The Ideal Woman? (Ruth)

January 8, 2011

Guess what dear reader? I read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting! Okay, so it was the book of Ruth, which means in my tiny-tiny-small-print Bible only two and a half pages, but still I feel a certain sense of achievement.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that people really love this book. It is not unusual to hear ‘ooh I love Ruth!’, whereas ‘oh I love Joshua’ doesn’t crop up quite as much. Of course there is the wonderful and often quoted declaration “Where you go, I will go/ where you lodge, I will lodge / your people shall be my people / and your God my God.” (1:16) More famous than the story perhaps, and a popular choice for weddings, apparently. I find that rather odd, as it’s said by one widow to another. Good sentiment though.

And I am of rather the same disposition as the Ruth-lovers. I like the book of Ruth, perhaps instinctively because it is one of the only two books of the Bible named after a woman.

Oh yes, I have been a feminist much longer than I’ve been a Christian; I wasn’t baptised until I was 23, but at the age of 2 I refused to build an ‘snow-man’, it had to be a ‘snow-girl’. We’ll have gender equality in my front garden, thank you very much!

But when I read the book this time, thoughts that have only niggled before seemed to bubble to the service. They centre around the role of Ruth in the story. It starts out very promisingly, with her beautiful speech promising loyalty to her mother-in-law and the God of Israel, even if it means living in poverty. This passage (1:15-18) paints a picture of Ruth a determined, strong and fiercely loyal woman, but when they get back to Bethlehem the picture changes. Ruth’s words after this point are almost entirely expressions of obedience and gratitude, or requests. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but it’s part of a wider narrative in which Ruth seems to lose her dynamism. It is Naomi who orchestrates the situation; who sends her to glean and later to lay at Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor (a possible euphemism apparently!). And it is Boaz, of course, who arranges the marriage. In fact, he gets Ruth as part of a package deal; he buy’s her late father-in-law’s land and also ‘acquires’ her as he puts it (4:9-10).

Of course, this is a cynical reading of the text. Boaz is obviously a generous and affectionate man, we see this in his dealings with Ruth when she gleans in his fields (chapter 2). So much so, in fact, that one of my favourite charities the Boaz Trust, who serve destitute asylum seekers in Manchester, have made him a model for welcoming the stranger. Which, of course, Ruth was as a Moabite woman. Many Israelites would have shunned her for this reason.

I suppose my problem isn’t with the treatment of Ruth, but with the presentation of her as a role model for women. After chapter 1 she is meek and obedient, she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and she never questions the instructions she’s given, even when she’s told to go to an older man in the middle of the night and risk being shamed. 

There is nothing wrong with being a meek and mild woman, but for those of us who do not have that natural inclination the Christian tendency to idolise this way of being can leave us feeling loud, inappropriate and unfeminine. Ruth, like Mary and many other young women of the Bible, is presented as blushing and obliging (though who knows it this was really the case). Her purity seems to be linked to a passivity. But I know there are many women, like me, who don’t fit this model; we love to debate, to passionately gesticulate, to challenge those around us, regardless of their gender. And while women like that can seem the most confident you know, many, especially Christians, can have an underlying feeling that they don’t fit the mould. Perhaps even that they aren’t how God created them to be?

But what is it to be a Godly woman? At the end of this book we are given a genealogy that tells us Ruth was great-grand mother of David; a mark of her significance. But there is another women mentioned, another widow who bore a son, and funnily enough, she is mentioned my previous reading, Genesis 38; Tamar.

As Boaz and Ruth marry, the town elders wish them well saying “Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” (4:12) and later we see that Boaz is in fact of the line of Perez (4:18-22). So just as the widowed but redeemed Ruth takes her part in forming the line to David, so does Tamar. And so, as Matthew tells us in his first chapter, they are also ancestors of Jesus; part of the unfolding path the Christ (Matthew 1:1-16, esp 3-5).

And you thought genealogies were just boring lists, hey?

But why am I bringing up Tamar? The woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that her father-in-law (she was widowed) would sleep with her and give her a son? Not a fantastic role model, surely?

Well, actually, maybe she is. Okay, it all seems pretty off to us, and more than slightly of icky to us married ladies, but this was a woman who no one was looking out for. She was a widow, promised to be married to Judah’s youngest son (the other two had died on her, the second deliberately not impregnating her). The promise was not fulfilled, so where did this leave her? There’s a reason the law and the prophets and the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters all contain commands to care for widows; they often weren’t cared for. No male relatives could mean no money, no house. If Tamar was pretending to be a prostitute once, it was better than being reduced to being one forever once her father had died and she had nowhere to go.

So she takes matters into her own hands. She stands up for herself and when she is accused of “whoredom” she exposed Judah to himself; he is not only the kind of man who’ll take a prostitute, but one who will neglect his daughter-in-law and then says “let her be burned” when he hears her doing the very thing he has done (38:24). So he says “she is more in the right than I”. You go girl! Well, sort of.

Now, we need not take Tamar’s example literally. It goes without saying that none of us need to become father-in-law bedding fake prostitutes! But what I can see from this is that it takes all sorts. God doesn’t make women with cookie cutter; sweet and perfectly formed. Just as we have to deny society’s lie that there is an ideal look for women, when we can see that God created us in abundant and diverse beauty, so we can refuse to believe that there is one ‘ideal’ woman. Some of us are quiet, some talkative. Some confident, some shy. Some are firey, some gentle. And most of us a big fat mixture.

So, God made them all and gave them their place in the story of our faith. Loyal and obedient Ruth, defiant and assertive Tamar, strong and stoic Mary. And many more. Men and women can learn from these great figures.

Got that? Good.

Right, I’m off to straighten my hair… (it’s funny because it’s true).

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