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As I noted in Usage of "fields of" vs. "land of" Moab in Ruth, in the first Chapter of Ruth, the term שדי/שדה מואב or "field(s) of Moab" is used to refer to the land of Moab.

In the text I have of Ruth 1:2 (as well as 1:1, 1:6a, and 1:22), the wording used is plural (שדי מואב), meaning the "fields of Moab". However, the two remaining times that reference to the land of Moab is made in Ruth (1:6b, 2:6, and 4:3), the wording is singular (שדה מואב).

Although the usage of "X שדה", or "field of X" is used many times throughout the Hebrew bible to refer to a land or place (which we will call X), the plural "X שדי", ("fields of X") is almost never used in such a context (h/t to Susan for noting two potential places where it is used in this way, Nehemiah 12:29 and Psalms 132:6). (Hebrew concordance results here.)

What is essentially noticeable here is that the words are pronounced very similarly, and could perhaps been interchanged during copying at some stage.

Question: are there any early versions of the text that have dealt with the above discrepancy in one way or another (i.e. by harmonizing all of the occurrences of fields to all singular or all plural")?

  • @elikakohen sure. The truth is I already did some research on this, but I posted it here mainly to see what others think, and if they can come up with something new. I'll add a couple of helpful links below. – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 18:33
  • @elikakohen fair. I wasn't trying to exclude the possibility that t refers to a distinct geographical location (see the linked question here), it is just what I grew up hearing in an Orthodox Jewish day school ("sadeh" = field), so it jumped into my mind first. – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 18:40
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – רבות מחשבות Apr 18 '18 at 18:42
  • I edited toward BHS; if you have a different text, my apologies! Please revert edit and specify version if so. And/or remove 1:1 if there was a reason it was excluded. – Susan Apr 21 '18 at 12:28
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+50

As I think OP is probably already aware, one of the two available manuscripts from among the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QRutha) and the Greek support the singular שדה, so there is indeed a textual problem here.1,2 This is closely linked to the interpretive dilemma pointed out by the OP: whereas similar phrases throughout the MT Hebrew Bible (and indeed within Ruth) use the singular, the MT has an apparently plural form in these four instances (1:2, 1:6, 1:22, and 2:6).

The standard argument is that שדי in Ruth 1:2 (which appears to be plural construct) is actually a singluar construct from a poetic form (absolute = שַדַי), a by-form of שדה‎.3 In addition to the point OP makes about the more common use of the singular in the "field of X" formula, the standard plural form of the absolute noun is the feminine-appearing שדות, so it's not entirely this word is masculine at all.4 This laxity in spelling likely arises from the fact that such "vowel letters" (i.e. ה and י in these examples) were not written in earlier forms of Hebrew. There is also James Barr's observation about Biblical spelling: "the scribes like it to vary" (p. 194).

On the other hand, Robert Hubbard points out that Ugaratic has a masculine plural of the cognate šdm, suggesting an analogous (i.e. masculine) form in Hebrew.4 He suggests that scribes were confused about how to vocalize construct forms ending in ה, and the apparently singular forms throughout the HB are textual errors for what were intended as plural construct forms (which later standards dictate be written with a yod).

These two contrasting explanations share the conclusion that, given the history of the language and the textual evidence available, the variation between singular and plural is an unintentional pattern found in the MT as a result of certain features in the history of the language and the of the text itself. As such, commentators who adopt this view do not see the variation as exegetically significant. However, there are scholars who view this as a meaningful distinction which is preserved in the MT. A variety of explanations have been offered, summarized concisely by Morris.5

As I am not a textual scholar, this answer has not taken a position on the title question. Instead I have summarized the textual evidence and basic stances on the interpretation thereof, namely:

  1. The Greek and one of two available DSS manuscripts show a variant of ה for י.

  2. Many scholars see the inconsistency in the textual traditions as a evidence of by-forms that existed in the language at the time of composition and during early copying.

  3. While arguments have been made for the originality of either singular or plural forms, many commentators interpret the textual and linguistic data as evidence of the lack of an intended distinction between singular and plural in the six instances of שדה/י under discussion.


Notes:
1. Green = ἀγρὸς Μωαβ in all four instances, identical to 1:1 and 4:3. No variant at any of the four references is included in either Swete's or Rahlfs' apparatus. The Greek Ruth is generally considered to follow closely its Hebrew Vorlage (see Bons, p. 120).

2. DSS evidence is available only for 1:2 and 1:6.

3. J. M. Myers, The Linguistic and Literary Form of the Book of Ruth. Leiden: Brill, 1955, p.9. Many more recent commentators have recycled this reference to support an argument which has attained "an impressive consensus" (Hubbard).

4. Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, NICOT; (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 86.

5. L. Morris, Ruth, in A. Cundall and L. Morris, Judges, Ruth. TOTC. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1968.

  • Of note (since this is unusual in my experience for an answer that already has another thoughtful answer), I don't actually have any argument with Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim's take on things. I admit that I can not even meaningfully interact with that, presumably a result of different settings in which we learned about the Hebrew Bible. My hope is that the answers can somehow complement each other as radically different approaches to the same question. – Susan Apr 20 '18 at 3:41
  • Thanks for a clear and comprehensive summary of what is out there, I appreciate it. The title question was actually edited in by others, and I think this does a great job of answering the question I actually asked within the post (and provides some insight to the title question as well), whereas Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim's takes the standard argument given in your answer (Myers) and explains the language side of it, which is an obvious follow-up question if you don't want to accept "lax spelling" as an argument... +1, of course. – רבות מחשבות Apr 20 '18 at 4:18
  • I'll leave the acceptance and bounty open in case anyone else contributes, but as of now, it's yours to lose... – רבות מחשבות Apr 20 '18 at 4:19
  • Congrats on the bounty win... – רבות מחשבות Apr 24 '18 at 14:43
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The answer to this question is evident when you practice reading the MT correctly with all of the readers marks, or at least listen carefully to a reader who knows how to vocalize correctly. I have been blessed to dwell amongst the returnees of Habban who faithfully preserved such Hebrew reading skills.

There is no text-critical problem in the use of שדי מואב and שדה מואב in the MT of Ruth. The difference in spelling reflects the requirements of the vocalization.

The argument for a textual problem arising either from scribal error or from elision source material is difficult to make considering the number of times this distinction occurs in Ruth, and in particular that it occurs together in a single verse, 1:6.

In both usages in Ruth, שדי מואב and שדה מואב the form is singular, not plural. The plural form would be שדות מואב as in Nehemiah 12:29 (MT):

ומבית הגלגל ומשדות גבע

and other verses. Although both שדי and שדה in construct form (סמיכות) are singular in meaning in Hebrew (both OT and modern), in western languages they need to be translated as plural in order to avoid an implied definite article, "[the] field of Moav" in western languages, which would leave the reader asking, which particular field the verse intends.

The usage שדי in meaning "field of" in compound form (סמיכות) is common in the MT:

  1. Isaiah 32:12 - על שדי חמד על גפן פריה
  2. II Samuel 1:21 - הרי גלבוע ... ושדי תרומות
  3. Psalms 132:6 - מצאנוה בשדי יער
  4. II Chronicles 31:19 - בשדי מגרש עריהם
  5. Proverbs 23:10 - ובשדי יתומים אל תבא
  6. Nehemiah 12:44 - לכנוס בהם לשדי הערים

In Ruth, as in most other instances, שדי in compound form is a contraction of שדה. When the position of the compound in the verse requires contraction, the vocalization of the consonant ה is dropped and only it's vowel (תנועה), represented by י, remains. The letter י is used here not as a consonant but as a reading aid (אם קריאה). It's like a really short ה.

In particular:

Ruth 1:1 - בשדי מואב is vocalized with a shofar holech under the ד, a dependent intonation that leads to the following intonation, a zakef katon over over the א of מואב. This is followed by a dependent clause. In this situation, the zakef katon is shortened ("קצרה") and the intonation is falling, like a shortened atnahtah. שדה must then be contracted to שדי to allow the emphasis to be on מואב.

Ruth 1:2 - ויבאו שדי מואב has a contraction mark between שדי and מואב in the printed editions that include the vocalization. (The contraction mark is not required in Ruth 1:1 because of the ב preceding שדי. That additional letter is a hint in itself that a contracted vocalization is called for.) The vocalization under the א of מואב is tifha, a falling tone similar to a shortened atnahtah. The compound form is at the end of a clause, before "and they resided there".

Ruth 1:6 - משדי מואב is at the end of a clause marked with an atnahtah under מואב and followed by an independent clause. This is equivalent to being at the end of a verse, so שדה must be contracted to שדי and the vocalization of מואב drawn out, as it would be if it were at the end of a verse.

בשדה מואב is at the beginning of the second, independent, clause of the verse and is vocalized with shofar holech under the ד and a zakef katon over the א. This is a long, rising tone (מלך) that indicates that the entire compound should be pronounced slowly. So there is time to fully vocalize the ה.

Ruth 1:22 - משדי מואב is again at the end of a clause marked by an atnahtah and followed by an independent clause, so שדה is contracted to שדי to allow מואב to be drawn out.

Ruth 4:3 - משדה is marked with a maarachah, literally an "expander", under the ד. This is a rising tone before the end of the verse that indicates that the vocalization should be drawn out, so there is time for a fully vocalized ה.

  • Although I happen to be a public Torah reader, so I do know the cantillation marks (including for Ruth, which I read from an unvowelized scroll yearly), but I'm not sure I understand the grammatical distinctions you make. For example, what do you mean for 1:1? There is a shofar holech/zakef katon in that verse, which leaves ample room for pronouncing the long "שדה", just as there is in 1:6 and 1 Chronicles 8:8, and other places. Another example: 4:3 and 2:6 both have Sedei Moav with a maaracha-sof passuk. How are they different? +1, BTW. – רבות מחשבות Apr 19 '18 at 21:53
  • @רבותמחשבות Thanks for catching that mistake. I edited the answer. A zakef katon at the end of a verse is a shortened (kasra) falling intonation rather than a melech, as is a lone tifha (a tifrech) at the end of a clause. Both are similar to a shortened atnatah. This draws the emphasis to מואב and requires שדה to be shortened to שדי. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 20 '18 at 3:11
  • Ah, okay, this is slightly beyond what I had learned (simply the connectivities of the cantillation notes to each other), but I think I get it though. I will point you to Susan's answer below, which has some very interesting points about the possibility of שדי being plural. (Also, note that many of the sources you quoted from the rest of the Hebrew bible are often translated and explained to be plural.) One last thing is to correct שדה to שדי in your reference to Isaiah 32, but again, a great answer, thank you so much! – רבות מחשבות Apr 20 '18 at 3:55
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    @רבותמחשבות Not plural in Isaiah 32:12 as you can see from "גפן פריה" which is obviously singular. The Malbim, Metsudat David and RADAK, use plural language because they read both expressions "שדי חמד" and "גפן פוריה" as collective singulars. RASHI avoids this, the Ibn Ezra says nothing and the Balganchi is saying something allegorical. The targum here, חקלי חמידתא is plural here, as opposed to the targum of Ruth, but it also translates גפן פריה as plural (!), so I don't think that you can conclude anything about the grammar of the MT from this. שבת שלום – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 20 '18 at 16:02
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    +1 for referring to the Yemeni tradition. It seems to me that a lot of people wrongfully value Rabbinate tradition over Yemeni. Thanks for going in this direction! – elika kohen Apr 24 '18 at 0:12
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Answer moved to related link below for better fit:

Usage of "fields of" vs. "land of" Moab in Ruth

  • Thanks for an interesting answer! Some of it seems to help hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/32700/…, consider submitting an answer for that one too. – רבות מחשבות Apr 22 '18 at 11:33
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    Thanks for the link. Would you mind if I moved this answer to that thread? It would fit better, methinks. I'd like to keep working on it. Maybe agree on terms: shdi - field/wilderness...shdh - plains/fertile and artz - land of (that includes both). ? – tblue Apr 22 '18 at 13:14
  • sure, looking forward! – רבות מחשבות Apr 22 '18 at 13:28

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