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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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
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