Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Starting tonight Jews celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, marking seven weeks since Passover that Leviticus instructs us to count. Here’s why I think of Shavuot as a whodunit.
Shavuot originated as a summer wheat harvest festival but, in the post-Biblical diaspora, it became associated with the Israelites’ acceptance of God’s Torah at Mt. Sinai. The dual origins of the holiday – responsive to both the natural cycle of agrarian time and the narrative cycle of the redemptive biblical epic – are crystalized in the Book of Ruth traditionally read on Shavuot.
The Book of Ruth’s narrative is a tangled story of kinship and inheritance, but its themes of communal continuity and redemption are clear. Despite obvious appearances to the contrary, it reads like a mystery novel whose meaning is revealed through hints provided in arcane historical and legal details.
In the narrative, the Israelite husband and wife Elimelech and Naomi emigrate from Bethlehem to Moab to escape famine. Elimelech leases out his land in Bethlehem but dies in Moab before he can reclaim it. Their sons, Mahlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, but within a decade the sons also die, leaving Naomi a widow without heirs. She decides to return to Bethlehem, telling her daughters-in-law to go back to their people. Orpah reluctantly departs but Ruth refuses, famously declaring her abiding allegiance to Naomi: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Naomi takes Ruth back with her to Bethlehem, where she is supported by Ruth’s crop gleanings. When Boaz, a close relative of Elimelech, approvingly notices Ruth gleaning in his fields, Naomi crafts a plan to marry off Ruth to this kinsman in keeping with the levitate obligation of near kin to marry a relative’s widow. Ruth publicly enacts the plan by uncovering and submissively lying at Boaz’s feet while he sleeps amongst other farmers on the threshing floor. Boaz, who accepts but defers Ruth’s entreaty, must in turn negotiate with another nearer kinsman for Ruth’s hand. This accomplished, Boaz and Ruth redeem Elimelech’s leased land; their son Obed is revealed to be a grandfather of King David. The text establishes Ruth’s legitimate place in the Israelite royal lineage, despite her Moabite origins, and also rewards Boaz with inclusion in the concluding genealogy.
What are the Book’s thematic connections to the Shavuot holiday?
The agrarian setting of the story, of course, recalls Shavuot’s agricultural origins. Ruth’s conversion and the redemption of Elimelech’s land similarly parallels the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah without conditions at Mt. Sinai, in exchange for God’s promise of landed nationhood: “All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:8).
Like a good mystery novel, revelatory discovery is crucial in both stories. We follow Ruth’s narrative uncertain of what its twists and turns portend. The mystery theme is highlighted in Naomi’s climactic question after Ruth returns, as yet unwed, from the threshing floor: “Who art thou, my daughter?” (Ruth 3:16). We realize only at the end that Ruth’s story legitimizes an unexpected royal genealogy which includes the convert.
Shavuot’s countdown from the nadir of exodus to the zenith of the Torah’s transmission at Sinai emphasizes the mystery of divine revelation. The foundational authority of the Torah for Jews paradoxically endows mere words with divine import. God’s will, the scripture’s enigmatic inspiration, can be apprehended only indirectly – mysteriously, we might say – through human words. Just so, Ruth’s unexplained faith is that of the People with whom she allies herself.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria; he is a member of Congregation Emanu-El synagogue in Victoria.
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*This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, June 11 2016