Thursday, June 02, 2011

The inside-out betrothal scene in Ruth

Your basic biblical betrothal scene goes like this:

(1) The hero, or his surrogate goes to a foreign land where:
(2) He encounters a girl, invariably called a naarah, or girls at a well.
(3) After someone takes water, the girl or girls rush home with the news of the strangers arrival, and;
(4) the betrothal is concluded over a meal.

This scene, in its basic outlines, occurs three times in the Torah. The wives of Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe are all met at wells. Hints also appear in other betrothal-type scenes such as when Yehuda meets Tamar at Enaim, which seems to mean "Two wells", or when Saul, hunting for his donkeys, encounters women drawing water. In the latter case, the scene is aborted, and instead of the expected betrothal, Saul swings away from the women toward the man who will anoint him. In this Alter sees a bit of foreshadowing, and an "ominous note that begins to prepare us for the story of the king who loses his kingship... and who ends up skewered on his own sword."

In the Book of Ruth, the basic scene is turned inside-out, where the author (in Robert Alter's words) finds "an ingenuous way to allude to the type scene". In this version the protaganist is woman, not a man, and the "foreign land" is Israel. When she first appears before her future huisband, Boaz asks "Whose naarah is that?" and when he speaks to her he says "stay with naarotai" The water is controlled in this version, not by the girls but by the ne'arim who have been ordered not to touch Ruth, and to share their jars of water with her. When they finish speaking, Boaz and Ruth share a simple meal of bread and vinegar, as per the convention which calls for a feast after water has been drawn and the prospective spouses have spoken. The only thing missing is the running, but when Ruth finally does return home to Naomi she is greeted with an echo of the words spoken by Abraham's servant when he realized Rivkah was the girl he had been seeking:

The Servant: וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בָּר֤וּךְ יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵי֙ אֲדֹנִ֣י אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹֽא־ עָזַ֥ב חַסְדֹּ֛ו וַאֲמִתֹּ֖ו מֵעִ֣ם אֲדֹנִ֑י אָנֹכִ֗י בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ נָחַ֣נִי יְהוָ֔ה בֵּ֖ית אֲחֵ֥י אֲדֹנִֽי׃

Naomi: וַתֹּ֨אמֶר נָעֳמִ֜י לְכַלָּתָ֗הּ בָּר֥וּךְ הוּא֙ לַיהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־ עָזַ֣ב חַסְדֹּ֔ו אֶת־ הַחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־ הַמֵּתִ֑ים וַתֹּ֧אמֶר לָ֣הּ נָעֳמִ֗י קָרֹ֥וב לָ֙נוּ֙ הָאִ֔ישׁ מִֽגֹּאֲלֵ֖נוּ הֽוּא׃

Next Post: Why did the author of Ruth do this?

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