Rebuilding a Future When Our World Comes Crashing Down

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Ezra Zuckerman Sivan


How do we respond to the apparent destruction of our world? What do we do when the narrative we have developed for ourselves, around which we have organized our lives and in which we believed so completely, is so radically disrupted we see no way forward? How do we face the younger generation in whom we have inculcated our narrative and who has built their own emerging narratives on our foundation? Can we help them build a new narrative even if it means acknowledging our failure and shame?

These difficult questions resonate with too many people today in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But they are age-old. Indeed, they are central to the book of Ruth (which we read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot), and more generally to the three dynastic stories of which Ruth is the climax. When read in this light and taken together, this narrative triangle—including the story of Lot and his daughters (climaxing in Genesis 19) and the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), as well as that of Ruth and Boaz—holds powerful redemptive possibility. In particular, I suggest here that the shocking account of father-daughter incest in the first story is crucial to unlocking the triangle’s lessons.

My approach reconciles two approaches in traditional commentary on the daughters’ motives for seducing their father—the majority approach (they thought there were no other men on earth) and the minority approach (they thought no one acceptable would marry them). A close reading reveals that each approach has a basis in the text and that the majority approach should apply not to the daughters but in a figurative sense, to Lot (his world had seemingly come to an end) while the minority approach applies to his daughters (their options to secure a future for themselves were greatly narrowed because of their father). This reconciliation then sheds light on the other two points in the triangle and on Ruth in particular—with Ruth as a tikkun (moral correction) for the daughters (she chooses to risk what they were not) and Naomi as a correction for Lot (she chooses to swallow her pride as he would not).

The Yibbum Triangle

The first two stories of the triangle have an obvious link to the third: each describes the union and birth of a son (Moab, son of Lot’s older daughter and Lot; Peretz, son of Judah and Tamar) that contributed to the genealogical line leading to the union of Ruth (the Moabite) and Boaz (descendant of Peretz), and thereby to the dynastic king of Israel.

But the third story does more than simply flow genealogically from the first two. As has been noted by various contemporary scholars, and as is reflected in how numerous midrashic commentaries compare and contrast the three stories, deep textual and thematic bonds tie the three stories together.

Observe first that all three stories are effectively extraneous to the larger narratives in which they are embedded. If the story of what happened after Lot and his daughters fled from Sodom had not been included in Genesis, it would not have been missed; would we otherwise have wondered about the births of the founders of Ammon and Moab? The same certainly applies to the story of Ruth; there is no need for us to know about one of David’s four great-grandmothers. After all, we never even learn the name (let alone the backstory) of David’s mother![1] And while we might have wondered what transformed Judah from someone who was apparently consumed by sibling rivalry and filial resentment (such that he was willing to sell his rival half-brother Joseph into slavery and conspire in leading their father Jacob to believe his favorite son was dead; Genesis 37:26-35) into a paragon of brotherly devotion and filial devotion (such that he offered himself into slavery in place of Joseph’s brother in recognition of Jacob’s preference for him; Genesis 44:18-34), there are many other stages in character development the bible leaves out (why didn’t the other brothers have a similar transformation?).

Moreover, not only are the stories unnecessary, they are the kinds of stories that families—especially dynastic ones whom one might think have some control over what is written about them—tend to hide. That is, the stories seem intent on airing out dirty laundry. This can be seen when one reviews the parallel organization of the three stories. Rachel Adelman,[2] building on Harold Fisch,[3] identifies nine stages: Descent, Disaster, Abandonment, Redemption, Bedtrick, Celebration, Levirate Union (yibbum), Issue, and Knowing/Recognition.[4] When read superficially, almost every stage casts a harsh, negative light on David’s ancestors. This is especially true for the first of the three stories, which seems to have no redeeming value.

The die seems cast in each story because of the way they all begin: a period of tribal or familial stress in the land of Israel leads a man to descend from the tribe or family and join another community. In the second and third stories, this is captured in the very first verses. “Judah descended (y-r-d) from his brothers at about that time” (Genesis 38:1)—i.e., around the time Joseph was being sold to Egypt and Jacob was mourning his apparent death (Genesis 37:35-36)—“and Judah camped until he reached an Adullamite ish (important man or personage) named Hirah.” Soon he has three sons by the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. Similarly, we are told in the first verse of Ruth that “there was a famine in the land and an ish (whom we soon learn is Elimelekh) left Bethlehem, Judea[5] and went to sojourn in the fields of Moab, he and his wife and two sons” (Ruth 1:1). Here the patriarch (Elimelekh, along with Naomi, Mahlon, and Kilyon) who leaves his tribe in its distress also does so by way of an act of descent: from Judea to the Jordan Valley.

Lot’s descent,[6] from the “house of God” (Beit El) in the hills of Samaria to a wicked city at the lowest point on the earth’s surface, seems rooted not in a struggle over life-giving resources (Elimelekh) or family leadership (Judah), but in managing great wealth and status (Genesis 13:1-6). In response to a dispute over grazing rights, Abraham appeals to family unity and shared status (“are we not both brothers and anashim, i.e., distinguished personages?”) and offers to divide the grazing area with his nephew (Genesis 13:8-9). But Lot decides to head down to Sodom; it reminds him of the source of their wealth (Egypt) and he is apparently undeterred by its reported wickedness (Genesis 13:7-13).

Given the problematic family betrayal captured in each patriarch’s descent, it is hardly surprising that disaster and abandonment follow. In Ruth, Elimelekh dies soon after arrival in Moab; and after they marry Moabite women, his two sons (whose names ominously mean “Plague” and “Destruction”) die before having sired children. The sons’ two widows—Ruth and Orpah— now have unclear prospects, especially since they are far from Judea and any relative of their husbands who might redeem them through the rite of yibbum, levirate marriage.[7]

Judah’s calamity also centers on the death of his oldest two sons, and in this case the moral condemnation is explicit: they were “ra (wicked) in God’s eyes” (Genesis 38:7,11). His daughter-in-law Tamar, twice widowed, does have a potential levirate redeemer in the third son Shelah, but who would risk marrying off their remaining son to a woman after his older brothers had each died soon after marrying her?

And in Lot’s case, it is his (anonymous) two daughters who are left “without the prospect of acquiring men”[8] after seemingly everyone they and their father knew were killed for their association with ra.

The next stages in each story provide a way out of the predicament in which these women find themselves, but this way out risks scandal: an unconventional redeemer is identified, and he is induced through indecent female initiative to effect a questionable levirate union and thus sire a dynastic issue via a bedtrick involving celebration and a lack of knowledge/recognition.

In the first story, the redeemer is Lot himself; he is incestuously seduced by each daughter on successive nights in which they get him so drunk he copulates with (and impregnates) them “not knowing when she lay down and when she got up” (Genesis 19: 33,35). In the second story, Tamar intercepts Judah on his way to sheep-shearing festivities and induces him to play the role of levir by presenting herself as a roadside prostitute and getting him to copulate with (and impregnate) her. He eventually recognizes the child and his errors when she explains her illicit pregnancy by submitting the identifying property he has left as a deposit in lieu of payment. And in the third story, Ruth crawls into bed with a distant relative of Mahlon’s and asks that the man redeem her; he agrees in the shadow of looming scandal if she is discovered. These salacious bedtrick scenes are the focal point of each narrative even though they are the kinds of scenes that would seemingly be suppressed by authors seeking to make the Davidic dynasty a source of inspiration. Indeed, even if one recognizes that the Hebrew Bible presents its heroes’ flaws so the reader may more readily identify with them and learn from their failures as well as their successes, it is not immediately clear what the message is behind such scandalous behavior.

The Weak Point in the Triangle

In fact, however, it is not difficult to justify the canonization of the second and third stories on this last criterion. As noted, the story of Judah seems fundamental to his character development. Many commentators identify the pivot point in this development as the moment when Tamar induces Judah to “recognize” that he had wrongly blocked Shelah from marrying her, using the same language (haker na) as Judah and his brothers had used in pulling the wool over Jacob’s eyes (Genesis 37:32, 38:25).[9]

And Boaz seems to pick up where his ancestor Judah leaves off. Whereas Ploni Almoni’s (“Mr. Anonymous,” a better candidate for levir) refusal to redeem Ruth evokes Onan’s refusal to consummate his levirate marriage to Tamar,[10] Boaz steps up. His forebear Judah had effectively condemned Tamar to stigmatized, perpetual widow status due to her association with calamity and had recognized her rights (vayaker Yehudah) only after she risked her dignity and life to bring him the promise of children. By contrast, Boaz immediately recognizes Ruth (lehakireni; yehi makirekh barukh; Ruth 2:10, 19) despite similar associations with calamity and low status as an outcast Moabite. And of course, while Boaz apparently needs to be induced to recognize that he has the responsibility to find Ruth a levir, it is not necessary to get him drunk and/or to seduce him. To the contrary, when given the opportunity to treat her as nothing but a sexual object, he asks for her name and does everything he can to protect her dignity and status.[11]

The Judahite side of the triangle thus harbors powerful moral lessons behind its scandalous facade. But what about the Moabite side? It certainly seems ominous that the moral traits associated with Sodom—the use of sex as a tool for power and the undignified treatment of foreigners—are exhibited several generations later during Israel’s journey from Egypt to Israel. This is why the Moabites, and especially Moabite women, become stigmatized.[12] Elimelekh’s decision to take his family to Moab was thus tantamount to taking them to Sodom. Given that, it seems clear that Ruth’s actions represent corrective redemption (or tikkun, in kabbalistic terms) for her foremothers.

Yet while there may be redemptive lessons in the Judah-Tamar story and in how Ruth and Boaz correct the mistakes of each of their forebears, the absence of any such lesson from the story of Lot and his daughters stands out. In particular, whereas Tamar and Ruth are each moral exemplars who took great risks in inducing a patriarch to do right by them, it is hard to justify or learn from the apparently disturbing actions taken by Lot’s daughters. The fact that their actions apparently encoded the immorality of Sodom in Moabite culture reinforces this difficulty.

Did They Really Think Everyone had been Killed?

In reckoning with this problematic point in our triangle, it is intriguing that the rabbinic sages were surprisingly positive in their assessment of the daughters’ actions.[13] And as any graduate of a yeshiva or Orthodox Jewish day school can tell you, a key contextual fact helps to explain the scandalous step they took: they believed that they were the last people left on earth. Yet while this is the majority view among traditional Jewish commentators,[14] there is no direct support for it in the text and many reasons to doubt it. Moreover, while this approach provides pretext for the daughters’ action, it is still a struggle to draw lessons from it.

To be sure, there is some textual basis for this majority approach. In particular, strong intertextual allusions link this story with that of Noah and his sons in the aftermath of the flood. Both are stories about God raining (vayamter) destruction (hashhatah) upon a wicked (ra) civilization. Both are stories about a relatively good, if imperfect, man and his family receiving divine warning about impending calamity and a helping hand to salvation. And the climax of each story involves a drunken patriarch who is sexually betrayed by one of his children, with a curse befalling the descendants of that child (Genesis 9:20-28, Deuteronomy 23:4).

Yet both Seforno and R.Yosef Kara (as cited by R. David Kimhi)[15] contend that the daughters were motivated by the fact that they had no (good) marriage prospects, a motive that is essentially the same as the motives of Tamar and Ruth. This is indeed the straightforward interpretation of what the older daughter says to the younger, “An ish—none exist in the land to come onto us according to the ways of the land” (Genesis 19:30). She could have said “there are no other men left in the land” or perhaps “no man exists in the land.” It is unclear why she would add the expression “according to the ways of the land” if not to denote something like “according to accepted custom”— i.e., marriage.[16] And her emphasis on ish (ungrammatically placed at the beginning of her words) is consistent with its importance throughout the yibbum triangle: the daughters seem to be seeking a good marriage. Finally, if indeed they think they are the last people on earth, why do they have to trick their father? Why don’t they expect him to be as likely as they are to understand that conventional morals must be set aside?

There is even stronger evidence that Lot’s daughters did not think they were the last people on earth. Consider that: (a) the divine messengers’ initial warning to Lot specifically says that they should leave “this place” because “we are destroying this place” (19:12-13); (b) Lot pleads with the messengers to let them go to Zoar because his “soul could live there” (19:20); (c) the messengers accede to his request and say that they “won’t overturn this city (i.e., Zoar) about which you spoke”; (d) Lot and his daughters leave Zoar because he became “afraid to dwell there” (19:30), not because the messengers reneged on their promise and in fact destroyed it; and (e) the Hebrew Bible provides voluminous evidence that Zoar was in fact never destroyed.

The last point is the most important one.[17] If one reviews the references throughout the Hebrew Bible to the cities of the plain,[18] one finds that whereas prior to Genesis 19, Zoar or its apparent predecessor settlement is listed among the five cities of the plain (Genesis 13:10; 14:1-8; 15:10-19), thereafter the other four cities—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zevoiim—are described as having been destroyed, with Zoar conspicuously absent from this gallery of shame (see especially Deuteronomy 29:21-22). To the contrary, Zoar is described as if it is in continuous existence. Indeed, the very climax of the Torah portrays Moses looking out from the steppes of Moab onto the cities of the plain, where his panoramic view ranges from “Jericho, the city of dates, until Zoar” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). Remarkably, Isaiah (15:1-5) describes Zoar as a city of refuge for Moabites fleeing from cities destroyed for their moral infractions. And perhaps even more remarkably, Zoar is described in various places in the Talmud as a Jewish city with long-standing and distinctive traditions (and which supplants Jericho as a “city of dates”),[19] and there is evidence of a robust Jewish community there as late as the 6th century CE.[20] Far from having been destroyed, it would appear that this was a city with tenacious staying power!

Additional Clues

Thus while the story of Lot and his daughters certainly recalls that of Noah and his sons after the flood, it seems impossible to accept that the daughters were motivated by a belief that there were no men left with whom they could restart the human race. The text clearly suggests that they would have known that there were still people in Zoar. But then why were they afraid to live there even though Lot had initially thought it would be a good refuge? And what would have so convinced them they could never find a good husband that they were willing to cast their own father as redeemer?

Clues that help resolve these questions emerge from reviewing earlier events in the story, especially the sequence of events starting with God’s messengers (“angels”) leading the two daughters and their parents out of Sodom.

First, it is essential to interpret the story in terms of the earlier horrific story of sexual immorality involving Lot and his daughters. In particular, at the beginning of chapter 19, Lot seems to offer two daughters for gang rape so that a Sodomite mob will spare the angels. This foreshadows the end of Lot’s story in a cruelly ironic way: whereas here he offers his daughters as virgins “whom no man has known (carnally)” (Genesis 19:8), he eventually ends up sleeping with his daughters, apparently without knowing it. It is a classic case of being hoisted on his own petard, or midah ke-neged midah.

The word ish, or distinguished personage—noted above as important throughout the yibbum triangle—is also conspicuous in this part of the story. When the people of Sodom demand that Lot hand over his messengers “so that they may know them” (19:5), they “remonstrate with the ish, with Lot, very much” (19:9). The word ish here is extraneous. The implication is that they are challenging the status Lot had apparently achieved, alleging that he has no right judging them, in part because he is really a usurping visitor (a “carpetbagger,” so to speak) rather than a proper citizen: “has that one come to sojourn with us and would presume to judge us? (emphasis added)” (ibid.).[21]

Let us turn now to the departure from Sodom.

As he is being escorted out by the messengers, Lot is told that he should not look behind, but instead should hurry “up the mountain”—i.e., from the Jordan Valley up to the hills of Judea (19:17). Lot pleads with them for a different course of action (19:18), saying that “his soul” will not “live” if he goes up the mountain “lest ra’ah, wickedness, stick to me and I die” (19:19). At first blush, it seems that Lot was driven by the fear of getting caught in the conflagration. But the messengers have just told him that the mountain is safe, and we soon learn that indeed Abraham is safe when he stands on the Judean mountains overlooking this scene. So Lot’s concern is puzzling. Moreover, throughout the Hebrew Bible, the terms ra and devek (to stick) consistently refer not to physical but to moral processes pertaining to human agency. Indeed, the latter word is a key word in the book of Ruth, used to describe how Ruth cleaves to Naomi as does the idyllic husband to his wife (Ruth 1:14; cf. Genesis 2:24) and in Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to glean near, and thus be accepted by, Boaz’s field hands.[22] Lot seems to be worried about a moral threat of some kind, of stigma they will not be able to shake.

Next, Lot begs the angels to let his family go to Zoar. He enigmatically explains that Zoar is close by and is mitz’ar—little or lowly. He repeats this point and uses it to explain that if he goes there “my soul will live” (19:20). Lot’s denigration of Zoar is consistent with the fact that Zoar seems relatively less established or politically stable (it is variously named Lasha and Bela in Genesis 10:9 and 14:8).[23] But it is strange that the status-conscious Lot would seek refuge in a lowly city, especially since years earlier, when he first looked out upon the plain, Lot had apparently rejected Zoar for the more established and prominent city of Sodom (Genesis 13:10).[24] It seems that whereas Lot had once sought status, he is now seeking the opposite as his ticket to life; and he somehow expects the messengers to understand this puzzling logic and to empathize with it.

Next, after the reader is informed that Lot has arrived in Zoar safely and that the other cities of the plain are being destroyed, the reader’s focus is made to shift abruptly to a scene on the Judean mountains overlooking the plain (19:27-29). We learn that Abraham rose early that day and returned to the place where he had tried and failed to head off God’s plan of destruction. We also learn that Abraham looked out on the destruction and that he saw smoke rising “like the smoke of a kiln.” The reader is then provided with a summary statement that God had sent Lot out from the destruction of the “cities in which Lot had dwelled” and that God had done this because he had “remembered Abraham.” Yet it is unclear whether Abraham knew that Lot had been saved or whether he in fact cared. As far as we know, the two men never again spoke. This repeats and deepens the pattern that began several years earlier when Abraham came to Lot’s rescue when he was taken captive as a prisoner of war. After Abraham defeats Lot’s captors, it appears that the uncle and nephew are so estranged that they do not exchange words (Genesis 14:14-24). Lot soon returns to his place at the city gate of Sodom, apparently an important personage there, perhaps because he is the nephew of the man who defeated the city’s enemies (Genesis 19:1-19). And when Abraham pleads with God on Sodom’s behalf, he never mentions Lot by name (Genesis 18: 16-33). So now, when Abraham returns to this scene for what will turn out to be his last potential interaction with Lot, the text seems to go out of its way to emphasize their estrangement: God spares Lot from Sodom’s destruction on Abraham’s behalf, but Abraham may not know or care. This is a troubling image of salvation rooted both in a seemingly unbreakable family bond and a seemingly unbreachable family rupture.

Finally, in the final verse before the older daughter proposes her conspiracy to the younger daughter, we learn that “Lot went up out of Zoar and dwelled in the mountain and his daughters were with him, because he was fearful of dwelling in Zoar; and he dwelled in a cave, he and his two daughters” (19:30). The most important question this verse raises is: What happened in Zoar, and why were they fearful of staying? It is also odd that this verse repeatedly describes Lot as acting on his own but with his daughters dragged in tow as if an afterthought. It is also strange that fear of living in Zoar is presented as if it is the reason for living on the mountain with his two daughters, rather than being merely the reason for leaving Zoar.

The Destruction of Your Narrative is not the End of Your World or of Your Children’s

The set of clues we have laid out can now be assembled to propose a theory that integrates the textual and social/psychological insights underlying both the minority and majority positions with regard to the daughters’ motives, and that helps us appreciate the deeper lessons imparted by this story and by the yibbum triangle more generally.

In short, whereas it felt to Lot like his entire world had been destroyed because of the humiliation and loss he experienced, it was just his life’s narrative that was ruined. The world was still here, and he had a duty to help his daughters find a future in it.

When we first encounter Lot, we learn that he bristles under Abraham’s family leadership.[25] He is also ambitious; he thus seeks riches and prestige in Sodom even though its culture is corrupt. Having pridefully struck out on his own, he seems to resent any help from Abraham, even when desperately needed. Whereas the King of Sodom once thanked Abraham for freeing him, Lot apparently did not (Genesis 14:17-24). And now that Sodom is destroyed but he is spared, Abraham has apparently saved his life again. At this point, Lot cannot bring himself to go up to Abraham with his tail between his legs. He also recognizes quite reasonably that, as the sole survivor of a terrifying conflagration, and with daughters whose marital status and sexual mores may be in doubt (Had word gotten out about his indecent proposal? Are these his married daughters or his unmarried ones? Did he have two pairs of daughters or one pair?[26]), he is likely to be shunned by polite society. Lot needed Abraham’s help—the social acceptance he could provide through his great prestige and perhaps his wealth to provide dowries—but Lot would have to swallow his pride and go to Abraham and ask.[27]

But the prospect of humiliation was apparently too great. And so Lot’s alternate plan is to go to the city he once shunned as beneath him. Given how lowly Zoar is and how Lot had been a distinguished member of a more prestigious city, he reasons that they will be happy to accept him and that he will be able to live there. Yet, as is hardly surprising, the people of Zoar are not interested in accepting Lot on this basis. The conflagration has probably made them less deferential to Sodomites, who used to look down upon them. Moreover, especially if word has gotten out about Lot’s proposal to the mob, his daughters would likely have been shunned or abused in Zoar. And so Lot’s family is forced to leave. They do go up the mountain, but not to Abraham. Rather, Lot drags his daughters into a cave—the ultimate symbol of someone who has given up and retreated from society. Indeed, we soon encounter a cave as a burial site (Genesis 23).

The problem of course is that Lot cannot just give up: he has an obligation to his daughters. It is his responsibility to swallow his pride and find a way to reintegrate them into society, to help give them a future. After all, they did nothing wrong; this is all Lot’s fault! So, with no help from their father in performing his primary responsibility of providing them a recognized status in society (a lack of status symbolized by the fact that they don’t have their own names, their only status is through their father), Lot’s daughters believe they have no choice but to take matters into their own hands. It seems a small step from the logic of levirate marriage, after all.[28] And what choice did they have, given the position their father had put them in?

The Triangle Revisited

Let us now return to our triangle and consider how the proposed interpretation of Lot and his daughters— an approach that reconciles the textual and social/psychological insights underlying the majority and minority approaches— helps sharpen our appreciation of the yibbum triangle and its messages.

First, consider how Judah’s actions are illuminated.

Judah too must have felt like his world was destroyed when he lost his beloved two sons, in part because he surely saw it as punishment for his role in causing his own father to lose his beloved son. But he would nonetheless need to come up with a plan for Shelah. What was it? The text implies that Judah had been waiting for Shelah to grow up, with the ostensive plan of having him be the levir for Tamar but the surreptitious plan of marrying him off to someone else “lest he die like his brothers” if he were to marry Tamar (38:11).

But was that actually his plan? The text is silent. If levirate marriage was as normative as it seems to have been, the implication is that Shelah would be perceived as obligated to marry Tamar, and any other woman would have wanted that matter clarified. Moreover, Shelah might have been stigmatized by his brothers’ mysterious deaths just as Tamar was; maybe the problem was with Judah’s sons? And so Judah seems like a man who is stuck, just like Lot was. He is desperate to keep Shelah alive but he has no clear plan for Shelah’s (and therefore for his own) future.

Yet his cloud seems to lift once his wife dies and the mourning period is over. Unlike his father, who could not reconcile himself to his apparent loss of Joseph (va-yema’en le-hitnahem; 37:35), Judah is somehow able to reconcile himself to the loss of his wife (va-yenahem Yehudah; 38:12) and he feels sufficiently positive that he goes to a sheep shearing. It is unclear what accounts for this shift. Perhaps he was inspired by the memory of his father, who lost his beloved Rachel but somehow was able to move past that and lead the family. Perhaps he can now go ahead with a plan for resolving the problem with Shelah and Tamar to which his wife may not have agreed. And perhaps Tamar now senses that Judah’s perspective has shifted (for either of those reasons or some other reason) and that he is now oriented towards the future rather than his calamitous past, that he is focused on life rather than death. At the same time, she has heard nothing concrete and is reasonably worried that she is not part of the plans. And so she takes initiative to ensure that his plans for the future include her.

The implications for how we understand Ruth and Naomi run even deeper.

First, the manner by which Ruth provides a tikkun for her foremothers is now even clearer. Her story is very much like theirs. When she returns to Moab, she appears to Bethlehemites just as Lot’s daughters might have appeared had they too gone up to Judea and tried to enter civilization there—i.e., with unclear or damaged lineage, and tainted by association with some kind of terrifying and potentially contagious calamity. Moreover, she was a member of the lowest possible caste—a Moabite, who had married into a family that had betrayed its own at its time of distress. Who would marry her?

But a key difference between her and Lot’s daughters underlines Ruth’s moral greatness: Ruth freely chose this lowly status when she did not have to!

Ruth could have gone back to Moab like Orpah did. Indeed, Naomi actively discourages her from tagging along for this very reason. And, as Boaz notes, she did not have to marry such an old man like him. Remarkably, she chose to sacrifice herself in a way that tends to be experienced as intolerable by others—such as Tamar and the daughters of Lot. Ruth actively chose to accept the likely possibility that she would never be integrated into acceptable society—at best she would be a poor beggar at Naomi’s side, someone who could never give her a child.[29]

And if Ruth provides tikkun for Lot’s daughters, Naomi provides tikkun for Lot.[30] Consider in particular that Naomi could easily have given up. Her husband and two sons were dead. She was in a foreign land and was apparently penniless. As a woman, widow to a man who had emigrated, she could not expect a warm reception or the restoration of family property upon her return. And even if she herself would return home, she apparently expected her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab so they could find husbands and build futures for themselves there (Ruth 1:11-13). Finally, given her dour disposition upon her return to Bethlehem (calling herself “bitter” instead of “pleasant”; 1:20-21), she certainly does not seem to have been motivated by great optimism about her future. What was her plan then?

It is hard to know. But it seems key that despite the destruction of her life narrative and her bitterness about it, she did not give up and somehow undertook the perilous journey home. The text gives us one clue as to why: Naomi had heard that “God had pakad (noticed/redeemed) his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). This statement is intriguing because given that she was in Moab, she probably heard just that “the famine in Judea is over.” But what she chose to hear was language that evokes God’s pakad of Sarah by facilitating her birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1) and perhaps God’s hearing and remembering the people of Israel at the depth of Egyptian slavery (Exodus 2:24). The implication is that Naomi’s frame of mind was such that she interpreted the news via a national narrative frame, the covenantal relationship between God and Israel (cf., Esther 4:14).

Choosing to see herself as part of a larger, national narrative may have helped Naomi transcend her personal troubled narrative and become more hopeful for the future. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, we soon learn that her daughter-in-law Ruth has come to identify with that national narrative as well, centering on its covenant with God—“your people are my people, your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16). This is remarkable, given that Ruth’s direct experience with those who lived by this narrative (Naomi’s family) had been so calamitous and that she had every reason to expect rejection by that people and perhaps by its God. But Naomi’s connection with her people and God had apparently survived her personal tragedy, and it had clearly made a great impression on Ruth.

It is also possible that Naomi was motivated by concern for her daughters-in-law. Given how she encourages them to return to their families and find husbands, she clearly was worried about their futures and wanted to see them thrive. Perhaps she was also worried that they felt obligated to care for her, and she wanted to free them from that obligation. If she were to return to Judea and they were to stay behind, they would no longer be “anchored” to her and could move ahead with their lives (cf., Ruth 1:13). And perhaps this plan backfired on Naomi, but in the best possible way. While Naomi could not see how she and Ruth could build a future together, perhaps Ruth took inspiration from the fact that Naomi was apparently still moving forward and willing to try her luck in Judea on her own. Anyone who can push ahead despite such setbacks must have a compelling narrative one can believe in. And with Naomi’s resilience and strength of character, perhaps she actually can help me find a husband and a future.


One can only speculate what was going through the minds of the characters in any biblical story, including those who comprise the yibbum triangle. What is clear is that each story asks us to consider how we might respond to the apparent destruction of our life’s narrative, where that destruction reveals our previous choices to have been based on problematic premises. More specifically, the yibbum triangle asks those of us with young adult children (or children-in-law or protégés more generally) what we might do if the junior party needs us to help them rebuild a future that has been compromised by being tied to the apparent destruction of our world. The younger generation faces the flip-side of this dilemma: what can it do to secure its future given the calamity that has befallen my parent/patron, and what sacrifices and compromises does this require of me? As noted, these questions resonate clearly and painfully today given how the coronavirus pandemic has overturned our world and associated life narratives.

Framed in these terms, the yibbum triangle reveals that the genealogical backstory of the Davidic dynasty is in the biblical canon for a clear reason: it is morally inspiring. The stories trace twin arcs of moral development, as one moves from the earliest point on the triangle (Lot and his daughters) through the middle (Judah-Tamar) to the final point (Ruth and Boaz/Naomi).[31] From the standpoint of the older generation, the arc begins with a father who fails utterly at the challenge of swallowing his pride and helping his daughters rebuild their lives; it continues with a father-in-law who apparently needs to be scandalously tricked to see the error of his ways but ultimately owns up to it and does the right thing; and finally to a mother-in-law and a distant patriarchal relative who, in halting but ultimately successful fashion, rise to the challenge in exemplary fashion. Indeed, while their brush with scandal is a near miss and there are missteps as they grope their way forward, who can blame them given that the challenge is so difficult and either of them could easily have walked away from it?

From the standpoint of the younger generation, we can trace a similar arc: from daughters whose decision is commendable only in that they seemingly had no other choice in securing their future[32] but to violate a universal norm, to a daughter-in-law who might have been able to find a less scandalous way to induce her father-in-law to recognize his duty, to a daughter-in-law who, like her older partners in effecting the unconventional yibbum, could have walked away from the dilemma entirely. Remarkably, Ruth chose to attach herself to her mother-in-law because she saw a future with and through her even when her mother-in-law did not. Her willingness to invest in and thereby save the family and national narrative surely makes her a worthy matriarch for the dynastic king of Israel and one whose moral example— together with her yibbum partners— shines as a beacon through the ages.

Of course, few of us can achieve the moral heights attained by Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi. Nonetheless, as we struggle today with rebuilding our narratives in light of the coronavirus pandemic (and other calamities that unfortunately befall us), the yibbum triangle provides moral inspiration in three crucial ways: a) by alerting us to the universality of the challenge of helping the younger generation build a future when ours seems hopeless, and thus telling us we are not alone; b) by suggesting we not blame ourselves for failing to find an optimal solution to this challenge given how difficult it is to solve; and c) by reminding us (to teach our children) that our personal life narrative gains greater meaning and resilience when it is built into a narrative that is much greater than ourselves. This last implication resonates powerfully with this year’s celebration of Shavuot, when even Jews who must tragically be alone in their homes are invited to imagine themselves entering into an eternal covenant with God at Sinai. 

[1] Bava Batra 91a identifies David’s mother as Natzvat bat Adael, but this detail is not found in the Biblical text.

[2] Rachel Adelman, “Weaving the Messianic Light: Law and Narrative in the Making of the Davidic Dynasty,” Chapter 4 in The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005).

[3] Harold Fisch, “Ruth and the Structure of Covenant HistoryVetus Testamentum 32:4 (January 1982): 425-437.

[4] Yael Ziegler uses a similar organization. See Yael Ziegler, Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy(Maggid Press, 2015). See especially pp. 59-73 (“The Roots of the Book of Ruth: Lot and Abraham”) and pp. 285-361 (“A Long-Term Solution: Ruth Chapter 3”).

[5] Recall that Judea in Hebrew is “Yehudah”—i.e., Judah. So Judah frames the story of Ruth as well.

[6] Note that while the word for descent (y-r-d) is used in the case of Judah, it is implicit both geographically and spiritually for Lot and Elimelekh, each of whom left the land of Israel and traveled down to the Jordan valley. Since Judah’s descent is subtler, the text calls it out.

[7] Levirate marriage was a rite (found also in other ancient/patriarchal cultures) by which a brother of a man who died without sons married the childless widow. Importantly, while Deuteronomy (25:5-10) frames this rite as a tool for perpetuating the dead husband’s “name,” the formulation of the law places a premium on female initiative (see Ziegler, op cit., p. 297), and the yibbum narratives in the Bible implicitly depict it as a tool for perpetuating the bereft woman’s legacy. See Ezra Zuckerman Sivan,  “The King’s Great Cover-Up and Great Confession,” The Lehrhaus (September 17, 2018) and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, “How to Curtail Pernicious Social Competition: The Legacy of Zelophehad and his Daughters,” The Lehrhaus (July 29, 2019).

[8] Adelman, op cit., p. 75.

[9] Genesis Rabbah 84:19.

[10] Ploni Almoni’s reasoning (Ruth 4:6) is he cannot be levir pen ashhit et nahalati (“lest I destroy my legacy”), which evokes Onan’s infamous refusal to consummate his levirate marriage to Tamar (Genesis 38:9) via shihet artzah levilti neton zera le-ehav (“destroying [his seed] on the ground so as not to give seed to his brother”).

[11] Ziegler op cit.., pp. 309-323.

[12] See Numbers 25:1-9 and Deuteronomy 23:5. See also  Menachem Leibtag, “The Akeyda and Miscellaneous Topics,”

[13] See Ziegler, op cit, p. 301 for review.

[14] For a useful review of the range of traditional approaches, see Eliezer Schlossberg, “Ish Ein Ba-Aretz Lavo Aleinu K-Derekh Kol Ha-Aretz,Sinai 11:147-161 [Hebrew]. The majority view has had significant currency outside rabbinic circles, as it is cited by both Josephus and Philo (Jonathan Grossman, Associative Meanings’ in the

Character Evaluation of Lot’s Daughters,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 76: 40-57).

[15] Genesis 19:32, ad loc.

[16] “Accepted custom” is essentially the meaning of “way of the land” (derekh eretz), the term in later Hebrew. It is more obscure in biblical Hebrew, occurring in Joshua’s valedictory address (Joshua 23:14) and in David’s dying words to Solomon (I Kings 2:2). On the one hand, these seem like allusions to biological processes (i.e., aging) rather than social customs. On the other hand, the context (leadership transition) is about maintaining social institutions despite the threat of disruption.

[17] See Kimhi (quoting Kara), op cit. See also R. Yaakov Medan, Ki Karov Elekha: Lashon Mikra u-Lashon Hakhamim, Bereshit, (Yediot), 137 [Hebrew].

[18] See

[19] See e.g., Mishnah Yevamot 16:7; Pesahim 52a.

[20] Seeמצבות_צוער [Hebrew].

[21] This recalls the moment in a 2008 US presidential election debate when John McCain referred to Barack Obama as “that one,” which was taken by some to be a way of dismissing his political opponent. See

[22] Ruth 2:8,21,23.

[23] See Shabbat 10b.

[24] See Leibtag, op cit.

[25] The text of Genesis 12:10-13:1 suggests two reasons for Lot’s discontent: a) He may resent Abraham for letting Lot’s sister Sarai be taken to the Egyptian harem, with both Abraham enriched as a result; and b) Whereas Lot was once a central member of Abraham’s party (“And Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, the son of his brother, and all the souls they made in Haran”; 12:5), he now seems an afterthought (“And Abram went up, he and his wife and all that he possessed, and Lot was with him”; 13:1). The latter formulation, “and Lot was with him” seems to foreshadow how Lot dragged his daughters with him to the cave.

[26] The text is famously ambiguous on these questions, but perhaps this is the point. If anyone had heard rumors, these questions would have had no clear answer, and Lot would have no documents or witnesses to attest to his version of events.

[27] Given that Abraham was apparently still fertile (the angels might even have told Lot about the prophecy that Sarah would give birth within the year; Genesis 18:10), he could have married Lot’s daughters and performed the role of levir, as he apparently had done in marrying Sarah. Alternatively, chapter 24 suggests that Laban was available back in the family compound in Haran; Abraham could have helped provide the dowries.

[28] Medan, op cit., notes that the first daughter’s formulation for a union, “lavo al,” is used nowhere in the Hebrew Bible except for the law of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5).

[29] See my essay “Team of Rivals: Building Israel Like Rachel and Leah,” The Lehrhaus (November 15, 2018), on the importance of female initiative in Ruth and in how Ruth reveals this theme as a powerful subtext in the story of Rachel and Leah.

[30] It is possible of course to provide tikkun for multiple earlier characters. For instance, Ziegler (op cit.) proposes that Ruth provides tikkun for Lot, and Naomi may provide tikkun for Lot’s daughters in that she, like they, was dragged to her predicament by an agentic male (compare Ruth 1:1 with Genesis 19:30).

[31] As I discuss in “The King’s Great Cover-Up and Great Confession” (op cit.), David’s sin (and confession) with Bathsheba represents a dramatic reversal and semi-recovery along these same moral dimensions.

[32] Grossman, op cit., argues persuasively that the younger daughter exhibited more reluctance than the older daughter, which is consistent with a moral arc that begins with the elder daughter.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His main current research project (from which several of his Lehrhaus essays, including this one, is drawn) is a book on the invention of the seven-day week. Ezra is teaching an online course on this topic at Drisha (, beginning March 3rd. He welcomes feedback at and he tweets at @ewzucker.