In church on Sunday we talked about the story Ruth and Boaz and about half way through the discussion I found myself laughing softly to my friend who was sitting next to me.
We had just read the part in the story when, after washing and dressing herself as her mother-in-law instructed her to, Ruth went and laid herself down at Boaz's feet to sleep. At midnight he woke up and was afraid to find a woman at his feet. He asked her, "... Who art thou?". And this is the part that made me laugh because Ruth answered, "... I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman." (Ruth 3:9)
I'd never realized it before but Ruth PROPOSES marriage to Boaz!
What Ruth is saying here is that because Boaz is the nearest living kinsman of her dead husband it is his duty, under the Levitical law, to marry her. She asks him to "spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid" which was an ancient phrase meaning to take a woman to marriage (see Ezekiel 16:8; Deuteronomy 22:30). She, very boldly and bravely, asked Boaz (who barely even knew her) to guard her, protect her, care for her and to make her his wife.
I don't know how I missed this part of the story every other time I've read Ruth's story! It sure made me smile to think of Ruth being brave and faithful enough to propose marriage to a man, who probably knew that he should marry her, but wasn't willing to for some reason. I don't know if I would have had the guts to do that! Really, what a woman.
Ruth's story made me realize that while people often think of the scriptures as being a tool for justifying traditional cultural roles for men and women, that in reality there are many stories in the scriptures that demonstrate reversed traditional gender roles. For example:
In the story of Ruth we see that women can propose to men and not be considered "fast" or "pushy" but rather "virtuous" as Boaz tells Ruth all the city knows her to be;
In the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad we see that women can inherit land and are entitled to choose their own husbands;
The story of Deborah shows a woman acting as the head judge in Israel and leading an army into battle. Not to mention having a man who asks for her guidance before he makes major decisions;
The story of the Daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite shows that men can take their wives last names when they marry;
And the story of Huldah shows that women can be prophetesses and can be great scholars;
I'm sure there are many, many more but these are the ones I could think of off the top of my head.
I can't help but wonder how different our societies would be, especially those that profess faith and belief in the scriptures, if we really paid attention to these stories of women in the scriptures. I think we'd start to see that gender roles for men and women are pretty much culturally defined. The scriptures teach us that while men and women have different divine stewardship's on this earth there aren't very many jobs, roles, or practices that are strictly for men or strictly for women. God hasn't ever said that only men can propose marriage, that women have to take their husbands name when they marry, that women are suppose to be weak and subservient, or that women can't work outside of their homes. What He has said is that, "... fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." (from the The Family: A Proclamation to the World)
I think sometimes we get to hung up worrying about what things are culturally appropriate for men and women that we forget to focus on what things really matter. I think that what Ruth's s story teaches us is that we can't let culturally defined gender stereotypes stop us from doing what the Lord wants us to do. Even if that means asking that man, who is unrighteously dragging his feet at the thought of matrimony, to marry you! Just like Ruth, sometimes when we pray for direction we get instructions from the Lord that require us to do things that aren't part of our culture's traditional gender roles or we may be asked to do something that, because of our gender, we never envisioned ourselves doing. In those cases women (and men) really have to learn to rely on the guidance of the holy spirit, be courageous, break culturally defined gender stereotypes if needed, and do the Lord's work... and hopefully in the end things turned will turn out how God intends. Things worked out pretty wonderful for Ruth!