Ambiguity and Allusion in the Book of Ruth

Dr. Mordechai Z. Cohen, Associate Dean of YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, visited Dr. Stu Halpern’s class on “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” on February 20, 2017, to deliver a lecture about different literary techniques for analyzing the biblical text. “Despite our familiarity with the book, there’s a lot to learn, especially from what modern scholarship has to teach us about biblical narrative,” said Cohen. Students got a taste of these scholarly analytical tools by learning how to pay attention to four different aspects of the text: literary structure (inclusio); “guiding words” (“milah manḥah”) that recur throughout specific portions of the text; deliberate ambiguity; and intertextuality, which occurs when a term or phrase evokes wording one has encountered earlier in Tanach.

For example, Cohen drew students’ attention to the ambiguity of Ruth 2:20, which recounts Naomi’s reaction upon learning that Ruth has been gleaning in Boaz’s field, and that the Boaz has seemingly been generous to her. The verse begins: “And Naomi said unto her daughter-in-law: 'Blessed be he [Boaz] of the LORD, who hath not left off His kindness to the living and to the dead...'” The portion of the verse that refers to one “who hath not left off His kindness to the living and to the dead” is ambiguous, because syntactically the phrase could be referring either to Boaz or to God.

Cohen emphasized that the ambiguity in the verse is deliberate, and intended to convey a particular message. “Naomi is thankful to Boaz, but there’s an undertone here; as readers we’re going to think of Hashem as well.” Intertextuality also comes into play in Ruth 2:20, strengthening the allusion to God’s kindness, and not just to Boaz’s. The verse’s Hebrew phraseology is highly reminiscent of Genesis 24:27, where Abraham’s servant, having recognized Rebecca as the ideal bride for Isaac, thanks God for not forsaking his kindness towards Abraham.

Cohen elaborated on the theological dimension of the Book of Ruth. He noted that Chazal (the talmudic sages) questioned why the Book of Ruth had been written, as it seems to be about ordinary people, and “is not of a religious or national character.” The Sages’ famous answer, recounted Cohen, “is to teach us the reward of people who do good for one another.” Cohen compared this teaching to another midrash, about verse 4:13. The verse states that Boaz married Ruth, and that “the Lord gave her [Ruth] conception, and she bore a son.” The phrasing is unusual - biblical texts commonly just state that a woman has conceived, without mentioning the role of God - and Chazal explain that “Ruth did her part, Naomi did her part, Boaz did his part, and God said, ‘I will do my part’” (“Ruth ‘astah et shelah, Naomi ‘astah et shelah, Boaz ‘asah et shelo ve-’amar Hashem, Ani ‘e’eseh et sheli”).

Cohen suggested that the theological message of the Book of Ruth, which the Sages picked up on, is that “the sekhar (reward) of gomelei ḥasadim (doers of kindness) is that they are actually partners with God in making the world a better place.” Cohen compared the Book of Ruth, which is seemingly about ordinary people, to the Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim). “Shir ha-Shirim is a love story, but when you embed it within Tanakh it has a different complexion, a different texture,” he explained, noting Chazal’s allegorical interpretation. “[Similarly,] Ruth is not just a human story; it also has a divine dimension.”


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