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Sexual Harassment in the Book of Ruth

Jean-François Millet

The book of Ruth gives the impression of being a simple, charming folk tale. But don’t be fooled. Its author was one of the finest literary stylists in the Bible. Yet she managed to turn this episode from the genealogy of King David into an enduring work of literature. Careful readers, though, will see what ancient Israelite readers saw—the tenuous chain of events that turned Ruth into David’s great-grandmother. If just one of the many links in that chain had broken, there would have been no King David. Many reversals of expected gender norms suggest strongly that this author was a woman—for example, Naomi tells Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s house (Ruth 1:8), not their father’s house (the usual biblical term). Perhaps that’s why one of these moments when history almost didn’t happen centered around an incident of what today we would call “sexual harassment in the workplace.”

The story in a nutshell is this: Naomi, a woman from Bethlehem, moves to Moab with her husband and two sons. The sons marry Moabite girls, but then all three men die. When Naomi decides to move home, the girls decide to come with her. She tells them to go home (Ruth 1:12, cliffhanger 1), and the other daughter-in-law (not Ruth) turns back. Naomi tries again to persuade Ruth to go home (Ruth 1:15, cliffhanger 2) but fails.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, they are penniless, but it is the time of the barley harvest. Ruth can support them by gleaning—as Lev 19:9-10, Lev 23:22, and Deut 24:19 explain, any stalks of grain that the reapers drop or forget are considered ownerless and must be left for the poor to collect. She goes out to find a field where she’ll be allowed to do this (here and elsewhere, the rules we know from the Torah are taken as cultural background rather than law) and as luck would have it (Ruth 2:3, cliffhanger 3), she finds herself in a field belonging to Boaz. It is here that cliffhanger 4 occurs: Boaz shows up and asks his foreman who “that girl” is.

The foreman explains, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi” (Ruth 2:6). But as he goes on speaking, the foreman’s Hebrew becomes more difficult to understand; something’s making him nervous. Boaz’s response tells us immediately what has been happening:

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” (Ruth 2:8-9)

These words make clear that Ruth was on her way out of the field when Boaz showed up. She is poor, without a male protector, and—most important for this story—a foreigner, making her easy to victimize; but she was tired of being groped and had decided to look for a safer place to work. Had Boaz stayed in town for one more cup of coffee, Ruth would have been gone and they would not have met, married (at Ruth and Naomi’s initiative, not Boaz’s), and produced David’s grandfather.

Ruth 2:14 shows Boaz making sure that Ruth can get something to eat at noon and still remain safe. But (like today) other women who were unmarried, poor, and foreign did not have it so easy. In the book of Ruth, sexual harassment is a plot twist, not a social issue, but it was a realistic one.  We may wonder: was the author of the book writing from personal experience?

  • Michael Carasik

    Michael Carasik teaches Biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel (Peter Lang, 2006) and The Bible’s Many Voices (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). He is also the creator of The Commentators’ Bible (Jewish Publication Society), an English-language version of the commentaries that appear in traditional Jewish Bibles, which includes the Exodus (2005), Leviticus (2009), Numbers (2011) and Deuteronomy (forthcoming, 2015).