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The hand of God and the hands of women

Faithfulness and redemption/9 - Fatalism is a masculine word and a feminine concern. Like Providence.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  30/05/2021

"Without ancestors, without weddings, without descendants, with a wild desire for ancestors, weddings and descendants ... There is a miserable, artificial substitute for everything: ancestors, weddings and descendants".

Franz Kafka’s Diaries, January 22, 1922

In the plan that Naomi orchestrates for Boaz to redeem Ruth, we meet the wonderful figure of Goel, and we learn that biblical humanism is greater than both our errors and our virtues.

Some words have the sublime ability to open our stories, even the story of a lifetime. Sometimes a single word can open a book, a word that is similar and yet different from all other words. The book of Ruth opens by saying: Goel. The ransomer, the redeemer. The Law of Moses provided the legal obligations that applied to relatives when a woman was left widowed and without an heir. The goel is in fact a relative, generally a close relative, who in some specific cases must redeem the rights - generally on both movable and immovable assets - of other members of the same clan. In particular, he is to recover property alienated in conditions of grave need (Jeremiah 32), or free family members sold as slaves due to unpaid debts (Leviticus 25,47 et seq.). A wonderful institution, which still invites us to ask ourselves where the goel for the many slaves forgotten in prisons or in the solitude of their homes in our times are. The goel is also mentioned in the book of Job, when at the height of his cry of complaint addressed to God, he exclaims from his pile of dung: «I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth!" (Job 19,25). In the Bible, YHWH himself is also the goel, who redeems and saves Israel, his close relative; but the Goèl is the messiah who will redeem and save his people and the whole earth, who will moan and cry until he arrives and redeems all the poor and all the victims, without leaving a single one of them behind. Because as long as there is a non-redeemed person on earth, human brotherhood will always be incomplete, justice will be incomplete, and joy will not be fulfilled.

«She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers [goel]” Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’” Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed”» (The Book of Rut 2,20-22). Boaz, the generous owner of the wheat field in Bethlehem, is therefore a possible goel for Naomi and Ruth.

Actually, if we look closely, what Naomi really has in mind is not only to invoke the right of redemption. Above all, she Naomi is the clan relative, not Ruth, who is a foreigner (Moabite). She will draw up her own plan so that Boaz not only redeems her husband's inheritance, but takes Ruth as his wife as well. Hence, something much closer to the institution of levirate marriage than to that of the goel. Levirate marriage was in fact based on the brother-in-law's obligation to marry his brother's widowed wife, an obligation that in many cases also extended to other more distant relatives.

Hence, Naomi saw the figure of their and her own saviour in Boaz. However, after that first meeting in the field in which Boaz had shown his interest and had been very generous towards Ruth, nothing more had happened in the following weeks of harvesting and gleaning. Ruth had continued to glean, but the ransom had not arrived: «So Ruth stayed close to the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law» (The Book of Ruth 2,23).

The time of the harvest was over; it was now time for the threshing to begin. Ruth had no reason to meet Boaz anymore - she was a precarious and seasonal worker. That possible redemption they had barely glimpsed was about to vanish. It was at this moment that Naomi decided to act in person: «One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor» (The Book of Ruth 3,1-2). In the first chapter Naomi had said that it would be YHWH to «show mercy» upon her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Until now, Naomi had been passive, waiting for this mercy to come. At one point, she trusted Boaz would do his part. Now, however, Noemi stops waiting passively and takes action, helping Providence to help Ruth. It is typical of women in the Bible to be able to identify when the time for action has arrived in a critical situation, and they act immediately, quickly. They know how to be utterly comfortable waiting, perfectly still, even under a cross. However, this waiting and Stabat are mere preparation for the moment when they feel they must take action. We could make a long list of these solicitous women. Abigail, who overwhelms David with gifts to avert a war, Rebecca who deceives her husband Isaac for the benefit of Jacob, the midwives of Egypt who disobey the pharaoh to give birth to children, Rizpah, the wonderful mother, who in a different time of harvest knew how to protect the bodies of crucified children with her sack (2 Samuel 21)... Mary who at Cana sees something different and more than her son, and then takes action. These women do not act because some voice calls to them from above or from outside. They act because they intercept a voice that speaks from within these events - the events themselves emit an ultra-sound that women are often able to perceive through natural instinct.

Providence as seen by women is also different. They know that his Hand exists and does his works, but they also feel that Providence must be activated by their own concrete actions, that that great Hand needs the gentle nudge of their smaller and more creative hands, especially when they feel that the divine designs risk taking on rather dull colours and could spoil. This is when they take the initiative, become co-protagonists of divine comedies, without the need for any angel to give them permission first. They continue to anticipate men; they anticipate God, as long as life continues. They keep inventing and telling new stories every night as long as death delays its arrival until it even forgets it should arrive at all. Moreover, it does not matter if the stories are true or made up by them for the sole purpose of trying to overcome death. Fatalism is a masculine word, but concern is a feminine noun. This is also one of the forms that prayer takes: every authentic prayer is a small hand that rests on another Hand and while touching it, it pushes it, awakens it, touches it emotionally and sometimes even moves it.

Naomi has found out (we do not know how) that Boaz will go to the farmyard that evening where the barley is being threshed. Threshing was an important operation in the wheat cycle in Mediterranean civilizations. A gesture in the family lexicon beloved by the Bible, especially by the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah). The chaff was separated from the wheat by means of fans, that is, large wooden shovels that blew air on the harvested ears of grain, now tied and scattered in the farmyard. Threshing in the farmyards, located on the outskirts of the cities, was a period of celebration for the farmers - I also have a vivid memory of it as a child. We ate good food, the men drank and in the evenings, we played and danced. One of those archaic feasts, where in the natural cycle of harvest peoples celebrated their divinities, renewed community ties, celebrated fertility and invoked the generosity of the next harvest. A climate of euphoria where transgressions, including sexual ones, were more tolerated.

In this context of pagan feast, Naomi devises her plan to give Providence a push when it seems to have stranded. The sequence of orders that Naomi gives to Ruth is impressive: «Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but do not let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do» (The Book of Ruth 3,3-4).

Wash up, put on perfume, get dressed, go out... All very clear and determined. Naomi knows what she wants and she knows what means to use. She also knows it is a risky move, but seems very confident in her plan. We do not know why Naomi does not meet Boaz directly to talk to him. It would have been much more prudent than letting her daughter-in-law - at night, alone, covered in perfume and in a beautiful dress – walk around in the city and in what was going on in the farmyard.

The book does not tell us why Naomi choses to act this way. Perhaps – as a more experienced woman - she knew men well, and knew that erotic seduction can work much better than the persuasion of spiritual words, that the law of the flesh can work better than the law of agape, or at least possibly become allies. What is certain is that the mother-in-law tells her daughter-in-law to get Boaz’s bed, the bed of a probably elderly and married man. To lie down "with him", with an explicit allusion to the sexual act - "feet" in the Bible are often used as a euphemism to indicate genitals. The important thing is to obtain the objective, that is, the redemption of Ruth.

The secularity of the Bible includes this too, as well as not always being a treatise on good education. A secularism so radical that it becomes embarrassing, because it prefers to embarrass us rather than betray us. Its salvation passes through human actions, not all of them for good or proper. The genealogy of Jesus includes this slipping into a man's bed; even a small part of this flesh has become Logos. The Bible and the Gospels are not afraid of any of the aspects of humanity. We, however, have been looking for allegorical readings and hidden theological messages for two millennia in order to erase this embarrassing gesture of David's grandmother and Christ's ancestor. We would have liked a more spiritual story, instead the Bible tells us stories of salvation written with words that are too similar to our own, so that our words may become greater than we are – and when use them to call upon angels and demons they will answer us.

In biblical humanism, limits, errors, even sins, are all seen within an oikonomia of the greatest salvation. In it, we will not only be saved by our virtues and light side, but darkness and shadow will save us too. The book of Ruth does not condemn Naomi's plan, the Gospels even praise a dishonest and shrewd manager (Luke 16). The Bible knows that we are «a little lower than the angels» and children of Cain, heirs of both virtues and sins, who can only become the mud capable of giving shape to the image of Elohim when mixed together. The angels were already there. God created us to see something new, that often ends up in the wrong areas and streets, but which will remain his child even in a pigsty. Because what really matters is to believe that the goel will come, and that he will find us poor enough to be able to recognize him.

In the photo, the work of Lau Kwok Hung representing "Mary who unties knots, Mary of discernment and Mary of balance". The work was inaugurated on May 29, 2021 during the ceremony of dedicating the Gallery of the Lionello Bonfanti Centre to the EoC entrepreneur and pioneer "Giovanni Bertagna"

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