Samuel's Subversive Legacy

What happens when the centers of power are lost and the social balance is violated?

The Book of Ruth opens with Elimelech's decision to leave his home in Judah, together with his wife and two sons. His story ends two verses later, with his death, which is followed by that of the sons. This brief exposition raises the central question with which this book is concerned: What happens when the centers of power are lost and the social balance is violated?

Neither of the book's main female protagonists, Naomi and Ruth, has a family commitment to each other: Their husbands are dead, they have no descendants in common. For her part, Naomi has no surviving son who could, in a levirate relationship (yibum ), cohabit with Ruth and perpetuate the family line by fathering a child. Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth create a new and different, feminine family unit. "So they two went until they came to Beth-lehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Beth-lehem, that all the city was astir concerning them, and the women said: 'Is this Naomi?'" (Ruth 1:19 ).

The question that the "city" asks is the first to arise in the wake of this sea change in Naomi's life: She "went out full" from Bethlehem, but came "back home empty" (Ruth 1:21 ). Does this change of status also mean a change of identity? Is this the same Naomi, or a totally different person? "And she said unto them: 'Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me'" (Ruth 1:20 ). Naomi's declaration is categorical: The change she has undergone is not just external but constitutes a substantial transformation. She is saying: I left as one person but have returned as someone else entirely.

The transformation in the definition of identity is even more pronounced in the case of the book's heroine. Ruth leaves her native land in order to remain at Naomi's side: "for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me" (Ruth 1:16-17 ).

The women in the Book of Ruth are loyal to one another, and the social context in which they live is not an immutable factor that restricts their actions. By contrast, the men in the book can be characterized differently: They are not prepared to undergo any change in their status. Elimelech leaves his homeland due to the famine there, but the "near kinsman" (go'el ), the closest surviving relative, is not prepared to redeem Naomi's property if this will alter the structure of his family: "And the near kinsman said: 'I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance'" (Ruth 4:6 ). The man is seen here as being the stable element in society, one that does not change or go beyond certain boundaries. Loyalty, the central characteristic of the book in question, demands flexibility when it comes to the definition of identity - that is, an ability to deviate from social structure and social conventions.

It is no coincidence that the only man who is able to do those things, and also to see Ruth truly in the place where she stands, is Boaz, "caught" by her outside his home, during the harvest. Indeed, the dominant setting of the Book of Ruth is the barley field, an external, dynamic space where society's class structure can be remolded. The field and the barn are extraterritorial spaces that enable a movement of the self, and allow a person to see what lies beyond the division between harvesters and barley-gatherers, and to regard the tension created by the class differences as a basis for romantic tension.

While the men stay in their fixed position within the patriarchal system, the women manipulate them so as to attain their goals. Naomi teaches Ruth precisely what she must do in order to attract Boaz's attention and, ultimately, obtain his consent to redeem Naomi's property. The purpose of this becomes clear in the last chapter, when Ruth gives birth to a son and her female neighbors declare: "There is a son born to Naomi" (Ruth 4:17 ). This "double" female system maneuvers the men so as to provide Naomi with a descendant. Nevertheless, the Book of Ruth is primarily concerned with Naomi and Ruth's dyadic relationship, which is even more important than the birth of the male child, as the women tell Naomi, "for thy daughter-in-law [Ruth] ... is better to thee than seven sons" (Ruth 4:15 ).

Ruth is presented as a second Abraham, a female version of him. Boaz says to her: "It hath fully been told me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother-in-law since the death of thy husband; and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people that thou knewest not heretofore" (Ruth 2:11 ). This is an obvious allusion to God's commandment to Abraham: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee" (Genesis 12:1 ).

The substitution here of the ideal woman for the ideal man is also reflected in the blessing the townspeople bestow upon Boaz: "The Lord make the woman that is come into thy house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel" (Ruth 4:11 ). That blessing is a female variation of the one Jacob pronounces over Joseph's two sons: "God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh" (Gen. 48:20 ).

The narrative of the Book of Ruth, which opens with the removal of the male element from the picture, continues with the replacement of the male element by the female element and ends with the birth of the perfect Jewish man, David, born of a family of females. Ironically, it would seem, it is this subversive element, this son of another nation, as it were, who will establish the royal house. But there is no real ironic tone here of criticism or provocation, nor any negative, satirical political depiction of David. The House of David is presented as the simple consequence of the advantage of the weak over the strong, of the woman's advantage over the man, of the stranger's advantage over the native, of loyalty's advantage over mere functionality.

Where did this bizarre, subversive and anti-patriarchal story spring from? A Baraita (external portion) from Tractate Bava Batra in the Babylonian Talmud gives an explanation of who, according to the sages, wrote the books of the Bible: "Samuel wrote his own book as well as Judges and the Book of Ruth." (14b). This is the same Samuel who was the anti-royalist prophet; who did not want a king to rule Israel but who ultimately was forced to crown two of them. This is the same Samuel who, according to the genealogical tree depicted in Chronicles, was a descendant of the "sons of Korah [who] died not" (Numbers 26:11 ): "And these are they that took their station, and their sons. Of the sons of the Kohathites ... the son of Samuel; the son of Elkanah ... the son of Korah; the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel" (1 Chronicles 6:18-23 ).

Samuel was the scion of a family with a subversive legacy that was established by Korah, the rebel par excellence. Korah's rebellion was concerned with the issue of the democratization of kingship and was perhaps the basis of Samuel's anti-monarchist stance. Samuel (says the Gemara) wrote the Book of Ruth, in which the foreign woman - who maintains flexibility in her identity, and for whom loyalty is more important than social class - becomes the great-grandmother of the king. It is not King David's roots that are in essence reformulated here, but rather the roots of the phenomenon of the monarchy itself. And that is perhaps, after all, a political satire.