By Neil Dhingra
Ruth, the Moabite,
loyal and faithful to
mother-in-law from Israel.
— Graham Kings, “Ruth”
In a recent lecture on friendship, Alasdair MacIntyre says it remains unclear how many people Aristotle met. For Aristotle, most people were not capable of living virtuous lives, and thus most people seemed incapable of genuine friendship. But we all need friends who care for the truth, and care enough for us to ask that we be truthful when we’d otherwise remain caught up in our illusions. So, for MacIntyre, we must turn from Aristotle to Aquinas, who suggests that through God’s grace we might act better than we’d be expected to from only our inclinations and training. (This grace is for all; MacIntyre quotes a secular colleague and friend who insists, “I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but I do believe in grace.”) Unvirtuous though we inescapably are, falling short of Aristotle’s high standards, we might still receive friendship as a gift through which we experience undeserved moral growth.
In the Hebrew Bible, we read that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24), but the ideal friend, who gives friendship to another, is Ruth. She remains Naomi’s loyal friend, not merely her daughter-in-law, through both good and bad circumstances and even as Naomi falls short of virtuous behavior. This is surprising because, as Laura Quick has written, even if Ruth is a “worthy woman” (3:11) reminiscent of that woman who accomplishes “worthy things” in Proverbs 31, she is a Moabite, inevitably comparable to the very different and dangerously foreign woman in Proverbs (7:5-27). Further, Ruth is not the son who, through wisdom received from his father, is envisioned in Proverbs as securing the lasting stability of his house. In fact, Naomi had two sons, whose names suggest sickness and weakness and who were unable to continue the family long past the death of their father, Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband.
Naomi is left with the counterintuitive friendship of Ruth, who “sticks close” (1:14), like the good friend in Proverbs, when the widowed Naomi leaves Moab to return to Judah, though no obligation exists for Ruth to do so, and Naomi tells her to stay. Ruth sticks with Naomi, even though her mother-in-law is near despair, telling the people of Bethlehem upon her return, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” (1:20), meaning “One who is bitter.” Ben Sira places loyalty near the heart of friendship, saying, “A harmful friend will look to your table, but in time of trouble he stands aloof” (Sir. 37:5). Ruth the Moabite is a good friend and remains loyal through all the vicissitudes of her friendship with Naomi. As the story continues, Naomi recognizes a kinsman, Boaz. Naomi does not suggest that Boaz must provide a levirate marriage, in which a man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow to have a son so that the brother’s “name will not be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:6). Nevertheless, Boaz seems to be an obvious source of security for the two women.
The problem is what Naomi then suggests that Ruth do. As L. Daniel Hawk notes, when Naomi tells Ruth to meet Boaz at the threshing-floor at night, she casts her friend “in the role of the Moabite seductress” — the dangerous woman in Proverbs, as well as those Moabites who tempted Israelites with sex and idolatry in the time of Moses (Num. 25:1-3). The very origins of Moab were in drunken immorality, as he had been the son of incest between Lot and his older daughter (Gen. 19:37). Ruth had taken the initiative to return with Naomi; now Naomi renders her passive in a pornographic theater of desperation. Naomi’s instructions here are sexually suggestive, meaning she intends entrapment. The threshing-floor may suggest sex workers rather than brides (Hos. 9:1). Ruth, washed and anointed, is to opportunistically wait until Boaz is drunk, and this plot would remind its readers of other seductions — Tamar, to be sure, but also Lot’s daughters, whose relations with their father had led to Moab in the first place. Ruth’s actions initially suggest that the trap has been set. She uncovers Boaz’s “feet” (3:7), which could be a euphemism for male genitalia.
But friendship is a gift through which we receive undeserved moral growth, and here Ruth, the ideal friend, grants Naomi such a gift. As Charles Halton has recognized, whatever Naomi’s plans, Ruth does not follow through, just as she did not follow Naomi’s instruction to leave her. At this point, after she uncovered Boaz’s feet, Naomi had instructed her, Boaz “will tell you what to do” (3:4). Ruth, though, takes the initiative and tells Boaz to “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin” (3:9). Then, Boaz does as Naomi had instructed Ruth, as he tells Ruth, “I will do for you all that you ask” (3:11). Rather than entrapping him, Ruth gave Boaz a choice, and in doing so, she transformed Naomi’s sordid plans by offering Boaz the role of “next-of-kin” or the “family redeemer” who would buy back alienated land or family members and serve as advocate (Lev. 25:23ff). That role, the defender of familial assets, could justify an otherwise questionable marriage to a foreigner, a Moabite.
Ruth does so out of love for Naomi, whose well-being she secures when she later marries Boaz, and gives birth to a son, who is directly associated with Naomi. “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi’” (4:17). But Ruth also does this out of love for truthfulness, which she shows by rejecting Naomi’s threshing-floor plans, instead taking on great risk by asking Boaz to freely spread his cloak over her. Boaz recognizes this by pointing out her “kindness” (hesed) in doing so, a word earlier used to describe the Lord (1:8; 2:20). Then, Boaz repays the kindness in becoming the “redeemer” at the town gate and taking Ruth for his wife. Ruth — a Moabite and not a son, but a friend — has thus secured the future of Naomi’s family, becoming “better than seven sons” (4:15). This is not only biological. The text suggests it is also moral, as it links the reintegration of Naomi into her community to her care for the child whose lineage has come from Naomi and Ruth and will be passed down to David and Jesus. Ruth’s friendship, a gift, has been the occasion of moral growth for Naomi, and, through her care of her grandchild, for Israel.
Today, parts of the Book of Ruth are often read at weddings. This seems fitting, as MacIntyre has also said that marriage is an exemplary form of friendship. Its unconditionality and spousal love create space for mutual criticism, so that a couple may free one another from habitually falling victim to “hopes and fears, wishful thinking and fantasy.” In staying with Naomi and then correcting her scheme of threshing-floor entrapment, Ruth shows us the possibilities of such friendship and what depends upon it.
Naomi, triply emptied,
nurses her grandson.
Obed, gurgling, worshipping,
bequeaths the tree of Jesse.
Bethlehem rejoices to house
the house of David,
and, in God’s good time,
great David’s greater son.
— Graham Kings, “Ruth”
As MacIntyre joked, it remains unclear how many people Aristotle had met — whatever the number, it’s too bad he never met Ruth.