Age in the Book of Ruth and a Proxy Marriage?

It is well known to those who give the Book of Ruth even a cursory reading that Boaz is older than Ruth and, in fact, is closer to Naomi in age. In the comments of a paper on Boaz that I posted here over a year ago, Robert Holmstedt, who has a great book on the subject, Ruth: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, pointed to some of his own work in which he noted that the “antiquated” language in the book is often in the mouths of Naomi and Boaz.

In my Baylor Handbook I considered 7 features (oddly, I now see that I discussed the paragogic nun elsewhere, although it fits at this point as well) and drew this conclusion (2010:49):

“These seven features are, in my opinion, best understood as part of the story-teller’s creativity and linguistic artistry. And yet they are not simply literary window-dressing. It is no accident that five of the seven features are in the mouths of No‘omi and Boaz, while only one is use in Ruth’s speech. The narrator set up a light ‘linguistic curtain’ with the audiencea on one side and No‘omi and Boaz on the other. The implication is that, while they audience is reminded throughout the Ruth is a foreigner, they are also encouraged, by linguistic means, to identify with her. Although No‘omi is the story’s protagonist and her redemption is an important theological message, Ruth is the heroine of the story and it is her courage and loyalty that the audience is encouraged to take in the most deeply. No‘omi may have been re-filled by God, but God has provided for Ruth across cultural and political boundaries — an important reminder for the Israelites at many historical points.”

(Robert was hoping to produce an article on this for the fall of 2010. Did you get that published Robert? I would love to see it! UPDATE: I did find this paper on his Academia page: Dating the Language of Ruth: A Study in Method)

In his Anchor Bible Commentary volume on Ruth, Edward Campbell spends quite a bit of time commentating on Boaz’s age, noting that everyone in chapter two is referred to as being old, in reference to Boaz; the young men, Ruth is a “young woman” (‎‏הַנַּעֲרָה) in Ruth 2:5, and of course Boaz’s “young women” whom Ruth is to follow.

“Oh my gosh! Is that a…woman?!”

In chapter 3 we have the famous scene at the threshing floor when Ruth uncovers Boaz’s “feet.” When Boaz wakes he commends her, saying,

May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.

Clearly Boaz is older, perhaps much older, than Ruth. Campbell concludes his musings on this matter by asking, “What purpose is there behind these devices?”

One senses that the story-teller means to give his characters a certain credibility in this way. Perhaps also there is a need, especially in the case of Naomi, to underscore the truth of her own assertion in 1:12 that she is too old to have a husband. As for Boaz there may even be a question about his ability to a sire a son. …In any event, senior citizens they [Naomi and Boaz] are, and the audience should appreciate them as such.1

Keeping this in mind, consider the curious description of the birth of Ruth’s son, Ruth 4:16-7.

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse (‎‏וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת). The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.”

I have always found the description of Naomi becoming Obed’s “nurse” very odd. True, the Hebrew text describes her as a “foster-mother” (וַתְּהִי־לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת) rather than as a wet nurse (‎‏אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת), but the fact that she is described as laying him on her bosom and that they women say a son has been born to Naomi… Well it just makes a fella think.

What I am beginning to wonder is if the marriage between Ruth and Boaz was more of a marriage of convenience than previously thought. We all know that Boaz married her for, on a basic level, the purpose (as confused as the legal situation is) of maintaining the name of Mahlon and providing for these two widows. But when I consider that Naomi and Boaz were contemporaries and significantly older than Ruth (I am not sure I would say that they are “senior citizens” since in our modern context that would mean to most well over 60, something unlikely in the time period) then I begin to wonder if Naomi and Boaz are the real romance and that the women of the town knew that this was the case. Naomi cannot produce a child and Ruth needs to be provided for so and protected so Boaz marries Ruth, but his heart belongs to Naomi.2

I am by no means convinced that this idea has any merit. If Naomi and Boaz were the real love interests, then why did Boaz just not marry Naomi? While Machlon’s name may not have been “preserved” Elimelech’s would have been and the property would have remained in the family. Still, I wonder if these different threads of the story should not be woven together in some fashion….

 
  1. Campbell, pp. 110-1. []
  2. Too schmaltzy? Yes, but this is a blog and as I have noted elsewhere, context allows one to be more casual in some contexts than in others. []

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