The present subject matter is an investigation and interpretation of a biblical book in the light of Jungian psychology. I hope to show its findings to be pertinent to the theme of the fate and role of the feminine.
It is no disparagement of the Holy Writ to read it with psychological understanding. Many biblical texts reveal unsuspected dimensions when approached with modern psychological insight. Jung wrote: "We must read the Bible or we shall not understand psychology." One such text is the Book of Ruth, which has engaged the interest of laymen and scholars throughout the ages right up to the present. Reading the Book of Ruth in this light, and in its original context, reveals a process remarkably appropriate to the modern view of the place of woman, and of the feminine principle itself.
The original version of this work, printed as "A Contribution to the Study of the Feminine Principle in the Old Testament," was stimulated by a series of lectures by Rivkah Schärf on "Women in the Old Testament" .
In the numerous commentaries, the only point on which all agree is the beauty of the story and of its literary style. Goethe's remark referring to it as "the loveliest little epic and idyllic whole which has come down to us," is frequently quoted. True as this may be, it is certain that the book was not included in the Canon merely because of its literary merit. Some scholars, find more or less apparent mythological motifs in the story, and deny it any historical validity. Others, point out the essential harmony of the story with the historical time it portrays, and see no reason for the Hebrews to invent a despised heathen ancestry for David, founder of the royal line, and deny it mythological significance.
Historical and archeological investigations indicate the universality of mythical motifs from prehistoric times onwards. Mythological motifs are, as Jung has demonstrated, symbolical expressions of basic forces of psychic life. He called these forces archetypes. "The essential content of all mythologies and all religions and all isms is archetypal." (CW8, para 406) Archetypes are the innate basic contents of the unconscious, the "universal, formative patterns of potential behavior and meaning-making (which) pulse beneath the surface of consciousness."
Today it is no longer necessary to insist on the profound rôle of the unconscious. Insofar as there is any developmental tendency or urge in the life of man, we find it expressed in (if not indeed induced by) his unconscious processes. We observe this in the individual in his dreams - and in a people, in their myths and legends. These portray not only universal patterns of human behavior, but a direction, even a goal, toward which man seems to be impelled, pushed or led. The study of myths, fairy tales, and dreams, all of which contain archetypal images, indicate a direction toward the development of a fuller consciousness, (not without dangers, reversals and setbacks) The goal is an integration of psychic contents directed toward a presumable attainment of ultimate wholeness. The study of history also shows a similar striving toward a desired goal. The least we can say is that psychic and objective events stand in some relationship to each other.
History and mythology are not always so clearly separable. A biblical figure or event may be a historical fact, or a mythological motif - which is a psychic fact no less real than a historical one - or it may be an actual person or occurrence around which, in the course of time, mythological or legendary qualities grow. This can happen when the event particularly fits or expresses an archetypal theme. We might even say that the archetype "expressed itself" in the individual or event. Archetypes not only influence man's actions, but may take over the whole man or situation. "Perhaps," in Jung's words, "we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit - a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but an Ergreiffer (one who seizes)." (CW10, para 386) In such a case it is the archetype itself which is lived, in which case history and mythology are virtually identical.
That a people was freed from bondage by a God Who, appearing to them in flame and smoke, gave them a new law and led them through a dangerous wilderness to a land flowing with milk and honey, is a myth. But that the Hebrews who had been slaves in Egypt came thence through a desert into a fertile land, bringing with them, under Moses' guidance, a new spiritual religion, is history.
That David was a king in Israel, founder of the royal line; that he extended the borders of the country, pushing back the powerful Philistines; that over thousands of years, for millions of people he was and is considered the forerunner of the Messiah, is historical fact. That David, a boy hero, slew the Philistine giant Goliath; that a divine redeemer would spring from his seed, is myth.
In a biblical story historical and mythological elements may be interwoven, yet neither need invalidate the other. Both may contribute to the same psychological truth. Archetypes can manifest themselves historically, or differently put, we might even say that history is, by and large, the manifestation of archetypes.
Through changes in history, changes in beliefs, attitudes, values, we may glimpse the change in the development of archetypal images. These images come into being due to the interaction between the conscious and the unconscious - a development which alone can make history, and our own share in it, meaningful.
It is through an examination of its archetypal configuration that we shall attempt to understand the story of Ruth. To this end we will view it as a myth, i.e., a psychic representation. We shall take cognizance of its psychic and historical context (the Bible and the Hebrews), and its relation to myths of the surrounding peoples. To help us penetrate to its psychological meaning, we will also take into account the legends which later attached to it, since these may be considered to constitute a "commentary by the psyche of a people." The psyche is understood as including both conscious and unconscious processes.
I believe that this examination of the Book of Ruth from a psychological, mythical perspective, reveals an unsuspected dimension of this beautiful and popular book.
Chapter 1. Because of a famine in the land of Judah, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Bethlehem and go to Moab. There Elimelech dies. HIs sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. After about ten years the sons also die. Having heard of the cessation of the famine, Naomi sets out for Bethlehem, her daughters-in-law accompanying her. She urges them to turn back to their people where they might yet find husbands, for she could offer them no such hope. After tearful protestations, Orpah turns back, but Ruth cleaves to Naomi. The two women arrive at Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Naomi complains to the women of the city, who are surprised to see her, of the bitterness of her loss.
Chapter 2. Ruth sets out to glean and arrives by chance on the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech. On coming to his field, Boaz inquires about her. He treats her with great kindness, urges her to remain on his field only, invites her to eat at mealtime, and instructs his workers to leave rich gleaning for her. Returning home well supplied, she tells her mother-in-law of her experiences. Naomi informs her that Boaz is one of their redeeming kinsmen, and that she should continue gleaning on his field, which Ruth does to the end of the harvest, dwelling with her mother-in-law.
Chapter 3. Naomi, concerned for Ruth's welfare, instructs her to wash, anoint and dress herself, and go to the threshing floor where Boaz is winnowing that night; to remain hidden, and marking where he lies down after eating and drinking, to uncover his feet, lie down, and follow his instructions. Boaz awakens at midnight to find Ruth there. She asks him to marry her in accordance with his obligation as a redeeming kinsman. He blesses her that she did "not turn to younger men," and promises her to fulfill her request provided a nearer kinsman, with a prior right, does not exercise it. He sends her away before dawn with a gift of barley for Naomi, who advises Ruth to sit still "... for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today."
Chapter 4. At the city gate, in the presence of ten elders, Boaz asks the nearer kinsman if he is ready to redeem the land of Elimelech by buying it from Naomi. He says yes. Boaz then raises the related duty of marrying Ruth "to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his estate," whereupon the nearer kinsman relinquishes his rights to Boaz, who calls the people to witness his purchase of the land and marriage to Ruth. The people bless Boaz and Ruth, invoking the names of Rachel and Leah, the matriarchs of Israel, and of Tamar and Judah, the parents of Perez. A son is born of their union, at which the women congratulate Naomi, who becomes nurse to him. They name him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David. A genealogy from Perez to David closes the book.
It is not self-evident from a cursory reading of the Book of Ruth that the story may be seen as a myth, but let us look at it a bit more closely. Throughout the ancient world, from Babylonia to Rome, there are to be found a number of myths in which the theme of the annual decay and revival of vegetation is readily discernible; which is not to say that they are merely allegories of the seasonal occurrences. "... the psyche ... mirrors our empirical world only in part ... The archetype ... describes how the psyche experiences the physical fact." (CW 9i, para 260) Such, for example are the so-called seasonal myths about Tammuz and Ishtar, Attis and Kybele, Adonis and Astarte, Osiris and Isis, and Demeter and Persephone. They, and the seasonal rituals which accompany them, adhere to a basic pattern, as Theodore Gaster has demonstrated. They "fall into two clear divisions of Kenosis, or Emptying, and Plerosis, or Filling, the former representing the evacuation of life, the latter its replenishment." This is clearly the case also in the Book of Ruth, which opens with famine and death, and closes with harvest and birth.
The Book of Ruth is radically different from the typical Tammuz-Adonis-Osiris type of myth, but we can easily find traces of the typical pattern. This is not to say that "Ruth" was derived from these myths, but it does hint at a common archetypal ancestry. The comparable features permit us, via the outspoken myths, to delineate the common archetypal (i.e., mythical) pattern of our story.
It is at once apparent that "Ruth" is no mere variation of seasonal myths, no more than the Hebrew religion was merely a variation of the surrounding pagan religions. But just as the biblical story of the flood, which contains motifs also present in an earlier Sumerian myth, is transformed in a manner reflecting the Hebrew religious genius and representing a further spiritual development, just so the Ruth story has its clear affinity with pagan mythology. In the course of this presentation some of these connections will be brought out more clearly. The foregoing was to indicate that, transformed in content though it be, "Ruth" adheres in general lines to a basic mythological pattern. Like all myths, it is an archetypal expression, more or less complete, of a process in the collective unconscious. To see what this process is, let us look at the story more closely.