Monday, December 28, 2009

Wordplay of Ruth

While pondering whether to blog here in 2010, I re-read the following towards the end of 2009. 

 וַתִּשֶּׂנָה קוֹלָן
וַתִּבְכֶּינָה עוֹד
וַתִּשַּׁק עָרְפָּה לַחֲמוֹתָהּ
  וְרוּת דָּבְקָה בָּהּ

It's from מגילת רות, the "Scroll of Ruth" (chapter 1, verse 14).   In the story, it's the second explicit mention of the names of the daughters-in-law of Naomi.  The first mention, of course, has the two women named in relation to their men, their husbands (in verse 4).  The men are Naomi's sons, who die and leave the two younger women alone as widows; Naomi cries that she cannot replace them because she's too old to bear more sons in her womb.  The significance of the women, and their names perhaps, seems implicit in their need to conceive and to produce male babies.  But in 14, the names have significance, feminine significances, beyond the men.  There is a literary significance, a wordplay, to get at other realities for the women.  It comes out also in the Hellene translation from the Hebrew, though the play is in different directions.

So let's come back to possible meanings of the names of the two younger women in Hebrew, and then look at how this plays in Greek (i.e., Hellene).  The name "Orpah" (עָרְפָּה) seems to have significance in physical appearance and means something like "bangs" or "forelock" or "mane" - perhaps as a female deer or gazelle might have.  The name "Ruth" (רוּת) seems to have significance physical appearance but  may also have significance in character or relationship; the name, ambiguously, means something like "beauty" or "good looking" and also "friend."  These are Hebrew words for foreign women, for non-Jews who are also females.  When "translated" by Jewish men into Hellene, the words are simply transliterated, so that the Hebrew sounds are retained when you read the Greek:  Ορφα and Ρουθ.  If you are not a Hebrew speaking Jew who is a male, then the significance of the words, even their sounds, is lost in transliteration.

Now, if you go back to re-read verses 4 and 14 with the names actually translated (and not just transliterated), then it goes something like this in English:
4 And they took them wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was "Doe with Bangs," and the name of the other "Good-looking Friend"; and they dwelt there about ten years.
14 And they lifted up their voice, and wept again; and "Doe with Bangs" kissed her mother-in-law; but "Good-looking Friend" cleaved unto her.
The significances (or the wordplay) in the names seem to come out strongly in verse 14.  (By wordplay I mean not only playfulness but also interpretative play or wiggle room.)  Doe-with-Bangs ("Orpah") kisses her mother-in-law.  The kiss is reminiscent of what Naomi had already done to both young women in verse 9.  There, the mother-in-law is not only comforting them in their grief but she is also giving them a patriarchal blessing.  That is, Naomi is pronouncing God's kindness and rest on the widows provided they return to find men who will marry and impregnate them.  They are to be fruitful and to multiply by bearing male babies, by giving birth to sons.  When Doe-with-Bangs kisses her mother-in-law, she is signaling that she will return (perhaps as gracefully as a running deer to the young bucks at home).

But "Ruth," or Good-looking Friend, does something different, something unexpected.  She does what a young nuptial will do.  She leaves her home to cleave to a husband.  This is reminiscent of Genesis 2:24, a pronouncement of the pattern of a man and a woman cleaving (דָּבַק) together as one flesh.  The friendly thing this young woman does is to cleave to the mother of her dead husband.  There is much more here.  Much more is here theologically and racially and with respect to gender. 

And in the Greek translation there's much more too.  So let's leave the theology and the race question and the issues of sex to turn our focus to the translating.

The Hellene (i.e. Septuagint) rendering of verse 14 is as follows:
καὶ ἐπῆραν τὴν φωνὴν αὐτῶν
καὶ ἔκλαυσαν ἔτι

καὶ κατεφίλησεν Ορφα τὴν πενθερὰν αὐτῆς
καὶ ἐπέστρεψεν εἰς τὸν λαὸν αὐτῆς

Ρουθ δὲ ἠκολούθησεν αὐτῇ
Roughly, we could re-present that in English as follows:
And they raised up their voices
And they cried out continually

And Orpah like a friend kissed her mother-in-law
And returned to her people.

Ruth, however, followed after her
In Greek, the word used for "kissing" is a word that also signifies "friendship." 

But the word used for "following after" smacks (*post-Aristotle) of a social hierarchy of wife under and after a husband, a kind of submissiveness.  And the translators are using a very ironic Greek language to show how striking Ruth's decision in contrast to her sister's.  These are, by the way, foreign females.  The translators are also rendering the old Hebrew as very foreign (in Alexander-the-Great's city Alexandria).  They're nearly reversing which sister is "the friend" but are retaining the striking idea that this "Ruth" is following after (as if cleaving to) a mother-in-law the way Hebrew women would normally cleave to Jewish men (so that more male children could be born).

(The New Testament represents Ruth as a foreign fore-mother of the Messiah, Joshua of Nazareth, as the "son" of David, who is the "son" of Ruth.  The patrilineage to open Matthew's gospel is interrupted by Ruth.  At the end of the gospel of Matthew, the "kiss" is used to signify the betrayal of this Joshua by Judah, who won't follow after this Messiah.  In this way, the Greek translation of Ruth finds a parallel in the gospel of Matthew.  Of course, it's not likely that Matthew writing meant for the parallel.  What I'm noticing, nonetheless, and trying to suggest, is there are reversals and ironies and meanings made in the "Scrolls of Ruth" and its Hebrew-Hellene translation).


*So, just to illustrate what Aristotle sets up as the "following after" hierarchy, here's a bit from his Politics (around 1035b, with H. Rackham translating into English) --
For a man's [or a husband's] acts can no longer be noble if he does not excel as greatly as a man excels a woman [or a husband excels a wife] or a father his children or a master his slaves, so that one who transgresses cannot afterwards achieve anything sufficient to rectify the lapse from virtue that he had already committed; because for equals the noble and just consists in their taking turns, since this is equal and alike, but for those that are equal to have an unequal share and those that are alike an unlike share is contrary to nature, and nothing contrary to nature is noble. Hence in case there is another person who is our superior in virtue and in practical capacity for the highest functions, him it is noble to follow [ἀκολουθεῖν] and him it is just to obey; though he must possess not only virtue but also capacity that will render him capable of action.