It’s important to recognize that all sacred books are grounded in a certain time and place. In the case of the Bible, it is also important to accept that the writers of the NT books and the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely all men. Women’s voices [and even their names] are not as prevalent as those of men. This is not an opinion; it is fact.
So, yes—often we have to look deeper at scripture stories to hear the voices of women and to hear the wisdom within their stories.
One rare story in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] is that of Ruth.
This story is all about a female protagonist. Sure, there are some men involved, but for the most part, as a reader, we want to know what happens to Ruth, what she’s thinking, etc.
I encourage you to read the whole story yourself. That way, you can notice certain details and let your imagination go to work. Read Ruth like you would any short story.
But for the sake of this conversation with you, we need to at least summarize the story:
Ruth, the Cliffnotes Version:
Once upon a time, there was this nice Jewish family. But they had a problem. A famine had hit their hometown. So the heads of the household, Elimelech and wife Naomi, moved east to Moab with their two sons to find something to eat. In Moab, they established roots. They ended up staying there for about ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Their two sons met two girls from the area and they got married. Their names were Ruth and Orpah [not to be confused with Oprah]. Everybody was pretty happy in Moab. But then….
Those two now-married sons, one by one, passed away; so did Elimelech. None of them left behind good life insurance policies, so the three women were in trouble financially.
So Naomi decided that she should go back to her hometown of Bethlehem; maybe the famine would be over? Her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth packed up and started to go with her. But Naomi didn’t feel right about this and she asked the two women to stay in Moab. Orpah took her advice and went right on back. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She even pledged her devotion to Naomi, deciding to leave her religion and her culture to stay connected to Naomi. What could Naomi say? She let Ruth join her.
Once in Bethlehem, things didn’t get any better. Naomi was depressed. Ruth was working a manual labor job in the barley fields for very little pay.
But as it so happens, while working out there Ruth met a famous rich guy called Boaz. Boaz thought Ruth was pretty hot [apparently] but also respected her enough to give her special privileges at the workplace. Ironically, Boaz happened to be related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech.
Naomi figured it out. Boaz, by family law and custom, would be obligated to marry Ruth. So Naomi had a plan. She told Ruth to visit Boaz at night in secret and to lie at his feet. Yes, this is a PG-13 reference. It’s an erotic move.
Ruth did what Naomi asked and actually, Boaz was a bit surprised that Ruth had any interest in him at all. He was happy, though. He told Ruth that he would really like to marry her, but the problem was that there was another relative with even closer ties to Ruth’s in-laws. But Boaz had a plan. He would meet with this close relative to see what was up.
It’s high drama. Everyone’s holding their breath.
What Boaz found out was good news. The close relative was more interested in buying Naomi’s land than marrying her daughter-in-law. So a win-win deal was made. The closer relative renounced his obligation to marry Ruth, freeing Boaz to marry her.
So they get married.
This made Naomi really happy. Later on, Ruth and Boaz had a son and named him Obed. Obed, just for history’s sake, would eventually be the grandfather of King David. The end.
I said in the beginning that we have to keep culture, place, and history in mind when we read stories in sacred books. In 2015 you may see the story of Ruth as quite patriarchal and male-dominated. After all, Ruth [and other women] were just like property. We cannot deny that.
And yet, there are particular moments in this story that are rare examples of lifting up women as more than just wives for men who have babies and keep a house.
I’m struck by the comments said by the women in Bethlehem about Ruth. They tell Naomi that Ruth who loves her is of more worth than seven sons.
Now that’s a strong statement, for women’s worth was not a common subject. In this case, though, Ruth as a character is given her due. She’s more than just loyal, she’s full of love as a friend and committed to staying connected to that friend. She pushes aside even her religion and her homeland in order to stay connected to Naomi. She has no obligation to do this. Naomi tells her to go back. But Ruth insists on staying with her out of love. This is significant.
Ruth is a role model. Love is only mentioned once in the story, and it’s the love of Ruth for Naomi.
It’s that deep, devoted friendship that exists not out of obligation, but empathy for the other.
Story #2 I’d like to look at is in the New Testament in Mark’s gospel. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth warning anyone who will listen about pompous scribes who parade around in long robes screaming “Look at me!” and feel entitled to the best seats in synagogues and parties. They ignore the plight of widows [and even gain from their misfortune] and in the end, they say long prayers in public, for people to see and hear.
This warning is followed by another woman’s story. This time, she is not given a name. We only know that she was a widow, which also meant that she was poor.
She could have been Ruth.
Jesus sat outside the temple, staring at people putting money into the temple’s treasury. It was a charity box, supposedly. Rich people came and put large amounts in the box, for all to see. But then a widow approached the treasury and put in merely two copper coins. Barely worth anything.
After seeing this unfold, Jesus called his disciples together and made his point.
The widow, to the world, was only worth a few pennies. That’s it. But Jesus disagreed. She had actually put in more to the treasury than all of the rich people combined. She was worth so much more. She didn’t contribute out of obligation or abundance, but simply out of love. She gave all that she had—all that she was.
It’s not a stretch to see these two ladies, Ruth and the poor widow, as sister stories. Both were widows; both were poor; Ruth was also a foreigner and of another religion. Both were ignored, manipulated, forgotten. And yet, both were lifted up as prime examples of how we are supposed to live.
Both women were and are models of love and giving.
What stands out for me in both cases, what is prophetic about their stories, is that both of them overcame so much: a patriarchal system that was set up to oppress them; a lack of financial means; no significant place in society; tragedy and isolation.
In spite of all of that, they showed love. But it was real love, because they weren’t obligated to do so. They chose to love.
They chose to have empathy for the people around them.
They chose to call the other “my people” instead of other.
They truly loved.
And so I’ll stop now, and be quiet. May these women’s voices be heard! May their legacy live on in us.