Two Heroines (Ruth and Esther)

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This video is part of a series of weekly lectures (“Orientation videos”) and other supplements for an online course called BIBL 100 Bible Survey, focused on understanding the totality of the Christian Bible from both academic and Christian perspectives.

The full YouTube playlist for this course is located at:

Brian R. Doak, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program
Director, GFU Summer Online Program

[email protected]

hello there hello there greetings my excellent students welcome to this video orientation entitled two heroines Ruth and Esther we have plenty of big-name male characters in the Bible that get books named after them and do all kinds of important things but what about the ladies Ruth and Esther are two of the big examples and I thought it'd be worth devoting a video just to them and the value of these books and the way they contribute to israel's story both of these books are included among the kathy bean the narrative of Ruth is set in the time of the judges actually way back then many scholars think the Book of Ruth was written much later than that point but providing dates for biblical books and their authorship is very difficult in most cases so we'll have to let that it should go the book of Esther occurs much later in the narrative perhaps during the time let's say of Ezra and Nehemiah something more like in that zone indeed the book of Esther is one of the only books I think that we have maybe the only book in the Old Testament where all of the action is set outside of the Land of Israel and the Land of Israel plays no role whatsoever and instead we follow the fate of some Jewish characters who are in exile and find themselves in a very difficult situation indeed both books deal with with strong women who navigate very difficult situations and so the book share share those kinds of themes with each other even though they're set in very different time periods the issue of thinking about gender men and women in the Bible is super fascinating and deserves much more than one small video moment here but this is what we can do for now as we try to move through the material there's been a lot of focus in our contemporary world on gender and the way that men and women are represented in popular media and things like at the time that I'm making this video the reboot of the Wonder Woman movie has just come out with gal gadot in the leading role there and has sparked a lot of discussion about about female leading characters about female directors all of this could could make an interesting dialogue partner with the Bible thinking about how many female characters appear in prominence or leaderly positions in the Bible in major speaking roles for example um there's been analysis done perhaps not exactly perfect statistically but probably close enough that shows that women speak something like I think around 14 or 15 thousand words in the Bible something like around 90 or 100 female speaking characters only about half of whom are named in the narrative and that by volume their words amount to about 1.1 percent of the speaking roles in the Bible so it's mostly men who are who are doing the speaking we do have some prominent females though at points women are definitely not completely shut out we have characters like Miriam and Exodus 15 who lead the community and song and she clearly seems to be a major figure indeed the prophet Micah lists Miriam along with Moses and Aaron as the three leaders of Israel during the wilderness period so perhaps there were early traditions not all of which are recorded in the Bible which saw Miriam in this kind of role we had Deborah as you recall in judges four and five who is one of the judges indeed she's the only judge who doesn't seem to really screw things up morally like many of the other judges did whether that was intentional on the part of the narrator to portray her that way I didn't know we have some female prophets like holed up in the book of second kings late in the story but not too many female prophets just a couple um in the New Testament the question of whether women were viewed as leaders in to what extent has been one that that many Christian groups have debated it seems like there are at least a few clear Christian leaders who are female many of Jesus's earliest followers were females and play prominent roles in the New Testament the Gospels give the privilege to women to be the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus at the tomb for they're the ones who visit the tomb and find it empty okay we also find a female prophets in the New Testament and several references to women in leadership roles such as an apostle and a deacon at a couple of points so the fact that women have so few speaking roles doesn't mean they've been completely shut out in the Bible's conception of leadership and prominence but you know maybe the numbers speak for themselves 1% versus 99% okay I'm not run a lot of other ancient literature doesn't fare much better on this front in terms of gender equality or inequality it's not like the Bible's particularly bad I don't think on this front indeed we might even start looking at some some modern or some contemporary examples and you can see this kind of thing as well for example I've read that JRR Tolkien's famous Lord of the Rings trilogy has of its of its huge world of characters only about 18 percent our female with a very very low percentage of speaking lines and it just so happens that no two female characters ever speak to each other in any of JRR Tolkien's middle-earth materials which is kind of odd so in other words if you're a female in the junior Tolkien universe you can only speak to a male like you can never have a women only conversation but plenty of men speak to each other but no two women and the same is true actually I thought I read somewhere the same is true I think it's true or maybe nearly true in the original Star Wars trilogy women never speak to each other they're either even though you have some strong characters like Princess Leia they're famously she never speaks to another woman she's only seen in relation to men so not exactly just a ancient problem okay I've also seen some some statistics on say Disney films put an image up on the screen here women have 60% or more of the dialogue in films like inside out Alice in Wonderland Maleficent Sleeping Beauty I'm all the strong female characters and there's a gender balance and in films like frozen and The Incredibles and all this other stuff but then you see they're the films with men that have 60% plus dialogue a much much larger group including books where there's almost 100% only male dialogue in the jungle book Monsters Inc Toy Story Aladdin you know you can kind of read some of those selecting those titles done list so those titles by the way to have women in the leading roles which makes it all the more odd that men are speaking 75 85 95 percent of the time Mulan I think I haven't seen Milan but I think Milan has a leading female character Finding Nemo has a lot of female characters Beauty and the Beast of course has a major female character and so on and so forth same thing for same thing for for blockbuster movies here's a here's a page from from a website there you can see the headline women spoke just 27% of the dialogue in 2016 top grossing movies including major films like rogue one which came out in 2016 which has a major leading female character who doesn't really talk that much in the film it's mostly male characters leading this article author to say it appears Hollywood's more concerned with the appearance of gender equality than actual equality although raises the question about what how you know when you see equality in the text does it mean equal percentages of speaking lines is it certain kinds of action what would it really mean to see this okay for those who want to see women in stronger roles certainly films like the Wonder Woman movie now probably a series in the future as well as recently mom for example has as a major female character that speaks I think a large large percentage of the lines at any rate it's not just the ancient world and certainly not just the Bible which people could criticize for having a gender imbalance in terms of who speaks and who gets to be a leader and who gets to do gets to do what most people who study the ancient Israel historically would be quick to affirm that ancient Israel is a patriarchy a patriarchy the word RK means ancient or primary Potter means father the patriarchy would be any kind of religious or political or social system where men have positions of primacy based solely on the fact that they are men and it seems like most of the ancient world that we know about operated this way okay um we're their matriarch ease in the ancient world maybe we don't really know about too many of them there's been speculation and there's some theorizing about that it may be that some cultures have operated naturally in some time periods or places the majority of what we see in what we get our patriarchy's although I reference here on the screen the book called rediscovering Eve major scholarly work recently by by a professor at Duke University Carol Myers who asserted that maybe the term we should really be using for ancient Israel's not patriarchy but rather hierarchy how do our keys a complicated phrase which would just mean that the ark a or the primary power or significance is etter okay it's different in other words a hierarchy would be a system where neither men nor women necessarily have power by rule by a rule but rather power is shared in different ways that it's hard to categorize under under a title like patriarchy or something else so one point that Carol Meyers makes in her book is that in a system where the workplace is valued above all else and where the workplace is not in the home a characteristic for example of the modern West people go to work you're kind of working man and you get your lunch pail and you go off to the factory or whatever this then places the primary sort of power then in the hands of men who go out and earn the wage while the women stand with children although in many traditional societies and this would have been true in ancient Israel as well women continued working both in the home and outside of the home also with children straps to their bodies you know this is how many traditions in how many traditional societies women deal with with children you take them out to the field with you they just go with you and also significantly for for Myers point for what it's worth um working outside the home is not seen as the powerful idea ideal perhaps the home itself is the center and the locus of power and if women are in fact in charge of of the home and it's cooking functions and it's childcare and so on traditionally that would put women at the center of the power structure and the decision-making apparatus and that men how this that applies to an entire culture in terms of its Kings and its leadership and taxes and money and all this kind of stuff it's a very complicated question so I raised this issue of header our key versus patriarchy just to say that many readers of the Bible perhaps like you would assume that the Bible operates under a patriarchal concept and this may very well be one good way of talking about it however there may be other ways of talking about what what the Bible represents on those terms as well not to mention the very difficult problem of whether or not what we see in the Bible represents the historical experience of most real people in ancient Israel as opposed to you know kind of like kings and battles and stuff like that okay so all that is to say this is a complicated topic about which a lot could be said now Genesis 1 through 3 as you'll recall has a kind of story of beginnings in terms of gender men and women in relation to one another we have in the initial creation event of Genesis 1 a kind of gender utopia men and women are created in God's image simultaneously in Genesis 1:26 and that utopia seems to continue even on into Genesis 2 even though we have a creation order a man and one Genesis 3 of course introduces the pain the problems men and women interact with each other in negative ways and then God has negative things to say about their relationship to one another in particular maybe most famously in terms of gender hierarchy in Genesis 3 to the woman God said Genesis 3:16 this is I will make your pains and childbearing very severe with painful labor labor universal children your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you so we have a hierarchy introduced into the relationship on a plain reading of that past based on the results of the negative things that happened I always find it fascinating personally and I don't mean to make a heavy-handed comment here toward you about gender but just to consider I've been a fascinating that sometimes people who are socially conservative will point to this passage to say that because God instituted this kind of hierarchical system that that's the way it should be in terms of the home or in terms of church leadership or something like that yet those same people seem to have no problem using contemporary or modern and farm equipments to try to plow the land and make plowing easier or you know use modern you know the miracles of modern medicine and pills and surgery and stuff like that which to be consistent if God in fact cursed the land and said that the work that we do in the land is going to be hard why would you try to reverse that then if that's what God declared if God declared to the man this is Genesis 3:17 and following cursed be the ground through painful toil you will eat from it why should you then eat food or work the land in any way that's other than painful well because we have tools and we've works as human beings I mean this is even could even draw this into a theological narrative as Christians we've worked to reverse the effects of the so called fall in Genesis 30 okay by making labor easier by reducing pain and all this kind of stuff why then would we not work to reverse the effects of pernicious gender hierarchy as well since it's not a result of God's initial created way between men and women in Genesis 1 or 2 but rather as the result of this degraded way of life which people struggle with afterward so I was something to think about ok anyway in Genesis 1 through 3 we get early pictures in the Bible of gender relations does the Bible ever just slam men as men or women as women and just declare them negative as a gender no with I say no with an asterisk there are two very clear negative comments about women as a gender as women in the Bible although asterisk not in the Protestant Bible do you remember this issue of the Canon from early in the course Catholics and Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox versus Protestants have a separate candidate separate Bible in Catholic Bibles we have Sirach 25 which is a passage which is highly negative about women about Eve about divorce which is in the Catholic and Orthodox Canon but not in the Protestant Canon in both candidates however we have a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes chapter 7 verses 22 to 29 which does seem to make a negative comment about women implying that they're not wise I've never been wise I've never seen a wise woman you know I've never seen a righteous woman that kind of stuff so you can look that up and read that for yourself but that's really the only explicit place we may find in many places depictions of men and women V the V one another like in Genesis 3 or elsewhere for instance in the book of books of Deuteronomy and the law and places like that when we see images of men and women that would certainly be offensive to people committed to gender equality today but the Bible only rarely in these couple of cases will out and out make a negative comment about a gender as such okay so we don't really get a lot of that and stuff what about these books of Ruth and Esther what do we find there and what do we see scan with me if you will these books will mistake a little kind of tore through through some of the highlights go to Ruth occurs right after the book of Judges page 182 if you have my Bible Ruth is a woman as you know from the reading who finds herself in a very difficult situation her husband has died and she lived as part of a family group with a father-in-law and mother-in-law and her father-in-law also died and she also lived with with another family the children of the husband that was the father along the mother-in-law and that other woman's husband died so we have a group of three women alone and vulnerable to start the story to imagine women like this without without their marriage without the men in there I've in this traditional context is to imagine that most vulnerable and indeed in many cultures today even non-traditional contexts women would be at least viewed as vulnerable in situations like this alone and surrounded by all kinds of people and what's worse for Ruth is that she's a foreigner to the family that that she's into these men truth as the narrator tells us over and over again is a Moabite test she's ruth the moabite they keep conure well why do they keep calling her Ruth the Moabitess well Moab the country of Moab is not Israel in other words in other words Ruth and her husband who's named here as Killian her husband was an Israelite they had they are in an exogamous marriage to remember those terms from ezra and nehemiah and naga me and exogamy marrying within the group marrying outside the group whereas an answer on the amaya we had very negative images of exogamy where ezra and nehemiah strongly discouraged it here the book of ruth tells it a really touching moving story about an exogenous marriage ruth the moabite married to an israelite who in fact um sticks with her mother and lot even after the death of her husband there's this moving moment where she says your people will be my people and your gods my god it's almost as though she undergoes a kind of of of conversion in this moment I put another set of words here up on the screen talk about this we don't have too many conversions in the Bible we have this group called the Gibeonites that we find in 2nd Samuel 21 who seem to graft themselves into Israel we have this woman named Rahab in the book of Joshua who becomes a kind of honorary Israelites based on her help her helping Joshua and his group come in and take over the land but by by-and-large conversion is not really the rule you just kind of are what you are in this world but Ruth stands as an example of a woman who in her her statement in Ruth chapter 1 where you go I will go where you stay I will stay so Ruth one sixteen seventeen your people will be my people and your God my God who makes a kind of conversion and then sticks with on sticks with her mother-in-law Naomi in the narrative the Bible has a mixed picture about exogamy I mean you see various examples of these mixed marriages exogamous marriages many of which go without comment some of which are portrayed negatively some which seem to be positive Abraham Isaac Jacob and Joseph all married women that were not natives to the Land of Israel they married in the case of Abraham Isaac and Jacob from their family group so I guess that's a kind of endogamy Joseph so Mary's an Egyptian wife down in Egypt there's just no comment about that Lilly at all in the book of Genesis where that occurs Moses marries a Midianite or a kushai woman in numbers 12 although funny enough you get some oddities here in the book of Deuteronomy in chapter 21 verses 10 through 14 we find that even in a passage which discourages intermarriage on the whole um the narrator here says Deuteronomy 10 when you go to war against your enemies and Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives if you notice them own captives a beautiful woman and you're attracted to her you may take her as your wife okay so Levine our foreign women then that that God in the law here is encouraging Israel to marry if they're taken as a prisoner of war so you know if you're the kind of person that wants to talk about a biblical view of marriage for example you might have to be careful that you know what you're talking about and what you're referring to you're also referring that in the biblical view to marrying women taken as captives in war to situations that are very very biblical like polygamy for example and even procreating at points with women not your wife at all for certain purposes like Abraham did like Jacob did with some maidservants of his two wives Rachel and Leah he's not only having sex with Rachel and Leah but also these other women as well through whom he's having kids who become the 12 tribes of Israel so we've got a lot of stuff going on here but a lot of passages then that just flat-out forbid exogamy Exodus 34 Deuteronomy 7 Nehemiah were familiar with and so on okay so this is complicated the Bible doesn't really have a single picture of what exogamy and endogamy is for or what it should do or what its value is but Ruth seems to show the value of exogamy of marrying outside the group as Ruth does she's however though it's maybe it's the exception that proves the rule since in the end as you know from reading the story she comes back around and ends up marrying a guy named Boaz who is in fact an Israelite and that becomes her husband in the long term and then she does have a child and we find out that the child that they have and I'm just flipping here to the end of the book of Ruth the child that we have through genealogy is shown in Ruth chapter 4 verses 18 through 22 becomes a rather direct ancestor of King David so King David's you know great-great-great great-great-great grandmother is in fact not an Israelite and there's a book of the Bible which shows that story Ruth shows herself to be strong in the face of adversity she even essentially does something that very much looks like she's pushy proposes marriage to a god not the other way around which must have been seen as odd in its historical context marriages were often arranged by families and in this case – Naomi does work to arrange that marriage in a sense the idea here behind this type of marriage to a relative or to a family member after another family member has died is sometimes referred to as leverets marriage I put the slide back up here to show you that word leverage marriage there at the table the idea being that one would continue to remarry within a family group say a brother of a deceased husband in order to have a child that would keep that brother's name alive or keep land and inheritance within a family as opposed to then just going off and marrying outside of the family so Ruth takes her part within a structure like that now speaking of speaking of intermarriage what about Esther Esther becomes part of a royal harem of a Persian King turn here um as we close to in the last couple with a book of esther page 344 in the bible i have the book of esther comes right after Ezra and Nehemiah the book of Esther is a really wild almost comedic book a lot of really big hyperbolic overblown explanations of the customs of the Persians and their king this King is shown as a printed balloon-like character who doesn't really know what's going on in his own palace and he's having these sumptuous feasts and he doesn't understand what's going on other people are plotting all the time and he doesn't really get it he's very easily manipulated this Persian king called Xerxes here after is in fact a Jewish woman who finds herself in exile in Persia she lives with her cousin named Mordecai who kind of like takes care of her a little bit and in fact when Esther is is married into the harem of this Persian King there's a point at which it seems like this king is going to destroy all of the Jews on the advice of his wicked advisor Haman Mordecai in 412 says some very famous word faster he goes to Esther in 412 and says do not think that because you're in the Kings house as his wife that you alone of all the Jews will escape for if you remain silent if you don't try to save us the Jews at this time relief and deliverance for the Jews will rise to another place between your father Stanley will perish and who knows but that you have come to your royal physician for such a time as this so it turns out in the plot Esther does appeal she finally breaks the silence tells her husband the king that she is a Jew tells him not to slaughter the Jews and and there's a great reversal he then slaughters he nun gives permissions for the Jews to go out and slaughter their enemies and there's a big reversal and this marks a holiday called Purim which still celebrated today by Jews is a holiday of reversals of revelry of drunkenness cross-dressing of transgression and many cultures have these these holidays of reversal where the norms of society are overthrown and you do the exact opposite you think of like in the United States context contacts with the cultures that celebrate Mardi Gras physical sat Tuesday all that kind of stuff that's that's a holiday of reversal as well very much in the Purim type style of Apollo okay um Esther has shown as a heroine of the story for saving her people and also being a brave actor in a time of need she's involved in you know she's the narrator doesn't cast any censure on her for being married to a foreign King we're just left to kind of wonder what God thinks of all this in fact we're left to wonder for one big reason as you may have noticed when reading Esther or I'll give it away right now this is the only book in the Bible in which God is not mentioned as an acting character in the book nowhere referenced which is odd in the Greek version of aster in the in the so called Septuagint which would there are additions to the book of Esther or rather a fuller form of the book and this would be in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles in the book of Esther there we do find God mentioned it's likely there though that a later translator kind of updated the original Hebrew book of Esther and added references to God and added prayers and so on in order to kind of make the book more normal by biblical standards but the original book itself seems never to have referred to God at all which leads readers with some haunting questions did the author leave God out to sort of mark something about this new context namely the fact that Jews living in exile would have to rely on their wits would have to rely on subterfuge and their relative positions of power in order to save themselves because God is no longer acting to save them or is it the case as many think that we are to see God as acting behind the scenes in the book of Esther but just because God isn't narrate it doesn't mean that the narrator and the reader isn't supposed to think that God is there we just imagine all the coincidences which occur in the book how the King just happened to have found out this and had just happened to promote Mordecai and all this kind of stuff and how Esther just happened to have been beautiful and just happen to have been chosen and just happen to have saved her people that all those coincidences aren't quite incidences but rather they are the the quiet secret workings of a God who is there but a God who's working behind the scenes so there are two options for you for thinking about this absence of God I'll end with an archaeological moment on the Persian Empire was was was a very very rich Empire a lot of beautiful artifacts and items and remains that can be found in the description early an ester of the sumptuous drinking and eating feasts we find reference there to to what we know about the Persians archaeologically which was that they were very rich and they had some really great eating and drinking vessels maybe some of these were ornamental but like for instance you can see this gold bowl here many amazing artifacts like this we have from Persian context in the 6th 5th and 4th centuries BC that was the duration of the Persian Empire we also have these amazing animal themed drinking vessels like this gold one here with an animal head imagine drinking out of something like that ok and then we also have a silver one here you can see so the Persians were famous for this kind of feasting culture and and the kings were known for for having very lavish parties and a very lavish rich culture surrounding their activities and the power that they wielded over there the world alright that's all for today thanks for tuning in see you next time bye-bye

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