Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:52

Understanding the Bible from the Ground Up in the Book of Ruth

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Understanding the Bible from the Ground Up in the Book of Ruth

Jo Ann Gardner

Jo Ann Gardner is Jigs Gardner's wife; she has been a vital partner in his farming adventures.

As you may have noticed, the foundational text of our civilization is out of favor. The Navy, hotels, and other institutions are removing copies of the Gideon Bible from their accommodations and conference centers in response to complaints from atheist groups and offended individuals. This is just another round in the ongoing effort by the ruling elite to remove all signs of anything connected with religion in our culture. As a result, many people who in the past might have grown up with a passing familiarity with the Bible are entirely ignorant of what it has to offer - in its enthralling stories, its range of characters with all their foibles (in whom we recognize ourselves), and its lessons of life that ring as true today as they did when they were told - never having been encouraged to read it. This is especially true, I've discovered, of well-educated sophisticates, who are embarrassed by the very idea of owning a copy. Yet even they warm to the text when they discover how accessible, interesting, and compelling it can be when they learn it literally from the ground up. Too often the approach to teaching the Bible is abstract, while the elevated language of the King James translation (a poetic work in its own right), for instance, may move the text further away from our understanding. We should remember that the Bible was originally directed toward readership of shepherds and farmers, rooted in the land, and was written in terms they would understand. We, who are so far removed from them, must reconnect ourselves with their world. When we do so, the Bible comes to life. The very word "Bible" comes from the land, derived from byblos, the Greek name for the inner pith of the papyrus plant, from which the biblical scrolls were made.

I inadvertently discovered this technique during the time we farmed one hundred rough acres at the end of a sparsely populated peninsula on Cape Breton Island. This may seem like an unpromising setting for spiritual rejuvenation, but it was here, living from this difficult land, working not only in the kitchen and garden, but strenuously in fields, where I learned to build a ton of hay on a horse-drawn wagon, to pull at the other end of a cross-cut saw (Jigs was at the other end) to fell huge trees, and when necessary, to spread manure by moonlight after a full day's work, that I returned to Judaism after many years of neglect. When I turned my attention to the Hebrew Bible, saturated with direct and indirect references to the land, its topography, climate, and plants, I was astonished to discover that my experiences had attuned me to the text. From reading about Eden, through the hard journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land, I felt the presence of the text as a living document. Because today most people are separated from nature in any significant way, it is necessary to help them bridge that gap by teaching what was once common knowledge, what the biblical readership of shepherds and farmers knew from their daily life.

The Israelites' 40-year trek in the Sinai desert is a striking example of the importance of land in the Bible. Try recasting this narrative in another setting, along the coastline from Egypt to Canaan, a much shorter route. It doesn't work because the more difficult journey in the desert wilderness, an endless vista of rock-strewn ground and rising, jagged stone mountains gives God time to teach His newly-liberated people the rudiments of a new spiritual order. A landscape that challenges at every turn - in striking contrast to the relatively smooth course along the Mediterranean coast - and that forces one to draw on inner strength to survive, would inevitably toughen and mature former slaves used to taking orders, never having to think for themselves or develop their independence, totally reliant on their pagan masters for their daily sustenance. It is impossible to separate their journey from slavery to freedom from the desert landscape, which comes across, not as incidental background, but as a character in itself, a powerful force in the Israelites' physical and spiritual journey.

In the Book of Ruth, the land is present throughout. A tight, brilliantly crafted story of small town life, suggestive of a lively drama in four acts, it takes place in the town of Bethlehem (literally "house of bread") throughout the seven weeks' grain harvest, beginning with the barley harvest at Passover, and continuing through the wheat harvest, culminating in the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost on the fiftieth day. It is fascinating to see how the moral obligations of the town's citizens, spelled out in Leviticus, reformulated in Deuteronomy, work (or don't work) in daily life. At the top of the list is the most holy command to "love your neighbor and the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt" (Leviticus 19:18, 34), a moral imperative probably derived from the shepherd code of feeding strangers in a hostile desert where sources of food and water are few and far between; as a kind of insurance, the giver of hospitality would expect the same in return (this is virtually identical to the western cowboy code, a staple in stories, novels, and movies). Remember Abraham ran, not walked, to feed the three strangers that called on him (Genesis 18:2-5)); the fact that his nephew Lot merely "walked" (Genesis 19:2), suggests the differences between them. When Eliezer, Abraham's servant, is sent on a quest to Mesopotamia to find his son Isaac a wife, he is very favorably impressed by Rebekah's consideration for his thirsty animals, watering them "until they finished drinking." We pass over this phrase, like so many in the text, but you can bet that a readership of shepherds would be able to roughly calculate that the amount of water she would have to draw to slake the thirst of ten camels traveling from the land of Canaan would come to about five gallons each. This is a signal to the reader that Rebekah is a strong young woman (in every sense) and a fit mate for Isaac. We miss a great deal of the Bible's vitality when we discount or don't understand the importance of such homely details.

As farming came to dominate shepherd life (this continued at the edges of cultivation) and the gap widened between farmers and the landless or poor, it was necessary to institute agricultural-based laws to provide for widows, orphans, and strangers. Previous legislation (various forms of tithing, for instance), subject to vagaries of interpretation and corruption, were strengthened by laws directed at farmers who were, among other directives, to leave the gleanings in the grain field - the stalks that fell to the ground behind the grain reaper and not picked up in the sheaf. In this way, the poor could, by their own efforts, provide for themselves without having to beg, since what they took was considered to be rightly theirs, not a handout. If the law was meant to protect the destitute, it also blessed the provider by instilling in the Israelite psyche the link between blessing and giving.

The law central to the fulfillment of the Book of Ruth's plot is levirate marriage (or a form of it, as it turns out), another land-based law in which the brother of a deceased brother is obligated to offer marriage to the man's widow to provide an heir who will carry on his name, keep his land in the family, and sustain the now re-married widow.

Enter the Moabitess Ruth from a despised nation (the Moabites had refused hospitality to the Israelites during their desert journey, considered to be a serious violation of the desert code) with her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is returning home after having left Bethlehem with her husband, Elimelech, during a prolonged drought (not uncommon in Israelite life). The women, according to tradition, are destitute, having walked from Moab to Judah, a difficult, tiring journey. Both are due hospitality, if not love, according to the law: Naomi is a former neighbor and widow, Ruth, a stranger, also a widow. Ruth, moreover, has given up all her former ties with her pagan upbringing, declaring herself to be one with Naomi and her people ("Wherever you go, I will go. . . . Your people shall be my people, your God my God," Ruth 1:6). Essentially, she has converted to Judaism. What does the town's welcoming committee have to offer these women - food, drink, shelter, warmth, friendship? - nothing! The townswomen exclaim with unsuppressed vindictiveness, "Can this be Naomi?" one who, in Naomi's own words, "went away full and returned empty." (Ruth 1:19-21). Ruth is beneath notice. This is not an auspicious beginning for their new life in Bethlehem.

In the side note prefacing the second "act," the readers are told that Naomi has a kinsmen on her husband's side named Boaz, from which detail we assume he is a possible redeemer, a candidate for levirate marriage to Ruth. The plot, as we say, thickens! Since no one has come forth to help them (quite the contrary), Ruth makes up her mind to glean in the fields; she knows that this is a custom of the land that is permitted to her. But based on her negative experience so far, she is determined to only go "where I will be welcome." It is unthinkable that her beloved mother-in-law, once a leading citizen of the town, should humble herself to do the work of a pauper, working for hours beneath the hot sun, following the reaper around and around the field. Ruth's singular purpose, before which all obstacles fall, is to bring relief to her mother-in-law. Hers is a spontaneous act of hesed, of loving kindness, a central Jewish value that she naturally possesses in abundance. How impressed a readership of ordinary people must have been as they came to know her sterling character.

And it is, of course, in Boaz's field where Ruth is gleaning when he returns from Bethlehem. He notices at once that something is amiss in his fields: a young woman is gleaning right behind the reapers, rather than modestly sticking with the other young women who are tying the sheaves. It goes against all the prevailing mores of modesty that a young, lone female would place herself among the rough company of groups of young male workers in this way, perhaps subjected to unwanted physical contact, as seems likely in the light of Boaz's subsequent orders to his men. Ruth may have converted, but she appears to know little or nothing about the finer points of law, perhaps picking up whatever stalks fell on the ground, which would help to explain why she was being harassed. She wouldn't know that according to the accepted interpretation of the gleaning law, familiar to all as long-standing custom, Ruth is entitled to pick up two fallen stalks left behind the tied sheaf; three were regarded as belonging to the field's owner (Mishna Pe'ah 6:5). It is clear that this form of charity had always been considered as a way for the poor to earn their daily bread, nothing more, by gathering what would amount to not much more than a sheaf or armful of grain stalks.

How does this prosperous landowner act toward the destitute gleaner who has caused a commotion in his fields because she has acted improperly? Not only does he not chastise her for her unusual activities in the field, which he has seen himself, but takes steps to protect her:

Listen to me, daughter. Don't go to glean in another field. Don't go elsewhere but stay here close to my girls [female workers]. Keep your eyes on the field the men are reaping and follow them [the girls who are tying the sheaves]. I have ordered the men not to molest you." (Ruth 2:8-9)

Ruth, overcome by his generosity, prostrates herself on the ground, and asks "Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?" (Ruth 2:10)

This scene in the grain field, and the ensuing action (not all of which we witness but are told about), are essential to the working out of the plot.

Boaz tells her that he knows her entire history (but not that they are related and so he would have family obligations to her and Naomi), how she left the land of her birth to live among "a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds." (Ruth 2:12)

Later he invites her to lunch with his staff (surely unusual) and when she goes out again to glean, he instructs his workers to violate the law by ordering them to let her glean among the sheaves without interference no matter how many stalks she picks up; they were also instructed to pull out some stalks from them for her to glean, and on no account to scold her. His is a two-fold violation since justice demands that owners not show favoritism, equality before the law being a staple of Deuteronomy. His over-the-top generosity is revealed when, after she has threshed what she has gleaned, we are told that it came to about an ephah of barley, an amount that a biblical readership would have no trouble working out, while we might read this and be unaware of its implications. In fact, Ruth took away a ten-day supply of bread, in addition to which she carried away the surplus of what she had at Boaz's generous lunch, altogether an unprecedented haul for a destitute gleaner.

It is this action in the grain field, of Ruth's hesed toward Naomi and Boaz's hesed toward Ruth, that moves the plot forward to its conclusion and the fulfillment of the law of levirate marriage. What has unlocked his heart and pushed him to what are probably uncharacteristic acts of hesed is that he sees directly into Ruth's heart and he is overwhelmed. To him, the fact that she violated customs of modesty in the field and perhaps even violated law by gleaning more than was her due, is of no account. What matters, he understands, are her good deeds. This puts the law in a new light for him.

But we are not there yet, for, although generous to a fault, Boaz has confined his generosity to going beyond what is required of him as a landowner, but he has not yet fulfilled his family obligations. Now it is Naomi, who gratified by Boaz's kindness, and anxious about her daughter-in-law's future - the harvest is coming to an end - explains to Ruth that Boaz is a redeemer and urges her to nudge him into fulfilling his duty. What follows is the famous scene on the threshing floor, where Ruth goes beyond her mother-in-law's more modest sounding advice ("He will tell you what to do," Ruth 3:4), and boldly proposes marriage to the bewildered and flattered Boaz (he is older than she).

We see later that her selflessness and sense of loving duty opens even the most closed hearts. Before the curtain comes down on the last act, the women of Bethlehem declare to Naomi, now a grandmother, that "Your daughter-in-law loves you and is better to you than seven sons." (Ruth 4:14)

This marvelous biblical story teaches us how real people confront their obligations. It is not always a straightforward matter, given the complexities of human feelings. It is the example of Ruth, an outsider who stands above the rest with her pure motives, who moves those around her to fulfill their duties, and in this way the law is accomplished. She, moreover, comes across, not as a stick figure, programmed to "do good," but as a person whose passion seems very human, whose spiritual odyssey, as it has been called, seems very human. We not only admire her, we can try to emulate her in our own way.

Our understanding of Ruth is considerably deepened when we look at the text from the ground up, when we understand the central importance of the grain fields in this drama, not just as a backdrop, but as a living reality in the lives of very real people. *

Read 3785 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 17:52
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