BTR, human sexuality, theology, women

Orpah, the Landless

A Text of Resistance

There is a character in the Ruth narrative who exhibited resistance. Like Ruth, she is a Moabite. Unlike Ruth, she chose to go back to her own people. And perhaps, to herself. But she is forgotten in the text after she chooses differently from Ruth. Her name is Orpah. I can privilege Orpah but as an act of resistance, it is also imperative to give an alternative voice to Ruth and Naomi. And so, I will re-tell the story of the three women in the context of peasant farmers who struggle for land.

First Scene: Orpah, Ruth and Naomi: Women Without Land
Narrator 1:
They travelled together like three Marys, 
so different from the three wise men.
Three widows, all landless 
Three women so separated 
from their places of birth.
Naomi is the mother of both their husbands.
Men who were victims of war and fate.
Ruth and Naomi could still pass as maidens,
their bodies and faces would still be a bait.
Naomi painfully bids them to go home
To return to a land they used to call their own.
One begged to stay with her, 
the other said goodbye
Both seeking land, for survival and life.
Three women left with nothing. Journeying towards unknown fates.

Ruth:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you will go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.”

Narrator 2:
Did Ruth make the right choice when she promised to follow Naomi? Some women cannot utter such a vow. Her promise to Naomi is a denunciation of her identity and her people. But for many who have no land to return to for survival and life, to leave behind what once was called home and forget the past is a road one is forced to take.
Narrator 1:
Orpah’s Choice
Very little is said about Orpah in the story. While it pains her to part with Naomi and Ruth, she pines for her own people and for her own home.

Orpah:
“Do not ask me to follow you.
Let me be free to leave you.
Wherever you go, I cannot go.
Where you will live, I cannot live.
My people will be my people,
and my God will be my God.

Narrator 1:
We are invited and enticed
to seek greener pastures
To leave our homeland
where we were conceived and born
But Orpah is one who hears the call of home
Even in uncertainty, they are her people, her land.
Narrator 2:
Those who are worthy to call themselves
servants of God and the people must be able to pronounce and live out this decision.

Who else will embrace
the children of our people?
Who else will defend
the land of our people?
The land that was cleared
by those who came before us.
The land we must pass on
to those who will come after us.
Blood and sweat were offered
by those who first tilled it.
To honor the giver, the Creator of all.
Despite the uncertainty in the land
we call ‘home,’
There is a commitment
to defend the land for all.
For therein lies the right
to continuity and survival,
In land lies the hope and life of a people.

Second Scene: Landlessness and Hopelessness

Narrator 1:
The road was difficult and long for the two widows. Naomi was aging
and Ruth could still be called a youth.
She still could marry, and to a man belong.
In the Old Testament culture,
a husband and a male heir,
meant land and identity,
protection and security.
The following story is common and true.
A woman offers her body
for a chance to life.
Naomi:
No husband, no heir.
Landless and hopeless.
What is the meaning of marriage for women
Grasping a knife by it’s blade, gasping for life
Why is fate so cruel to women?
For a handful of grain to be picked, 
she gives her body in exchange
Boaz was a rich and honorable man
Who scattered grain to lure a bird to his trap.
Ruth:
Is your kindness to me 
an expression of your deep love?
Is it through God’s blessing 
that you open yourself to me?
I offered myself, my body, my soul
So I can touch the hope and life that eludes me

Narrator 2:
If fate was bitter-sweet for Ruth and Naomi,
the journey of Orpah was 
dangerous and lonely.
Is there anyone left of her family?
Is there land of their own to be tilled?
What will she do if it has been possessed by another?
What if their lives have been possessed by an ‘other’?
What can she do in the face of greed and violence?
How can she take back hope and life 
without vengeance?
Orpah:
I have returned because I have seen, 
bitterness and cruelty in a land not my own.
I have longed to return to all I have left behind
To embrace loved ones and friends,
Nowhere else I can find
I have returned to commit to my people
To face challenges, to face — even despair
To face our tomorrows – together
To struggle and defend life and land forever.

Laura E. Donaldson, a biblical scholar of Cherokee descent, begins her critique of the narrative of Ruth from the story of the daughters of Lot in Genesis 19 who had incestuous sex with their father, Lot. Moabite women were presented as “a hypersexualized threat” to Israelite men and she argues that the same discourse is used by “christians” toward indigenous women of the Americas. She finds no hope and resistance in Ruth whose story ends with being an ancestress in the house of David, presenting visions of ethnic and cultural submission and harmony. She, however, finds small hope in Orpah:
To Cherokee women, for example, Orpah connotes hope rather than perversity, because she is the one who does not reject her traditions or her sacred ancestors. Like Cherokee women have done for hundreds if not thousands of years, Orpah chooses the house of her clan and spiritual mother over the desire for another culture. In fact, Cherokee women not only chose the mother’s house, they also owned it (along with the property upon which it stood as well as the gardens surrounding it.)
While Ruth relinquished her ethnic and cultural identity, Orpah’s resistance was “a courageous act of self and communal affirmation: the choosing of the indigenous mother’s house over that of the alien Israelite Father.”

Art by Shiloh Sophia McCloud

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1 thought on “Orpah, the Landless”

  1. As ever, you offer a beautiful and surprising commentary on the story of the three women and their differing decisions at a critical point in their lives. Every story, particularly biblical stories, is told from a specific perspective. And the story of the three women is told from the perspective of the “true and faithful God,” Yahweh, and not from the perspective of who the women are, save in the case of Orpah. Thus, Ruth’s decision which sacrifices her own homeland and its traditions, is the one venerated by both the OT and NT traditions which are carried over by Christianity. Ruth makes a heart rending sacrifice for what she has embraced as the truth, represented by the person and faith of Naomi. Truth has an imperious character, nothing is supposed to mount a challenge to it, and Ruth exemplifies that imperious character in making her decision. This is what I learned in Sunday School which is reinforced by my seminary education. By implication, Orpah is the hardheaded one, who is slow and hard to believe, and could not be uprooted from her old securities.

    Now, a different kind of wind is blowing. It has not abandoned its claim to truth, but it dares recognize that other traditions and cultures have also a claim to truth in the understanding that the true God has been at work everywhere, though his/her truth is grasped and seized in a different cultural form. What should be done therefore is not to engage the truth claims from other cultures in a formal and objective manner, but to dig deep into its essence and find out what is that one thing that binds our traditions and beliefs in common. Jesus himself challenged the objective forms in which his tradition have been cast as exemplified in his statement that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

    REligions have much to do to discover the essential truths that bind them for I believe that underneath all of our religious symbols are the essential truths of our humanity—love, justice, good, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, freedom and equality. In fine, we may see that Orpah’s decision is as righteous, true and beautiful as Ruth’s.

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