Carolyn Custis James' The Gospel of Ruth has been spurring lots of conversation among friends and colleagues who are seeing this old story through a sharper lens thanks to Carolyn's dedicated scholarship and lively writing. My own copy of The Gospel of Ruth is ink-marked, page tipped, and sticky-note glutted – and one corner of the spine has been gnawed a little, thanks to Owen, my Cavalier King Charles. I have asked questions of this manuscript, wrestled with it, and been tutored by it…a lot. Here Carolyn responds to a few of my sticky-note questions related to her newest book. Perhaps you'll have a question or two for her as well. Leigh McLeroy
You describe The Gospel of Ruth as the book you were “born to write.” What drew you to the story of Ruth, and how can you see God’s providence in the timing of its writing and publishing?
The Book of Ruth changed my life. I grew up hearing and loving the story of Ruth. But as an adult, although I read and taught it many times, I never felt personally drawn to the story. The “happily-ever-after” ending always bothered me. You don’t get over the kinds of losses Naomi and Ruth suffered, no matter how many good things happen later on. Then too the book always seemed like a theological lightweight next to the weightier stories of Abraham, Moses, and David, or the writings of the prophets.
Then, I started hearing what OT scholars were saying as they continue digging in the book of Ruth.
Traditionally dismissed as a bitter, complaining woman, Naomi has been upgraded to the status of a female Job. The Bible takes Naomi seriously, and calls us to do the same. That one fact changed the whole book for me. But there was more. Ruth is no longer regarded as the deferential icon of female submissiveness we once knew, but a gutsy risk taker and an agent for change among God’s people. When Ruth embraces Naomi’s God, her center of gravity changes. She assumes responsibility for the situation before her and courageously steps out to do whatever she can and (despite the cost to herself) to make a difference. She is a true Kingdom builder.
I was stunned. Such bold living for a woman was very different from what I’d been taught. I grieved over how much more I could and should have done with my life. I remember saying to my husband, “No one is telling women these things.” I knew, if given the chance, I couldn’t keep what I was learning to myself. I needed to write.
In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t write this book first. I needed more time to study and simmer on the biblical text. And there were other subjects that needed to be raised first. When Life and Beliefs Collide tackles the everyday importance of theology (knowing God) for women. Lost Women of the Bible explores who God created us to be. The Gospel of Ruth shows how much God makes of broken lives and calls women to be courageous advocates for others.
You say that “Eve’s legacy is key to understanding Naomi and Ruth.” How so?
I know a lot of women groan whenever the subject of Eve comes up. I groan too. Talk of Eve often yields a low view of women and warnings about us, for the fallen Eve gets the most attention. She’s the temptress, the woman who brought down the human race, and so on. But the legacy we inherit from Eve resides in the pre-fallen Even as God created and defined her. At creation, God is vision casting, and the vision He casts for his daughters through Eve raises the bar for all of us. She (with Adam) is God’s image bearer—created to know and become like Him. She represents God in the world, acting and speaking for Him. Far from a low view of women, the Bible asserts the highest view of women that is possible. We are created to be like God.
Naomi and Ruth lose everything that gave them value and purpose. In a culture that measured a woman’s value by counting her sons, both women are zeros. Without husbands or sons, postmenopausal Naomi and barren Ruth have no way to contribute. They’ve lost their purpose.
God sees things differently. Naomi and Ruth are His image bearers. Although their lives have come unraveled, their God-given identity and purpose remain unchanged. The biblical spotlight settles on two childless widows, and God has kingdom work for them to do.
Two concepts in the book drew me in from the start. The first was the full meaning of the word “ezer,” and the second was something you called “the blessed alliance.” Let’s come back to the blessed alliance later – but tell me about “ezers.” Are you an ezer? Am I? Is every woman?
For women, a lot is riding on the Hebrew word ezer, which God uses for the woman when He creates her. “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper [ezer] suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18).
If, as we are often told, the ezer or strong helper is the wife and mother, then the grand vision God gives of women as His image bearers in Genesis 1 gets downsized in Genesis 2 to include only certain seasons of a woman’s life. This interpretation leaves us all out when we are young. It means a host of women who never marry or never become moms are missing their God-giving calling; And women who, like Naomi and Ruth, lose their children or their husbands, have also lost their purpose for their lives. If we applied the same interpretive principles to what God says about Adam, we’d be telling men God created them all to be husbands, fathers, and gardeners. But God never intended for us to live cookie-cutter lives. We are not all the same, and God’s purposes are wise, creative, and dynamic enough to fit an endless variety of scenarios.
From my study, I’m convinced that the ezer is a warrior. Used most often to refer to God as Israel’s helper,
ezer consistently appears within a military context. God is “our shield and defense”; “greater than chariots and horses”; “He stands sentry watch over His people.” Even Eden is a war zone. There is a kingdom to advance, which entails “subduing” the Enemy who is already planning an attack. God employs military language when stationing the man to “guard” the garden. God creates the woman to join the man in the ambitious global enterprise to bring the whole earth under God’s gracious reign.
So, yes, you are an ezer. You’ve been an ezer since birth and you’ll be an ezer for the rest of your life.
How did your understanding of TGoR change when you began to see God (and not Ruth, or Naomi) as the main character and true hero of the story?
Here’s what I say in my book: “No matter how captivating the other characters may be, our top priority is to discover what the Bible reveals about God. . . . If we marginalize God or make someone else the focal point, we will always miss the main message of the book. Always.”
Focus on God, and every scene intensifies, revealing a potent message about God, His relentless loves for His children, how much He accomplishes through our sufferings, and what it means to live in this world as His child.
This sentence in chapter two practically detonated on the page as I read it: A woman’s high calling as God’s image bearer renders her incapable of insignificance, no matter what has gone wrong in her life or how much she has lost. Because I know my only sister’s fight with cancer has caused her to ask in a new way what her life should “be about,” this stopped me in my tracks. Almost every woman I know struggles with feelings of insignificance, and has doubts about her true worth and purpose. Do you really believe that worth and purpose are impervious to loss and hardship? (I hope you say yes!)
I do say “Yes!” As God’s image bearers, we represent Him wherever we are, no matter what our circumstances. His calling on our lives is indestructible, investing every second of our lives with rich purpose and meaning. What this means in terms of outcomes is in God’s hands. Ruth and Naomi never realized the full impact of their efforts. Didn’t know they were rescuing the line of Christ. Didn’t dream God was working through them to change the world. We may look at our lives and believe we haven’t done much for God’s kingdom. But, if the story of Naomi and Ruth teaches us anything, God may be doing the biggest things through those of us who seem to be counted out of the action.