Ruth the Priestess: Redemption and the Returning Grain by Jill Hammer


I spend a lot of time on Zoom these days and my current life in New York City is not tremendously familiar to me.  Home schooling, uncertainty about work, and concern for relatives are all part of my world right now. So I’ve been keeping myself sane, between the various kinds of curve balls thrown by social distancing, by walking in the park.  I now know when everything comes into season. I’ve watched the cherry blossoms bloom and the wisteria flower and the magnolia petals fall.  In this time, I’ve become more in tune with the piece of land I live on and its cycles.  And that helps me tune in to the mysteries of the Book of Ruth.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, first fruits festival and season of the giving of Torah, begins this Thursday night.  It is a custom that during this holiday, Jews read the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  And, there is also another story read: the book of Ruth.  The book of Ruth tells of a family who finds support and shelter at the time of the grain harvest, and Shavuot is a grain harvest festival.  The book of Ruth also describes the journey of Ruth to join the Israelite people, and so it is often understood as a conversion story.  The reason I love to read the Book of Ruth at this time is because I understand this story to have undercurrents out of Near Eastern myth—the joining of a priestess and a king, and the return from death to life.  While Ruth is usually seen as a devoted daughter-in-law, a feminist analysis might see her as the engine for redemption.

In the Book of Ruth, a woman named Naomi, her husband Elimelekh, and her sons Machlon and Chilion, flee the town of Bethlehem (literally, “the house of bread”) and go to neighboring Moab (today, it would be Jordan).  They settle there, and Naomi’s sons marry.  But then her sons and husbands die.  She has no more children.  Naomi is now a poor widow with no avenue to find prosperity again.  She feels God has stricken her.  She prepares to set out for her home town, and sends away her daughters-in-law, saying she has nothing for them.  Naomi, in a sense, is like the land after harvest: everything has been cut down, the seed is all gone, and the land seems lifeless,

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Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah returns to her original home and family, but her daughter-in-law Ruth clings to her.  Ruth’s promise to Naomi is extraordinary: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17) Ruth promises not only to join Naomi’s people, but to be her family.  That Ruth promises to be buried with Naomi means that Naomi’s line will not end with her, that there will be descendants to tend her tomb.  Ruth is essentially promising to somehow continue Naomi’s line, even when that seems impossible.  She is offering herself as a goelet, a redeemer for Naomi, even though the role of redeemer is usually filled by men.  But let’s explore what a redeemer is, in Israelite understanding.

Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem.  Even though Naomi’s husband owned land, Naomi and Ruth appear to be destitute.  Ruth goes to glean in a field, which turns out to belong to Boaz, a  kinsman of Naomi.  Gleaning is a practice where the poor are allowed to pick up any stalks of grain the reapers let fall.  While she is doing this, Boaz takes notice of her, is kind to her, and offers her extra grain to take home to Naomi.  That Boaz is offering Ruth grain/seed is a sign of his role to come, where he will marry her and she will conceive a child by him.  This child will be assigned to Naomi’s family.  This is a process called yibum or levirate marriage, where a childless widow can conceive from her brother-in-law (or in this case, another relative) and the first child of that union is considered to belong to the deceased husband.  Therefore, the deceased does not lose their ancestral land or their tribal line.

This process is also called ge’ulah, redemption, and the one who does it is called a go’el, a redeemer.  In Israelite law, your redeemer is one who buys you back if you are sold into slavery, or who buys your land back if you sell your land due to poverty, or who marries your widow to posthumously provide you with children, or who avenges your death. As I wrote in an article on the subject: “A goel is charged with finding the one who is lost (even through death) and weaving that lost one back into the fabric of tribal society.  This re-integration comes through societal methods of continuity: land, fertility, justice. The word ge’ulah—redemption, return of exiles— means re-integration of a tribal member or members into the body/land/genealogy of the tribe.  In a sense, it means rebirth—renewal of the circle of life… The king is a goel for the entire people.  It is his job to defend, not an individual family member, but a nation.  It is his job to provide justice, not for one slave or victim, but for all.  God, as king of the people Israel, is called goel, redeemer, because in the biblical worldview only God is able to fully provide the matrix of land, fertility, defense and justice that is necessary for tribal and societal cohesion and peace.”[i]  In later Israelite literature, the Messiah too is called a goel.

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Boaz is the ancestor of David, the king—and ultimately, in Jewish legend, of the Messiah.  His redeeming of Ruth—he not only marries her and continues Naomi’s family line but re-obtains Naomi’s husband’s land– shows that Boaz is a worthy ancestor of the king: a goel or redeemer.  But what is Ruth’s role here?  Is she not also a redeemer?

In the ancient Near East, there is a practice of sacred marriage, in which a priestess unites with a king in order to confirm his sovereignty in the eyes of the gods.  Scholar Amy Richter writes: “This tradition of sacred marriage, while uncertain and complex, seems to have involved a human king engaging in ritualized sexual behavior with a woman playing the role of a celestial being in order to mark the king as the mediator between the two realms.”[ii]  While ancient Israel has no explicit tradition of sacred marriage, there are in fact two stories where the ancestor of King David engages in levirate marriage with a woman—one is the story of Ruth and Boaz, and the other is the story of Judah and Tamar (where Tamar dresses up as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, who has deprived her of levirate marriage—in order to conceive from him).  Both of these unions lead to the king.  My sense is that they both contain the literary trope of sacred marriage, and the women involved are imagistically connected to the priestesses who confirm the line of the king.  One character in the Bible even refers to Tamar as a “kedeishah”—a holy woman or priestess.

When the harvest is over, Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor to ask Boaz to marry her, to be a redeemer for her: “Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a goel/a redeeming kinsman.”  (Ruth 3:9) Ruth goes to Boaz, and Boaz enthusiastically agrees to marry her.  After they spend the night (apparently chastely although one wonders) he sends Ruth home with a bundle of grain for her mother-in-law.  The seed of human beings is connected to the seed of the land.  Not only this, but during their encounter, Ruth and Boaz lie together on a threshing floor—the place where seed turns to sustenance.  Later, when King David chooses a place for the Temple, he chooses a threshing floor.  It is as if Ruth and Boaz are dedicating the Temple via their union.

The alchemy that will occur in Ruth’s womb will turn death to life.  Ruth’s dead husband will have a child, and Naomi, who thought she could never have a family legacy, will have an adopted son: as the neighbor women exclaim: “A son is born to Naomi!”  Boaz is not the only redeemer here, though he is the only one who is given that title.  Ruth is the redeemer too.  She has gifted Naomi with tremendous kindness, and she has gone farther than that—she has given her body to restore Naomi’s tribal line, to give Naomi the grandson she thought she could never have.  Ruth has acted selflessly, channeling forces larger than herself, just as the priestess channels divine forces through her union with the king.  Ruth is the redemptrix to Boaz’s redeemer, the goelet to his goel.  In the end, it’s not Ruth’s fertility, but her act of love, that is the primary lesson of the story.

Ruth the priestess teaches me how revelation can be embodied—can lie in acts of love we do for one another.  She also teaches me how the larger cycles of life—spring and autumn, planting and harvest—interweave with the cycles of life we experience as human beings. And most of all, Ruth teaches me that we are able to change history with a single sacred act.  As a painful episode in history continues to unfold around us, may Ruth inspire us to invent our own opportunities for redemption.

Images by Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability and were taken at a Shavuot first fruits ritual.

 

[i] Jill Hammer, The King and the Priestess: Mythic Motifs and Motives in the Tale of Judah and Tamar.
[ii] Amy Richter, Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew (Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2012), p. 67.

 

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya ShereandThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries.  Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.



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12 replies

  1. `I wonder what you think about the sacred marriage. Yes it is a theme in ANE religion and other religions, but to me it is one of the steps in patriarchal takeover. All kings are warrior kings and there would have been no kings in pre-patriarchal societies. The kings married– or raped (see Zeus) — the Goddesses to take their power is how I see it. Yes the priestesses retained some power in this situation but it is not a power I would want or want to celebrate. Though I do agree with you it is important to point out the resonances b/w the Bible and ANE religions that had Goddesses.

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    • Your thoughts reflect my own Carol… I have great difficultt with these stories because ultimately patriarchal takeover is the ending – that and privileging some indiviudal men over women. Having said that much I am also very moved by the story of Ruth… loved it as a child.

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  2. Carol, a few things about this. First, I see the theme in the text, and I think it’s important to say it’s there, whether or not we would want to emulate it today. Second, the sacred marriage that is happening in the Book of Ruth is really a very beautiful version of the concept. Boaz proves his worthiness as an ancestor of kings not by wielding authority or going to battle, but because he’s kind to the poor and can see the worthiness in a foreign refugee. Ruth engages in her union with Boaz because she wants to love and support Naomi, not because she’s supporting the power structure. When we were studying this text over Shavuot, a friend of mine, Jay Michaelson, pointed out that Ruth uses the patriarchal institutions in the Book of Ruth for her and Naomi’s benefit and the two women, not Boaz, are at the center of the narrative. So in this story, the theme of sacred marriage is really quite altered from its context in the monarchies of the ancient Near East (whatever that context might have been, since we’re not really sure). The monarchy itself likely was an oppressive institution (certainly the story of David is full of oppressive patriarchy) but the story of Ruth and Boaz is astonishingly egalitarian. It might even have been written after the Israelite monarchy was over.

    Thirdly, I notice that when my community talks about priestesses and the sacred marriage, there are people who feel as you do, and there are people for whom sacred marriage is an image they love because it supports the idea of sacred sexuality, It’s a genuine disagreement that arises fairly often, and it centers around whether sex work and/or sexual embodiment of divine union can be sacred and in what contexts. This is a real and complicated conversation and I don’t think there’s one easy answer. I really recommend feminist scholar and disability activist Jullia Watts Belser’s article on the Song of Songs, in which “king” is an endearment of the Goddess’s human lover, not an assertion of patriarchal power. https://zeek.forward.com/articles/117325/index.html

    And finally, I see things from the point of view of a midrashist, so for me, stories can have many meanings at the same time. (To me, the story of Zeus and Hera, doesn’t mean only one thing., and can be understood by feminists in different ways.) In this piece, I’m trying to explore a theme I see in the story of Ruth (I see it also in the story of Tamar). In these stories, women are both coping with patriarchal institutions and transcending them.

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    • “, It’s a genuine disagreement that arises fairly often, and it centers around whether sex work and/or sexual embodiment of divine union can be sacred and in what contexts. This is a real and complicated conversation and I don’t think there’s one easy answer.”

      Thank you for bringing forward this point of view and for a thought-provoking post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. P.S. Thanks for engaging with this– and hoping you are well.

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  4. I want to just nuance a few things I said above since I can’t insert corrections. First, Carol, I want to acknowledge we agree that it’s important to note these connections, however we understand their meaning. And: one couldn’t properly call the book of Ruth “egalitarian” (as I did above) since the women are clearly dealing with a patriarchal power structure. But the relationship between Boaz and Ruth is one of mutual respect– and in the end she is the one who propositions him, with Naomi’s help. Both of them act in kind and supportive ways. So Boaz provides what I guess one might call a romanticized (or transformed) idea of “king” that is not about domination but about responsibility and the support of marginalized people. And he’s never called a king– he and Ruth are called “gibor chayil” and “eishet chayil”– a man and woman of valor. They’re named equally in that way. I remain curious about how the idea of redemption, geulah, can be useful in our own day. Glad for the conversation.

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  5. Thanks, Jill, for this post. What’s most meaningful to me in the big picture is this sentence in one of your comments: “I see things from the point of view of a midrashist, so for me, stories can have many meanings at the same time.” Stories are symbols and symbols speak to us on many levels. As our needs change, how we understand a story (and other symbols) change. It’s how a faith traditions remains relevant. But change never happens all at once. So, I guess one of the questions might be, How does your perspective on the story of Ruth meet the needs of the community? And you address that as you say you are “curious about how the idea of redemption, geulah, can be useful in our own day.”

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  6. Thank you for sharing your insights Rabbi Hammer. I had an embodied, instantaneous response upon reading the sacred text in the book of Ruth. My mother cross-stitched these beautiful words in 1992 and gifted it to my husband and I for our wedding gift. She is and was never a woman of faith and she was witnessing how God had brought me to marry into a family of Christians. My husband’s great grandfather was a pastor and he and his siblings escaped the armenian genocide miraculously with God’s help. One of the sons became a pastor here in Boston as well. My husbands mom mom was alive until 20 years ago and was a huge influence on my becoming a woman of deep faith. I am recalling standing at her funeral as increidble words were spoken about Helen and saying- God, please help me model this type of faith. Some wise knowing in my mom allowed her to create the cross-stitch despite her refusal to seek God. It’s as if she gave up on herself and just ‘prayed’ for her daughter to be redeemed. I am incredibly grateful for being married into a family with these roots in spiritual ‘land’. My children and future grand-children will benefit.

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  7. Dear Jill,

    I am so delighted to see your article here, particularly because I am in the midst (sadly nearly done) of reading “The Hebrew Priestess.” It’s been such an exciting and confirming read for for me as both a priestess and a writer.

    Your above explanation of ge’ulah is the best and clearest I’ve ever read. (even in your book) I finally grasp it in its entirety and you exposition touched me deeply. The commitment to community is so lost to us as as an embedded cultural value in our present day situation here in the USA, with so many consequential ills resulting from that loss, I sometimes despair. Individual commitments to family, friends and strangers are common, but its not the same. Of course, this is why this beautiful story endures, as an example of the best and brightest ways to honor such a commitment.

    As you say, stories exist on many levels. Ruth was my favorite Sunday School story – for some reason the words to Naomi engraved themselves on my heart the very first time I heard them – long before I understood the story in its entirety.

    Responding to the Sacred Marriage conversation – I think it is extremely dangerous to avoid historical tidbits we dislike, especially ones about which we have so very little information. This is how women got written out of history. Furthermore, in archaeology and anthropology scholars frequently make enormous assumptions about individual scraps of writing or remnants of artifacts that arrive in their own time without context. Basically, there is no real, reliable source material for the sacred marriage and what it meant to the people engaging in it or to the people witnessing.

    Within the discussion of Sacred Marriage as worthy or not of feminist approval – Sacred Marriage can be considered the proverbial half full/half empty glass – either as an example of the on-going power of the divine feminine or as her waning influence. A mid-point perhaps in the shift towards patriarchy.

    But it needn’t be judged. Like the ge’ulah, Sacred Marriage is a powerful concept by itself – no matter how or where it originated or eventually plays out in practice, nevertheless it resonates powerfully in the human psyche.

    In my own life the concept of the Sacred Marriage led me out of dualism and into a broader more profound understanding of the intricacies of co-existence and diversity. For me, it works as a symbol for the equitable engagement at the heart of all working relationships – something must be received, something must be given that nurtures and satisfies in some way that the giver and receiver require. There’s much freedom here, a lot of room for error.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Readinf Magdalene AD each morning. Enjoying. I will be in touch when I finish.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Christine, I’m so happy The Hebrew Priestess is resonating for you, and really appreciate what you say here. I am profoundly moved by the meaning of ge’ulah in its ancient context, and think it applies today to our sense of what it means to be human: that people need to be seen as a precious part of an ongoing community rather than as a commodity, and that we all have an inherent right to be free and to connect with land and with chosen family. That’s how I understand ge’ulah today.

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  8. Great conversation. On Jill’s point that the “sacred marriage” is attractive to some because it makes sexuality sacred, I too have been part of this conversation and on both sides. I have noted that those who were taught that sexuality is evil, dirty, etc. may be most attracted to the idea of making sexuality sacred. Of course there is also what can be the overwhelming power of sexual attraction and ecstasy. I kind of like the way the Mosuo look at it. They love sex and romance and both play big parts in their lives. But they do not give sex or romance center stage in their lives or create the bonds of family around it. They recognize that sexual attraction may ebb and flow and may end well or badly. For them it is not the “be all and the end all.” I have made the mistake of thinking it is or should be.

    I think because I grew up in the anti-war movement and also taught the Iliad at the same time, I have a great antipathy to warriors and warrior kings and always remember the damage that war creates. All kings are warriors who gain or maintain power through control of armies!

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