Psychological Meaning of Ruth

Excerpt by Ann Ulanov, The Female Ancestors of Christ

Story of Ruth

Ruth is the best known of the ancestresses of Jesus, and her story has become a fable for all, religious and nonreligious. In the time of the rule of the Judges over Israel, the land of Judah, the family of Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leaves Bethlehem to settle in Moab. Elimelech dies there, and his two sons settle down and marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. After ten years, the sons too die. Naomi, their mother, hears that life has improved in Bethlehem and decides to return to her own people. She implores her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers in the hope of finding husbands again. They do not want to leave her, but Naomi says she is too old to give them more sons. She has nothing herself, no hope for a husband; the Lord’s hand has gone out against her. They weep together, and Orpah decides to return to her mother. But Ruth remains, clinging to Naomi, speaking the familiar words: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: 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 bu- ried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

The two women return to Bethlehem, where Naomi says to the women who greet her (like a hum of bees, says one commentor): “Call me not Naomi; call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord brought me home again empty” (Ruth 1:20-21) Naomi refers to leaving with two sons and a husband and returning with none of them, for they are all dead.

Naomi and Ruth realy have nothing, no home, no food, no future, only faith in Yahweh to support them. Ruth decides to work in the barley field of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Naomi’s husband. She impresses Boaz, who takes her under his protection as one of his maidservants in the field and allows her to eat and draw water, warning the young men around her not to molest her. He makes sure each day that she goes home with food. He does this, he says, because of the kindness she has shown her mother-in-law. Boaz prays, he tells her, that a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wing thou art come to trust.”
(Ruth 2:12)

Sometime later Boaz celebrates with his men the end of the barley harvest, planning to sleep that night at the threshing floor. Naomi tells Ruth to put on her best clothes and to wait until after the celebration, after Boaz has gone to sleep; then, in the dead of night, she instructs her, she is to lie down at Boaz’s feet, uncover the lower part of his body, and wait for him to tell her what to do. Ruth does all of this. Boaz awakes, startled at feeling a woman near him. Who is it? he asks. Ruth identifies herself and asks him to bless her by spreading his wings over her and by pulling the skirt of his garment over her. Boaz says he will do so because of her kindness, this last even greater than her first, seeking him out rather than going after younger men. Boaz soon agrees to marry Ruth and to redeem the land of Naomi’s kinsman. He bids her stay with him till morning and then leave before others can see her, sending her home with measures of barley heaped in the veil she uses to cover herself.

At the city gates, Boaz asks a nearer kinsman of Naomi if he wants to redeem the bit of land that belongs to her. He does, but when Boaz adds that Ruth comes with the land, so that she may produce an heir to whom the land would revert, the kinsman backs away. Boaz then claims both land and Ruth, retaining the name of her late husband. Those who hear this call down blessings upon Boaz and Ruth, among them the significant words, “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.” (Ruth 4:12)

Ruth bears a son for Boaz, whom they name Obed. He, in a direct line, will father Jesse, who will father David. The crucial ancestry is established. The women bless Naomi and say it is Ruth, even more than her son, who is the boon: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” (Ruth 4:1)


Moab is east of the Dead Sea. Like Tamar and Rahab in their generations, Ruth comes from Moab as a foreigner to Israel. In the words of one commentator, she demonstrates that “an essential dimension of Israel is the foreign feminine east” whence Abraham also came. The Moabites descend from Lot. They represent a distinctly different path from Abraham’s and from the law of Israel. Lot and Abraham, we will remember, journeyed westward together and then parted ways, Lot returning eastward to the city of Sodom. He went back in the direc- tion from where he had come. Psychologically, we might see this as symbolizing regression, a return to a previous standpoint. Religiously, the previous place represented a polytheistic, matriarchal, goddess culture.

When Sodom was doomed, Lot, his wife, and two daughters were rescued through Abraham’s intervention, suggesting a continuing connection between the new religion of Israel and its matriarchal forebears. This family of four suggests the symbolism of the quaternity, of wholeness. But it is lopsided, composed of three women to one man, and it breaks down because Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt; that is, unlike her husband, she yearned to remain with her previous religion and is arrested there, fixed in place. Salt symbolizes both bitterness and wisdom, but here there is too much salt, not the few grains that add savor or proportion to things. Unable to move forward to a new, enlarging vision, Lot’s wife is caught in bitterness. Her husband and two daughters journey on and settle down in a cave, where the daughters make their father drunk and then lie with him. From the first to give birth comes Moab. Thus we can associate Ruth with a place where the feminine quite overpowers the masculine. The mother is lost, unable to develop further. But still the father retreats into the maternal, to the womb, in the form of a cave, and retreats even further into drunken unconsciousness, and his daughters overpower him in incest.

This dominance of the feminine over the masculine stands in sharp contrast to the beginning of Ruth’s story. There, in the land of Judah, under Yahweh’s law, famine has erupted, an act of God symbolizing deep disturbance in the religious and psychological atmosphere. It is an unfruitful world; it does not support life. In this family of four, of Naomi, her husband and two sons, the quaternity is also lopsided, now the masculine outweighing the feminine. This family leaves the country of patriarchal religion to go back to the country of matriarchal religion to get food. But the father, whose name, Elimelech, means “My God (Yahweh) is king,” dies, suggesting that the predominant masculine emphasis must end. Later, the two sons, Mahlon (from the root that means holeh, “sick”) and Chilion (from several roots meaning “coming to an end”), also die. The three men who start out with just one woman, forming a most lopsided quaternity, are quickly dead, and the women – Naomi and her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah – are now at the center of things. But this new grouping does not work either. We need the right mixture of feminine and masculine.

Monotheistic Yahwist faith sees itself as an advance over the polytheistic nature religion of Moab. To return to Moab for food in time of famine is one thing. To return to settle there permanently is like a psychological regression to a previous state of consciousness. We know from depth psychology that once we reach a new point of consciousness, we cannot go back to a previous stage. It will not work. It is a false unconsciousness, like an attempt to deny something we already know.

Naomi’s journey to Moab is better seen as a necessary regression in the service of the ego, looking to reconnect with something valuable that was left behind or was lost in the religion of Israel. This surely has to do with the ferminine configurations of religion, because that is what the Old Testament associates to Moab, though in disapproving terms (see Num. 5:1, “…the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab”). (See also Num. 22:3-6, where the Moabites call on Balaam to curse the Hebrews.)

Moab, then, is the country of the goddesses’ religion, asserted in a licentiousness of sexual passion, in a bounty of nature that feeds human life, and in a death-bringing counter-masculinity for the three men who die there. In the background of the book of Ruth, we can feel the mythological motif of a dying and rising god. Naomi loses her husband and sons and becomes nurse to the newly born restorer of the clan; Ruth moves from loss and destitution through harvest to bounty as wife and mother. The husbands and sons, who are overpowered by the all-feminine Moab religion, come to life again in the combination of the feminine with the masculine Hebrew faith, in Boaz marrying Ruth and producing the newborn Obed.

Ruth brings with her into her new Hebrew faith that alien element of counterorder that her sister ancestresses brought before her. But where with Tamar it was the counterorder of sacred prostitution in the service of the house of Judah and the line of David and Jesus, and with Rahab the counterorder of treason in the service of faith, with Ruth it is the counterorder of an initiating female in a man’s world. Ruth, much more than the other ancestresses, is herself a Christ figure. In Ruth, Israel recovers its origins from the East, which is to say from “its own otherness.”


Like Abraham, who also came from the East, Ruth leaves the familiar for the alien. She journeys from the East to a land and people she does not know. In this way she prefigures Jesus’ saying, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke14:26) Ruth leaves everything she has known but, unlike Abraham, without the comfort of divine call or promise. She has only the love and loyalty she feels for another woman to sustain her. Ruth is no patriarch; she is only a single woman, a widow, who must argue, even with her mother-in-law, about her determination to follow her to Bethlehem. She is a heroic figure, journeying from the security of her mother’s house to a strange land and people where she has no home. But she will not go back, will not regress to being simply a mother’s daughter, as Naomi proposes to her, bidding her to return to her mother’s house. Nor will she wait for a man to validate her. She willingly gives up her chance for a future marriage and security in her own country for insecurity in Judah. She brings with her from the foreign East the counter-order of a woman’s courage to make her way in a man’s world, out of love for another woman, Thus she plants a new seed in Israel’s history, one that reveals another side of Yahweh’s love, a fierce and yet tender feminine side that shelters the faithful, even the alien faithful.

In Ruth, some commentators think, the text pleads for the inclusion of foreigners in Israel, counteracting a narrow nationalism. In the New Testament, Peter enunciates this view when he says that God is no respecter of persons and will show no partiality, for anyone who fears God and does what is right will be found acceptable (Acts 10:35).

In addition to introducing her alien ancestry as the founding source of David’s and Jesus’ line, Ruth asserts a precious element foreign to patriarchal culture, that of the initiating woman who makes things happen. Ruth acts as subject in her story, not as an object to be disposed of by men. No one steps forward to help Naomi – or herself- until Ruth acts, working out not only their own salvation this way but ours, in securing the great line from David to Jesus.

In going with Naomi, Ruth forsakes tribal clan and religion. And this despite Naomi’s repeated urging that Ruth and Orpah each return to her mother’s house in a society that is clearly matriarchal. This is not because Ruth had no father, for we learn in 2:11 that she has left both mother and father. Naomi here represents the feminine as it will be included in the patriarchal Hebrew faith, in contrast to the religion of the land of Moab, where the matriarchal nature goddess, with her endless cycles of dying and rising vegetation, holds sway. Naomi disidentifies herself from this “nature-mother” because the Lord, who has remenmbered his people, now gives them bread; that is, she seeks the inclusion of the feminine in the life-giving Hebrew faith where a spiritual God reigns. Naomi does not return to Israel without grief, however. She mourns for her daughters-in-law; when she returns to Bethlehem she complains that God has dealt “bitterly” with her, has “afflicted” her, has brought her back “empty.” despite the fact that Ruth accompanies her. Thus Naomi does not recognize in a patriarchal setting the full value of the feminine. Naomi is now barren, her sons and husband dead. Her complaint points to the suffering of women as a major shift occurs in the creative principle as configured in nature religions and in the Yahwist faith. In nature religions the creative principle is found in the earth, in the body, nature, sexuality, the female. The male is a necessary but subsidiary fructifying phallus in service to the female, who brings forth new life. In the Hebrew faith, the creative principle lodges in the fiat, word, and command of Yahweh alone. Creation comes through the spirit, not the body. This text and others, as Kluger points out, say that the initial effect of this shift on women is deeply disturbing – it represents barrenness: Sarah conceives only after she has submitted to God’s messengers (Gen. 18:9-15); Hannah conceives only after she has dedicated her son to God (1 Sam. 1:9-11).

Naomi feels barren, greatly saddened at having to send away her daughters, who symbolize the polytheistic goddess religion of Moab. Orpah does as she is told and disappears from the story. Some legends say she was punished for her refusal to follow Naomi all the way into Hebrew faith. Orpah, in these tales, later gives birth to four giants, who mark the four miles of her journey with Naomi. Goliath was one of these giants, killed by Ruth’s descendant, David, in the course of his conquering of Philistine territory for Yahweh.

Ruth, quite differently, comes with full heart and feeling into her new Yahwist faith, consciously choosing this religious devotion through her personal devotion to Naomi, thus healing the older woman’s bitterness with her own young love. This suggests that the feminine that Naomi represents – a feminine wounded by patriarchy, and made bitter and barren – is redeemed by the feminine that Ruth represents – a feminine fully open, all the way down to its passionate earthy roots, and all the way up through personal love for another woman to the most devoted feeling for the spirit represented by Naomi’s God. This is the conscious feminine, the full-bodied, full-spirited feminine. Like Tamar, but with a more advanced accent, Ruth joins sex and spirit, not just to maternity but to a flowering of spirituality and sexuality with maternity, in that order of precedence. Furthermore, Ruth reaches this fulfillment through a most feminine means – identification with another woman. She exemplifies the feminine mode of being here, where to do for another is to be for them, to be one with them. Ruth brings into patriarchy a new feminine capacity that is durable, tough, and tender, a love for the feminine in concrete attachment between women that gives itself to God.

Ruth and Naomi now concoct schemes to follow their devotion where it leads. Ruth secures protection in Boaz’s field, where he treats her, a stranger, as one of his own maidservants.

By chance, the text says, Ruth gleans in the field of Boaz, the kin of Elimelech. But the reader feels the working of Divine Providence in the meeting. Ruth humbly asks permission to glean and then does so diligently. Boaz responds with more fervor than we might expect even of a kindly landowner. He tells her to glean only in his field, to keep with his maidservants, to come to eat with him; and he cautions his men against molesting her and sends her home with food for Naomi. Ruth then falls on her face, bowed to the ground before Boaz, asking why he should take notice of her, a foreigner. Boaz answers that it is because of her loving service to Naomi; he wants the Lord to give her complete reward. It is as if both Boaz and Ruth felt a need to connect with each other, to give special consideration to the “needy feminine.” When Ruth returns to Naomi, she learns that Boaz is in fact kin and hence in a position to redeem them. What Boaz will do willingly for Ruth is precisely what Judah tried to avoid doing for Tamar, the duty of the levirate mariage. Not only will Boaz redeem the line of Elimelech but, in rescuing one family tree from extinction, he will uphold the whole corporate nature of Israel. The person is part of the family, the family part of the tribe, the tribe part of the people, and all belong to God. Breach of continuity disturbs the whole group and the group’s wholeness. This is strongly underlined in the Book of Ruth, where restoration of the line of Elimelech through the foreign and female Ruth sustains continuity for the saving figure of David, and through David to Christ as savior.

Naomi takes the initiative and exerts a forthright purpose – to redeem her family – through wily feminine scheming. Ruth and Naomi between them take a daring, even an outrageous, gamble, which brings Ruth to lie with Boaz at the threshing floor. And they win. Ruth secures her own and Naomi’s future, so that she is compared with seven sons and declared greater than any of them.

Like Tamar and Rahab before her, Ruth is a trickster. She veils herself to hide in the night.

The text itself veils her, for all we read is Naomi’s instruction to uncover Boaz in the covering of her veil. The darkness then covers what happens next between them. We are left to imagine a sexual meeting that inspires Boaz’s gratitude and firm resolve to make Ruth his wife. One of the Targum scholars makes a hilarious comment: when Boaz “bent forward and he beheld a woman at his feet,” his “flesh became weak like a turnip.”

Grain Mother

Ruth joins Tamar and Rahab in their psychological and spiritual virginity in the land of Israel. Commentators note her use of the veil, which also figures in the story of Tamar, and wonder if she is disguising herself as a sacred prostitute. The barley harvest is associated with fertility rites in the goddess cults, and Boaz’s thrusting his gift of barley into her veil at the threshing floor could be seen as a survival of the custom of the hire of the hierodule at the fertility shrine, as well as a betrothal gift to Naomi for Ruth’s hand. Moab was home to a chthonic deity, Chemosh, symbol of the underworld, and we feel in this story a contrast bet- ween that netherworld and Bethlehem, literally the house of bread and food.

Some scholars even interpret the Book of Ruth as a fertility-cult narrative or as a Hebrew version of the Eleusis myth that focuses upon the interchange between mother and daughter and on the birth of a divine child, Naomi and Ruth are a mother-daughter couple, not unlike the mythic Demeter-Kore figures. Through the symbolism of grain the two stories are linked.

Demeter is the goddess of grain, and the ear of corn from which a child is born is a central symbol in the Eleusinian mysteries. Naomi instructs Ruth to wait upon Boaz at the threshing floor, and from this meeting at the grange a child will be conceived and born. Demeter and Kore are two aspects of the feminine, mother and daughter, hardly distinguishable from each other in terms of which one bears the child. When Ruth bears her child, the women exclaim, “There is a son born to Naomi” (4:17), thus underlining her identification with Ruth. In a way, we can see Ruth’s adventures as redeeming the repressed femininity that Naomi may be
understood to symbolize. But most scholars are uneasy with that imposition on the text of a preformed schema.

Meaning of Virgin

It is no imposition to insist on Ruth’s virginal textures, both spiritual and psychological. Ruth’s allegiance to Naomi and to Naomi’s God is unremitting and pure, though Ruth has received no call from outside herself, has been given no theophany to direct her. Her devoted journey to a strange land and another people’s God comes from the God present in her own depths. With fierce dedication, Ruth knows to whom she belongs and what is good and right. She is intact psychologically and spiritually. She cannot be sullied, misused, or entered by man-made laws and customs.

Ruth is uncannily like one of the nineteenth-century novelist Trollope’s heroines who go against family wishes and social class divisions to stay true to their love for unlikely suitors, Her love comes to her all at once, whole; it grows secretly inside her, its details to be revealed slowly, bit by bit. It is a love given to her rather than created by her. New to it, virginal, she opens herself to it, consenting fully, which gives her the strength to stay obdurate against all appeals of family, class, custom, or self-preservation.

The Midrash Rabbah interprets Ruth’s determination to go with Naomi as a desire to be converted to Israel under any circumstances and to destroy all idolatry within herself. She is in the deepest sense chaste, which means to put first things first and lay aside all competing claims. No obstacles can interfere with the primary and central loyalty that compels Ruth to sacrifice one mother, one home country, one religion for another. The values of personal security and ego assertion, important as they are, yield in Ruth’s faithfulness to the larger reality of the divine. The collective ego values – roots, kinship, and cultural reality – must be sacrificed so that Ruth can reach the reality of the divine that she sees in Naomi’s life, even when Naomi complains about God’s abandoning her.

With Ruth, “virginal” means something different from what is usually associated with the fertility cults. It is something closer to the welcoming chastity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Ruth, like Tamar and Rahab, is not a numinous figure in herself, not a goddess, not caught up in any way with cultic practice. All these ancestresses are mortal women, avatars of the human at its extraordinary best. Each plays a pivotal role in creating and preserving the new humanity called Israel and the new being that Jesus will bring into it. They are links between the Chosen One and the world, foreign, as they must be, placed where they are, on borders between countries, between unfaith and faith, between barrenness and birth, between nothing-ness and the coming into being of the religion of the saving of races.

We see anticipated here Jesus’ crossing of the borders that separate Jew and Gentile. Ruth’s story is a prefiguration of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman, ofhis calling of a hated tax collector to become his follower, of his love for the outcasts of society – whore, wanton, the unseemly poor, the unjust steward, the laborer who sneaks in at the last moment to demand his full wage. Ruth is linked to the Jesus who puzzles his disciples in his lavish defense of a mysterious woman who has poured costly ointment on his head to anoint him in preparation for his approaching death. “But she should have sold it and given the money to the poor!” the disciples protest. No. Out of the same kind of spiritually and psychologically virginal love that is in Ruth, thrusting aside the claims of the law, Jesus insists that she shall be called blessed.

No wonder the words of Ruth- “Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go … ” – are taken by couples as part of their marriage vows. For this level of love shows us something different from what we usually understand of a love between a daughter and a mother-in-law or a love that is anything like it. It defies logic and common sense. It is not concerned with approved boundaries of order that mark off the limits of the self, but rather with a lavish giving of self, an active surrender, a determined openness to being- and the fullness of being that comes with it – whether in the person of the God of Israel who so impresses Ruth or as the annunciating angel who addresses Mary. This is not a stranger coming to a temple votary whom she accepts as a god incarnate. This God who covenants with Israel has a name, the name of Being. So has the coming God, the fruit of Mary’s womb. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Mary, each in her own way, struggles toward letting something happen in relation to this deeply planted God who speaks from within the flesh of an embodied experience – in conception, in pregnancy, in birth, in love, in valiant acts, yes, and in acts of adultery, treason, incest showing the wisdom of the serpent and the cunning of the dove.

Ruth does what she does for love of another woman. This is the animating strength of Ruth as redeemer. It is what makes her a Christ figure. Ruth’s devotion reaches below the conven- tions of collective consciousness to the hidden feminine values of love and faith that spring from unfamiliar depths in the collective unconscious where the spirit makes its presence felt and Being is defined. No man, not even Boaz, really shapes or extends this circle around Naomi and Ruth. (Some commentators say Boaz died the day after the wedding.) The quality of their bonding transcends hierarchy and rules, country and custom, generations and faiths. It engenders courage. In it is a founding truth appropriate to its place in the history of Jesus.

This love of Ruth and Naomi goes beyond the distinction between subject and object that logical thinking insists on. Self knows itself in the other, as soul and world know themselves in each other. This is a knowing like that of contemplation. It is knowing as being.

Some relationships between women fall on the rocks because the two women lose hold of the transcendent element to which Ruth remained centrally committed. Then the circle of connection between the women becomes smaller and smaller as each forces upon the other projections that must ultimately be betrayed by the limits of finite being. Words of recrimination, broken trust, bruised feelings complete the downward spiral that narrows communication between them. Accusations that one has betrayed the other, or failed to heal her wounds, or renounced her pledge of constancy, or dishonored her most tender needs are tossed back and forth. The deep love of one woman for another that Ruth shows here becomes a fruitless merger where each participant seeks to become lost in the other. Then, inexorably, they must split from each other, be torn apart to find again the self each is given to be and to give, which cannot be demanded, even in such a closeness of relationship.
Relationships between human beings must always fall on the rocks when they lose sight of the transcendent element that their love first opened them to perceive and to serve. The love degenerates into hostile polarization, characterized by an exaggerated sense of function and distance, and ends in absolute incomprehension of what makes a person – oneself, the other – tick.

Sexuality and Incest

The issue between Ruth and Naomi is not sexual. It is what undergirds the sexual and what springs from the feminine, whether it is lived in relationships between women, between women and men, or between men. It is the quality that defines Ruth’s role as redeemer. Despite the depth of Ruth’s feeling and determination, a shadowy side of sexuality hovers over this story. Here, Ruth is like Tamar, though in the latter’s narrative the theme appears more boldly. It is incest I am talking about. Tamar consciously and purposefully engages her father-in-law in a sexual meeting. Ruth’s relation with Boaz is perhaps not technically incest,
for the kinship between them is too far removed. But Boaz calls Ruth “daughter” (2:8, 3:1, 11), and the elders recommend that his house be seen, in effect, like that of Tamar and Judah (4:12). Boaz, in fact, is descended from the incestuous coupling of Judah and Tamar, and Ruth from the incestuous congress of Lot and his daughter. At the end of all this incestuous inbreeding, from Ruth and Boaz, will be born Obed, the grandfather of King David and ance- stor of the Messiah. What are we to make of this theme of incest in the genealogical line of Jesus?

Looked at reductively, incest is a crime, one long held to be so in human history. In ancient times, it was taboo; for centuries it was considered a cause of retardation and insanity. In our own century Freud investigated its interdiction as the root of the Oedipal conflict that every one of us must pass through. Failure to do so results in psychosis. We remain within the
parent-child orbit; we are unable to acquire our own range of being (complete with the distinctions and differentiations on which language and thought are based), which will enable us to become separate subjects. Instead we persist in feeling ourselves the object of others’ thoughts and feelings and see them merely as characters in our own fantasies. More recent work on incest underscores its most severe effects: its victim may suffer dissociation to the point of splitting into multiple personalities. Such a person’s memory, burdened by intolerably painful incidents of sexual invasion, proves faulty, spotty, inadequate in its self- censoring. One seems mad to oneself and to others; therefore, little coherence can be brought even to recounting what happened. A terrible fear persists: Did I make it all up? Am I exaggerating? And then there is the accompanying shame: Was it my fault? Did I contribute to it? Altogether, the victim falls into abysmal confusion. Consciousness cannot contain the trauma, so a beleaguered unconscious holds it instead; the trauma manifests in bodily symptoms, sexual dysfunction, and a dreadful sense that one’s personality is not whole, but broken up into warring fragments. How, then, can this incest theme be part of the Christ’s heritage? Is it something that Jesus must redeem and heal?

Looked at symbolically, incest gathers another significance. The Zohar, the mystical Kabbalist book, sees the incest of Tamar and Judah as ordained by God. This calls to mind the mythic motif of the hieros gamos, the union of opposites from which a divine child will be born. One of the principal divisions between Freud and Jung was Jung’s adding to the meaning of the Oedipal conflict this symbolic reading of incest. While not rejecting Freud’s emphasis upon the regressive interpretation of Oedipal wishes – to become the sexual partner and total center of attention of our parent – Jung adds a further symbolic interpretation,Here the longing for parent is a longing for what a parent symbolizes: first, the security, innocence, protection, and love of childhood; second, our longing for wholeness. These psychic longings for security and wholeness insistently grab our attention through their sexual charge. The other that we long for symbolizes a contrasexual part of ourselves, that is, an unconscious part of us quite opposite to our conscious gender identity. In coming together with this other, we begin to feel united within. This is “union with one’s own being,” finding how to put together into a whole all the parts of ourselves that the sexual symbolizes so well, As Jung puts it, the longing for “union on the biological level is a symbol of the union at its highest.” It also underlines the fact that we cannot become whole, complete in ourselves, without being involved with other persons.

Can we then surmise that, on the human level, the incest theme in both the Tamar and Ruth narratives draws upon this symbolic meaning of the urge to make whole? And on the divine level, the incest prefigures the uniting of opposing masculine and feminine elements of being that will produce a Savior in whom both elements are not only included but fulfilled?

Boaz’s Shadow

Before Boaz can claim Ruth as his bride, another kinsman must be faced. Here Boaz becomes a trickster in order to force Naomi’s nearest kinsman by marriage to renounce his prior right to buy the land Naomi inherited from her husband Elimelech’s family. Being in no posi- tion to work the land, Naomi has not benefited from it. But in this agricultural community, her kinsman sees its value. He wants to purchase the land but does not want to marry Ruth or to pay the expense of developing the land for Ruth and her mother-in-law, unless in the end it will pay him and his own direct heirs. When he hears that the land will revert to Ruth’s and hence to Elimelech’s heirs, he quits the claim. Boaz thus can use the intricacies of the law to make Ruth his wife without alienating either her or himself from the surrounding clan society. He does his negotiation openly, before witnesses at the city gate. Who is this kinsman Boaz confronts? We know nothing of him, not even his name, but we do understand his attitude. It is straightforwardly materialistic. He will take the land of Elimelech – following an old orientation that was exclusively of the Hebrew faith – but he will not follow the new orien- tation that will include Ruth, the alien feminine, and then raise with her “a new heir for the old heritage.”

We can surmise that this “nearest kinsman” might represent a shadow part of Boaz that balks at accepting and reintegrating a “previously repressed feminine element.” The shadow is that part of each of us that we keep hidden in the unconscious, not wanting or fearing to own it. Before Boaz can bring this new feminine element into the center of Hebrew faith publicly – that is, under the law, consciously and clearly within the community as represented by the public gate – he must confront and deal with a less savory part of himself. This part belongs to Boaz as wealthy landowner, one who, like his kinsman, can see a good deal in acquiring more property. But that motive for marrying Ruth must be put aside. Boaz differentiates his feelings from the materialistic bias. He chooses Ruth freely and decisively, drawing off his shoe to confirm the contract -that is, taking off and putting on again a symbol of his stand- point (and, in those times, a sign of liberty and freedom, as slaves went barefoot) to indicate that he is binding himself to this new agreement, Boaz chooses Ruth out of gratitude and a real sense of her redemptive power.

Ruth: Foreshadow and Type of Christ

Ruth foreshadows Christ the redeemer in her identifying with the relict at the bottom of the heap, the remnant of the remnant. She allies herself with a single old woman who, in a patriarchal society , is without power or position. This is what Jesus experienced- born in the muck of a stable, living his life with nowhere to lay his head, a constant example that God moves through the left-out and forsaken parts of us to bring wholeness to all.

Twice in this remarkable tale Ruth is shown as a channel of grace. When she comes to work for him, Boaz hails her, like the angel of the annunciation speaking to Mary, as one worthy of the fullest reward from “the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (2:12). When he wakes up to find her lying at his feet she responds by identifying herself and inviting him to spread his skirt – his wings – over his “handmaid,” in the clearest adumbration of Mary’s magnificat. Boaz thanks her and blesses her for her chesed, her loving-kindness (3:9-10). Ruth’s kindness, her chesed, echoes the word used again and again in the Hebrew Bible to describe Yahweh’s own loving bestowal. Her redemptive offering is protected by the Lord God of Israel in the shelter of his wings, and Boaz’s skirt- the word is the same in the Hebrew text
– under which she seeks haven, Ruth prefigures Christ as mother bird: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Matt. 23:37) Like Jesus, Ruth moves from emptiness to fullness, from death to life, from no future to total faith and hope, from bitterness to gratitude. God hides, we are reminded, in the remnant, in the weak, performing the drama of salvation through the persons and events least likely to become channels of grace.

In the Zohar version of Ruth, she is seen as personifying both the community of Israel and the Shekinah, the feminine side of God in Kabbalist doctrines. So in her coming together with Boaz, whose name means “in him is strength” and who represents God as the Redeemer of Israel, we see represented the redeeming strengths of the feminine. Even more, we may add, in recovering this lost mite, the feminine manifests God’s wholeness.

In this story Ruth begins her redeeming action forthrightly, and others quickly catch on. Like her sisters Tamar and Rahab, she assumes the role of intercessor, and its contagious quality is revealed dramatically in what follows. Ruth redeems Naomi by insisting on accompanying her, by providing her food, and finally giving her a home and a child. Boaz deepens the redemptive drama by taking Ruth under his protection and then, for Ruth as his wife, recovering her land and her name for her. Ruth chooses his shelter and protection, electing him as sexual partner, giving him a son, evoking in him a steadfast kindness, a God-like chesed. She redeems all of us, in truth, for from her come kings and prophets and all the boons and all the consolations which the Holy One, blessed be he, is destined to bestow on Solomon.”In Ruth, we learn the great truth that we are, each of us, agents of each other’s salvation, spiritually and psychologically.

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