ON FAMINE AND FLESH
A commentary on the Book of Ruth
by Ruby Namdar
Wheat awaiting harvest
6 And she went down unto the threshing-floor, and did according to all that her mother-in-law bade her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn; and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down. 8 And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was startled, and turned himself; and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. 9 And he said: ‘Who art thou?’ And she answered: ‘I am Ruth thine handmaid; spread therefore thy skirt over thy handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.’ Ruth 3
Few books in the bible are as thick with desire as the book of Ruth, and nowhere else are the metaphors of desire so mixed with those of food, bounty and nourishment. The story is set in the time of harvest, in late spring – a time buzzing with eros and fertility.
It begins with famine, which is re-interpreted as barrenness. Naomi, her husband Elimelech and their sons leave for Moab. There, the sons marry young women – yet there is no fruit to these marriages, no fertility, no babies. Years pass, the land is again blessed with rain and crops. Then, the re-appearance of food and bounty is framed as divine intervention.
The Hebrew verb pakad (remembered) that is used to describe the new found plenty is most commonly used in the bible to describe women conceiving and becoming pregnant. It is as if g-d has impregnated the earth. But the ebb of barrenness and new flow of plenty passes over this particular family. The men die, leaving the women lost outside of the social sphere which is first and foremost a feeding order. Women cannot inherit fields and grow their own food, so without men they go hungry.
The exit from the social sphere means also the danger of losing one’s sexual integrity. The fear of hunger and the struggle to survive makes the gleaners, mostly women and always poor and marginalized, easy prey for the owners of the fields and their reapers – who take advantage of the women’s despair to strip them of their dignity and have their way with them.
Boaz, the larger-than-life male figure of this story acknowledges this situation explicitly as he tells Ruth, a foreign young woman who came to glean in his barley fields: have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee? (Ruth 2:9) Boaz feeds the young woman, a tender and touching act, and fills her bag with plenty of golden seeds, golden nuggets of nutrition and fertility foreshadowing her future pregnancy. Even their first union – a tender erotic scene unrivaled in the Bible – happens on a haystack, a huge pile of freshly harvested food. And eventually, in order to manipulate his rival out of his first right of refusal, Boaz likened his future wife Ruth to a field, a blessed source of nutrition and fertility.