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The second floor of the world

Faithfulness and redemption/6 - It is written: Woman, I have told them not to lay a hand on you. For millennia no one has listened

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  09/05/2021

"Boaz noted with amazement that if the reapers dropped more than two ears of wheat to the ground, despite her need Ruth did not collect them because the portion of glean that the Law assigns to the poor amounts to no more than two ears of wheat that have fallen to the ground together by mistake".

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, VI

This is the first face to face between Ruth and Boaz, the rich owner of the barley field, whom Ruth chooses by chance, but who is actually part of a providential story. And that story becomes their meeting ground.

«As it turned out» Ruth ended up gleaning in the field of Boaz, a distant relative of his mother-in-law Naomi (The Book of Ruth 2,3). In the Bible, fate is not the fortune that the Greeks believed in, nor chance or destiny, or even the lot that the soldiers cast for the tunic of the crucified Christ. Instead, mikrè (fate), a very rare word in the Bible, is constituted by those events that may appear random or fortuitous to the protagonists of a story, but which, within the divine oikonomia, really are providence and a gaze of love. As if our life unfolded on two separate floors: what appears to us as mere chance is really there result of the lack of a broader vision, of a wide overview that only those on the top floor can see. Chance in the Bible is the name we give to events only because we lack the proper field of vision. Ruth only chooses to glean in one of the fields around Bethlehem, hoping to meet the benevolence of a landowner. She does not know that that field belongs to the man who will end up saving her from her poverty. She just wants to work for a living; she does not know or wish for anything else. And, as unknowing as she is, we watch her as she bends over the grain and uses her talent to glean to the best of her abilities.

The biblical author keeps us in this state of pedagogical ignorance and does not let us access the second floor, but keeps the perspective of the "upstairs room" to himself. He does so to preserve the rhythm of the narrative and the pathos of the plot, as well as to be faithful to the rules of the story and to life that always moves in the foreground of events. However, in revealing the existence of this second floor-level of truth, the Bible also provides us with a great and essential message: even if you do not have access to a higher perspective or overview, you must know that that higher gaze on life exists, mysterious and invisible, but it is there. It is the same gaze that observes the blackbirds sing in the woods at dawn, the eagles on the peaks, the fish in the depths of the sea, the stars in the galaxies, and which has accompanied the unfolding of creation over millions of years, when no other gaze rested on the waters of the universe. No grain in the cosmos is alone; no atom ever leaves the horizon of this gaze of love.

Every time that we immerse ourselves in the reading of the Bible, we become temporary tenants and guests of the second floor of the world, and from that terrace we are able the able to contemplate views that are shut to us in our homes. The Bible is the friend who welcomes and hosts us, every time we ask, in his house on the top floor, where we can contemplate the most breathtaking view of the city. And, every now and then, on particularly clear days, it shows us the flight of the eagles and the curves drawn in the water by the fish, making us feel the life in the very thrill of the entire universe, watching the birds in the woods, or at least hearing their song.

«Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!” “The Lord bless you!” they answered. Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”» (The Book of Ruth 2,4-5). Who does she belong to? This question was asked only with regards to women, children, animals or things. In fact, as the Decalogue also reminds us, women were among the things that belonged to males: «You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor» (Exodus 20,17). And so, a man makes his entry in a story that has hitherto been all female, thereby immediately taking us back to the patriarchal reality of that world. This possessive genitive (who’s is it?) speaks very loudly, and reintroduces us into the hierarchies, power, injustices and pain endured by the women of that culture and many others – back then, as well as in our day and age.

Boaz, the owner of the barley field, directs that question to a young man, a farmer, the superintendent of the workers. It is nice to read the good words with which that young steward introduces Ruth: «The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.  She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter”» (The Book of Ruth 2,6-7). The young farmer introduces Ruth with goodwill, and we readers are led to look at that young man with the same benevolence - the book of Ruth is traversed, from start to finish, by a positive kind of anthropology, by the good gazes of both women and men: an ode to human goodness. Part of the gift of youth is the gift of saying good things about others, having a confident gaze to offer upon others; cynicism, mistrust and backstabbing are largely vices of adult life and old age, which can degenerate into serious moral diseases if they are not fought with adequate energy in time. From the general tone of the young man's words we can discern a certain appraisal of Ruth’s solicitude, a hardworking woman, for her generous non-stop commitment (even if some interpret this verse as if Ruth had remained up all day waiting for Boaz, an unconvincing interpretation, although possible given the ambiguity of the text in Hebrew). It is also likely that Ruth asked the farmer for something unusual, that is, not to carry out the typical activity of gleaners, but to join the women (who were employed by the master) who immediately passed "after the reapers". In fact, the gleaners came third, that is, the very last ones, after the women-employees had passed, when there was not much left in the field to scrape together. Perhaps Ruth had asked to do something that went beyond the law of gleaning. That young man however, does not condemn her for her request.

The verb that the text uses to define the job of this young supervisor is "to stand above" (hannìtzav al) the workers. It is the same verb that Isaiah uses to describe the work of the sentry on the city walls, the gesture of the prophet: «I stand on the watchtower» (Isaiah 21,8). The Book of Ruth is largely composed of quotations, both direct and indirect, from other biblical books. Hence, it is a beautiful thing, and a plausible one, to imagine that the prophets are like that young superintendent: presenting us with good words when someone asks for news about us, semi-abusive gleaners in the fields of life. Because the prophet is also the one who "stands in the middle", a mediator who stands between us and God, speaking well of us to prepare the ground for our encounter.

«So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me"» (The Book of Ruth 2,8). These are the first words that Boaz addresses directly to Ruth, and they are good words. He is a man, wealthy, older ("my daughter"), a Jew; she is a woman, poor, young, a foreigner (Moabite). An asymmetrical encounter, which takes place in the fields of Boaz, where Ruth is twice the guest. This "superior" man immediately allows her to do what she asked the farmer if she could do: to skip a "rank" and join his women in following the reapers. However, unlike other workers, Ruth works for herself, she can take her harvest home with her, a harvest that will be much greater than that of a normal third-rate gleaner.

«Boaz, furthermore, protects her from male workers: «Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you» (The Book of Ruth 2,9). The harassment perpetrated by the men against the young female servants, especially the impoverished gleaners, must have been frequent and generally tolerated. The best portions of the fields for gleaning were bartered over through this kind of trade - and too often are still bartered over like this to this day. Boaz is well aware of this, and takes care to exempt Ruth from this abuse, an abuse that makes its appearance in several other parts of the book. Women's jobs have always been more difficult, for many reasons; among them, the exposure to harassment, perhaps the most humiliating added effort of all, which often leads them to never feel "at home" in male-dominated workplaces, sometimes having to leave them because of this lack of hospitality. Thus, in these words addressed by a man to other men, the Bible has continued for millennia to repeat to us males: "I have told the men not to lay a hand on you" - and for millennia, we continue not to listen.

Finally, Boaz offers Ruth a third gift, granting her another privilege: «And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled» (The Book of Ruth 2,9). From the Bible, in particular from Genesis, we know that when the water from a well finds itself between a man and a woman, wedding preparations are in the making. The symbols of the Bible are like slits on a higher and wider horizon that the authors draw for us while constructing their texts. Placing a well inside the first meeting with Boaz, the text then places Ruth, an impoverished foreigner, in continuity with Rebekah, Rachel, Zipporah (Moses' wife, Exodus 2,15-21), the mothers of Israel. She is unaware of this, but the one observing her from the upper floor knows that by choosing to glean in the field of Boaz "by chance", she was in fact entering the sacred history of Israel, she was making her entrance into the Gospels. («Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth» Matthew 1,5), he was becoming the protagonist of a love story that he was not aware of, but was in fact already acting in.

The meaning of that gleaning was revealed by David, grandson of Ruth, by Christ, descendant of David, and by every son and daughter who have since then continued - adding meaning to - these stories. In the Bible, what happens at a given moment must be read in the light of what happened before, preparing for it, and what will happen after, which will explain and accomplish it. As in life, where the full meaning of our love and our pain is prepared by our past and fulfilled in our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who thereby explain the mysteries hidden in the plots of our lives, seen from a wider perspective, which at the moment escapes us. Everything is connected; everything is grace, retroactive and prospective. «At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?”» (The Book of Ruth 2,10).

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