In 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from his prison cell in Nazi Germany to a young couple who had just married:
Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God's holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race until the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.
How strikingly unmodern it sounds. In a world that extols the autonomy of the self as the highest possible value, Bonhoeffer insists that in the sacrament of marriage we enter a covenant that presumes natural affections but goes far beyond them. In a world that puts a premium on immediacy of feeling, Bonhoeffer calls for commitments in an entirely different register. “It is not your love that sustains marriage,” he wrote, “but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
Consider how the institution of marriage functions in the Book of Ruth—where the love that exists between a husband and a wife gives shape to and is shaped by the larger set of familial obligations that characterize the marriage bond. The narrative contains four scenes, each corresponding to a chapter of the book, and the first scene opens with the family of Naomi and Elimelech heading into Moab as the result of a famine in the province of Judea.
When they arrive there, Naomi's husband tragically dies, but her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, find brides among the Moabite women. It appears that new life will replace what was lost. But both sons remain childless, and after the passing of ten years they, too, die. Naomi, at this point in the tale, has lost everything dear to her.
She hears, however, that God has brought the famine in Judea to an end. And so she departs for home, with both of her daughters-in-law deciding to follow her. Though biological children might be expected to act in this manner, there was no corresponding obligation for daughters-in-law. Naomi, accordingly, urges them to return to their homes, where their chances of remarriage are immeasurably better. But only Orpah obeys; Ruth stubbornly resists. Her words are among the most famous in the Bible: “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”
Though these lines are frequently recited in marriage liturgies, the fit is not exact: Ruth is not speaking of her attachment to a spouse but to her mother-in-law. And yet the incorporation of this passage into a marriage ceremony seems right—for marriage in the Old Testament is not just an affair between a man and a woman but between two extended families.
When Naomi and Ruth arrive in Judea, they are destitute. Ruth secures food the only way possible for people of this sort—by gleaning in the field, where she is noticed by Boaz, who has heard of her remarkable decision to accompany Naomi. In reward for her noble deed, Boaz demonstrates his own nobility by arranging that Ruth can work in the field undisturbed. (She was at considerable risk when she went to glean among the young male harvesters.) When Ruth returns home and tells Naomi of her good fortune, Naomi responds in ecstatic jubilation: “Blessed be he of the Lord who has not failed in His kindness to the living or to the dead! For the man is related to us; he is one of our redeeming kinsmen.”
The next scene opens with Ruth, in obedience to directions Naomi has given her, proceeding boldly to the threshing floor where Boaz has gone to sleep after he had eaten and drunk. Boaz is startled by Ruth's presence in the middle of the night and asks her what she is doing there. Ruth responds by boldly asking Boaz to play the role of the redeemer-levir (the two institutions are uniquely combined in this book) and marry her. Boaz consents to Ruth's request but adds that another man possesses a greater right to play the role of the redeemer than he.
When the fourth and final scene opens, Boaz has assembled a quorum of witnesses at the city gate to hear the case of Naomi and Ruth. At issue in this meeting is the sale of Naomi's land and the acquisition of Ruth as a bride. The nearer kinsman, who strikingly goes unnamed in the story, steps forward with great alacrity when he hears about the property. Yet when Boaz adds the important codicil that the acquisition of the land requires the marrying of Ruth, the kinsman backs down, fearing that adding a wife to the package will dilute his estate. Now we learn why the man is not dignified in the story with a name: It is a fitting punishment for his refusal to raise up a son to preserve the name of his deceased kinsman Mahlon.
Boaz does not share these worries about the financial side of the matter; rather, he rushes into the void and takes Ruth as his wife. Almost immediately after being wed, Ruth becomes pregnant, and the women gather to laud the God who has been so kind to Naomi. The child who is to be born will not only preserve the name of the deceased but will also provide an income that will sustain her in old age.
A favorite metaphor in the Old Testament for the relation of God to Israel is the love between a husband and a wife. It appears in the eighth-century b.c. prophet Hosea, and it grows in strength through two of the great prophets of the exilic period, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah—which is why the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs came to be understood as a description of the love between God and his people. And yet, as Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, we should not allow this meaning in the divine realm to cancel out its important unitive role among married couples. Without the reality of erotic conjugal love, our knowledge of God's love would be so much the poorer.
There are two texts in the Book of Ruth that speak to the relation of conjugal love and divine love. The first concerns the happy accident of Ruth's arrival in the field of Boaz. When Boaz learns of Ruth's presence, it is clear that he is already aware of her startling bravery. He immediately takes measures to ensure the safety of Ruth and to provide water for her during her labors. Struck by this unmerited generosity, Ruth falls at his feet and cries out: “Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” To this, Boaz quickly replies: “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!”
The reference to Ruth's act of leaving kith and kin to return with Naomi to a people she had not known before is a clear intertextual echo of the call of Abraham in Genesis: “Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” Like Abraham, she leaves all she had previously held dear for a journey of uncertain consequences. But most striking for our purposes are the terms of the blessing that Boaz speaks over her: “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.”
The reference to seeking refuge under the wings of God recalls a favorite image in the Psalms, an image that derives from the architectural design of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Holy of Holies, where the God of Israel had audaciously taken up residence among his people, he was said to have assumed his seat on the ark of the covenant, which was flanked by winged Cherubim. Certain texts from the Old Testament speak of individuals seeking refuge beside the altar from the threat of their enemies (1 Kings 1:50–53, for example), and the Psalms make frequent use of this image to describe the protective care of God: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for I seek refuge in you. I seek refuge in the shadow of your wings, until danger passes” (Psalm 57:2). One level of meaning in Boaz's blessing is that he compares Ruth to an endangered person who has sought asylum under the protecting wings of the God of Israel.
But we can say more. Yachin and Boaz are the names of the pillars beside the entrance of the Temple in Jerusalem. The names have a significant symbolic function. They are what biblical scholars call sentence names: “By his strength (be-ozzo, following the Greek) God has established (yachin) the world.” Temple pillars had a twofold function in the ancient Near East: They not only held up the lintel over the doorway; they also held the firmament in place over the entire earth. If Boaz's name is an allusion to the pillar of the Temple, then his blessing points in two directions. On the one hand, Ruth's remarkable pilgrimage to Israel shall be rewarded by God's own protective oversight. On the other hand, the offer of that divine assistance will be mediated in some as of yet undisclosed manner by Boaz.
Strong support for this supposition comes in the third scene of the book when Ruth shows up at the threshing floor of Boaz. Having awoken from his sleep in a startled fashion owing to the woman lying at his feet, Boaz asks in surprise, “Who are you?” Ruth, not showing even the slightest fear or even embarrassment, identifies herself and audaciously proposes marriage: “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
What is noteworthy about this line is the idiom that is used for marriage. The word for robe in Hebrew is the same as the word for wing, which carries us back to Boaz's blessing in the second chapter: “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge.” The protective wings of God mentioned by Boaz turn out to be more than just a metaphor. God will spread his wings (kanaf) over Ruth through the agency of Boaz's robe (kanaf). The grace of God reflected in the election of Ruth is interwoven into the goods of nature—her marriage with Boaz. Ruth does not come to the God of Israel as a disembodied soul; rather, her enjoyment of divine protection will be mediated through Boaz in marriage.
The most common sort of romantic love story that our own culture offers us is one where a man and a woman are united over against all other ties that the world knows. This is a familiar plot line in contemporary cinema. Can one imagine a love story in which parental reservations about a future spouse would impel a character to reject an unworthy suitor, only to find in the end a far better spouse who was favored by the larger family?
The Book of Ruth goes against the grain of our cultural expectations. When Boaz and Ruth marry, the Lord intervenes and allows Ruth to conceive a son. The women of Bethlehem then assemble to speak words of blessing not to Ruth but to Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today! May his name be perpetuated in Israel! He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons.” And if this is not sufficiently surprising, consider the next two verses, with which the story comes to its end. Naomi takes the child into her arms as though she were the child's own mother, and the women of Bethlehem, recognizing the unique relationship between the two, exclaim: “A son is born to Naomi!”
Some have concluded from these lines that Naomi actually adopts Ruth's child as her own. And indeed, in the ancient Near East there is a venerable tradition of childless persons adopting children. But the Bible is curiously silent on this matter; we have no provisions in biblical law for the adoption of a child. It seems more likely that Naomi becomes something of a foster mother to the child—and thus the child born to Ruth perpetuates the name of Mahlon within the community of Israel and sustains Naomi in her old age.
Ruth extends the obligation of honoring one's parents to her mother-in-law, but Naomi's situation is still one of considerable vulnerability, for there is nothing that guarantees that Ruth will remain obligated to her in the future. This is the reason that Boaz responds with such surprise at Ruth's decision to pursue marriage with him. When Ruth asks him to spread his cloak over her, he exclaims: “Be blessed of the Lord, daughter! Your latest deed of loyalty is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich.” Ruth has viewed marriage in terms that addressed her larger adopted family rather than her immediate self-interest.
The contrast to the way in which romantic relationships are portrayed in our day could not be greater. The portrayal of Ruth's character is as profound in its moral depth as it is touching to the heart. But it also constitutes a considerable challenge to the manner in which we view marriage. Given the role of children within the larger family, it is crucial that Ruth come to see her opportunities for marriage in light of larger familial circumstances. And in light of these needs, it is simply impossible for a biblical writer to tell a story of human love in the modern form. Such a story is possible only if we exempt the couple from the larger familial circumstances in which it sits.
The Book of Ruth tells us that within the sacred bond of marriage there lies a symbol of the love of God for humanity. Ruth is praised by Boaz for leaving kin to adopt the God of Israel. But her adoption of this God is inextricably linked to the marriage bond she will propose. The grand transformation that would take the Song of Songs from a love song to a tale about the marriage of God to his people Israel is already evident in the Book of Ruth. Human marriage is an analogical expression of the love of God for his people.
Nowhere in the story is the love of husband and wife extolled as an end in itself. Marriage is “a status and an office,” as Bonhoeffer put it, and over the long term the right discernment of that office will sustain and define the love that holds the couple together.
On this point, however, a great abyss opens up between the world of the Bible and our own day. It was important to the biblical writers to see the marriage bond as necessarily linked to children and grandparents. Indeed, the Bible needed to make no argument for this linkage because it was a socioeconomic reality of the day.
What makes Ruth particularly virtuous is not simply her desire to marry and have children but a willingness to understand her marriage in a way that will favor her adopted mother-in-law. In other words, Ruth courageously extends her level of obligation beyond the bare minimum.
In our own day, economic and technological developments have allowed young couples to view children as a simple lifestyle option. The result has been a dramatic limitation of marriage. The larger family has shrunk to the tiny circle of the couple itself. The challenge for contemporary thinkers is how to make sure the “status and office of marriage” that Bonhoeffer spoke of can continue in a culture that no longer sustains the basic social setting of premodern and biblical times.
Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.