Deja Vu? Repetition and Reversal in the Book of Ruth

On February 22, Dr. Stu Halpern’s “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” class enjoyed a guest lecture by Alex Maged, a graduate student at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Maged, who runs the parasha website WhatsPshat.org, led an animated discussion about what Biblical scholar Robert Alter has dubbed “type-scenes”—that is to say, stories “that seem to evoke one another, and repeat over and over again.” In the first half of his presentation, Maged discussed Alter’s exposition of betrothal type-scenes in Tanakh. In the second half, he delivered his own insights about a proposed "sequel-scene" not explored by Alter: the “betrayal scene." Maged noted that this latter situation recurs throughout the Bible and also features prominently in world literature, including in The Odyssey (Greece), The Story of Sinuhe (Egypt), and Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection (India). He argued that the Book of Ruth breaks the mold for both this scene and Alter’s betrothal scene.

To start, Maged led the class through the texts of several betrothal type-scenes found in the Torah, including Abraham’s servant searching for a wife for Isaac, Jacob’s first meeting with Rachel, and Moses’s induction into Jethro’s household and marriage to Zipporah. With slight variations, these scenes feature a man who finds himself in a foreign land, meets his spouse-to-be at the side of a well, and is invited into her father’s home to break bread. In the Book of Ruth, however, several elements of the type-scene are reversed. “This time, it’s not a man, but a woman who finds herself in a foreign land, and who will find her husband there,” said Maged, citing Alter. “Water is being drawn, but the well seems absent.” “And this time,” Maged added, “there’s no invitation to ‘break bread;’ indeed, they’re meeting on the threshing floor, during the wheat harvest, at the very beginning of the bread-making process—perhaps symbolizing the fact that both are “starting from scratch,” as it were.”

After learning how the Book of Ruth seems to upend Alter’s betrothal scene, the class then looked at various betrayal type-scenes. According to Maged, betrayal scenes focus upon the opposition faced when the new son-in-law attempts to return home. For example, Rebecca's family attempt to delay her joining of Isaac in the Land of Canaan, and Laban tries very hard to keep Jacob from leaving as well. Other similar episodes include the “Concubine of Gibeah” (Judges 19) and Hadad’s leaving Pharaoh (I Kings 11). On the other hand, Jethro displays surprising willingness to let Moses leave his home. Maged suggested that Jethro's unusual amenability, along with the fact that Moses’s son was not initially circumcised, may have been the textual elements prompting Chazal (the Talmudic sages) to their startling assertion that Moses had struck a deal with Jethro upon joining his household: Moses would retain his freedom, but would allow one of his sons to be raised as an idolator. “Be astute,” enjoined Maged. “If the story’s unfolding seems too easy, there’s often something else simmering beneath the surface.”

Yet in the Book of Ruth, the “betrayal” type-scene is reversed entirely, just as the betrothal scene had been. Here, the mother-in-law actually entreats her daughter-in-law to return to her own land, while Ruth, for her part, insists upon remaining with Naomi. “Naomi has every reason in the world to want Ruth to stay with her, but she self-sacrificingly offers Ruth to return to Moab,” said Maged, “and Ruth self-sacrificingly opts to stay.” For Maged, this mutual display of unconditional love between in-laws—which defies the pervasive trend observed in both Jewish and secular texts—may explain why Ruth’s family merited founding the Davidic dynasty. “The monarch must recognize that the greatness of his own “house” will be enhanced, not diminished, to the extent that it is rooted in its collective history and endeavors to honor that history” Maged remarked. Failure to do so accounts for much of the dynastic infighting that plagued ancient Israel in the Book of Kings. But, Maged noted, Ruth’s relationship with Naomi offered the model which her descendants might have aspired to. “Whereas others sought to carve their familial identities independent of those who came before them—in many cases, with great justification—Ruth’s bond to her spouse is not subsumed within the current generation, but extends to the preceding one as well. She views their familial destinies as intertwined, and their legacies as mutually-reinforcing, and seeks to establish her household as a part of theirs rather than apart from it.”

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