Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two Biblical Women Fight It Out

Quoting from Brettler*:
Esther [addressing Boaz]: "How can you stand being married to your Moabite wife? Don't you know that Moabites are the worst--they sin and cause others to sin! [Deuteronomy 23:4-7] And if that isn't enough, they are all the result of incest! [Genesis 19:30-38] You are going to dilute our "holy seed" by having children with her!"

Ruth [upon hearing Esther's verbal attack]: "Moabite, shmoabites! People are what they become, not how they are born. A Moabite woman who performs acts of kindness is better than a Jewish man who doesn't. Don't listen to that fanatic "holy see" notion--it is just plain wrong. And, while we are at it, your tone makes you sound like you don't like women too much either."

Esther [responding to Ruth]: "That's an overstatement. Some women are wonderful to look at, and when they listen to their husbands and other male relatives, good things happen. But beware the woman who shows independent initiative. She is the "highway to Sheol (hell)" (Proverbs 7:27) --stay away from her!"

Ruth: "That view sounds shortsighted: 'Beauty is illusory' (Proverbs 31:30). But more important, it's unduly harsh and judgmental. I prefer to judge women as we judge foreigners--by what they do, not by what they are. Don't you know that a Moabite woman was the ancestor of King David?" [and according to the Christian scriptures, a greats-grandmother of Eashoa!]

Esther: You don't expect me to believe that myth, do you?*

*from the chapter "Ruth vs. Esther" in How to Read the Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler PhD, chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University

For many years, I've had conflicting, paradoxical views toward the books of Esther and Ruth. I could say they rub a reader the wrong way, but realize the double entendre of that. An individual must use care when trying to write a serious article. A few students in my literature classes couldn't seem to get through their homework but were brilliant at noting possible double meanings in innocent words in lectures...when talking about a counter point in, say, The Scarlet Letter, "... critics can't bear this, but we need to look..."

First, let's consider the probability that both books are historical fiction. Contrary to what fundamentalists claim, they aren't inerrant history but are short stories of the Jewish Bible. Brettler makes an intriguing point that the personal names in Ruth are symbolic. They are characteronyms, names assigned to carry the story and to instruct, "clearly symbolic: her sons who die young are named Mahlon ("illness") and Chilion (Cessation"); and the daughter-in-law who follows Naomi only partway to Israel is named Orpah--literally "back of the neck" meaning "back-turner."* As TV's Huell Houser so often says, "Amazing."

In the book of Ruth what we have is parable or allegory. And what of Esther? Why were the books written? What do they teach?

What do these stories of two women so long ago mean for us at this moment, in this time?
Why are they so different, indeed, so contradictory? Of course, obviously, I will be speaking from a man's viewpoint:-) giving that particular point of view.

Hopefully, we will discover, to use the question of many spiritual teachers, "What is God saying to us?"

To be continued

**A funny event happened on my way to write this week's blog. I was set to get prophetic (one of those books) when my current research in the Jewish Bible--
am currently reading Brettler's book, and reading Robert Alter's literal Hebrew translations and commentaries, The Book of the Psalms and The Five Books of Moses--
uprooted the planned apple tree;-)

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

2 comments:

Katya5 said...

Interesting. Sounds like the same issues people deal with today.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Katya5,

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, both tragically and wonderfully, the issues of these 2,500 year old books are still with us.

In the Light,

Daniel