Mr. Hambrick-Stowe is pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster, Maryland.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 7, 1983, pp. 1130-1134. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The Books of Ruth and Esther testify that we are not trapped helplessly in a destructive global fate, for with bold faith, each of these women took events into her own hands to secure the future of the covenant.
Christians are accustomed to thinking of Jesus Christ as the second Adam and the new Moses, and of John the Baptist as Elijah redivivus. Preachers and theologians are adept at tracing literary images: linking Old and New Testament figures whose lives reflect eternal patterns and renew the ancient message. Some still think in terms of type and antitype. These are usually valid constructions, for the Bible itself presents a scheme of prophecy and fulfillment.
Rarely, however, are the women of the Bible included in these analyses. The two books of the Bible named for women, Ruth and Esther, are, respectively, charming and alarming in content. But they are commonly relegated to secondary importance in the canon. It is said that Ruth simply explains David’s (and hence, Christ’s) ancestry; that Esther recounts how the Festival of Purim secured a place on the Jewish calendar. I would argue, however, that these two books belong in the mainstream of the biblical narrative. Their message is vitally important to a proper grasp of our hope for salvation. In startling ways, Ruth and Esther are women who in their generations became primary carriers of God’s saving grace. As did other Old Testament leaders, and Jesus himself, these two women embody the spirit of the founders of the Israelite nation. Ruth becomes the new Abraham, Esther the new Moses.
In order for us to understand Ruth and Esther in these roles, the Bible must be perceived as an integrated whole. The unity of Scripture lies in the central theme running through every book from Genesis to Revelation, which may be summarized in the Lord’s word to Jeremiah: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33). This promise recapitulates God’s covenant with Abraham: "I will establish my covenant . . . to be God to you and to your descendants" (Gen. 17:7), and with
Moses: "I will take you for my people, and I will be your God" (Exod. 6:7). In Jesus Christ, who spoke of "the new covenant in my blood," the promise is fully revealed and available to the whole world. It is finally expressed in the vision of "a new heaven and a new earth" in Revelation, where "they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them" (Rev. 21:3).
Subthemes of the covenant -- experiences of pilgrimage and promise, bondage and freedom, duty and blessing, famine and plenty, barrenness and fertility -- weave their way through both testaments. Even books frequently dismissed as of little importance take on meaning within the whole. The Song of Songs, for example, becomes intelligible as Scripture when the key verse enunciating the marriage covenant is recognized: "My beloved is mine and I am his" (2:16). The Letter of James, easily ignored by evangelicals following Luther’s denunciation of the book as "straw," speaks of the reciprocity of covenant life: "‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. . . Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (2:8; 4:8). Individual and people are inseparable when joined in God’s covenant relationship.
In the Book of Esther, the crucial passage which reveals the salvific thread running through the entire story is found in a scene of high drama. When Queen Esther unmasks herself as a Jew, she pleads before her Persian king-husband: "Let my life be given at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed" (7:3-4). In Ruth, the covenant theme pervades the book and is explicitly evoked in Ruth’s words to Naomi: " . . . your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (1:16).
The covenant -- this oneness of God with the people and of God’s people with one another -- is the backbone of books written over more than a thousand years, in widely varying political and religious circumstances, and in diverse geographical locations. For believers, the Bible’s unity demonstrates not only that scores of human authors were heirs of a common tradition, but that each of them was guided through life and inspired to write by the same God. In this context, the true significance of Ruth and Esther can begin to instruct God’s covenant people today.
The Bible is silent as to what it was within Ruth that impelled her loyalty and courage, her desire to "go out to a place which [s]he was to receive as an inheritance." There must have been some experience of call, as with Abraham; just as "he went out, not knowing where he was to go" (Heb. 11:8), Ruth "left [her] father and mother and [her] native land and came to a people that [she] did not know before" (Ruth 2:11). We may surmise that Ruth had learned much about the worship of Yahweh and of the blessings of the covenant from living with her late husband in Naomi’s household.
Abraham was the first Jew. Abram’s and Sarai’s name change symbolized their new identity as Hebrews. God’s creation of his people is, of course, a major strand of the covenant theme. "Once you were no people but now you are God’s people" (I Pet. 2:10). Israel, God proclaimed through Isaiah, was "borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb. . . . I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save [that is, deliver]" (Isa. 46:3-4). When Abram and Sarai were reborn as God’s new people Abraham and Sarah, they could become fruitful and multiply. Similarly, when Ruth entered the covenant she was blessed with goodness, plenty and fertility.
Ruth’s not being Jewish when the story opened attests to the universalistic impulse shown in the Old Testament; God created Israel to be a light to the nations. The Book of Ruth suggests less an outward evangelistic thrust than a quiet and loving ingathering, exhibiting at a personal level the later grand vision of Isaiah, that in "the latter days . . . many peoples shall come . . . that [God] may teach [them] his ways" (Isa. 2:2-3). Like Abraham long before, Ruth came as a foreigner and became God’s chosen in the land of promise.
Abraham and Ruth shared the experiences of barrenness and of famine. Abram "went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land" (Gen. 12:10). The stage was set for the Book of Ruth when "there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab." For a decade, Elimelech and Naomi flourished. But then suddenly barrenness appeared; when Naomi was past menopause, her husband and her two sons died, and God had granted no children to the two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi’s decision to return to Judah was marked by desperation; she was as bitter as Job over God’s infraction of the covenant.
It was Ruth, the non-Jew, who, insistent on accompanying Naomi, looked forward with hope. Her decision and her vow established her in the covenant, for Ruth’s promise was not only to her mother-in-law but also to her new God and to her new people. The spectacle of the two single, childless women making their way across the desert calls up the image of Naomi’s biological and Ruth’s spiritual ancestors: "So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had" (Gen. 13:1). The women’s journey took an equal amount of courage, or perhaps even more.
In Canaan, as Yahweh had promised, the aged Abraham and Sarah were miraculously blessed with fertility. For Ruth, the promise of a fruitful future is tied to the barley harvest; her good fortune as a reaper under the wing of Boaz and Yahweh portended her greater future happiness. God’s firm promise of personal fertility in the marriage covenant became clear after their night on the threshing floor; the six measures of barley that Boaz poured into Ruth’s mantle for her to carry home symbolized Boaz’ own seed.
Those who gathered to fulfill the covenant responsibilities for widows significantly demonstrated that Ruth was now fully within the covenant circle. Then, with her marriage to Boaz, Ruth entered the most intimate covenantal relationship of God’s people.
God, not the man and woman themselves, caused conception with Ruth and Boaz, as with Abraham and Sarah (and other biblical couples). "The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son (Gen. 21:1-2). "So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and the Lord gave conception, and she bore a son" (Ruth 4:13). The "son in his old age" theme in the Abraham story is here applied to Naomi and expressed in the glad words of the neighbor women in Bethlehem: "He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age." God had kept his promise to Abraham, and Naomi rightly understood herself as an heir of this promise.
The most important comparison, however, is not that of Ruth with Sarah, or Naomi with Sarah and Abraham. Rather, it is that of Ruth with Abraham. These two are the primary actors in their respective stories. The faith of both Abraham and Ruth was ultimately rewarded with blessings both spiritual and material. Both had the courage and took the initiative to set out for the new land. God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah was fulfilled first in the birth of Isaac, and then in the birth of Obed, the grandfather of King David. It was David who made the nation of Israel -- and hence, the name of Abraham -- great, thus fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham. In Ruth’s bold faith, in her journey to the new land, in her embrace of the covenant, in her marriage and motherhood, God’s promises to Abraham were once more confirmed. Ruth was the New Abraham of her generation.
Like Moses, Queen Esther was liberator and lawgiver. Moses promulgated the Torah, including the institution of the ritual calendar and notably the celebration of Passover, the memorial festival of the Exodus. Similarly, Esther experienced the grave threat of Purim and sanctioned the celebration of Jewish victory. In the wilderness of Xerxes’ (Ahasuerus’) Persian Empire, centuries after Moses, "the command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing" (Esther 9:32).
In another parallel, both Moses and Esther were Jews who rose to prominence in a foreign court and, unlike Joseph in Egypt, for example, both at first were secret Jews.
Moses probably never exercised much authority in Pharaoh’s court, though if he had remained in Egypt he surely would have. He lived as Egyptian royalty for more than 20 years, until he "had grown up." Yet somehow he knew he was not Egyptian but Hebrew. The psychological dilemma posed by his true identity was resolved when "one day. . . he went out to his people and looked upon their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people" (Exod. 2:11). It seems unlikely that this was the first time Moses had seen the slaves at labor, or that this was the first beating he had observed. But the moment had come when he felt compelled to identify himself with his biological, rather than his adopted, people.
In Midian Moses was perceived by the daughters of the priest Reuel as "an Egyptian," but he had left that life behind forever. However, when he returned to Egypt with God’s word of liberation, he was instantly received with respect and deference at court. No longer a secret Jew, nevertheless, "the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people" (Exod. 11:3).
Esther attained her position in the Persian court at Susa by winning the beauty contest to replace the uppity, deposed Queen Vashti. Like the Hebrews in Egypt, Esther and her uncle Mordecai were living abroad, though not as slaves. Their residence in Persia was the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, and generally their lot was quite good. In contrast to Exodus, the immediate goal of the Book of Esther was not to return to the homeland, but to attain success and prosperity in the foreign land. Mordecai’s ambition, personally and for his people, prompted him to put Esther in the running for a place at court as a wife of Ahasuerus. After the king selected her, she did not make known "her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to make it known."
Esther, like Moses, was unable to live long in stately comfort (as Moses was unable to live in Midian obscurity). When the oppression of their people became intolerable, both responded to God’s call to become liberators. Though Moses’ burning bush experience was dramatic while Esther’s moment of decision went unrecorded, God was the true liberator in both stories. Under both Egyptian and Hamanite tyranny, the cries of the Jewish people preceded God’s intervention (Exod. 2:23 and Esther 4:3).
After Mordecai told Esther about Haman’s planned pogrom, she still had a choice, for he explained: "If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish." That "other quarter" was probably not envisioned as God’s direct intervention, for Mordecai was a realist who believed in the necessity of human agency; God’s invisible providence undergirded human endeavor. The book is quite modern in this regard. "Who knows," Mordecai challenged, "whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" Esther was ready to rise to heroism and replied that she would go to the king at risk of her life. Heretofore a woman who had always obeyed the orders of others, she now became God’s woman, acting courageously and intelligently to preserve the covenant people. Now it was Mordecai who "went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him" (Esther 4:13-17).
Esther had become the most clever and powerful person at court. When she "put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court" and "found favor," the king "held out to Esther the golden scepter" and she "touched the top" (Esther 5:1-2). She was as much in control of events as Moses had been with his supernatural rod.
The genocide planned by Haman seems as modern as Hitler’s. The Jewish preventive retaliation helps us understand modern Israel’s motives and behavior in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In Egypt, Scripture says, the God of Moses had acted directly to save his people. But how different was Esther’s and Mordecai’s military victory from the Passover deaths that enabled Moses and Aaron to lead the people to freedom? The violent salvation of the Jews recounted in Esther was the latest chapter in a tradition established at the time of the Exodus.
It is possible, too, that "the destroyer’’ that ranged from house to house at midnight in Egypt was in fact a human hand acting through God’s agency. The sheer numbers of Israelites in the country made them far from militarily weak; and they "went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle" (Exod. 13:18). Was an Israelite militia in action in Egypt, as was the case much later in Persia? Was Moses the commander-in-chief of this army, just as Esther was in Persia? The effect of the redemption was the same.
As Passover celebrates Israel’s deliverance through the Exodus, Purim was proclaimed by Esther to be a festival of the survival of the Jews after the failure of the Hamanite pogrom. There is a close connection between the messages of the two festivals. The edict authorizing Haman’s troops "to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews" was granted by the king on the day before Passover. The two festivals of Passover and Purim are specifically, consciously linked throughout the Book of Esther, even in minor details. Scripture takes pains to explain why there are two days for each festival. And both were judaized versions of pagan holidays (a process familiar to Christians, who celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice). Moses and Esther, as lawgivers, shared an ability to take popular days of springtime revelry and transform them into memorials to the survival of God’s people and the indestructible covenant.
The significance of these women for the era in which the sign of the covenant was circumcision cannot be underestimated. If women -- and "foreign" women at that -- could be, for their generations, the new Abraham and the new Moses under the old covenant, what possible barriers of gender, nationality, race or class can stand under the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ?
Jesus Christ fulfills God’s promises to every generation of covenant people. He reveals the truly redemptive pattern of sacrificial love. On the cross Jesus incorporated the suffering of all victims of the world’s oppression, while completely repudiating the tempting solution of retaliatory violence. In Christ’s gospel of love for the enemy and of God’s overarching plan of salvation, we latter-day Ruths and Esthers may find grace for ourselves and a future for this earth. God calls us to the task -- like Ruth and Esther, but in a Christian framework -- of leading others toward liberation, the blessings of covenant, and the promise of security and peace on our planet.
Ruth clothed herself with the qualities of Abraham. Esther bore the responsibilities of a Moses. Now, as St. Paul put it, "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:27-29).
The promise toward which Ruth and Esther, Abraham and Moses, and the entire "cloud of witnesses" in Scripture reach is the consummation of the covenant -- the final, complete unity of God and God’s people in the "new heaven and new earth" of Revelation. The Books of Ruth and Esther, with their tales of suffering, crisis and eventual triumph, testify that we are not trapped helplessly in a destructive global fate. With bold faith, the two women took events into their own hands to secure the future of the covenant. Their stories shine as examples of the human side of covenant responsibility, and so also reveal the divine side of protection and blessing. Ruth and Esther, read through the prism of Christ, point us beyond global fatalism toward the hope of the earth.