The Forgotten Strength of Women

First, some blog business. I’m in a short course on worship this week, which means being in class from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. I suspect the only true worshipping that will happen is after the class is over. On top of that, our third daughter is due in less than two weeks; our other two each came early. I’m expecting to move straight from intensive coursework to intensive fatherhood, then on Jan. 23 begin a new semester with Advanced Intro to New Testament.

All that to say: Any blog posts you see here for the next month may be proof of the miraculous intervention of God. I’ll try hard to maintain a fairly regular schedule of posting, but I can’t make any promises.

Now on to the post!

Twice this Christmas I heard about the story of Ruth as it relates to the birth of Christ. First, from the pastor of a megachurch in town that held candlelight services on Christmas Eve; second, from a friend who heard another pastor preach on the same thing. In retrospect, it makes sense: Boaz is Ruth’s redeemer, and the Christ story is all about redemption. Myself, I would have preferred a focus on the custom of gleaning and what that can teach us about our own commercial and financial habits. Maybe next year.

Then I read this post from Jesus Creed, which was the best of all:

The narrative of Ruth tells us that at this place, the sons of Elimelech get sucked into the cultural view of women, and they “took the women of Moab” (Ruth 1:4). Many English translations, translate their action as, “they married Moabite women” (NIV, NLT, NRSV, etc.). The Hebrew phrase is meant to be seen as, “they forcibly took Moabite women,” i.e. they raped them. The context suggests that they suffered the consequences of death because of their demeaning acts against the women of Moab.

When one reads the narrative further, one discovers that the word used for Boaz marrying Ruth means to recreate. Boaz exclaims, “Ruth the Moabitess, the woman of Mahalon I have ‘recreated’ to be my woman to ‘resurrect’ the name of the dead…and the people at the gate and the elders said, ‘We witness. May the LORD make the woman coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel. May you be a chayil, in Ephrathah’” (Ruth 4:10-11, paraphrased).

This is a great contrast to what the sons of Elimelech did. They engaged in human trafficking. Boaz, on the other hand, ordered his men to protect this woman, who was an alien and therefore trafficking material. Then he redeemed her, and gave her the place of highest honor, in front of the city gate, where historically the men and women of highest honor gathered—the lawns of the White House would be a modern analogy.

The Hebrew Bible suggests that the main purpose of the book of Ruth is the focus on Ruth as an eshetchayil, a prime example of the woman of Proverbs 31. In fact, on more than one occasion in the book, Ruth is called an eshetchayil(Ruth 3:11; 4:11). The book of Ruth is the story of the transformation of a woman who was sexually abused and treated as human trafficking material, into a strong woman and eshet chayil.

I had never heard this portrayal of the Ruth story before, but it certainly makes it more powerful.

The narrative of the life of Jesus in Matthew poignantly begins with underlining the lives of five women: Tamar (Gen. 38); Rahab (Josh. 2); Ruth, wife of Uriah (2 Sam. 11, 12); and Mary. Four of these women were sexually abused and trafficked by men in positions of power and authority. In spite of the horrible life faced by these women, the Bible elevates them to the highest status; they become the bearers of the Messiah seed. In doing so, paradigmatically, the Bible is elevating the status and name of all women who are abused and trafficked as a result of systemic evil in human history. …

The Messiah born by Mary elevated the status of so many women that he encountered. He knew what his own mother had gone through. She was ostracized by the so-called high class people, for carrying and bearing a child out of wedlock. He himself was called a mamzer—a term reserved for the children born by women who were sexually abused by Roman soldiers. During his public ministry, Jesus, knowing the horrible life faced by women around him, always reached out to them and restored their dignity.

The whole Bible has one narrative after another of the transformation of the status of women in society. It begins with a very strong place for the woman. She is no ordinary helper to man. She is a divinely placed savior figure—ezer kenegdo. Rather sadly, throughout history, human beings have destroyed and desecrated women. Evil men have shattered their true identity as strong help while women have been sexually abused and trafficked. Yet, in powerful ways, the Bible recreates the identity and the place of women. The Bible restores women to their creation identity of being eshet chayil—emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally strong women. They were created to be savior figures for humanity.

When looked in this light, it becomes even more amazing that the Bible has been used in exactly the opposite manner for centuries – to justify the further oppression and abuse of women. The overriding arc of the Bible, which includes female prophets, apostles and church leaders in the New Testament, would seem to more than negate the isolated culture-bound Pauline sentiments about women, yet much of conservative Christianity has eviscerated a core biblical message in favor of one that upholds the privileges and preferences of the powerful.

The mistreatment of women has cost the church much over the centuries, and it continues to do so, as girls and young women who love Christ and desire to serve his people are shunned, shamed or silenced. I understand that many women not only accept but embrace the ideas of submission and silence espoused by Paul, and I don’t want to get into an exegetical battle over mutual submission and the like. Certainly, some women feel empowered in a culture where they are forbidden from speaking during a service (I grew up in such a church and never heard a single complaint from the wives who covered their heads and sat in silence during the services except with teaching Sunday School), but many do not, and the question is: How many girls simply leave the church rather than fight their own nature into a silence they don’t feel God has for them?

Slowly, attitudes on this subject are changing; progress is coming. The funny thing is, when our churches finally progress enough, it looks like they’ll find themselves where Jesus was the whole time.

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One comment on “The Forgotten Strength of Women

  1. Lac says:

    Wishing you well on the birth of your daughter. I’m technically due in two weeks as well. Interesting perspective on Ruth…thanks for pointing it out.

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