Ruth the Moabitess: Proto-Racism, Literary Criticism, and Ruth 3

Antiquity was super racist. Well, that’s not quitetrue. To use the term that Benjamin H. Isaac uses in The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004), antiquity was super “proto-racist.” Peoples in antiquity always had very strong perception of what other peoples were like. Isaac illustrates this through the Roman views of others: the Eastern Asiastics were effeminate, clever liars; the Syrians, Carthaginians, and Phoenicians were decadent, servile, effeminate, and unreliable; the Egyptians were promiscuous, greedy, and arrogant; the Greeks were sometimes dangerous (especially doctors!), decrepit, and degraded from their former glory, but sometimes they were worthy of  (private) emulation and respect and owed a debt for their academic pursuits. This probably doesn’t surprise us, but what is interesting is that these are consistently applied images, archetypes, and slanders across various authors and centuries. That isn’t to say that major events couldn’t influence these understandings, but such were rare.
We see the same thing in the Bible.
If you read through the biblical narrative, you see that certain peoples stick out: they are portrayed in certain ways and various authors are able to harness those examples in order to provide a lot of information and expectation into a very little text. For example, when we read that the people of the world gather at the plain of Shinar in Genesis 10, we know we are expecting a certain type of story. Babylon is an easy example of this, which many others have noted, is held up as a paradigm of rebellion against God, both in Old and New Testaments.
But I want to look at a different text and a different cultural identity. This story opens in Ruth:
Then Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” And she replied, “All that you say I will do” (Ruth 3.1–6).
This text has brought about a great deal of comment. But before we get into that, we need to do a bit of background work. That’s because Ruth’s identity is a key element of the entire book and how her identity interacts with Boaz’ and Naomi’s is just as important. When we see how Ruth is portrayed in her self-titled book, we read that she is Ruth the Moabitess (Ruth 1.4, 22; 2.2, 21; 4.5, 10) or “She is a Moabitess” (2.6). Over and over and over, we have a stated focus on her ethnic identity. That’s because Moab—like Babylon—has a particular understanding. That is that the Moabitesses are femmes fatales or seductresses.
Think about it: Moab is the incestual child of Lot and his oldest daughter, who got her father dunk and seduced him in order to provide an heir (Gen 19.30–38). Later, Balaam sends Moabite women into the Israelite camp to seduce them and cause them to worship false gods (Num 25.1–5). Throughout the Law, marriage to Moabitesses was viewed as particularly sinful (Dtr 23.3).
With that in mind—and particularly Gen 19.30–38, where the situation is nearly exactly like that of Ruth!—we realize a bit more of what Naomi is implying that Ruth should do.
Like in Genesis 19 (which we’ve talked about before), there is no heir to the line (Gen 19.31;Ruth 3.1). Like In Genesis 19, Naomi tells Ruth to wait until the man has drunk wine (Gen 19.32; Ruth 3.3, 7). Like in Genesis 19, Naomi tells Ruth to lie with the man (Gen 19.32; Ruth 3.4). And like in Genesis 19, Boaz does not know who she was (Gen 19.33; Ruth 3.9).
Once you see this intertextual connectedness, Noami’s implication is clear: she wants Ruth to act like a Moabitess and seduce Boaz! Of course, this makes it even more startling when, after Boaz asks who is there, she answers “I am Ruth, your servant” and not—as she so often has throughout the rest of the book—“I am Ruth, the Moabitess.”

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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