Faithfulness and redemption/14 - The Bible sometimes gives the floor to Ruth and her sisters. Let us listen to them.
by Luigino Bruni
Published in the Avvenire 04/07/2021
"At the moment of my death I will leave you with all my possessions: nothing but a name, enclosed in a book ... Put it at the head of the bed, with devout piety: it is the oldest way of obtaining liberation"
Tudor Arghezi, Testament
The sandal in Boaz's agreement of redemption hints at something important to us about the birth of the era of women's rights and the weight of their words.
The Bible is a long, steady and growing hymn to words. To the infinite value of the word of God as well as human words. Yet, precisely in revealing the immense value of words to us, it is also telling us about their insufficiency. The prophets tell us that when they announced their highest words they had to use a yoke, a pitcher, a child with a beautiful name: Emmanuel. The more important and necessary words become the more insufficient they are in order to say what is essential. Their weight grows together with their insufficiency. As when the logos-word, which had become supremely heavy and dense because it was thoroughly completed, had to become a child to tell us something that it could not express. Something similar happens to us as well. When we finally say "yes" after experiencing a lot of pain, and that very dense yes would not be enough if a hug and plenty of tears did not accompany it as well. Or, when we would like to shake at least one hand while saying our last thank you, in order to ask that meeting of hands to express the impossible.
This is also the purpose of the symbols, gestures, acts, body language and objects that become part of the decisive moments in our life, becoming its protagonists. We give the floor to various objects and they enter our dialogue as non-human and living inhabitants. Two rings, water, bread, wine, oil. A sandal: «Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel. So the guardian-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal» (The Book of Ruth 4,7-8). The other closer relative, the anonymous redeemer who had the first right, renounced redeeming the land to avoid having to take on Ruth too. Boaz now becomes the only real and effective Goèl. A contract that was too full and dense with relationships, of past and the future, of life and death, to be left to a mere exchange of words. It took a simple, everyday, poor sandal.
In the Bible, however, sandals are actually a rather serious thing; they constitute one of the words through which he speaks. Moses had to take them off on Mount Horeb before he could take part in a different sort of dialogue (Exodus 3,5), Isaiah receives the order from YHWH to take off his sandals and go back barefoot as a sign for the people, and Easter is celebrated wearing sandals (Exodus 12,11). Because biblical faith is practiced with our feet. Their God revealed himself to be the liberator by making the people walk across the sea, then into the desert, a people who have never lost their nostalgia for the Wandering Aramean or mobile and nomadic tents. We can get to know that different God, who cannot be seen, who can only be heard by the prophets, through walking. Few things constitute true icons of biblical faith like two frayed and dusty sandals: «And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey» (Joshua 9,13). To walk, even when it is no longer clear where we are going or who we are following. The real crisis of faith and life happens when we stop walking. The whole book of Ruth is marked by the rhythm of walking feet. Sandals and feet come into play above all in the relationship between men and women, sharing a sexual allegory as well (The Book of Ruth 3,7). Ancient and common symbols and languages. The sandal as a symbol can also be found as a protagonist in the fairy tale of Rhodopis, the so-called Egyptian Cinderella, a story which dates back to the sixth century BC, perhaps the same period as the Book of Ruth. Rhodopis, a slave from the city of Memphis, is not able to attend a feast in the pharaoh's court because the other servants force her to do housework. While she is washing clothes along the river and then removes her sandals, an eagle (actually the god Horus) steals one of her sandals, carries it in flight and drops it next to the pharaoh. The latter is struck by this sign from heaven, and announces a sort of competition: he will marry the woman whom the sandal will fit to perfection, a woman who will eventually turn out to be Rhodopis. Once again, shoes, women and a wedding.
In the Bible, sandals are also mentioned as part of the Law of Moses, and precisely in relation to the institution of levirate marriage (a brother-in-law’s obligation to take over a woman from his deceased brother), which has a central place in the Book of Ruth. In particular, the sandal plays an important part in the ritual of refusing to exercise one’s right to redemption over a widow: «His brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line» (Deuteronomy 25,9). However, the sandal in the Book of Ruth plays a completely different role. Here it is the man with the unexercised right to redeem who voluntarily takes off his sandal and gives it to Boaz, the new Goèl. Perhaps in this particular case, the sandal symbolized dominion over a piece of land, being able to walk freely on a piece of land and a house once one became their owner. «Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”» (The Book of Ruth 4,9-10).
Here, Boaz repeats the meaning of the act that is taking place. That redemption must "keep the name of the deceased on his inheritance". And to make this redemption fair, he also takes Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Noemi, also a widow, as his wife. There is no reference to a possible love for Ruth, nor does the text hint in any way to her beauty or charm. Hence, in our eyes, this beautiful story lacks an adequate ending. This absence of what would constitute essential ingredients for us in a marriage, however, suggests something important, which originates in the Bible reaching into our lives. The Book of Ruth is not the Song of Songs. Its centre is not a love story between a man and a woman. Her happy ending is not that of Cinderella, nor that of the poor woman who finally crowns her dream of love. No, there are other things at stake, I am not saying that they are more important (there are not many things that are more important than a wedding), but they are different. In ancient times, including in the Bible, women were very rarely seen as subjects with rights of their own. They were objects of the rights and actions of men - fathers, husbands, brothers, and kings. Maybe sometimes they were even loved objects, but objects nonetheless, things associated with other things – «You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife… or his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor» (Exodus 20,17). It has been a very difficult, slow process, for the world to begin seeing women as subjects with rights of their own, as people, too slow a process, which is still going on and must continue. Something began to change in the Bible, thanks in part to the Book of Ruth, a book on the dignity of women, on them being recognized and respected as holders of their own rights, and only then loved. That ancient author saw something, still too little, but he saw: Ruth and Naomi are also linked to the lands and inheritance from their husbands, but something new and important had begun to change.
Both back in the day as well as today, it was and still is much easier to fall in love with a woman than to recognize her as a subject with rights, as a person. Women have always been loved, especially mothers, sisters, daughters, sometimes even wives. However, they were not respected enough as subjects. They were loved for giving birth to our children, but maternity without rights has often become a trap for women. Any abuse of a person begins with not recognizing him or her as an autonomous and subject separate from me, who therefore has a value in him- or herself, independent of the value that I attribute to her because "I love her" - many abusers say they "love" the people they abuse, even the violent ones and the ones who kill. When the reciprocity of affection is not based on the reciprocity of individualities, the love in question will never be able to produce any good from of humanism. There are many wrong and toxic forms of love, which only generate pain, in the world. Moreover, in a world where there is a lack of reciprocity when it comes to rights, women are not the only ones who suffer. Men do not fare well either, because the "happiness" in a slave-master relationship is infinitely less than that which arises from the reciprocity between equals. A lack of individuality and respect deeply hurts the partner playing the art of the servant, but it hurts the partner acting as master, who is not able to access the highest forms of reciprocity, as well. Perhaps one day, when we truly learn to inhabit the realm of real reciprocity between men and women, that realm will give way to a new experience an happiness for both women and men.
The importance of the Book of Ruth is not that it talks to us of a romantic relationship between Boaz and Ruth; it is wonderful because it is among the first to talk to us about women's rights being recognized by men. A book that should be read together with a few other similar passages in the Bible, among them chapter 27 of the Book of Numbers: «The daughters of Zelophehad… belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” » (Numbers 27,1-7). In a world made and run by men, in books written by men for men, the Bible turn out to be greater than its authors. It wished to save the words and names of Maclah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah, together with those of Naomi and Ruth. Different names and words of women who had the courage to ask men to truly see them, to acknowledge them, and consider them as bearers of their own rights and not just objects of love. Love is not enough, unless the eros also flourishes into agape and hence in its typical reciprocity.
Moses answered because those women had the courage to ask in a society where certain questions could not be asked. Every liberation begins with a cry (Exodus 2,23). The names of those women should be the first names in any history of women's rights, any history of democracy. This is not about religion; it is about blood and flesh. The Bible changed the world by talking to us about God and by talking to us about men. Sometimes it even gave the floor to women, so that we too could hear them.