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In the well-known story of Ruth, the eponymous character (Ruth!) is daughter-in-law to Naomi. As the story progresses, Naomi comes to believe that Ruth has a chance of finding "security" with Boaz, a kinsman. A night-time rendezvous is planned, and the encounter is favourable (see Ruth 3 for the story).

On Ruth's return the next morning, Naomi -- Ruth's mother-in-law -- greets her in 3:16 this way:

וַתָּבוֹא֙ אֶל־חֲמוֹתָ֔הּ וַתֹּ֖אמֶר מִי־אַ֣תְּ בִּתִּ֑י וַתַּ֨גֶּד־לָ֔הּ אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָֽשָׂה־לָ֖הּ הָאִֽישׁ׃
And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said: 'Who are you, my daughter?' And she told her all that the man had done to her. [JPS 1917]

I'm interested in what could explain Naomi's odd (on the face of it) question to Ruth:

mî ʾatt, bittî
Who are you, my daughter?

Surely Naomi knew "who" Ruth was(!)?

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Textual Analysis

Grammatical

The verbless clause she speaks, מִי־אַ֣תְּ בִּתִּ֑י, is variously translated into English in other ways as well:

KJV - Who art thou, my daughter? [The same idea as the JPS quoted in the question]

NKJV - Is that you, my daughter?

ESV - How did you fare, my daughter?

NASB/NIV - How did it go, my daughter?

The only consistent part is the "my daughter" translating the בִּתִּ֑י.

Most translations also correctly have the "you" for the feminine singular אַ֣תְּ. The NASB/NIV "it" is odd, since the word is a 2nd person pronoun, not a 3rd person pronoun. However, when viewed with the ESV rendering, one can see that the same idea is being expressed, the "you" elided in the NASB/NIV where the idea is "How did it go with you, my daughter?"

A slightly more challenging word is the מִי. It is most often an interrogative statement of "who?" or "whoever?" HALOT notes it can mean "How?", but gives Ruth 3:16 as the only real example.1 This lack of support makes the rendering as "How?" as far less probable, even for Ruth 3:16. The NKJV, "Is that you?" carries the idea of "who is it," just less word for word in rendering.

Contextual

But the translations using "how" are still communicating the idea behind the question, I believe, even if the question is most properly translated as noted "Who [are] you, my daughter?"

Naomi has not become blind, nor is it dark enough that she is unable to recognize her daughter-in-law. She is not saying: "Who are you? My daughter?" to find out information as to who just entered her house.

Rather, she is asking "Who are you?" in the sense of, "Who have you returned as from your mission I sent you on [cf. v.3-4]?" That is, are you now the woman of Boaz [espoused to Boaz] or not?

Ruth's answer was "Then she told her all that the man had done for her"(NKJV), which includes what he as to do to secure Ruth, v.12-13 (NKJV):

12 Now it is true that I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. 13 Stay this night, and in the morning it shall be that if he will perform the duty of a close relative for you—good; let him do it. But if he does not want to perform the duty for you, then I will perform the duty for you, as the LORD lives! Lie down until morning.

So Ruth cannot answer Naomi's question directly as to who she is yet. She will either be the wife of Boaz, or become the wife of the closer kin.

Naomi's reply to Ruth shows that this information was divulged as part of the answer to Naomi's "Who are you?" question, for Naomi comforts Ruth in v.18 about not knowing who she is to be the wife of:

“Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will turn out; for the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day.”

That is, Naomi is saying by the end of this day, we both will know "Who you are to become the wife of" and thus "Who you will be."

Literary

The phrase also, from the stand point of the author of Ruth, provides a parallel to Boaz's question in 3:9, which is the same phrasing מִי־אָ֑תּ, "Who are you?" There, Boaz is indeed asking for Ruth's personal identity. Her reply is (NKJV):

“I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative.”

Ruth was seeking an identity change. Her reply sets up the contrast for the author's use of Naomi's question. When Naomi asks, she wants to know is Ruth still just Boaz's "maidservant" or has he indeed taken his maidservent under his wing? As Ruth was seeking an identity change, Naomi's is seeking through her question to know what her daughter-in-law's identity now is after her visit to Boaz.

Commentator's with Similar Observations

This idea has been recognized by others (all bold emphasis added by me). Paulus Cassel contributed to Lange's commentary for the book of Ruth, in which he notes:

When Ruth comes home, and Naomi asks, “Who art thou, my daughter,” i.e. “how comest thou? as one whose claim has been acknowledged, or otherwise?2

That last phrase, "as one whose claim has been acknowledged, or otherwise?" shows he understands the question to be also about Ruth's status with respect to Boaz.

More recently, James Smith:

When Ruth approached the house, Naomi inquired, “Who are you, my daughter?” The early morning darkness may have obscured the identity of Ruth. More likely, however, Naomi’s question meant: Are you one dishonored by rejection or one protected as a wife? She wanted to know if the plan had worked!3

Marital status again is seen as the point of the question.

Warren Wiersbe summarizes the point likewise, and I like how he rephrased the question:

Naomi’s question in 3:16 has puzzled translators and interpreters. Why would her own mother-in-law ask her who she was? The Living Bible paraphrases the question, “Well, what happened, dear?” and both the NIV and the NASB read, “How did it go, my daughter?” But the Authorized Version translates the Hebrew text as it stands: “Who are you, my daughter?” In other words, “Are you still Ruth the Moabitess, or are you the prospective Mrs. Boaz?”4

The question is more focused than just a broad "How are you?" or "How did it go?" But rather, "Are you to be his wife or not?"


1 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).

2 John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, Paulus Cassel, and P. H. Steenstra, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ruth (1872; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008).

3 James E. Smith, The Books of History, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995).

4 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Committed, “Be” Commentary Series (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993).

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1  
This is how it was translated in Russian Sinodal version as well. – xeon Jan 5 at 23:44
2  
@ScottS An example of a "10" answer; both liguistically, and contextually. Good Work! – Tau Jan 7 at 1:49

During the 12th Century, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra commented on this verse, and his summary was that, in Biblical Hebrew, the "Who" can refer to "What." In colloquial English, the translation would be "What's up with you, my daughter?"

The following is the Midrash commentary from Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra from Sefaria.org followed by the suggested translation. The brackets are further clarifications of the suggested translation.

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Who are you, my daughter? Perhaps she did not see her until she had opened the door for her to enter as was the custom. Thus, it is short for saying, "I am Ruth your handmaiden." Of note, in the case of Moses, "Call him that he eat bread" [reference to Ex 2:20], and it's written "and Moses was content" [reference to Ex 2:21], and Rabbi Jonah the grammarian says that the "who" equals "what" [since Jethro had referred to Moses as a "what" in his questioning to his daughters in Ex 2:20]. Thus the meaning [in the context of Ruth 3:16] is, "What is there to/for you?" And it also appears to me as [was seen] with Moses, [we see again] the "Who is your name?" (Judges 13:17) that there is no judge "Who" [found in the Scriptures and here too appears] suspicion upon the matter, since people are the son of Adam [i.e., human beings with proper names]. In my view, I think that "your name" [reference to Judges 13:17] is a name of substance [i.e., to a proper noun], and there again "who" bears on the matter.

In other words, this medieval rabbi made the correct observation that in some cases in Biblical Hebrew, "Who" refers to "What" (and vice-versa as noted by the reference of Jethro to Moses as a "What"). Several centuries later, the British Hebraist Dr. Andrew Davidson noted the following in this very same regard.

Please click on the image to enlarge or view the source online.

enter image description here

In more recent times, Bruce Waltke and Michael O’Connor made the same observation on Page 318 of their text, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax.

Please click on the image below to enlarge or view the source online.

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In summary, the use of the "Who" for "What" (or vice-versa) appears to be colloquial or even provincial usage and preference in Biblical Hebrew. This usage would be akin to the colloquial English expression, "What's up?" That is, when Naomi was speaking to Ruth, she was conveying in Biblical Hebrew the message, "What's up with you, my daughter?"

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This is a brief supplement to the accepted answer.

Given the reasonably widespread sense among the more technical commentaries that (a) the face value of the Hebrew is inappropriate, but that (b) ("who?") does not mean mah ("what?") or ʾēk ("how?"), it is suprising that no "public" English translation I'm aware of translates this verse satisfactorily.

One reason for this is the claim repeated in some technical literature that can, in fact, approximate a "how" ("condition") question, and from this starting point, liberties are taken. HALOT is among those that does so (as noted in one or two answers here). Something like this is also in BDB (near the beginning of the entry), but to my mind, more circumspectly analysed. This is not, however, universally recognized. It is not registered at all by Joüon & Muraoka (see §144), or by Naude, Kroeze, & van der Merwe, or by the two (!) articles on biblical Hebrew interrogatives in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language & Linguistics.

The sense that Naomi's question is the equivalent of "whose are you?", is supported by these observations:

  • Naomi clearly knows it is Ruth ("mi ʾatt, my daughter?"), so there is no question of asking for identity here;
  • this, by contrast, is clearly the meaning of the phrase by Boaz (without "my daughter" on this occasion -- but cf. 2:9, Boaz's first speech to Ruth) in 3:9 ("Who are you!", as noted above);
  • but see also Boaz's first question to his servants on encountering Ruth in his field, 2:5 -

לְמִי הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת
ləmî hannaʿărâ hazzōʾt
Whose young woman is this?”

As Jeremy Schipper notes in his forthcoming Anchor Bible commentary, the question in 3:16 is roughly equivalent to the question found on a few occasions, בַּת־מִי אַתְּ‎ = bat-mî ʾatt? = "whose daughter are you?", Gen 24:23; 1 Sam 17:55,56,58, see Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley §137b. That is: does she now, after the night's work, "belong" to Boaz?

For further discussion of how this moment fits into the wider puzzles of the plot of Ruth, see the fascinating article by Bernard Jackson, "Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth: A Syntagmatic Reading".

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Based on the parallel comparison, it looks like most translators render this phrase either something like "Who are you, My daughter?" or "How did things go, my daughter?"

This makes it appear that this was a kind of idiom. And so we see that Jan De Waard and Eugene A Nida remark in the the Translator's Handbook on the Book of Ruth:

In Hebrew Naomi’s question to Ruth is “Who are you, my daughter?” This could be interpreted as Naomi’s question as Ruth knocked at her door.* Most scholars, however, believe that the interrogative pronoun “Who” is to be interpreted as a question about Ruth’s condition or circumstances.* Hence, in English one could render this Hebrew question as How did you get along? “How did things go with you?” or “How did things turn out for you?” In some receptor languages it may even be necessary to employ a more specific question such as “How did Boaz receive you?” or “How did you make out with Boaz?” As in other passages in the Book of Ruth, Naomi’s use of the phrase my daughter may need to be changed in some languages to “my daughter-in-law” or “my dear one.”

Similarly, the New American Commentary, Dr. Daniel Block notes

But the question with which Naomi greets Ruth when she returns catches us all by surprise. Instead of “Who is there/here?” (mı̂ šām/pōh), or “What did he do?” (meh ˓āśâ), or “How are you?” (mah lāk), she asks mı̂ ˒att bittı̂, which translates literally, “Who are you my daughter?” Obviously she knows who Ruth is, or she would not have added “my daughter.” This question illustrates the fluidity of Hebrew interrogative particles. Here mı̂ probably should be interpreted as an accusative of condition, that is, “In what condition or state are you?” which is equivalent to “How are you”62 or “How did it go for you?” This is certainly how Ruth interpreted the question, for she proceeds to report to Naomi everything the man had done for her.

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Koehler Baumgartner cites the following:

a) as who > how (= מַה): מִי יָקוּם Am 72, מִי אַתְּ how is it with you? (Rudolph, 2Q 17; DJD 3:74f: מה את) Ru 316; Dt 3311b SamP. מִי for מִן: how will they endure!

James Shewney rightly answers here. Naomi is asking how it was with Ruth, not who Ruth is.

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