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,
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.
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 Shere) andThe 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.