Ruth and Esther: A New Interpretation of Women in the Bible
For thousands of years, the structure of society centered on patriarchy and the idea that women were lower than men. During the past century, there has been enormous strides to rid the world of this false notion that women are somehow lower than men. Women are afforded rights that were previously denied them and they continue to move towards a closer equality to men. Aside from change in society’s view of women, there has also been changes in the way Catholicism treats woman. The change however is made difficult because of the writings within sacred scripture. Women in these texts are often shown as a being which tempts man to sin, or subservient to man. The sacred texts cannot be removed simply because they contain stories that disagree with present day societal beliefs. Theologians must reinterpret these stories to coincide with modern day ideals. One sees the reinterpretation in two important stories of the old testament: Ruth and Esther. Theologians’ interpretations of what these women stand for has developed and changed throughout history. In the bible stories, one can see how they are poorly portrayed in society and how they are mistreated treated in a patriarchal system. Using contemporary interpretations from scholars and theologians today, one can see the development of a new understanding of the role of women in society and their status.
In the story of Ruth is is easy to see how women are depicted in a male dominated society. They were seen as simple property without much more use than producing offspring. The task then becomes two things. First, one must recognize in what ways does the text fall short of equality for men and women. Second, how one can reconcile this portrayal of women in light of progress that society has made. There are a few ways to do this. One way is to reinterpret the scripture. This can be done by theologians and is a way of showing not how these women were property but instead show how they were able to do great things against not only incredible odds but also against the societal norms. Another way to reinterpret these stories involves looking through the lens of modern day feminism.
First, one must understand at what points the text is inherently filled with a bias against women. This is especially evident in the story of Ruth. Phyllis Trible, a feminist scholar, describes how after the death of Naomi’s husband died “the narration focuses entirely upon her, but it avoids her name” (Trible 253). She was no longer worth a name because she was stripped of all her worth. “From wife to widow, from mother to no mother, this female is stripped of her identity. The security of the household and children, which a male dominated culture affords its women, is hers no longer. The definition of worth, by which it values the female, applied to her no more.” (Trible 253) Trible explains. In the male dominated Jewish society of the 1100’s BC, a woman’s worth is entirely dependent on her connection to another male. Not only is this seen in the story but also by the way it is written. Trible makes this point again. She recounts the verse in which Naomi orders her daughters-in-law to remarry. Trible says that “If their lives are to be fulfilled, then they must remarry, because their male-structured society offers no other possibility,” (Trible 255). Clearly the world the people in Ruth were living in was one that lowered women’s purpose in life, while glorifying that of men.
Once the bias is identified, one is able to reinterpret the rest of the story. Theologians are able to reevaluate the story of Ruth and Esther to understand how the stories fit into the modern interpretation. For example, in Esther, one could be quite troubled by the heroine’s actions and think she is a bad model for the Jewish woman. Sidnie Crawford describes how Esther “has sexual intercourse with and marries a Gentile, lives in the Persian court, and does not follow Jewish dietary laws” (Crawford). From her actions, Esther appears poorly not only as a woman, but also as a Jew. Crawford argues that such reading fails to understand the purpose of the book. Instead, this is a story which “demonstrates to Jews living in exile that it is possible to achieve success in the country of one’s exile without giving up one’s identity as a Jew.” (Crawford) While other biblical stories also show a similar story line, Esther is unique in that “the protagonist of the book, and the one with whom the audience should identify, is a woman, Esther” (Crawford).
The story of Esther allows the Jewish people to identify with Esther. She is a symbol of the exile they faced and represents what it is to be stuck in a foreign land without much power. Esther is interpreted as a woman representing the Jews as a whole, which is an extremely powerful image. Crawford does not take Esther as a weak woman who is controlled by Mordecai and King Ahasuerus but rather someone who uses “her beauty, charm, and political intelligence, and by taking one well-placed risk, Esther saves her people, brings about the downfall of their enemy, and elevates her kinsman to the highest position in the kingdom. Esther becomes the model for the Jew living in exile.” (Crawford) This shows us that no matter how one is viewed by society, through faith and dedication they can do anything even save their people. Aside from the being a representation of the Jewish people, Esther serves as a model of the courage. Irene Nowell describes how Esther “risks her life in approaching the king without being summoned” (Nowell). Esther puts her people before her own life. She is not a weak woman who submits to the will of men but rather a strong woman who makes her own way regardless of laws and norms. Nowel likens Esther to a redeemer “who delivers the people through courage and wit.” (Nowel). Esther is a Christ-like figure who saves her people by placing her self at risk. Recognizing this strength is key to the modern interpretation of Esther.
The story of Ruth also portrays the reinvention of women through a new exegesis. In his analysis of the treatment of Ruth, Jonathan Magonet argues that Ruth is is not a low person without power but rather a model for the Jewish faith even though she was a convert. Magonet shows that what is important is not the fact she is a woman or an outsider, but that “it is the affirmation of faith in Israel's God, and not, for example, the wish to marry into a Jewish family, that becomes the primary requirement for accepting a convert” (Magonet 151). She is a model of faith that others must copy. Magonet also enforces the idea of determination and loyalty that Ruth exhibits. He recalls the departure of Ruth’s sister-in-law and says that it “emphasizes the choice of Ruth, the protagonist, and her determination to cling to Naomi” (Magonet 562). Again, Ruth is a model of what it means to follow the Covenant. She is someone who lives to serve others and is a model of faith. This story paints woman is such an awful light is hard to be redeemed. Trible illustrates however, how even this story can illustrate the strength and dignity of woman. As Trible notes, Ruth is able to make her own way. Ruth goes to the field belonging to Boaz, and speaks to him as a foreigner. He recognized that “Ruth is no ordinary individual,” (Trible 261). He allows her to work and then questions his decision, as though she were superior. “The favor which Boaz gives her, is the favor that she sought. Therefore, she, not he, is shaping her destiny,” (Trible 261). Ruth is not a powerless individual but rather a smart woman who is able to direct those around her in order to better her situation.
It is clear that through the feminist view the story may be reevaluated and a new meaning can be taken from story. Another prominent feminist who analyzes the story of Ruth is Margaret Crook. Crook takes a different approach to the story than Trible. Crook focuses on the great characteristics of Ruth. She highlights that Ruth was enormously faithful to her mother and to God. Crooks says that Ruth was “an avowed worshiper of the Lord, the God of Israel, dedicated to the task of bringing up the house of Israel,” (Crook 157). The strength and dedication of Ruth separates her from the societal norms of women at this time. The role of women has developed much since the times of the Old Testament. It then becomes the responsibility of contemporary scholars to find meaning in these outdated stories. When this exegesis is performed, one can see that it is no longer about keeping women down but rather building them up. The women become models of faith, devotion, intelligence and beauty. Today, these women can be used as models for the oppressed people or help others understand their faith better. They are a symbol of how no matter the conditions of one’s society are, great things can be accomplished with faith and devotion. In addition to this, the stories can be used to encourage the equal treatment of women in the world today, especially in third world countries where women are still in such poor conditions. The stories will become a means by which we can understand the equality of genders.
Picture from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism