Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” Ruth 2:5 NASB
Whose – Did you recognize the underlying cultural assumption in Boaz’s question? It is a perfect statement of the difference between the Western Greek world and the Eastern Hebrew world. In our Greek-based society, identity is a matter of individual uniqueness. I am the summation of the individual attributes, achievements and assumptions that describe me apart from everyone else. Yes, of course, we each have a genealogy but in our culture family history is simply the cause and effect pathway that leads to our individuality. In fact, we may even bristle if we are introduced as someone’s wife or son or daughter. We believe that our identity is strictly about us as individuals.
But not so in Hebrew. Boaz’s question reveals that identity is directly tied to someone else’s involvement. Ruth is not the unique, Moabite individual. Her identity is expected to be derived from the possession and protection of someone else. She is who she belongs to. She is the extension of the one who has responsibility for her.
This question reveals the need for a significant reorientation. Saturated as we are with the Greek paradigm, we probably wouldn’t consider identifying ourselves in terms of external ownership. We think of ourselves as standing separate from the masses. We think of ourselves as distinct from others, as singular beings with unique character. But Hebrew thought reveals that ownership is the basis of identity. This does not mean slavery. It means the protective umbrella of communal responsibility. Left alone (as Greek thought would suggest), we are vulnerable, isolated and outside the covenant community. In this state, from a Hebrew perspective, it is as if we do not exist. I am who I am because I am connected, because I belong to someone else, because I am a member of something bigger than myself. In Hebrew thinking, identity is always communal. To be is to be part of the tribe.
The implications of this shift in understanding identity are earth-shattering. What does it mean to have a personal Savior if identity is found in community? What does Christian character mean if it is divorced from the legacy of God’s chosen people? Who am I if I am not tied to the children of Abraham in word and deed? What is the “good news” of salvation if it is presented as individual rescue?
“No man is an island” says the well-known aphorism. In Hebrew this reads, “No man has any identity apart from community and ownership.” We think that community is an extension of us. We think that our individualism adds to the community. We never consider that our very being is a function of the community. We have the equation backwards. “What must I do to be saved?” is followed by a statement “and all of his household.” One does not exist apart from many. Is that how you think of yourself? Does community describe your very being in the world?
Rosanne often objects that she is identified as “Skip’s wife,” thinking that this somehow diminishes her individual identity. But from an Hebraic perspective, we belong to each other. She is the ‘ezer. Her identity is tied to me. To be introduced as “Skip’s wife” is a great complement. No one else can fulfill the role or claim the ownership associated with those words. I wonder if we truly appreciate what it means to be identified in this way or in any way that directly connects who we are with those we are given by God.
Topical Index: identity, whose, Ruth 2:5, community