God’s Surprising Hesed: Reading Ruth as a Palestinian Woman

by Grace Al-Zoughbi | July 05, 2021

A Palestinian Woman

I was born and raised in Bethlehem, Palestine, and have lived there all my life. I am an Arab Palestinian Christian. Over the centuries due to political, social, and economic factors, the number of Arab Christians in the Middle Eastern community has significantly declined from 12.7 percent in 1900 to only 4 percent in 2020, with currently less than 1 percent of Christians in Palestine.1 Subsequently, a lot of the Christian Middle East’s natural talent has left, its scholarly intellect has dwindled, its spiritual status has weakened, and the cultural basis of the community is getting thinner.               

Palestinian Christians, because we are a very small minority, know what it is like to be on the margins. Palestinian Christian women are even more marginalized because we are women in a patriarchal, marginalized community. My passion and calling to pursue a career in theology is not very common or popular in the Middle East. In fact, very few Palestinian Christian women are able to pursue postgraduate theological education because of patriarchal cultural and religious assumptions that impact our participation.

Married to an Egyptian Christian, who is also a minority in the Middle East, I have often reflected on racism and sexism not only within Christian circles but also within the wider context. I have often found that because I am a minority, I have not had the same privileges or rights as the majority of the population.       

As I was musing and writing this piece, I remembered an incident in the church from when I was a child. When I was seven years old, I was selected to play the lead in a Sunday school play on Ruth. However, the lead role of Ruth was later taken from me because I did not have “blond hair or blue eyes” (which I don’t think Ruth had either!). Don’t get me wrong, I do love my Mediterranean, olive complexion, but this experience now reminds me how we are often excluded from being chosen for certain positions because of certain assumptions that are not necessarily right.       

Having lived on the margins in Christianity, my faith also marginalized me in the wider Palestinian community. When I was seventeen, I completed high school with outstanding results and was one of the top ten graduates in the country. Still, I was denied a government scholarship because I chose to study Christian theology. I would have obtained a scholarship had I chosen to study any other field.             
               
A further complication in my context is that because of my Palestinian identity there are certain restrictions placed on me in terms of physical freedom, movement from one place to another within my country or even outside my country. These restrictions have severely limited my ability to travel freely, to access theological resources, for example, as I was pursuing my career. Following God’s call was never easy but as a Palestinian Christian I live this costly reality daily.    

At the same time, I have also often found that because I am a woman, I have had to work doubly hard to prove that I am able, sincere, and competent, whereas some of my male counterparts got away with being less diligent or efficient, simply because they are male. Why is it that we women find ourselves often in this disadvantaged position?               

With all of the complexities of my lived experience, I find the story of Ruth a particular encouragement because Ruth knew a similarly complex experience. She was an outsider, a foreigner to the people of Israel. She was a woman. She was a widow. At a time when the people of God were determined to keep an exclusively Jewish identity, God made a way for Ruth to become part of the community, gently yet powerfully.  

Because of her commitment to God and people, particularly to her mother-in-law and later to her husband Boaz, Ruth exemplified sacrificial love that turned her circumstances around in an exceptional way as we will see below.

A Moabite Woman

To understand what is extraordinary about Ruth’s story, we must understand her context. Most commentators of the book of Ruth draw attention to the significance of its patriarchal setting.2 One scholar comments that “reading the book…requires the reader to set the narrative of the women’s actions within the patriarchal frame in which female interests are subordinated to those of men.”3  Another notes that “one may appeal to Ruth for confirmation of a male dominant social system—after all, it is in an all-male forum that personal fates are decided.”4     

In this context, the remarkable feature of the book of Ruth is that it recounts the actions of two women, forced to live without their husbands, making radical decisions in the midst of a man’s world,5 guided solely by the principle of “redemption.”6 Ruth has been described as a “transformer,” empowered by her faith in God “to replace marginality and insecurity by wealth and a more stable status.”7

The trials faced by Ruth throughout her story are not the product of men and their evil ways, but of the unfortunate and harsh circumstances of life: famine and illness. Women, especially in contexts like Ruth’s, can be left totally helpless and defenseless when such misfortunes strike them. In the case of Ruth, she had to fight first for survival and second to secure an heir, which defines a woman in a male-dominated community.

Since Ruth had to accept the governing patriarchal norms of society, she is not a typical “feminist” heroine, and there is the danger that Ruth’s behavior could encourage women to follow cultural expectations to sacrifice themselves to serve others at the expense of their own needs. However, it is more correct to say that Ruth takes appropriate care of Naomi, rather than makes an unthinking self-sacrifice.   

Ruth makes her own choice to reject Naomi’s advice and follow her to Bethlehem. Ruth does not change the basic norms of her male-dominated society. Even so, she is revolutionary because she dares to trust (and also to test the reliability of) key moral values such as loyalty, kindness, reliability, trust, and inclusion. These are values that make any society a viable and humane one, providing a framework that enables human beings to flourish in community.   

Ruth’s compassion for and empathy toward those who suffer demonstrates the relevance of emotion to a balanced ethical life. Ruth also believes that damaged lives can be changed for the better when the safety net of good community based on hesed (loving-kindness) is there to catch them. This covenant society is designed to give help and refuge to those who are most in need, thus showing it is not a racist society.     

The historical context of Ruth, the time when the judges ruled (Ruth 1:1), presents the stark contrast between violence and injustice and the peace and hesed of Ruth. In Judges, concerns over maintaining the male line led to massacres and the kidnapping of women, as in Judges 19:1–21. In Ruth, needs are resolved by moral choices and women taking on roles traditionally assumed by men. In the story, the legal structures of Israel work as they should to help the vulnerable within society, but they only work because they are made to do so by Ruth’s decisions.

Today, we also ought to make decisions that make a difference in our communities and churches and allow us to be more inclusive and welcoming of outsiders, regardless of their background and race, for they, like Ruth, can make a difference in our societies.

Ruth’s Story Today

The story of Ruth is particularly special for me because it took place in my hometown, Bethlehem. Bethlehem means "the house of bread," and it is a beautiful reminder that despite hardships, the Lord always fulfils our needs like he did for Ruth.             

First, he fulfilled her need for sustenance (Ruth 2) and then for a husband, with whom she had a child who was also an heir for Naomi (Ruth 4:17). In a patriarchal society, the fates of Ruth and Naomi were intertwined. Second, through her humility and integrity, Ruth won the respect and admiration of the people of Bethlehem and specifically Boaz, who told her, “I know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers” (Ruth 2:11, NLT). Her beautiful demeanor exemplifies the words of Christ, “those who humble themselves shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, NLT).       

Finally this story reminds me that Ruth, although a Moabite woman, was included in the lineage of Christ along with Tamar (Gen. 38), Rahab (Josh. 2:11), Bathsheba (Matt. 1:6), and Mary (Matt. 1: 16). She was not excluded simply because she was a Moabite. On the contrary, she enjoyed the same status as Jewish women in the lineage of Jesus. One cannot help but think of Ruth when reading Paul’s profound words: “So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family” (Eph. 2:19, NLT).               

The story of Ruth leaves no room in our faith for racism or sexism and acknowledges that God’s precious hesed surprises us every time. He is bigger than all the restrictions, limitations, and assumptions that may be levelled against us. We may have experienced such discrimination, whether racial, or because of our gender, or both. But in God’s economy, value is calculated differently. His acceptance, love, and graciousness are not based on the color of our eyes or hair. On the contrary, our relationship with him is embedded in his everlasting hesed to us.          

Finally, the story of Ruth paves a way forward for the loving inclusion of marginalized women in the church, society, and academy. These spheres and circles where women are able to wisely influence and competently make an impact beyond themselves should not be exclusive only to women of certain color or race. Every woman should be offered an opportunity to rise and to make a difference without having to feel that they are alien, excluded, precluded, or unwanted.

A Better Way Forward

Issues of sexism and racism are not new to society or the church. Sadly, they have a long history. Giving ourselves the space to repent and to lament is not only crucial but also timely.  Racism and sexism can be multifaceted, but contemplating the story of Ruth provides a better way forward, considering God’s surprising ways:

She was a foreigner; she became part of the house of the Lord…

She was a stranger; she became part of God’s family…

She was excluded; she became included…

She was widowed; she became married to Boaz…

She was childless; she became the mother of Obed, who became the father of Jesse, the father of David who was an ancestor of Jesus Christ.

What a great heritage to draw on.

When we commit our lives to our faithful God, he will use the abilities and skills he has given us and make something beautiful out of our lives. In a time when Christians are struggling to survive in the Middle East, the story of Ruth reminds me that I have an indispensable part to play in the work of the kingdom of God. I boast that Ruth is my ancestor and that God’s promises manifested in her life also apply to me—but to an even greater extent through Jesus Christ!               

The life of Ruth reminds us that God does not forget our sorrows but instead he understands the difficulties that we go through on a daily basis. As we deeply meditate on the example of Ruth, may we never lose sight of a faithful God whose hesed often surprises us.



This article appears in “Learning Lament, Building Empathy, and Joining our Sisters at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” the Summer 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.


Notes

1. Mark A. Lamport, and Mitri Raheb, eds, The Rowman & Littlefield Handbook of Christianity in the Middle East. The Rowman & Littlefield Handbook Series, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), xxvi.
2. Mary E. Mills, Biblical Morality: Biblical Morality in Old Testament Narratives, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 103.
3. Mills, Morality, 104.
4. Mills, Morality, 104.
5. Robert L. Hubbard, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ruth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 137.
6. Deborah F. Sawyer, God, Gender and the Bible, (London: Routledge, 2002), 80.
7. Ilona Rashkow, “Ruth: The Discourse of Power and the Power of Discourse,” in A Feminist Companion to Ruth, Athalya Brenner ed., (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 26–41.