Cinderella in the Bible

Esther and Ruth are the Bible’s only books dedicated to the stories of women and named after them. Coming out of a heavily patriarchal, male-dominated world, the surprise is that women got any books at all. To my mind, Ruth is the most memorable biblical woman. 

The context was a particularly strong nationalist and xenophobic period in Israel’s history where people circled the wagons, so to speak, and focused very much on the purity of the Hebrew religion and people. The Second Temple period, beginning about 500 years before Jesus, marked the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon—rebuilding the City of Jerusalem and especially the Temple—on the very spot—the Temple Mount—that’s so much in the news today—a holy site for Jews and Moslems.

Among the new laws that were passed were statutes banning intermarriage with foreigners. Men who were already married to foreign wives were required to divorce them and send them away. Foreign menwere also deported.

So it was in this context that the Book of Ruth was written to express a very different point of view. In a sense it was a very early historical novel, purportedly taking place at least 600 years before it was written. Ruth was a Moabite. The ancient kingdom of Moab was located on the Eastern shore of the Dead Sea and is part of the modern Kingdom of Jordan. 

The story is that Ruth married the son of a Jewish couple who were living in Moab. Her father-in-law, brother-in-law, and her husband all died, leaving only Ruth, her sister-in-law, and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi decides to return to her Jewish homeland and to the City of Bethlehem where she has relatives who might care for her. Ruth promises to go with Naomi, in those memorable words:

Where you go, I will go;

   Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

   And your God my God.[1]      

As we discover in the final verses of the story, Ruth the Moabite, Ruth the foreigner, was an ancestor of the great king David. The obvious argument was that if someone so completely Jewish as David could have a foreign great-grandmother, then who are we to treat the strangers among us so harshly and with such contempt?

On one level, the story of Ruth is that of a biblical Cinderella. The outsider, the least, the lost, the nobody is “discovered”, lifted out of her poverty, brought into the home of the wealthy and powerful Boaz. She marries her prince charming.

Writer, pastor, and blogger Carol Howard Merritt recently reflected on Ruth’s story from a very different perspective—as the difficult experience of many women, past and present.

Ruth travels with her mother-in-law after a devastating tragedy. They’ve lost everything. Naomi is mourning the death of her spouse and two sons; Ruth has lost her husband. We can assume that, without a man, they’ve also lost their property, income, and savings. But they do have a few resources. Ruth has her youth, Naomi has family connections, and they hold a covenant with each other. So they set out for Judah.

Much has changed since Ruth’s day, but too much stays the same. In this country, we’ve developed incredible wealth—but we still haven’t learned to share it. Even though we’ve mastered so much technology, we still haven’t learned how to make sure that working people receive a living wage.

Carol Merritt continues:

I’m afraid for Ruth. I’ve read this story since I was a little girl, but it sounds so different now. There are many things not quite mentioned in the text, but it’s easy to fill in the details from Boaz’s words. “Keep your eyes on the fields,” he instructs her. “I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you,” he says. Then, to the workers, “Do not humiliate her” and “don’t scold her.”

I set down the scripture. Now it’s not just these two women passing through my mind but scores of women I’ve met on the streets and in shelters, women who’ve been abused in their struggle for survival. Boaz’s words suggest either that Ruth has already been assaulted and humiliated, or that it would’ve been customary for a woman in her position to expect abuse. Too many things haven’t changed.

When I read the book of Ruth as a child, I didn’t understand how susceptible her body is. I didn’t grasp the nature of her submission when she says, “All that you tell me I will do,” or the sexual euphemisms of the threshing floor and the uncovered feet. I did not apprehend what it means for her to be redeemed, with all its overtones of ownership and property. I did not—I could not—know how vulnerable, resilient, and courageous women could be.

Now I worry about Ruth when she goes to Boaz. Is he gentle with her? I imagine that he is, since he marries her. But then why does Ruth hand her baby over to Naomi to nurse? Why do the women say that Naomi has a child? Can’t they see that the child is Ruth’s? It’s her submission, her womb, her flesh that saves them. Is she still an outsider, still a Moabite, even though she made a covenant to Naomi’s people and her God?

There are so many things in this story that sound all too familiar.[2]

This morning we heard about another woman. She’s the poor widow in the Gospel text. There is no suggestion of a reversal of fortune for her. She’ll never be mistaken for a Cinderella. 

Jesus was telling his followers to 

‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. 

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ 

This text is almost always used as a stewardship text. “Give everything you have, be generous, don’t just tip God out of your abundance.” Now don’t get me wrong—that’s not a bad message, and I might want to use it again like that sometime! 

But there’s something here that I’d never noticed before. How do those wealthy scribes become wealthy? “They devour widows houses.” 

Could this widow, putting her last two coins into the offering plate in the presence of those who’ve robbed her blind, watching them place their bags of money in the plate—bags of money that contain, in part, the proceeds from her stolen home. Could this woman not just be “giving joyfully out of her poverty” – but instead throwing her last two coins into the pot as an act of defiance? 

“Here, you missed these. Take them, too! So there!”

Of course, we’ll never know. But one thing is certain. Jesus noticed her, just as we’re invited to notice Ruth and Naomi, a nameless widow and all the poor widows, orphans, the displaced, the refugees, the broken ones. Some of them are here in Fairborn and close at hand. Others are floating through dangerous Mediterranean waters, crossing desserts, fighting horrible diseases, seeking shelter, safety and some semblance of hope.

Their futures may not be ones of living happily ever after. But God notices. And holds them in his heart.

Let us not despair. But be grateful that we, too, are able to notice and to respond as we are able. 

Amen.


[1]Ruth 1:16

[2]Carol Howard Merritt, Lectionary Column: Living By the Word, Christian Century, October 27, 2015

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