Ruth: The Use of Power

May 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Proverbs, Ruth, Shavuot | Leave a comment

After seven weeks of counting measures of barley, as prescribed in the Torah, Jews get to celebrated the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).  (See my post Omer: Counting 49.)  The special reading for this weekend is the book of Ruth, a story that includes two Shavuot themes: the barley harvest, and embracing a covenant with the God of Israel.

Ruth Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock, 19th century

Ruth is a native of Moab, a young widow who chooses to leave her land and follow her widowed and impoverished mother-in-law Naomi to a potentially bleak future in the Israelite town of Beit Lechem.  Ruth commits herself to Naomi, her god, and her people.  After they arrive, she gleans barley in fields belonging to Boaz, a wealthy and devout Israelite.

Both Ruth and Boaz are admirable for their kindness.  Ruth goes beyond her duty by committing herself to Naomi and doing whatever it takes to support her mother-in-law.

from Ruth and Boaz, by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

When Boaz first sees Ruth gleaning in one of his fields, he praises her, asks God to bless her, gives her lunch, orders his men not to touch her, and tells them to leave extra stalks of barley in the rows for her.  Eventually Boaz goes beyond his duty by marrying Ruth and taking both women into his household.

The book praises Boaz and Ruth not only for their kindness and loyalty to family members they have no obligation to help, but also for the ways they use power.

And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, an ish gibor chayil from the family of Elimelekh, and his name was Boaz.  (Ruth 2:1)

ish (אִישׁ) = man.

gibor (גִּבּוֹר) = champion, hero in battle, respected man in a community.  (From the root verb gavar,גָּבַר = excelled, accomplished, prevailed.)

chayil (חַיִל) = power.  By itself, the noun chayil = army or wealth—the two main kinds of power in the Ancient Near East.  When the word is immediately preceded by a noun indicating a human individual (such as ish or gibor), chayil serves as an adjective meaning powerful, leading in battle, influential due to wealth or social standing, or highly capable.

Boaz is introduced as an ish gibor chayil, a respected and powerful man.  As the story unfolds we learn that his power comes from his wealth and his standing in the town of Beit Lechem.  He is one of the elders who sits at the town gate to judge cases.  His opinions are respected, and in the legal case the book of Ruth describes, the other elders follow Boaz’s lead.1

Not all wealthy men use their power to do good.  The prophets Isaiah and Amos rail against the wealthy who supply themselves with luxuries while oppressing the poor.2  But Boaz uses his power to ensure justice in his town, good behavior among his workers, and provisions for two impoverished widows, Ruth and Naomi.

Although Boaz goes out of his way to be kind to them during the harvest, it does not occur to him to make any arrangement for them after the harvest is over.  So Naomi tells Ruth when Boaz will hold a harvest celebration for his men on the threshing-floor, and instructs her to bathe, anoint herself, dress up, and hide nearby until all the men have eaten, drunk, and dozed off.  Then she must uncover Boaz’s “feet” and lie down next to him.3  Naomi concludes:

“And he will tell you what you should do.”  (Ruth 3:4)

Both women understand the risk; Boaz might use his position to marry her, or he might take advantage of his position to use her and cast her aside.  Ruth answers:

Everything that you say to me, I will do.”  (Ruth 3:5)

On the threshing floor, artist unknown

She follows Naomi’s instructions, and then goes beyond them when Boaz wakes up.

In the middle of the night, the man gave a start, and felt around.  And hey!  A woman was lying at his feet!  He said: “Who are you?”  And she said: “I am Ruth, your maidservant.  And you shall spread the wing [of your robe] over your maidservant, because you are a redeeming kinsman.”  (Ruth 3:8-9)

Ruth practically orders Boaz to spread his wing over her, and tells him he should be her redeemer.  Technically the redeemer of a childless widow is her late husband’s brother.  He is required to redeem the widow from poverty by marrying her, giving her a son, and taking care of her late husband’s land until her son is old enough to inherit it.4  But both of Naomi’s sons are dead, as well as the rest of the men in their immediate family.  Boaz is only a distant relative, not even the closest one on the family tree.

Nevertheless, he feels honored that Ruth is telling him to marry her.

And he said: “Blessed are you to God, my daughter!  Your latest chesed is better than the first—[your] not going after the young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, you must not be afraid.  Everything that you say to me, I will do it, because all [the elders] at the gate of my people know that you are an eishet chayil.”  (Ruth 3:10-11).

chesed (חֶסֶד) = loyalty to family obligations; kindness.

eishet (אֵשֶׁת) = woman of.  (From the noun ishah,  אִֺשָּה= woman, wife.)

Boaz is an ish chayil, powerful because of his social standing in Beit Lechem.  Now he declares that the elders of the town consider Ruth, an impoverished foreigner, an eishet chayil.  Clearly her power does not come from either wealth or military prowess.  But she is a highly capable worker, and she has earned a sterling reputation because of her steadfast chesed to Naomi.  Boaz respects her so much that he promises “Everything that you say to me, I will do.”

That is exactly what Ruth said to Naomi.  The sentence also echoes the words of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, when Moses reads the scroll of the covenant out loud to the people, and they reply: “Everything that God has spoken, we will do.”5  All three replies commit the speakers to complete trust and devotion.  Ruth is devoted to Naomi, Boaz becomes devoted to Ruth, and the Israelites declare their devotion to God.

The phrase eishet chayil appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible.  The other two occurrences are in the book of Proverbs.

An eishet-chayil is a crown for her husband,

            But one who acts shamefully is like rottenness in his bones.  (Proverbs 12:4)

The book of Proverbs ends with a long encomium to the eishet-chayil, beginning with:

An eishet-chayil who can find?

            Far beyond rubies is her value.

Her husband trusts her in his heart,

            And lacks no profit.  (Proverbs 31:10-11)

The poem then describes how an eishet-chayil works long hours spinning and weaving, collecting food and feeding her whole household, acquiring land and planting vineyards.  Her arms are strong.

Her palm she spreads out to the poor,

            And her hand she extends to the needy.  (Proverbs 31:20)

Like Boaz, an eishet chayil uses the wealth she increases through her own work to give to the poor.

Her mouth opens with wisdom,

          And teachings of chesed are on her tongue.  (Proverb 31:26)

By calling Ruth an eishet-chayil, Boaz explains why he will do everything she says.  Like the eishet-chayil in Proverbs, Ruth uses the power of her example and influence to counsel wisdom and kindness.

The poem about the eishet-chayil concludes:

Extol her for the fruit of her hand,

            And her deeds will praise her at the gates.  (Proverbs 31:31)

The ideal eishet-chayil, like Ruth, is praised for her deeds by the elders at the gate.

*

Both Boaz and Ruth are instinctively kind and loyal, full of chesed.  Both have personal power, chayil; Boaz because of his wealth and social standing, Ruth because of her good example.  Even Naomi has moments when she uses the power of her influence to do good.  She provides for one daughter-in-law by persuading her to return to her parents in Moab, and provides for Ruth by arranging a marriage from behind the scenes, following her hunch about Boaz despite the risks.

The book of Ruth begins with the deaths of three men whose widows lose everything, but it has  an extraordinarily happy ending: the women of Beit Lechem visit Boaz’s house, where he is happily supporting his pleasant old relative Naomi; his young, capable, kind, and loyal wife Ruth; and their newborn son, who will carry their dreams into the future.6

Sometimes people who have power to influence our lives are not so virtuous.  Sometimes, despite our good intentions, we fail to help those around us.  But the book of Ruth demonstrates that power can be dedicated to good deeds and kindness.

May each of us notice acts of kindness with gratitude, and practice using our own power to be kind to others.

  1. Ruth 4:1-13.
  2. g. Isaiah 1:16-17, 1:23-24, 10:1-3, 58:5-7; Amos 8:4-6.
  3. In the Torah, regalayim (רַגְלַיִם = pair of feet) is sometimes a euphemism for male genitals (e.g. 2 Kings 18:27, Isaiah 7:20), and legalot ervah (לְגאלּוֹת עֶרוָה = to uncover nakedness) is a euphemism for sexual intercourse (e.g. Leviticus 18:6-18).
  4. See Genesis 38:8-11 and Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for the laws of levirate marriage/yibum.
  5. Exodus 24:7.
  6. Oved, the son of Ruth and Boaz, is the grandfather of King David. (Ruth 4:21)

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