Week 25: Ruth and Hannah
The work of Feminist scholarship is to critique and question Scripture from a female perspective in light of the ideals of justice and equity. It is to evaluate the stories of the Bible in view of the hope of God’s Shalom where – as the prophet sees it: “the lion lies down with the lamb” and as the apostle Paul sees it: “there is no more male and female…but all are one in Christ Jesus.” This ideal clearly has not yet come into being in our own human reality and it does not exist in Scripture. This equality and oneness is only hinted at, only dreamed about in the stories of the women, our mothers, preserved for us in our Bible.
For the most part, the stories of Scripture reflect the patriarchal mores of first, the ancient Middle East and later the Roman Empire. Woven throughout these secular influences, in addition to the assumptions of these pagan societies are the religious convictions of the people of Israel. Our Bible comes to us from a stream of faith: people of God doing their best to make sense of the Mystery of the Holy in a confusing, broken world. The Israelites and the Church did not exist in a vacuum; expectations and pressures from the surrounding culture were powerful forces then as they are still today. Often we limited humans are blind to the many ways the material can manipulate our perception of the spiritual.
The women of the Bible do not necessarily show us how women ought to behave; rather they tell us something about how women throughout history have acted within their time and place, in their particular circumstances. These women are not to be used as templates for our own standards of acceptable or unacceptable behavior. Sexual ethics and family values then and now are dramatically different; many values have made seismic shifts and have evolved throughout human history so that it is irresponsible for us moderns to apply the mores of these ancient texts to our own time and place without a careful and discerning interpretative effort.
The voices of biblical woman are mostly muted, filtered through the voices of the male writers of the text. Even so, the women of Scripture speak to us from the edges, from the underside of power and privilege. Women from a vast variety of circumstances demonstrate God’s way of startling reversal and they surely can be admired for their stubborn faithfulness.
For our Living in The Story texts this week, let’s look at the lives of two fascinating Old Testament women: Hannah and Ruth.
I love the story of Hannah. Hannah is one more in a long line of biblical characters experiencing God’s surprising abundance that interrupted her emptiness and barrenness. Barrenness is a major theme throughout the stories of the Bible. In the cultural expectations of their world (and in too many societies still today) women are made to be mothers, child bearers. When that didn’t happen, when a woman was barren, there was significant shame for the woman and loss of standing for the family.
Hannah was Elkanah’s second wife; she was barren and she was heartbroken. Even the affection of an unusually tender husband was no comfort for the emptiness of her womb. As the story goes, during a visit to the sacred tent of meeting in Shiloh, Hannah wept and prayed so fervently, the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk! (Don’t get me started on this insensitive misogyny!) As Hannah begged and prayed through her tears, she promised that, if God would give her a son, she would offer him back to God. A kind of tithe of the firstborn.
The priest, to his credit, listened to Hannah’s pain and sent her home with a blessing and a hope for the Lord’s intervention on her behalf. As the story goes, her prayer was answered and she became pregnant within the year.
After a time of weeping and waiting, Hannah is now waiting in joy for the delivery of God’s promise. She was pregnant with the confidence that God was doing a bold new thing in her life. As she keeps her promise and delivers her weaned child to Eli, she trusts that, not only was God on the move in her own life (and yes, she did have several more children) – but Hannah also sang of God’s faithfulness to Israel:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength…
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts up the needy from the ash heap…
Hannah sings this song of praise, this psalm of redemption, this prophetic refrain of amazing grace in the midst of the startling reversals of her life. Hannah’s barrenness is transformed into abundance as she becomes the mother of Samuel, one of the greatest leaders Israel would ever know. Hannah becomes one of the faithful, timeless heroes within the biblical tradition.
I also love the story of Ruth, which is really a story about Ruth and Naomi. Each is a strong, important character; each shows us how God always has been about the business of bringing unlikely people together and redeeming impossible situations.
Naomi is a daughter of Israel, part of the 12 tribes sprung from the 12 sons of Jacob. This is Naomi’s family tree – the good the bad and the ugly – but everything we know about Naomi makes us love her and respect her while the losses and pain that come into her life cause us to grieve along with her.
Naomi is also barren. Earlier in her life she was a wife and a mother but now she is a woman alone who has buried her husband and two sons. She has been full but now she is empty.
“Do not call me Naomi anymore,” she says to her kinsfolk. “Call me Mara now; for my life has turned to bitterness” (1:20-21).
But she does have Ruth, a faithful daughter in law who refuses to leave the mother of her heart. Ruth is another woman who understands grief and emptiness and who will cling to this one she loves, refusing to be parted. Ruth is another faithful Gentile.
Ruth, also a widow, lives in poverty and uncertainty. Ruth – a foreigner, an immigrant – will face suspicion and distrust from some of the people in her new land. “Many biblical references indicate that Ruth’s ancestry and culture were held in contempt by the people of her new homeland. Moabites were banned from the assembly of the Lord because of their ancestors’ sins.” There would always be Israelites who would consider Ruth the Moabite to be an enemy.
When Naomi and Ruth encountered Boaz, they found a man of privilege and power in Israel who – in a risky act of grace – became protector and provider for these vulnerable women. Out of the fullness of his fields, they found food. Out of the fullness of his character, they found respect. Out of the fullness of his commitment, they found a new home where their emptiness was transformed into plenty. Even in this strongly patriarchal society, here is a beautiful story of the tenacious faithfulness of women, the strong goodness of men and the mysterious work of God weaving grace into the torn fabric of a life.
There is a fascinating twist in the plot of the story of Ruth that most of us modern readers miss. Listen to the advice of the mother in law to her daughter in law:
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz… See he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” Ruth said to Naomi: “All that you tell me I will do.” (chapter 3)
“Uncovering the feet” is a euphemism for uncovering a man’s penis. It seems Ruth made herself sexually available to Boaz in a bold entreaty for his commitment and protection. Naomi and Ruth manipulated Boaz – not necessarily in a “bad” way– but in the only way women of their day were able to get what they needed. Women employing their sexuality in the service of their needs, their families, their very survival continues to this very day in many societies.
Ruth bears a son; Naomi becomes a grandmother. And David, the greatest king Israel would ever know, emerges from this unlikely heritage. Redemption all around. God has always been about the business of bringing unlikely people together and redeeming impossible situations.
The book of Ruth is 85 verses long, but the words “redeem” or “redemption” are used some 23 times. God’s way of doing business is to redeem every situation, every person, every community of people and to bring all things into the fullness and Shalom of God’s ultimate purposes for creation.
I love the stories of faithful women woven through the stories of power and patriarchy in the Bible. Again and again, The Story introduces us to women who have been dismissed and dishonored by their society and yet experienced startling reversals of amazing grace.
Sarah—barren in her old age bears a son of promise (Genesis 21)
Hagar—used and abused by her masters becomes the mother of a nation (Genesis 21)
Tamar—cheated out of a child by the deceptions of Jacob’s family exposes their hypocrisy by her own cunning. She is honored by Matthew when he includes her in the genealogy of Jesus (Genesis 38)
Shiphrah and Puah—midwives in Egypt defy a pharaoh and protect the lives of the male infants, including their deliverer, Moses (Exodus 1)
Rahab – a foreigner, an enemy who protected the spies of Israel and whose life was spared in the battle. She too is included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Joshua 2)
Deborah – leading the tribes of Israel in battle and in wisdom (Judges 4)
The Widow of Zarephath – a poor gracious woman willing to share her little bit of oil and flour (1 Kings 17)
Bathsheba – raped, impregnated and made a widow by Israel’s king David, she too, with her husband, are honored by Matthew in Jesus’ genealogy as “the wife of Uriah” (2 Samuel 11-12)
Elizabeth—barren and menopausal bears a son, the prophet John, who prepares the way for the Messiah (Luke 1)
Mary—young, poor, powerless, unmarried but chosen nevertheless to become the mother of Jesus; Mary, like Hannah, sings a psalm of poetic prophecy concerning God’s way of startling reversals of grace (Luke 1 and 2)
“What God is doing is none of our business and beyond our control,” my friend, Suzanne Stabile, taught me. I don’t particularly like that; I would much rather know what God is doing, why and how long it will take. But such knowing rarely happens for us humans.
There is something, though, that is most definitely our “business.” Our business is whatever God calls us to do: our vocation, our ministry, our life, our story. Even when our own lives seem out of our control; even when the chapters of our lives make unexpected plot twists, we can hold on to hope that God is working in and through us and we can trust that somehow or another, in God’s mercy and mystery, our one little part can make a difference.
Especially as women of faith living in the 21st century in the nations of the West, we have special opportunity and responsibility to step up to the fullness of our lives. Those of us who enjoy some privilege and power, those of us who have found our voice must speak and stand and advocate for our sisters who continue to live with oppression, violence and disrespect.
When our feeble efforts of faith intersect God’s infinite, immense faithfulness then we too can be about God’s business of:
Breaking the bows of the mighty and empowering the weak;
Lifting up the poor and challenging the rich;
Intersecting darkness with light and love and hope;
Interrupting barrenness with abundance and grace;
Creating rich, diverse community.
So as we go about our living, we can ask ourselves: does our “business” look anything like God’s work of surprising grace and God’s way of startling reversals? I hope so. God IS on the move – doing all sorts of surprising things in our lives and in the lives of all kinds of people all around us. Will we be a part of that story? I certainly hope so.
Women of Dong ethnic group make embroidery works at Tongle Village in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on January 26, 2013. The embroidery works made by Dong women have been sold to Britain. [Xinhua]
Women of Buyi ethnic group weave cloth at Wangmo County in Qianxinan Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, Nov. 16, 2012. (Source: Xinhua]
Quote from Kathleen Robertson Farmer, “The Book of Ruth,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998) 919.
Also recommended: Women in Scripture, Carol Meyers, General Editor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).
The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).