After realizing almost all the religious books I own were written by men, I decided to be more intentional about reading books by women. I asked for help from my readers, who recommended over 70 different authors. I chose 10 books to start with, representing authors from across the theological spectrum. A few weeks ago, I shared some reflections after finishing the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt.
This week, it’s on to the next book, The Gospel of Ruth.
A note about these posts… they’re not meant to be reviews. I don’t see it as my place to critique or judge the value of each book. I want to embrace the posture of a learner. My goal is to share how each book challenges, teaches, or inspires me.
The Gospel of Ruth
by Carolyn Custis James
Of all the writers on my list, Carolyn is probably the most evangelical. As for why I chose her book next, well… that’s a little embarrassing. It’s one I already own but never bothered to read. A colleague gave it to me a few years back… and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, collecting dust.
I couldn’t even be bothered to read the few female-authored religious books I did own. In this case, I was missing out in more ways than one. Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth utterly changed my view of one of the greatest female characters in the Bible.
Carolyn may be better known for her other book, Half the Church, which looks at how women—who almost certainly comprise more than half the church—have been shut out from serving (and leading) in God’s kingdom, much to the detriment of us all.
I chose The Gospel of Ruth instead because, apart from the fact that I already own a copy, I don’t want to limit myself to books primarily about “women’s issues” (though I think it’s fair to say Half the Church is more than that). I want to experience the contributions women are making in the broader fields of theology, biblical interpretation, ethics, etc.
The Gospel of Ruth has plenty to say about women’s issues—in particular, the patriarchal gender stereotypes that color people’s interpretation of the Bible. Carolyn shows how the scriptures subvert these stereotypes at times. But The Gospel of Ruth is also a full-on, deep dive into the book of Ruth as whole. It’s not a commentary per se, but it provides a vital framework for interpreting Ruth just the same (and maybe even better than most commentaries do).
Carolyn shows how Ruth captures the essence of the gospel, centuries before an itinerant preacher from Galilee came along, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Along the way, Carolyn corrects some common misreadings of Ruth, like the view that her sister-in-law was somehow selfish or wrong to go back to her family. Or the notion that Ruth was clueless or bungling when she deviated from Naomi’s instructions about Boaz. (More on that in a minute.)
Ruth was courageous. She was relentless. She was resolute, determined to keep her vow to Naomi no matter the cost to herself. And she was shrewd, too.
Ruth was a woman in a man’s world. She was a widow. A foreigner descended from Israel’s archenemies, the Moabites. Yet when she spoke, one of the most powerful men in Bethlehem listened—and obeyed.
Carolyn helps us see how the characters in Ruth’s drama repeatedly break the rules of “appropriate” behavior for the sake of doing what’s right. Specifically, Ruth breaks the rules in order to do what’s right for Naomi…
- Like when Ruth silences her mother-in-law by refusing to leave her side…
- Or when Ruth boldly requests the rights of a harvester—well beyond what gleaners were entitled to by law—earning Boaz’s praise and enabling her to provide more than just scraps for Naomi…
- Or when she charts her own course with Boaz, ignoring Naomi’s instructions along the way. Naomi simply wanted security for Ruth. (This was, after all, a brutally patriarchal world where widows faced unimaginable hardship, neglect, and exploitation.) Ruth wanted something more: a future for Naomi. Ruth broke all the rules when she proposed marriage and called on Boaz to go beyond his legal obligations (again) by acting as kinsman-redeemer for Naomi.
To put it another way, Ruth challenges Boaz to go beyond the Bible. “The letter of the law says, ‘Let them glean,’ ” Carolyn writes. “The spirit of the law says, ‘Feed them.’ ” Where Old Testament law only required landowners like Boaz to permit the poor to glean the corners of their fields, Ruth forced him to ask, “ ‘How big is a corner?’ ”
The book itself is an exercise in breaking the rules, simply by its presence in the canon. Don’t let its brevity fool you. Ruth is not a sideshow or a pit stop in the Old Testament narrative. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of how God turned a wandering band of nomads into a kingdom through which to bless the world. And at this crucial point, women take center stage. As Carolyn writes:
The book of Ruth breaks all the rules, as two unescorted women take command of the storyline and men recede into the background. Naomi and Ruth do not climb to this high point in the action on the backs of men. They get here on their own.
Perhaps most importantly, Carolyn de-romanticizes the story of Ruth. There is plenty of love in this book, but we trivialize the story when we reduce Ruth and Boaz to star-crossed lovers. As Carolyn shows in chapters 4-5 (which are worth the price of the book by themselves, even when it isn’t being discounted by Amazon), the driving question of Ruth is whether God’s hesed—his covenantal, sacrificial love, his vision for how we are to live for each other—has run out for Naomi.
Carolyn reminds us that submission runs both ways. When Ruth proposes to Boaz (honestly, it’s like she didn’t even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye), he responds, “Everything you have said, I will do for you.” Boaz submits to Ruth. In similar fashion, everything Ruth does, she does for Naomi. Submission is not unilateral. It’s not just for women. And it is not weakness. As Carolyn writes:
Ultimately the impact of submission means those with power over others give it up. Women grow strong and flourish as kingdom-builders. Children thrive and begin to realize their calling to give back. And slaves walk free, side by side in full equality with their Christian brothers who were once their masters.
Carolyn helped me to see how Ruth prefigures the gospel, envisioning a world where everyone submits to each other mutually in sacrificial, self-giving love. The gospel envisions a world where women and men share the same mission of extending God’s hesed to those for whom it’s run out.
Next up: it’s into unchartered territory (for me, anyway) with Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible by Dr. Musa W. Dube.
Image credit: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett