-sided commitment and unconditional love. Ruth’s ability to give without taking, to see the other while nullifying herself, once again emerges as the mainstay of our narrative.

 

This joy-filled speech brings to a close the abundance of blessings that we have encountered in our brief narrative. Indeed, this is a book of blessings.[11] The book opens with Naomi’s blessing to her daughters-in-law as she sends them back to Moav: “God shall give you and you shall find repose, each woman in the house of a husband” (1:9). A similar blessing is bestowed upon Ruth by Boaz: “God shall repay you your deeds and your reward shall be complete from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to get protection” (2:11-12).[12]

 

Chapter two is filled with blessings for Boaz. The first explicit blessing in the book (using the word “bareikh”) is bestowed upon Boaz by the reapers: “God shall bless you” (2:4). Naomi first blesses him without knowing his identity: “Let the one who recognized you be blessed!” (2:19). Once she learns Boaz’s identity, Naomi blesses him again: “Blessed is he to God, who has not withheld his kindness from the living or the dead” (2:20). In chapter three, Boaz blesses Ruth: “Blessed are you to God, my daughter, for you have shown more kindness in the latter [case] than in the first [case], in that you did not follow the young men whether poor or rich” (3:10). A midrash notes how unexpected this blessing is, pointing out that Boaz could just as easily have cursed Ruth:[13]

 

“The fears (cherdat) of a man may become a trap for him” (Mishlei 29:25). This is the fear (charada) that Ruth caused Boaz: “And it was at the midpoint of the night. [And the man trembled (va-yecharad) and he grasped.]” “May become a trap.” By all rights, he should have cursed her, but, “The one who trusts in God shall be protected” (Mishlei 29:25). [God] put [the idea] in [Boaz’s] heart and he blessed her [instead], as it says, “Blessed are you to God, my daughter.” (Ruth Rabba 6:1)

 

According to this midrash, it is God who is actually responsible for Boaz’s blessing. Boaz wakes up in the night to find someone lying next to him. In his fear and confusion, his instinctive reaction should be to issue a curse upon the intruder. Instead, recognizing Ruth’s piety and trust in God, Boaz issues a blessing.

 

The incongruity of the blessing is not simply because of the immediate circumstances, but also because of the broader reality in which this scene takes place. The book of Shoftim begins with blessings (e.g. Shofteim 1:15) and continues with both blessing and curses (Shoftim 5:24). Nevertheless, the book deteriorates, and blessings eventually give way to curses, which hold sway at the end of the book.[14] The final blessing in the book is actually a desperate attempt to reverse a curse, angrily flung by a woman who does not know that the thief whom she has rashly cursed is in fact her own son (Shoftim 17:2): “And he said to his mother, ‘The eleven hundred silver shekels that were taken and then you cursed and you said it in my hearing, behold the money is with me, I took it!’ And his mother said, ‘Blessed is my son to God.’” The final chapter of the book of Shoftim contains a devastating curse: “Cursed be the man who gives a wife to Binyamin” (Shoftim 21:18). This curse spells the demise of the tribe of Binyamin, and, consequently, the end of the twelve-tribe unit of Israel.

 

The period that ushers in kingship begins with blessings brought about by Shmuel (I Shmuel 2:20; 9:13). As the book progresses, it seems clear that Shaul will not be the king who brings blessings (I Shmuel 13:10; 15:13; 23:21) but instead proclaims conditional curses upon the nation (I Shmuel 14:24).[15] The role of bringing blessings falls instead to David, whose original act is to remove Golyat’s curse from God and His nation (I Shmuel 17:43). David’s blessings are generous (I Shmuel 25:32-33; 30:26; I Divrei Ha-yamim 16:2, 43), even to his enemies (II Shmuel 2:5), and generally given in a religious context (II Shmuel 6:18, 20).[16] David’s concern with his people includes his desire that they be blessed by God (II Shmuel 21:3; I Divrei Ha-yamim 17:27). This is why David’s kingship is blessed, his dynasty is blessed, and his reign is meant to bring blessings back to a cursed society (II Shmuel 7:29; I Melakhim 1:47; 2:45; 8:14, 55).

 

In this context, the above-cited midrash takes on new meaning. During the period of the Shoftim, Boaz could be expected to instinctively utter a curse. After all, the trajectory of the book suggests that we are heading toward a cursed society, not one filled with blessings. God’s direct intervention, which reverses the direction of Boaz’s words, foreshadows the reversal of this period. Boaz will be the vehicle for turning curses into blessings and the medium through which God turns a cursed society into one filled with blessings.

 

The Neighbors

 

And Naomi took the child. And she placed him in her bosom and she became for him a caretaker. And the neighbors called for him a name, saying, “A child has been born to Naomi!” And they called his name, Oved. He is the father of Yishai, the father of David. (Ruth 4:16-17)

 

Who generally names newborns in biblical narratives? The answer is clear. Children are named most often by their mothers,[17] sometimes by their fathers,[18] and occasionally by both parents.[19] In rare circumstances, God takes an active role in naming the child.[20] In a surprising turn of events, the son of Ruth and Boaz is named by the neighbors.[21]

 

In biblical usage, names are much more than mere appellation. They represent one’s essence, vocation, and ultimate destiny. Therefore, we may postulate that the person who names the newborn is the one who takes responsibility for facilitating that person’s ability to realize his or her destiny. While generally this responsibility belongs to the parents, who raise the child, in the case of the child born to Ruth and Boaz, the anomaly is the very point. This child does not belong to either of his parents. After the birth of the child, Boaz never reappears in the story,[22] and Ruth is also barely acknowledged. Instead this child is given to Naomi, who functions throughout the narrative as a mirror of the nation[23] and raises the progenitor of the monarchy. In a similar vein, it is the anonymous group of women, vaguely termed “the neighbors,” who give this child a name and his very destiny of service. In this way, Megillat Ruth clarifies that the king does not belong to his family, his tribe, or even his parents. His name, essence, and purpose are property of the nation whom he serves.

 

Naomi’s Child, Naomi’s Fortune

 

            The birth of a child closes the narrative of Megillat Ruth and the desperate predicament of Naomi. Naomi, who declared unequivocally and bitterly that she is too old to have a child (1:12), now has a child! Perhaps she does not physically bear the child, but the women’s statement leaves no room for doubt: “A child has been born to Naomi!” And so, Naomi’s tragic circumstances have been reversed. She began with no hope, no food, no child, and utter emptiness and despair. She ends with a child who will ensure her sustenance and her continuity. She began with the loss of her nachala, her name, her genealogy, her nation, and her attachments. Naomi’s story concludes as she is surrounded by the embrace of the townswomen, the ensured continuity of her husband’s land and name, and a genealogy that proceeds toward kingship. The group of anonymous women who first appeared to gawk at Naomi’s sorry state has returned to the narrative to announce her triumph. The same group of women who watched wordlessly as Naomi declared the bitter loss of her name and identity now enthusiastically proclaim the restoration of Naomi’s name and her family.

 

Ruth may have been the protagonist of this story, who, together with Boaz, shifts the narrative to its felicitous conclusion, but, in the final analysis, it is Naomi’s story. This is indicated by the fact that after the birth of their child, both Boaz and Ruth recede from the story. We are left only with Naomi, who reaps the product of this blessed union.[24]

 

Naomi’s tragic fortunes set the story in motion. Her personal predicament required rectification. Naomi’s situation reflects the misfortune of the nation during this period. By the end of the Megilla, Naomi’s fortunes have been reversed, the family has been restored, and continuity is assured. At the same time, the nation’s fortune has been reversed, a king emerges on the horizon, and restoration of the national entity seems possible.

 

And these are the generations of Peretz: Peretz begat Chetzron. And Chetzron begat Ram and Ram begat Aminadav. And Aminadav begat Nachson, and Nachshon begat Salma. And Salmon begat Boaz and Boaz begat Oved. And Oved begat Yishai and Yishai begat David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

 

            This formal ending to the book contains a list of ten generations from Peretz to David. It seems likely that this genealogy skips generations.[25] Its primary aim is to illustrate that the book’s major objective is to bring us to David, the founder of the dynasty of kingship. Boaz’s position as the seventh generation also signifies importance.[26] This links Boaz to David and confirms what has been evident throughout the course of the narrative: Boaz is a noteworthy ancestor of David and may be credited with a large share in his success.

 

            The appearance of a genealogical list at the end of the narrative is a blunt reminder of its omission at the opening of the narrative. Elimelekh simply appears in the narrative, without a genealogy, raising the question of the relevance of his personal story. Why indeed do we care about this one man, who removes his family to Moav during the famine? Had it appeared at the beginning, this concluding genealogy could have served as an adequate answer to this question. Elimelekh is not just any Judean man; he is of the family of Peretz, the line of kingship. He could have been the ancestor of David, had he not negated his genealogy by abruptly cutting himself off from his countrymen during the famine. This is the reason that Elimelekh appears without a genealogy. Like the ignominious go’el, who loses his right to his name, Elimelekh, despite his name, loses his place in the genealogy of kingship. Instead of being the king who proclaims God’s kingship, “Eli melekh,” he is replaced by Boaz, who brings this book to its triumphant conclusion by begetting David.

 

Ve-Eileh Toledot

 

            The phrase that opens this list, “And these are the generations” (“ve-eileh toledot”), is commonly found in the book of Bereishit. There, it functions as a structural marker in the book’s movement from creation to the chosen people. Every time the book narrows its focus upon a particular dynastic line, it illustrates this by introducing the rejected line with this phrase (e.g., “ve-eileh toledot Yishmael ben Avraham,” Bereishit 25:12)[27] and by introducing the corresponding chosen genealogy with the same phrase (“ve-eileh toledot Yitzchak ben Avraham,” Bereishit 25:19).[28] The final appearance of the phrase “ve-eileh toledot” in the book of Bereishit is that of Yaakov (Bereishit 37:2). This indicates that the period of filtering is over. From this point forward, all of the descendants of Yaakov are part of the chosen nation. This chosen nation is culled from the nations of the world, not to offer them privileges, but rather to recruit them into service of God, to be the nation that calls on the name of God and promulgates His name in the world.

 

            There are two occasions in which a particular family is chosen from within the Israelite nation in order to assume special responsibilities. It comes as no surprise that these two family lines are likewise introduced with the phrase, “ve-eileh toledot.” In fact, these are the only two appearances of this phrase outside of the book of Bereishit. In Bamidbar 3:1, the priestly genealogy is introduced with this phrase. Aharon’s line is chosen to fulfill a weighty task, one that requires the isolation of his family to form a unique genealogical list. In Ruth 4:18, the genealogy of kingship is presented, opening with the words, “ve-eileh toledot.” Thus, the chosen line of David is accorded an exceptional role within the chosen nation. God has extracted this family from within the nation, and has conscripted this genealogy into His special service as kings who represent God’s kingship.

 

***

Dear Readers,

 

We have concluded our study of Megillat Ruth just in time for Chag Shavuot. I hope that these shiurim have facilitated a deeper understanding of the Megilla that we will read. The series will continue after the Chag with several concluding shiurim, which will examine some broad structural ideas and elucidate the methodology employed in this series.

           

I wish you all a Chag Shavuot Sameach. May we all merit the arrival of a descendant of Ruth and Boaz, who will unite the nation of Israel in service of God.

 

Sincerely,

Yael Ziegler

 

           

This series of shiurim has been dedicated to the memory of my mother Naomi Ruth z”l bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomi’s unwavering commitment to family and continuity, and Ruth’s selflessness and kindness.

 

I welcome all comments and questions: [email protected]

 


[1] I am inclined not to regard Megillat Ruth as identical to the other barren-women stories in Tanakh. Many of the parameters of this type-scene are missing from her story (the divine oracle, the mention of her barren state), and Ruth’s quest for food and physical sustenance is no less central to her story than her quest for marriage and children. Comparing Ruth’s conceptions to that of other barren women is, however, warranted, if only because the actual event is so profoundly similar.

[2] Ruth Rabba 7:14 notes this anomalous formulation and comments that until God carved a womb for her, Ruth did not possess a womb. Commentators on the midrash note that this idea develops from this highly unusual description of God’s involvement (see Matnot Kehuna and Maharzu on Ruth Rabba 7:14).

[3] Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (1988), p. 267, terms God’s two direct interventions the “theological inclusio” of the book.

[4] Several blessings in the narrative also employ the verb natan to describe God’s actions (1:9; 4:11-12). However, in these cases, it is an expression of a wish or a desire, not a fact. Significantly, the word natan appears once in the book to depict Ruth giving food to Naomi (3:17) and once to portray Boaz giving food to Ruth (2:18).

[5] This blessing is given to Ruth and Orpah together. Nevertheless, because Orpah removes herself from the narrative, we do not see these blessings come to fruition with regard to her.

[6] See shiur  #19, where we examined this literary ambiguity.

[7] E.g. I Shmuel 17:45; II Shmuel 8:6, 14; 10:12.

[8] See the story in which David assumes responsibility for the nation’s ability to obtain food by appeasing God’s anger (II Shmuel 21:1-3, 14).

[9] Both David (II Shmuel 6:18) and Shlomo (I Melakhim 8:55-56) offer blessings to the people in God’s name.

[10] See also Ruth 4:3, where Naomi is described as having returned from the fields of Moav.

[11] Several midrashim note the significance of blessings in this narrative (see Ruth Rabba 6:2; Ruth Zuta 4:13).

[12] The word blessing (bareikh) does not appear explicitly in these verses.

[13] Prior to this, the midrash depicts David thanking God that Boaz did not utter a curse upon Ruth: “For if [Boaz] had uttered one curse, from where would I have come?” (Ruth Rabba 6:1).

[14] The last true blessing in the book is a divine blessing upon the young Shimshon, who represents the final (unfulfilled) hope of the book. It is unsurprising that the blessing given to Shimshon appears at the end of chapter 13, before Shimshon grows up and begins to squander his gift of strength (Shoftim 13:24). See shiur #23.

[15] At the end of Shaul’s career, after David has saved his life a second time, Shaul does finally bless David (I Shmuel 26:25). This blessing is too late, and David and Shaul part for the final time in the aftermath of Shaul’s long-overdue blessing. In the very same narrative, David’s curse upon those who banish him from the inheritance of God (I Shmuel 26:19) seems directed (perhaps unwittingly) at Shaul.

[16] However, David’s blessings also become distorted in the aftermath of his sin (II Shmuel 13:25), and curses are hurled at him (II Shmuel 16:5, 7, 10-13). Nevertheless, David acknowledges that he may deserve to be cursed, recovers from his sin, and restores blessings to Israel. It is only after David returns to his status as blessed king that he is willing to punish Shimi for having cursed him (I Melakhim 2:8)

[17] E.g. Bereishit 4:25; 29:32, 33, 35; Shoftim 13:24; I Shmuel 1:20; 4:21.

[18] E.g. Bereishit 4:26; 5:29; 16:15; 38:29-30.

[19] E.g. Bereishit 35:18.

[20] E.g. Bereishit 16:11; 17:19; II Shmuel 12:25.

[21] Unsurprisingly, this anomaly has led many biblical scholars to emend the text so that either Naomi or Boaz names the child. See the discussion in Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (1988), p. 276, n. 42. Hubbard himself does not endorse this emendation.

[22] One extreme expression of this idea appears in a midrash (Ruth Zuta 4:13; Yalkut Shimoni 608) that suggests that Boaz died on the very night Oved was conceived.

[23] See shiur #8, where I first presented this idea.

[24] The verbs that modify Naomi’s actions towards the child in 4:16 (va-tikach and ve-tehi) directly parallel the verbs that describe Boaz’s act of marrying Ruth in 4:13 (va-yikach and ve-tehi). This parallel may suggest that the direct goal of the marriage is to provide this child for Naomi.

[25] The corresponding list in I Divrei Ha-yamim 2:9-12 also records ten generations between Peretz and David. However, if each man fathered his son at the age of thirty, only 150 years would have elapsed between Nachshon and David. Nachshon, however, lived during the Exodus, and the verse in I Melakhim 6 states that 480 years elapse between the Exodus and the building of the Temple (one generation after David). Thus, to maintain this genealogy without assuming that generations have been skipped, each man would have had to have fathered his child at approximately the age of 90. While not impossible (Ibn Ezra, Ruth 4:17, maintains that this is in fact the case), this seems unlikely. It is more likely that this genealogy is attempting to maintain the customary ten-generation genealogy common in Tanakh.

[26] Note Chanoch’s spot as number seven in the ten generation genealogical list from Adam to Noach (Bereishit 5). Chanoch may be accorded this position because he is said to have walked with God (Bereishit 5:22). A similar idea cannot, however, be advanced with respect to the seventh generation in the ten-generation genealogy from Noach to Avraham (Bereishit 11), where Serug does not appear to be a character of consequence. In any case, given the significance accorded to the number seven in Tanakh in general, Boaz’s position in the seventh spot seems significant.

[27] See also Bereishit 36:1, 9.

[28] See also Bereishit 37:2.