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Women who wrestle with God

The sign of Ruth
Noemi and Hagar

 Il segno di Rut  Noemi e Agar  DCM-004
01 April 2023

From “Donne che lottano con Dio. Racconti biblici sulle origini di Israele” [Women Wrestling with God. Biblical stories about the origins of Israel], translation by Serena Mainetti, Morcelliana.

The history of the beginnings of the people of Israel has always been read in Old Testament research as the history of the fathers. The multiplicity of texts covered should have made it clear that it can also be read as a history of women. The authors of the Bible wrote it as a history of a community with God, a community of both sexes, and as such it must be interpreted in a fair and gender-neutral way. They –both men and women-write with great sensitivity about women’s lives and experiences and present a God who sides with women, and saves them from abandonment, oppression and marginalisation. From this perspective, women’s salvation stories are a critique of the patriarchal life context that grants men the power to abandon women, to threaten them, and be violent for their own benefit.

Israel has never written its “family chronicle”, its history of the people, as a saga of heroes or a legend of saints. The fact that even inglorious stories of crime, fraud and violence against women are told without being hidden testifies to both a sober sense of reality and human greatness. In not removing sin and failure from one’s history, but confronting it through memory is possible for Israel, because it lives not only its present but also its past before the face of YHWH. The dark sides of the family history do not hide the physical, the psychological, and the socially legitimized violence against women, which often leads Christians to take an arrogant and defensive positions towards these texts. If the victims’ cry is not passed on, then one must always be careful, because there is a very real risk that their experiences of suffering could succumb to marginalisation and oblivion.

There are oppressive words in the Hebrew Bible, which should not be masked with any embellishment. If, as is repeatedly emphasized in the stories about Israel’s beginnings, YHWH takes the side of marginalized and abandoned women, then these texts should be read as “dangerous memories”. Today, these stories can give women the certainty that their marginalisation is illegitimate and that there is not a theory -no matter how word-rich-, with which it should be justified either. YHWH’s plan with Israel is often better represented by the actions of women than by those of men. What is recounted in chapters one and two of the Book of Exodus may be an example of this, but also in the stories of Rebecca and Ruth it is evident too. These are women who realise YHWH’s plans, for a life in communion with him, more adequately than men in their environment do.

It is plain to see that the authors of the Bible know that the history of men is only half of the whole and reflects only a part of God’s history with humanity. The authors make the voices of women heard and illustrate the history of the people of Israel with their God with people of both sexes. In doing so, they did not pander to the idea of the “stronger sex”; even when the language narrows the focus onto the patriarchs, the theology told there goes in a different direction.

Abraham cannot fulfil the divine promise with just any woman. Sarah is the one from whom the promised son is born. She is as much the recipient and bearer of the promises as her husband. YHWH does not accept Sarah’s double denial as wife, a denial by which Abraham abandons her. He rescues the woman from her husband’s “clever” plan and restores her to her rights each time. However, YHWH is not blindly partial in favour of the one who carries the promise. When Sarah becomes the one who oppresses her slave Hagar, He takes the side of the weakest against her. With his saving promises, he also makes Hagar the promise-bearer.

Abraham’s genealogical line continues with his daughter-in-law Rebecca and not primarily with his son Isaac. She is placed on an equal footing with her father-in-law in his unconditional decision to leave his country and his kinship, for she recognizes that this comes from YHWH. Rebecca receives the word of God that determines the future of her two sons - not Isaac. While the father chooses Esau as his favorite son, Rebecca helps, not entirely honestly, to ensure that his favourite son - Jacob, God's chosen one - continues in the line of promise. God’s battles are fought by women and men. Leah and Rachel fight for the foundation of the house of Israel, before Jacob has to fight his battle for the blessing at the river Jabbok. The women fight for God, to have him on their side, they fight for his attention. The men, on the other hand, fight with - or even against - God and want to be victorious. The tales in chapters 29 ff. and 32 of the Book of Genesis should not be interpreted here along the lines of the division of the sexes, on the one hand as banal household literature and on the other as heroic saga. The birth stories of the twelve sons are not narratives exemplifying the fact that women exist only to give birth. If the people of God, Israel, write their history as a family history, and not as a history of wars and kings or as a “history of popes”, then twelve sons must be born in a generation, if the construction of twelve tribes with equal rights is to be represented. According to chapter 29 ff. of the Book of Genesis, mothers are therefore not housewives; they are the founders of the people.

Regarding Tamar’s conduct in life, Judah even has to openly confess, “She is more righteous than me!” (Genesis 38:26). In an unconventional way, the woman who, according to her father-in-law’s ideas, was to remain a widow for life -despite the promise of a levirate marriage-, is integrated into God’s story as the ancestress of the house of Judah. The beginning of the Book of Exodus paints men and women in black and white. The men are all bound to the sphere of death, and convey to their fellow men the horrible pressure that the Pharaoh's death proclamation produces. The women, on the other hand, are all loyal to life and to YHWH. Their resistance leads them to solidarity, beyond social and ethnic barriers. The Pharaoh’s daughter also acts, in an exemplary fashion, as a righteous person among the nations, co-operating in the rescue of Israel’s savior. However, Moses first joins the company of the necrophilic men. Only through the threat to his life does he learn from the women the right way of non-violent resistance. Moreover, only after this learning process in the environment of his ancestors is he ripe for the divine call.

The biblical author of the Book of Ruth -the festal scroll for the Feast of Weeks-, celebrates the gift of the Sinai Torah with its halakha.  This Book concerns the institution of Levirate and the institution of ransom - which also applies to a woman from Moab-, who, according to the Book of Deuteronomy 23:4-9, should be excluded from YHWH’S assembly. However, she does this better than her male colleagues in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, who are zealous in their pursuit of an elitist fellowship with God. Ruth and Noemi realise YHWH's goodness and concern for people in an exemplary manner, and include Booz in their learning community, where they learn to actualize Torah for life. The people of Bethlehem’s acclaim, but also of the entire local community, assures the two women that a daughter-in-law like this is worth more than seven sons! In the Agnatic family tree stretching from Peres to David, Ruth’s son becomes the seventh in the genealogical sequence, after Tamar’s son. The first and seventh links in the generational chain owe their existence to women’s struggle for a place among the people of promise.

by Irmtraud Fischer
A teacher of Old Testament Biblical Studies at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Graz