Understanding "Mature Femininity": On the Connection Between Proverbs 31, Ruth, and the Shulamite Lover---
July 11, 2019
My friend Anna Anderson is one of my favorite theological conversation partners. I asked her if she would write a guest article for the blog on the connection between Proverbs 31, Ruth, and the Song of Songs. I'm honored to share it with my readers:
Why might we not recognize Ruth in the woman worthy of praise in Proverbs 31? Perhaps it is her poverty. She appears on the road from Moab without a bustling household---without a husband who trusts her, children who praise her, and servants whom she blesses. We see her with little means to creatively improve her lot---no wool or silk or linen. There is no mention of spindle or lamp, no money to invest in fields, vineyards, or foreign trade, yet, like the woman of Proverbs, she takes stock of her assets. The list is short: health and hands. Endowed with patient endurance, we find her ready to face what would readily lead many to despair, a life of beggary as a childless, widowed foreigner. And she is not just any foreigner, she is from a detested people formed not by theophany and divine favor, but incestuous rape. It is against these almost insurmountable odds that Ruth stands tall, a woman of valor, an ezer warrior from the other side of the tracks. In the Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Ruth falls between Proverbs and Song of Songs (SOS), a convenient placement to consider how Ruth measures up to the woman of valor in Proverbs 31 and the Shulamite lover of the Song.
As the embodiment of the Proverbs 31 woman, she has no deficit. She is strong in the Lord and heads to the fields. She gathers grain, working with her hands. She brings her food from afar and sets the fruit of her labor before Naomi. (Is there anyone more needy and tragic than Naomi? Carolyn Custis James calls her the female Job amidst the ashes of poverty and shattered dreams: old, voiceless, and deemed a worthless burden to society [James, The Gospel of Ruth].) Naomi is not only esteemed but nourished and nurtured by Ruth's loving kindness. Ruth searches and finds the eyes of worthy Boaz attentive to her needs, and his admiration is cultivated by her virtue. Strength and honor are her clothing, and she becomes the object of Boaz's praise and desire. (And would any of us deny that we, a great multitude of her children, have risen up to bless her?)
This brings us to the other side of Ruth in the MT canon, Song of Songs, where Ruth again might not come to mind at first glance. Is it because Ruth is not a young virgin but a barren widow? Is it because Boaz appears much older, an established businessman, and not a young, ruddy shepherd? Or maybe because a woman who takes courage and charge is difficult to reconcile with our thinking? If we take care to read well, I believe we will see a similarity between Ruth and the Shulamite. In Song of Songs, we have rapturous mutuality (Phipps, Genesis and Gender), harmony, and reciprocity. The Song stands against the Ancient Near Eastern concept of man as "bull" of the marriage bed (Dorsey, Literary Structure of the Old Testament). The number and force of the Shulamite's invitations to love are greater than the shepherd's. Hardly a thought, idea, or action is not attributed to both (Davidson, Flame of Yahweh). She draws; she leads; she gives; she awakens him. She commands him. We might note that the "desire" of the woman in Genesis 3:16, used only three times in the Hebrew Scriptures, is attributed in SOS 7:10 not to the woman, but to the man, as she exclaims, "I am my beloved's; and his desire is for me." This is in the context of her conquering him, imprisoning him with her tresses and ravishing him with her eyes (Davidson). Here the divine pronouncement concerning the consequences of Eve's sin can be seen in the light of a new day. Finally, it is remarkable that the Song is given to us without any explicit mention of children, as if the mutual pursuit and pleasuring themselves are fruitful within the bounds of covenantal love. The shepherd is invited to the locked garden to partake of its prepared delights. This is a "returning to the holy of holies of Eden's garden," where types embedded in marriage take us beyond our marriages to the consummation of time (Davidson).
With this, we turn to Boaz's threshing floor. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, Ruth watches and "considers" before she moves. He has initiated kindness and deference, and she will respond by initiating marriage. In fact, Ruth demands Boaz take her under his wings (Block: NAS Commentary, Judges, Ruth). Block comments that here Ruth goes beyond the instructions of Naomi, calling us to see her boldness: "The reader stands back in awe, wondering what has possessed her. Here is a servant demanding that the boss marry her, a Moabite making the demand of an Israelite, a woman making the demand of a man, a poor person making the demand of a rich man" and all this under the cloak of darkness where she lies at his feet, waiting. Like the Shulamite, she is washed, perfumed, and adorned. She is not proposing a night of illicit love. Rather, she is propositioning him for a lifetime of licit love. She has bid him come to her garden, to eat its choicest fruits, and the determination with which Boaz goes about sealing their union shows that he desires her and that she has captivated him (Ruth 3:18; SOS 4:9,16: 7:10 in comparison with Gen. 3:16b).
It seems to me that Ruth, Proverbs 31, and Song of Songs together beckon us to broaden our understanding of "mature femininity" beyond merely "receiving, affirming, and nurturing worthy men's strengths" and leadership (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 46). Ruth as the woman of valor takes inventory of what God has placed in her hands and goes boldly to the field. She is not primed to affirm or nurture specifically male strength, but Naomi’s, to whom she has solemnly bound herself. Her self-effacing nobility draws the attention and admiration of Boaz who, in turn, receives, affirms, and nurtures her strength. In time, she responds by offering him her love. His response to her proposal leads him to the city gates, where he takes his seat and Ruth’s works find praise. Note the dynamism and flow of the movement, the harmony, the exalting crescendo, whose peak is not found in Ruth, but in Matthew 1, where both Ruth and Boaz take their seats in the gates of the New Covenant. In Ruth as Shulamite, we do not see the language of dominance, but harmony, love flowing in reciprocity between the lovers. This is not an appeal to abandon the headship of husbands over their own wives and the rule of qualified male elders in the church, but it is an appeal to all of us to take the assets that God has given us and apply them in receiving, affirming, and nurturing our neighbors' strengths. And it is a call to see in the Song the bride of Christ, one composed of many who bear His image, both male and female. They are the object of His desire and delight and the consummation of their union yields nothing less than the fullness of everything the Father determined to give his Son when, in eternity, he determined to give his Son a bride (Garcia).
Anna lives with her family is southern Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. and pursuing a ThM at Greystone Institute.