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Ruth: The Model Minority?

The story of Ruth is well known in Western culture even outside of Christian circles. Ruth’s pledge of loyalty—“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die there will I be buried.”1—is eloquent and memorable for its passion and fierce loyalty. I have been familiar with this story for some time, but recently re-read it and was surprised by an interesting detail. Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and well known Hebrew Bible scholar, states in his translation of the Hebrew Bible that the book Ruth was likely written to try and convince Israelites that intermarriage with surrounding peoples was licit in the midst of a conservative reform movement.2 Thus, Ruth in the narrative stands as the archetypal noble foreigner that the Israelites should be willing to welcome into their midst. This detail provided by Alter has caused me to see the narrative of Ruth through a new lens in conversation with some feminist philosophers. More specifically, though the author of Ruth 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.3 This depiction arguably bolsters subhuman standards for foreigners, especially foreign women, which are still present in our culture to this day.4 Below I explore this alternative interpretation, though I do not believe it needs to replace a more traditional reading. Rather, what I present here unpacks the potentially harmful ramifications such a story could have on a society that accepts Ruth’s behavior as normative for immigrants/foreigners.  

I first wish to put the book of Ruth into conversation with Sandra Bartky, specifically regarding the production of “docile bodies.” These docile bodies are created via systems of coercion that are a part of culture and reinforced by culture.5 Women are especially subject to this coercion, expected to conform their bodies to these forces. Bartky states, for example, that women are expected to diet, hold their bodies in certain ways, take up little space, etc. Women acquiesce to these coercive forces as a part of their feminine identity; this is part of what makes them culturally acceptable as women. Similarly, Ruth, in order to qualify as the ideal woman, is expected to submit to those around her and the culture surrounding her. Her only recorded interactions are with her mother-in-law Naomi and her future husband Boaz, and in each of these she is putting her own self and self-interest under the control of others. Naomi even sends Ruth, at night, to a likely drunk Boaz—who reasonably may be expected to force himself on her, as Alter notes6—in order to attempt to convince him to marry her, and Ruth’s reply is merely: “All that you tell me I will do.”7 Ruth also immediately conforms to the Israelite’s customs without question or complaint. Time and again the narrative shows Ruth placing the interests of the Israelites above her own, and marveling whenever they deign to treat her well (e.g. Ruth 2:10). 

If Ruth is intended to stand in for all foreign women and make a case for their inclusion in Israelite culture, the message the author of Ruth sends is that foreign women are perfectly submissive and obedient. They are willing to conform their wills and bodies to our needs and culture, and thus they should be allowed to live among us. This sort of argument is similar to some of the well-intentioned but deeply flawed abolitionist rhetoric in America, which claimed that enslaved Black persons were especially loving and forgiving, and therefore if they were freed they would not seek revenge.8 In attempting to speak well of women like Ruth, the author of Ruth sets up impossible to meet and deeply destructive expectations in the minds of his audience. 

The character Ruth is also subject to various types of oppression, some of which have been mentioned already. Ruth is exploited, albeit willingly in the narrative, both for her labor in obtaining food for Naomi—who, in the narrative, never acts except to command Ruth—and for her fertility. Ruth occupies a position of relative powerlessness, and is subject to the threat of violence as a nubile foreign woman.9 However, I wish to focus on the presence of cultural imperialism in the narrative due to the fact that I believe it shapes the narrative, but is perhaps not immediately visible in the text itself. Iris Young, in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, defines cultural imperialism as the experience of “the dominant meanings of a society render[ing] the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s own group and mark it out as the Other.”10 

In the text of Ruth, we are told that Ruth is a Moabite woman, but for the entirety of the narrative she acts only according to Israelite customs. She submits to Israel’s God (Ruth 1:16-17), follows Israelite customs for dressing as a widow (Ruth 3:311), gathers grain according to Israelite law (Ruth 2:7), and marries according to Israelite levirate marriage (Ruth 3:9). Throughout the narrative there is no hint that Ruth ever objects to Israelite custom or is even unfamiliar with it. Her Moabite culture is entirely invisible. Yet, she is consistently marked as Other. She is incessantly identified either as “the Moabite” or “Ruth the Moabite” (e.g. Ruth 2:2, 2:6, 2:21, 4:5 and 4:10). Thus, she is never fully accepted into Israelite culture—her status as foreigner separates her from the rest of the community—yet she is portrayed as unquestioningly adhering to a culture that is not her own. Again, given that Ruth is intended to stand in as the ideal foreign woman, the author of Ruth has set up an expectation wherein foreigners ought to be accepted into Israelite society—while kept at arm’s length—only if they completely devote themselves to a culture that is not their own. Cultural imperialism is baked into the narrative of Ruth as the means by which those from outside the community can prove themselves worthy of a limited acceptance. 

In closing, it is clear that these types of problematic narratives exist still today. Women are still expected to regulate themselves and allow coercive cultural forces to mold them into docile bodies willing to acquiesce to the larger cultural forces surrounding them—a process that has been described as “negative embodiment.” And, at least in America, immigrants are expected to embody American cultural values, but should not expect to be fully welcomed into American society. “Foreigners” who fail to embody these values or who demand full acceptance into the community are often told to go back where they came from. Thus, the troubling elements of Ruth remain relevant today, and Christians need to be careful not to perpetuate these problems by uncritically holding up characters like Ruth as the embodiment of virtue. Rather, we honor Scripture and Christian tradition if we critically engage with them, accepting the beauty—e.g. the loyalty displayed by Ruth—but also paying attention to the potential for harm when they are misused to fortify dangerous ideologies. 

 

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David Justice

David Justice

David Justice is currently working on his Ph.D. in Christian Theology with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Saint Louis University. He primarily studies Martin Luther King Jr. and liberation theology. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from Greenville College, after which he earned an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri in St. Louis and an M.A. in Theological Ethics from Saint Louis University. He, his wife Mariah, and their two sons Abraham and Theseus live in St. Louis. They enjoy spending time together and seeking out the construction vehicles Abraham so enjoys. In David’s little free time he likes to watch E-sports and tweet about funny things his kids do. Follow him on social media: @DavidtheJust.

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