The Cloak of Visibility in the Book of Ruth – A Teaching for Today (Really)

The Cloak of Conscience by Anna Chromy

For the past six months I have been exploring, together with various Christian church communities, the issue of immigration through a shared text: The Book of Ruth.

There is much to say about the way the immigrant is seen (or not) in this text. The Israelite Naomi all but ignores her Moabite daughter-in-law’s moving declaration of loyalty and love. Naomi sends Ruth into a truly dangerous setting in pursuit of a man who will answer all their problems, and says nothing when Ruth’s child is handed over to her at the close of the book. The narrator reminds us several times that Ruth is a Moabitess, a member of the tribe that seduced the Israelites at Baal Peor and whose ancestry stems from an incestuous one-nighter between Lot and one of his daughters.

The story begins with human beings going hungry: the famine in Bethlehem leads to Naomi’s family emigrating to Moab, an enemy territory, in search of sustenance. That initial misery is followed by others, it cascades, expands, consumes – it seems – every hope; Naomi loses not only her husband, but her children. Ruth “clings” to her mother-in-law as if she were her only tie to any kind of safety. Both go hungry when they return from Bethlehem in search of the sustenance granted others; the villagers and kinsmen ignore their plight.

Today, I read my daughter-in-law’s Facebook post about the famine in East Africa. She notes that the famine has nothing to do with natural disasters. It’s caused by civil wars.

We pass by the world’s pain and dust it off our spiritual sleeves. We are the villagers who noticed the arrival of the widows at the close of chapter 1 and then did nothing to support or help them. We are the ones who read of immigrants trapped and dying in a boiling truck, and of women and children crossing deserts in desperate, often fatal, attempts to escape violence. We know what our administration’s answer is to the need of human beings to live with dignity: In America, when such men, women, and children cross our borders, we send them to inhumane detention centers which treat them like slaves (literally) and which profit from their presence. We will tear – and we have torn – parents from children. We have deported people who have lived honorably, only seeking to find a way to live safely and legally in a country they, too, love.

In the Book of Ruth, it is the immigrant Moabite who finds a way out. She notes Naomi’s mention of Boaz as a redeeming kinsman who could restore to Naomi the land her husband left behind. She combines that important information with the knowledge of the levirate she gained when Naomi bewailed the fact that she was too old to provide sons who could marry Ruth and Orpah and sire sons for their dead husbands. It is Ruth who first puts redemption and levirate law together. When Boaz asks who she is when she appears on the threshing floor in the middle of the night, Ruth answers: “I am your handmaid Ruth. Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman” (Ruth 3:9).

In one fell swoop Ruth has proposed to Boaz, hinting at a potential role as a levir. In the same verse she names him a go’el, a redeemer. Though the law as written in bible hardly makes Boaz a levir, he concurs, and insists on defining himself as one in the final chapter, proclaiming his intention to sire a son in Ruth’s first husband’s name (4:10).

“Spread your robe over me,” Ruth says, using the word kanaf. Here, it means the edge of a garment. But the word can also mean “wings,” and Boaz uses it in exactly that sense, when he blesses Ruth with the prayer that YHVH spread his wings over her in protection (2:12).

Ruth gave Boaz, in essence, a cloak of visibility. Only when he spread it over her did he truly understand, calling her an eshet chayil, a woman of strength and valor. The legal maneuvering Ruth set in motion is later presented to the community by Boaz and sanctioned by ten elders and the villagers.

I do not find it a happy development that it is, yet again, the foreigner, the minority, the woman, and the immigrant who has to brave danger in order to make the privileged (male) see her. Boaz has had to be reminded that Ruth and Naomi exist, that they are in trouble. Neither Boaz nor anyone else came to the aid of these two women when they returned to Bethlehem.

Today, President Trump called for 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. He agitated again for the building of his border wall with Mexico and measures against sanctuary cities and insisted on legislation to expedite the removal of undocumented immigrants from Central America.

We are the villagers. We are Boaz. Can we be better? What, when we look, do we see? When we see, what, then, must we do?

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Patriarchy Shmachiarchy — Let’s Re-dress Ancient Israel

Why do we keep assuming that Ancient Israel was a “patriarchal” society when it wasn’t?

Despite the evidence demonstrating how problematic the term “patriarchy” is, my university students employ it about as frequently as they do the expression “Old Testament.” Both slip from the tongue with aplomb.

It’s obvious why “Old Testament” is a problematic term, given the odor of supersessionism attached to it. But, you may be asking, why do we need to banish the term patriarchy from our discourse about Ancient Israel? 

In Greek, patriarchy means the “rule of the father.” We generally tend to use patriarchy to describe an entire society organized around excluding women from positions of power.

Men did have a great deal of power in the ancient world. But, as a number of scholars have pointed out in recent decades, they did not have the absolute rule the term patriarchy presumes. Male power may have been a legal construct, not a sociological reality. Roman law failed to mention any absolute authority of men over their wives. Elite Roman women managed both households and property. The women of Greece and Rome took part in public religious activities and acted as religious leaders in mainstream public cults and cultic activities.

What about Ancient Israel? Most Israelites lived an agricultural and pastoral existence in which women played a major role. Women were, among other things, responsible for food processing, textile production, and creating household implements. They were commodity producers. As managers of households, they likely allocated resources and tasks. We can tell from the position and number of weaving, grain-grinding, and other implements found at archeological sites that women worked in groups. How much family and village planning went on during the work? Women would be able and willing to negotiate connections, marriages, and sharing of resources when needed. That’s not private work – that’s public – even “political.”

In Tanakh, female characters are not wholly without access to power. The Shunnamite (2 Kings 4:8-37; 8:1-6) takes charge of inviting and housing a prophet, demands said prophet’s intervention when her son’s life is at risk without her husband’s help or involvement, moves her family out of town when drought threatens their survival, and negotiates their reentry and reacquisition of their land by talking over her situation with the king himself.

Women of Tanakh functioned as professional musicians and mourners, temple seamstresses, circle dancers, judges, prophets, and necromancers. They negotiated, argued, and formed clever plans and daring maneuvers. They are depicted as strategic thinkers in stories that demonstrate, time and time again, that they were hardly understood – even by the male elite authors who wrote their narratives – as either inferior or subordinate. While we do have difficult stories of male control (Dinah) and terrible narratives of outright brutality against women (the Levite’s Concubine and the hundreds of women kidnapped, raped and killed after her death), biblical women were not – per se — either voiceless or powerless.

Archeologist and biblical scholar Carol Meyers has suggested we consider the term “heterarchy” for Ancient Israel.  A heterarchy is a society in which different power structures exist at the same time. Hierarchies are at work, and these are not fixed, but shift and change. Is Sarah the one in control when it comes to her slave, Hagar? Is Abraham’s servant in charge when it comes to negotiating a wife for his master’s son, Isaac? Class is important, as is ethnicity, and we need to keep these things in mind as we read: servants, slaves, and non-Israelites are part of our stories and play different roles at different times.

No scholar is likely to claim that there was gender equality in Ancient Israel’s society. But when we think about that society, we need to think in terms that transcend the binaries of male and female. We need to see that there are nuances to be noted – ones that will give us a richer appreciation of the complexity of our narratives. Who had power or control in this society did not depend on a fixed, unalterable rule of male control.

Ancient Israel was not a patriarchy.

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