Reading Ruth Globally

Review by Grant LeMarquand

Losing Ground:
Reading Ruth in the Pacific

By Jione Havea
Wipf and Stock, pp. 296, $33

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It is a truism to say that the Bible must be read “in context.” In recent years, however, the meaning of context has been raised quite sharply. Does one mean that a passage must be read in light of its historical background? Or does one mean a text’s literary or narrative context regardless of one’s perspective on the historical value of a text? Or, perhaps, context refers to reading a biblical text in the light of its place in the entire canon of Scripture, or even in the light of the creeds or the tradition of the Church (or synagogue)?

In recent years, the issue of the context of the reader or the community of readers has drawn the attention of scholars. What difference does it make, if any, that I read as a straight white male who was born in Canada? If I were an Asian man, would the biblical text speak to me in a different way? If I were an African woman, would I notice things in the text that a North American white male would not notice? These questions are relatively new in the biblical scholarly guild.

My first exposure to academic biblical studies (more than half a century ago) presented a far different picture. I was instructed as an undergraduate in religious studies that the historical-critical method was the great leveler: “Learn and use these methods,” I was told, “and it does not matter whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist or an atheist — you will come to the same conclusions.”

So said my first instructors in biblical studies, and so I was introduced to the science of so-called objective, neutral, biblical studies. It was all about the text’s history, about what the text meant. To be sure, I discovered that historical-critical readers were very careful and raised many enlightening and interesting questions. But these methods left much to be desired. In short, they left me asking “So what?”

But there were already other voices on the scene asking different questions. The great literary critic and Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis, for example, put these words into the mouth of one character in his children’s story The Magician’s Nephew: “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” Context, in other words, includes place (where you are standing) and identity or character (what sort of person you are).

Reading Ruth in Asia
By Jione Havea and Peter H.W. Lau
SBL Press, pp. 158, $24.95

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I discovered the reality of this when I first went to Kenya, ostensibly to teach the New Testament to African theological students, and on the first day discovered that my students understood things about the Bible because of their African context that neither I nor my teachers in Canada had ever imagined. I found their understanding of Scripture amazing. Their African traditional religious background, their lives in predominantly rural agricultural settings, their experience of suffering, and their vibrant Christian faith gave them access to the biblical text that I did not have. I became their student (but I still had to grade their papers).

Three books on the small Book of Ruth highlight the shift to an interest in the ways various readers encounter the biblical text. For studies of Ruth, these three are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Reading Ruth in Asia is a volume of nine essays conceived at a conference of the Society of Asian Biblical Studies in 2012. The authors are from various regions around Asia and the Pacific: Oceania, Australia, Myanmar, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, India, and Malaysia. The authors are aware that the word Asia is problematic. Is Australia part of Asia? In addition to the multiplicity of countries, there is a plethora of religions and religious texts. Christianity is one religious voice among many others — and a minority voice. The Bible is one scriptural voice in conversation with many other texts.

What does Ruth say when read in Asia? Several themes predominate these essays. It does not escape Asian readers that both Naomi and Ruth are migrants. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Naomi and her family were forced out of Israel into Moab by a famine. After the death of her husband and her sons, and now that the famine is over, Naomi returns to Israel.

Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in law, also migrates. Having lost her husband, she clings to Naomi and seeks a new life in Israel. Much of the story involves Ruth’s struggle to integrate into a foreign culture. Several of the essays in Reading Ruth in Asia draw implications for today’s Asian situations from Ruth’s story of migration.

Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics:
An African Perspective

By Musimbi R.A. Kanyoro
Pilgrim Press, pp. 144, Price varies

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Sin-ling Tong re-reads Ruth’s confession (1:16-17) not merely as an act of submission but also as a way of asserting her identity as a survivor: “Ruth’s submission is part and parcel of her successful migration. … [H]er confession and her deeds of loyalty also allow her to reclaim her subjectivity and pose challenges to the hegemon [i.e., the dominant authority]” (36).

From Australia, Anthony Rees also reads Ruth through the reality of migration. Ruth, like most refugees, is “invisible upon her arrival in Bethlehem and has to struggle to find favor.” Ruth’s invisibility highlights her powerlessness and vulnerability in a foreign culture.

Roi Nu’s article from a context in Myanmar, “A Reinterpretation of Levirate Marriage in Ruth 4:1-12 for Kachin Society,” draws attention to a different issue. Levirate marriage is the practice outlined in the Torah of a man inheriting the wife of a relative who has died, for the purpose of producing offspring for the dead man (see Deut. 25:5-10). Similar practices are found in Asian (and African) cultures.

Nu’s article tells us that the practice in Kachin culture is an “unavoidable responsibility” (57) of the male relative and that widows are forced into these arrangements (59). Among Christians in Kachin society, the Torah legislation and Ruth 4 are often used to pressure widows into accepting marital relations against their will.

Nu argues that neither Deuteronomy 25 nor Ruth 4 forces women into any marriage against their will. There is a right of refusal in these texts that could be extended to Kachin society. Nu hopes his study “will encourage Kachin women to resist abuses” and help readers understand that “the union depicted in Ruth … should not be used to support the Kachin custom” (71-72).

Jione Havea’s essay in Reading Ruth in Asia is another valuable contribution, but since he has written an entire book from his context in Oceania, we turn now to that volume. Havea’s Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific is methodologically interesting because it purports to be based on Bible studies conducted across islands of Pacifika, including Solomon Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Ma’ohi Nui French Polynesia, Tonga, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australia.

Havea’s method is to invite those in his Bible studies to read the text twice, to read and reflect on notes he has provided — feeling free to “push back with alternative reading,” to reflect on his “takeaway” questions and “prompts,” and then “allow time and reflections to flow.” I strongly affirm the idea of allowing readings from local people who are not professional biblical scholars to allow the text to speak to them in a communal context. I have serious doubts, however, about how much these voices were predisposed to listen to the voice of the expert providing the questions and prompts.

Among the many local issues raised in Havea’s book (including issues of migration, and of marriage and gender relations), one issue stands out as a significant contribution. The book’s title telegraphs the issue: Ruth is partly about the issue of the “ground,” the earth. Ruth and Naomi are characters who have lost ground, lost territory, and seek to reclaim their place in the world.

The island nations of Pacifika have been robbed of ground through the colonial projects of Western and Japanese powers. For example, in Banaba people have lost their homes to the pollution caused by phosphate mining; natives from Nauru were moved by the Japanese “in order to make room for its war against the alliance led by the USA,” and after the war few residents were allowed back to an island devoted to war; numerous islands were devoted to British, French, and American nuclear weapons testing between 1954 and 1964 (109-110). And now, due to climate change, much of Pacifika is in danger of “losing ground” permanently. Naomi and Ruth had both lost ground, but the Book of Ruth provides some hope that ground can be regained.

Havea’s book, however, is not characterized by hope. It offers more cynicism than hope. The predominant mode is suspicion — not just of colonial powers, but of the biblical text. I fear that I may have learned more about the author’s anger than I did about the Book of Ruth.

Musimbi Kanyoro’s Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics: An African Perspective is not about Ruth. Kanyoro’s study is a brief explanation of feminist biblical interpretation that can and sometimes does function in Africa. Although her book is not about Ruth, the Book of Ruth is Kanyoro’s test case.

One of the strengths of this book is its honesty. Kanyoro admits that her education, Westernization, and urbanization have distanced her to a large degree from the world of the Kenyan village in which she was raised. And, although clearly writing as a feminist, Kanyoro is not uncritical of much Western feminism that she considers too individualistic.

African theologians, especially male African theologians, have for years tried to rehabilitate African religion and culture after it had so often been denigrated by Western missionaries. Kanyoro notes that African women theologians and biblical exegetes are not as quick as many male African scholars to consider everything African as necessarily commendable: “Using their lives as examples, African women question the premises that celebrate all cultural practices regardless of their negative impact on women” (25-26).

It is in this context — of African culture, of African religion, of Western missionary work, and of (predominantly male) African theology — that Kanyoro approaches the Book of Ruth. The fourth chapter of her work tells the story of Kanyoro’s research project in her home village. The project was a three-day retreat/Bible study of Ruth in 1996 with 150 women, virtually all of the women of her small western Kenya town.

Kanyoro reports and reflects on a creative process that enabled the text of the Bible and the real-life experience of rural African women to interact. This section is worth the price of the book. Kanyoro has done a real service in providing an introduction, not so much to what has been done in African feminist hermeneutics (although there is some of that in her discussion of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in chapter three) but to what can be done by and for African Christian women.

Early in chapter four, Kanyoro reports on her meetings with the women of her village in western Kenya. She gathered young and older women for a retreat and gave them time to study the Book of Ruth. They then created dramas based on their reading of Ruth. They retold the story through their own eyes.

Some of the observations may strike Western readers as unusual. For example, the Kenyan women noted, with some surprise, that Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, settled in Moab peacefully and even allowed their sons to marry Moabite women. When trouble came and Naomi’s husband and sons all died, the women wonder whether Naomi realized that she had been put under a curse because she had neglected the customs and traditions of her people. The suggestion of a curse was reinforced because the sons had been married to Moabite women for 10 years and yet they had no children. Returning to Israel was a way for Naomi to cleanse the family.

Maybe [it was suggested] they migrated and did not tell people where they were going, and they could have disappeared without paying their debts. If you don’t pay what you have borrowed from someone, a curse will follow you wherever you go. Maybe they neglected going back to their home from time to time to pay homage to those who died and the curse of death wreaked revenge on them.

Traditional Africans live in a world well-populated by spirits. In their retelling of the story of Naomi and Ruth, the spiritual world provides an explanation for the pain of Naomi’s family. The women wondered what Naomi and Ruth had done to anger their ethnic group or the spirits. Since the whole experience of losing a husband and two sons was devastating, there had to be a logical and spiritual explanation.

The women supposed there could be a curse for leaving one’s tribe, for individualism, and not paying your debts. The women did empathize with Naomi and her family for the famine that led to their migration. Many know firsthand what it is to have no food to feed their families. Many have known hunger, starvation, death of family members. They know the difficulties of moving to an area where the culture and language are different.

In African culture, marriage and childbearing are considered an essential part of being human. They are also aware of marital taboos, and so some of the Kenyan women were concerned when they read that Boaz called Ruth his “daughter” — but then slept with her and married her. “This seems wrong to us, because once a grownup calls a young person ‘daughter,’ a kin’s relationship has been established which prohibits sexual relations.” They also saw Ruth needed a rich man to support her and Naomi. They speculated that Naomi wanted Ruth to marry Boaz because he was rich. They also thought Boaz was a clever man because he tricked the poorer man, who was the right one to inherit Ruth. “It is often the case that the rich can get anything.”

Kanyoro’s village women read carefully, but they read within their culture. Their culture raised questions for them about the meaning of the text. Perhaps this is one of the most important things that we can learn from cross-cultural readings of the Bible. Our differing perspectives force us to think about the meaning of the text, to question the text, to wrestle with its importance in our lives and in our cultures. The application of a biblical text does not usually simply jump off the page. If we are commanded to love God with all our mind (Matt. 22:37), this certainly implies that we should read the Bible with all our mind.

Reading from and for a particular context does not mean all readings are equal. Some readings are mistaken, or limited. What Asian and Pacific and African readings should help us see is that Western ways of reading are also culturally conditioned. To understand the Bible and its message of life in our global culture, we need each other. Reading with others, reading across cultures, has the potential to open us to more of God’s truth for a hurting planet.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Grant LeMarquand is professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry.


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