A twenty-first century woman covered in brightly coloured lace and silk climbs a staircase in Leighton House, Kensington—the residence, in the nineteenth century, of Frederic, Lord Leighton.
Lord Leighton collected Middle Eastern artefacts to display in his London home. In her work Isimsiz the London-based Turkish artist Güler Ates highlights the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western cultures that resulted. Her photograph shows an Iznik hexagonal tile (c.1530) behind the banister and a peacock in front of it. Both of them reflect a Victorian notion of—and a colonially-influenced taste for—the exotic.
Veiled women drawn in Lord Leighton’s sketchbook struck Ates as particularly ‘exoticising images’ (Ates 2019). She toys with such images here. But the woman cannot be pinned down. While her head and face—parts of the body often associated with subjectivity and identity—are missing, her upward movement indicates her self-possession, power, and determination to move towards an undetermined destination. Her mystery is not imposed. It is not a fantasized otherness —a kind of dubious orientalizing mystique. Rather, the woman refuses to allow others to fully see and thereby objectify her.
Like the woman in Isimsiz, Ruth cannot be captured. Her portrayal is full of paradoxes, explaining why she has been characterized differently by biblical scholars (e.g. LaCocque 2004; Sakenfeld 1999; Donaldson 2010).
She is defined repeatedly as a Moabite—a foreigner from an enemy nation—but is hailed as a ‘worthy woman’ by Boaz (3:11) and affirmed as being worth more than seven sons to Naomi (4:15). (Seven was the number associated with perfection.)
She seems to find her voice in chapter 3 (v. 9; 16–17) but later returns to silence, is ‘acquired’ by Boaz (4:10) as property, and has her child, Obed, taken from her by Naomi (4:16).
She is submissive and obeys orders. But she is also feisty and courageous, risking social ostracism to proposition Boaz on the threshing-floor (Nielsen 1997: 70; Koosed 2011: 73).
Who is Ruth? Does her character kowtow to patriarchal and colonial insistence that women’s—particularly foreign women’s—value is only to be found in marriage and bearing children for the nation? Is she a ‘model minority’ who is exploited as a source of social and economic capital? (Yee 2009:128–34). Or, do we glimpse in these chapters of the Bible a subversive divine affirmation of her creative resilience, self-sufficiency, shrewdness, and love?
Conversation with Güler Ates, 24 June 2019.
Donaldson, Laura. 2010. ‘The Sign of Orpah: Reading Ruth through Native Eyes’, in Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. by Kwok Pui-Lan (Maryknoll: Orbis), pp. 138–51
Koosed, Jennifer L. 2011. Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press)
LaCocque, André. 2004. Ruth, trans. by K. C. Hanson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress)
Nielsen, Kirsten. 1997. Ruth (London: SCM Press)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. 1999. Ruth (Louisville: John Knox)
Yee, Gale A. 2009. ‘“She Stood in Tears Amid the Alien Corn”: Ruth, the Perpetual Foreigner and Model Minority’, in They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, ed. by R. C. Bailey, T. B. Liew and F. F. Segovia (Atlanta: SBL), pp. 119–40
3 Then Naʹomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek a home for you, that it may be well with you? 2Now is not Boʹaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”
6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had told her. 7And when Boʹaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! 9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your maidservant; spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.” 10And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; you have made this last kindness greater than the first, in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11And now, my daughter, do not fear, I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of worth. 12And now it is true that I am a near kinsman, yet there is a kinsman nearer than I. 13Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will do the part of the next of kin for you, well; let him do it; but if he is not willing to do the part of the next of kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will do the part of the next of kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”
14 So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognize another; and he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” 15And he said, “Bring the mantle you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and laid it upon her; then she went into the city. 16And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did you fare, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, 17saying, “These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said, ‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’ ” 18She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”
4 And Boʹaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the next of kin, of whom Boʹaz had spoken, came by. So Boʹaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here”; and he turned aside and sat down. 2And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. 3Then he said to the next of kin, “Naʹomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land which belonged to our kinsman Elimʹelech. 4So I thought I would tell you of it, and say, Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” 5Then Boʹaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naʹomi, you are also buying Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” 6Then the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”
7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next of kin said to Boʹaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. 9Then Boʹaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naʹomi all that belonged to Elimʹelech and all that belonged to Chilʹion and to Mahlon. 10Also Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his native place; you are witnesses this day.” 11Then all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you prosper in Ephʹrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; 12and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”
13 So Boʹaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naʹomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16Then Naʹomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naʹomi.” They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, 19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminʹadab, 20Amminʹadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21Salmon of Boʹaz, Boʹaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.