Exegesis of Ruth

Following up on my first exegetical paper on a passage about Deborah from Judges in the Hebrew Bible, here is a second, from Ruth. Professor Aaron Brody asked us to write this paper to a particular audience. I already presented this material to one of my classes in Elmwood Jail – they loved it!


Rhetorical Use of Texts, Final Paper – Ruth

For my final exegetical paper, I have chosen to interpret Ruth 1:6-18 using a feminist hermeneutic method. In choosing this pericope, I am not just analyzing a famous passage from my favorite book of scripture but am also considering the displacement of peoples and migration that have become heated issues in current politics, as well as the several ancient cultural and political boundaries that were crossed in this Bible reading. I am addressing this analysis to the audience of my conservative evangelical male students in Elmwood jail who are very patient with their feminist Episcopal mentor. My argument is that the passage presents an unusually loving relationship between women of different nations and families of origin who are not currently wives or mothers. By casting the story in the past and using what Elaine Wainwright calls, “…women’s stories, the understory of the dominant narrative…,”[1] the author of the Book of Ruth presents complex political circumstances like migration, and social issues like marriage outside of the faith, in a way that is safe and acceptable to his readers.

The Book of Ruth opens by saying it is set “In the days when the judges ruled…” – that is, presumably, in the time of the Book of Judges. However, modern scholars tell us that Ruth was probably written significantly later than Judges.[2] Our story is thus set in the past and tells is the interactions between Naomi, the widow of Elimelech of Bethlehem in Judah, and her two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah of Moab. Bethlehem is just south of Jerusalem on the west side of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Israel (occupied Palestine), and the ancient country of Moab is on the east side of the Dead Sea in what is now the nation of Jordan. Christians today think of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Ruth’s descendent Jesus; however, in Ruth’s day, it would have been famous as the place where Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, “…Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day” (Genesis 35:19-20). The second mention of Ephrath in the Hebrew Bible is in Ruth 1:2, which says Elimelech and his family were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. So, the passage under consideration is not just about women in the far back time of the judges but also makes indirect reference to one of the most beloved women in the Hebrew Bible who lived even earlier.

The Book of Ruth tells the private story of a famous figure. Much of the early part of the book is told from the point of view of female private relationships; however, as Naomi and Ruth migrate from Moab to Judah, they move into public view. Their arrival is certainly noticed, “When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them…” (Ruth 1:19). Outside of the text, readers of this book also know of the importance of Ruth as the ancestress of both King David and Jesus. Janice Capel Anderson writes that biblical texts dealing with circumstances like birth, nursing, and menstruation, and the lack of men, give women importance and power, “Often the text and many interpretations create and reflect a division between a female private domestic sphere and a public male sphere (and nature and culture).”[3] Strengthening the female context in the pericope is that Naomi asks her daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s house, not their father’s house (Ruth 1:8).

Elimelech and his family had moved around what we know as the Dead Sea to Moab because of famine, then Ruth 1:6 says that Naomi is heading back home to Judah because there was food there. The text “…she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6) indicates that food is not just scarce for this one family. That is, this poor family’s movement between countries to better their situation may be taken as part of a larger migration. To a modern reader, Ruth and Naomi can give a human face to marginalized populations at extreme risk. They are like the millions of Palestinians who are now residents in occupied lands in Israel, dual passport holders in Jordan, or refugees in Lebanon and Syria with no sovereign land of their own.[4] and [5] Or, Ruth and Naomi may be considered like the vast migrant work populations of the world who do seasonal work like picking crops, construction, or services supporting tourism.[6] Living in occupied territory or in a refugee camp in someone else’s country can be like being incarcerated.[7] Like their modern equivalents, this small family is vulnerable to violence as well as hunger. One of Boaz’s first acts to help Ruth is to order the young men in his fields not to bother her (Ruth 2:9).

Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law by asking that the Lord deal kindly with them and grant them security and new husbands (Ruth 1:8-9). The word security brings to mind how much insecurity Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah must feel. Their insecurity may be because of food scarcity, their coming migration, the lack of men in the family, or all of these. Naomi Steinberg writes of the social structure of kinship in Israelite society, describing the smallest unit as bet-‘ab (family household), followed by mishpaha (lineage, descent group), then shebet (tribe). Steinberg observes, “Possibly the mishpaha served protective functions in the time frame presupposed in the book of Judges.”[8] In the Book of Ruth, the word security is positive, synonymous with safety. As those who are incarcerated know, in American culture, the word security is often used to create fear. That fear can then be an excuse to exclude and oppress the marginalized. For example, in his recent speech “Remarks by President Trump on the Illegal Immigration Crisis and Border Security,” Donald Trump said immigrants are tough unknowns who threaten our security and should be kept out.

We have no idea who they are. All we know is they’re pretty tough people when they can blast through the Mexican Military and Mexican police… I don’t want them in our country. And women don’t want them in our country. Women want security. Men don’t want them in our country… They want to have security. They don’t want to have these people in our country. And they’re not going to be in our country. It’s a very big thing.”[9]

In Ruth 11-13, Naomi presents herself to her daughters-in-law as worthless, only as an empty source of sons for them to marry. Her expression is consistent with what Cheryl Exum writes, “Motherhood is the patriarchy’s highest reward for women; it offers women one of the few roles in which they can achieve status in patriarchal society.”[10] Naomi defines her value in terms of her sons and assumes that is how her daughters-in-law see her. Even though Naomi’s words may be said in an ironic tone, as a feminist I find her self-abasement painful to read. When Ruth responds to her mother-in-law with one of the world’s great poetic statements of absolute devotion, the emotional appeal of her words is profound. Ruth words are often quoted in weddings; I used Ruth’s words around the border of my own wedding invitations.

In many ways, Naomi and Ruth are unusual women in an uncommon relationship. Ruth has no children yet and Naomi’s sons are dead in a society that primarily valued a woman for her sons. In modern cultures, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is often portrayed as difficult; however, in this case Ruth and Naomi are devoted to each other. In effect, their mutual love shows that although these two women are traveling alone, they are virtuous and safe. They are too focused on each other and on seeking the security of Naomi’s mishpaha to be dangerous women. As a Moabite, Ruth could be seen in the dangerous role of an exotic foreigner, who has a non-mother, and migrant has little social standing or reputation. As Exum writes, “The erotic is associated not with the mother but rather with another kind of woman – the disreputable woman, the bad woman, the foreign (“other”) woman.”[11] However, Ruth is not portrayed erotically, rather the focus is on her extreme faithfulness and kindness to Naomi and her willingness to follow the God of Israel (Ruth 2:10-12). Ruth is presented as being virtuous enough for Naomi and Boaz to love and a worthy Great Grandmother for King David.

The writer of Ruth wrote a great story of personal devotion that defuses the potentially explosive topics of foreign women, migrants, and women with no husbands or children. He used poetry and love to make Ruth safe. We in modern times, who are still grappling with the potential for our society to devalue migrants and refugees, to make them into inhuman threats, can learn from Ruth’s graceful story.


Footnotes

[1] Elaine M. Wainwright, “In Memory of Her! Exploring the Political Power of Readings – Feminist and Ecological,” Feminist Theology 23, 2 (2015): 213.

[2] Mark Poyser, “Hebrew Bible Sources Timeline (Jewish Canon),” Biblediagrams, copyrighted 2005, http://biblediagrams.com/diagrams/images%201280×1024/hebrew-bible-books-timeline.htm.

[3] Janice Capel Anderson, “Feminist Criticism: The Dancing Daughter,” in Mark & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, eds. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 117.

[4] “Palestine Refugees: Locations and Numbers,” 16 January 2018, IRIN, accessed 9 December 2018, http://www.irinnews.org/report/89571/middle-east-palestinian-refugee-numberswhereabouts.

[5] Shaul M. Gabbay, “The Status of Palestinians in Jordan and the Anomaly of Holding a Jordanian Passport,” Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs 2:113, 5 February 2014, https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/the-status-of-palestinians-in-jordan-and-the-anomaly-of-holding-a-jordanian-passport-2332-0761.1000113.php?aid=23346.

[6] “New ILO Figures Show 164 Million People are Migrant Workers,” 5 December 2018, International Labour Organization, accessed 9 December 2018, https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_652106/lang–en/index.htm.

[7] Katy Dickinson, “Understanding Gaza,” Katysblog (blog), 16 March 2016, https://katysblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/understanding-gaza/.

[8] Naomi Steinberg, “Social-Scientific Criticism: Judges 9 and Issues of Kinship,” in Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 52-53.

[9] Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on the Illegal Immigration Crisis and Border Security,” The White House, 1 November 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-illegal-immigration-crisis-border-security/.

[10] Cheryl Exum, “Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests Are Being Served,” in in Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 78-79.

[11] Exum, “Feminist Criticism,” 79.


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