For those of you who have been around here for a long time, you know that I have a strong affinity for a biblical hero named Ruth. She’s one of two women to have an entire book of the (canonically accepted, sorry Judith!) Bible dedicated to her story. She’s one of the very few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus, and she’s awesome. She’s in fact, very very awesome.
So how come this is how we’re taught to read Ruth?:
We should definitely be encouraging women to avoid partnering with neglectful or violent men, when they can be spotted (sometimes you just don’t know until it’s too late). We should moreso be encouraging men and women both to speak out against sexual violence, without constantly placing the blame collectively upon women’s shoulders, but I digress. Having fallen victim to dangerous men in the past, sexual violence one of my biggest concerns. I work with middle school girls at my church, and I’ve talked with them a few times about trusting your gut when it comes to guys (the gut–about as accurate as the Farmer’s Almanac). But that’s not the heart of this message. The heart of this message is shaming women into stasis regarding their love lives, with the promise of a fairytale reward for doing so long enough.
I’m sorry, that’s just not the Ruth I know.
The post starts out saying “To all the girls who are in a hurry to have a boyfriend or get married, a piece of Biblical advice: ‘Ruth patiently waited for her mate Boaz.'” This is not true. In the vast breadth of Ruth’s story, contained in a small, concise space in the Bible, Ruth never once patiently waits for anyone.
Ruth is not a long book to read. It’s only four chapters long, and we’re talking Bible chapters, so they’re like three columns of text each. I’ve read Ruth dozens of times, so many times that I feel like I know Ruth, much like how I know Zinny Taylor or Veralidaine Sarrasri. Ruth has become a part of me, a constant reminder of who I am and how I want to be as a person.
A lot of people take Ruth to be at its heart a Boy-Meets-Girl love story. Ruth waits for Boaz, Boaz redeems Ruth, Boaz and Ruth get to be together. And again, no. No, no, no, no, no.
The post above claims that Ruth waits for Boaz, and so young girls should also wait for the perfect man. But Ruth didn’t wait for Boaz. Ruth married Mahlon shortly after Mahlon’s father died. They had been married for ten years when Mahlon and his brother died. And you can bet that in all that time, Ruth was not waiting for Boaz. In fact, she was probably a teenager when she got married to Mahlon in the first place, and she must have been happy with him–she must have been in love with him, because when he died, she dedicated herself to Naomi.
Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, the woman whose heart flooded with bitterness when faced with the loss of her sons, tried to send Ruth away. She said to both of her daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” (ESV, 1:8-9). But Ruth wouldn’t leave her. Ruth was determined to take care Naomi, no matter what.
So Ruth embarks on a journey from her home country to Naomi’s home town, hundreds of miles away through famine-plagued desert. She says to Naomi, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (ESV 1:16-17).
Phrases from this passage wind up in marriage vows a lot. I understand why; it’s dedication and love, expressed simply and eloquently, and with a lot of passion. Nothing but death will part me from you. Where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay. We also sing these same words in reference to a relationship with God (who, by the way, is not your boyfriend). Taken out of context, Ruth’s statement to Naomi is pretty darn romantic…just like the Ruth/Boaz OTP, amirite?
But Ruth says that to Naomi, to another woman, to her mother-in-law. How old is Ruth here? Probably in her twenties. Anywhere from 23 to 29, I’d say. She’s still young, but she’s been married for a decade and is a widow, and her dedication goes to Naomi. In fact, Ruth’s entire relationship with Boaz is about taking care of Naomi.
If Ruth waited patiently for Boaz, as the post suggests, then why did she 1) go harvest barley specifically in his field? 2) eat with him and his (male) friends (so much taboo, guys)? 3) go to the threshing floor at all? Why? Because Boaz, while he’s clearly interested in Ruth, isn’t making any real moves on her. In most of their interactions, Ruth is the initiator. Ruth goes to the field to harvest. And then she tells Naomi, and Naomi concocts the scheme to get Boaz and Ruth together. Ruth goes to the threshing floor for Naomi’s sake as much as for her own. Ruth’s ultimate goal in marrying Boaz is not love; it’s stability. It’s security for herself and for Naomi.
Guess what, dumb post, Ruth settled for Boaz.
Maybe they were a match made in heaven, maybe they were super compatible. I know that Boaz was protective of Ruth, and that he must have been attracted to her. I also know that Boaz was much older than Ruth, and that Ruth was already a widow with a mother-in-law to take care of. I do believe that Boaz and Ruth loved each other, but I also see that this is a marriage of convenience for everyone involved. Boaz gains property. Naomi gains security. Ruth gains both security and a son, which is like double security (#thepatriarchy), and something Mahlon never gave her, in ten years of marriage.
Ruth is active in her life, despite the passive role that her society expects her to play. She pursues Naomi, she pursues Boaz, she pursues a standard of respect for others and herself that is above and beyond the norm. The post, however, just reinforces to girls that their roll in life is passive. You wait for your Boaz, it says. You wait for him like your life depends on it, because there’s only that one perfect man and every other man you meet is going to be a scumbag. All men, except your one perfect Boaz, are lazy, poor abusers, so you must wait for that one perfect Boaz to scramble out of the woodwork, and then he will take care of everything for you.
The only sentiment that the post and Ruth have in common is respect, but even that gets cut short in the post by its accusatory nature. After running through a list of awful men-types (including “Beatinyoaz”) the post says, “Wait on your Boaz and make sure he respects Yoaz.” You know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like the speaker of the post blames women who end up with abusers for the abuse that they endure. Maybe I’m reading into it a little too much, a little too defensively, but all I see here is victim blaming. If only you wait, the post warns, then you won’t end up in a bad relationship. It’s up to you to wait for the perfect man, and if you don’t, then it’s your fault. Even if you wait, if you end up in a bad relationship, then you just didn’t wait long enough.
(Also, the post treats domestic violence as funny. Repeat after me: Domestic violence is not funny. It is a serious crime.)
Seriously, did they even read Ruth?
The heart of Ruth is dedication and love between women. It’s not a just a love story, it’s not just an allegory for God (embodied in Ruth and Boaz, of course, the way most study guides make it out to be). It’s about two women who live under a patriarchal oppression that requires them to have men to take care of them financially, but who band together through tragedy and heartache to find a way to survive in the system. It’s not about a match made in heaven, unless that match is Naomi and Ruth.
You know what Ruth should teach young girls who are anxious to fall in love and get married? That’s okay, but there will be heartache. Your first relationships, no matter how strong and loving, may not last. Maybe it’s extreme, like in Ruth’s case when Mahlon died. Or maybe you’re in high school when you date and then you go to college and things just change (or you’re in college and you go to graduate school, or you get jobs in different places, etc). Or maybe you truly love someone and they betray your trust in such a way that even if you forgive them, you never want to speak their name again. And that’s all okay. Heartache can be survived when we form strong bonds with other women. Date, don’t date, whatever, just be true to yourself and careful with your mind and body. True love is not once in a life time, and it’s not just a romantic partnership.
Ruth is about love, but it ain’t no love story.