Courageous Women: Ruth and Esther
By Don Ruhl
Why do women not play as prominent a role as men in the Bible? That is like asking why men do not play as prominent a role as angels. That is just the way God created things.
In First Timothy 2, Paul provides two insights for the arrangement among men and women, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1Ti 2.11–14).
What two reasons did the Holy Spirit list? Number one, God made the man first. Number two, the woman was deceived and fell into transgression first. The second reason has to do with humanity’s own doing, but the first reason has to do with God’s doing.
Why did He do it that way? We do not know and it is not for us to know. If He had reversed things, would we be asking the questions about men that we do of women? Does all this mean that God considers women as nothing? No, not at all, especially in Christ (Gal 3.28).
Let us look at the two women after whom Bible Books have been named.
It is almost a running joke about the conflicts between parents-in-law and children-in-law in today’s society. However, Ruth and her mother-in-law broke that trend.
Another potential point of conflict was that Ruth was not even an Israelite, but a Moabite of whom the Law warned that Moabites were not to come into the assembly of God (Deu 23.3; Neh 13.1).
However, an Israelite family moved to Moab when a famine hit the land of Israel. The two sons in the family married Moabite women while there. Then the father died and later his sons died also. The mother-in-law encouraged her two daughters-in-law to return home, but they did not want to leave her. Eventually one did, but the other, Ruth, refused to separate from her mother-in-law, saying,
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The LORD do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.”
(Ruth 1.16, 17)
My wife and I made that part of our marriage vows in 1978.
How could a mother-in-law reject such words or such a woman? The narrative shows Ruth following her mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel.
Since Ruth died without children, the next of kin had to marry her and raise up children to the departed. However, the next of kin was not able to take her, but Boaz, the next in line, wanted to have her as wife.
The story of Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law, her new husband, and her new nation touch the heart with her humility and conversion to the Law of Moses.
Ruth 4 shows the special place she secured in Israel after she borne a son, “Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, ‘There is a son born to Naomi.’ And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4.16, 17).
Ruth helped give to the world the great King David, which also means she helped bring into the world the Messiah (Matt 1.5, 16).
The NIV Study Bible provides this insightful literary analysis of Ruth,
The book of Ruth is a Hebrew short story, told with consummate skill. Among historical narratives in Scripture it is unexcelled in its compactness, vividness, warmth, beauty and dramatic effectiveness—an exquisitely wrought jewel of Hebrew narrative art.
Marvelously symmetrical throughout (see Outline), the action moves from a briefly sketched account of distress (1:1–5; 71 words in Hebrew) through four episodes to a concluding account of relief and hope that is drawn with equal brevity (4:13–17; 71 words in Hebrew). The crucial turning point occurs exactly midway (see note on 2:20). The opening line of each of the four episodes signals its main development (1:6, the return; 2:1, the meeting with Boaz; 3:1, finding a home for Ruth; 4:1, the decisive event at the gate), while the closing line of each episode facilitates transition to what follows (see notes on 1:22; 2:23; 3:18; 4:12). Contrast is also used to good effect: pleasant (the meaning of “Naomi”) and bitter (1:20), full and empty (1:21), and the living and the dead (2:20). Most striking is the contrast between two of the main characters, Ruth and Boaz: The one is a young, alien, destitute widow, while the other is a middle-aged, well-to-do Israelite securely established in his home community. For each there is a corresponding character whose actions highlight, by contrast, his or her selfless acts: Ruth—Orpah, Boaz—the unnamed kinsman.
When movements in space, time and circumstance all correspond in some way, a harmony results that both satisfies the reader’s artistic sense and helps open doors to understanding. The author of Ruth keeps his readers from being distracted from the central story—Naomi’s passage from emptiness to fullness through the selfless acts of Ruth and Boaz (see Theme and Theology). That passage, or restoration, first takes place in connection with her return from Moab to the promised land and to Bethlehem (“house of food”; see note on 1:1). It then progresses with the harvest season, when the fullness of the land is gathered in. All aspects of the story keep the reader’s attention focused on the central issue. Consideration of these and other literary devices (mentioned throughout the notes) will aid understanding of the book of Ruth (http://www.ibs.org/niv/studybible/ruth.php).
Talk Thru the Bible shows the contrasts and comparisons between Ruth and Esther.
- A gentile woman
- Lived among the Jews
- Married a Jewish man in the royal line of David
- A story of faith and blessing
- A Jewish woman
- Lived among the Gentiles
- Married a Gentile man who ruled an empire
- A story of faith and blessing
The Book of Esther does not mention God. Yet, the reader can see God at work in the life of Esther!
Often God does things in the Bible that we or the characters in the story do not expect, and such is the case with this Bible Book.
For example, put together the setting and the main character. The setting was the capital of Persia, and the king (Esth 1.1), and the main character was a captive from the land of Judah (Esth 2.5–7). Who would have guessed that the two would marry?
God brought these two people together to preserve the Jews living in the Persian Empire. The king banished his wife and a search was made for a new one, and Esther became that woman.
However, she did not fully understand why she became queen of Persia. Her cousin revealed to her a plot to kill all the Jews, and he also revealed to her that she could stop the murderous plan. Yet, she resisted, then he spoke to her the most famous words of the Book of Esther, “And Mordecai told them to answer Esther: ‘Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’” (Esth 4.13, 14).
She then uttered words that set her apart from non-heroic figures, speaking the heart that makes all biblical heroes as such, “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” (Esth 4.16).
Feasting plays a prominent part in the story of Esther. There are ten banquets: 1.3, 4, 5–8, 9; 2.18; 3.15; 5.1–8; 7.1–10; 8.17; 9.17, 9.18–32. The king gave two, and Esther prepared two.