Bereishit

In Six Barleys were Wrapped an Enduring Legacy

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Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan

 

Introduction

The character of Boaz serves as a beacon through the ages, showing us how great leaders go beyond the call of duty to transcend social stigma and protect the vulnerable, thereby leaving an enduring and inspiring legacy.

Central to Boaz’s greatness is his self-discipline in the face of sexual temptation. In particular, the Book of Ruth presents his responses to this challenge in a manner that integrates the achievements of the first-generation leaders of Israel, the leader of the children of Leah (Judah) and of Rachel (Joseph). On the one hand, Boaz is Joseph-like in succeeding where Judah failed: When offered an inappropriate liaison that could seemingly elude human witnesses, Boaz is not diverted from the virtuous path. But like Judah and unlike Joseph, Boaz manages a tricky, potentially scandalous situation, by preserving the honor of all parties. The conclusion to Boaz’s story is not only similar to Judah’s but directly linked to it: the birth of a progenitor of King David. Indeed, the book of Ruth concludes by explicitly tracing the ancestry of Ruth and Boaz’s newborn son Oved back to Tamar and Judah’s son Peretz, and tracing it forward to David.

Yet our image of Boaz’s greatness was apparently not the image that Naomi had of Boaz even after the events of Chapter 2, when Boaz welcomed and praised Ruth and provided protection for her as she gleaned barley and wheat from his fields. To be sure, Naomi was appreciative. But she was apparently growing increasingly impatient. Just as her forebear Tamar did (and just as was the case for Ruth’s forebears the daughters of Lot), Naomi had apparently come to doubt that Boaz would come on his own to recognize that he had an important role to play in taking care of a young woman with no prospects of suitors with whom to build a household (“a resting place that will benefit [Ruth]”; Ruth 3:1). As in these prior cases from Genesis, Naomi devised to solve the problem by seducing Boaz with the offer of a young woman’s body.[1]

Naomi’s skepticism towards Boaz was apparently so great she thought desperate measures were warranted. But if so, how did she soon become so confident that Boaz would rise to the occasion? After welcoming Ruth back from the threshing room floor and receiving Ruth’s report, Naomi tells Ruth that “the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today” (Ruth 3:18). That there was even a matter to settle (i.e., whether Boaz or the “closer kinsman”) would “redeem” Ruth (3:12) was great news. But where did Naomi’s confidence come from?

After all, if we did not know that Boaz eventually acted in Chapter 4 as Naomi now expected, we might have thought that the mission had been a failure. Ruth returns from Boaz alone and apparently empty-handed. More to the point, there is seemingly nothing to prevent Boaz from continuing to treat Ruth (however kindly) as a mendicant. Unlike Tamar and Lot’s Daughters, Ruth could not have become pregnant from her chaste encounter with Boaz. Nor did Ruth come away with what Tamar had: distinctive possessions of Boaz’s that could be used to induce Boaz to do what he promised on the threshing room floor, to ensure that he either he or the “closer kinsmen” would “redeem” her and “take [her] under [his] wings” (3:9-12). On its face, Naomi’s turnabout seems completely unwarranted. If she was skeptical before, why was she confident now?

The Puzzle Pieces

To be sure, Ruth did not return with nothing from Boaz. She returns with six barleys, perhaps wrapped around herself. As she reports to Naomi, “He gave me these six barleys, saying to me ‘Don’t go to your mother empty-handed’” (3:17).

But this just adds to our puzzle. Why does Boaz ask Ruth to hold her mitpahat (shawl or “wrap”),[2] measure out 6 “barleys” of unspecified volume, and then “place it on her” (Ruth 3:15)? Why does this convince Naomi when instead she might have concluded that Boaz was trying to buy Ruth and Naomi off so as to escape any responsibility for helping them?

In developing an answer to this question, it is reasonable first to suppose that the six barleys serve as some kind of signal. After all, it has the effect of a signal, in that it changes the hearer’s understanding of the situation. More specifically, Boaz seems to have successfully caused Naomi to think that they have the same goal, and that he actually has a better (more legally and morally legitimate) path to that goal than she had imagined. But how did this six-barley wrap convey this message so effectively?

Another clue is provided by Dr. Yael Ziegler’s suggestion that Boaz wrapped Ruth’s womb with the barleys, apparently as full stalks, thereby making her look like a pregnant woman in the dimly lit early morning.[3]  Ziegler identifies strong textual support for this idea: the only other example of va-yashet, “and he placed (the barleys on her)” (3:15) in Ruth is in the next chapter: “And she took the child and she placed it in her bosom” (4:16). The idea that Ruth appeared pregnant would also help explain why Naomi greets Ruth with the enigmatic question, “Who are you, my daughter?” (3:16); Naomi would have been teasing Ruth by indicating that she was masquerading as a pregnant woman. Overall, the effect of this barley wrap would then be two-fold: to give Ruth an effective disguise that would help ensure that “it would not be known that the woman (i.e., the non-pregnant Ruth) came to the threshing floor” (3:14) that evening; and to signal that Boaz intended to provide Ruth with a child.

Yet while we are beginning to see why Naomi might have been impressed with Boaz’s signal—he was using a great deal of creativity to protect Ruth and indicate his intentions to help Ruth build a household—it is still unclear why the formerly skeptical Naomi might have been so convinced by this. Again, there was still nothing to bind Boaz to these seemingly good intentions. And given Naomi’s initial plan, it is not clear she would be happy that Boaz has seemingly been successful at keeping the threshing floor meeting a secret. It remains unclear why the text goes out of its way to tell us that Boaz “measured out six barleys.” Could the six barleys have helped to convince Naomi?

Invoking a Meaningful Precedent

I would like to suggest that the answer is yes. To appreciate how and why, let us entertain the possibility that Boaz is alluding to another momentous biblical event from national and tribal history, one that carries important lessons applicable to their present situation.

Consider three images that are fused in our story:

  1. a) A woman is returning from the fields during wheat harvest with renewed expectations of marital love;

  2. b) A woman is returning from the wheat harvest fields with flowers in her hands, having obtained such flowers in return for forgoing relations (which had been assumed to be the ticket to fertility and fulfillment);

  3. c) A return from the fields causes a leader to be surprised that their plan for relations had been reworked by a third party who paradoxically seeks to use the forgoing of relations to forge a three-way bond.

These three images at the heart of the “six barley moment” are also fused in another moment of great significance in Israel’s history: When Jacob returned from the fields to discover that Rachel had traded her marital bed with Leah in exchange for duda’im from Leah’s first-born son (Genesis 30:14).

It may be surprising that the book of Ruth would be referencing this story, but it should not be. The book of Ruth contains many literary allusions to earlier Biblical books. But it contains only two explicit references: to the story of Tamar (and Judah), and to the story of Rachel and Leah. In particular, upon completing the process of redeeming Ruth, the townsfolk of Bethlehem bless Boaz as follows:

May God make it so that the woman who is coming into your house is like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the House of Israel! Prosper in Ephratah and perpetuate a great name in Bethlehem! And may your house be like the House of Peretz, whom Tamar bore for Judah, from the seed that God will give you from this young woman! (Ruth 4:11-12)

In a previous Lehrhaus essay,[4] I discussed how the Book of Ruth embeds within it a deep reading of the story of Rachel and Leah, one that indicates how Rachel and Leah were able to overcome their bitter jealousies to become a “team of rivals,” thus setting the foundations for national unity. The trade of the duda’im was a key turning point in this regard as Rachel and Leah began to work together and gain power over the men in their lives. Whereas the two sisters had been treated as sexual objects that were traded in an unseemly deal between two men (their father Laban and husband Jacob), they were now the agents of a deal that treated a man (Jacob) as a sexual object to be traded.

Three additional aspects of the duda’im story are notable for helping us unlock the mystery of the six barleys.

First, a midrash suggests that the duda’im were in fact barley.[5] The rationale for this suggestion is that once the season had shifted from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest, barley effectively became weeds or flowers. Given this midrash, it is likely that Boaz had wrapped Ruth in precisely the kind of plant—flowering, overgrown barley stalks—that Reuben had given to Leah, who in turn traded the duda’im with Rachel for sexual access to Jacob.

Second, the duda’im trade is not just about erstwhile bitter rivals calling a truce and sharing Jacob, it is also about sharing a symbol of filial love. “Give me from your son’s duda’im,” Rachel implores of Jacob (Genesis 30:14). This parallels a theme in Ruth, whereby Naomi (Ruth 2:2, 2:22, 3:1, 3:16, 3:18) and Boaz (2:8, 3:10, 3:11) take turns calling Ruth “my daughter.” They are effectively sharing her filial love much as Rachel and Leah contrived to do.

Finally, the duda’im trade seems to have been a critical turning point in how the two matriarchs thought about their fertility—its true source and purpose—and this deeper understanding had the effect of granting them greater fertility.

Whereas the text tells us that Leah had “stopped giving birth” after giving birth to Judah, the trade causes her to be blessed with sons five and six. Her declaration at the naming of son number five (Issachar) explicitly credits the trade with Rachel (sakhar means trade or exchange) and her declaration at the naming of son number six (Zebulun) seems especially noteworthy given how happy she seems to be (“this time God has given me a choice gift” (Genesis 30:20)), and perhaps then ushering the birth of her daughter and final child, Dinah (30:21).

Boaz’s choice of six barleys may thus symbolise the momentous event that led to the births of Leah’s fifth and sixth sons. Let us now see why six sons might have been a meaningful number for descendants of Judah like Boaz and Naomi, as a symbol of Judah’s leadership. 

First, if one reviews Leah’s statements upon naming each of her six sons, one notices that the declarations for sons three (Levi) and six (Zebulun) stand out. Only for the births of her third and sixth sons does she mention their number in the birth order. And with the exception of the first-born son (Reuben), only for sons three and six does she express heightened confidence of her standing as Jacob’s wife. “Now this time my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons” she mentions in naming Levi (29:34). “This time my husband will exalt me for I have given him six sons,” she adds to her thanks to God in naming Zebulun (30:20).

It is unclear why the third and especially the sixth sons are so important to Leah, but it is not hard to guess. Throughout Genesis, twelve children symbolized the achievement of a great household and the foundation for a dynasty.[6] If twelve was the target, three children meant that at least one fourth of Jacob’s household would see Leah as their matriarch; with six children, she would be the matriarch of half of Israel (and two-thirds if one includes the two sons of her maidservant Zilpah).

In addition, the division of twelve into four groups of three would later become the basis for the organization of the encampment in the wilderness (Numbers 2), with one group of three tribes in the vanguard to the east; another group of three tribes to the south; another group of three to the west; and another group of three to the north. Notably, only one of these groups consists only of Leah’s sons, and this is also the only group that preserves the birth order. It is the vanguard group. It is led by Judah (the fourth tribe), followed by Issachar (the fifth), and Zebulun (the sixth). As such, there is good reason for the number six to be a potent symbol of leadership for Judahites specifically (and certainly for Zebulunites and perhaps Issacharites as well): if it were not for the dudaim trade and the birth of sons five and six, Judah’s claim to leadership—of the Leahite tribes and of Israel generally—would be weak.[7]

There is thus good reason to believe that the number six would have been a meaningful symbol of Judahite leadership that both Boaz and Naomi would have known well.

While the six barleys would be significant to any Judahite, the duda’im trade and the national unity it engendered may have had special resonance for Judahites who were from Bethlehem. It is notable that both “Bethlehem” and “Ephratah” are referenced by the townsfolk in their blessing to Boaz. These terms reference the place of the tragic and untimely death of Rachel soon after she gave birth to her second son, Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-19; 48:7). Together with placing Rachel’s name before Leah’s,[8] this reference suggests that Rachel’s legacy had a special place for them, presumably because they were the curators of her grave and received many Rachelite pilgrims to their town. Their very place name then would have implied the potential for national unity (during a highly fractious time), and the townsfolk’s blessing suggests that they embraced this identity.

As such, the importance of the duda’im episode for Rachel and her children may also have resonated for Boaz and Naomi. Rachel’s act of sacrificing her access to Jacob’s bed was quite significant for someone who had been so “jealous of her sister” that she begged Jacob to “give (her) sons, because without them, I am as good as dead” (30:1). But now, having given her erstwhile rival the opportunity to further her advantage over her by having another child with Jacob, Rachel now seems to relax. It would appear this is because she and her sister have begun to reconcile. It also seems she realizes that the path to fulfillment and love ultimately may not come from marital relations and biological children and that marital relations alone cannot guarantee children (as Jacob had suggested). Once she gains that realization (with no further complaints even as her sister has three more children), she too is blessed with her first son.

Let us pull these various threads together by first clarifying that we cannot be certain of the meaning behind Boaz’s six-barley wrap and why it would have sent a powerful message to Naomi. However, a wide array of contextual evidence appears to support the idea that it was an allusion to a key turning point in Israel’s history, one that would have been especially resonant for Judahites from Bethlehem: the duda’im trade, leading to the births of Leah’s fifth and sixth sons, as well as her daughter and to Rachel’s sons. By evoking this significant moment of national unity, Boaz would have been elegantly embedding within that six-barley wrap several powerful points that should have hit home powerfully with Naomi and reinforced the credibility of his message, which can be decoded as follows

  1. This business has the potential to be quite a sordid affair. Let us instead frame it in the context of a momentous, foundational moment in our people’s history.

  2. I understand my duty now and you need no longer worry. With God’s help, I will provide a child to you and Ruth just as Rachel and Leah got children via the duda’im trade.

  3. Perhaps you were being a bit hasty in judging me? As Rachel taught us, sometimes it is prudent to hold off on physical relations in order to get to the love that matters more, and then the desired fertility and legacy will come.

  4. I understand that you have felt rejected, and this son would be a vehicle for taking your rightful place and ensuring your legacy. Let us have a son who recalls Leah’s momentous son number six, the one who represents a scorned woman being recognized and achieving an enduring legacy of leadership.

  5. There is the potential here for something truly extraordinary, the birth of a son who can lead not just Judah but unified Israel to greatness.

To be sure, Boaz could not count on Naomi picking up on all of the symbolism. But given how much symbolic meaning seems encoded in the duda’im story and how much of it was infused in the way Boaz sent Ruth home to Naomi—and given that Ruth (as a Moabite) would have understood none of the allusions—it should have been very effective for sending a special message to Naomi, one that she should have found very meaningful and credible.

Conclusion

For readers today, the signal of the six barleys helps us appreciate Naomi and Boaz’s greatness in a new way. On the one hand, we see that their greatness was not given in their individual characters but a joint achievement, one that was founded on a larger historical and cultural achievement.

To appreciate the joint achievement, we must consider how easily the events of chapter 3 could have turned out very poorly. Each character has good instincts on display in the first two chapters of Ruth. Naomi is remarkably loyal to her God and people, returning home on a treacherous journey even as a humiliated, poor woman. Boaz is remarkably kind, solicitous, and praising of a poor outcast foreigner. But it turns out that each is set on a line of action that was highly problematic. Initially, Boaz is apparently content to have Ruth glean from his fields without worrying about Naomi and Ruth’s precarious standing in society. As a result, Naomi apparently concludes that she needs to trick him into taking care of them. Disaster looms if Boaz remains passive, but it also looms if he succumbs to Naomi’s plot. This is where their joint greatness comes in. On the one hand, Naomi shakes Boaz out of his passivity. On the other hand, Boaz redirects Naomi’s initiative away from a problematic and scandalous ending to an honorable and exalted one. That the story concludes in chapter 4 in such inspiring fashion is a result of the work Naomi and Boaz do in chapter 3 to prod each other out of potentially disastrous lines of action. And they pull it off with remarkable creativity and skill. Most of all, they find a way to communicate very clearly with one another about quite complex matters without ever speaking to each other once!

That they succeed in getting on the same page is in turn a result of the joint language they share as Bethlehemites from Judah. Without knowledge of Israel’s history, would Boaz have understood that Ruth’s appearance in his bed was recalling earlier episodes when patriarchs had faced similar challenges, with associated lessons for him to draw on?[9] And without this history being common knowledge between Naomi and Boaz, would Boaz’s message of the six barleys have been as meaningful and credible to Ruth? Could the message have been as meaningful if Leah and Rachel’s great moment of unification was not cherished by the people of Bethlehem, Judah? In short, Israel’s inspiring history served as the foundation by which Naomi and Boaz saved each other from their worst instincts and brought out their best ones, thereby creating an even stronger foundation for Israel’s future. May their example similarly inspire us. 


[1] For discussion of this “yibbum (levirate marriage) triangle” and how Boaz and Naomi succeed at meeting the moral challenge of a parent figure swallowing their pride to provide a future to a bereft young woman, see Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Rebuilding a Future When Our World Comes Crashing Down,The Lehrhaus (May 28, 2020).

[2] Yael Ziegler, Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy (Maggid Press, 2015), 348.

[3] Ibid., 347-50.

[4] Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Team of Rivals: Building Israel Like Rachel and Leah.” The Lehrhaus (November 15, 2018).

[5] Bereishit Rabbah 72:2.

[6] See Genesis 17:20, 25:16; 22:20-24.

[7] This may also have been especially true at the time of the book of Ruth, “at the time when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). If one reviews the book of Judges, one finds that Judahites never take up the mantle of leadership, and that the stories that discuss Judah (and “Bethlehem, Judah” in particular; see Judges 17, 19) display it as weak and marginal.

[8] See Rashi on Genesis 31:4.

[9] It is also possible to interpret Naomi’s motive in sending Ruth to Boaz not as an attempt to seduce him but as a test to see if he would respond in the manner of Joseph, the manner of Judah, or (as he did) in some combination of the two. That is, just as Boaz’s response was to send Naomi a signal that was something of a challenge (“Can you just be a bit more patient and a little less Tamar-like? I’m working on a great solution!”), Noami had herself been sending Boaz a signal that was something of a challenge (“Would you hurry up and do the right thing? Or are you going to be obtuse and afraid of scandal like Judah?”).

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he currently serves as associate dean for teaching and learning. Among his current research projects is a book on the emergence of the seven-day week. Ezra welcomes feedback at ewzucker@mit.edu and he tweets at @ewzucker.