Ruth, daughter of Eglon, and the origin of midrashic traditions

I am in the final stages of preparing my paper on the transformation of the character of Ruth in her Targum and I thought I would share one nugget here with a comment about determining primacy of exegetical traditions.

The first reference to Ruth in the Targum, as in the biblical text, occurs in chapter 1 verse 4. After an expansive start, the Targumist adds just a few details to this verse. He explains that Mahlon and Chilion taking “foreign” wives will be the reason for their ultimate deaths, and provides Ruth with a royal lineage.

4 They transgressed the decree of the Memra of the Lord and they took for themselves foreign wives from the house of Moab. The name of one was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth, the daughter of Eglon, the king of Moab. And they dwelt there for a time of about ten years. [mfn]The text is in italics since all of it is an addition to MT. You can find a complete translation of TgRuth here.[/mfn]

The identification of Ruth with Eglon is well attested in a variety of rabbinic sources. [mfn]See, for example, b. Hor. 10b “R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: Ruth was the daughter of the son of Eglon who was the son of the son of Balak the King of Moab.” See also b. San. 102b. b. Sotah 47a, and b. Naz. 23a.[/mfn] The fact that the Targumist simply mentions it in passing likely means that he assumed that his audience would be well aware of this tradition; it is not new or unique to TgRuth. It does serve as a nice example of how we can determine with some degree of certainty the relative origin of an interpretive tradition.

If we assume that we do not know the relative dates of TgRuth to the Talmudim or Ruth Rabbah, we can still compare the texts and see that the Targumist is certainly borrowing this tradition. Why? As noted, this identity is mentioned in passing, which would seem to suggest the audience would already be aware of this identification. That would imply at least a broad acceptance to the tradition and thus one not needing further explication by the Targumist.

Avigdor Shinan, in a reference I cannot call to mind right now, wrote ages ago on this and with much greater precision. While it is not relevant in this case, he points out that where a midrashic addition relies upon the Hebrew in some manner (word play, assonance, etc.) then it likely did not originate in the Targum, which is, of course, in Aramaic.

The Targumim never provide justification for their additions (in contrast see, e.g., RuthR 1:4 where we are told which rabbi provided this information [R. Bibi in the name of R. Reuben] along with scriptural citation in support of the assertion) but usually such a detail is worked into the argument the Targumist is creating through his additions. Ruth’s new status as a princess does serve to further support the tradition, also in the Targum, that Elimelech and his sons were, “lords from Bethlehem of Judah, and they came to the country of Moab and they were governors there” (TgRuth 1:2). Other than that, very little is made of the reference. In contrast, the Targumist does build up quite considerably Ruth’s “conversion” and she becomes the proselyte “par excellence.” It is unlikely that this tradition is original to TgRuth either, but in that case it is deployed with great precision and gusto. Her identity as a relative of Eglon is merely an ornamental pearl, attractive but not substantive in this context.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One thought on “Ruth, daughter of Eglon, and the origin of midrashic traditions”