Some reflections on Ruth

[As some readers know, I have been studying Hebrew for the last several months. I’ve transitioned from going through a textbook to reading on my own, and one of my first projects was Ruth. These are some reflections and observations, for which I claim no originality or even correctness. Some of it stems directly from seeing the Hebrew rather than the translation, but I assume most of this just comes from the necessity of moving so much more slowly through the text.]

There are a lot of feet. Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet gets a lot of attention, but there’s also the sandal swap to seal the deal with the other potential redeemer. Obviously the former is sexually charged to some extent, but I have a hard time thinking that’s at play between Boaz and the unnamed other dude. Could it have something to do with walking? As in, halakha, which derives from the same root as the verb for “to go or walk”?

The fact that this whole transaction is happening at the gate is significant — this is where the elders and most prominent men hang out, apparently. Clearly we are dealing with a heavy-handed symbolism of border policing. But the situation is set up so that we know Ruth will be let in — either the unnamed guy will redeem her, or it will default to Boaz. There’s no live prospect of her being excluded, once she’s decided to cleave to Naomi….

I liked the use of that verb for “to cleave,” but I don’t think it’s just about her relationship to Naomi as a possible homoerotic attachment (something my students always flatly reject as a possibility, maybe because intergenerational homoerotic relationships are less of a thing nowadays?). She’s also supposed to cleave to the women gleaning Boaz’s field, and at the end of the story the women specifically accept her and name the child and assert Naomi’s ownership of it (over Boaz’s and over the dead husband’s). At the time this was written, was Judaism already practicing matrilineal descent? And is this text arguing that “converts” who cleave to the community of Jewish women can produce Jewish children, too — even the greatest Jewish child of all, King David?

Finally, there is some weird phrasing when Boaz wants to inform the other guy about the possibility of redeeming Naomi’s property. The translation has “and I thought to disclose it unto thee” (4:4), but the Hebrew (וַאֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי אֶגְלֶה אָזְנְךָ) is more like “I said I will uncover your ears.” It seems like an odd way to put it, right? After all, it’s not like his ears are plugged, he just happens not to have that particular information. But his refusal to redeem after he learns he has to take on Ruth the Moabite may highlight the idea that Jews had closed their ears to the message that their covenant and community can and should be for everyone. Hence the other kinsman is unnamed because he stands for a generic Jew with a more ethnocentric outlook?

Anyway, these were my initial thoughts after laboriously working through this odd little text in Hebrew. Here is a website with facing Hebrew text and English translation if you want to poke around for yourself.

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