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A Womanist Interpretation of the Book of Ruth

By Janice Mcrandal, Director – The Cooperative

I remember the first time I read an Indigenous reading of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. Specifically, a reading that highlighted the violence of one religious group driving out a local people and claiming land in the name of their God. I was shocked. Why had I never thought of it this way? Why had I ignored the position and plight of those driven from their home? What does this mean to how I read the Bible and what I think of God?

The books of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are rich and complicated. There are endless interpretive lenses, with countless reputable scholars representing countless reputable positions. Sometimes we tend toward viewing all this as a threat to a faith that must be kept simple. But I disagree: I see the evolving traditions of biblical interpretation as a joyful invitation. It’s exciting to look at a familiar story or text with fresh eyes, to see what we’ve never seen, and to challenge our faith with ideas we are not yet sure what to do with.

Take, for example, the story of Ruth and her relationship to Naomi. Often it is read as a historical document, sometimes not. Many scholars read the text through the laws of Deuteronomy, and others think about it within the political and social context during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Those within the Jewish faith emphasise the genealogy of King David, and Christians have focussed on the later genealogy of Jesus. Many readings offer a feel-good story about faithfulness and God’s provision for the widow, and some readings, like twentieth-century feminist interpretations, focus on the patriarchal reality of biblical communities and emphasise the women’s story unfolding in the text.

In the recent womanist biblical hermeneutical reader, Yolanda Norton argues that Ruth offers a more complicated narrative than Christians usually encounter. She writes, ‘the text masquerades as a treatise on the inclusion of the other’ and yet it is really a ‘commentary on the assumed virtue of membership and participation in the Israelite community.’ [1] Norton critiques the general assumption that it s a good and righteous thing to sacrifice everything – one’s land, people, god – for an idealised or “superior” community. A womanist reading, which interprets the story from the standpoint of Black women, exposes what Norton describes as an ‘assimilationist tendency of the text’. Even when on the inside, Ruth remains an outsider. She is “Ruth the Moabite” (Ruth 4:10): an acquisition of the Israelite community. At this level, the book of Ruth was a text used to uphold the power structures of Israel, ‘to protect and promote certain norms’ of an exclusive and, at times, excluding community. Such ideas are not without historical implications. As Norton shows, the moral teachings of faithfulness, obedience, and unquestioned sacrifice, commonly drawn from the example of Ruth, have been emphasised to Black women and have indeed been the cause of great harm.

Norton is aware that her reading may shock or confront typical good news readings. But she insists that there is an ethical obligation to engage the many contextual readings, to consider the position of those who live and struggle under conditions different to your own. She argues that womanism is at its best when it refuses to ‘explain away elements of biblical literature that modern sensibilities might find problematic or objectionable in order to produce a more congenial text.’ It’s only when engaging such readings that can we consider the broader and real-life implications of our own interpretations for today.

Ultimately, a womanist reading offers a very different picture of Ruth. It requires that we interrogate the way race, class, and gender operate in beloved biblical stories. The womanist reading is not one that can be easily simplified and flattened out, but nor is it one that reduces Ruth in any way. As Norton insists, despite the story’s difficulties, it nonetheless emphasises ‘the power, agency, and authority that Ruth takes in the narrative despite the embedded oppositional forces at play.’ And this Ruth, viewed through the eyes of another, continues to teach us much.

[1] Yolanda Norton, in “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth”, in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader. Edited by Mitzi Jane Smith. United States: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.

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