Of the sixty-six books in the Bible, thirty-eight are named for men. Only two are named for women—Ruth and Esther. Both stories put male power and female powerlessness on a frightening collision course, and both stories are instructive to the church as we address the current global #MeToo/#ChurchToo pandemic of violence against women and children.
Both Ruth and Esther have suffered enormously from our evangelical inclination to sanitize and romanticize the biblical text. These are not fairytales. Both stories take place in the gritty, abusive painfulness of a fallen world where the power differential between men and women is chilling and sexual harassment and assault too often result. Both young women were foreigners in the country where their stories played out which heightens the dangers they already faced as females.
Ruth’s story takes place in Bethlehem—an agrarian society in Israel’s heartland—where poverty, powerlessness, and vulnerability are her new realities. As a barren widow and an undocumented immigrant from Moab (Jordan), she occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder. Ruth’s initiatives on Naomi’s behalf bring the young foreigner face-to-face with Boaz, a powerful landowner and leader in Bethlehem.
Hadassah is among Jewish exiles who remain in Persia (Iran) after most Jewish exiles return to their homeland. Esther is her Persian name, and a way to conceal her foreign identity. She is an orphan in the vigilant care of her cousin Mordecai. The trajectory of her story puts her in a perilous confrontation with King Xerxes, the Persian Empire’s ruler and the most powerful man in the world.
By far the most striking difference between the two young women’s stories centers on something they share in common: the threat of physical and sexual violence.
When Ruth and her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi return to Bethlehem, hunger is waiting at the door. The deaths of the men in Naomi’s family terminate their family lineage and leave the two women destitute, vulnerable, and without hope for the future. Ruth becomes a scavenger for leftover grain in the field of Boaz as the Mosaic Gleaning Law1 permits. Romantic interpretations of the book of Ruth obscure the danger of violence she risks in every encounter with Boaz. Both Boaz and Naomi identify the danger to Ruth as a gleaner. Boaz assures Ruth he has commanded his young male harvesters “not to lay a hand on you.”2 Naomi expresses her concerns warning Ruth to continue in the field of Boaz “so that they not abuse you in another field.”3 The language used for potential mistreatment is alarming. As one scholar put it, “Ruth is clearly living dangerously.”4
In her determination to do more for Naomi than survive from one day to the next, twice Ruth approaches Boaz (a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband) to press the limits of Mosaic Law. Her two encounters with Boaz—in his barley field and at the threshing floor under cover of darkness—could have turned out badly for Ruth. In both settings, Ruth is at risk, especially at the threshing floor. If Boaz took advantage of her sexually and it came down to a “he said/she said” scenario, no one in all Bethlehem would take her word over his, which is why the story of Ruth and Boaz needs to be part of this #MeToo discussion. No #MeToo happens here, but what does happen is key to ending violence against women.
The story of Ruth and Boaz needs to be part of the #MeToo discussion. No #MeToo happens here, but what does happen is key to ending violence against women.
Esther’s story takes a terrible downturn and becomes a full-blown #MeToo story when she and other beautiful young virgins are forcibly rounded up by royal officials and deposited in King Xerxes’ harem. Within patriarchal cultures a girl is marriageable at puberty, so these virgins were very young teenagers, maybe even younger. After six months marinating in oils and perfumes, each girl is served up to the king for a one-night stand. Put bluntly, this is serial royal rape. Esther was trafficked for sex. Xerxes is on the hunt for a new queen and will choose the girl who pleases him most sexually. Little wonder Mordecai—who can do nothing—is beside himself with worry and horror. Xerxes chooses Esther. It’s hard to imagine calling her the winner. For the next six years, Queen Esther manages to keep her head down and avoid trouble.
When a plot surfaces to exterminate the Jewish people, Mordecai is helpless to intervene. Esther is the only one who is in a position to stop the genocide. Mordecai challenges her to intervene. When she hesitates, Mordecai sends this heart-stopping response, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. . . . who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Facing the Truth
A common naiveté seems to exist among evangelicals regarding the existence of sexual abuse within the church. According to the Department of U.S. Health and Human Services, 30% of all women report being sexually abused during their lifetime. Maybe it happened years ago, but the wounds are deep and lasting. Pastors need to know that statistics represents their congregants who carry painful scars and that the odds are high that abuse is currently happening to or by some of the faces they preach to every week.
Perhaps what is most surprising about the #ChurchToo epidemic is that it doesn’t seem to matter where perpetrators land in the church’s ongoing gender debate. #ChurchToo is happening everywhere, implicating major leaders in both camps.
On the one hand, the Southern Baptist denomination is a bastion of complementarian theology. According to their theological convictions, a real man’s duty is to protect women. So it was a rude awakening, to say the least, when in February 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News reported hundreds of clergy abusers and over 700 victims within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Yet despite their theological claims, complementarians seem to have no qualms addressing cases of verbal and physical domestic violence by sending a woman back to her abuser, even tasking her with responsibility to prevent further abuse by being more submissive. Since 2009, John Piper’s dangerous counsel for women regarding submission and domestic abuse remains active on YouTube.
On the other hand, Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church is an egalitarian flagship. From its inception, Willow has been a standard-bearer and exemplar of an organization that affirms the full equality of women and recognizes, values, and utilizes their gifts at the highest level. Yet we’ve seen that a man can identify as an egalitarian, can check the box that says he affirms and promotes women’s ordination to ministry leadership, and still objectify, mistreat, or violate proper boundaries with his female colleagues.
Clearly the gender debate isn’t fixing the problem. Deeper questions must be asked—about our theology of male and female, of the church’s message for women and girls, for men and boys, and regarding marriage and community.
#ChurchToo is happening everywhere on the gender debate spectrum. Clearly, neither holding complementation nor egalitarian positions is fixing the problem.
To make matters worse, the evangelical church’s scorecard is abysmal when it comes to handling abuse allegations when they surface. More often than not, church leaders close ranks and rally behind the accused, especially if he is a revered leader or leads a ministry organization that a public scandal will damage or destroy. To cover up or smooth things over, leaders interrogate victims, disbelieve, blame, shame, and pressure them—even little children—to forgive and forget. Instead of reporting these allegations to law enforcement and providing professional help for victims, they re-traumatize them and make things worse.
The words of attorney, former U.S. Olympic gymnast, and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander should trouble us all.
Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.5
Patriarchy, Power, and Privilege
There are no quick fixes to the sexual abuse problems that confront us. But at the very least, we should begin by reexamining the biblical narratives that speak to this issue. A good place to start is with Ruth and Esther.
It is important to emphasize that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. It is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets it in sharpest relief to the radical counter-cultural gospel nature of the Bible’s message. Understanding the patriarchal world of the Bible is essential to understanding the significance of biblical narratives.
Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. It is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets it in sharpest relief to the radical counter-cultural gospel nature of the Bible’s message.
Patriarchy then and now is a fallen social system that privileges and empowers men over women and a few men over other men. It is as destructive to men as it is to women. Patriarchy deprives women of agency, voice, and legal rights. A woman’s value is gauged by her relationships with men: her father, husband, and most especially her sons. Sons are the gold standard for determining a woman’s value. If you want to know what a woman is worth, count her sons. A woman’s “biological function (her prime social value)”6 is her ability to produce sons. Barren women in the Bible aren’t praying for daughters; they’re praying for sons.
In these two biblical narratives both Ruth and Esther are not valued by a patriarchal standard but by a gospel standard—by their character, bold courage, self-giving love for others (Ruth’s mother-in-law and Esther’s people), and for their wise leadership. Patriarchy cements into the social fabric of human culture a power differential between men and women that places women in a weakened position—financially, educationally, legally, religiously, and physically—that takes generations to overcome. For both Ruth and Esther, that power differential was extreme.
Three observations underscore the importance of the Bible’s #MeToo narratives for today:
First, these biblical narratives expose the abuse of male power as the heart of the problem. Sexual offenses may be the outcome, but the driving force is power.
Esther’s story is a classic example of men abusing their power and privilege. The opening scene is one of the most testosterone-driven episodes in the Bible. For 160 days, a narcissistic Xerxes dazzles an all-male gathering of nobles, princes, military leaders, and other officials with lavish displays of his vast wealth, power, and majesty. The whole affair concludes with a week-long banquet featuring the original open bar. To climax his pompous exhibitionism, Xerxes dispatches seven men to fetch Queen Vashti, commanding her to parade herself in front of an ogling horde of drunken men as one of his prized possessions. To her credit, Vashti refuses. The king is outraged. So Xerxes banishes Vashti for life (a rash decision he would live to regret) and issues an empire-wide proclamation “that every man should be ruler over his own household” (1:22).
If we hope to get to the roots of the evangelical #ChurchToo crisis we must understand the role of male power and address how our theology promotes it. This is where Boaz can help.
Second, these biblical narratives present a counter-cultural redemptive view of male power and privilege.
That same hair-raising power differential between men and women appears in encounters between Ruth and Boaz. Their discussions are about legal matters, not romance. At every point, Boaz is in full compliance with the letter of Mosaic Law. But Ruth lives on the hungry side of the law, and the law reads differently from that perspective. She leads him from the letter to the spirit of the law. Through her influence he discovers infinite and more generous ways of obedience. Boaz is secure enough to listen to this female outsider. What makes the difference here is that even at the threshing floor, in the dark, when no one is looking, Boaz knows Someone is looking. Boaz lives before the face of God and that radically transforms the kind of man he is. It is important to note that not once does Boaz surrender his male power and privilege, which is often the recommended solution to #MeToo abuses. Boaz uses his considerable male advantages to empower Ruth, ensure her safety, and see that her initiatives on Naomi’s behalf succeed. In the end, Ruth is marvelously empowered, a hungry widow is fed, Naomi’s hope in God revives, her family is rescued from extinction, and, unknown to Ruth or Boaz, God’s purposes for the world move forward through their sacrificial actions.7
Mordecai was the voice of authority during Esther’s whole life. He loved, protected, and guided her. But Mordecai was helpless to prevent her abduction by the king’s agents. Furthermore, Mordecai lacked the power to save his people from the threat of genocide. That catastrophic threat compelled him to challenge Esther to act on behalf of her people. It will involve risking her own life, revealing her Jewish identity, and confronting the world’s most powerful man. Esther and Mordecai experience a divinely orchestrated role reversal when Esther commands Mordecai to call their people to prayer, and Mordecai obeys.
These biblical narratives raise the bar for men. They redeem male power and privilege as gifts intended to empower and bless others. And when that happens, the kingdom of God breaks through, God’s image shines brighter, and #MeToo stories stop.
Third, these biblical narratives overthrow patriarchal views of women and call God’s daughters off the sidelines to engage fully for his kingdom. And when women do, men are sure to benefit.
It is hard to fathom a lower view of women than what the opening scenes in the book of Esther reflect. Women are objectified, dominated, subjected, banished, humiliated, trafficked, violated, and consumed. They exist solely to pleasure and serve men. Today’s evangelical purity culture would regard Esther as damaged goods. She would see herself that way too. That isn’t how the Bible sees her.
Against all odds and cultural expectations, and in wonderfully subversive moves, YHWH recruits both Ruth and Esther for vital kingdom purposes, even when strong, godly, capable men are available. Bear in mind, neither Ruth nor Esther are highly educated, pedigreed, or from prominent families. They arrive in the story without credentials to prepare us for the crucial kingdom role they each will take. But when push comes to shove, they are fearless, determined, and fueled with faith in YHWH. Standards of purity and fertility that would marginalize and diminish them in the eyes of their culture—even in the culture of God’s people today—are meaningless. God’s hand is on his daughters. He has raised them up for this particular moment in time to take a significant role in advancing his purposes. God can be very subversive, and we dare not rule out anyone in how God chooses to move things forward.
Even in churches where no allegations ever surface, we know from the high statistics of sexual abuse—1 in 4 women and girls and 1 in 6 men and boys—sexual abuse survivors are in the church. How #MeToo stories are preached can trigger painful memories, especially when victims are shamed, blamed, or brushed aside. These biblical narratives can become powerful tools for healing and hope and a way to proclaim Jesus’ redemptive vision of male and female as allies for his kingdom.
God created his daughters as co-rulers and indispensible partners with his sons. At creation, he commissioned both to represent him, both to rule and subdue all creation for the good and flourishing of all, and to do it together as a kingdom alliance he blesses.8
In both Ruth’s and Esther’s stories, calamity and suffering will escalate if the women hold back. Both Boaz and Mordecai become strong advocates for the women and actually become better men because of the women’s courage, initiatives, and leadership.
Time for Evangelical Soul-searching
Clearly, a day of reckoning has arrived for American evangelicals that we dare not ignore. The terrible plague of sexual harassment, abuse, and marginalization has no place among the people of God. May God help us to refuse to give up until the church becomes the true sanctuary for the vulnerable that God created us to be.
1 Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22.
2 Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 153.
3 Ibid., 182.
4 André LaCocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, trans. K.C. Hanson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 79.
5 Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,” interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/january-web-only/rachael-denhollander-larry-nassar-forgiveness-gospel.html.
6 Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988), 123.
7 See Carolyn Custis James, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 2008 and Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth, (Bellingham, Wa: Lexham), 2018.
8 Genesis 1:26-28.