A Reader Responds: MarkF on “Ruth & Naomi”.

A reader, Mark, has provided a lengthy and detailed response in the comments thread to my earlier post on Ruth and Naomi. As I don’t believe that a lengthy analysis is appropriate in the  “comments”, which should be short and to the point, I have moved it here as a guest post.

Thank you Mark, for the obvious time and effort you have put into this post.

“The critical point is that the purchaser of the property is obliged to take the woman with it – women are sold as property along with the land.”

Um, no. It was a package deal, the land and the women, but the women are still not bought.

The man in the story was the closest relative of the late Elimelech. Now Elimelech had died childless. His name would die with him unless he somehow manages to have a child. But how can a dead man have a child? The Law provided for a work-around for this problem. The dead man’s brother was given an opportunity to marry his late brother’s wife. However, there’s a catch. If the woman bears a son, that son will not be that man’s son; he’ll be the son of the dead man. So if I die, my brother gets a chance to marry my widow. And any son who is born will get my name, not my brother’s name. It will be exactly as if he were my son, and won’t be considered to be my brother’s son at all. And here’s the real catch as pertaining to the book of Ruth. This child, fathered by my brother by my widow will also inherit all of my brother’s land. And he won’t have my brother’s name, he’ll have my name. So…if a man is rich and wants to pass down his name and his land to his own sons, he’d lose all of that if he married his late brother’s wife. All of that will go to the son born by his brother’s widow. This is what has happened in Ruth 4:5. The man realizes that all of his wealth will pass out of his own line and over to the line of his late relative. So he declines the offer and Boaz gets the opportunity to marry Ruth.

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Now what about the land and Ruth? Doesn’t it say in Ruth 4:10, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Na’omi, you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess.” Hmmm…it SAYS “you are buying Ruth”, so doesn’t that mean that Ruth is being treated like property? Well, if you have a literalist bent, you might think so. But what is going on here?

The Jews had something called a “protector”, or goel in Hebrew. If I was killed, my closest relative could be my “protector” and avenge me. (See Gen 4:15 and 9:6, Deut 19:12, 2 Sam 14:11 for examples) Or if I go broke and have to sell my land, my “protector” gets the right to buy it, and at a later date make sure that I get my land back. (See Lev 25:23-28) Or if a man died, his “protector” got a chance to marry his widow as I described above. (See Deut 25:9-10) But to declare oneself to be your relative’s “protector” is a package deal. You can’t pick the parts of it you like while ignoring the unpleasant parts. For example, being someone’s “protector” could entail marrying his hot widow, but also could mean the responsibility to avenge his death. That means a fight and who wants that. A guy couldn’t get to marry the hot widow without also getting into a fight with men who killed him.

In the book of Ruth it is just that situation. To be the “protector” of the late Elimelech meant to buy his land but also to marry Ruth. It was not a question of buying Ruth. It was a package deal – buy the land and marry the widow.

Now, even if you understand that Ruth was not actually being sold, you still can have a problem with the whole system, as I suspect you do. They are clearly not operating in the same way that we do. The idea may be repugnant that a widow is not free to marry whoever she wishes, but must be offered first to her late husband’s “protector.” But it is not just the way that women are treated that is different from our days, it is also the land that has a “protector.” Even the dead man has a “protector” who has to avenge his death. These are very different ideas from our own. We see ourselves as individuals now. They were part of a trans-generational family. Even the land did not belong to a person in our sense. The land belonged to God first and to the trans-generational family second. It could not be sold out of the family. They only held the land to pass down to their sons.

What was the world like in the Mid East in the time of Ruth? We look back and see that a woman either was subject to her father or her son and we don’t like that. We can read the Law and how it treated women, but we can’t see what the world was like back then. It was a very dangerous place. An unprotected woman – with no father and no husband – could be raped or killed. Everything she owned could he robbed from her. She could be carried away into slavery and there would be no one to protect her. They didn’t have a police force or anything like an ordered society. What they had for protection was the family. A woman apart from the family – with no father or husband – would not have a chance in this world. It was a world where the only the strong survived and man was not restrained by any sort of morality. We might not like it, but the Mosaic Law was better than what was around it. Israel was surrounded by all sorts of pagan cultures. These cultures whored their women out to the temples to become temple prostitutes. They also killed their infants to offer up to Baal. Archaeologists have found clay jars with the remains of murdered infants in them inside of the homes of Canaanite families.

The idea of having independent woman, with no family to protect her, was not just dangerous. It would have been cultural suicide. As you point out, Naomi and Ruth on their own were near starvation. But I don’t think that the point of the story is how bad the Law was towards women. Rather the point of the story is that about faith that God will protect us, as Naomi and Ruth were protected. It’s about God reaching out to a foreign people in the form of Ruth. It’s about the compassion of Boaz who offers to marry Ruth.

Men were clearly in charge of this world, make no doubt about that. But the Israelites were fighting for their very survival. And they had proved themselves to be totally unfit for any sort of morality higher than that found in the Law. Heck, they didn’t even keep to the Law. They were constantly worshipping false gods, fighting, stealing and cheating on the wives and husbands. When you criticize the Laws of Israel you’re doing so from a safe, warm place. You’re doing It from a world that already has received Christ and has learned Christian morality. Things were different back then, but the difference is not how bad Israel was, but how bad the rest of the world was. The real oppression of women was under every other culture but Israel. The odd thing is that the very morality that you’re using to attack the Law only came into the world through Christianity, (made in the image of God, there is no male or female in Christ, etc.) which never would have been here if Israel had not survived through the Law.

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4 Responses to “A Reader Responds: MarkF on “Ruth & Naomi”.”

  1. Terence@queerchurch Says:

    Mark, of course you are right. “They are clearly not operating in the same way that we do” and we must not make the mistake of judging them on our terms. I also accept that the “sale” of Ruth with her land was a far more complex issue than I represented.

    But you miss the point I was making. I was not “attacking” anything. There is absolutely no point in criticizing or attacking conditions in any earlier period – they were what they were, but they are now gone. What we do need to do, to make sense of Scripture, is to understand the conditions. If I’ve oversimplified, that is just because it was a short post. If you want a lengthy scholarly analysis, consult a scholarly book or journal.

    All I was doing, in a short note to commemorate Ruth & Naomi, was to point out that through their loving support and devotion, they were able to overcome immense difficulties that they faced in the circumstances of the day. .

  2. MarkF Says:

    Terrence, Thanks for the space here. Unfortunately, it looks like the way this page is set up, that any more posts will get progressively narrower and narrower in space and will end up being unreadable.

    Yes there is a but here… You said, “The social attitudes of Jewish society revealed by the story of Ruth and Naomi are at the heart of the modern oppression by the church of women and gay men…Instead, we should work to subvert and destroy those elements.”

    Come on, you can’t deny what you’re doing here. I do appreciate the space you’ve given me, but your post on Naomi and Ruth is not a simple praise of them. It is more of a block in a whole wall that you’re building, or to put it bluntly, it’s more like one shot in a volley that you’re aiming at an existing wall. You admit that in the article itself as I just quoted.

    Just a tiny about the idea of a “sale” of widows. If a man without land dies, the “protector” would not pay a price to marry the widow. If that same landless man also had been killed by someone else, the “protector” not only would not have to pay a price, he would be obliged to avenge the man’s death. Far from paying for a new wife, the marriage would oblige him to get into a fight. That’s how I read it at least.

    I think we agree that the real purpose should be to understand the Bible in order to understand our own Christianity. I’m afraid my main argument with your approach is that it seems that you read into the text all kinds of modern ideas about gender politics that are foreign to bronze age Israel. I sympathize with you when you look at the religious rules in ancient Israel and ask why they have their women under the control of the men. I guess I look at the glass as half full and not half empty. Mankind in this state could not handle a more humane law. But at some point we get the Wisdom books of Psalms, Proverbs, etc. This is why I don’t see the OT as something so horrible. I can’t think of one example of where a woman is beaten, raped, neglected or abused where it is not seen as a sin.

    The real question then becomes how much of this applies to us. I’d say that the basic difference between man and women, especially those regarding life itself, are very much a feature of creation. Man and woman are equal but different. We still see that in the NT in the behavior and choices of Jesus and we hear it explained by St. Paul. Why the study of books like Ruth are important to us is that there are many authors out there now who wish to deconstruct the OT into some sort of feminist prison camp, and once that’s done and the Bible has be categorized as misogynistic and bigoted, then they go on to knock down all the inconvenient prohibitions against same-sex acts, the all male priesthood, scriptural authority, etc.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Hi Mark,

      There is absolutely no reason to think that space will be reduced with further comments. The post was placed with just the opening paragraphs displayed on the main page, but following the “read more” button takes any reader to a brand new page, which is in effect limitless. It’s not like a sheet of paper with definite end. The “page” for a single post plus comments is effectively as long as required for the content.

      And displaying only the first few paragraphs was not an affront to you – I try to do it to all my posts, unless they are notably short. I can also tel you that I have seen from my blogstats page, that you have indeed had some readers follow through from the comments thread to your full post.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      “It is more of a block in a whole wall that you’re building”. Correct. there’s no need to deny it – instead, I boast about it.

      We who are gay or lesbian have been subject to so much inappropriate misinterpretation, hidden bias and sometimes downright lies in heterosexual theology, that there is a desperate need for some corrections to the misleading interpretations that are so current. There are numerous excellent theologians out there who have been doing this for years, who are widely respected by other professionals, but whose work is unfortunately not widely known by non-specialists. And so yes, I am indeed attempting to build a structure to provide a more balanced view – one brick at a time.


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