“Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab” (1795) by William Blake
Bo-oz was ancient, but a good man
and wealthy: kine far as eye can see;
goats galore; a decent chunk of arable
lowland made up the polity.
He meted justice in a trembly voice;
remembered birthdays and children’s names;
advanced overdue rental (once only)
but paid for festivals, for the wine and games.
His wives were modest and he married less
than custom or his temperament allowed.
Children and grandchildren thronged each tent,
punished only when they got too proud
to mingle with servants or lend a hand
with threshing and bread-making. He’d collect
tithes with a smile and a present. You treated God,
his children and his creation with respect.
Bo-oz was a river to his people. They
knew very well that their prosperity
and dull peaceful days were down to him.
His being so old caused private anxiety.
For Bo-oz had been a terror in his time
to anyone who threatened Bethlehem,
the Moabites chiefly. He marshalled guard
and fought in the front line and slaughtered them.
Rage has its purpose. Long years of peace
in Judah were founded on the sword.
Bo-oz roused had been fearful, also fearless.
Most of his children were conceived in blood
after a battle; never, it’s said, before-
Keep off the grass, keep away from the kine
and the womenfolk. Cower in your tents
before you covet what is God’s, and mine.
He got his way and life rolled along
in peace and fertility for a generation.
If he could only last the odds were good
for Bo-oz to turn his tribe into a nation.
But he was no longer strong and he was lonely.
Women still eyed him from behind their veils,
their young men grown too sluggish. Peace has its languor.
You need spunkier men because peace fails
in the end. Bo-oz’ best wife, the one who made
him laugh and most excited him,
left him for a pain about her breast
and all rejoicing to the Seraphim.
One summer, early in harvest time,
two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law,
wife of a dead son, both Moabites
fallen on hard times, knocked on his door.
Bo-oz had kept the peace but skirmishes
and border disputes often caused affray.
Naomi, though distantly related
to the great man, had lost both sons that way.
In hard times you must forget or bury
a bitter past. Naomi knew that widowed Ruth
had every prospect of remarrying
on enemy ground. That was the bitter truth.
She sent her daughter-in-law into the fields
to help with the harvest. She looked Bo-oz in the eye
and pleaded all the family connections.
Bo-oz was merciful. By-and-by,
inspecting his fields, he spotted the newcomer
gleaning his corn gracefully, yet with vim.
That night, for the first time in many years,
a wild erotic dream was granted him.
The girl whose oval face and silky eyes
suggested that she hailed from further north
than Moab, from the Damascenes perhaps,
came into his tent. She swore an oath
of fealty and forgiveness, absolute
as if before the Ark, yet with a smile
so welcoming his years all fell away
like bedclothes. Bo-oz rose and, for a while,
time was thrown off too; the harvest night
stayed as it was, day refused to dawn,
his sleeping wives stopped breathing. Then the roles
of petitioned and petitioner withdrawn,
justice and decency were cast aside
with custom and any sense of evil.
God himself withdrew, quite tactfully.
(Bo-oz had no concept of the devil).
But what of Ruth? She was used to being admired.
Gleaners had made their admiration plain
in minutes. She’d always known that power lay
best with women who would lie with men
at times of women’s choosing. Love, she knew,
had little to do with it; time everything
and touch: how you washed their feet and when
you fed their fancy. It helped if you could sing
softly to them also and recognise
the child within each man. Ruth’s soul was bound
in secret to one love and one love only:
a secret she meant to take into the ground
with her body and her beauty and her skill
at giving pleasure, and making sure.
Love worked best for woman among women;
Naomi was the one worth dying for.
Ruth loved Naomi: for herself or through the son;
in memory, in desire and for their plan
to thwart a partial god, who had done wrong
to both, by Ruth seducing an old man.
Only once had she given too much away.
‘Whither thou goest, I will go,’ she’d said
and ‘where thou diest, I will die.’ She knew
love is the only passport for the dead
to take into that vast eternity
you grasp by looking up at the night sky,
especially from desert to the south and east:
the wordless wastes that whispered Na-o-mi.
Back to the dream. Was it a dream? Or real?
Did a lovely girl, amid alien corn,
so catch the imagination of an old
warrior that from one night a king was born,
generations on, to build a land
whose history still shakes the world today?
People have painted Ruth, and written songs,
but the good book says she gave the babe away
to Naomi, to claim as her very own:
a son newborn to nurse on her own breast,
a gift of love from woman unto woman;
great Bo-oz a delivery boy, at best.
Naomi’s son was King David’s grandfather.
Ruth and Bo-oz soon disappear from view.
The stars illumine still the murderous wastes
and whisper where they go we will go too.