(A Sermon Essay on Ruth 1)
Only two books in the Tanakh bear women’s names: Ruth and Esther. I was in my thirties before I learned that my maternal grandmother, who I had always known as Maxine, was actually named Esther. But that’s another story for another time. We’re gathered here today to talk about the Book of Ruth.
There are two differing hermeneutical schools weighing in on Ruth; one holds that the book was written, possibly by Samuel, during the time of the monarchy. Using rough estimates and the assumption that while the monarchy technically begins with Saul, it really doesn’t start until the reign of David (although the author of the above link disagrees), that means that Ruth was written sometime between 1000 BCE-922 BCE. This argument holds that the purpose of the Book of Ruth is to show the transformation from barrenness, darkness, despair, and brokenness–set during the time of the shofet–into the fecundity, light, hope, and transformation of the monarchy.
I am not swayed by this scholarship for a few reasons (Hebrew usage; influence of Aramaic upon language structure; narrative components and theological composition), but mainly because the alternate theory makes more sense, at least for me as a pastoral theologian with substantial training in biblical exegesis.
This view, which is masterfully argued by Dr. Pieter Venter from the Department of Old Testament Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, holds that early Second Temple literature (that is, written after 515 BCE, when the Second Temple was consecrated) has certain hallmark features, and particularly thematic ones at that. And while this is essential in the development of Judaism, which is what must always be given primacy when considering texts from the Tanakh, it is seminal in the development of Christianity. In fact, one might argue that without Ruth Christianity would not exist.
Bible nerds probably chuckled at the last sentence of the paragraph. Or maybe not. It is a quotidian observation to note that Jesus would not exist without Ruth, as Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, who is listed as one of Jesus’ direct forebears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Some Markan scholars, but not me, argue that Davidic lineage is present in the Gospel of Mark as well; but again, that’s for another discussion.) But my joke that’s not really much of a joke is pointing toward something else.
The Book of Ruth, just like the ministry of Jesus, is about radical inclusivity. Naomi is like a female Job. Calamity has befallen her and she is questioning what she has done to deserve it. Not only has her husband died, but also her sons. In terms of social standing, she is going to fall through the net. She is not of child-bearing age. No one is gonna marry her. The Levitical laws that seek to protect her–not my type of feminism, but on a historical level we have to acknowledge that the Hebrew law codes did try to provide some manner of cultural protection for women, even if we may find said attempts to be sorely insufficient–are not going to be of use. She encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands, to find some manner of protection or social standing. Naomi is going to return home in bitterness, a fact that she makes plain at the end of the first chapter.
We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Although the Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, it contains one of the longest continuous stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And elements of the first chapter will even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Here we have a woman, Ruth, who is a foreigner; in time of chaos and uncertainty, she pledges herself to Naomi in language that is similar to wedding vows. She takes on a new God; she is willing to go to a new land; she will renounce her people and take on a new identity. She forsakes everything that can identify her and protect her.
In many ways, what we see is similar to the covenant renewal ceremony preserved in Joshua 24. But this one is cast in terms of women.
Which is why I introduced you to the prevalent theories regarding when the Book of Ruth was authored; if we go with the latter theory, that is, authorship post-515 BCE, we know that there were ongoing battles regarding what religious observance consisted of. With the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (often called Solomon’s Temple), religion began to shift away from being defined by possession of land, the existence of the Temple, and a Davidic king sitting upon the throne. In exile, the religion of the Hebrews morphed into Judaism, a religion of the book. Knowledge and adherence to the Torah, teaching, made one Jewish. The externals of religion must be matched by the internals of faith; circumcised penises matter less than circumcised hearts. With the return of the people under Cyrus the Persian, the most fundamentalist of Jews were living in Jerusalem. They wanted to make the rules. They argued that marriages to foreign spouses made the children illegitimate. A new Temple required around the clock sacrifices, but some argued that rites and rituals were empty if there was not a spirit of the Lord in the place.
And in the midst of that, in the middle of such an argument, about who is in and who is out, comes a story about a Hebrew woman and her Moabite, foreign daughter-in-law. This foreigner, this interloper, this woman sings a song matched only by Hannah and later Mary. She throws down the gauntlet and displays a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The radical nature of this story cannot escape our minds as we prepare to move to chapter two. We have two women, one who just made marriage-like vows to the other who has returned home only to say, “Y’all best not call me Naomi anymore. My name is Bitter, and you best not get it twisted.” Can you feel their strength? Their defiance? Their willingness to go up against the rules of men if it keeps them out of relationship? With God. With one another. With themselves. And while the rest of the story may bother us (or maybe not), let us remember them as they are now. Standing tall. Chin up. Chest out. Bodies not there for gazing but to be asserted. To announce their presence. Their power is written on the body.
Let us recognize that these two women are badasses.