Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth

Image: Laborers work in a field. Public domain,

Earlier this week I posted a study on Ruth 2:21-23.  I used a rather old-fashioned translation available on the site because it was sufficient for my purpose at the time:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field. So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23 (JPS translation, 1917)

But now I’d like to look at a different angle on the passage using a more nuanced translation:

Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.” And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and not be annoyed in some other field.” So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.” – Ruth2:21-23 (JPS translation, 1985)

The 1985 JPS translation seems quite a bit different, although it is a translation from exactly the same Hebrew text. The difference important to me here is the translation of יִפְגְּעוּ, which 1917 translates “be met” and 1985 translates “be annoyed.” (If you wish to see the Hebrew, you can do so here.) Other possibilities for translating that verb include “be hurt,” “be bothered,” or “be disturbed.”

Naomi is explicit that she worries that Ruth may be “hurt, bothered, disturbed, or annoyed.” Plainly, Naomi is afraid that if the male workers see Ruth as vulnerable, she might be raped. Her advice is to stay with the other women, seeking protection in numbers and perhaps in the protection of their respectability.

Today when I was studying the passage with some other women rabbis, we read the passage together. Then they were surprised when I continued with the study from my previous post. The were surprised because there has been a particularly horrible story in the news here in the Bay Area about a rape trial, and they thought that I was going to teach a lesson in connection with that.

And certainly there is such a lesson here, although it is a sad and frustrating lesson. We have here evidence that even in the 5th century BCE women felt the need to warn other women about the possibility of rape. Ruth was exactly the sort of woman who is still the most vulnerable today: poor, without influence, and a member of a minority group who was despised because of stereotypes that painted minority women as hypersexual and available. Naomi feared that a man might see Ruth as someone who could be used and discarded without serious consequence.

We know that such warnings are of limited help, that “doing everything right” is sometimes no protection at all. The dramatic tension in the Book of Ruth derives from the vulnerability of the two poverty-stricken women and their uncertain fate.

Ultimately the Book of Ruth teaches that every human being has a right to respect. Ruth the Moabite, vulnerable in the field because of her minority status, was the same Ruth who was worthy of being the great-grandmother of King David.

This is one of the larger points the book makes: Ruth, the ultimate outsider is always also the ultimate insider, a woman fated to be the ancestor of King David. David, the ultimate insider, chosen by God, is also the great-grandson of a poor foreign woman.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccesiastes 1:9

I pray for a day when no woman has to worry about rape. I pray for the day when Ecclesiastes will be wrong.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

15 thoughts on “Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth”

  1. Benjamin Franklin while he served as our first ambassador to the nation of France, he was amazed and perplexed at their ridicule of the Bible. One day he told them that he had discovered a short story of unusual brilliance and beauty and that he wished to read it to them. After hearing it, his listeners were greatly impressed with the intriguing story and wanted to know where it had been found. To their surprise, he held up a Bible. He had read to them the Book of Ruth.

  2. Interesting and so unfortunate, how relevant this topic is throughout history. Perhaps another lesson in this portion of Ruth Chapter 2…. The responsibility of the community as a whole to disseminate ‘awareness’. Warnings must be shared and heeded by all. There must be an even sharper sensitivity to being attentive to those who might seem most vulnerable. There is always a danger in feeling like or simply being a bit different that the social norm — be it ethnicity or a little bit of an outsider or shy social misfit (like me as a teen). Being misunderstood or not readily accepted because one is different poses a danger. This not only isolates one off from a potentially protective group/gathering,thereby raising their vulnerability, – it also may be that the protective watch and even dissemination of warnings and advice could be missed altogether. It is our duty as a community to take special heed of those that may be aloof, introverted or perceived as vulnerable, for whatever reason.

    1. Awareness among women is important, Debra, but another lesson in Ruth is the responsibility of men to see women as human beings worthy of respect. Boaz is a model for men … thank you for the idea. I can see this is going to be a bumper year for Ruth commentaries from me.

      Thank you!

      1. Ohhh the responsibility of men — I’m now going back to read Book of Ruth — so glad I found you out here surfing for reason:)

  3. One of my favorite quotes about prejudice and inequality. “Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” John Muir

  4. If we take Torah as a mirror held up to society and the way that people had to be taught, this seems like an interesting way for the rabbis to teach men not to rape and to let them know that rape was a constant fear among women in biblical times (not as if it isn’t still a fear today). I think its the way we as a society are required to learn about the problem and do something about it.

    Very interesting. I had never paid much attention to that passage before. Thank you.

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