• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, October 23, 2007

    Euphemism and Counter- Euphemism in The Story of Ruth

    As part of last nights' Through the Bible in Five and a Half Years session on Ruth we looked at 3 different film portrayals of Ruth, the version that was part of the Testament series, Henry Koster's The Story of Ruth and Amos Gitai's Golem:Spirit of Exile which I hope to write about shortly.

    One subject that we dwelt on perhaps a little more than was ideal was the issue of euphemism in Ruth 3. I've long heard it said that when Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz's "feet", she actually means his genitals. There's debate about it, but it remains a possibility. Some of the discussion last night revolved around whether or not, if true, this act would necessarily be sexual. In our culture it's hard not to read it that way, but it's possible that in other cultures, this may not be so. For example in some cultures today it is the norm to walk around with genitals exposed.

    Against this backdrop, the closing segment of The Story of Ruth is particularly interesting. Given it was made in 1960, it's no surprise that it doesn't offer the euphemistic interpretation, but even more surprising is that rather than playing it entirely literally, any hint of sexual behaviour is purged. So, in fact, Ruth doesn't even lie down, or touch his garment. Instead they sit together very briefly before Boaz sends he on her way.In the closing sequence, this episode is referred to again, and it is this, rather than issues of inheritance, which settles the issue of who will marry Ruth, Boaz or Tob (the closer kinsman). As part of his wedding speech Tob gives Ruth the chance to speak. Whilst she vocalises her agreement to the marriage she also declares that she doesn't love Tob, and in the spirit of "truthfulness" tells him that he should know that she "sought out Boaz on the threshing room floor".

    Tob takes this as evidence that she has been unfaithful, and calls the wedding off leaving Boaz to claim her hand in marriage before explaining to the elders that "nothing passed between us on that night except spoken words of love". This is all very interesting, both in terms of what it says about the sexual standards of America in 1960, and about the way euphemism is treated.

    Firstly, putting the feet euphemism aside, the film clearly considers it's heroine too chaste to have her lie down with a man. Societies standards may have been based on the Bible, but at that stage they had clearly advanced such that the implicitly commended behaviour of its heroines was still not good enough.The second point is more interesting. In saying "I sought out Boaz" and nothing more, Ruth's deliberate ambiguity acts as a kind of counter euphemism. Certainly Tob takes her phrase euphemistically (as an admission of an inappropriate act that compromises their proposed marriage) whereas the truth is that the phrase should be taken literally. Ruth use of this phrase seems to be to deliberately send out the wrong message as a last ditch attempt to marry Boaz. This contrasts strongly with the biblical account whereby the original may have suggested (what we would consider?) a sexual act, but then introduces a euphemism to cover up that particular meaning, leaving readers today to understand the description literally.

    Two short additional point of interest. When Boaz seeks to clear things up with the elders his insistence that "nothing passed between us" is somewhat economical with the truth, because Ruth and Boaz did kiss at that point. Secondly, I can't help wondering when watching this scene what Tob's reaction would have been to this final revelation. Did he feel tricked, or was he still glad to have let Boaz marry Ruth?

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