Boaz on Human Trafficking 2

Boaz on Human Trafficking 2 December 28, 2011

From Arise, by my friend and colleague, Boaz Johnson:

In the Hebrew Bible, the books that follow Proverbs 31 give examples of an eshet chayil, a strong woman. These paradigmatic examples are found in the books of Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. I would like to focus on one of these eshet chayil: Ruth.

The narrative of Ruth begins with a famine in the land of Bethlehem—literally, the House of Bread. It is ironic that the place, which was supposed to be the physical and spiritual source of bread, should experience famine. A family from Bethlehem went to Moab, where women were treated very poorly. Many of the low class women were taken into female prostitution centers, which were linked to the worship of fertility gods and goddesses. The narrative of Ruth tells us that at this place, the sons of Elimelech get sucked into the cultural view of women, and they “took the women of Moab” (Ruth 1:4). Many English translations, translate their action as, “they married Moabite women” (NIV, NLT, NRSV, etc.). The Hebrew phrase is meant to be seen as, “they forcibly took Moabite women,” i.e. they raped them. The context suggests that they suffered the consequences of death because of their demeaning acts against the women of Moab. When one reads the narrative further, one discovers that the word used for Boaz marrying Ruth means to recreate. Boaz exclaims, “Ruth the Moabitess, the woman of Mahalon I have ‘recreated’ to be my woman to ‘resurrect’ the name of the dead…and the people at the gate and the elders said, ‘We witness. May the LORD make the woman coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel. May you be a chayil, in Ephrathah'” (Ruth 4:10-11, paraphrased). This is a great contrast to what the sons of Elimelech did. They engaged in human trafficking. Boaz, on the other hand, ordered his men to protect this woman, who was an alien and therefore trafficking material. Then he redeemed her, and gave her the place of highest honor, in front of the city gate, where historically the men and women of highest honor gathered—the lawns of the White House would be a modern analogy.

The Hebrew Bible suggests that the main purpose of the book of Ruth is the focus on Ruth as an eshet chayil, a prime example of the woman of Proverbs 31. In fact, on more than one occasion in the book, Ruth is called an eshetchayil (Ruth 3:11; 4:11). The book of Ruth is the story of the transformation of a woman who was sexually abused and treated as human trafficking material, into a strong woman and eshet chayil.

The New Testament has many examples regarding the restoration of women to a place of honor. The narrative of the life of Jesus in Matthew poignantly begins with underlining the lives of five women: Tamar (Gen. 38); Rahab (Josh. 2); Ruth, wife of Uriah (2 Sam. 11, 12); and Mary. Four of these women were sexually abused and trafficked by men in positions of power and authority. In spite of the horrible life faced by these women, the Bible elevates them to the highest status; they become the bearers of the Messiah seed. In doing so, paradigmatically, the Bible is elevating the status and name of all women who are abused and trafficked as a result of systemic evil in human history. The fifth woman, Mary, also grew up among girls who were regularly abused and trafficked by the Sadducees and the Roman soldiers. This was the reason that the most common name given to girls was Miriam, meaning “bitter,” since the life of the girl was assumed to be full of bitterness due to sexual abuse and human trafficking. Yet, miraculously, one girl was preserved, a virgin, to bear the Messiah of the world! She was not a virgin because she was the only one who was pure. She was a virgin because of a miraculous preservation of one girl. Mary becomes, in many senses, a symbol of hope for all girls throughout history, all over the world who are trafficked and abused by fallen humanity. This is indeed a thick answer to the problem of human trafficking.

The Messiah born by Mary elevated the status of so many women that he encountered. He knew what his own mother had gone through. She was ostracized by the so-called high class people, for carrying and bearing a child out of wedlock. He himself was called a mamzer—a term reserved for the children born by women who were sexually abused by Roman soldiers. During his public ministry, Jesus, knowing the horrible life faced by women around him, always reached out to them and restored their dignity. A good example is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus knew that Samaritan women were abused on a far more regular basis than low class Jewish women. They were the lowest of the low people group in the society around Jesus. They were constantly and systematically abused, just because they were Samaritans. During his conversation with her, at a poignant moment, Jesus asks her to “Go call your man.” She shrugs her shoulders and says, “I have no man.” Jesus says to her, “I know what you have gone through. I know that you really have had no man. Each of the other five have sexually abused you and battered you. The person who has you now is not really your man” (John 4:17-18, paraphrased). To this woman who had suffered so much because of systemic evil against women, Jesus offered the water of life—the water which alone could heal her deepest wounds. The rest of the narrative is a powerful example of how Jesus heals and elevates the status of a trafficked woman. She goes back to her town, and the whole village listens to her words. This woman, who was trafficking material and was sexually abused by men around her, is suddenly transformed into an eshet chayil, a strong woman.

The whole Bible has one narrative after another of the transformation of the status of women in society. It begins with a very strong place for the woman. She is no ordinary helper to man. She is a divinely placed savior figure—ezer kenegdo. Rather sadly, throughout history, human beings have destroyed and desecrated women. Evil men have shattered their true identity as strong help while women have been sexually abused and trafficked. Yet, in powerful ways, the Bible recreates the identity and the place of women. The Bible restores women to their creation identity of being eshet chayil—emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally strong women. They were created to be savior figures for humanity. This is the strongest and thickest answer to the problem of human trafficking.

***This article originally appeared in Social Injustice: What Evangelicals Need to Know About the World, edited by Michael T. Cooper and William J. Moulder (Lake Forest, IL: The Timothy Center Press, 2011).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • What a refreshing look at the love of Jesus Christ for women. If only Christian men everywhere would stand up for the rights of the underprivileged, destitute, trafficked and abandoned.

  • michael

    This article is highly problematic, at least with its treatment of Ruth.

    First, to “take” a wife is a typical Hebrew idiom for marriage. While it certainly does reflect a patriarchal outlook on marriage, and while marriage practices in the ancient Near East were quite different from the modern Western consensual model, the word itself does not mean “rape.” It is used of e.g. Abraham in Gen 11:29, and of what Abraham’s servant does for Isaac in Gen 24:4. There is no evidence whatsoever that Ruth was “sexually abused” or that Mahlon and Chilion were engaged in “human trafficking.”

    Second, there is no evidence that “women were treated very poorly in Moab” in distinction to other places in the ancient Near East.

    Third, there is no evidence that in Moab “many of the low class women were taken into female prostitution centers, which were linked to the worship of fertility gods and goddesses.”

    I’d also like to see evidence for the claim that the Sadducees were involved in human trafficking, for the idea that the name “Miriam” was given because “the life of the girl was assumed to be full of bitterness due to sexual abuse and human trafficking,” and for the idea that the woman at the well was “sexually abused and battered” (which she may well have been–I’m just not sure how the author knows this).

  • Joe Canner

    There is a common assumption that when Jesus socialized with prostitutes that he must have also advised them to repent while he was at it. (This assumption is usually made in connection with questions about how Jesus would have treated gays.) However, this assumes that prostitution was a chosen profession rather than a forced one or a last resort for economic reasons. I have often wondered, as the author of this post suggests, whether Jesus’ love for prostitutes was more than just an evangelistic tool and was, in fact, genuine, unconditional love supplied to make up for what the world (including religious types) lacked.

    There were, no doubt, cases where Jesus confronted sin in the course of his ministry, but it’s not at all clear that his interactions with prostitutes were one such case. If this author is correct, then it seems somewhat unlikely.

  • DSO

    Michael @2, I agree with your concerns about this reading of Ruth. You make some good points about how the same language is used in Genesis.

    There does not seem to be much in the text that directly implicates Mahlon and Kilion in unethical behavior like the sex trade. It is not like there are no examples of God’s direct judgment on personal sin elsewhere. Judah’s son, Er is described as being killed by God because he was wicked. Onan also was so described and likewise killed by God. If Elimelech’s sons had violated the women the text is curiously mute in saying that they simply lived in the land for 10 years (1:4).

    Boaz is indeed a great guy but I wonder if he ran this article past anyone in the OT for their take. Naturally, it is not required but he does present an interpretation of Ruth 1 that is unique. I would think an overturning of the generally accepted reading of Ruth would require some substantiation. Perhaps he put his conclusions out in a ETS session or in a journal. Again, Boaz is a good guy but it would be nice to see how he arrived at his conclusions.

  • Paul W

    @4 DSO

    Boaz Johnson is the department Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He is certainly credentialed to speak to the issues in the article.

    I don’t think that the various ideas in the article are all that novel either. I’m hardly a student of the story of Ruth but I have read some of those same ideas within mainstream commentaries.

    Being unfamiliar and unskilled with primary sources regarding language, history, culture etc. I couldn’t speak to the veracity of the various details but they certainly are not unique.

  • DSO

    PaulW @5, yes, I know who Boaz is. We went through the same doctoral program at TEDS and we taught similar classes in North Park’s BTS department.

    My point has nothing to do with whether or not he is a competent scholar. Of course he is. I was simply asking if there was anywhere where one could read a fuller treatment of his take on Ruth 1. I am intrigued by his interpretation and would like to look at some of his sources to see if I can see what he sees. As I follow the link provided, I am only directed to the CBE website and not the article itself.

    It is not uncommon to run an article past another to see what they think. I did not mean to imply that he needed permission or some stamp of approval. If what I wrote led you to believe I doubted Boaz’ academic abilities, that was not my intent.

    You state that Mahlon and Kilion being engaged in unethical behavior like the sex trade is something relatively common in mainstream commentaries. Would you know which ones? I am not asking this to be contentious but I would like to see the rationale provided by other scholars. As Michael wrote and I reiterated the same language translated as “they married the Moabite women” is used elsewhere with no overtones of sinfulness that leads to God killing them.

    I see that the article is in Social Injustice by Cooper and Moulder. The notes are probably included there. Frequently articles that appear in edited academic books have been introduced elsewhere, at least in part. Those of us without physical access to a theological library can look up the article online in a journal through EBSCO and not have to buy the book. That is why I was asking where this work might have appeared.

  • NKendall

    I am not a theologian, and my comments will not sound very cerebral. But I wonder why a woman who had been abused by the son of another woman would choose to leave her homeland and follow that other woman to a foreign land and adopt her people and her God. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.