Reading Ruth from the dirt
In an excerpt from his new book Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific, Jione Havea introduces us to the "hermeneutical sandals" he uses as he reads the book of Ruth.
It would require several volumes to introduce and map the many scholarly threshing floors where scholars have spread their wings over Ruth, and then covered her with the shawls of academic excellence, intellectual objectivism, hermeneutical explorations, and such likes. However, in order to locate this work, i identify some of the energies that shape my bible studies. In doing so i ‘out’ my interests and biases—or, to use an image from Ruth, i show my hermeneutical sandals—in relation to the ways that others read. Though i am a native islander, i do not read alone or in isolation – two unfair expectations upon my kind. I too read in company, and with interests. In presenting the bible studies in the following chapters, i am intentional about showcasing the commitment to minoritized subjects, the embodiment of the call to queer, the affirmation of dirt in the fabrics of life, and the courage to protest for tomorrow people.
In the company of activists i read for minoritized subjects and against cultures of minoritization in scripture, in society and in biblical scholarship. Liberation and feminist critics have made significant contributions in these regards, drawing attention to the intersections of the matters of gender, race and class.
Location makes a difference in biblical scholarship as well, and Black scholars have been vocal in demanding the removal of the sandals (see Ruth 4.7) from the feet of traditional and mainline biblical scholarship. I use ‘Black’ intentionally here, in reference to scholars who expose and subvert the Whiteness of traditional and mainline biblical scholarship. Black is a political positioning rather than a reference to skin-colour or to African heritage. When Black is limited to the sons and daughters of Africa, as Michael Jagessar explained to me in several conversations, Whiteness wins by dividing those who resist and protest against Whiteness into blacks and non-blacks, African blacks and African non-blacks, African blacks and non-African blacks, from the global south or from the global north. I do not deny these differences, but i resist letting Whiteness win.
The bible studies in the following chapters are offered with Black spirits that welcome and home minoritized subjects. In the case of the Ruth narrative, some minoritized subjects have over time received more attention than others. Some women receive attention as racialized (e.g., Ruth the Moabite) and classified (e.g., Naomi the mother-in-law) characters but many remain undiscovered (e.g., the older women in the neighbourhood), in part because readers are not always willing to make the Bible talk (as encouraged by Allan D. Callahan 2006). The few readers who have the courage to make the Bible talk hear some of the hidden subjects and read their hidden transcripts. Orpah is among the hidden subjects that have been heard and it takes certain orientations – e.g., read with native (Donaldson 1999) and Black (Dube 1999) interests – to find her in and in-between the letters of the narrative. The bible studies in the following chapters shuffle with these orientations, by both looking for hidden subjects as well as reading for hidden transcripts in the Ruth narrative, and in partnering narratives.
Reading texts in juxtaposition, the relish of intertextual and contrapuntal readers (see Fewell and Gunn 1990), encourages hidden subjects to come out and speak up. At times, the juxtaposed texts carry remnants or reminders of each other that talk across textual limits. At times, the remnants are like thorns that make the juxtaposed texts talk back at each other. And at other times, the juxtaposed texts even transgress each other.
Of course, the interests of readers influence how the juxtaposed texts intersect and interject. The following bible studies are also not free of my interests, which show up in the juxtaposition of the Ruth narrative with written and oral texts, and with close attention to minoritizing moves.
Some critics latch to the cleaving of Ruth onto Naomi as something of a coming out event. On the road to Judah, the word that the narrator used to describe Ruth’s cleaving (דבק; davka) to Naomi (Ruth 1.14) is the same word used in Gen 2.24 to describe the cleaving of a man to a woman in marriage (Mona West 2006), and Ruth’s cleaving words to Naomi (Ruth 1.16–17) have been repeated or echoed in many heterosexual marriage vows. The two women had known one another for some time, but in an in-law relationship. On the road, they were on the way to a different location with an opportunity for different relations. On the road, this queer line of reading suggests, the two women came out – from Moab, from their previous situations, and from other closets.
Boaz joined the two women later in Judah, and together they formed what Mona West calls a ‘family of choice’ (West 2020). The crucial issue with a family of choice is not the possibility of their being homo- or bi-sexual but, like many modern LGTBQIX families, that they form their family outside of the norms. In breaking through heteronormative limits to entertain an alternative family structure, the next step in West’s reading is also queer. I draw this conclusion on the basis of Stephen Moore’s understanding of ‘queer’ as
a supple cipher both for what stands over against the normal and the natural to oppose, and thereby define, them, and what inheres within the normal and the natural to subvert, and indeed pervert, them—this opposition and subversion privileging, but by no means being confined to, the mercurial sphere of the sexual. (Moore 2001, p. 18, italicized in the original; cf. Stone 2001, 117; Althaus-Reid and Isherwood 2007)
In the following bible studies, supple ciphers are found everywhere in Ruth and the mercurial sphere of the sexual overruns with the spheres of death, politics, community and more. And because reading (like theology, according to Althaus-Reid 2005, p. 11) is a sexual act, the following bible studies befriend, seduce, wed and even birth alternative and queer meanings.
The agency, perspectives and voices of Earth and of Earth creatures (who are many more in kind and number than the human kind) in the Ruth narrative have recently received sustained attention (see Sinnott 2020). This recent turn in biblical scholarship encourages one to step back from the default anthropocentric starting points by which one reads, with human interests, instances in the narrative relating to famine, harvest, inheritance and (the redemption of) land. One is thus free to ponder, for instance, if a famine (while it certainly devastates human lives) could be seen differently by Earth and by other Earth creatures? Does a famine benefit or impoverish Earth and Earth creatures? The opening verse of the Ruth narrative kicks up dirt and dust. A famine brings to mind dry and barren(ed) land (see Figure 1.1), and a family of four that set out seeking refuge in a foreign land would have travelled a dirt road (Ruth 1.1). Dirt comes back to mind six verses later,[i] when Naomi and Ruth travelled in the opposite direction. And upon their arrival, dirt is everywhere in Judah – in the harvest field of Boaz (Ruth 2), on the threshing floor (Ruth 3), and at the gate on that auspicious morning-after (Ruth 4). The Ruth narrative throws dust and dirt up in front of readers, and the following bible studies call attention to the various forms of ‘dirt’ in the narrative.
In the company of Upolu Vaai, i see dirt in positive lights (Vaai 2021a). Pasifika natives, like other indigenous people, are familiar with dirt. We are people of the dirt, and a God of the dirt makes more sense to us compared to a clean and (white)washed God. Vaai’s affirmation of dirt and dirtification of God echo the imagination of the Yahwist narrator, for whom the human kind were made from dirt (Gen 2.7). From the same ‘ground’ (האדמה) that the humans (האדם) were made, Yhwh also made the plants (Gen 2.9) and the animals (Gen 2.19).[ii] And at the end of their lives, all kinds of Earth creatures will return to dust and to dirt (Gen 3.19). For the Yahwist, there is interconnection between life and dirt.
Similarly, there is interconnection between the human body and land in D.S. Yatawara’s ‘mother land’ (Figure 1.1). Yatawara, a Sri Lankan street artist, explained that ‘mother land’ is his depiction of Sri Lanka, referring to both his homeland and his people – both of which are dry. More appropriately, his homeland and his people have been dried up. Parched. Cracked. Bared. Naked. Vulnerable. Yet, embracing. Shielding. Surviving. Yatawara’s homeland has drunk the spilled blood of its people and cuddled the fallen bodies (represented by the child) of its animals and plants, as a consequence of colonial abuse, persisting poverty, civil war, religious violence, social and political instabilities. In the arms of his ‘mother land’ is a clinging child, who appears to have been dismembered. The child represents the ‘heart’ of the ‘mother land’ which, for Yatawara, is alive and, suggested by the exposed breast, could be nourished into life. Such a hope rises through the cracked skin of the land (Sri Lanka), upon the dirt that is pushed around under the narrative (Ruth), and in the following bible studies.
Yatawara’s ‘mother land’ has nothing to do with Ruth, but it invites attention to the child that Ruth birthed at the end of the narrative (Ruth 4.13). The women of the neighbourhood took the child from Ruth and gave him to Naomi (Ruth 4.14–16), and then to David (Ruth 4.17); the whakapapa provided by the narrator indicates that the women succeeded in dragging the narrative to David (Ruth 4.18–22). The women thereby served the patriarchal agenda. Nationalism prevailed.
As far as the narrative is concerned, David would qualify as one whom reggae artists call ‘tomorrow people’. He will become tomorrow’s national(ist) leader, and the narrator would have expected readers to approve and assent: Long live the king.
Yatawara’s ‘mother land’ holds me back from going all the way with the women and the narrative. How did Ruth the birth mother react to her child being taken (read: dismembered, as suggested in Yatawara’s work) and used as a hinge in someone else’s whakapapa? How might Ruth queer the collaboration between the women of the neighbourhood with the narrator, in the interest of the patriarchal agenda? What would Ruth say to ‘tomorrow mothers’ from whom children are taken, or for whom minoritization and dirt are their daily food? These questions murmur behind the bible studies offered in the following chapters.
Jione Havea is a native Methodist pastor from Tonga. He is a research fellow with Trinity Methodist Theological College, New Zealand and with the Public and Contextual Theology research centre of Charles Sturt University (Australia).