Ruth as Hero: Responding to David Justice’s ‘Ruth: Model Minority’
The book of Ruth is the Bible’s only bucolic idyll and, as the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter says, “one of the few truly successful stories in any literature that concentrates almost exclusively on good people.” It is, he concludes, “one of literature’s most touching stories with a happy ending” (vol. 3, 621, 624). Yet, despite its apparent superficiality, the book is deep, complex, and difficult. The most jarring moment is when Naomi advises her daughter-in-law Ruth to crawl into bed at the feet of an older, drunken foreign man. Despite Alter’s description of the book as about “good people,” Naomi herself is rather ambiguously portrayed, which in turn presents sharp questions about Ruth’s dedication to her. Should Ruth really have sacrificed so much for such an uninspiring mother-in-law?
In “Ruth: The Model Minority?” David Justice teases out these and other troubling threads within the story, challenging the happy, felt-board depictions we might have grown up with. Justice’s critical engagement, while not wholly negative, analyzes the text through feminist and postcolonial lenses, discerning tropes of misogyny and cultural imperialism therein.
While Justice’s liberation-theological approach reflects the enduring accomplishment of that movement — namely, attentiveness to the ways that oppressors can misuse and abuse Scripture — it also reveals its shortcomings. In their eagerness to discern oppressive structures at work, liberation theologians often skim a text’s superficial surfaces, failing to plumb the depths of wisdom just beneath. On other occasions, they miss everything — surface, depths, and all. This is never (or rarely, and certainly not in Justice’s case) a result of stupidity. Rather, blinded by certain premises and expectations, they are unable to see what is right in front of them. Or, seeing it, they cannot identify it — so that courage becomes capitulation and virtue becomes victimhood.
Justice describes Ruth using evidence from the biblical text, yet he uses this data to fashion a mosaic which bears almost no resemblance to the biblical character. Justice’s Ruth is diminished, stripped of agency and vibrancy alike, her redemption transformed into one last exploitation.
Purpose and Dating of Ruth
Justice’s piece was inspired by his reading of Robert Alter’s magnificent translation of and commentary of the Hebrew Bible — specifically by Alter’s belief that the story of Ruth is “a quiet polemic against the opposition of Ezra and Nehemiah to intermarriage with the surrounding peoples when the Judahites returned to the land in the fifth century B.C.E.” This reading obviously depends upon a post-exilic dating for the narrative’s composition, which Alter says is “the consensus of biblical scholars” (Vol. 3, 621-622). The text of Ruth establishes the story’s setting as during the time of Judges but makes no claim about when the narrative itself was written; hence, even the most stringent inerrantist need not fear this (claimed) consensus. However, Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman III claim that a post-exilic dating, while common among “scholars of a previous generation,” is less common today (145). Murray D. Gow likewise affirms that the anti-Ezra-Nehemiah intermarriage theory was “widely accepted in the early twentieth century, but rarely today,” and that “many scholars believe the book is preexilic.” Moreover, Ezra and Nehemiah would likely have no problem with the book anyway, given that Boaz does not marry a foreigner as such, but rather “a true convert” (705).
Still, Gow suggests that the book can naturally be viewed as supporting the full inclusion of Gentile converts. While giving a pre-exilic dating, Dillard and Longman see it as perhaps legitimating and even encouraging Gentile support for the Davidic line (implying that the intended audience may not have been exclusively or even primarily Jewish). Gow likewise notes that if David were already known to have ancestry among the hated Moabites, then Ruth would function as a critical piece of royal propaganda.
Interestingly, while these pre-exilic readings perhaps downplay the feminist angle, they provide just as much fodder related to cultural imperialism. What is lost, however, is a delicious piece of intra-canonical dispute of the sort that some modern scholars find impossible to resist.
Working from a postmodern premise that texts have no stable meanings because meaning is a negotiation between reader and text, liberationist readings tend to blur the lines between a text itself and the text’s reception. Whatever its philosophical merits, this approach tends in practice to produce sloppy reading and unclear writing.
Justice, for instance, shifts from text to reception and back without any analytical clarity. He worries, as do I, about “the potentially harmful ramifications such a story could have on a society that accepts Ruth’s behavior as normative for immigrants/foreigners.” Likewise, his final call to action is to accept “the beauty” in “Scripture and Christian tradition” while “also paying attention to the potential for harm when they are misused to fortify dangerous ideologies.” And so we should. The language of “misuse,” though, suggests that there is a proper use of Ruth which would not do harm. Yet Justice also clearly perceives oppressive tendencies in the text itself. Though the book’s author, says Justice, “was likely attempting to depict the main character in as virtuous a light as possible, he also created a character severely lacking in agency and happily willing to acquiesce to various types of oppression.”
Justice incidentally presumes male authorship. Some posit female authorship because Ruth and Naomi unquestionably occupy the center stage, and also because the book “is unique among ancient literature in celebrating female friendship” [Gow, 707]. This is a rather reductionist view, perhaps, but there’s no reason to rule out the possibility.
Putting aside for a moment the shortcomings of his description of Ruth, note that Justice attributes the problem not to reception but to authorial depiction. He also contends that “cultural imperialism… shapes the narrative” in ways that are “perhaps not immediately visible in the text itself.” So is the issue misuse and bad reception or a flawed text? Liberation theologians generally reject the premise that one can make such a distinction, a posture that encourages a lack of clarity in thinking and writing. There’s an ambiguity throughout Justice’s piece that feels less studied than just fuzzy.
Liberation theology frequently highlights abusive and oppressive uses of biblical texts, as Justice does. For this, we should be grateful. But liberation theology’s animating spirit is extra-biblical and arguably unbiblical — flowing not from the Church but from modern Western philosophy. Philosophy, not Scripture, functions as the measuring stick — the canon — for determining what liberates and leads to human flourishing versus what oppresses and diminishes. Ironically, these standards — as we shall later explore — are generally reflective of a modern Western and male perspective on agency and autonomy, resulting in a tendency to erase alternative, non-Western, non-male visions of flourishing and freedom.
Justice suggests that “we honor Scripture and Christian tradition if we critically engage with them.” It is true that critical engagement takes the Bible seriously and “honors” the Bible as a text worth studying. But for a Christian reading the Scriptures as canon within and alongside the Church, to distinguish between abuses of reception and an inherently liberating text marks the difference between a critic and a disciple.
Reading Ruth Rightly
Let’s return to Justice’s assertion that Ruth is “a character severely lacking in agency and happily willing to acquiesce to various types of oppression.” While I agree with Justice’s concerns about the potential for misuse of the book, this is a very strange description of a character whose very first act is to defy the repeated commands of her mother-in-law. Justice notes that Naomi “never acts except to command Ruth” — an oversimplification but one that is very nearly true — yet he misses that Ruth’s first two speeches (one in concert with her sister-in-law) are made in defiance of Naomi’s commands.
Justice portrays Ruth as “exploited, albeit willingly… for her labor in obtaining food.” Yet, when we turn to the text, we find Ruth taking the initiative in petitioning her mother-in-law, “Let me go, pray, to the field, and glean from among the ears of grain” (2:2, Alter). Her mother-in-law’s “command” is actually a response to Ruth’s request. Meanwhile, in Ruth 3:9, we find that it is Ruth, shockingly, who proposes marriage to Boaz. That she does so indirectly — and that her petition to Naomi (“Let me go, pray”) sounds self-abasing to our ears — reflects the cultural norms of her day. We may wish that the ancients spoke like 21st-century American women, but to assume that all liberated women in all cultures must do so is not only anachronistic but is its own form of cultural imperialism. Given that the text presents Ruth not as passive but, to the contrary, as remarkably assertive, it is startling that Justice sees her as weak and powerless.
Or perhaps not so startling.
Simon Chan has convincingly argued that modern feminism sometimes produces an ironic and deeply troubling form of cultural imperialism. Modern Western philosophy tells non-Western women that they can only be free if they reject their own cultural understandings of freedom and instead embrace a modern Western conception of agency. Justice criticizes the text for erasing Ruth’s Moabite culture, and yet it is Justice himself who erases Ruth’s agency. More charitably, he simply cannot see her rightly. To liberation theologians, Ruth’s defiance of Naomi cannot be understood as agential precisely because she uses her agency to serve another. The problem with Ruth is not that she lacks agency but that she uses her agency to make choices liberationists do not like.
Once we see Ruth for who she actually is — not a helpless and submissive foreigner who is acted upon but rather as an actor in her own right making her own choices — many of Justice’s concerns evaporate.
But not all. Justice worries that the idealized portrayal upholds impossible standards that inevitably lead to disappointment when all the Moabites not named Ruth turn out to be less perfect than she. In general, this is a legitimate concern. There are certain strains of “chivalry” culture that put women on an idealized pedestal, and it is my experience that such abstractly positive attitudes can rapidly transform into concrete misogyny when actual women inevitably turn out not to be prelapsarian innocents. The question is whether this is true of Ruth’s portrayal. It is only relevant “if” Ruth stands “in for all foreign women” in order to “make a case for their inclusion in Israelite culture.”
This is a big “if.” For one thing, there is absolutely no textual reason to cast Ruth as exemplary for what Israelites could expect of foreign women — and good reason to think otherwise. There is another Moabite in the text — Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, Orpah. After the two daughters-in-law begin following Naomi to Israel, the older woman commands them to leave. Orpah and Ruth together object. Naomi then commands them more firmly, and Orpah, weeping, turns back to Moab. The text does not criticize this act, not even implicitly. Orpah is just an ordinary good woman who, it seems, deeply loves her mother-in-law but, at the end of the day, chooses Moab over Israel. If there’s any “normative” foreign woman in the narrative — and I am not sure there is — it would be Orpah. And if it is she who stands in for all foreign women, then the audience would be trained to expect ordinary human goodness of them — not Ruth’s patently extraordinary loyalty.
Nor is it entirely clear that post-exilic Israelites are the sole or primary audience. Scholars have posited a variety of potential audiences, and I do not know of any good reason to assume that any one — or only one — is correct. Nor does it really matter, in that whoever reads the book of Ruth should strive to be like Ruth. Read canonically, this accords closely with Jesus’ repeated upholding of Gentile faith. Jesus is not commending Gentiles as such to the Jews, nor is he calling for Gentiles specifically to act a certain way. Rather, he calls all of us — especially the prideful — to emulate this particular Gentile, and in so doing, he undermines ethnic superiority.
Moreover, understood in its original context — whether of David’s time or that of Ezra-Nehemiah — the positive depiction of a Moabite would not be likely to create unreasonably positive expectations for the hated Moabites. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that Justice did not highlight another and more applicable concern — what in an American context is called the trope of the “exceptional Negro.” Here brilliance and accomplishments become exceptions that prove the rule. Virtues are not celebrated but exhibited. By this reading, Ruth’s astonishing virtue does not transform Hebrew hearts towards Moab but rather functions as a circus act that reinforces — by contrast with the less extraordinary Moabites one knows — their general inferiority.
These are all legitimate as critiques of textual reception and misuse, but as demonstrated above, they are far removed from the text itself. More relevant is Justice’s previously noted claim that the text erases Ruth’s Moabite culture, a classic concern of liberation theologians. When Ruth chooses Naomi, she chooses Israel — and Israel’s God. Liberation theologians rightfully denounce tendencies among Christian missionaries to confuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the culture of northwestern Europe. Nevertheless, we must remember that “enculturation” is a means and not an end. The final purpose is not the Gospel presented in an authentically indigenous manner but rather the Gospel so presented in order that authentically indigenous persons and cultures can be faithfully incorporated into Jesus Christ’s mystical Body, the Church. Nor should advocates of enculturation forget that the Gospel has a cultural context of its own — our Incarnate Lord took on first-century Jewish flesh, flesh which remains hypostatically united to his person today. I take it as a premise that there is no human culture in which the Gospel cannot be expressed — but it is equally the case that the Gospel’s role must include the judgment and transformation of every culture.
We live under the new covenant, in which the Church eventually figured out that, while the Gospel is inherently Jewish in origins and in context, Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christians. Under the old covenant, though, the renunciation of Moab was necessary to join Israel. As canonical readers of Scripture, we can recognize that Jesus Christ transformed this principle — but we also have to understand it as part of salvation history. When we put ourselves under the text as disciples instead of over it as critics, we are led to ask a troubling question: how could the erasure of Moabite culture be part of Ruth’s liberation? We must be cautious in answering that question, as well as in dealing with other thorny elements such as Ruth’s nocturnal visit to Boaz at Naomi’s behest. To be honest, I am not sure how best to resolve these questions myself, though I suspect the right answer involves reading alongside the early Church with attentiveness to the four senses of Scripture. It is one thing to acknowledge a difficulty, but simply to dismiss parts of Scripture as inherently oppressive seems to me a profoundly arrogant act, one that renders us incapable of approaching the text as disciples.
Justice further complains that, despite her perfect assimilation into Israel, Ruth is “never fully accepted into Israelite culture” because she is always identified as a Moabite and thereby “kept at arm’s length.” It is true that Ruth is consistently recognized as ethnically Moabite — and yet she is highly honored. Would Justice prefer a “colorblind” approach, where the Israelites become so enlightened that they don’t even notice that this remarkable woman is ethnically foreign? Where the author and audience are so ethnically neutral that they no longer see ethnicity?
The Few Heroes of Scripture
It seems to me that Justice prefers Orpah to Ruth — a decent woman but mediocre, one from whom goodness can be expected but not greatness, an ordinary foreigner who chooses her own culture over that of Israel and Israel’s God. And as a model for what we should expect from others, I can see the merits. But as a model for who we should emulate in our own lives, not so much. Brilliantly, the text of Ruth gives us both, if we have eyes to see. It undermines xenophobia with the ordinary good woman Orpah, and it challenges each of us to live up to the extraordinary love and devotion of Ruth.
The Scriptures give us vanishingly few unambiguous heroes outside our Lord himself — though we do get a few unambiguous villains. Nearly all the Bible’s protagonists are inconsistent at best. More often they are consistently disappointing, from the coward Adam to the liar Abraham all the way down to that pack of fools who constitute the original apostolic Church. Yet we do have a few figures of heroic virtue who stand far outside the canonical norm. It is perhaps not surprising that, in this era of antiheroes, contemporary scholars should resent these genuine heroes and attempt to tear them down.
King Saul’s heir apparent, Jonathan, comes to mind. As you might expect, the portrayal of a crown prince willingly handing over his kingdom to a rival is simply dismissed out of hand by many scholars today. Instead, his portrayal must have been an ex post facto whitewashing by Davidic propagandists. Jonathan is a type and figure of John the Baptist, greatest “among those born of women” (Matt. 8:11) — whose greatness climaxes in self-denial: “he must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). The scholars cannot accept him either, once again reading the biblical portrayal as a piece of political rhetoric crafted by Jesus’ followers to undermine a rival.
Ruth is another of these few unambiguously good biblical characters. Where Jonathan foreshadows John the Baptist, Ruth — the great-grandmother of David — is an image and type of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, like Ruth, exercises her agency in relinquishing her will. Ruth’s assent to Naomi — “Whatever you say to me I will do” — becomes Mary’s fiat.
To prefer mediocrity, to see heroic self-denial as weakness and renunciation of self as oppression — this is to miss the Gospel in its entirety. With Scripture’s few truly heroic figures undermined, we are left with no heroes to emulate — not even our Lord himself, whose distinguishing mark is his humility, who comes to us as a servant in self-abnegation, and who, if we would become part of his family and walk with him in newness of life, requires that first we die.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar (earthaltar.org). He taught for nine years at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia.