“She came stealthily and uncovered his feet”—“Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter”

What would happen if Ruth and Esther could leave their megillot, two scrolls rooted in different worldviews and different times, and meet on the road between Persia and Bethlehem? Dr. Orit Avnery invites us to imaginary meeting between Ruth and Esther

What would happen if Ruth and Esther could leave their megillot, two scrolls rooted in different worldviews and different times, and meet on the road between Persia and Bethlehem? What would the two women tell each other about the challenges that stood before them, about their relationships with the other characters that surrounded them, about the men who occupied their worlds? What would they say about their lives as foreign women in an unfamiliar environment, the emotional strength they needed to take action and rise to the challenges of their realities, about their sense—of achievement as well as exclusion—at the end of the road, and their place in the story of the Jewish people? What would Esther and Ruth find in each other’s eyes, how many differences and how many similarities would they share? What could each of these women learn personally through the reflection she might see of herself in the other? And what would each take back on her return, one to the palace in Shushan and the other to her home in Bethlehem?

This literary, imaginary meeting between two of the most fascinating and unique characters, whose experiences range from ones of vulnerability and fragility to determination and inner-strength, contains great potential to open discussions that will shed new light on both stories. A comparative reading between them can build an extra dimension to the megillot themselves, the individual journeys of their heroines, and what is left to each of these women in the end.

The megillot of Ruth and Esther, true to their dramatic genre, paint pictures in which the reader feels the tension that accompanies the actions of the heroines; you can almost hear the beating of their hearts. Both books touch on the issue of the foreigner, the other. The third chapter in the Book of Ruth describes an encounter between Ruth, the foreign Moabite woman, and Boaz, a man who represents the central core of Judaen society in Bethlehem. The fifth chapter in the Book of Esther describes how Esther, a Jewish and foreign woman, enters the home of Ahasueros, the Persian king and controller of a mighty empire in which Jews live as a minority. The two encounters are therefore meetings between extremes—the moment in the plot when forces on opposing sides face each other: the woman and the man, the Jew and the non-Jew, the periphery and the center, the marginal and the esteemed. These are seminal moments with the potential to catch fire, filled with the power to destroy the heroine and the mission for which she came.

In each of the megillot, the men are the key to solving the crises our heroines face, hurdles that she cannot successfully overcome alone. Esther cannot save her people without the help of Ahasueros, and Ruth cannot start a family without the aid of Boaz. Another thread that links the two texts is that, although the main interactions occur between a man and a woman, the woman’s love and loyalty are connected to a character offstage. Esther’s walk to Ahasueros proves her loyalty to Mordechai, and how responsive she is to his requests of her. In the story of Ruth, her walk to the barn demonstrates her love and commitment to Naomi. Ruth is ready to take a risk, to embark on an adventure with an unknown end, in order to solidify the name of the deceased and continue Naomi’s line through her offspring. During these potentially risky encounters, neither heroine blames the man who will be her savior for the injustice of her situation, but rather she seeks his compassion and leniency. Esther is careful not to fault the king, not even for his decree against her people (an order for which he was probably not directly responsible). Ruth is careful not to ask Boaz why he did not fulfill all his duties, but rather seeks future redemption.

Another major theme present in both encounters is that the heroine approaches the man after a long period of separation. The last meeting described between Esther and the king was at the time of their wedding, and she testifies to Mordechai that she hasn’t seen Ahasueros for thirty days. Similarly, Ruth turns to Boaz after a considerable amount of time has elapsed since their last meeting. That previous interaction is described in the beginning of chapter 2 as taking place at the beginning of the barley harvest, and the end of the chapter reads, “She stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished” (2:23). It seems that during the harvest seasons of both barley and wheat, Ruth and Boaz did not meet, until their encounter at night on the threshing floor.

Parenthetically, we note another similarity between the two megillot: the second encounter proceeds unlike previous ones described between the men and the women. Thus, in the Book of Ruth, the second encounter (on the threshing floor) takes place at night under the cover of darkness, and in an intimate fashion. This stands in contrast to the first meeting, which took place in an open field for all to see. In the Book of Esther, the second meetings (chapter 5) occurs publicly, in contrast to the first meeting that took place at night (“she would go in the evening and leave in the morning”), with private intimacy.

We return to comparing the two encounters described in the megillot. There are additional details the reader can employ to build his or her commentary regarding the meaning of the encounters (Ruth ch. 3, Esther ch. 5): on both occasions the woman is in danger because she does not know how the man she is approaching will respond, and so the heroine stands ready to react to her surroundings.

In both cases, perhaps because of the danger, perhaps due to a sense of responsibility, the heroine receives detailed instructions from another character that serves as her closest ally and advisor. Nevertheless, both Ruth and Esther initiate actions that are slightly different from, and more sophisticated than, what was told to them. Along this line, in the Book of Esther, Mordechai instructs Esther, “to go to the king and to appeal to him and to plead with him for her people” (4:8). Esther obeys regarding the purpose of the operation, but as to how the action is taken, she follows a different path—not crying or pleading, but rather compiling and displaying her authority. This is also the case in the Book of Ruth; Naomi guides Ruth in how to prepare for an encounter with Boaz, to transfer control to him afterward, at which point he will tell her what to do. But Ruth acts differently, and tells Boaz explicitly what she requests of him, “Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (3:9). This inversion of the words Naomi spoke is prominent because Boaz himself says to Ruth, “Everything that you will say, I will do for you” (3:11).

These women are not only given instructions regarding content; the megillot describe the preparations that proceed the two significant encounters. Esther requests a gathering of the nation, she fasts and dresses as a queen; Ruth washes, puts on oil and changes her skirts.

The multiple methods of preparation, the instructions given to the heroines, and the sense of danger that hovers in the air all contribute to the construction of the moment that brings together not just two solitary figures, but two symbolic identities, two entities, and makes their actions and processes much more significant. In addition, in order to enhance the tension, neither scroll provides an immediate resolution to its crisis; rather, we much wait a period of time until it is solved. Esther invites Ahasueros to a banquet to be held later that day, and further, this invitation is only a supplementary request. Even after two feasts there is still not a comprehensive solution to the problem, and only bringing Mordechai before the king and entreating him further causes the declaration to be written that serves as the solution to the fearful death that hovered over the heads of the Jews. In the Book of Ruth, Ruth must wait until morning, and further she must wait until Boaz goes to the city gate with his plan in order to reach a desirable solution for all parties.

Another difficulty mentioned in the two stories that increases the sense of crisis is that the distress the heroines are under cannot be solved in a simple manner; a strict legal procedure confronts the characters as they try to work.

All the details we have raised so far point to a similar picture and a similar trend: an empowered heroine who faces a decisive moment. In this proposed reading, at the peak moment in the plot, there is friction that occurs in a confrontation between two sides, a conflict that will determine the fate of the heroine. The tension between the majority group (represented by Boaz in the Book of Ruth and Ahasueros in the Book of Esther) and the minority group (represented by Ruth in the Book of Ruth, the Moabite woman, and by Esther in the Book of Esther, the Jewish woman) intertwines the two megillot as they arrive at their climactic scenes.

The key interactions depend on how gender relations and existing gender norms are recognized in text; in both images, even though the woman initiates the encounter, she draws near to the man and waits to be noticed before beginning to speak. Queen Esther stands in the king’s internal court and waits for him to affirm her desire to approach, “As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor. The king extended to Esther the golden scepter which he had in his hand, an Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter” (5:2-3). In the same way, Ruth waited until “the middle of the night, the man gave a start and pulled back—there was a woman lying at his feet” (3:8-9).

Alongside the similarities discussed, there is also a reversal of details that contributes to the connection between the megillot, and even intensifies it: in the Book of Ruth, Ruth goes out to the barn, a place that is considered dubious and breached (a double meaning) to each person, while Esther goes and enters somewhere central and very private in the royal palace, the inner kingdom. Continuing this trend, Ruth enters the barn and lays down (an expression suggesting an intimate encounter); Esther, however, stands before Ahasueros.

So, although both women prepare for a fateful encounter with a man, an interaction that will impact the entire course of their lives, Ruth’s preparations are designed for an encounter of closeness (washing and lubrication, preparations specifically like the picture painted of the women preparing for their night with Ahasueros in chapter 2 of the Book of Esther), while Esther is running in a different direction. She wears clothes that show splendor and are not necessarily especially seductive, feminine or appealing, but are indicative of her status and command respect and authority.

One can also say that the characteristics of the encounter in the Book of Ruth—night, going out to the threshing floor, lying at the feet of a man and preparations for intimacy—seem more appropriate for the atmosphere created in the Book of Esther, as they relate to the mystery, temptation and erotic motifs found in that megillah. Similarly, the characteristics that appear in the interaction between Esther and Ahasueros—daytime, entering the room, standing before the man and dressing in regal clothing—seem more suited to the Book of Ruth and the restrained, plain, even more modest motifs found in that megillah. Add to this that Ruth goes to Boaz after he eats and drinks. The effect of the wine is substantial, and it allows Ruth to approach Boaz and uncover his feet without him awakening and noticing her, until the middle of the night. In the Book of Esther, however, it seems Esther’s arrival to the royal court happens at one of the few moments in the megillah when the king is sober and not under the influence of wine. The king fully understands what is being asked of him, and he feels enough tension and curiosity to ask Esther at the banquet itself to request what she really wants. That completed, and only after the encounter, the king drinks wine in Esther’s company.

Reading and comparing between these two megillot, the images create a sense that the women were exchanged at some point; what is described in Ruth is appropriate for the nature of the Book of Esther, and the descriptions of Esther correspond more with the atmosphere of the Book of Ruth. I want to learn from this inversion that each one of the megillot is more complicated than it seems at first. Ruth’s character and the whole atmosphere of the book need clarity and precision. The same is true for the character of Esther and the nature of her scroll. The phenomenon uncovered here, that at the climactic moment of the text the heroines behave in ways that are unexpected based on the themes presented in the narrative spaces in which they operate, illuminates the need to listen better and build more complex understandings of our female characters and their modes of action.

Moreover, these deviations from the opening lines of the megillot occur at the moment when a man representing the majority group turns to the heroine, indicating the relations between these two groups is more complex and multifaceted than initially observed. Relations to the other include different and even contradictory feelings—detachment and alienation, but also passion and curiosity. It is my hope that we read the scrolls in a multi-dimensional way, open to the ambiguities they present regarding the relationship to the other. Connected to this is the challenge facing the Jewish people as we continue to create identity in a changing reality—as a majority relating to minority populations in the land, as described by the book of Ruth, and as a minority in foreign countries relating to the ruling majority, as described in the Book of Esther.