In the Book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth return to Jerusalem. The map below provides context as to where they were heading. This of course is a modern map but the end destination is the same.
Ruth and Esther: A Historical and Textual Perspective
In many aspects, society in the ancient world differed much from how society is today. One of the more notable differences is how men are seen as the leaders of the household and also the leaders of government. In the context of Jewish culture, one sees this same pattern of patriarchy. Women were generally seen as the property of men, belonging, first, to their fathers and then to their husbands after marriage. Elisabeth Tetlow describes how even the Ten Commandments, fundamental laws of Jewish society, reflected this view of women. Tetlow describes how “last commandment lists a wife among objects of property which are not to be coveted.” (Tetlow) and how they were even considered “objects of property among the spoils of war” (Tetlow). The stories of Ruth and Esther, in particular, reflect the ancient societies and how they viewed women. If any attempt is made at reinterpreting these stories in a modern feminist sense, one must understand and reflect on the society and time period in which they were written. By evaluating the stories of Ruth and Esther in an historical lens and identifying the shortcomings of the author in regards to equality, steps can then be made to reevaluate the stories in a more egalitarian view.
In order to understand how the woman were first depicted, one must know the story of Ruth and Esther and the time period which the text was written. Ruth’s story begins with her mother-in-law, Naomi, returning to her homeland of Jerusalem. Although Naomi insists that Ruth and her sister return to their homeland, Ruth stays with her mother-in-law vowing “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth shows immense loyalty to Naomi by refusing to leave her. Once arriving in Jerusalem, Ruth and Naomi stay with Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Here, one begins to see the how the authors view of women was that of a subservient being who was completely dependent on the man for purpose. Ruth is working in the field one day when Boaz asks “to whom does this young woman belong” (Ruth 2:5). Clearly, Ruth is presented as more of an object rather than a person. Boaz refers to her as something another person possesses. Boaz continues to let Ruth work in his field and eventually Naomi persuades Ruth into seeking Boaz as a husband. She then bears Boaz a son who will be an ancestor of David. The fact that Ruth is an ancestor of David is an important detail. It is one of the few points in the story where a woman is depicted as being of great importance rather than just someone who serves a man.
The story of Ruth involves a woman who has no place of her own in society. When her husband dies she is left with two choices; stay with her mother or return to her parents. She has no option of beginning a life on her own. Even when she gets to a new land she is persuaded to marry again because then she will have someone to take care of her and her family. The story ends with saying that the offspring of Ruth eventually becomes David. The ending implies that Ruth’s real purpose is to bear a son and her worth is derived from her ability to have children.
It is important to understand the time that this narrative was written to fully comprehend why there were such patriarchal over tones. Although it is not exactly known, it is believed that Ruth was written in the 1100’s BC (“Ruth”). At this time almost all aspects of society were dominated by man. Jewish society was no different. Elisabeth Tetlow wrote how Judaism “had emerged from the oriental patriarchal tradition in which women were considered the property of men with no rights, no role in society except childbearing, and no education.” (Tetlow). It must be understood that at the time the text was written, women were seen subservient to men. Tetlow further describes how Jewish law contributed to this thought. She cites how, according to the Torah, “were impure twice as long after the birth of a daughter as after the birth of a son.” (Tetlow). Here, one sees that the law enhanced the gap between males and females. Woman were not only considered unclean after giving birth but somehow they were considered even more unclean if the birth was a girl. Law and tradition made women lower than male. In addition to examining the time period, one must also examine the author. It is impossible to know who wrote the text of Ruth but was likely a male. This again adds another lens to consider. The author reflects how society is at the time, it becomes the readers job however to understand this and read the text in light of this.
The story of Esther is very different but the same in that it portrays the poor depiction of women within the bible. It begins with King Ahasuerus throwing an enormous party for the nobles in his kingdom. After drinking for some time, he demands an audience with his wife and she refuses. When this happens King Ahasuerus gives the queen’s position “to another who is better than she” (Esther 1:20). The king also declares “that every man be the master in his own house.” (Esther 1:22) With the queen gone, King Ahasuerus must find another wife. He demands that all the virgins from around the kingdom be brought to him and which ever one he chooses will be the new queen. Esther is a beautiful Jewish girl who is chosen to be shown before the king. He finds favor with her and chooses her to replace the old queen.
Shortly after Esther is named queen, a high ranking member of the king’s court, Haman, is angered by Mordecai, the adoptive father of Esther. He then tricks the king into decreeing that the Jews be destroyed. Esther learns of this plot and decides bravely to risk her life to try and save her people. She goes tells him of the plot to kill her people. When he learns of this King Ahasuerus is furious and has Haman hung (Esther 7:10). He then gives Haman’s house to Esther and forbids the destruction of the Jews. The story of Esther shows how low women were within society. They are unable to refuse anything that their husbands demand of them and are even punished for doing so. One can also see that woman were primarily judged on their beauty and virginity. Remaining a virgin and being beautiful made them more valuable.
Again, it is important to understand the historical and cultural background when reading this text to fully understand why women were portrayed in this way. The text is believed to be written after the Babylonian Exile but before the Greek conquering of Persia in the 400-300 BC (“Intro to Esther”). Much like the other cultures of the period, Persia was patriarchal. The story itself reflects how Persian society treated women. Along with the Persian society, one again see how Jewish society treats and views women during this period. Very few strides have been made women’s rights since the period of Ruth and women continue to be seen as objects that are bound to men.
Ruth and Esther were both important figures within Jewish scripture. Ruth is key as she becomes an ancestor of David which, by extension, means she is an ancestor of Christ. Esther is a great queen who saves her people from destruction during the Persian rule. Their great accomplishments are brought down by the fact that they are not always depicted as equal to men. Now that historians and theologians have recognized the shortcomings of past authors and societies, they can move forward with understanding the stories in a modern sense. It is now possible to understand what can be taken from the stories as good and what must be interpreted as it now must fit our view of society today. A new light can be shed on the stories that truly shows how great Ruth and Esther really are and a new appreciation for what they accomplished is now possible.