Until now, I have spent most of my time setting the scene and – I hope – dramatizing the tensions that are written between the lines of Ruth’s story. But the real magic of the story is not encoded in the setting or the narrative or even the social positions and potentials of the various characters but rather in the dialogue that takes place between them.
But here we come up against a modern disability that might keep us literates from the wisdom of the Bible’s master storytellers. Our disability is that we often read the Bible for action watching events unfold, judging them on moral grounds and attributing them to divine or human actors. But Old Testament narrative depends much more heavily on speech and dialogue than on narrated action to convey meaning.
In his insightful book The Art of Biblical Narrative Robert Alter explains, “The biblical writers … are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.”
Our principle goal in this study is to reveal patterns of behavior which the main characters have adopted that might contribute to Ruth’s successful integration into the Bethlehem community and the consequent restoration of Boaz’ family line. As we will see, the terseness and structured nature of Hebrew dialogue reveals these patterns quite clearly under the lens of Social Network Analysis. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Hebrew storytellers and listeners were much more attuned to these nuances and didn’t need our sophisticated studies to tell them twice what the text had already so elegantly displayed.
But if like me, the patterns are not immediately clear to you, maybe you’ll join me in taking one final look at the story under the SNA lens. Let’s start by laying out our diagram slightly differently to emphasize relationships rather than social groupings and positions. Additionally, since we are looking for relational patterns we will take Alter’s advice and filter out ties describing Elimelech’s family, Boaz’ geneology and all narrative connections which simply place two or more characters on the stage ready for dialogue. What remains is a graph showing speech acts, mentions of third parties and favors, all of which could be described as interactions with intent.
Now look at the arrows associated with our three main characters: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi. What do you notice?
Network of intentional narrative
Mutuality oxygenates the network
As we have mentioned before in regards to Boaz, he controls the vast majority of interaction in the story compared to other characters. He is clearly the dominant figure with whom all in this narrative circle must contend. But how does he employ this influence? It is striking that almost all of his connections are mutual. That could potentially be explained by a command/obedience interaction but in actually fact, Boaz is far more cordial than directive and behaves this way with people of all social stations. For example, when he first arrives on the scene he greets his laborers in the field with a blessing to which they wholeheartedly respond in kind. Furthermore, whenever Boaz requests information, he seems to be invested in the responses and to implicitly trust the person he addresses. When he does give directives, he has a way of preserving the dignity of those he is directing.
A similar tendency toward mutuality can be seen in Naomi who treats Orpah and Ruth like her own daughters at the beginning of the story and entrusts her grandson Obed to the care of the townswomen at the story’s conclusion. Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality invites trust from the community and creates an atmosphere of both intimacy and openness. Perhaps in response to this, Ruth recognizes their openness and responds in kind. These characters’ combined orientation toward mutuality has the effect of oxygenating the community network and allowing developments that might otherwise be restricted.
“The friend of a friend is my friend” goes the saying. In Social Network Analysis, this is called transitivity. The idea is that when a two unrelated people share a common friend, they are far more likely to connect themselves. One of the fascinating patterns to notice in Ruth’s network is the way that complete triangles are formed strategically so that Ruth is eventually secure in her relationship with Boaz but also embedded in the social structure of Bethlehem. I like to call this pattern “network midwifery” because the common friend (most notably Naomi) intentionally fosters independant links between Ruth and pivotal people in the community and then allows Ruth to own these relationships without any interference. It is an incredibly generous act which beautifully returns to Naomi in the form of the townswomen’s blessing when she entrusts her newborn grandson Obed to their care. Of all the transitive triangles formed in the story, the connection between Naomi, Boaz and Ruth is of course the most important and Naomi demonstrates her skill in negotiating this connection in a series of moves over multiple scenes.
Boaz employs another set of approaches to closing relational triangles. The first example we see does not actually appear in our analysis because the final connection is implied rather than stated. When Boaz learns of Ruth’s work ethic from his foreman and then later from the reapers, he legitimates her activity in the fields by involving them in securing her provision.
Another tactic Boaz employs both explicitly and often is the mention of third parties. In his initial conversation with Ruth and then again on the threshing floor Boaz mentions his awareness that the town has spoken well of Ruth. The first time he does this it has the effect of paying a compliment but also engendering the townsfolk to Ruth. He is effectively paving the way for Ruth to begin to trust her new community by offering her their praise second hand. In the second instance, it is possible that Boaz is offering a gently veiled warning that he intends for their relationship to meet and exceed community standards of propriety. But again, he strengthens Ruth’s connection with the community by including them in his and Ruth’s moral decision making process. Boaz may not be much of a ladies man, but I envy his maturity and poise.
Later, in his conversation with the elders, Boaz exhibits similar maturity and community awareness by connecting himself to Ruth only in reference to her relationship with Elimelech, Naomi and their sons. Elimelech and Mahlon are no longer concerned with Ruth’s marital state since both are in the process of composting under Moabite soil. But by making mention of them in the presence of the elders, he dignifies these men and their line, allies himself with their purposes and creates an implicit relationship between the elders and Ruth by transferring her marital status from “widow of the dead son of Elimelech” to “under the care of Boaz”. The language may sound cumbersome, legal and antiquated for our modern ears, but with each connection, Boaz is weaving a web of supportive relationships that will identify Ruth not only as his bride but also as a member of the community in her own right.
Responsiveness and Network Intelligence
In all of this, Ruth is powerless (or rather status-less) but neither inattentive nor passive. As we have noted, she seems to recognize Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality and responds in kind, often boldly. She suggests to Naomi that she go out into the fields to glean and doesn’t hesitate to follow Naomi’s directions on the threshing floor. We can also see that Ruth seems to pick up on the cues she is given and directs her efforts towards those who are most likely to facilitate her integration into the community. She doesn’t engage the town, or the townswomen. She doesn’t appeal to the elders. And significantly, she doesn’t endear herself to one of the young men alongside whom she is harvesting. Whether by virtue of his position, his social intelligence or a combination of the two, Ruth focuses her efforts on Boaz under Naomi’s tutelage.
The result of all this socio-cultural waltzing is of course the birth of Obed and so also the promise of Boaz’ continued line. But it is powerfully significant that the final narrative scene displays Ruth firmly in place alongside Boaz and Naomi restored to social status in the community as the townswomen coo and coddle Ruth’s infant son.
The book of Ruth is a story of mutuality, generosity and responsiveness: a masterful choreography precisely executed and resolving in communal embrace. Doesn’t it make you want to dance?