How does a despised outcast become the honoured ancestor of the great King David and even more importantly what does she bring that heals old wounds and renews new hope for the mission of Israel? Ruth is repeatedly referred to as a Moabitess. She is a foreign woman of a despised race as is quoted in Deuteronomy, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of God. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendents shall be admitted to the assembly of God.”1
Ruth’s actions are well known in relation to her mother-in-law Naomi. She shows hesed –loving-kindness in sharing grief at the death of Naomi’s husband and sons and provides companionship and solace with the famous words, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you.” 2 However it is the scene in the granary, in the darkness, with Boaz that offers the historic context for a new type of relationship that marks her special status as matriarch of the royal line. In this scene, Ruth enters unknown at night and wakes Boaz and responds to his question, “Who are you?” with the words, “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your wings over your handmaid for you are a redeeming kinsman.” 3 Rashi’s commentary points us to a similar verse in Ezekiel (17:8) in which God is referred to as spreading the wings over God’s covenantal people. Boaz responds, “Be blessed of Adonai, daughter. Your latest deed of hesed is greater than the first.”4 This seemingly simple scene is an indication of the significance of the potential of this relationship for Ruth and Boaz but it also echoes two earlier scenes that directly relate to Ruth and Boaz’s ancestors. To understand it fully, we need to go back to Ruth’s and Boaz’s ancestry.
The origins of the Moabite people are cited in Genesis 19:30-38 as Lot escapes from S’dom and G’morah with his two daughters; they come to dwell in a cave believing that all humanity has been wiped out. The daughters pledge to get their father drunk in order to procreate with him incestuously and thereby populate the world again. They get their father drunk with strong wine and the first daughter goes to Lot at night when “he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.” 5 The daughters conceive this way and the firstborn is called Moab – (me’av –from my father). Thus the Torah describes the birth of the Moabite People in shocking terms leading to the admonition in Deuteronomy not to admit them into the Assembly of God.
Meanwhile Boaz’s ancestors have an even greater blemish. Judah is cited as the seventh generation ancestor of Boaz 6 and the significantly 10th generation ancestor of King David. Judah himself has an incestuous encounter with his daughter in law Tamar in Genesis 38 at a place ironically called petach enaim– Open your eyes. Again this sexual encounter is marked by Tamar’s anonymity and Judah’s inability to know with whom he has produced a child. Tamar is only recognized (necher) when she produces the pledges of identity that Judah has left with her. The verb necher meaning both ‘to recognize’ but also ‘to dissemble’ is used repeatedly in this passage. Who is to be recognized and who is a stranger marks out all three of our night time encounters as well as describing Ruth’s overall status as shifting from foreigner to loving partner offering hesed. 7
Ruth comes to repair the prior relationships of their combined ancestry by identifying herself and a partner for the goel – the one who will redeem her and establish a covenant of redemption for the people through their descendants. The message of Ruth is that it is not just her despised lineage that is overcome to establish the Royal line. It is the nature of the redemption of two previously blemishes that she comes to heal and reconcile. At this season of Z’man Matan Toratenu -the giving of our Torah, we are reminded that redemption comes from both reconciling the past as well as demonstrating hesed – loving-kindness to offer hope to a better future.
1 Deuteronomy 23:4
2 Ruth 1:16
3 Ruth 3:9
4 Ruth 3:10
5 Genesis 19:33
6 Ruth 4:18-22
7 Rabbi Rachel Adelman, shiur, Hebrew College, May 2014
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire, formerly Vice-Principal of Leo Baeck College, is the Dean and Professor of Jewish Education at the Shoolman Graduate School of Education in Boston, Masschusetts. He was ordained by Leo Baeck College in 1996.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.