The Manly Side of the Book of Ruth

book of Ruth

This article was adapted from Carolyn Custis James’s book Finding God in the Margins. Used with permission.

The Power of Power According to the Book of Ruth

In 2013 esteemed newsman Tom Brokaw predicted that the 21st century will be known as “the Century of Women.”[i] In her grimly titled book The End of Men—and the Rise of Women, journalist Hanna Rosin confirms his thesis and examines the flip side of this development. Her research (which is surprisingly sympathetic to men) substantiates that current social, cultural and economic changes are benefiting women and disadvantaging a lot of men. “For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy…has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions.”[ii]

Now all that is changing.

Traditional roles are becoming more fluid, and definitions of what it means to be “a real man” are not as clear or attainable as in the past. A man’s previously secure status as the chief decider, breadwinner and protector is eroding.

Men must compete with women for jobs. Jobs are disappearing as computers replace men and whole industries shut down or move overseas. Furthermore, a lot of men are working in jobs where their boss is a woman. As one man lamented,

Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.[iii]

It seems the pendulum that favored men for millennia has swung in favor of women…

The Pivotal Moment

Much is made about the initial encounter between Ruth and Boaz in Boaz’s barley field. Without question this meeting is the pivotal moment in the story. But no one could know ahead of time that things will turn out well. Good stories have tension. One of the key questions posed by the presence of Boaz is, how will this impressive man use his power and privilege?

For starters, the enormous social and cultural disparity between them could not be more pronounced. They are polar opposites. He holds all the advantages. The disadvantages belong to Ruth. Throughout human history and right up to the present, the differences between them are the makings of some of the most horrific violations of human rights. Only consider the explosive combinations: male and female, rich and poor, young and old, Jew and gentile, native born and immigrant, powerful and powerless, valued and discarded. Anyone watching this nitroglycerin mixture would be expecting something terrible to happen. Especially when her request implies criticism of how he’s managing his field.

But Boaz’s response to her request to glean in territory that was off-limits to gleaners is a show-stopper. He was not offended, although obviously taken aback. Her perspective on Mosaic law was eye-opening to him. Not only does he listen and grant her request, but he exceeds it with evident determination that nothing must prevent her from succeeding. He even serves her a meal. How countercultural is that?!

We must not miss the earthshaking implications of his response. Boaz has just been introduced as a man who needs no improvement. In the eyes of the culture (and also of the narrator) he is golden. And yet, his exchanges with Ruth are eye-opening to him. He realizes what she is trying to do. Her perspective shed new light on a business he had been running for years…

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Carolyn Custis James
Carolyn Custis James (BA Sociology, MA Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. Carolyn is the author of Half the Church and Malestrom.

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