On March 22, students in Dr. Stu Halpern’s course on “New Approaches to the Book of Ruth” explored one of the most sensitive questions in the sefer: What really happened with Boaz and Ruth on the granary floor, and how does it impact the narrative’s message? In a special guest lecture, titled “Ruth and Inner-Biblical Allusion: The Moral Character of the Davidic Lineage,” Dr. Yitzhak Berger argued that the wholesomeness of the story of Ruth and Boaz serves as a moral corrective to the earlier story of Judah and Tamar, as well as to the later, even more problematic narrative of David and Batsheva.
Berger, an Associate Professor of Classical and Oriental Studies at Hunter College, pointed out that - unlike in other narratives - the text mentions no explicit physical relationship between Boaz and Ruth during her nighttime visit to the granary. To be sure, Naomi’s original instructions in Ruth 3:4 sound suggestive. However, from the text it appears that the two do not engage in an intimate act; Boaz informs Ruth that there is a closer relative than him for the purposes of Levirate marriage, and sends her on her way, with a shawl full of barley, before daybreak. “This is the pivot point not only of the perek, but of the sefer,” said Berger. “Ruth and Boaz have transformed Naomi’s plot into something legal and wholesome.”
Berger noted that the lineage at the end of the Book of Ruth (4:18-22) begins with Peretz, son of Judah (the biblical model of kingship) and Tamar, and ends with David. Berger noted that Peretz, Judah, and Tamar are all mentioned by name in elders’ blessing to Boaz upon his marriage to Ruth (4:12). “There is something about this marriage that has everything to do with producing Malkhut Beit David [the Davidic dynasty],” he argued.
Berger pointed out specific parallels between the story of Ruth and the earlier story of Judah and Tamar, recounted in Genesis 38. Boaz’s ancestor Judah, like Naomi, loses two sons. The widow, Tamar, is supposed to marry Judah’s third son Shelah, but he tells her she must wait until Shelah “grows up.” Similarly, when Naomi attempts to send back her own daughters-in- law, she remarks wryly that even were she to give birth to another son that day, would they wait “until he grows up”? “The language is impossible to overlook.” said Berger. “The story is framed the same way.”
Ultimately, Tamar resorts to deception when Judah does not marry her to Shelah. She seduces Judah himself, and when he discovers the truth of her identity he readily admits he is the father of her unborn child. Conversely, Boaz’s descendent, King David, fails to live up to the example of his ancestors in his affair with Batsheva, the wife of Uriah (Samuel II, ch. 11). After Batsheva informs David she is pregnant with his child, David first attempts to cover up the scandal. When he is unable to orchestrate a situation in which the child could be passed off as Uriah’s, David manages to ensure Uriah is killed in battle.
“That’s where David fails,” explained Berger. “It is a failure to follow the model of Judah, who is the model of kingship. Not because of the indiscretion of sleeping with Batsheva, but because of his attempt to cover up his behavior by having Batsheva’s husband killed. I think Sefer Ruth is saying no, that’s a departure for how this lineage should be characterized.” According to Berger, the story of Ruth and Boaz may be viewed as a “pre-emptive tikkun of what happens later in the David and Uriah story.” Berger’s comparative analysis of the two narratives may be found in his article, “Ruth and the David—Bathsheba Story: Allusions and Contrasts” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, May 2009).