Laps and Levirite Marriage: The Proper Care and Feeding of Children in Ruth 4

By the time we get to the end of a story we generally have a pretty good idea of who the characters are and what the plot is about and, probably, what the conclusion of the tale has in store for us. The book Ruth is much the same. When we get to chapter 4–what biblical commentator, D. Block calls the “Resolution”—we have done the same. We have learned that Boaz is an honorable, good, and caring man, providing out of his riches to those less fortunate, caring for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner and have realized that Ruth is a brave, daring, and submissive woman, risking danger to enact a risky plan (that never descends to the risqué) also to care for the widow and her adopted mother. But, what should we do with Naomi? Because as we’ve read through the book carefully it becomes obvious that Ruth isn’t its titular character, nor is it Boaz or any of the others we might have at first thought—those choices are taken away as Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion fulfil their namesakes by getting sick and dying. The main character is Naomi.

Naomi, really, is the main character in the book of Ruth. It’s Naomi whose name changes (from the “Sweet” Naomi to the “Bitter” Mara [Ruth 1.20]). It’s the redemption of Naomi’s line which has motivated the actions at the Threshing Floor (3.1–5). And, indeed, it seems as though this has worked! Ruth 4 finds that Ruth has been redeemed by Boaz and—near the end of the story—we reach the awaited end:

So Boaz married Ruth and she became his wife and he went into her and the LORD helped her conceive and she bore a son. Then the women around Ruth said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD who did not leave you this day without a redeemer, and may this son’s name become renowned in Israel! He will become for you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age. For your daughter in law, who loves you, is better for you than seven sons, and she has given birth to him.” But Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. So the women of the village named him, “Oh, a son has been born to Naomi” and they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4.13–17).

What an incredible ending to this story! Naomi, who became Mara when she had no redeemer and had blamed God for it, is now Naomi once again thanks to the actions of God. She who went away empty is full again. The God Almighty (Ruth 1.20 שַׁדַּ֛י) has prevailed over the Moabite gods of the Field (Ruth 1.1 שְׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב). But there’s something strange happening in this story. And that strangeness is compounded by Ruth’s genealogical epilogue:

So these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David (Ruth 4.18–22).

Reading the epilogue makes it obvious why this story is so important to the biblical narrative: it tells the backstory of David! But that’s to be expected. The strangeness is that the entire book of Ruth has been about the redemption if Elimelech’s line. That is, after all, the entire point of what Naomi has done and the point of the Levirite rite of marriage (Dtr 25.5–10). But if it is the brother’s name that should be redeemed, why does the family line come instead through Boaz? Isn’t this exactly the opposite of what we’d expect? Does it not subvert the entirety of the story? What about Naomi’s redemption?! What about their family line!?

The answer has been before us all along, but it’s come to a head here at the resolution of the story. The tipping point is Naomi’s action at the birth of her grandson. But to see what we need to back up and look at two other stories about barreness and the extreme measures taken to gain a child.

The first story is well known. Sarai and Abram have been barren for awhile and so Sarai decides that the way they can fulfill God’s promises is to have Abram take her slave, Hagar, as a concubine. The understanding in the ancient Near East at the time was that you could adopt the child of someone in your proxy so that they would become your own child (Gen 16.1–4). But how was that adoption process undertaken? For that we need to look at the second story:

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. So she told Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob’s anger rose at Rachel and he retorted, “Do you think I’m in the place of God, it’s he who has withheld children from you!” Then she said, “Here is my female slave, Bilhah; sleep with her so that she can conceive and give birth on my knees (וְתֵלֵד֙ עַל־בִּרְכַּ֔י), that even I may have children through her” (Gen 30.1–3).

Now we see the connection. In the story with Abram and Sarai and the story with Jacob and Rachel, we have similar issues: the woman is barren and cannot have children but she wants children. And, in each case, the solution is the same (even if it’s only explicit in Genesis 30): the woman takes the child of the subordinate woman, placing the child on her knees / on her lap, and it becomes hers.

Now, perhaps, we have an inkling at Naomi’s true character. Even here, at last, with all of her wishes fulfilled, she attempts to remove Ruth—the foreigner—from the process, entirely. She has seen Ruth not as a daughter, but as a slave. Just as Sarai sent Hagar into Abraham to get her a son regardless of Hagar’s will, just as Rachel sent Bilhah into Jacob to get her a son regardless of Bilhah’s will, so too Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz to get her a son. And now she has it, and she wants it for herself. No wonder the women standing around feel compelled to sing Ruth’s praises (Ruth 4.15) and no wonder they, at a final selfish action of Naomi, they mockingly respond, “Oh, Naomi has born a son” (4.17). And perhaps that is why, in the final reckoning, God subverts Naomi’s desires and greatest wishes and does not have his writer record Obed as the son of Mahlon, the son of Elimelech, but instead the son of Boaz,  the son of Salmon.

But, if all of this is the case, why is Naomi the main character? What does all of this mean in a canonical reading of Ruth? For that, we’ll have to wait until next time.

Published by Jared Saltz

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

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