January 08, 2007

More of Kristeva on ‘The Chosen People and the Choice of Foreignness’

Ruth the Moabite

Kristeva turns to the book of Judges, which she describes as chronicling ‘a chaotic moment in Jewish history’ due to the lack of monarchy (69). Yet the story of Ruth is about forgiveness as Kristeva realises in her discussion of the narrative.

The story of Ruth begins before Ruth’s time. It begins when Elimelech abandons Judah to its difficulty and chaos and instead settles in Moab. This is a grievous crime because as Deuteronomy 23:3-9 tells us, the people of Moab did not help the Jews to escape Egypt and so are excommunicated from the covenant. Elimelech dies as do his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, but Elimech’s wife, Naomi, is left along with the two daughter-in-laws, Orpah and finally, Ruth, who is destined to join Jewish royalty.

Kristeva makes a number of points about Ruth’s background and relation to the Jewish people:
• Ruth was a princess of Moab;
• although now some believe that it was only Moab men who were banned from the convenant, it seems likely that when Ruth arrived in Judah, she would have been a stranger, a foreigner;
• the Moab women may not have had to convert to Judaism in order to marry the brothers.
By the end of the story, Orpah has returned home, while Ruth continues to be a foreigner going with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Bethlehem:

But Ruth replied, “Do not press me to leave you and to turn back from your company, for
wherever you go I will go
wherever you live I will live.
Your people shall be my people
and your God my God.
Wherever you die I will die,
and there I will be buried.
May Yahweh do this thing to me,
and also more,
if even death should come between us. (Ruth 1:16-17)

At this point, Kristeva makes a few points about Ruth’s name:
• it may come from rao (to see);
• the letters ‘signify the dive ready to be sacrificed before the altar, like Ruth entering the divine Covenant’ (71);
• its numerical value is 606, the number of commandments in the Torah;
• and the H in Ruth’s name represents God.
Ultimately Ruth is ‘a redeemer’ and Kristeva relates this to her marriage with Boaz.

This part of the story sees Ruth going out to work in Boaz’s fields (supposedly by chance, which, Kristeva notes, is an alien concept to the Jewish religion and thus she infers that this is a moment where God controls events). The 80 year old (!!) Boaz accepts Ruth into his field and praises her for rejecting her own land for the promise of a ‘perfect reward’. Later, Naomi gives her this advice: ‘Is not Boaz, with whose servant girls you have been, a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.’ (Ruth 3:2-4). Ruth does as she says and Boaz is captivated by her kindness at choosing an old man (!). He tries to encourage a relative, Tov, to marry her, but when he refuses her Boaz finally marries Ruth. Ruth’s child was to begin a great line of Jewish kings including Solomon and David.

David is later to lament his foreignness, yet as Kristeva notes ‘the place of foreignness is not exceptional in that chosen lineage’ (74). She notes the case of Lot and his daughters who produce sons through incest: Ammon and Moab, the forefathers of Ruth. There is also the story of Judah and Tamar, in which after Tamar’s husbands death, she chooses her father-in-law, Judah, to procreate with rather than her young brother-in-law. Later an Ammonite, Naamah, would be Solomon’s queen. The point is that ‘[f]oreignness and incest were […] at the foundation of David’s sovereignty’ and Kristeva reads a message about deviancy in these stories. Being God’s chosen people, exiles and foreigners, means that the risk of deviancy and the breaking of rules is immanent. Divine revelation ‘requires a lapse, the acceptance of radical otherness, the recognition of a foreignness that one might have tended at the very first to consider the most degraded’ (75). Ruth’s role is to highlight ‘the fertility of the other’ (75).

¹Assize: a session of a court, a trial or lawsuit held before a travelling judge.

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