The Book of Ruth
The Book of Ruth Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Since the beginning of time, people have been loving other people. They've also been pretty hard at work hating them, too. For whatever reason, humans sure love dividing each other into groups and inventing irrational prejudices. Sadly, the folks in the Bible are no different. There's lots of us-versus-them intolerance going down in the Good Book.
If You're Intolerant and You Know It, Clap Your Hands
If you take just a quick glance through the Bible you'll see lots of passages that support racism, bigotry and xenophobia. Yup. God sure loves him some Israel. But it's also really clear that he's not always so fond of non-Jews and foreigners:
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord's own portion was his people. (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)
Yikes. So, does this mean God is cool with racism? After all, if you're certain that you have a special place in God's heart and others don't, then it's totally fine to enslave and oppress them, right? No biggie?
Diversity Is a Good Thing
Whoa. Not so fast.
Sure, there's a lot of hate in the Bible, but the Book of Ruth totally takes a stand against all this. Our heroine is a non-Jew and a foreigner, but she still manages to be a shining example of goodness and faith in this crazy world. Not too shabby.
Of course, Ruth does have to shake off the stink of her homeland and native god in order to be accepted, but, hey, it's a start. One of the main points of the story is that it doesn't matter where you come from; what matters is where you end up. Ruth chooses a Jewish life, meaning other non-Jews could do the same thing and turn out okeydokey in the eyes of God.
Ruth also does her part to contribute to Jewish history by producing a child who would go on to be the grandfather of one of the most celebrated rulers in Israel. Don't like the folks from Moab? Then, maybe you should remember that King David is 1/16th Moabite. There, don't you feel silly?
So, Who's Right?
Does the Bible contain overt racism and hatred? Yup. But, does every word in the Bible support this? No way.
The Bible is a diverse mix of stories from different genres, cultures, time periods, and people. It would be silly to think that this giant and influential book contained just one point of view about anything. Sure, the Bible has racism at times, but the Book of Ruth? Not so much.
So the next time you encounter prejudice or intolerance in the name of God, just pull that person aside and say, "I'll like to introduce you to a little friend of mine. Her name is Ruth."
If you've been paying attention during this whole Bible thing, you'll have noticed that there aren't a whole lot of stories about women in that big thick book. That's why the ones we do have are so special. And Ruth is a gem among the biblical ladies out there.
Ruth Is Our Homegirl
Ruth is a lot like Esther, in that it's a story about a resourceful woman whose courage, loyalty, and faithfulness lead her to a happy ending. Though Ruth lives in a society where men were top dog and women had very little choices, she uses her grace, charm, and, sometimes, wit to get what she wants (source, p. 192). Now that's a female role model.
If the Book of Ruth were about just one woman it would still be a standout feminist tale. But this story is packed with ladies. There's Naomi, who shares the stage with Ruth, and Orpah, too. But we also have lots of women in the background—like the women of Bethlehem and the young women who glean with Ruth in the field.
The women of Bethlehem kind of function as a Greek chorus, announcing Naomi's return back into town and rejoicing at the birth of her grandson at the end. They even get to name the little tyke. The young women in the field offer Ruth safety and protection while they work together. A woman gleaning on her own might be bothered or harassed by the male servants, but, apparently, there's safety in numbers. Smart thinking, gals.
Throughout the story you've got a group of ladies who are complex, interesting, deep, and sometime a little bit unconventional. When Ruth comes to visit Boaz on the threshing floor at night, she's taking a huge chance. It's not acceptable for a nice girl to sneak into a man's bed at night. For shame. But Ruth throws caution and traditional gender norms to the win and goes for it anyway.
In the end, Ruth rises above all the men in the story when the ladies of Bethlehem call her "more […] than seven sons" (4:5) You go, girl.
Don't Call Gloria Steinem Just Yet
But there's more than one way to interpret Ruth. Some feminist theologians see Ruth as nothing more than a pawn in a patriarchal game. And oh, those are tough games to win.
Sure, Ruth is a nice girl who tries her best, but in the end, it's a man who decides everything. After throwing herself at Boaz's feet (literally), Ruth is told that she may have to marry some random guy she's never even heard of. Though we get the feeling she'd much rather tie the knot with Boaz, Ruth doesn't protest at all. She's a maid who will marry any Tom, Dick, or Harry.
The creepiest part in the story is when Boaz finally gets everything all settled and declares, "I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife" (4:9-10). Real estate and a wife in one package? Acquiring property is fun, we guess.
And our story can only have a happy ending with the birth of a son. Naomi was bummed about losing her men, now she's super thrilled to have gained another one. Of course, all this time, she's had Ruth, an incredibly loyal, thoughtful, and gracious daughter-in-law following her around, providing for her, and generally being awesome. But, yeah, a tiny baby boy is really the most important thing (source, p. 192).
When you look at Ruth from this angle, men and marriage are really the focus of this story, not the pluck and tenacity of women in hard times.
So, Who's Right?
Truth be told, there's probably something to both of these feminist interpretations. Ruth is an admirable, lovely figure in the Bible, one who modern women, both Christians and Jews, can look up to. But Ruth was living in a patriarchal society and she does play by those rules (mostly). If that means she subservient to the male agenda, then so be it.
For our money, we think a biblical heroine can be both a courageous feminist icon and a little bit of a man-crazy husband-hunter. It keeps things interesting at least.
Love and marriage are all around us. Well, marriage, at least. There's a lot of discussion over the ins and outs of marital bliss. Who should be able to get married? What kinds of perks do married couples get? And just how can they get out of the whole thing if they decide to jump ship? Maybe Ruth's story can help.
There will always be some people who want to return to the days of "traditional marriage." Some religious folks have even called for governments not to redefine the "biblical definition of marriage" (source). Well, Ruth is in the Bible and it's all about marriage. So what is a traditional biblical marriage like according to the Book of Ruth?
- One man and one woman? Yup, Ruth's right there with you (1:4).
- Inter-faith and inter-racial marriage? It's okay. Jewish boy marries Moabite girl (1:4).
- Divorce? Hmmm… we're gonna go with 'til death do us part on this one (1:5).
- So, you're a widow now? This is easy. When your husband dies, get one of his single male relatives to marry you (2:20). Quick! Before you starve to death!
- Dating? No problem. Just crawl in his bed while he's sleeping and ask him to marry you (3:9). Works like a charm.
- Starting a family? Raise your first-born child as if he were your dead husband's (4:5). We're sure your new husband won't mind at all?
Okay, so there are some things there that modern folks would embrace, and some that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone agreeing to do. Unless of course Shmoop is underestimating the amount of men who want to produce a child in their dead brother's name. Yeah, that's what we thought.
The Modern Marriage
There are also other folks who think that we've made some progress in the realm of marriage over the last three thousand years. Sure, the Bible has some good things to say, but maybe we don't have to take every single piece of advice that comes up so literally.
One of the really good innovations is love. That's right. Up until a couple hundred years ago, people didn't get married for love. And you can bet that the folks in the Bible weren't falling madly in love with each other either. In Ruth's day marriage was for two things: financial and family security. We're talking money and babies. Companionship? Romance? A spicy sex life? Who needs it?
But Ruth isn't totally down on love, either. Though Ruth and Boaz never bring up the "L" word, it's clear they both admire each other a whole lot. Boaz thinks his wife-to-be is a "worthy woman" (3:11) and Ruth is impressed by Boaz's kindness. And his barley fields, we're guessing.
In a way, Ruth got lucky. She's found a man who has a family obligation to provide for her and the good part is he actually happens to be a decent guy. In a world where marriage was the alternative to poverty and women were totally dependent on men, that ain't bad.
So, Who's Right?
It may be possible to point to Ruth as a book that upholds a view of "traditional" or "biblical" marriage. But when we look a little more closely, there are some things in there that seem more antiquated than traditional. We hope, for the most part, that people are glad that wives are not "acquired" along with land anymore. We really, really hope.
Reading Ruth helps us realize that marriage has been lots of different things to different people. Up until 1967, some states barred black and white people from marrying. Laws like that are seen as immoral by us today. But back then, proponents could look to the Bible for lots of quotable quotes on traditional marriage to support their view.
Which brings us around to the question on everyone's mind these days: should two men or two women be able to tie the knot? Ruth doesn't settle that question, but it can raise other issues about what marriage is for modern people of faith. It doesn't necessarily mean the Bible is wrong. It could just mean that God is speaking to us in different ways. God's such a hopeless romantic, if nothing else.