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Achieving Justice Through Narrative in the Hebrew Bible: The Limitations of Law in the Legal Potential of Literature

Pages 181 - 199


St. Louis, Missouri

1 For a more detailed analysis of other approaches to law and narrative, see my article, The Narrative Quandary: Cases of Law in Literature, Vetus Testamentum 54, 2004, 1–16. My article, Law and Narrative in Genesis, ZAR 16, 2010, 211–223, applies my methodology to other texts in Genesis, focusing on two methodological questions: 1) whether their setting in the patriarchal period justifiably or erroneously allows us to assume that they reflect earlier law and 2) how to reconstruct legal matters for which we have only narrative texts as evidence.

2 A significant part of my analysis of the differences between law and narrative was inspired by T. Rosenbaum, The Myth of Moral Justice, New York 2004.

3 See R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York 1981, 47–62, and A. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, Sheffield 1983, 23–42.

4 It is to be noted that this may not be the only theme of a narrative, but this approach illuminates a crucial aspect of the narrative.

5 Baruch A. Levine argues that the author of Ruth is addressing legal themes rather than applying statutes and therefore there is no need to resolve the contradictions between the book of Ruth and biblical statutes (In Praise of the Israelite Mišpāḫā: Legal Themes in the Book of Ruth, in: Huffmon, H. B et a. [eds.], The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall, Winona Lake, IN 1983, 98). Levine contends that the author of Ruth was interested in policies, not in the static implementation of specific legislation, but in the goals and motivations that motivate legal actions. The author was concerned about assisting the widow and the poor, the acceptance of a foreign refugee, and the rewarding of wives who are devoted to their husbands' family. These legal themes, Levine avers, are the concern of the writer, not the rigid application of specific statutes, and the author uses the narrative to extol the virtue of the spirit of the laws. My approach is similar to Levine's: I am arguing explicitly for what Levine is implying, that the author is criticizing the limitations and loopholes of the law and is creating a narrative in which they are surmounted. The differences between the texts are not due to the historical development of law: They are due to the nature of narrative in contrast to formal statutes and stipulations. Levine argues that the writer deals with legal themes, while I argue that the writer addresses the faults that are perceived when law in put into action. In some cases, the flaws are too great, and a person is injured by injustice, and in other cases, the victim can achieve vindication.

6 See Gen 16:2; 25:21; 30:2; Judg 13:2; 1 Sam 1:5.

7 A. R. Davis suggests that the gender discord, the use of masculine forms for women, does not necessarily reflect vestiges of dual forms (from archaic biblical Hebrew) or gender neutralization (from later biblical Hebrew) but rather reflect the heightened emotions and discordant relationships between characters, especially between Naomi and Ruth (The Literary Effect of Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth, JBL 132, 2013, 495–513).

8 B. Porten, The Scroll of Ruth: A Rhetorical Study, Gratz College Annual of Jewish Studies 7, 1978, 29.

9 Perhaps the omission that Ruth has accompanied her is a sign of the seeming legal helplessness of a foreign woman, but as it turns out, the foreigner will be able to marshal he advocate needed for legal matters.

10 The linguistic formula, “There was a man from… (ויהי אישׁ מ־) and his name was (ושׁמו) … and he did (an action)”, is characteristic of narratives set in the period of the judges in the books of Judges and Samuel (Judg 13:2; 17:1–2, 7–8 (a nameless Levite);1 Sam 1:1–3; 9:1–2). The sequence of identifying the home and the name of the protagonist(s) is reversed in Ruth, emphasizing the names over the action mentioned (B. Porten, The Scroll of Ruth [see above note 8] 25).

11 The missing person in the narrative, the nearest kinsman, the one who should have been the one to help her as the redeemer, was publicly scrutinized and repudiated at the culmination of the narrative.

12 P. Joüon, Ruth, Rome 1953, 12 n.1.

13 A. Berlin, Poetics (see above note 3) 83–84.

14 This is partially due to the fact that Ruth and Naomi are the subject of legal action but are not the actors.

15 R. E. Murphy, Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature 13, Grand Rapids, MI 1981, 91.

16 The comments of Boaz's young man about Ruth's diligence may reflect the youth's own interest in her. He was asked only about her identity but responds enthusiastically about her diligence. The narrative obliquely signals that Ruth has another option to marital security, evoking apprehension that the youth and Ruth will become a pair, not Boaz and Ruth (B. Porten, The Scroll of Ruth [see above note 8] 33).

17 Naomi and Ruth are portrayed as adding a frisson to Ruth's appeal to Boaz. The hint of sexual intimacy inherent in her appearance at the feet of a sleeping Boaz, sudden and surprising to him, is resolved by Boaz's concern to safeguard her reputation. Why did she act as she did? Perhaps she thought a sexual flourish might be the enticement Boaz needed, but Boaz praises her for her loyalty to her duty to her late husband's family rather than pursuing young men. The age difference between Boaz and Ruth reflected in his addressing her as “my daughter”, the same term used by Naomi. Porten suggests that Naomi sent Ruth on a romantic journey but that Ruth misunderstood and thought she was going on a mission to find a redeemer (J. M. Sasson, Ruth, Baltimore 1979, 82–83). Surely petitioning someone in the middle of the night to act as a legal intercessor is unusual and probably improper, but Boaz's inaction needed to be undone by drastic action.

18 E. Würthwein, Die Fünf Megilloth, 2nd edition, HAT, Tübingen 1969, 19.

19 Ruth 4:5 presents a number of textual difficulties:

21 It can be speculated that Boaz has an ulterior motive in shaping the discussion as the narrative portrays: He wants Ruth for himself. Perhaps if the narrative had shaped the discussion differently: If the nearest kinsman were to have learned initially of the necessity to marry Ruth, social pressure might have impelled him to do so, but once his expectations have been raised, his self-interest may be likely to prevail when his expectations are dashed.

22 Yet a compassionate harvester can intentionally leave more behind, as Boaz so orders his men.

23 A. Siquans argues that the narrative reshapes the institution and legal status of …, “resident alien”, so that Ruth can be accepted into Israelite society (Foreignness and Poverty in the Book of Ruth: A Legal Way for a Poor Foreign Woman to Be Integrated into Israel, JBL 128, 2009, 443–452).

24 Inheritance devolves along the agnate line.

25 This field could not have been an inheritance from her father since the text specifically states that the field was Elimelech's.

26 Is Ruth also a late text? One type of definitive evidence for the late date of a text is the use of late language, and the idiom שׁלף נעל in Ruth is late language that may serve as an indication of the late date of the book. However, certainty about a late date can only come from frequency and extensive use of late language, otherwise not extant in Ruth, and therefore the use of this late idiom is suggestive, not conculsive. See A. Hurvitz, Al Shelifat ha-na'al she-be-megillat rut, Shnaton le-miqra ul-ḥeqer ha-mizraḥ haqadum 1, 1976, 45–49.

27 D. R. G. Beattie, The Book of Ruth as Evidence for Israelite Legal Practice, VT 24, 1974, 256.

28 F. S. Frick, Widows in the Hebrew Bible: A Transactional Approach, in: Brenner, A. (ed.), A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, Sheffield 1994, 148.

29 The second stage was during the Hasmonean period, perhaps during the leadership of Judah (because the details of war are similar to Judah's defeat of Nicanor, i.e. Nicanor's head is decapitated and hung on the city wall, no mention of rebuilding of Temple but of reconsecration of vessels, altar and Temple) or of John Hyrcanus (because of his conquest of Samaria in 107 B.C.E.; the Samaritans are portrayed positively in blocking advance of Assyrians, while the author evinces an irenic attitude toward all Jews, seeing them working together, a setting that seems better placed when sectarianism is not rampant). See G. E. W. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah, Philadelphia 1981, 108–109, and C. Moore, Judith, AB, Garden City, NY 1985, 67–71.

30 Ruth may also possess some type of title to her late husband's estate, according to Ruth 4:5, but the textual difficulties in that verse do present an obstacle to that understanding.

31 M. Gluckman, The Ideas in Barotse Jurisprudence, New Haven, CT 1965, 75–112.

32 The redemption law in Lev 25:25–28 implies that the redeemer returns the land to his relative, the original owner, that the relative had already sold without gaining owenership of the land himself, while in Jer 32:6–15, Jeremiah takes ownership of land in acting as the redeemer for his uncle in order to keep the land within the family lineage. In the first case, the original owner benefits by regaining ownership of the land, and in the second, he receives the procees from selling his land to the redeemer. According to Lev 25:47–53, redemption also came into play when a person was in debt without sufficient resources and had to sell himself into servitude to a resident alien.

33 B. Porten, The Scroll of Ruth [see above note 8] 32.

34 M. Burrows, The Marriage of Boaz and Ruth, JBL 59, 1940, 447.

35 The statue in Deut 25:5–10 deals with a situation in which brothers are still dwelling together while their father's patrimonial estate is still intact, but it is not clear what the consequence of the specific situation stipulated in the statute is. E. Davies argues that it is a restriction limit in levirate marriage to that particular circumstance (Inheritance Rights and the Hebrew Levirate Marriage, Part 2, VT 31, 1981, 264), while R. Westbrook understands this description to be one possible circumstance in which levirate marriage would occur but there could be other circumstances in which it sapplies (Westbrook, Property and Family, Sheffield 1991, 78). In regard to Gen 13:6 and 36:7, J. H. Tigay argues that the parties were dwelling together only means that they were only close enough to be using the samepasture, and so the possibility exits that the estate had already been divided (Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah commentary, Philadelphia, 1996, 231).

36 J. A. Loader, Of Barley, Bulls, Land and Levirate, in: Garcia Martínez, F. (ed.), Studies in Deuteronomy. In Honour of C. J. Labuschagne, VT.S 53, Leiden 1994, 130–131.

37 This is not a claim that the author of Ruth is dependent on Deuteronomy for the terminology of levirate. Deuteronomy offers an example of levirate terminology, but this is not evidence that the narrative of Ruth has borrowed the language of the statute formulated in Deuteronomy.

38 D. E. Weisberg, The Widow of Our Discontent: Levirate Marriage in the Bible and Ancient Israel, JSOT 28, 2004, 405.

39 It cannot be argued that this is wishful thinking on the part of the authors' projectind women to have positive feelings about levirate because it benefits men: The men are portrayed as having negative feelings.

40 E. Davies, Inheritance Rights (see above note 34) 259–260.

41 M. A. Katz, Patriarchy and Inheritance in Greek and Biblical Antiquity: The Epiclerate and the Levirate, Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Division A, Jerusalem 1990, 166.

42 E. Davies, Inheritance Rights (see above note 34) 141–142. The explanation in Deut 25:5–10 for levirate marriage is that it prevents a man's name from being blotted out. J. H. Tigay argues that what lies behind this is the idea that a dead person continued to exist in an eventless way after death in Sheol and that having a child could sustain the dead by keeping the dead's name present among the living (Deuteronomy [see above note 34] 482–483). There still may be a vestige of the importance of a name. The use of פלוני אלמונו rather than the actual name of the nearest kinsman has intrigued scholars, and is to be speculated that because the near kinsman refused to raise up the name of the deceased, therefore his name, too, is obscured and left unremembered (B. Porten, The Scroll of Ruth [see above note 8] 44).

43 A. A. Anderson, The Marriage of Ruth, JSSt 23, 1978, 176. Hittite Laws 193 may be found in M. T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, SBL Writings from the Ancient World, Atlanta, GA 1995, 236.

44 Middle Assyrian Laws A 33 is found in M. Roth, Law Collections (see above note 42) 165. Middle Assyrian Laws A 33 and Hittite Laws 193 prescribe that a brother is the primary levir and the father-in-law as the contingent levir, in agreement with Genesis 38. Extrabiblical evidence is also suggestive of a solution to the quandary posed by the laws against incest in Lev 18:16 and 20:21: Do these laws prohibit levirate marriage? Hittite Laws 192 prohibit intercourse with a brother's wife while the brother is alive but alows the marriage after the brother's death. Perhaps the laws in Leviticus likewise prohibit intimacy between a man and his brother's wife during the lifetime of his brother but permit it after the death of the brother.

45 It may be that the reason for narrating that Judah's wife has died is to remove from the scene any complication that might prevent Judah's marriage to Tamar (C. Westermann, Genesis 37–50, translated by J. J. Scullion, Minneapolis, MN 1985, 23).

46 S. Niditch, The Wronged Woman Righted: An Analysis of Genesis 38, HThR 72, 1979, 146.

47 In 1 Chr 4:21, Shelah's son is named Er: If this genealogy has a historical connection to the narrative in Genesis, and if the son is named after his grandfather, this may indicate that a tradition held that Judah did elease him to Tamar in a levirate marriage.

48 In Roman law, a prime example of a legal system where the pater familias had extensive power, there were still a handful of limits on his power – a son, for example, was emancipated from the power of his father if his father sold him three times. (This subsequently developed into a legal fiction used when a father wished to emancipate a son from his authority.) Judah is depicted as the head of his family / lineage, operating independently of his brothers and father. They no longer constitute a single estate, a situation that may be of consequence if E. Davies' interpretation of Deut 25 holds. See note 34.

49 R. Westbrook and B. Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel, Louisville, KY 2009, 37. Deut 22:23 stipulates that burning is the mode of execution for adultery.

50 It cannot be assumed that since the narrative does not mention a trial that there was no trial. It may be that it was not omitted for the sake of suspense.

51 C. Westermann, Genesis 37–50 (see above note 44) 49.

52 C. Westermann, Genesis 37–50 (see above note 44) 56.

53 D. E. Weisberg, The Widow of Our Discontent (see above note 37) 413.

54 The placement of the narrative of Judah and Tamar within the Joseph cycle emphasizes the commonality of loss — Jacob has lost Joseph in the previous chapter, and not suprisingly Judah has his own severe losses. The narrative of Tamar and Judah is independent of the Joseph novella, but it does have certain thematic and verbal connections. Both Jacob and Judah will lose two sons (at least Jacob thinks he has lost Joseph and Simon), and both Jacob and Judah hesitate to yield a younger child. Both Jacob and Judah are deceived by means of a goat kid. Both are asked to formally recongnize evidence: Jacob is forced to recognize his seal, cord and staff. Tamar and Joseph are both accued of adultery.

55 It may be that the importance of acknowledgement and apology is especialy crucial in an honor-shame culture, such as Ancient Israel.


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