The NFL, Ferguson, and the Bible
With a pregnant girlfriend in the news because she’s been allegedly beaten,
and two different 4-year-old boys of different mothers allegedly by the same father beaten,
and Janay Palmer,
and Nicki Holder,
and Candace Williams
in the NFL news,
and with Michael Brown dead
in the Ferguson, Missouri news,
I was reminded of the Bible,
and the ways that Wil Gafney,
a woman, African-
American, in the diaspora
(not so unlike what Brigitt Hamman
and Willis Barnstone see):
The normative portrayal of marriage in Ruth is a particular problem for English readers because it masks sexual and domestic violence in a text that has been canonized as scripture for Jews and Christians. There are at least three indicators that Ruth was abducted into marriage: (1) the use of the verb ns‘, “lift,” with “woman,” instead of the standard lach, “take (as wife),” (2) the long-standing Israelite practice of abduction or rape-marriage, and (3) the preferential abduction of foreign women for rape-marriage.
The verb in Ruth 1:4, vayis’u, from ns’, “to lift” or “pick up,” may be taken to indicate that Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, were abducted into marriage. I translate the first three works of Ruth 1:4, “They-abducted for-themselves Moabite-women. . . . ” The verb ns’ occurs 661 times in the MT. The primary meaning of ns’, according to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), is “to carry” or “to lift.” In virtually every translation of ns’ in which the object is not a person, the verb is rendered with some form of “lift,” “carry,” “take,” or something similar. Any thing or person may be the object of ns’: the hand (Deut. 32:20), prayer (Jer. 7:13), or sin may be lifted off of a person or community (Isa. 53:11), and so forth. In Ruth ns’ is also used to indicate lifting grain in 2:18. Women are the object of ns’ five times: Judges 21:23; Ruth 1:4; Ezra 10:44; 2 Chr. 13:21 and 24:3. Note that in Judges, the context is the abduction of sexually naive girls from Shiloh into forced or rape-marriages for the purpose of progeny. The verb chtph in Judges 21:21, “to catch” (women), functions as a synonym. In Ezra, the women in question are specified as foreign. In 2 Chr. 13:21, Abijah’s collection of women and the resulting offspring is cited as evidence of his strength in the previous verse, suggesting that these were abduction-marriages….
The normative verb indicating marriage in the Hebrew scriptures, lach, “to take,” with a woman as the object, indicates in every case in the Hebrew scriptures socially sanctioned union (Gen 4:19; Exod. 6:20; Jer. 16:2, and so on)…. Rape-marriage as a normative practice is introduced in Numbers 31, where sexually naïve girls are abducted as “booty,” shalal. It is codified subsequently in Deuteronomy 20,21, and 24. Among the modifications introduced are the shift of focus from any outsider girl whose people are designated as “enemies” (as in Num. 31:19) to “beautiful” women and girls among the enemy (Deut. 20:11). Deuteronomy20:12-13 also calls for the abducted women and girls to be stripped, their heads shaved, and their nails cut….
…. The very name, “Moab,” literally “from [my] father,” evokes the alleged incestuous and therefore despicable nature of all Moabites according to the Israelite account of their origins in the Genesis 19 account of Lot and his daughters. As a result, Moabites, particularly Moabite women, are highly sexualized in the scriptures of Israel, as are many contemporary Africana women readers of those same scriptures.
Given the specific vocabulary deployed in the text and Ruth’s identity as a Moabite woman — which she never escapes — Ruth is multiply marginalized, socially and sexually vulnerable. Ruth and Orpah’s marriages, therefore, hide dirty not-so-little secrets, covered up by generations of male translators. Yet the experience of abduction-marriage and forcible pregnancy is not unimaginable to contemporary Africana readers. In some parts of Eastern and raped into marriage.
The Associated Press (AP) ran a story on June 21, 2005, under an Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, dateline in which a twelve-year-old girl, kidnapped by men who wanted to force her into marriage, was rescued by three lions that chased off her abductors and guarded her until police and relatives located her. Sergeant Wondimu Wedajo of the local police reported that the men had held the girl for seven days, repeatedly beating her: “Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage.”
The AP report noted that in Ethiopia, kidnapping has been part of the marriage customs for quite some time and that the United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia occured by abduction, particularly in rural areas where the majority of the country’s population lives. (The AP report did not delineate its sources).
Interpreters appealing to biblical narratives to describe idealized marriage have in many cases legitimized violence in marriage. Religious authorities (Bible translators, pastors, seminary professors) have been negligent (and, I argue, criminally so) in failing to expose the ways in which the biblical narrative sanctions and contributes to the abuse of women in general and wives in particular. By highlighting Ruth’s embrace of Naomi and Naomi’s god, interpreters of the book of Ruth have regularly overlooked the colence with which Ruth was initiated into marriage (and relationship with Naomi), as specified by the Biblical Hebrew vocabulary of that union. Biblical interpreters, like all readers, are shaped by their own constructed cultures, which they in turn lay onto the text even as they identify “biblical principles” for marriage. In doing so, lay and professional, clergy and academic interpreters of the Bible overlook the violence in which many women live, particularly in their marriages. Men in every part of the world rape their wives. According to Molly Egan and Jason Wood’s 1999 Lehigh University report, The Abolition of Marital Rape Exemption, in the United States, spousal rape was criminalized by only seventeen out of fifty states in 1996. By 2007, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had criminalized spousal rape. (The state of New York relies on the ruling of an appeals court in 1984, People vs. Liberta, because an exemption for married men accused of raping their wives remains on the books.) Spousal rape affects all people in the United States and beyond, including those in the African dispersion.
Hitler adopted Jewish “purity of race” as nothing less than a model for his own weltanschauung regarding the necessity of the racial purity of Aryans.—Brigitte Hamann, “Jews in Vienna,” Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship
It is enough to say that Yeshua and his circle, whatever masks their writers gave them, would have fared less well in Germany between 1933 and 1945. In those days, the designation of the Jew as “vermin,” found famously first in Matthew’s “brood of vipers,” was fixed, and even the intervention of Pope Pius XII could not have altered that designation of Yeshua’s blood and racial identity, and his inevitable way to the chamber. His parents, brothers, sister, and messengers would also have been picked up in trucks and sent to the death camps as Jews. In the eyes of the master race, the identity of Yeshua as one of the Jews had no way out.—Willis Barnstone, “Afterword:… A Gentleman’s Agreement in the Gospels that Jews in the Yeshua Movement Not Be Perceived as Jews,” The New Covenant: Commonly Called the New Testament
Responsible reading of the scriptures of Israel also calls for revisiting the ways in which racial constructs are imposed on the text. Israelite identity is, like all identities, a constructed identity; in its earliest formulation, it is a cultural rather than a biological identity. Yaakov, the Heel-Grabbing Sneak, who becomes Israel the God-Wrestler, is the grandson of Abraham the Chaldean in Gen. 11:28. His Caldean kinfolk would eventually evolve into the Babylonian Empire that decimated his descendants — so the Israelites and Babylonians shared biology but not culture. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh shared African maternity because of Joseph’s marriage to Asenat, the Egyptian in Gen. 41:45. Even Moshe, Moses, the Torah-Vessel, married non-Israelite women — Zipporah the Midianite in Exod. 2:21 and an unnamed Nubian woman in Num. 12:1 — meaning that some of the priestly community had multicultural heritage. A non-Israelite, mixed multitude accompanied Israel when they departed Egypt in Exod. 12:38 and became absorbed into the community. In 2 Sam. 22:51, David — called “meshiach,” or “messiah” in Hebrew, and “christos,” or “christ” in Greek (although generally translated “anointed” in English) — was the grandson of a Moabite woman named Ruth.
The multicultural nature of Israel is especially important to read over and against racialized constructions of Israel as ethnically and racially monolithic, and their construction as “white” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The supposed whiteness of biblical Israel has been used to sanctify colonization of black, brown, and beige peoples around the globe, invoking the ahistorical “Conquest of Canaan” paradigm.—Wil Gafney, “Reading the Hebrew Bible Responsibly:… Multicultural Israel,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African DiasporaRuth was abducted into the messianic lineages of David and Jesus. But the text should not be read as an endorsement of abduction. It is in Ruth’s power to choose where she will make her way in the world. She chooses her mother-in-law…. When Ruth gives birth, she is a surrogate for Naomi:“Blessed be YHWH, who has not left you, woman, without redeeming kin this day; and may that name be proclaimed in Israel! That one shall be to you, woman, a restorer of life and a provider when your hair grays, woman; for your daughter-in-law, she who loves you, woman, she has given birth — she who is more to you, woman, than seven sons.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurturer. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” (Ruth 4:14-17, my [Wil Gafney‘s] translation)
—Wil Gafney, “Ruth,” The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora