Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.

Image result for ruth and boaz

 

Boaz of Bethlehem:  Attorney at Law

 

 

 

By its own terms, the Book of Ruth is historical.

 

The story of Ruth is about a few common people who lived in Israel during the period of the Judges, more than a thousand years before Christ.  They were common people, but not just any common people, for, as the writer tells us, they had the uncommon destiny of becoming the great-grandparents of King David and, accordingly, ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So the story of Ruth, by its own terms, is history; and account of real events that happened to real people.  But it reads like fiction – like the very best fiction.  That is to say that it is neither polemic nor explicitly didactic.  Rather, it is presented as a story that unfolds, scene by scene with a plot and character development.  We feel for the characters; we don’t see what’s coming; and we revel in the happy ending.

One of the most poignant of the scenes in this story takes place on the floor of Boaz’s threshing room.  You’ll recall that Boaz was a farmer, but not a “dirt farmer.”  He wasn’t eking out a living on a few acres with a few hogs and cows.  He was, as the King James so eloquently puts it, “a mighty man of wealth.”   I compare him to a couple of Jane Austen heroes – Messrs. Darcy and Knightly – both of whom were men of “wealth and influence” and gentlemen farmers.

Early in the story, Ruth, who is without status or income, humbles herself to take on the heavy, sweaty, labor of gleaning in Boaz’s field.  Gleaning was a task reserved for the poorest of the poor, as a kind of social welfare system, and the work was long and hard and the expectations meager.

But our heroine has the good fortune to catch Boaz’s eye on the first day in the field.  Boaz’s interest in Ruth is obvious from the very start and he soon makes his approbation known in his instructions to his own workers.  Ruth is to be unmolested in his field, and she is to be immediately given easier work and greater reward.

Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law.  Her affection for Ruth is genuine and she, being a native Israelite, is familiar with the laws and customs that affect her destiny.  Thus, when the time is ripe – and Naomi is the one who knows when that time is – she sends Ruth down to Boaz’s threshing room to, ahem, as the King James so politely puts it, seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee.

All that is true, to be sure, for if Ruth accomplishes what Naomi had in mind, then she will have rest, in the sense of security, and things will, indeed, be well with her.  But what Naomi has in mind is – dare I say the word – a kind of seduction.  What Naomi wishes for Ruth is that Boaz will marry her.  How great would that be:  Going from a penniless gleaner in the dusty field to the wife of a man of wealth and consequence?  Pretty good catch, Boaz was.

It is probably fair to say that Naomi’s scheme was in every respect a legitimate one.  The story makes it very clear that there would have been nothing wrong with Boaz marrying Ruth and that, in fact, he might have had something of a legal obligation to do so.  And nobody would be hurt.  Boaz has not hidden his affection for Ruth, and there is no evidence in the story that she would displace others in marrying him.

So it was a legitimate scheme, but it was a scheme!  The text itself tells us that Naomi told Ruth to bathe herself and put on her finest perfume and raiment.   How quaint.  Might we say that this was the tenth-century BC version of what twentieth-century AD songwriters have expressed in these lines:

Put on your red dress baby . . .

And:

Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings

Got bracelets on her fingers now and everything

Oh, my, my, she looks so fine

Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel number five

 

Naomi is also careful to tell Ruth not to let herself be seen Boaz until he has had his fill of drink.

One is tempted here to another comparison to a Jane Austen novel.  One thinks of Mrs. Bennet and her efforts to get her own daughters married off to rich men.  You see, it is clear from our story – as was clear in Pride and Prejudice – the mother’s (or mother-in-law’s) personal interest is tied up with the interest of the younger girl in getting a rich husband.  In both cases, the older woman will enjoy the security of the rich man’s estate and avoid the miserable prospect of a penurious old age.

All is fair in love and war, and if we read the story to say that Naomi intended that Ruth would seduce Boaz there and then on the threshing-room floor (this conclusion does not call for any stretch of the imagination, really), well then, we might say, so be it.  Boaz was a grown man; he loved Ruth; and their marriage would have, as Mr. Collins wrongly supposed about his own proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, “suited everyone.”

And it is just here that we get to the point of today’s lesson.  Although Boaz obviously welcomed the prospect of marriage to Ruth, he had a cooler head than Naomi or anyone else might have imagined.  Thus, when Boaz is awakened to find the dolled-up girl of his dreams beside him in bed, he does not do “what comes naturally.”   Not only is Boaz awake, he is aware of all of the interests that might be affected by his actions and he curbs himself and immediately embarks on a course to make everything come out right.  Sounds rather Darcy-esque, don’t you think?

We may start our analysis of Boaz here by saying that Boaz had exercised the virtue of temperance.  He had taken a drink or two that evening, but he obviously was not drunk.  Lot was drunk before he had sex with his daughters and Jacob was so drunk on his wedding night that he didn’t realize he was sleeping with big sis Leah and not his beloved Rachel.

But Boaz is not overcome with drink; he keeps his head in the middle of these most seductive circumstances.  He is wise enough to know what everyone is up to.  He knows Naomi; knows her interest in this economic matrix, and he knows how the legal landscape lies, too.   You see, the one bit of wealth that Ruth retained an interest in was a plot of land that had belonged to her late father-in-law, Elimelech.   Boaz knew that and he also knew that there was another relative of his who had first dibs on that plot of land.  But with the land came Ruth.

Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but if he had acted there on the spot it would have been, as they say in the movies, “complicated.”    The man with the prior claim on Elimelech’s land would have been given an out.  He might have argued – probably successfully – that by virtue of what had happened on the threshing-room floor, Ruth was married to Boaz, but nonetheless, by operation of law, he would have retained the right of first refusal for the plot of land.  Thus, the other kinsman might have bought the property, thereby separating the ancestral estate from Ruth and Naomi.  Although Boaz was a wealthy man, he knew such a separation would not be in Ruth’s best interest.  So, with cooled heels and a cool head, he took the matter to court.

I am a lawyer.  I spent a near forty-year career trying criminal cases, mostly in federal court.  And I have to say that when I read the account of Boaz’s practice and procedure here I smile with admiration and approval.  We don’t know everything Boaz knew at the time.  We don’t know anything about this other kinsman who had the right of first refusal on the land purchase.   For all we know, he may have been a real snake.  But we can be sure that Boaz knew, for he played the other party like a violin.  The writer is very careful to detail just how things went down in that legal proceeding.  Boaz gave the good side of the story first – hey, buddy, here’s a nice piece of real estate that you have the right to add to your portfolio . . .

The kinsman bites on that offer, but then comes the catch: there are strings attached.  You see, if you buy the land, you have to take Ruth along with it.  That means marriage and children and the diminution of your present estate that will pass to your present family.  This would not play well at the dinner table at home, so the kinsman passes on the land and Boaz, accordingly, gets exactly what he wants: what is rightly Ruth’s will stay with her and all will, as they say “live happily ever after.”

But if Boaz would have done the deed there on the threshing-room floor, he would have had, as we say in the business, “Brady material,” as he began the legal proceeding at the city gates.  That is, he would have been in the possession of information damaging to his own case that he would have been under an ethical duty to disclose to the other party.

If he had already been married to Ruth – and we are to assume that if Boaz had taken advantage of the situation that had been served up to him the night before, that would have consummated a legal marriage – Boaz would have been under a duty to disclose to the other party that the land could be his without the obligation of taking Ruth on, since Ruth would have been, as they say, already spoken for.

What is so beautiful about this from a lawyer’s point of view is that it is completely clean.  Boaz doesn’t hide anything that the other party has a right to know.  Sure, if that other guy had known that Boaz was sweet on Ruth he might have driven a harder bargain.  Might even have extorted the land away from Boaz by offering to let Ruth go and marry him.

But on the day of the proceeding, there was no legal relationship between Ruth and Boaz.  Thus, there was no legally-established fact to be disclosed.  What foresight!

Thus, Boaz is a man not only of temperance, wealth and consequence, he is a man of prudence!

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