Image: Ruth 1:1 (Masoretic Text)

Above is the text of Ruth 1:1, as we look at the introduction to this fantastic book of the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish circles, people tend to call it Megillat Rut (מְגִלַּת רוּת), the “scroll of Ruth,” rather than the “book” of Ruth. This is because Ruth is written on a separate scroll that is publicly read during the holiday of Shavuot (חַג שָׁבוּעוֹת), just as Lamentations (אֵיכָה) is read during the night of Tisha Be’Av (ט׳ בְּאָב) to commemorate the two-time destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

For those who are interested in a linguistic treatment of the text, you will certainly be challenged by Robert D. Holmstedt’s Ruth: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2010). I recently purchased a copy, and it has renewed my passion for this book of the Bible.

The workbook to Karl Kutz and Rebecca Josberger’s Learning Biblical Hebrew: Reading for Comprehension (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019) contains the entire text of the book with vocabulary helps for beginning readers.

Let’s look at what’s contained in this first verse and break it down. I’d like to start this as a series.

Line 1 — Setting the Timeframe

וַיְהִ֗יWayyiqtol (vav-consecutive imperfect) 3ms of הָיָה. This is often used to simply open a past narrative section of text. Normally glossed as “and it was” or “and it happened,” it doesn’t necessarily need to be translated at all. It is generally represented by the overly repetitive phrase καὶ ἐγένετο in the Septuagint. It is formed by adding the wayyiqtol formative (וַ◌ּ) to an apocapated form of the imperfect 3ms of this verb. Third-Heh roots tend to lose their heh in jussive and wayyiqtol forms (the heh isn’t originally to these roots, anyway, given that they originally were third-yod roots). Anyway, the loss of heh normally creates the same pattern as segolate nouns, and that is what happens here, too. The yod ends up at the end of the word, and the syllables are rearranged to break up the unpronounceable combination (יִהְיֶה ← *יִהְי ← יְהִי). This is similar to what happens to third-yod segolate nouns (cp. כְּלִי and פְּרִי, which become כִּלְיוֹ “his instrument” and פִּרְיוֹ “his fruit” with suffixes). When you add the wayyiqtol prefix, you expect to get וַיְּהִי, but the yod loses dagesh because of what is affectionately called skinemlevy (the loss of dagesh forte in certain letters when followed by sheva).

בִּימֵי֙ — Preposition בְּ־ with the plural construct form of יוֹם. In the plural, יוֹם yôm becomes יָמִים yāmîm, and in the construct, the accent shifts to the next word (theoretically), causing the propretonic syllable to reduce to sheva (יָמִים ← *יָמֵי ← יְמֵי־◌֫). When the preposition is added, the yod with sheva combines with the previous sheva to form chirik-yod (*בְּ+יְמֵי־◌֫ ← *בִּיְמֵי־◌֫ ← בִּימֵי־◌֫). Altogether, it means “in the days of,” anticipating a noun phrase (NP) of some kind to follow.

שְׁפֹ֣ט — Infinitive construct of שָׁפַט. To make a verb function as a noun, you use a gerund in English. The gerund ends in -ing and occupies any place where a noun would be. For example, I enjoy running. Here running serves as the direct object of the verb enjoy. You can place any noun or gerund there, such that you can change it to I enjoy pizza or I enjoy watching movies. Any verb you place there, however, must be suffixed with -ing. To place a verb after a preposition in Hebrew, you must use the infinitive construct. Here it is added to the construct noun יְמֵי and means “the days of judging,” which is preceded by the preposition בְּ־. Notice the specially meaning of the word “judge” here, as it doesn’t mean “deciding legal disputes” but rather “ruling.”

הַשֹּֽׁפְטִ֔ים — The preceding infinitive construct is joined to this word, which is its subject. Together, the whole phrase means “and it happened in the days of the judging of the judges.” Colloquially, we can drop the “and it happened” and write it as “in the days when the judges were ruling.” Given that we aren’t really talking about judges (those who decide legal cases), Holmstedt suggests that we understand it to mean something like “chieftains.”

וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵי֙ שְׁפֹ֣ט הַשֹּֽׁפְטִ֔ים — This is one whole phrase with the accents. The first word (וַיְהִ֗י) bears the revi’i accent, which is a disjunctive, but it still leads into the next accent phrase. The second three words (בִּימֵי֙ שְׁפֹ֣ט הַשֹּֽׁפְטִ֔ים) are joined in a qaton phrase. The accents are pashtamunach, and zaqef katon, which are a single joined string. Together, this phrase establishes the time in which the events in the book are said to have taken place, during the time of the judges (between the time of the Conquest under Joshua and the installation of Israel’s first king, Saul).

Line 2 — Impetus for Yeridah

The city of Jerusalem is built on hills. Whenever the priests would make their way to and up Mount Zion to offer services in the Temple, they would sing songs of ascent. Immigrating into Israel is referred to as “ascending” or “going up” (עֲלִיָּה), whereas leaving Israel is consider the opposite: “descending” or “going down” (יְרִידָה). This took on spiritual meaning for Jews throughout the generations, since it is preferable to live in the Holy Land where all of the commandments of the Torah were intended to be kept. Since the Babylonian Exile and the diaspora caused by the war with Rome, it has been the aspiration of the Jewish people to go up to the land (לַעֲלוֹת אֶל־הָאָ֫רֶץ). The tragedy of famine in the land, however, causes people throughout the biblical story to need to leave the land in search of metaphorical and literal greener pastures, as we have happen here with Elimelech and his family. We can refer to this as Elimelech’s yeridah from the land of Israel.

וַיְהִ֗י — The following phrase (רָעָב בָּאָ֫רֶץ) could be a verbless sentence (“null copula”), so the וַיְהִי here is functioning as a real verb and not like the one in the first line. It recalls the events that led up to the Exodus, where we are told that Joseph’s brothers were forced to leave Canaan and go to Egypt in order to purchase food as a result of famine in the land of Canaan (כִּי־כָבֵד הָֽרָעָב בְּאֶ֫רֶץ כְּנָ֫עַן [Gen 47:4]). The verb here means “there was.” It is masculine singular in agreement with the gender and number of רָעָב. The word order (wa + verb + subject) is inversion caused by the wa– element of the wayyiqtol, which is always joined to the verb.

רָעָ֖ב — Masculine singular noun, subject of וַיְהִי. It’s related to the adjective רָעֵב, רְעֵבָה “hungry.” The noun can be used to mean either “hunger” in a general sense or “famine,” the extreme side of hunger caused by the lack of available food.

בָּאָ֑רֶץ — Adverbial preposition, telling us where the famine was taking place. When הָאָ֫רֶץ appears without any modifier, it either refers to the earth (as in Gen 1:1) or to the land of Israel. In this case, it is Israel. This is composed of בְּ־ “in” and הָאָ֫רֶץ “the land,” which is definite. Notice that the article is subsumed below the preposition (*בְּ+הָ+אֶ֫רֶץ ← *בְּ+הָאָ֫רֶץ ← *בְּהָאָ֫רֶץ ← בָּאָ֫רֶץ).

וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ — The trope for this sentence is called an etnachta phrase. It is composed of mercha, tipcha, and etnachta. Altogether, it means “and there was famine in the land.”

Line 3 — The Yeridah

וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ — Wayyiqtol 3ms of הָלַךְ. We must remember that this root behaves like a first-yod verb in the imperfect and infinitive in the qal. It drops the first radical and forms all of its parts with only lamed and kaf. To see that the heh is missing, we should think of the 2ms imperfect forms. תֵּלֵךְ is “you will/should go,” which looks exactly like words like תֵּשֵׁב “you will/should dwell” (from יָשַׁב) and תֵּצֵא “you will/should go out” (from יָצָא). The infinitive adds tav and takes the form of a segolate (לָלֶ֫כֶת “to go,” לָשֶׁ֫בֶת “to dwell,” and לָצֵאת “to go out” [from a hypothetical *לָצֶ֫אֶת]). This verb is normally given prepositional phrases to tell where you go to or from. It can also be followed by a locative form (such as הָעִ֫ירָה “to the city”).

אִ֜ישׁ — Masculine singular noun. In the plural, אֲנָשִׁים means “people” generally, including women. In this case, it should be understood as a “man,” since we will immediately run into the phrase אִשְׁתּוֹ “his wife” (in line 5). Sometimes you will see it in phrases like אִישׁ לֹא יָדַע for “no one knew” (lit., “a man did not know”) and הוּא לֹא סִפֵּר לְאִישׁ “he told no one” (lit., “he did not tell to a man”) to refer to anyone at all, in which case gender is not specifically implied. It could refer to any person, whether male or female.

מִבֵּ֧ית לֶ֣חֶם — This is a combination of the preposition מִן “from” attached to a word by assimilation of the nun (מִן־בֵּית לֶ֫חֶם ← *מִנְבֵּית לֶ֫חֶם ← *מִבְּבֵּית לֶ֫חֶם ← מִבֵּית לֶ֫חֶם). The word בֵּית לֶ֫חֶם is the name of a city not far from Jerusalem. It is the city in which King David lived and grew, and it is claimed to be the place of Jesus’s birth. Literally, it means “house of bread,” but it is just a place name (toponym).

יְהוּדָ֗ה — Judah is the tribal region in which Bethlehem is found (as well as Jerusalem). It is from Judah that David came, and through him all the regal line of ancient Israel.

וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ אִ֜ישׁ מִבֵּ֧ית לֶ֣חֶם יְהוּדָ֗ה — The first two words are joined together in the trope with kadmah and azlah (וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ אִ֜ישׁ) as a subject-verb pair. Again, the word order is caused by inversion because of the joining of the wa– to the verb, not allowing for the subject to appear first. The last three words are joined in a revi’i clause that includes darga and munach accents. Holmstedt remarks that the inclusion of Judah is to indicate which Bethlehem is in question, supposing that there may have been (an)other Bethlehem(s) in the awareness of the readers. He also rightly concludes that it is telling where the man is from (“a man from Bethlehem of Judah”) rather than where he went from (“he went… from Bethlehem of Judah”). It’s about identifying the man as a Bethlehemite rather than about saying that he was specifically in that city when he left for Moab.


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