Lesson 20: “All the City . . . Doth Know That Thou Art a Virtuous Woman” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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Lesson Objective:To understand and encourage class members to emulate the righteous qualities of Ruth and Naomi.

Scriptures:The Book of Ruth[1]

Introduction: The story of Ruth and Naomi is about sisterhood, immigration, family, and a powerful female partnership. It is also involves Ruth as a foreign Other, Ruth being purchased as a commodity, and Ruth bearing a child as a handmaiden for another woman who could no longer bear children. It is as much TheHandmaid’s Taleas it is Gilmore Girls. This story does not take up much space in the Old Testament, but it has meant something considerable to me since I was very young, if only for that it is a woman-centric narrative peopled with female characters who have names and desires and actions not necessarily directly related to their relationships with men.

The Story

At the beginning of the Book of Ruth, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, move to Moab as a refuge from the famine overtaking Bethlehem.[2]Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chilion marry women from Moab, Orpah and Ruth, in spite of laws recorded in Deuteronomy, Ezra, and Nehemiah forbidding such unions between Israelite men and Canaanite women. Ten years later, Mahlon and Chilion die, too.

The famine having ended back home, Naomi wants to return to her homeland (her legal status as an immigrant likely ended with her husband’s death, so she probably has no choice but to return to Bethelehem). She tells Orpah and Ruth to go back home to their mother’s houses. She kisses them, and the three of them weep. Both Orpah and Ruth think they should go with Naomi back to the homeland of their mother-in-law and late husbands. “Turn again, my daughters,” Naomi pleads, “why will ye go with me? Are there yet any more sons in my womb that they may be your husbands?” Naomi emphasizes that coming with her would sacrifice their hope for remarrying and functioning again in a patriarchal society.

Orpah returns to her people in Moab, but Ruth says to Naomi, “Where you lead, I will follow, anywhere that you tell me to. If you need me to be with you, I will follow where you lead.”

Yes, those are technically the lyrics to the Gilmore Girls theme song, originally written by Carole king in 1970 (she sings the GGtheme song version, too, notably as a duet with her daughter, Louise Goffin). But the song purposefully borrows from Ruth’s words, which are written in the King James Bible as: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: they people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Where you go, I will follow. Where you live, I will live. Your people are my people, your God is my God.

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Lorelai and Rori Gilmore are well known in pop culture as a mother-daughter team whose relationship with each other is valued far more highly than any romantic relationship either has with a male character. Ruth’s plea to her mother-in-law are the lyrics to the Gilmore Girls’ theme song.

Tod Linafelt asserts that the Book of Ruth, while mostly a piece of prose, has two moments where the author breaks into poetry. Ruth’s speech is one of these poems, and Linafelt translates and forms the poetry this way:

And Ruth said,
            Do not press me to leave you,
                        to turn back from after you.
            For wherever you go, I will go,
                        And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
           your people shall be my people,
                        and your God shall be my God;
           wherever you die, I will die,
                        and there I will be buried.
Thus may the Lord do to me and more, if anything but death separates me from you.[3]

Naomi responds with silence but seems to consent to Ruth coming with her. They reach Bethlehem at the onset of the harvest season. I love how Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, bioethicist and scholar of Judaic studies, describes this scene of Ruth and Naomi’s arrival: “We are to imagine it: two women alone in the desert, shawls in the wind, thirsty, mourning, and walking in silence to Bethlehem. The City of Bread is ‘all astir’ when they enter they are at the point of utter despair, having nothing: without men, without children, without land, without community. Yet their coming is a public event, not simply some private tragedy, which will be taken account of by the public community, for which the community will bear responsibility.”

This is also where Linafelt notices the narration breaking from prose into poetry:

And the two of them came to Bethlehem, and as they went into Bethlehem the whole city was buzzing about them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” And she said to them,
            Do not call me “Naomi, 
                        Call me “Mara,”
                        for the Almighty has made me “bitter” indeed.
I was full going away,
            and empty the Lord has brought me back;
Why call me Naomi,
            when the Lord has afflicted me,
                        and the Almighty brought evil upon me?

According to Linafelt, these two moments of poetry underscore that Ruth and Naomi are life of this story, and it is their interiority and private lives that are the focus of the narrative. They are the heroines and the poets of this tale.

Ruth finds employment with gleaning ears of corn in the fields, where she catches the eye of Boaz, one of Naomi’s nearest kin through her late husband. Boaz takes note of Ruth, a stranger from a stranger land, and he tells her God will bless her for sacrificing her homeland for the land of her mother-in-law. He tells her to stick close to his field and his maidens. He asks his field workers to drop ears of corn in Ruth’s path to increase her harvest, which she takes home to the surprise of Naomi, who is even further surprised and delighted when she finds that Ruth has interacted with Boaz, whom Naomi recognizes as their ticket out of poverty.

Naomi instructs Ruth (in a way that Alice Ogden Bellis describes as both “risky and risqué”) to return to Boaz in his barley fields: “Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.”

Ruth does as she is told. Boaz wakes in the middle of the night, alarmed that he is not alone and that there is a woman lying at his feet. “Who art thou?” he asks. (Tod Linafelt points out that Boaz’s half-drunk syntax in this verse mirrors the syntax of Joseph’s response to Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39. In both of these stories, the woman is advancing the sexual relationship, regardless of whether you read this scene as Ruth and Boaz having sex together, as some have, or whether you read this scene as Ruth offering a betrothal, as others have argued. In either interpretation, Ruth is making the move.)

“I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.”

“Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” Boaz asks Ruth to stay the night, sending her home the next morning with six measures of barley for Naomi.

According to levirate marital customs, Elimelech’s nearest kin was supposed to marry Naomi, but Naomi was too old to have children, so Naomi set Ruth up to take her place as her handmaid instead. Boaz would like to purchase Naomi’s land and marry Ruth according to these customs, but there is a problem: Boaz is not the closest living male kin to Naomi, and the closest living kin is supposed to have first dibs on Naomi’s land and a levirate marriage to Ruth. Boaz approaches the kinsman and tells him of the opportunity, but the kinsman declines by removing his shoe and giving it to a neighbor, which basically told everybody in the room that Boaz was free to make his move.

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale darkly satirizes what life would be like if American women today had to follow the customs practiced in some biblical stories, including surrogate handmaids.

So Boaz announces that he has “bought all that was Elimelech’s, Chilion’s, and Mahlon’s” and that he has “purchased [Ruth the Moabitess] to be [his] wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” This framing underscores how this story is about women in a patriarchy, in which the strongest inspiration felt by the men is to keep the patriarchal name alive. Women are “purchased,” and the land ultimately is Elimelech’s and his sons’, not Naomi’s. (Interestingly, though, Ruth does not seem to be motivated by patriarchal structures. To the contrary, her insistence that she stay with Naomi is a contradiction to patriarchal order, since her tie to Naomi should only have had strength so long as her husband was alive.) However, as if to further challenge a society that renders women possessions to be bought or inherited, Ruth is described by the neighborhood women as “better to [Naomi] than seven sons,” because it was Ruth that was able to legitimize Naomi back into the family’s inheritance and carry on the family name with the son she and Boaz have together, Obed (who would be the father of Jesse, who would be the father of King David).

Ruth, however, is acting as a handmaiden in Naomi’s place, and upon Obed’s birth, “Naomi [not Ruth] took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it.” The neighbor women then say, “There is a son born to Naomi.” Ruth and Naomi’s story ends here.

Ruth as Lovingkindness; Ruth as Immigrant; Ruth as Prophet

Ruth’s story represents self-sacrifice and charity. Rabbi Daniel Landes of the Pardes Institute describes Ruth’s story as a story of hessedor “lovingkindness,” a love expressed through deeds and action. When the neighborhood women say, “ a son is born to Naomi,” Rabbi Landes argues that this is evidence that Ruth has “overcome alienation,” and is no longer a stranger but a member of Naomi’s family to the point that the two are interchangeable—Ruth steps into Naomi’s shoes and becomes one with her. From this reading, Ruth and Naomi’s story anticipates Christ’s atonement, in which we reach our heavenly home by taking upon ourselves Christ name and sharing His identity, striving to make our deeds and actions worthy of His character.

Ruth’s story is also a story of immigration. Elimelech and his family are immigrants to Moab, but their social status still allowed them a legal status that was likely not available to Naomi after her husband’s death. Agnethe Siquans from the University of Vienna emphasizes that Ruth’s journey to Bethlehem would have been more difficult and risky than if she had been a man, as the immigrant status was typically only awarded to men. Moabite women already carried negative connotations, which was probably another reason why Naomi does not encourage her daughters-in-law to follow her. When Boaz takes notice of Ruth in the threshing fields, she asks him, “Why I have found favor in your sight, when I am a foreigner?” However, because of her relationship and empathy with Naomi, Ruth is able to stand in Naomi’s place in the levirate marriage, and Siquans concludes, “The book of Ruth tells readers that the Torah is able to transform even a poor foreign woman without a husband into the great-grandmother of the most famous king of Israel.” Ruth’s story is one of redemption, atonement, and adoption. It’s about being fully accepted as part of her new home—no longer a stranger in a strange land.

Ruth’s story is also one of female agency and power even within (or perhaps in spite of) a patriarchal paradigm. Zoloth-Dorfman sees Ruth as “the woman prophet of the daily act.” According to Zoloth-Dorfman, while Orpah considers herself “unbound” to Naomi at the death of Orpah’s husband, Ruth “sees herself as Naomi, paired as surely as Adam and Eve were paired, a coupling of similar selves in the darkness of the world.” Relatedly, Helen Leneman observes that the word dabeqa, or “clung, cleaved, adhered, kept close” is the same verb used to describe both Ruth and Naomi’s attachment as well as Adam and Eve’s in Genesis 2:24. Naomi, too, receives a son from Ruth rather than from a husband: more evidence that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship challenges patriarchal norms. Boaz was an essential part of this arrangement, of course, but the spotlight isn’t on him. Boaz appears to be merely a mechanism that allows Ruth and Naomi to remain together. Zoloth-Dorfman writes that Ruth worked through “intimate, fragile, and ordinary” gestures to go “from isolation—no family and no community—to a specific place,” and that such gestures can best be described as “prophetic,” because they suggest, “Look, the world can be like this.” And then she made it so.

What can we learn from Ruth and Naomi today? (Some discussion questions.)

What does it mean to be a stranger in a strange land? Are there immigrants or refugees in our neighborhood and community? How can we as a ward or branch reach out to these new neighbors and better serve them? How can we make our homes and church more welcoming to the familiar Naomis as well as to the Ruths, who may have different customs and perspectives from our own?

We talk often in the church about strengthening relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children. What can we do to strengthen our relationships between sisters, between brothers, between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. What does it mean that Naomi and Ruth were not related by blood? Who are your sisters and your brothers, blood-related or not?

Our visiting and home teaching were recently replaced by the concept of ministering. How do Ruth and Naomi minister to teach other? While our culture is vastly different from Ruth’s and Naomi’s, and the idea of a levirate marriage is no longer considered normal (or even ethical), are there ways we can minister to each other today in the same spirit as Ruth and Naomi? For example, what are some ways that we can welcome members of our community into our families and homes, particularly those of us in the congregation who might live alone?

Naomi-poem

Known for working in contraries, William Blake also illustrated Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah this way. I like this depiction working in conjunction with Blake’s other painting posted at the top of the page.

From the BCC Archives

Sources Consulted

  • Bells, Alice Ogden. “Ruth: Sweet or Salty.” Journal of Religious Thought, vol. 52/53, no. 2/1, 1996, pp. 65­–68.
  • Landes, Daniel and Sheryl Robbin. “The Challenge on the Threshing Floor.” The Jerusalem Report, 2008.
  • Leneman, Helen. “More than the Love of Men: Ruth and Naomi’s Story in Music.” Interpretation, vol. 64, no. 2, 2010, pp. 146-160.
  • Linafelt, Tod. “Narrative and Poetic Art in the Book of Ruth.” Interpretation, vol. 64, no. 2, 2010, pp. 117–129.
  • Samuel, Sigal and Anne Cohen. “The Secret Jewish History of Gilmore Girls.” The Schmooze, October 1, 2014. https://forward.com/schmooze/206620/the-secret-jewish-history-of-gilmore-girls/
  • Siquans, Agnethe. “Foreignness and Poverty in the Book of Ruth: A Legal Way for a Poor Foreign Woman to Be Integrated into Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 443–452.
  • Zoloth-Dorfman, Laurie. Book review of Reading and Rereading Ruth. Tikkun, vol. 10, no. 3, May 1995.

[1]The lesson manual also includes Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1-2 in lesson 20, but I have opted to focus on Ruth and Naomi in this blog post. Feel free in the comments section to chime in on Ruth and Naomi’s narrative as well as Hannah’s.

[2]As Helen Leneman pointedly notices, Naomi is introduced in Ruth 1:2 as Elimelech’s wife, but in the next verse, it is Elimelech that is called “Naomi’s husband.”

[3]Alice Ogden Bellis observes that Ruth’s “where you go I will go” speech is frequently used in wedding services, too. This doesn’t mean the speech couldn’t have been given platonically, but it exemplifies that Ruth’s words also easily translate to marital vows in which one person commits to the other his or her life, future, and devotion.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    An excellent treatment! Thank you.

  2. Very interesting. There is more to this story than I thought.

  3. I don’t know why we try to make a purse out of a sows ear. The basic story is disgusting, no matter how it’s gussied up. Ruth went to the field because she knows a rich old kinsman is there, she and Naomi were desperate for survival. chap 2:2. Then comes the seduction, as directed by Naomi, as described in chap 3. Then Boaz “purchases” her as a wife. The age difference had to be substantial. It’s just gross.

  4. I love the Blake illustrations.

  5. Loved the Blake painting.
    Interesting research and onsite into their relationship.
    Strange for me to think of them becoming one and interchangeable.
    I’m more along the lines of SCW: I’m just not comfortable making the story into something so much prettier and poetic than it probably was.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    Scw, yes, you can see the story as gross; however, I find great power in the story of Ruth and Naomi exactly because it doesn’t hide the ugly facts in order to make the story turn out well. Most of us will struggle in this life under less than ideal circumstances, and yet, we can still find God among the dirt and grime and struggles we find ourselves in.

  7. Thanks for this. In grappling with this story for purposes of a Sunday School class, I’m wrestling with two things:

    The story of power and agency in Ruth and Naomi has to incorporate the use of sex, marriage and childbearing as tools of that agency. This is an age-old theme, and reflects what’s available to women in a heavily patriarchal society. I don’t want to gloss it. But sufficiently offensive to modern Sunday School sensibility to be a puzzle for presentation and discussion.

    The “virtuous woman” line, which is the commonly extracted phrase that gives title to these discussions, is troubling to me in context. What to think about the causative, the for or because “all the city knows”? That she is a ‘chayil’ [masculine noun: strong, able, wealthy] woman. Does only a masculinized woman succeed? And what are we saying about the converse? What if the city didn’t know her as ‘virtuous’ (fill in the definition—every one gives me fits)? In that case Boaz could dispense with marriage? Set aside societal norms about how to treat woman?? What’s the lesson here???

  8. suomalainen says:

    Very interesting thoughts, thank you! I had not ever properly considered the handmaid (tale) element to this story.

    While there are many layers to the story, I read Boaz as a Christ figure and him purchasing Ruth from Elimelech as symbolic of Christ purchasing us from the demands of the law. The story is framed within the patriarchal realities of the time, and a gendered reading is very important and interesting. I do think it misses this (possibly) deeper symbolic point of the story. Essentially, it is about the atonement, which itself is clouded in potentially awkward language about purchasing us.

    Boaz’s being touched by Ruth’s devotion is not just a creepy old guy happy to get a chance at love, but Christ being profoundly touched when we forsake other distractions/gods/more attractive propositions and choose him instead. Of all the stories of scripture, it’s this one that made me understand a fraction of Christ’s love for us as well as his character and atonement.

    Now, how does Naomi fit into this? Don’t know, but my hunch would be that Naomi might represent the “church”/bride of Christ or even just the commandments, and Ruth her servant. In that reading, Ruth’s poem would not be only about sisterly love, but also loyalty to the commandments – which can then grow into real knowledge and love for God/Boaz. (And the story at large would be about how the commandments/law of Moses are doomed on their own). And then there would need to be a discussion about what Boaz’s and Ruth’s baby/fruit represents and in what way it needs nourishing by the commandments.

    Anyway, thanks for opening up my brain cells on this lazy saturday morning in bed. Lovely post.

  9. Emily U says:

    This will be a great resource for me when I teach next Sunday. Thanks for your well-researched and insightful words.