Food, festivals and the book of Ruth
1st September 2022
In modern societies, many of us are distanced from the actual production of our food. But this is a strictly modern phenomenon. In ancient Israel, agriculture was a core aspect of daily life.
Because of this, the rhythms of sowing, reaping, fasting and feasting shape many of our biblical texts, though we may not always be attuned to it. When we become more aware of these patterns, we become better readers and interpreters of Scripture.
Israel’s agrarian festivals
Take, for example, the festivals God commanded Israel to observe. Within the Old Testament, the Festival of ‘Weeks’ (Shavuot) was one of three annual festivals—Passover (Pesakh), Weeks (Shavuot), Booths (Sukkoth)—where Israelite families would travel to the central worship site in Jerusalem. In the case of the Festivals of Weeks and Booths, they would bring with them the bounty of their agricultural harvests to rejoice before the LORD (Deuteronomy 16:1-16; Exodus 23:14-17, 34:22-23).
The timing of the Festival of Weeks was seven ‘weeks’ after Passover and celebrated the bringing in of the wheat harvest, the later of the two main cereal crops grown in ancient Israel (barley and wheat). Deuteronomy 16:9-10 says: ‘You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you.’ By the eighth century AD, the book of Ruth became associated with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and continues to be read during synagogue celebrations on this day. Although the practice of reading the book of Ruth developed independently of the agricultural festival that was originally the basis of the festival day, one can’t miss the central role that the early-summer harvest of wheat (and barley) plays in the storyline.
How food frames the book of Ruth
Within this short book, food production, distribution, and consumption provide the contextual frame for much of the action in the storyline. It is ‘a famine in the land’ that forces Elimelech and his family to leave their home in Judah for the fields of Moab (1:1) and it is God restoring food production in Judah that initiates the return of Naomi and Ruth (1:6). For most of chapter two, Ruth is gleaning in the barley and wheat fields of Boaz, and it is in these fields that Ruth is invited by Boaz to a meal (2:14). Much of chapter three takes place at the community threshing site for grain. And chapter four opens with the transaction over Elimelech’s fields at the city gate (4:1-12). This is a tale that takes place in the context of food, moving from farm to table and back again.
Food language in Ruth
While various ‘arenas of food’ frame the plotline of the book of Ruth, it is the ‘language of food’ which gives us insight into the lives of its main characters. Food’s multiple aspects—its physical, social, sensory, locational, and patterned dimensions—make it a ready language to describe the complexity of human emotions and social encounters. Within the book of Ruth, each of these dimensions is used for literary and rhetorical effect.
The physical dimension of food is easy enough to recognise. In ancient times as in modern life, access to food is a matter of life and death. The book of Ruth begins: ‘In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.’ (1:1). In Hebrew, the word ‘Bethlehem’ literally means the ‘House’ (beth) of ‘Bread’ (lekhem). In an ironic reversal, the ‘House of Bread’ in God’s promised land is empty while the ‘fields’ (a literal translation of what the ESV translates as ‘country’) of Israel’s historic enemy Moab are full. In the book of Ruth, the land itself becomes a vital character in the storyline.
Food’s social dimension is rooted in the communal nature of food consumption. Chapter two presents a beautiful scene of fellowship as Boaz serves Ruth at a meal in the fields. ‘And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over’ (2:14). Notice that Ruth joins fully in this meal, dipping her piece of the community bread into the common vessel of wine. By inviting her to this meal, Boaz offers Ruth a welcome into community, a radical reversal of the historical ban on fellowship with Moabites (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-6).
Food also has a sensory dimension—it involves taste and experience and is a key sense associated with perception. Naomi takes on the nickname ‘bitter’ to describe herself, a word from the language of food (1:20; cf. Isaiah 24:9). At the meal in Boaz’s field, Ruth ‘ate until she was satisfied’ (2:14). This phrase ‘eat and be satisfied’ also appears in Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:12 to speak of the intended purpose of Israel’s tithe, the blessing of widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst. Through the abundance of this meal, the spirit of this legislation becomes a lived reality.
Food’s locational dimension draws on the regional nature of food production and the associated issues of access and availability of foodstuffs. Surprisingly, we get an ingredient list for this meal in the field (2:14): bread, sour-wine for dipping, and roasted grain. This is a substantial meal in and of itself, and a meal that drew from ingredients grown in the area around Bethlehem. When one considers that the book of Ruth opens with an announcement of a famine in these same fields, the statement that Ruth ‘ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over’ is a powerful example of the author’s use of situational reversal.
The patterned dimension of food is seen particularly in activities associated with food production, in this case the seasonal cycles of agriculture. We find that the book of Ruth actually ‘tells time’ based on these cycles. At the end of chapter one, the narrator notes that Naomi and Ruth ‘came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest’ (1:22). This would have been in late March or April. Chapter two concludes by telling us that Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz ‘until the end of the barley and wheat harvests’ which would be during the month of May. According to Deuteronomy 16:9-10, this interval reflects the seven ‘weeks’ between Passover and the Festival of Weeks. When Ruth approaches Boaz at the threshing floor sometime after the conclusion of the cereal harvest, the couple would have actually known each other for quite some time.
So how does this awareness of food help us become better readers and interpreters of texts? In the book of Ruth, we find that God’s message to Israel was in fact a message deeply rooted in life in the land. Only twice in the narrative does the biblical writer attribute an action directly to God. We read that God ‘gave’ bread to his people (1:6) and that God ‘gave’ conception to Ruth and she bears a child (4:13). These two acts of fertility—of land and womb—are interconnected in this beautiful story of restoration. In addition, we find that each of these divine ‘gifts’ sparked human generosity that served to bless and bring hope to others. Boaz responds to God’s gift of agricultural bounty by blessing Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi with abundant food provisions (2:15-18, 3:15-17). Through God’s gift of a newborn to Ruth and Boaz, blessing overflows onto the lap of Naomi, as the women of the town announce, ‘A son has been born to Naomi!’, a reference to baby Obed cradled there (4:16-17).
The book of Ruth offers a beautiful picture of the power of food in the biblical text. This book, which is read in synagogues every summer at Shavuot, reminds us that food has a story to tell, if we can just stop to savour its message. For here in the book of Ruth, we are invited to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8).