A couple of years ago, the stationery company Stabilo launched an advertising campaign called ‘Highlight the Remarkable’. They took photos of male-dominated scenes and ‘highlighted’ women who had been upstaged, and whose successes had not been recognised. For example:
- Edith Wilson. The First Lady, who assumed her husband’s presidential responsibilities after he was paralysed by a stroke.
- Lise Meitner. Who discovered nuclear fission, but whose male partner got the credit and was awarded the Nobel prize.
- Katherine Johnson. The NASA mathematician responsible for the calculations resulting in Apollo 11’s safe return to Earth.
Each of these remarkable women helped change the course of history, often making huge sacrifices, and fighting discrimination to do so. To them could be added many more examples, not to mention the examples of people of colour who have been sidelined or ignored as well.
I loved the simplicity of the advertising campaign. It’s a striking image: a highlighter reaching into a familiar scene and drawing out an individual your eye has been conditioned to gloss over.
And it’s a great illustration for how to think about the book of Ruth.
Ruth is one of very few ancient documents that gives prominence to a strong female lead and portrays her struggles to thrive within the patriarchal culture of her day.
It’s like the God of Israel has taken a highlighter to the pages of history, and in the midst of a patriarchal society, where women – particularly unmarried, childless women – were often overlooked or devalued, God said:
“I want to highlight the remarkable. This woman, Ruth, is worthy of your attention and imitation because she changed the course of history.”
There are, of course, many remarkable things about Ruth that this little book highlights. But one of my favourites is in chapter 3, where Ruth launches a daring plan to get Boaz to save her family. If you’re interested in the details, you can listen to my sermon. But in response to her courage, Boaz says,
“Don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.”Ruth 3:11
That word translated ‘noble character’ is the Hebrew word hayil which is the same word used of Boaz himself, a man of valour (2:1).
It carries connotations of dignity, excellence, character, and strength. Often it is translated ‘mighty one’ and is a term for a distinguished warrior. It’s one of the most honorific things you can say of someone, and Boaz applies it to Ruth. This lady who in the eyes of a patriarchal society was at the absolute bottom. A widowed, childless, Moabite – not even from Israel – with no means, and no family. She is called hayil. A woman of worth. Of excellence. Of valour. A mighty warrior!
And notice, this is not just Boaz’s opinion. These are not words of flattery from a man who is infatuated with Ruth. It is a widely held opinion. He says,
‘All the people of my town know that you are hayil.’Ruth 3:11
And more importantly, I think it is also the opinion of God.
The inclusion of Ruth’s story in the canon of Scripture, amidst a sea of male-dominated stories, is God’s way of taking a big fat highlighter to the life of a poor, childless, Gentile widow and saying:
“She is a woman worthy of your attention – whatever society says about her – you need to know what I say about her. I say she is a mighty women who bears my image well, and she is truly hayil!”
In fact, the way the books are arranged in the Hebrew Bible makes this point even more forcefully. In the Christian arrangement of the Old Testament, the story of Ruth comes between Judges and 1 Samuel, which is chronologically correct. But the Hebrew Bible was arranged differently, with the books being grouped into three sections, Law, Prophets and Writings. In this arrangement, Ruth sits in the ‘writings’ and is part of the ‘scroll of the five’ – the first and fifth of which (Ruth and Esther) are both stories about hayil women who overcame the challenges of their patriarchal culture and changed the world.
Preceding Ruth is the book of Proverbs, the final chapter of which, chapter 31, is an ode to ‘a woman of noble character’. The Hebrew word is hayil. The passage begins with this rhetorical question,
‘A wife of noble character, who can find?’Proverbs 31:10
Then the chapter describes what such a woman might be like – she has brilliant character, she is strong, she is courageous, she is wise, she is an outstanding business woman, and,
‘her works bring her praise at the city gates’Proverbs 31:31
So Proverbs asks ‘where can you find a hayil woman, whose works bring praise at the city gates?’ And you turn the page, and there she is. It’s Ruth. This poor, childless, Moabite widow, who society would have written off, is hayil, and all the elders with whom Boaz speaks at the city gates know it (4:1, 11).
I don’t for one moment think that juxtaposition is by chance. Rather, the God of the Universe felt Ruth was such a remarkable woman that He chose to inspire the very arrangement of Scripture to highlight her. That’s beautiful.
And if you want to become more acquainted with the stories of inspirational Christian women throughout history, Michelle DeRusha’s 50 Women Every Christian Should Know is a good starting point.