Part Two is a continuation of last week's blog column on human trafficking.
The Bible carries the idea of a strong woman throughout the canonical text. The highpoint is found in the closing section of the Hebrew Bible, which is called "The Hebrew Writings." This section consists of the following books, in this order: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The book of Psalms describes worship in very emotive language and through music. It is rather unfortunate that we have lost the music of the Psalms in modern English Bibles. The next book, Proverbs, talks about a life of wisdom. Wisdom is described as a woman. In fact, the Hebrew word for Wisdom is a feminine noun. It is Lady Wisdom. The reader is repeatedly encouraged that the secret to a good life is to follow Lady Wisdom. The book of Proverbs, then, reaches its climax in Proverbs 31. Sadly, the English translates Proverbs 31:10 to describe the woman as "virtuous wife" (KJV); "capable wife" (NRSV); "virtuous and capable wife" (NLT); "wife of noble character" (NIV); etc. The Hebrew phrase, eshet chayil, literally means a physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally strong woman. Further, the primary meaning of the noun isha is not wife. She is primarily a woman. Proverbs 31 describes the woman as a phenomenally strong person.
In the Hebrew Bible, the books that follow Proverbs 31 give examples of an eshet chayil, a strong woman. These paradigmatic examples are found in the books of Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. I would like to focus on one of these eshet chayil: Ruth.
The narrative of Ruth begins with a famine in the land of Bethlehem—literally, the House of Bread. It is ironic that the place, which was supposed to be the physical and spiritual source of bread, should experience famine. A family from Bethlehem went to Moab, where women were treated very poorly. Many of the low class women were taken into female prostitution centers, which were linked to the worship of fertility gods and goddesses. The narrative of Ruth tells us that at this place, the sons of Elimelech get sucked into the cultural view of women, and they "took the women of Moab" (Ruth 1:4). Many English translations, translate their action as, "they married Moabite women" (NIV, NLT, NRSV, etc.). The Hebrew phrase is meant to be seen as, "they forcibly took Moabite women," i.e. they raped them. The context suggests that they suffered the consequences of death because of their demeaning acts against the women of Moab. When one reads the narrative further, one discovers that the word used for Boaz marrying Ruth means to recreate. Boaz exclaims, "Ruth the Moabitess, the woman of Mahalon I have 'recreated' to be my woman to 'resurrect' the name of the dead...and the people at the gate and the elders said, 'We witness. May the LORD make the woman coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel. May you be a chayil, in Ephrathah'" (Ruth 4:10-11, paraphrased). This is a great contrast to what the sons of Elimelech did. They engaged in human trafficking. Boaz, on the other hand, ordered his men to protect this woman, who was an alien and therefore trafficking material. Then he redeemed her, and gave her the place of highest honor, in front of the city gate, where historically the men and women of highest honor gathered—the lawns of the White House would be a modern analogy.
The Hebrew Bible suggests that the main purpose of the book of Ruth is the focus on Ruth as an eshet chayil, a prime example of the woman of Proverbs 31. In fact, on more than one occasion in the book, Ruth is called an eshet chayil (Ruth 3:11; 4:11). The book of Ruth is the story of the transformation of a woman who was sexually abused and treated as human trafficking material, into a strong woman and eshet chayil.
Stay tuned for the third and final part in next week's blog!
This article originally appeared in Social Injustice: What Evangelicals Need to Know about the World, edited by Michael T. Cooper and William J. Moulder (Lake Forest, IL: The Timothy Center Press, 2011).