Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rape and Ruth: the woman and the text

      Marriage is a contentious category in the United States as some are asking who can and should marry, others are demanding the right to marry as a fundamental civil and human right, and still others are insisting on preserving a particular biblical paradigm.  But marriage is a normative category in most of Africa and Asia.  At the same time, the normative experience of black women in the Americas who do not marry shapes a reading of [the book of] Ruth that may not be congruent with Africana readers in other contexts for whom marriage is normative.  Asian and Africana readers frequently share a sense of cultural familiarity with the story of Ruth because of the focus on the mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law relationship, the cultural and societal vulnerability of widows, and the necessity of producing live offspring, preferably male, to secure a woman's status and economic well-being and that of her family.
      As an Africana reader, I am particularly interested in how issues of translation affect how scriptures are read, heard, understood, and interpreted in the broader African diaspora.  In a working paper on African feminist postcolonial biblical interpretation, Musa Dube notes the rarity of women on committees responsible for major translations of the scriptures (such as UBS; this is also true for NRSV, JPS, and others) and the tendency for translators and their translations to advance the aims of empire.  Construction of gender and gender roles, including marriage and motherhood, is one well-attested aim of empire.  An Africana translation-sensitive reading of the book of Ruth calls into question the virtue and value of Ruth's marriage to Boaz even as it recognizes the import of marriage in the ancient and contemporary African and Asian contexts from which the scriptures emerged and in which they continue to be venerated.
      The normative portrayal of marriage in Ruth is a particular problem for English readers because it masks sexual and domestic violence in a text that has been canonized as scripture for Jews and Christians.  There are at least three indicators that Ruth was abducted into marriage:  (1) the use of the verb ns', "lift," with "woman," instead of the standard lach, "take (as wife)," (2) the long-standing Israelite practice of abduction or rape-marriage, and (3) the preferential abduction of foreign women for rape-marriage.
      The verb in Ruth 1:4, vayis'u, from ns', "to lift" or "pick up," may be taken to indicate that Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, were abducted into marriage.  I translate the first three works of Ruth 1:4, "They-abducted for-themselves Moabite-women. . . . "  The verb ns' occurs 661 times in the MT.  The primary meaning of ns', according to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), is "to carry" or "to lift."  In virtually every translation of ns' in which the object is not a person, the verb is rendered with some form of "lift," "carry," "take," or something similar.  Any thing or person may be the object of ns':  the hand (Deut. 32:20), prayer (Jer. 7:13), or sin may be lifted off of a person or community (Isa. 53:11), and so forth.  In Ruth ns' is also used to indicate lifting grain in 2:18.  Women are the object of ns' five times:  Judges 21:23; Ruth 1:4; Ezra 10:44; 2 Chr. 13:21 and 24:3.  Note that in Judges, the context is the abduction of sexually naive girls from Shiloh into forced or rape-marriages for the purpose of progeny.  The verb chtph in Judges 21:21, "to catch" (women), functions as a synonym.  In Ezra, the women in question are specified as foreign.  In 2 Chr. 13:21, Abijah's collection of women and the resulting offspring is cited as evidence of his strength in the previous verse, suggesting that these were abduction-marriages....
      The normative verb indicating marriage in the Hebrew scriptures, lach, "to take," with a woman as the object, indicates in every case in the Hebrew scriptures socially sanctioned union (Gen 4:19; Exod. 6:20; Jer. 16:2, and so on)....  Rape-marriage as a normative practice is introduced in Numbers 31, where sexually naïve girls are abducted as "booty," shalal.  It is codified subsequently in Deuteronomy 20,21, and 24.  Among the modifications introduced are the shift of focus from any outsider girl whose people are designated as "enemies" (as in Num. 31:19) to "beautiful" women and girls among the enemy (Deut. 20:11).  Deuteronomy20:12-13 also calls for the abducted women and girls to be stripped, their heads shaved, and their nails cut....
      .... The very name, "Moab," literally "from [my] father," evokes the alleged incestuous and therefore despicable nature of all Moabites according to the Israelite account of their origins in the Genesis 19 account of Lot and his daughters.  As a result, Moabites, particularly Moabite women, are highly sexualized in the scriptures of Israel, as are many contemporary Africana women readers of those same scriptures.
      Given the specific vocabulary deployed in the text and Ruth's identity as a Moabite woman -- which she never escapes -- Ruth is multiply marginalized, socially and sexually vulnerable.  Ruth and Orpah's marriages, therefore, hide dirty not-so-little secrets, covered up by generations of male translators.  Yet the experience of abduction-marriage and forcible pregnancy is not unimaginable to contemporary Africana readers.  In some parts of Eastern and raped into marriage.
      The Associated Press (AP) ran a story on June 21, 2005, under an Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, dateline in which a twelve-year-old girl, kidnapped by men who wanted to force her into marriage, was rescued by three lions that chased off her abductors and guarded her until police and relatives located her.  Sergeant Wondimu Wedajo of the local police reported that the men had held the girl for seven days, repeatedly beating her:  "Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage."
     The AP report noted that in Ethiopia, kidnapping has been part of the marriage customs for quite some time and that the United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia occured by abduction, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the country's population lives.  (The AP report did not delineate its sources).
      Interpreters appealing to biblical narratives to describe idealized marriage have in many cases legitimized violence in marriage.  Religious authorities (Bible translators, pastors, seminary professors) have been negligent (and, I argue, criminally so) in failing to expose the ways in which the biblical narrative sanctions and contributes to the abuse of women in general and wives in particular.  By highlighting Ruth's embrace of Naomi and Naomi's god, interpreters of the book of Ruth have regularly overlooked the colence with which Ruth was initiated into marriage (and relationship with Naomi), as specified by the Biblical Hebrew vocabulary of that union.  Biblical interpreters, like all readers, are shaped by their own constructed cultures, which they in turn lay onto the text even as they identify "biblical principles" for marriage.  In doing so, lay and professional, clergy and academic interpreters of the Bible overlook the violence in which many women live, particularly in their marriages.  Men in every part of the world rape their wives.  According to Molly Egan and Jason Wood's 1999 Lehigh University report, The Abolition of Marital Rape Exemption, in the United States, spousal rape was criminalized by only seventeen out of fifty states in 1996.  By 2007, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had criminalized spousal rape.  (The state of New York relies on the ruling of an appeals court in 1984, People vs. Liberta, because an exemption for married men accused of raping their wives remains on the books.)  Spousal rape affects all people in the United States and beyond, including those in the African dispersion.

above, an excerpt from the section "Marriage," in the chapter "Ruth," by Wil Gafney, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora


Bob MacDonald said...

I have been in this book for months - reading it letter by letter - and your comment has the ring of truth to it. When can an individual face reality? when can a society or a culture become kind?

Jane said...

Thank you so much for this post Kurk - I'm going to forward it to Fulata Mbano - I'm hoping she's going to write a review of this book

J. K. Gayle said...

Wil Gafney says some considerably difficult and tremendously significant things here. Bob, I like your questions in response to reading Ruth and Gafney's commentary too. Jane, Thank you for bringing this to Fulata Mbano's attention; please do let us know if she reviews the book. I'd be interested especially in her thoughts on Gafney's work

Michael said...

I'm going to have to look into rape marriage in the Old Testament; maybe there is a recurring pattern as opposed to "a long-standing Israelite practice of abduction or rape-marriage" In the Judges story of course, the mass rapes/abductions following the civil war represent the complete social chaos that has happened in Israel, a chaos that is unleashed when the men of Gibeah treat an Israelite woman and man as no different to foreigners.

In the context of the story of Ruth it doesn't quite make sense in that Naomi and her family are refugees in Moab. They're in a pretty vulnerable position and rape/abduction seems pretty unlikely in such a situation. As the word seems to be mainly used in context of marriages to 'foreign' women perhaps it's a way of traducing those marriages.

The twist in the story comes a bit later. Does Ruth symbolically (?) rape Boaz, at Naomi's behest? It kind of recalls the rape of Lot by his daughters which, as Gafney points out, is the narrative origin of Moab and also Ammon (and also the Messiah through Ruth and Naamah respectively).

There's a lot of strange stuff in Ruth.

J. K. Gayle said...

Michael, Thanks for thinking through this with us. Here is a post that links to some others' thoughts as well.

Bob MacDonald said...

I will look forward to any further notes. What significance is there to the 10 years barrenness in Moab? And then there are the words used for Boaz 'acquiring' Ruth almost as property - do these get re-defined by her stretching of the legal responsibility of the 'brother'? These are some of the questions that occur to me as I work through the story.

J. K. Gayle said...

Fascinating questions, Bob! And thanks for the musings around Mem (ם מ) and the link.