The Book of Ruth
Men are from Judah, Women are from Bethlehem
How a modern bestseller illuminates Book of Ruth
I always believed that the world portrayed in the Bible was very different from the one that I inhabit in 20th-century western Canada, with my career, computer and cross-country skis. But recently my attitude has changed somewhat. After comparing the insights on cross-gender communication expressed in such popular books as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation1 to the dialogues in the Book of Ruth, I have concluded that the differences between our world and the biblical world are not as great as I once thought.
Deborah Tannen, one of the leading chroniclers of the different communication styles of men and women, has noted that men tend to relate to the world as “individual[s] in an hierarchical social order in which. . .[they are] either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from others’ attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.”2
Women, for their part, tend to interact with the world as individuals within a larger, interconnected network. For women, “conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others’ attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation.”3
Of course, women do value personal status and seek to avoid failure and men want involvement and community, but these are not their primary concerns: “Though all humans need both intimacy and independence, women tend to focus on the first and men on the second. It is as if their lifeblood ran in different directions.”4
These fundamental differences in worldviews translate into different ways of communicating. Where men often converse as a way to gain information or to solve problems, women generally want to discuss a topic in an attempt to explore their ideas and find support; for women, involvement in the discussion may be as important as any decision that stems from it. Women say, “What do you think?” to get a discussion going. When men hear this question, they often think that women want a decision rather than a discussion.5
Beyond these rather broad generalities, more recent studies allow us to be more specific about differences in communication styles between men and women. One study found that women ask two and a half times the questions that men do.6 This might be because women frequently phrase their imperatives as interrogatives: Instead of saying, “Mow the lawn,” a woman is more likely to ask, “Would you mow the lawn?” In one investigation women used this type of construction three times more than their male peers.7 Men, on the other hand, tend to use more imperatives than women do.8 This may be one reason that men frequently control conversations. One study reports that in 12.5 hours of taped conversations men tried 29 times to introduce topics for conversation and were successful in 28 cases. In contrast, women tried 47 times and were successful only 17 times.9 In addition, in public situations men tend to talk more than women do. In a university faculty meeting, men’s contributions averaged 10.66 to 17.07 seconds, while women’s averaged 3 to 10 seconds.10
Thanks to the male penchant for speaking longer in public, and the male attitude that the point of conversations is to acquire information, male communication has been called “report talk”; female conversation, with its concern with interaction, has been called “rapport talk.”11
The dialogues and speeches in the Book of Ruth suggest that clear differences in male and female communication existed long before there were sociolinguists around. Boaz and his male contemporaries show an interest in the hierarchical social order of their tribe, Judah. They focus on community standing, public opinion, name, heritage, achievement and power. We could say that, in biblical times, men, with their tribal concerns, were from Judah.
The conversations of Ruth, Naomi and the other women reveal their concerns for community on a more personal level. They focus on continuity of life, families, feelings and nurture. These women lived in Bethlehem, a town in Judah whose name means “House of Bread.” We could say that, in biblical times, women, with their focus on sustaining relationships, were from Bethlehem.
To see how little has changed from biblical times to today, let’s look at conversations between men and women, between men, and between women in the Book of Ruth.
The story is set in pre-monarchic Israel, during the time of the Judges (roughly 12th-11th centuries B.C.). When a famine strikes Judah, Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons journey across the Jordan River to Moab. They settle there, but Elimelech soon dies, and the two sons marry Moabite women. After about ten years, the two sons die as well. Naomi is now thrice bereft and has neither husband nor sons to look after her. Hearing that Judah is once again prospering, she decides to return home but urges her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, among their own people. One, Orpah, reluctantly agrees to stay behind, but the other, Ruth, eloquently refuses. (We will examine their conversation later in this article.) Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem during the barley harvest. Ruth decides to glean from a barley field to find something to eat. As it happens, the field Ruth selects belongs to Boaz, a relative of Naomi. On learning from his overseer that Ruth has asked permission to glean in the field, Boaz addresses Ruth:
Of course, Boaz is a man, a property owner, older and more powerful than Ruth, so he might be expected to speak first. However, he does not address the request Ruth had voiced to the overseer. She had wanted to glean among the sheaves after the reapers (Ruth 2:7), a special favor granted only to clan members.13 In this first conversation, Boaz instead focuses on what he can provide for Ruth. He chooses the topic of conversation and essentially gives her a lengthy checklist of what she is to do. He offers a solution for every problem. Boaz relates to the world as an independent individual in a hierarchical social order in which he is either one-up or one-down vis-Ŕ-vis others. In his first encounter with Ruth, he quickly gains the upper hand. In this conversation, he uses “report talk.”
Ruth’s short reply, on the other hand is quintessential “rapport talk.” She asks, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10). Ruth does not thank him for the food, the water or the protection. His list of do’s and don’ts are not her main interest. Instead, by means of a question, she reveals her concern about relationships. She is relating to her world as an individual with connections; she is looking for confirmation and support. Her words show that she is aware of her foreign origin and wants to avoid isolation. The length of her reply is also telling: In Hebrew, Boaz speaks 35 words; Ruth, only 7.14 And to her short question, Boaz makes an even longer response–38 words in Hebrew:
This is not a heartless response to Ruth: He speaks of her connections to the community; he shows that although she is currently lonely, she is not isolated. At the same time, he maintains the upper hand–he is the one blessing her–and tries to protect himself from possible manipulation by Ruth. She has asked the overseer, and thus Boaz, for a special favor. But he does not grant her request; instead he calls on God to bless her. She asks for a relationship, he offers a blessing. Boaz is not yet willing to get personally involved.
Ruth’s last speech to Boaz on this occasion is, again, rapport talk. She speaks of relationships and feelings: “You are most gracious to me, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).
Boaz then ends the conversation, saying, “Come here, and eat some bread, and dip your morsel in the wine” (Ruth 2:14). He continues to be polite but remains in control, voicing directives. In all of his encounters with Ruth, he uses 12 Hebrew verbs that openly make or imply command or request and nine verbs that state information; his two questions are rhetorical and not intended to gain information. Ruth, on the other hand, uses no imperatives and only three verbs to make statements; she asks one question, not to solicit information, but to request community.
When Naomi learns that Ruth has been gleaning in her relative Boaz’s field, Naomi formulates a plan to obtain a husband for Ruth–and to preserve the family’s line. She tells Ruth to disguise herself and to lie next to Boaz that night on the threshing floor.
In this meeting, Boaz seems again to take the major role, initiating and concluding the conversation and speaking much more than Ruth does. But with only a few words, Ruth sets the topic of conversation and subtly dominates the encounter.
When Boaz discovers Ruth at his feet, he asks for information: “Who are you?” “I am Ruth, your maidservant,” Ruth replies, giving him the information he seeks, then adding another aspect to it–an open request for relationship: “Spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin” (Ruth 3:9). Not only does she use the word “maidservant” twice, she also indirectly calls Boaz to task by mentioning that he is “next of kin,” which alludes to his levirate obligations to her. In ancient Israelite practice, the closest male kin of a man who died without any children to succeed him was required to marry his widow. The first son from that union was thought of as the dead man’s son (Deuteronomy 25:6). The purpose behind this levirate law was to ensure that property did not pass out of the family’s or tribe’s hands. Ruth emphasizes her desire for a relationship with him by requesting that he spread his skirt over her, in effect asking him to marry her (Ezekiel 16:8). In Hebrew, the word for skirt, kanap, is the same one that Boaz used when he first met her: “A full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [kanap] you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). To Ruth, the blessing of God that Boaz gave her is not enough. To receive the blessing, she needs a human agent, and she calls upon Boaz to be that agent.
Boaz replies to Ruth’s request at length, seemingly surprised by her words:
His repetition of the expression “next of kin” may indicate that he is taken aback by her suggestion: Perhaps finding a home for her is something that he, as a “man of wealth” (Ruth 2:1), or worth, should have considered previously. Now someone is one-up on him. Notice, too, his reason for doing as she requests: “all my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of worth.” Boaz will fulfill her request so that his public image will not be disgraced. He tries to control the situation by giving some commands–“Remain this night. . .Lie down until the morning”–but even though his reply is 66 words long, as compared to Ruth’s 10-word request, he is not in control of this exchange.
In the morning, however, Boaz clearly shows that he has mastered the situation. He tells Ruth, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor” (Ruth 3:14). If her presence were generally known, their reputations would be in jeopardy and he could lose the power of his good reputation. Boaz is distant with her: He does not call her “Ruth,” “my daughter” or even “you,” but merely “the woman.” He also uses a passive construct–“Let it not be known”–instead of an active one that might show their connection, like “We do not want others to know. . .” Boaz next commands Ruth, “Bring the mantle you are wearing and hold it out” (Ruth 3:15), and then fills it with barley. In this exchange, he has issued three directives: One of them reveals his concern for reputation; the other two simultaneously reveal his beneficence and underscore her need.
Conversations between men and between women in the Book of Ruth conform to yet another pattern that modern sociolinguistic research has elucidated–“self-disclosures are more likely when two women are talking than when two men or a man and a woman are talking.”15 Some studies suggest that men are less expressive than women because inexpressive adult males tend to assume roles of power.16 This can be seen in the conversations between Boaz, his workers and the closer kinsman he mentions to Ruth.
After Ruth and Boaz share their first meal in the fields (at the end of their first conversation), Boaz decides to grant Ruth’s special request to glean among the sheaves. He tells his laborers, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her, and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her” (Ruth 2:15—16). The text, however, does not record his informing her of his decision. Instead, he seems to be concerned solely with giving instructions to his workers. He is the landowner and the one in control. He retains that control by not telling his workers why they are to give Ruth special treatment. Although in this case Boaz probably does not deliberately withhold information, when he encounters Ruth’s unnamed potential redeemer, he purposefully does so, since it allows him to keep a potentially difficult situation under control.
Boaz meets his kinsman in the gateway and says to him, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here” (Ruth 4:1). After gathering ten men as witnesses, he states:
Boaz takes the initiative here, but he keeps his cards close to his chest, not mentioning the real issue. Uttering the word “redeem” four times in his speech, he emphasizes redeeming the land. He presents this as his concern, not revealing that whoever redeems the land will also redeem Ruth. Rather than disclose his motives, he communicates in a way that enables him to maintain control of the situation. Only when the kinsman says, “I will redeem it” (Ruth 4:4), does Boaz reveal what is truly at stake: “You are also buying Ruth, the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance” (Ruth 4:5). Marriage is the issue–but not just any marriage: It is marriage with a Moabitess in order to fulfill levirate obligations.
Contrast this to Ruth’s request on the threshing floor (Ruth 3:9). She had called herself “Ruth, your maidservant,” not “Ruth, the Moabitess.” She had obliquely requested marriage, but did not mention “restoring the name of the dead to his inheritance.” She seemed to be looking for a home for herself and Naomi–not offspring. Boaz, however, raises the idea of progeny to the potential redeemer. The kinsman is eager to gain more property, but he does not wish to purchase land and then not own it, which would happen if he had a child with Ruth.
Boaz is clearly one-up on the kinsman, and he has probably increased his stature in the community by being such an exemplary person, one willing to enter into a relationship that would be beneficial to the widow and the stranger, as advocated in Deuteronomy (see Deuteronomy 10:18—19; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17; 26:12—13; 27:19).
He calls on those present to observe his devotion to a family of Judah:
Boaz emphasizes his community, noting how his marriage will promote its goals. He speaks of Elimelech, Chilion, Mahlon (twice), inheritance, brethren and the gate of their native town. He is pulling out all the stops, talking about heritage and how this marriage will further Israelite ideals. He sounds more concerned about this family of Judah than about any particular individuals.
Boaz’s conversations with other men involve issues of control and power. He even withholds information to keep the upper hand. The women’s conversations in the Book of Ruth, however, reveal a very different emphasis.
In chapter one, as Naomi and her daughters-in-law are leaving Moab to go to Judah, Naomi says: “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find a home, each of you in the house of her husband!” (Ruth 1:8—9). Notice the emphasis on relationships here. The younger women should return to their mothers’ houses, presumably because their mothers will then arrange for new marriages. Naomi also mentions the relationships that the women have had with their husbands and with her, and intimates that they also have some sort of relationship with her God.
The younger widows show emotion and emphasize relationships: They weep and say to her, “No, we will return with you to your people” (Ruth 1:10).
Naomi then tries even harder to encourage her daughters-in-law to return to Moab:
Naomi uses conflicting signals in her speech, signals that say how important her daughters-in-law are to her, yet how little she has to offer them. She calls them “my daughters” three times in this passage. Although she encourages them to return to their mothers’ homes, by repeatedly calling them “my daughters” and by showing her deep regard for them, she underscores the importance of their present relationship. In her rhetorical questions she hints at the possibility of levirate marriage if her daughters-in-law accompany her.17 Despite what Naomi says, then, the weight of her argument is for them to accompany her, although she would never request this–it is not the way of the East. In this time of crisis, Naomi engages in rapport talk because the solution to their problems is less important than the relationship they share.
The final speech in this departure sequence is Ruth’s well-known “entreat me not” speech. We would be hard pressed to find a speech that stresses relationships between people more than this one:
Ruth promises six things as part of her continuing relationship with Naomi: They will journey together, live together, share a common people, share a common God, die in the same place and be buried in the same location, perhaps in the same family tomb.
Many are inspired by Ruth’s vow of allegiance to Israel’s God. Cynthia Ozick states that her words are “incandescent” and that they “have set thirty centuries to trembling.”18 However, we need to look at Ruth’s statement carefully. She says, “Your God [shall be] my God.” She does not say, “Yahweh shall be my God,” or even, “Israel’s God shall be my God.” Instead, she is clearly making her relationship with Naomi of prime importance. Her allegiance is to Naomi, and because of it, she will not only accompany her aging mother-in-law, but will also change her religion and worship Naomi’s God.
When Naomi hears Ruth’s vow, she knows that Ruth will accompany her and fulfill her promises. The relationship will remain intact. They have talked it through, back and forth, until the problem is taken care of to their mutual satisfaction. Orpah will stay behind, and Ruth will accompany Naomi to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. Naomi does not speak again until she is prompted by her old friends from Bethlehem.
As Naomi and Ruth enter Bethlehem, the women of the town ask, “Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19). This query allows Naomi to unburden herself:
This is typical rapport talk. Naomi has been living in a foreign land. She has returned without her husband or her sons. She has brought along a daughter-in-law, for whom she feels responsible. But now she is finally among women of her own generation and nationality and can really be herself. The women do not respond to her speech; they do not need to. They have heard her, and they provide a supportive audience.
Near the end of the Book of Ruth, when Ruth returns from the threshing floor, Naomi greets her, “How did you fare, my daughter?” (Ruth 3:16). Ruth’s reply is interesting. When she describes her encounter with Boaz to Naomi, she attributes words to him not recorded previously in the text. She reports that he said, “‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law’” (Ruth 3:17). Ruth is concerned with Naomi’s feelings. Before they entered Bethlehem, she had promised that not even death would part them. With the words that she now puts in Boaz’s mouth, she implies a renewal of that vow in light of the change that looms on the horizon of her life.19 In marriage ceremonies, the bridal couple often promises to remain together “for better or for worse,” and most people think that it is the “worse” that has the potential to separate them. In this case, however, it is the “better” that may threaten to separate the two women: Ruth lets Naomi know that she will be true to her vow and that their relationship will remain intact no matter what happens with Boaz.
The choruses that conclude the spoken language in the Book of Ruth nicely condense the differences in male and female communication style revealed there.
At the betrothal at the city gates, the chorus of elders, which scholars universally agree are men, states:
Here are their male concerns in a nutshell: fertility, progeny to continue on the family line, and wealth. The men want Ruth to build up the House of Israel; they want Boaz to prosper and be renowned. They deem Boaz’s self-esteem and income important. They mention Israel and Judah, their ancestors and Boaz’s; their connections with their heritage give them status. However, there is no mention of raising up the family of Elimelech or Mahlon, even after all the talk between the kinsman and Boaz at the city gate. Instead, the men focus on the man they know and how he has, and will, fit into the social structure of Judah, the House of Israel, the House of Perez. They hope Boaz’s marriage to Ruth will enhance his role in Judah.
The chorus of women presents a very different view as they rejoice with Naomi at the birth of her grandson. They say:
The women rejoice at the reversal of Naomi’s fortunes. They focus not on the House of Judah or on its esteem, but on what happens in Bethlehem (literally “House of Bread”), which is seen here as a place of nourishment. The new baby, Obed, whose name means “servant,” will nourish and serve Ruth and Naomi.
Like the men, the women focus on their friend. Unlike the men, who allude to Ruth, the women ignore Boaz and instead speak about God’s relationship with Ruth and Ruth’s relationship to Naomi. They tell Naomi, “Your daughter-in-law. . .loves you, [and]. . .is more to you than seven sons.” Immediate family relationships and love are what is worth commenting upon for the women–these matter more than wealth or tribal connections. The women empathized in silence when Naomi returned to Bethlehem in despair. Now they rejoice with her. And, unlike Boaz, who focused on the rights of the dead in his encounter with the kinsman, the women focus on those who are living. The last spoken words in the Book of Ruth are, “A son has been born to Naomi.”
Both the Book of Ruth and modern research indicate that men and women communicate differently and often have different concerns. Whether we say that men are from Mars or Judah, whether we think women are from Venus or Bethlehem, it does seem that our lifeblood has been flowing in different directions for thousands of years.
10. Barbara Westbrook Eakins and R. Gene Eakins, Sex Differences in Human Communication (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), p. 26. Similar results surfaced in an analysis of question and answer periods at academic conferences. In one study, women gave 40.7 percent of the papers and made up 42 percent of the audience; however, they made only 27.4 percent of the responses following the presentations and took only half as long to phrase their comments (the mean was 23.1 seconds for women and 52.7 seconds for men). See Marjorie Swacker, “Women’s Verbal Behavior at Learned and Professional Conferences,” in Papers in Southwest English IV: Proceedings of the Conference on the Sociology of the Languages of American Women, ed. Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crouch (San Antonio: Trinity Univ., 1978), p. 156.
17. Nehama Aschkenasy, “Language as Female Empowerment in Ruth,” in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballantine, 1994), p. 113.
19. Danna Nolan Fewell and David Miller Gunn, “Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth,” in Literary Currents in Biblical Criticism (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), pp. 100—101.
Denise Dick Herr is a professor of English at Canada Union College in Alberta. Her previous publications include an article on how the child sacrifice district in ancient Carthage parallels New Carthage, the setting for the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (“The Tophet at New Carthage: Setting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” English Language Notes 33 )
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