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Is Ruth a Rapist?

You were probably expecting something pertaining to same-sex marriage today.  This article does focus on the story of Lot, but as we know, that story has nothing to do with homosexuality or gay marriage.  I previously wrote about rape in the Bible and how, contrary to popular criticism, the rapists are handed some of the most severe punishments in the Old Testament.  However, this only seems applicable to male rapists; it’s troubling that the female rapists in the Bible all seem to get away with it with impunity.  Lot’s daughters rape their own father by deception in Genesis 19:30-36.  Tamar, in disguise, similarly tricks her own father-in-law into sleeping with her in Genesis 38.  While technically not a rape, Potiphar’s wife sexually assaults Joseph in the next chapter.

Lot’s daughters are the example of the most intertextual importance.  The story shares a common form to Noah’s post-survival narrative which suggested sexual misconduct by his son, Ham (Gen. 9:18-28).  But more importantly, the oldest unnamed daughter gives birth to Moab (19:37), and this incestuous etiology informs the complicated Israelite-Moabite relationship in the rest of the Bible, from their co-existence after the conquest of Canaan, to their place in the genealogy of the Lord.  Particularly, this should be contrasted with a difficult passage in the only book of the Bible named after a Moabite, Ruth.  Sunday school lessons tend to focus on Boaz’s compassion for Ruth as she gleans in the field, while ignoring their overnight encounter.  Scholars are in disagreement of this incident at the threshing floor in chapter 3:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!  Ruth 3:7-8

'Landscape with Ruth and Boaz', Josep Anton Koch, 1768

‘Landscape with Ruth and Boaz’, Josep Anton Koch, 1768

Moral sensibilities tend to predetermine the interpretation that this was an asexual encounter.  The protagonists, it is argued, could not have committed anything considered sinful by virtue of this book’s placement in the canon (This same rationale also drives a sanitized interpretation of Song of Solomon).  But if “uncovering his feet” is an obscured euphemism, their spending the night together is harder to overlook.  To modern standards of mutual consent, Ruth’s actions while Boaz sleeps border on assault even if there was no sexual contact.  It also doesn’t help that she leaves almost shamefully “before anyone could be recognized” (3:14).

There are obvious comparisons intentionally made to Lot’s daughters in the text, and it is through this lens that it can be better understood.  Instructed by a relative, Ruth sleeps with a close relative after he has been drinking, as Lot’s oldest daughter impregnated herself with her drunk father and then compelled her sister to do the same.  Lot was unaware when his daughters lay down or got up, but while Ruth enters stealthily and leaves without being recognized, she does reveal herself to Boaz in the middle of the night.  Ruth’s narrative is deliberately structured after the prior rape incident, but as a literary construction it actually functions as its opposite.  Lot’s daughter gives birth to Moab through incest and rape, but it is her descendant Ruth who redeems her people even as she is redeemed by her near kinsman.  Unlike her ancestor, Ruth does not engage in deception and seeks a legitimate and lawful relationship with a man who had previously shown interest in her. As is typical for Biblical narratives to undo a curse in a like manner to its origin, the ambiguity of the passage in Ruth can be attributed to the text’s forced similarities to Lot’s daughters.  Scholars and clergy will forever debate the extent of Ruth and Boaz’s premarital romance, but it should certainly not be confused with the rape text that it intends to counteract.

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