Faithfulness and redemption/2 – The lives and words of women that speak of famine and hospitality, defeat and resurrection.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 04/04/2021
"For those four miles spent with Naomi, Orpah had the privilege of giving birth to four giants, namely Goliath and his three brothers".
Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews
The book of Ruth presents us with the figure of a mother, a widow and a mother who is left an orphan of both her children, but who did not allow herself to be overcome by adversity, old laws or grief and knew how to bring two daughters-in-law and all of us along on her journey in constant expectation of resurrection.
«In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land...» (The Book of Ruth 1,1). In the few verses included in the Book of Ruth, each name is a message. As in a medieval miniature, the masterpiece is born from the attention to detail. In the days of the judges ... The Book of Judges describes a time of violence and abuse, and ends with the story - one of the most terrible ones in the Bible - of the murder by a group of men from Gibeah of a woman from Bethlehem (The Book of Judges 19,29). The Book of Ruth begins with another woman from Bethlehem: Naomi. The Bible really must be read all at once, because, as in life, the meaning of one word can also be found in a different word, even a distant one.
There was a famine in the land. In the Bible, famines are not just climatic events. They are also veritable Theophanies, words from God. A famine led Abraham to Egypt, another brought us the sons of Jacob and then the great reconciliation with their brother Joseph took place. A famine is often pain in preparation of a resurrection. A pain that forces us to leave a land that we would never have left without it. In the Bible, people sometimes start out in pursuit of a voice; other times, they start out in pursuit of water or bread. Only in the end, do they discover that the same love was present inside that very pain that made them run away from home. However, this understanding takes a whole lifetime, sometimes several generations.
«So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab». A family emigrates. We do not know their names yet, but we immediately know the name of the city hit by the famine, Bethlehem. However, that is a name that cannot easily be placed next to the word famine. We know that Bethlehem means "house of bread". Because of a famine, that family leaves that house of bread and goes to look for bread far away from their home. Thus, we find ourselves within our first paradox. They were already inside the house of bread, and left it in search of bread.
However, unlike the other great biblical migrations, that family did not go to Egypt, where the cycle of the waters of the Nile was more powerful than any famine. It went to a highly unlikely place, an almost unpronounceable name for the Jews of the time: «in the field of Moab». They went to the Moabites, who along with the Ammonites were among the historical enemies of Israel. A people that furthermore bore the sign of bread and water inscribed in its history: «No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation… For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt» (Deuteronomy 23,4-5). They did not come to meet you with bread, why then go for bread where bread had already been denied? The tension grows...
«The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there» (The Book of Ruth 1,2). Elimelek, that is, my God (Eli) and king (mélec). Here again, is a name that has a history: that migrant man carries with him the bond with that different God of his. The names of his two sons, on the other hand, are ominous and dark, translatable as "disease" and "tuberculosis" (or "exhaustion"). In the Bible, having two children usually does not bode well, starting with Cain and Abel, moving onto Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Rachel and Leah, up to the relationship between the prodigal son and his brother - so much so that in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke, André Gide imagined a third younger son and a mother, as well (A. Gide, The return of the prodigal son, 1907). Two is also the number of envy, of rivalry, of a conflict to obtain recognition, inheritance and birthright. In the Bible, two is not the number of good fraternity yet - no number is, if the fraternity does not also generate a bond greater than that of blood.
And so they settled there. They lived in Moab as "migrants". The verb gûr (to emigrate) and the noun ger (migrant) are words that are right at home in the Bible or, rather, "at tent". Living in a foreign country as a ger was a good situation in which to live. In Israel, for example, the ger observed the Sabbath and participated in major feasts. We do not know what the juridical condition of the ger was among the Moabites, but we cannot exclude a similar condition to that in Israel (Donatella Scaiola, Ruth, Paoline Editoriale Libri, 2009). A word, ger, which immediately reminds biblical readers of Abraham: «I am a foreigner (ger) and stranger among you» (Genesis 23,4). Abraham inhabited the Promised Land as a ger, telling us that the migrant condition is very much the human condition and that no promised land lasts forever. In the Bible, every migration is a continuation of that of the wandering Aramean, who never stopped wandering, who always kept a deep spiritual nostalgia for that nomadic, free and poor home. The book of Ruth is many things, but it is also a great reflection on the nomadic dimension of life, which leads us to look for bread far away from the house of bread, and then makes us return, to then start out in pursuit again, like the doe, on other paths of this one life, that is true because it is temporary.
«Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons» (The Book of Ruth 1,3). In that new situation as resident-migrants in Moab, a first traumatic event occurs. Elimelek dies. And when he dies he is referred to as "Naomi's husband". Before that, Noemi was "Elimelek's wife", now he, the man, is Noemi's husband, a very rare expression in those patriarchal cultures, but which fits well into an all-female book. The Midrash adds a nice note on this definition: «A man's death is not felt by anyone except his wife» (Midrash Rabbah on The Book of Ruth, Parashah Beth). We do not know how and why Noemi's husband died. What is certain, however, is that, one at a time men began to disappear. «The sons married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth» (The Book of Ruth 1,4). For two Jews, marrying Moabite women was not a secondary detail. As we have seen, the Law of Moses did not allow Moabites to become members of the community of Israel. Once again, the Midrash offers its interpretation: «Moabite (as in male) but not Moabite (as in female)». Hence, the prohibition did not apply to women?
That patriarchal world all centred on the law of firstborn males had developed norms that mitigated and contrasted this iron law. The history of salvation is, in fact, full of firstborn children who were not chosen (Cain, Esau…) and by those last in line who were chosen (Joseph, David…). Now, we see women who even manage to violate Moses' Torah. There is a typical female transgression. Alongside the transgressions of everyone, male and female, there is one that insinuates itself into the interspaces of the laws written by males, into the crevices of regulations designed and desired by and for a male world. Women, often finding themselves as guests of communities that were not designed by them, have had to learn to survive by, often secretly, slipping into those grey and ambivalent areas of the law, taking advantage of what was left unspoken and undefined. Sometimes even taking that stone or piece of brick off the wall to look through the hole and beyond, or throwing a seed between the stones of a drywall. Sometimes that wall would collapse, perhaps without really wanting it to – maybe they just wanted to see something different, somewhere else, or just plant a flower. A discreet subversion of the law, a different "overthrow of the powerful from their thrones", where the powerful fell almost without realizing it.
«They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband» (The Book of Ruth 1,4-5). She remained «like the rest of the leftovers from the meal offering» (Parashah Beth). Ten years pass (of marriage or of residence in Moab?) and then Naomi's two children die, moreover without leaving her with any grandchildren - the text does not say it explicitly, but the context suggests it, as it suggests the sterility of the two daughters-in-law: ten years was the term that led Sarah to have Abraham unite with his slave Hagar. Life leaves her with only two widows: and so Naomi finds herself with an all-female company. The economy of the story eliminated the three men from the scene, and in a book that consist almost entirely of dialogues, those men entered and left it without saying a word. A field that was cleared to bring out three women, three widows. At this point, in this situation that brings to mind a female Job - but with two widows who remain beside her - Naomi sets out again: «With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah» (The Book of Ruth 1,6).
Naomi returns home, to the "house of bread". She returns as someone who has been defeated by life. And we cannot help but think of the many emigrants who have and still follow the same path as Naomi, who leave to live and then return defeated by that life that made them leave in the first place. For women, this backward journey is even sadder and harder, both before, during and after. She got up, rose, and left. Like Anna, the mother of Samuel, who after the humiliations and the tears spilled for her sterility, «she stood up» (1 Book of Samuel 1,9). Like the prodigal son, who, one day, "got up, rose" from his pigsty, and that getting up was the first step in returning home. The book does not tell us what went on in Naomi's soul between the death of her children and her getting up to leave. However, it must have been something similar to what we continue to see in so many men, and even more often in many women. Who knows how many words Ruth and Orpah will have spoken to her - women know how to console themselves with nothing but words, like Scheherazade in "A Thousand and One Nights" they defeat death by speaking - that logos that overcomes Thanatos is a woman.
«She got up, she rose» it is the end of mourning. Naomi was not stuck in the past, she was able to prevent herself from dying along with her dead – perhaps this is what mourning is all about, but somewhere along the line we forgot it. She got up, rose, and chose to continue living. Naomi’s resurrection is the resurrection of so many women and men, both in the past and today. If those women and later the men of ancient Palestine were able to recognize that different kind of resurrection, it is because they knew of the resurrections of Hagar, Anna, Sara, and Naomi. They were all there, together, on that first day, the whole Saturday, to celebrate the Crucifix "that got up, that rose". Happy Easter.