The nationalist meaning of the book of Ruth

Andy Oram
20 May 2002

Ruth provides the pivot between the time of the judges and the time of the kings. Religion is incidental to the point of being almost irrelevant. When Ruth says, “Your God is my God,” she really couldn’t have had any idea what Judaism was like. All she had ever experienced was Naomi’s practice of it (and perhaps her husband’s) and I suspect it is really Naomi she is bonding to, not God.

I’ve taken some hints from the book of Ruth about what Israelite culture and religion were like in the time of the judges. It’s impossible to tell what it really was like, but I’ll accept the presentation given in Ruth for the sake of explaining the Ruth myth.

People in the book of Judges didn’t have much sense of religion (Baal seemed just as good to them as God) but they had a strong sense of what was needed to preserve a fraying society. In Ruth you see two of these precepts in action: leaving the corners of the field for gleaners, and marrying the widow of a family member.

Consciousness is a group one, not a personal one. Boaz’s actions show a sense of group identity, not personal identity. He never indicates whether he personally wants to marry Ruth; instead he goes through a highly public and consciously elaborate process to show that he’s just fulfilling the expectations of the culture. He also praises Ruth for choosing him instead of an attractive younger man.

Elimelech is a rarity among the Israelites: he doesn’t adhere to the group mindset, but strikes out on his own. The results are disastrous for him and his family, but he’s established a place for the personal, in addition to the tribal. The personal choice is what Ruth brings back to Israel.

The Israelites had a blind spot in the area of the personal. If a man did take personal responsibility, it tended to have negative consequences: “Each man did what was right in his own eyes.” But the people needed a place for the personal, and this is just what Naomi and Ruth brought to them.

Personal actions become the basis for the kingship. The history of Israel from Saul onward is caught up with the personal actions of the kings. The attribution of David’s lineage to Naomi and Ruth shows symbolically the role of accepting the personal in leading up to the monarchy.

I went though Judges and Samuel looking for phrases like “Saul…waged war against all his enemies” (I Samuel 14:47) and “David came to the plain of Perazim, and David struck them there” (II Samuel 5:20). The individualistic mindset of the period of kings can be found in these odd rhetorical ways of attributing to individuals a kind of military action that clearly requires large groups of men.

In the book of Judges, that kind of rhetoric appears only once. It is applied to Jepthah, which perhaps underlines his arrogance. Most of the time, group actions are attributed to groups: “Barak descended from Mount Tabor with the ten thousand men behind him” (Judges 4:14) or “Jepthah assembled all the men of Gilead and warred against Ephraim” (Judges 12:4). The plot lines in Judges make it clear that this stress on groups is central; motivating and marshaling forces were the key problems back then.

I find it unfortunate that Jews focused more and more on the personal figure of the king. The danger is that the national goal could drop away and the entire religion could become associated with salvation by a single person—and of course, that’s exactly what happened when a group of Jews decided to jettison the tribal and national elements of the religion and adopt a more universal view. There is a freedom in elevating the individual's relation to God to the supreme position in the religion, but also the danger of condoning selfishness.

The group aspect of Judaism was preserved in the temple service. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis ingeniously merged the group and personal aspects in the process of education. This was a brilliant way to keep the group going. It strengthened the importance of the group, because it was the group’s responsibility to train the next generation. But it also placed heavy emphasis on the personal, because each individual was responsible for his own learning.

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