By Yael Ziegler
Maggid Books, 2015, 487 pages
This is the fourth volume in Maggid Books Studies in Tanakh series. The prior three books are on Joshua, I Kings, and Jeremiah. Each book is excellent. They are scholarly, yet easy to read, and each is filled with thought-provoking and illuminating information, not only about the book the author is addressing, but the entire Bible. While the volumes were composed for a Jewish audience and most of the quoted commentaries are from Jewish sources, non-Jews will profit from reading them. Ziegler states that her “attempt (is) to fuse together traditional interpretations with scholarly ones” and therefore includes the views of some non-Jewish scholars. Dr. Ziegler is a lecturer in Bible at Herzog Academic College and at Matan Jerusalem.
One of her methods, but not the main one, is to disclose the meaning of the story of Ruth by “illustrating the manner in which midrashic readings reveal the heart of the peshat, the simple meaning of the text.” This is a difficult task for Midrashim where generally not composed to reveal the text simple meaning but to teach moral and theological lessons with parables that are often far-fetched and unnatural, but didactic. Ziegler is able to sift through the Midrashim she quotes and shows that the authors of some of them were concerned to explain what the text reveals about Ruth and the other characters in the story, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
But her use of rabbinical sources should not lead readers to think she piously accepts traditional ideas. While a host of rabbis and even Jewish rational thinkers such as the twelfth-century Abraham ibn Ezra were convinced that Ruth converted to Judaism, Ziegler writes: “The issue of Ruth’s conversion is anachronistic, as there is no evidence for formal conversion in biblical texts.” The idea of conversion did not enter Judaism until many centuries after Ruth’s death. Ziegler cites many examples where foreign people or groups joined the nation of Israel, but in all of these cases, these foreigners retained their foreign identity. And Ruth is called a Moabite even after her marriage to Boaz.
Ziegler notes that when Naomi returned to Judea with Ruth after an absence of over ten years, she was greeted with a lack of warmth. “According to midrashim, a residual ill will exists in Bethlehem against the family who abandoned them during the famine.” Even Naomi’s relative Boaz, who would later meet and be enchanted by Ruth, did not visit her, despite Bethlehem being a small town. This forced Naomi to develop an “immodest proposal.” She sent Ruth during the dead of night, dressed and perfumed to Boaz, after he had imbibed in celebration of his harvest, to have sex with him and prompt him to marry her. “The scenario leaves little room to misconstrue Naomi’s intention. Ruth is being sent to seduce Boaz.” Her plan, Ziegler explains, is to help Ruth, but she is also “thinking of herself and acting on her own behalf.” Naomi’s plan succeeds despite Boaz’s refusal to be seduced despite being “slightly intoxicated…. Her act causes Boaz to think more of Ruth, not less.”
Ziegler writes: “Naomi’s plan (of sexual seduction) appears to be based on solid biblical precedents. There are several noteworthy instances in which desperate women contrive to ensure continuity by acting in a bold manner.” Ziegler reminds readers of the courage and creativity of the wives of the Israelite male slaves in Egypt seducing them to bed them to have children, of Lots daughters who twice intoxicated their father to get him to sleep with them, and Tamar who deceived her father-in-law Judah and had twins by him. These acts lead to the birth of King David the traditional ancestor of the messiah.