The Bible in Transit

Phyllis Trible

Treated harshly by her Hebrew mistress Sarai, the Egyptian slave Hagar fled to a wilderness nourished by a spring of water (Gen 16). There a messenger of God asked her, “Where have you come from? And where are you going?” Hagar answered the first question, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai,” but never addressed the second. Speaking about the present, she named the past and left open the future. (In time, the unfolding of her story disclosed that terrifying answer.)

Across Decades

Mutatis mutandis, these two questions fit my wonderings about feminist interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, “Where have we come from? And where are we going?” The first question is not difficult to answer. We are fleeing the land of patriarchal (male-dominated) hermeneutics to find oases of nourishment in the wilderness. In the United States, this answer began to emerge in the late 1960s, when the second wave of feminism moved into the field of religion. Mary Daly at Boston College led the way.1 By the 1970s the movement turned attention to the Bible. Though Daly denounced it in toto, other voices spoke differently. Letty M. Russell of Yale Divinity School edited a small book whose title, The Liberating Word: A Guide to Nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible (1976), made clear that not all feminists reject the Bible and, further, that men do not control interpretations of it.2 Some thirty-five years later, we continue to answer the question, “Where have we come from?”

Across decades this “we” has expanded to em- brace diverse voices within church, synagogue, and society at large. Race, class, sex, ethnicity, age, gender orientation, cultural, social, economic, and historical situations, plus individual experiences – all these and other variables shape and reshape interpretations. In addition, varieties of disciplines – historical criticism, archaeology, sociology, literary analyses, linguistics, psychology, the new historicism – complicate the mix. Descriptions of where we are and forecasts of where we might go are far from simple.

The Benign Book of Ruth

To pursue the matter, let us return to the seemingly benign Book of Ruth. In 1978, I, a white Protestant woman in the United States., read it as a story of redemption.3 The Judahite mother-in-law Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, both widows, worked out their own salvation with fear and trembling, with audacity and strength, in a world that had little place for them. Early on, Orpah, the other widowed Moabite daughter-in-law, obeyed Naomi and returned to her own “mother’s house.” Without censure, she departed the story. Then, in an ironic twist, Ruth disobeyed Naomi and returned with her to Judah. Each of the three women made her own decision. As the story continued, Naomi and Ruth surmounted barriers of age, ethnicity, cul- ture, custom, and familial patterns. They showed even God a more excellent way than famine, exile, and death. Reflecting on Ruth now, I find the story as redemptive as first I found it. From where I have come, there I am going.

Ten years after this reading (1988), the African- American Christian professor Renita J. Weems wrote about Ruth under the general rubric of “a Womanist vision.”4 The hymnic title of her essay sounded its stance: “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” For Weems, the story promotes friendship – “female bonding” between Naomi and Ruth. As for Orpah, her decision to return home is “common sense.” It does not destroy “the love bond between the two women.” With a pastoral bent, Weems averred that Naomi and Ruth “eventually found the healing power of God in each other’s love and forbearance.”

Six years later (1994), the Jewish author Cynthia Ozick described Naomi, after the death of her husband Elimelech, as transformed from a character of “compliance” to “a woman of valor,” with “a program of autonomy.”5 She described Orpah as a model of normality, in no way to be overlooked or censured. As Orpah left the story, the singularity of Ruth emerged. This woman possessed insight “vast- er than the merely familial.” Overall, Ozick deemed Ruth a book “wherein goodness grows out of good- ness, and the extraordinary is found here, and here, and here” – a book, she said, where “mercy and redemption unfold.”

Similarly, the Jewish scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky, writing in 2002, extolled “this charming narrative” of friendship between Naomi and Ruth.6 Though never referring to Orpah, she claimed that “all the characters are noteworthy for their mindfulness of God’s blessing and for their willingness to demonstrate hesed, ‘loving-kindness,’ by acting benevolently to- ward one another beyond the expectations of legal and even moral obligations.”

Diversity Within

Spanning decades, these positive readings of Ruth challenge patriarchy in church and synagogue. Yet the positive may not prevail. The collection of essays to which Ozick contributed, for example, offers a host of divergent ideas, all proposed by Jewish women living in the United States or Israel. Some of them view Naomi as a cipher for male values that find fulfillment for women in marriage and children. Others see Naomi as a childless widow who does not remarry and thereby achieves a status independent of husband and children. Some find her an overbearing, interfering, and domineering mother-in-law; others, a caring, concerned, altruistic mother-in-law. For some, Naomi is an embittered old woman who, at first, denounces God for her troubles and, at last, fails even to thank God when she has recovered. For others, she is a figure of faith who experiences God as enemy but perseveres to seek blessing in adversity.

From diverse Jewish perspectives in the United States and Israel, we move to diverse Christian perspectives in Asian countries. There also, positive slants contend with negative. While lecturing in the Philippines, Kathy Doob Sakenfeld of Princeton Theological Seminary learned of the encouragement that the Book of Ruth brings to women struggling for their daily bread – for sheer economic survival.7 But she also heard about a young woman from a destitute family who (naively) agreed to work as a “dancer” in a wealthy foreign country. When questioned about the decision, she compared her situation to Ruth’s offering of herself to Boaz, and God “making everything turn out right.”

Several years ago, Korean students at Union Theological Seminary told me that certain churches in their homeland use Ruth to compel young brides to serve their mothers-in-law rather than form inde- pendent families and seek their own employment. In marriage ceremonies, the bride is expected (required?) to pledge allegiance to her mother-in-law by quoting to her (not to the groom, as sometimes regrettably happens in Western ceremonies) Ruth’s words of devotion to Naomi (1:16-17). Thereby, traditional values are upheld as Christian values. In this setting, Korean feminists find no healing power in Ruth’s story. To the contrary, it is used against them.

Post-colonial voices sound strikingly different notes. Cornell University English professor Laura E. Donaldson, of Cherokee descent, criticizes Ruth for promoting “the use of intermarriage as an assimilationist strategy.”8 The decision by Moabite Ruth to adopt the country, people, and God of her Judahite mother-in-law would, if emulated, erase the identity of indigenous peoples. Sadly, that erasure often happened in the treatment of Native Americans by white invaders of European ancestry. Rejecting the view of Ruth as a model for tolerance, bravery, and diversity, a post-colonialist reader may well see her as a betrayer, collaborating with the enemy.

Yet within the story Donaldson finds a counter- narrative. It belongs to Orpah, the daughter-in-law who departed early, leaving Naomi and returning to her “mother’s house” (1:14). That reference echoes Cherokee society, which is historically matrilineal. By remaining faithful to her traditions and her ancestors, Orpah becomes for Donaldson “the story’s central character.” Her decision, not Ruth’s, is the paradigm to emulate. This postmodern reading turns the story against itself. This post-colonialist perspective would transform “Ruth’s positive value into a negative and Orpah’s negative value into a positive.” 

A Confusion of Tounges

Redemptive, destructive, ambiguous: judgments about the Book of Ruth range from the benign to the fractious. Some of them stay close to the text; some select from it; some stray from it. Far from unique, what happens with this one book extends to read- ings of countless Biblical texts, as feminists flee the land of patriarchy to confront the terrors, blessings, and uncertainties of scripture in the wilderness.

From where we have come, we know. But where are we going? Confronting that question, I call upon another Biblical story: the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). At the beginning, the people of the earth spoke with one language and the same words. At the end, they spoke in confused tongues, not understanding one another, as God scattered them over the face of the earth. Contemporary interpretation reflects this story.

But what does the reflection mean? Is the Babel story, in our context, a judgment against the hubris of hermeneutical singularity – only one valid interpretation – or is it a judgment for multiple and diverse voices as an antidote to hubris? If the latter, how do we transform the confusion of tongues – anything goes – into benefits of multiculturalism? Is the church up to the challenge posed by a malleable text in changing contexts?

For me, doubts abound. With a few exceptions, so-called mainline churches are shrinking in strength and substance. Moreover, I do not find them grappling with Biblical hermeneutics. Instead, I find scripture cited as illustration and jumping off place – sometimes invoked as traditionally understood and other times ignored. For churches to slight the Bible, in whatever way, leaves us without a shared narrative from which faith, ethics, and action can spring. Where there is no narrative, the church stumbles into boredom and irrelevance.

Borrowing questions asked of Hagar and using the Book of Ruth, we have engaged feminist Biblical interpretation. Not unlike Hagar’s answer, ours has named the past, spoken about the present, and left open the future. Now as we continue our struggles in the wilderness of confused tongues, we wait, watch, and wonder – for we know, from where we have come, that the story goes on. 

Phyllis Trible, Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature Emerita at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is an internationally known scholar and a pioneer in the study of women and gender in Biblical interpretation. Her books include God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1986) and Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Feminist Narrative (Fortress, 1984), and Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah (Augsburg, 1994) She was also editor, with Letty Russell, of Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives (Westminster John Knox, 2006). 


1 Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Harper Colophon Books, 1968, 1975).

2 Letty M. Russell, ed., The Liberating Word: A Guide to Nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible (Westminster Press, 1976).

3 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress Press, 1978), pp.166-99.

4 Renita J. Weems, Just A Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (LuraMedia, 1988), pp. 22-36.

5 Cynthia Ozick in Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds., Reading Ruth (Ballantine Books, 1994), pp. 211-232. See passim for my subsequent references to this collection of essays.

6 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (Schocken Books, 2002), pp. 238-256.

7 Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Just Wives? (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) 27-48; cf. Ruth: Interpretation (John Knox Press, 1999), esp. pp. 30-35.

8 Laura E. Donaldson in R. S. Sugirtharajah, ed., The Postcolonial Biblical Reader (Blackwell Publishing, 2006) 159-70; cf. Roy Sano, “The Bible and Pacific Basin Peoples,” The Theologies of Asian-Americans and Pacific Peoples: A Reader (Asian Center for Theology and Strategies, Pacific School of Religion, 1976), pp. 296-309.