Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale

  • Review
By – November 28, 2022

Renowned bib­li­cal schol­ar Ilana Pardes has made a wel­come con­tri­bu­tion to Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s award-win­ning Jew­ish Lives series with Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale. She shows how com­mu­ni­ties in dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­texts build on the bib­li­cal account of Ruth by adapt­ing her to fit their own time and place.

Pardes high­lights sev­er­al aspects of the bib­li­cal nar­ra­tive that inform how Ruth is under­stood by lat­er com­mu­ni­ties. Despite being a Moabite woman, Ruth admirably vows to fol­low her Israelite moth­er-in-law, Nao­mi, wher­ev­er she goes, and to accept Naomi’s deity as her own. Ruth thus becomes an arche­type of hesed, a Hebrew term mean­ing lov­ing kind­ness” that is weight­ed with eth­i­cal and mys­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance. Ruth is also a glean­er, a per­son who col­lects unhar­vest­ed pro­duce and leaves it behind for the ben­e­fit of the poor. In the geneal­o­gy at the end of the bib­li­cal book, Ruth is an ances­tor of King David, a fig­ure with mes­sian­ic significance.

The ancient rab­bis of the Tal­mud and midrash por­tray Ruth as a mod­el con­vert, dra­ma­tiz­ing her com­mit­ment to her Israelite moth­er-in-law. For the medieval Jews who devot­ed them­selves to a mys­ti­cal form of Judaism known as Kab­bal­ah, Ruth embod­ies the shekhi­nah, the fem­i­nine aspect of the divine. Kab­bal­ists also empha­size the role of Ruth as shekhi­nah in ush­er­ing in the longed-for mes­sian­ic era, giv­en her con­nec­tion with King David.

Begin­ning in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, painters — unlike the rab­bis and Kab­bal­ists — under­scored Ruth’s role as a glean­er. Baroque artists often por­trayed Ruth as a pas­toral gath­er­er. West­ern nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry artists saw Ruth through the lens of Ori­en­tal­ism, por­tray­ing her as a seduc­tive woman in an imag­ined Mid­dle East­ern set­ting. The ear­ly Zion­ist move­ment also finds inspi­ra­tion in Ruth’s agri­cul­tur­al pur­suits. But rather than a glean­er, Zion­ist Ruth is a bold pio­neer who arrives in the Holy Land ready to cul­ti­vate a new life. Twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can writ­ers depict her as an out­cast, some­one who does not con­form to the dom­i­nant society’s expec­ta­tions, in part due to her non-Jew­ish roots.

Pardes sug­gests that Ruth remains rel­e­vant to our own age as a reminder of the many dif­fi­cul­ties migrants often face. Leav­ing one’s home is nev­er easy, espe­cial­ly if one is sub­ject­ed to prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion. The Bible por­trays Ruth in a sym­pa­thet­ic light despite her oth­er­wise-oth­ered Moabite ori­gins. It demon­strates that her com­mit­ment to Nao­mi is so praise­wor­thy that she has become an arche­type of lov­ing kind­ness in the post-bib­li­cal Jew­ish tradition.

This lucid and engag­ing book explores some of the ways Ruth has been both a mod­el and a resource for post-bib­li­cal read­ers. Teth­ered by a long recep­tion his­to­ry of her char­ac­ter, Ruth: A Migrant’s Tale shows how the Bible has been a fount of inspi­ra­tion for reli­gious lead­ers, schol­ars, artists, and mystics.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions