The Book of Ruth: A Voice That Calls Out from Ancient Days

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn…
Excerpt from the poem “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats (1795-1821)

[1] In this romantic poem, John Keats hears the nightingale and imagines that it could be the same beautiful and immortal song that accompanied the brave yet vulnerable protagonist of the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. Of all of the people that the poet could have included in these lines about the universality of human suffering, Keats only names Ruth. The life of Ruth has a universal dimension that represents the experience of so many women of all times and all places who find themselves vulnerable in the face of patriarchal structures. As churches committed to accompany men, women, adolescents and children in situations of vulnerability and social exclusion, the Book of Ruth sings to us like the nightingale with a voice heard in ancient days that can still console and guide us today.

[2] A socially and economically vulnerable woman migrates to a new land in search of greater stability
This is the story of Ruth who as a young widow leaves her homeland of Moab to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem. This is also the story of millions of economically vulnerable women today who accept a job in another part of their country, or across an international border, only to realize that they have been trapped in a web of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that involves the deceitful recruitment, geographic relocation and ultimate exploitation of its victims in sexual and/or other forms of forced labor. Approximately 4 million adults and 2 million children today are victims of human trafficking. Ninety percent of them are female. While our concern is focused on the victims, we cannot ignore the consumer side of the equation. If there were no men demanding commercial sex, the problem of sex trafficking would disappear.

[3] The Role of Our Churches
As churches we may ask: what can we do in the face of such a complex problem? Isn’t human trafficking a challenge better handled by civil society? Would it not be better to leave this issue for international and human rights lawyers, government officials, the United Nations and police and border patrol officials? From what place and with what tools can we as churches approach this issue? The answer is a lot closer than we think.

[4] The answer wells up from the depths of our faith when we grasp the scandalous nature of human trafficking, a current day reality that so blatantly violates God’s vision of dignity and abundant life for all of humanity. The answer is in our Christian hope that announces the Resurrection from the darkness and scandal of the Crucified Christ.1 The answer is in our theological and biblical reflection that leads us to social action as communities of faith. The answer is in the ancient stories and the Word that like the song of the nightingale is a voice that comforts human suffering and guides human action in all times and all places. As we will now see in the Book of Ruth, this Word shows us the way to act from the commitments, compassion and hope of our faith in the face of injustice, human vulnerability and human trafficking.

[5] What does human trafficking today have to do with the Book of Ruth, a text written in ancient Israel over 2500 years ago? In the Book of Ruth, a set of societal values and protections inherent to the Jewish people’s covenant with God keep Ruth from descending into the destitution that could have befallen a widow of her time. In our world today, international networks of human trafficking feed upon the vulnerability of people whose options are limited by poverty, family violence, and the lack of marketable job skills. Like the people of ancient Israel, who saw themselves as accountable to God for the protection of the most vulnerable, our churches can play a vital role in preventing and denouncing human trafficking, and in supporting survivors as they rebuild their lives and dignity. Churches can also provide safe spaces for men to talk about the struggles that make them vulnerable to a multi-billion dollar industry designed to lure them into demanding what the system of commercial sexual exploitation offers.

[6] A Woman with Few Options
In the Book of Ruth, we see a woman in a situation of vulnerability trying to survive within the patriarchal structures of her day. When her husband dies, Ruth basically faces two options: return to her mother’s home or remarry. At this point in the story, Ruth is similar to victims of human trafficking in that she is socially and economically vulnerable and has few options for survival. In our world today, a young woman who loses her means of support, whether it be a job, a partner, or family ties, can be easily manipulated by a tempting job offer and chance to start over. The absence of a support network is one of the greatest risk factors for a person to fall victim to human trafficking.

[7] Vulnerability Far from Home
Ruth has the basis for a support network through her familial tie and strong sense of loyalty to Noami, her mother-in-law and a native of Bethlehem. Faced with few other options, Ruth decides to leave her homeland of Moab to accompany Noami, who has also been recently widowed, back to Bethlehem. Once she crosses into Israel, Ruth faces a double social vulnerability: she is a widow and she is a foreigner from Moab, the enemy neighbor of Israel. In this new land, however, Ruth finds societal institutions that protect her even though she is far from her place of origin and network of immediate family and friends. Human trafficking networks move their victims far from home precisely to make them more vulnerable and defenseless. They are often told that their loved ones back home will be hurt if they try to escape.

[8] Societal Protections
Once in Bethlehem, Ruth benefits from a set of protections that are inherent to the values and beliefs of the Jewish people. First, the law of levirate marriage obligated a brother or other relative of her deceased husband to marry the childless Ruth so that her firstborn son could carry on the deceased man’s name and lineage. (Deut 25: 5-10) Second, Old Testament rules about the harvest instructed farmers to leave a part of their crop for people in situations of vulnerability, namely foreigners, orphans and widows. (Lev 19: 9-10) This was not considered a hand-out but rather dignified work for members of these vulnerable groups who labored in the fields just behind the harvesters.

[9] Patriarchal Structures
As we read the Book of Ruth in 2010, the patriarchal nature of the protections available to Ruth certainly falls short of what we aspire for women today. Ruth’s access to levirate marriage and to gleaning privileges depends on the good graces of Boaz, a powerful landowner at whose bedside she appears to lie at his feet in her perfume and best clothes. We do not know whether Boaz would have offered the same protections to Ruth absent their sexual relationship. We do know however, that the restoration of her social standing, and her place in the genealogy of Jesus, depended wholly on her connection to men: she becomes the wife of Boaz, the mother of Obed, the great grandmother of King David, and a distant ancestor of Jesus. (Matthew 1: 1-17)

[10] Light that Breaks into the Darkness
While we can question the patriarchal model to which Ruth had to conform in order to survive, the Book of Ruth still offers a relevant message for our churches today. In this story, we see how the values inherent in ancient Israel’s covenant with God were built into their society’s laws and traditions. We live in a much more multi-faceted world today. The social and economic realities that challenge us as faith communities, such as human trafficking, are so complex and difficult to disentangle that we can sometimes feel that there is little we can do. Human trafficking is an underground criminal network that thrives on darkness, deceit, vulnerability, loneliness and despair. By living out our faith, however, we can counter these forces of evil with powerful local and global networks of hope and solidarity. We help prevent human trafficking when our congregations are spaces where vulnerable women, men and youth can find community and support. As national and international church bodies we can raise a prophetic voice that demands just laws and societal protections.

God of Life, just as you guided Ruth and your people of ancient Israel to walk boldly in their faith, please help our churches to weave webs of solidarity that replace the darkness with light, the deceit with trust, the vulnerability with empowerment, the loneliness with community, and the despair with hope of new life in Christ.Amen

1. Gustavo Gutierrez, Speaking of God from the Suffering of the Innocent, Salamanca, Sígueme, 1986.

Kate Lawler

Kate Lawler is the Regional Representative for South America of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and a theology student at ISEDET, an ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires. A Spanish version of this reflection was included in a book on human trafficking published by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) and CAREF in September 2009.