What we can learn from the book of Ruth: Answers according to three 19th century writers.

By Tara Ingrid Ludmer

Grace Aguilar, in Women of Israel, Robert Watson, in his contribution the Expositor’s Bible series on Judges and Ruth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in The Women’s Bible, all commented on the book of Ruth in the later half of the 19th century. Their work reflects both their own religious and social convictions, as well as the ways and ideas of the times in which they lived. They present remarkably different, although sometimes also remarkably similar, views of the same text, and often their views seem to be in direct dialogue with one another although not one of the three authors ever explicitly refers to any other scholar.

Even though Aguilar’s work was the earliest chronologically, I will begin with Watson because he manages to lie out many of the ideas that both Stanton and Aguilar argue against. Like Aguilar, however, his work is not meant to be only a commentary but also to use the text as a springboard for teaching morals and Christian behaviour.

Watson seems very generous in his valuation of the named characters in the text. Even conspicuously generous, as when he writes "We may believe that the Bethlehemite if he made a mistake in removing to Moab acted in good faith and did not lose his hope of the divine blessing"(367), in reference to Elimelech’s journey to Moab. He considers the action of going to a foreign land to be clearly suspect and needing excuse, and his descriptions of the barrenness and difficulty of the family’s life in Moab reflect this. Yet Naomi, he writes, "finds occupation and reward in teaching [Orpah and Ruth] the religion of Jehovah"(369). She has become a missionary in foreign lands, and he considers her to have been "more blessed in Moab," than she might have been with a life of comfort in Bethlehem.

In fact, Watson finds it strange that the narrator is not more concerned with Naomi’s role in providing Ruth and Orpah with the possibility of salvation in Bethlehem and that he "does not blame Naomi"(371), for not setting spiritual considerations such as salvation ahead of material ones, such as security and marriage. Despite Watson’s disappointment that Naomi did not press Orpah and Ruth more towards the salvation of the Hebrew religion, he has no romantic ideas about the nature of the Israelites in Bethlehem. He is sure that because of their "speech and manners" (372), the people would despise them.

Watson’s low opinion of the Israelite people is confirmed later in his essay. For example, he interprets the statement of the Israelite women upon seeing the pair returned, "Can this be Naomi"(Tanakh, Ruth 1:19) as scornful and proud, and also chides the Israelites for not welcoming and helping Naomi and Ruth (386). Watson’s ambiguity towards the Israelites is clear. On the one hand, the Hebrew religion represents the only hope possible for the souls of Ruth and Orpah, on the other hand, the people themselves, the unnamed ones, are depicted in a very negative way. They scorn and neglect Naomi and Ruth, the widow and the orphan. This reading is very Christian; it lends itself beautifully to the idea that another people, the Christians, inherit status and possibility of salvation from the Hebrews, but become better Israelites than the Israelites themselves. Watson even calls Boaz "the true Israelite" (394), because of his acceptance of Ruth despite her foreign origins. He calls Ruth’s vow to Naomi "beautiful, pathetic, noble," having "almost a Christian depth," which makes Ruth "dearer to us than any women of whom the Hebrew records tell" (377). For him, the story is a "plea against that exclusiveness which the Hebrews too often indulged" (395), an implicit critique of Judaism’s refusal to accept Jesus. He also concludes that the story proves that "though Jehovah cared for Israel much He cares still more for love and faithfulness, purity and goodness" (385). In fact, laying the ground for ‘foreigners’ to take their rightful place in relationship to God, replacing the Israelites. Later he writes "the Hebrew belief in the prosperity of God’s servants must fulfil itself in a larger better faith"(389).

One of the words that Watson uses most often to characterize Israelite society is "simple." Their life is simple, their customs are simple, and their ways are simple. Sometimes this is almost like praise, but it is also part of his condescension towards the civilization of the Israelites, which is especially seen in Watson’s critique of the position of women in this society. "The times were rude and wild," he writes, and characterized by an "old-world contempt for unmarried women"(373). He continues:

"The idea of the spiritual completion of life for woman as well as man, of the woman being able to attain a personal standing of her own with individual responsibility and freedom was not fully present to the Hebrew mind….This old-world view of things burdens the whole history…The conception of her individuality as of individuality generally was limited" (416-417). According to Watson, these problems are solved by Christ, who "has opened the spiritual kingdom, has made it possible for all to enter"(418).

Nevertheless, in Watson’s eyes, the story does have a great hero and that one and only hero is Boaz. Although he sometimes praises Naomi and Ruth, he also criticizes them for their "hazardous plan"(397), saying it is "almost entirely suggested by worldly considerations"(401), and calling it a "secret, underhand scheme"(402). Ruth has lowered herself by this act, and by her willingness to risk compromising Boaz. "We see very distinctly a touch of something caught in heathen Moab"(404), in her actions. Although he acknowledges that Naomi and Ruth were in desperate straits to attempt this solution, he excuses, even praises Boaz for his failure to step in to help them earlier and of his own accord. Watson writes "Boaz appears a true friend and wise benefactor in leaving Ruth to enjoy the sweetness of securing the daily portion of corn by her own exertion," if he had done otherwise, "an industrious patient generous life would have been spoiled"(399). Watson also praises Boaz for his acceptance of Ruth, his relationships with his workers, and his honorable execution of the marriage. He also explicitly rejects the Jewish idea (his characterization) that Ruth’s role as David’s ancestor is "the final honour of Ruth for her dutifulness, her humble faith in the God of Israel"(419). He explains that "there is nothing so striking in her faith that we should expect her to be singled out for special honor"(419). Even the ‘fact’ that Jesus was born of her line does not glorify Ruth – as Watson points out, she was also the ancestor of Zeruiah, Absalom, Adonijah, and Rehoboam. Rather, it is because God causes Boaz to admire Ruth that the plan of Naomi bears fruit and she is able to marry Boaz. In the final pages of his commentary, Watson compares writes about Jesus Christ with the same terms used for Boaz, Goel and Menuchah; one cannot imagine a greater praise for Boaz from a Christian writer.

Although Watson never explicitly states an agenda, some of the main ideas that he teaches from the book of Ruth include: the Christian greatness of Boaz, the limitations of Israelite society and its primitive pre-Christian ideas about women, and the value of foreigners as converts. His writing encourages the emulation of Boaz while confirming the superiority of Christian ideas and scriptures over Hebrew ones.

Like Watson, Aguilar, a great defender and lover of her Jewish faith in her time who authored at least four books treating the beauty and truth of Judaism, also expresses belief in the sanctity of the Bible, and insists that "the whole must be true or none"(15). Yet from the first pages of her volume she states her opposition to the Christian position that "the value and dignity of woman’s character would never have been known, but for the religion of Jesus"(8). She is actively refuting many of Watson’s characterizations of the society in Bethlehem, even to praise "a refinement and civilization of feeling and action, found at this period only amidst the people of the Lord"(243).

Therefore many of her ideas about the Israelites in the story differ from those of Watson. Instead of the scorn that Watson attribute to the neighbors, Aguilar describes them as anxious to welcome Naomi, and to grieve with her for her afflictions (241). She also considers the blessings of the Israelite women upon the birth of Obed to be proof of "the women of Israel’s appreciation and love of the gentle Moabitess"(247). Finally, she writes that the book of Ruth illustrates how fully the commandment to love the stranger was obeyed in ancient Israel, which evokes a very different understanding of Ruth’s life in Bethlehem than that evoked by Watson’s descriptions of xenophobia, exclusiveness, and alienation of the foreigner.

Nevertheless, Aguilar’s own treatment of Ruth seems to be at odds with the loving acceptance she attributes to the women of Bethlehem. In the beginning of the chapter that deals with the book of Ruth, which is called "Naomi," she explains that because "Ruth does not properly belong, by birth or by ancestry, to the women of Israel, Naomi must be the subject of our consideration"(236). She practices this exclusion despite the fact that later in her chapter she tells us that Ruth completely and voluntary adopts the religion of Naomi. In a truly paradoxical sentence she states that "[Ruth] is in act no longer a Moabitess (and is only called so to designate her as a stranger amidst Israel)"(249). Despite the fact that she writes that "Faithfulness and virtue, the heart, --but neither birth nor appearance – are valued by [God]"(249), birth, or race, is clearly very important to Aguilar!

Like Watson, Aguilar also writes about Ruth as a young maiden, a child even. Aguilar, however, places a tremendous emphasis on Naomi’s age that is much subtler in Watson’s commentary. She consistently describes Naomi as ‘old’ or ‘aged,’ perhaps in order to emphasize Ruth’s youth or to establish a clearly unequal relationship between them.

Watson and Aguilar also share an idea of ideal womanhood. Both authors praise Ruth’s meekness and gentleness and Naomi’s unselfish devotion. Because of Aguilar’s aim to show the valor and status of Israelite women in these times, her praise is perhaps even more extravagant, and certainly cannot be marred, as Watson’s was, by a negative understanding of the ‘hazardous’ plan. Although she admits that Naomi’s directions may appear "strange, and even revolting," she contends that they seem "to have been authorized by custom, and therefore [contain] nothing whatever indelicate or forward"(245). In every instance she interprets Naomi and Ruth’s behaviour in the most positive of lights, for example reporting that before instructing Ruth to go to the threshing floor, Naomi, "in all probability, [had] passed the intervening days in thought and prayer"(245). However, although she proclaims that the joy and blessings of the people for the wedding of Boaz and Ruth and the birth of Obed "could never have existed if the women of Israel had not been, morally, spiritually, and intellectually, on a perfect equality with man"(251), her characterizations of Ruth and Naomi represent them and their virtues in a most traditionally feminine way. Naomi is called a "meek and pious mother of Israel"(238), praised for her "gentle, unassuming nature [that] preferred retirement and lowliness, to claiming the attention of her wealthy kinsman"(242). Likewise, the "meekness and humility" of Ruth’s words are said to increase her favor in Boaz’ eyes (243). Ruth is also lauded for her "unquestioning obedience (245)" to Boaz and to Ruth, and is described as a "trembling supplicant"(246), in her meeting with Boaz on the threshing floor (Ruth 3:6-9), when from the plain meaning of the text she could be easily seen as boldly and bravely presenting her demand to Boaz.

Boaz himself receives quite favorable treatment at the hands of Aguilar. She describes him with glowing terms every time she mentions him, although, unlike Watson, she attributes his lack of earlier action to his ignorance of Naomi and Ruth’s plight, ignorance due to Naomi’s dignified refusal to claim his succor. Also unlike Watson, she states that Naomi’s "virtue and goodness gave her favor in the sight alike of God and man, and rendered her worthy of being the ancestress of that holy line whence the Messiah himself will spring"(249).

Aguilar’s position is fascinating. Her work, and her understanding of equality, is clearly not feminist the modern sense of the word. Her descriptions of women are extremely traditional, and she calls Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel not matriarchs, but "wives of the Patriarchs"(16). Yet she boldly asserts that "Jewish law exalted, protected, and provided for woman"(12) and works "to prove that we have no need of Christianity, or the examples of the females in the Gospel, to raise us to an equality with man"(16). According to Aguilar, this perfect equality is already manifest in the book of Ruth.

Like Aguilar, Stanton clearly states her agenda in her introduction. She is arguing against the church leaders and scholars who have interpreted the scriptures in a way that impedes emancipation for women, and use the Bible as a proof text to deny women political and civil rights. Because she insists that the Bible in its present form degrades women, she stands diametrically opposed to both Aguilar, who believes that the Bible really does define equality between men and women, and Watson, who insists that Jesus Christ brought to the Christian church the equality that the Bible did not bring to Jews (Watson 418).

Unlike Aguilar, Stanton insists that the Bible is a book like any other, and should be judged on its merits like any other book. "Come, come, my conservative friend," she taunts, "wipe the dew off your spectacles and see that the world is moving"(10). Thus she address the believers; and the nonbelievers, who would consider her work of no importance because they consider the Bible to have no relevance, she reminds of the "tens of thousands of Bibles…printed every year, and circulated over the whole habitable globe, and the masses in all English-speaking nations revere it as the word of God, it is vain to belittle its influence"(11). In language as strong as Aguilar’s and directly in conflict with Aguilar’s words, Stanton states "I do not believe that any man ever saw or talked with God, I do not believe that God inspired the Mosaic code…Whatever the Bible may be made to do in Hebrew or Greek, in plain English it does not exalt and dignify women"(12). Rather, she insists that "the Bible cannot be accepted or rejected as a whole"(13).

Stanton’s goal then, is an "expurgated edition of the Liturgies and the Scriptures"(10), for the Christian community than can change the position of woman from subordinate to equal. In her short commentary on the book of Ruth, she interprets the characters so that they will be "worthy of our acceptance and imitation"(15), so that they will be, in her eyes at least, worthy and praiseworthy role models for modern men and women, and teach equality and respect.

Stanton’s understanding of equality is clearly different from that of Aguilar. The adjectives that Stanton uses to describe Ruth and Naomi reflect a very different vision of ideal womanhood than that lauded by Aguilar and Watson. The first time Stanton characterizes Naomi, she describes her as having common sense and self-control. Further, instead of the "half-ruined cottage (Watson 389)," that Watson describes, Stanton writes that Naomi possessed a small house, lot, and spring of water"(39). Ruth and Naomi rest for a few days, and then Ruth decides that she should work, although circumstances indicate that her work is not strictly necessary. Contrast this with Watson’s description of dire need that forces Ruth to the fields, where "the work was not dignified," and "she would have to appear among the waifs and wanderers of the country, with women whose behaviour exposed them to the rude gibes of the laborers (Watson 389)." Rather, Stanton tells us that "Ruth believed in the dignity of labor and of self-support. She thought, no doubt, that every one with a sound mind in a sound body and two hands should earn her own livelihood"(39).

So it seems that Ruth and Naomi are not a desperate and needy widow and orphan dependent on the charity of men. By establishing Ruth and Naomi as relatively independent and self sufficient, Stanton prepares the way for a relationship of equals between Ruth and Boaz, rather than one where Boaz is the savior and Ruth the meek victim who delivers herself into his hands and is grateful for his generosity. Stanton describes Naomi in a similar way; she worked spinning and making clothing, raising vegetables and chickens and contributing to their shared life (40). Ruth and Naomi did not, according to Stanton, need a man. Materially and emotionally they enjoyed their life together; they even had pets to love (41).

If they did not need a man to support them financially, then why should Ruth at all marry Boaz? Only in order to preserve their line according to the custom of the Israelites, answers Stanton, and for love. Furthermore, strictly Naomi should be the one to marry Boaz, and only her age, which presumably put her past childbearing years (though not, according to Stanton, past productivity and work), makes it desirable that Ruth should take her place (40). Boaz, as an upright man, "prized Ruth for her virtues, for her great moral qualities of head and heart"(Stanton 41).

Not only Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi are transformed into admirable role models; Stanton also praises the same redeemer whom Watson criticizes for being "more impressed by the prudential view of their circumstances than by the duties of kinship and hospitality (Watson 414)." In contrast, Stanton tells us that the redeemer can not assume that duty because "he was already married"(42). She tells us that Boaz loves Ruth and fulfills the legal requirements with happiness, rather than with a sense of duty. She is establishing a model for male-female relationships. If Stanton knew of the possibility of polygamy in those days, she clearly does not find it an acceptable way of life to pass down.

Stanton further modifies the convention of marriage in those days when she tells us that "Ruth was summoned to appear before the grave and reverend seigniors; the civil pledges were made and the legal documents duly signed"(42). The text makes no mention at all of Ruth’s presence before any elders at any time. Rather, Boaz states that he is acquiring her (Tanakh, Ruth 4:10), while she is waiting at home with Naomi to see the outcome of the day’s events (Tanakh, Ruth 3:18).

Because, like Aguilar, Stanton’s goal is to find dignity and valor in the women of the Bible, she also praises Ruth and Naomi without caveats. In fact, when it comes to her understanding of the problematic scene at the threshing floor, Stanton comes to the same conclusion as Aguilar. "Some fastidious readers object to the general tenor of Ruth’s courtship," she tells us, with a shockingly Victorian reluctance to speak about the incident explicitly, "But as her manners conformed to the customs of the times, and as she followed Naomi’s instructions implicitly, it is fair to assume that Ruth’s conduct was irreproachable"(43). Although Stanton’s conceptions of womanhood and relationships were controversial in her own time, curiously, she will not allow Ruth to be a rebel in Ruth’s time.

Furthermore, although Stanton’s commentary is so different from Watson’s in its understanding of the characters, in her rejection of the sanctity of the Bible, and her criticism of the Church leaders, it is also an unmistakably Christian text. "If the Bethlehem newspapers had been as enterprising as our journals," she surmises, "they would have given us some pictorial representations of Obed…at the baptismal font"(43).

Although Stanton is the only one of the three authors who does not believe in the divine authority of the text, I do not find her reading to be any further from that literal meaning than the readings of Watson and Aguilar. All of these authors have an agenda and mold their reading according to that agenda. All three authors make the Biblical text say what they want to hear, or what they want others to hear; they fill in the blanks with the dialogue or descriptions that would support their point of view. These ‘fillers’ are absolutely necessary because their arguments cannot stand on the Biblical text alone.

Despite these authors’ vastly different understandings of the book of Ruth, they all believe in the relevance of the Bible to their own time. Because they see the text as a model or example from which they and their contemporaries should learn, to a certain extent they are all projecting the behaviour they would like to encourage back on to the Biblical characters. Only Stanton does this explicitly, but all three of them clearly reflect the values of their time. The role of the authors' own values in forming their interpretations becomes apparent in many places, for example: in the important role that race plays in the commentaries of Watson and Aguilar; in the negative treatment of the Hebrews that borders on anti-Semitism and encourages Christian missionary work in Watson’s work; in Stanton’s imposition in retrospect of monogamy, modern marriage customs, and baptism, onto the Hebrew community in Bethlehem.

Although all of these texts have celebrated their hundredth birthday, I believe the themes that they reflect and their approaches to the text, whether it be romantic apologetics, seeking Christian content in the Hebrew Bible, or a radical rejection of tradition, continue to thrive today in the minds and the works of Biblical scholars.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Grace. Women of Israel. Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1845.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman’s Bible. 1900. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1999.

Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Trans. The Jewish Publication Society. Philadelphia: The Jewish

Publication Society, 1985.

Watson, Robert. Judges and Ruth. The Expositor’s Bible. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890.