“May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel!” Ruth 4:11 NJPS
Woman – Who are you? That’s the question that faces Ruth when she enters the Bethlehem community. First, she is a Moabite, a foreigner, an outsider. Even Naomi indicates that there is some distance between them in spite of Ruth’s covenant declaration. Have you ever felt like that? Have you felt the separation from others in spite of your sincere commitment to them? Then you know what Ruth felt?
Next Ruth is called kalato, daughter-in-law. This is her official status, but it doesn’t seem to bridge the ethnic prejudice or the emotional distance. This is merely a legal matter. There is no comfort here. Have you experienced this kind of isolation? Yes, you are part of the group technically, legally, but you might as well be absent in terms of emotional acceptance. Now you know Ruth a bit better.
Then she is called bat, daughter, by both Naomi and Boaz. But once again, the term might indicate relative age difference, not emotional connection. Clearly she is not the real daughter of Naomi or Boaz. She is acting like a faithful daughter and is recognized for her faithfulness, but at this point in the story, she is still referred to as a Moabite. How about you? Have you ever exemplified the characteristics of one who should be included but still found yourself referred to like a stranger? Ruth knows you too.
Ruth’s next designation is na’arah – “girl.” Now it’s definitely her age that determines who she is. She is the young one, the one who is still not treated as a full member of the group. She is just that same as all those other young ones. One of the crowd. Do you know what that feels like?
But finally we come to the joyful proclamation of the village women upon the announcement of the marriage. For the first time, the other women in the community refer to Ruth as ishshah. The word is usually glossed as “woman” or “wife,” but since we have examined David Stein’s insight concerning the relational quality of ish, we know that “woman” does not mean “a person of the female gender.” It means someone affiliated with the community. Ruth cannot become ishshah until she belongs. She is a woman because she is now completely related to and accepted by her community. In fact, Ruth is no longer called a Moabite. Those days are over. Now she is one among the women of Bethlehem. Furthermore, Ruth is the ishshah of Boaz and Boaz is the ish of Ruth. She has identity in relationship. She is a woman because she is the essential complement of a man.
In ancient near-Eastern cultures, there is no identity in isolation. I am because I belong. Our Greek, Western world rests on a philosophical base that is light years away from this view of personal identity, but that philosophical base doesn’t seem to erase our emotional awareness. We know when we don’t belong. We know what it feels like to be an outsider. We know that isolation is not really who we are. Ruth is our story too. And it is God’s story. Until we belong to Him, we are not who we are meant to be. And if we stop long enough to feel about it, we will know that this is true.
Topical Index: woman, ishshah, Ruth 4:11, belong, community