Honor and Shame in Ruth
Anthony J. Gryskiewicz
The book of Ruth contains numerous instances of honor and shame that may be overlooked or misinterpreted by modern Western readers who, while aware of the concepts of honor and shame, tend to read Scripture through the lens of guilt and innocence. This paper explores Ruth from the perspective of honor and shame in an ancient Mediterranean context by examining Naomi and Ruth’s honor reversals and Boaz’s skillful use of facework.
We live in a multicultural world. Transnational migration is bringing unprecedented numbers of people to the United States and Europe. Romanians are moving to Spain, Turks are immigrating to Bulgaria, and Mexicans are entering the United States. Yet, people tend to view and interact with the world through the lenses of their culture. This is also true in how we read, teach, and act out the principles of the Bible. James Plueddemann illustrates how some churches are oblivious to the fact. “Megachurches often conduct leadership seminars around the world. Such seminars may make the naïve assumption that leadership is culture-free and that anyone from any culture can teach it. They often claim they are teaching the “biblical model” of leadership, not realizing that the way they read the Bible is already influenced by their cultural theories about leadership.”We tend to assume that everyone in the world sees the world as we see it. American Christians are particularly guilty in this regard. Anglo-Americans often feel that all Christians view the Bible as we do, and everyone in the world speaks English. When Westerners go on mission trips, they expect to hear their language, and they expect the church services to mirror the ones at home with the only difference being familiar tunes sung in a different tongue.
Sherwood Lingenfelter, senior professor of anthropology at Fuller Theological Seminary, recounts how he made a mistake on the Island of Yap assuming the Yapese followed the Western biblical model of conflict resolution.During his research, he had to correct one of his Yapese research assistants, so following the Western model based on Matthew 18:15, he went directly to the brother and confronted him about the error. The results were disastrous, and the relationship was severely damaged. Consulting a Yapese elder, Lingenfelter discovered that on Yap, only parents correct their young children in that manner. To approach an adult in that way is immensely offensive. On Yap, he was informed, one sends an intermediary, an advocate, to mediate between the parties involved. The Yapese model, Lingenfelter argues, has strong support from Scripture.
The Bible was written from an ancient Mediterranean perspective, and many of the cultural values advocated may be missed when reading the Scriptures through Western lenses.Lingenfelter’s conflict resolution illustration is one example. Others could include gender roles, family, and concepts of honor and shame. Ancient Mediterranean cultures tended to be patriarchal, as are some modern cultures in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; Western Europe and North America are generally more egalitarian. In the West, the nuclear family is the essential family unit. In many parts of the world, the extended family is the norm. The West leans more towards a guilt and innocence value orientation while the rest of the world favors an honor and shame orientation. Mischke indicates that shame and honor are much more prevalent themes in Scripture than guilt and innocence. While some cultures may easily interpret the themes of honor and shame in Scripture, Western cultures may have more difficulty. Without understanding the cultural values of the people in the Bible, it can be easy to misunderstand its teachings and narratives. To help pastors and Christian workers develop greater cultural fluency, this paper will examine concepts of honor and shame that occur in the book of Ruth.
Honor and Shame
As noted earlier, Western culture tends to be different from the cultures of the Global South. As there are differences between the West and Global South, there are also differences between the West and ancient Mediterranean cultures. Table 1 illustrates the differences between these cultures:
Table 1: Cultural Values: Ancient Mediterranean vs. Modern West
A glance at the cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean shows significant similarities with the majority of the cultures in the non-Western world. The cultural values of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, are different from the cultural values of the modern West.
These differences also extend to the concepts of honor and shame, which, while known in the West, carry significantly less weight than guilt or innocence. Neyrey defines honor as “the worth or value of persons both in their eyes and in the eyes of their village, neighborhood, or society.”Honor is a cultural value recognized by the community. When honor is lost, the consequence is shame, which results in a loss of social standing. Thus shame, according to Brown, is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
In individualistic cultures such as those found in the West, the constructs of guilt and innocence have more significance. Indeed, Mischke indicates that guilt is internal; it is placed on the individual by themselves. Shame, on the other hand, is external. Shame is placed on a person by outside sources.Guilt is an individual saying, “I have done something wrong,” while shame is someone saying, “There is something wrong with me.”
Collectivist cultures may not view all aspects of shame in a negative light. While shame is something to be avoided, shame does serve the purpose of guiding the behavior of the people in the community. For example, in many cultures, it would be shameful if children did not care for aging parents. The failure to take care of one’s parents would ensure great shame. To avoid the public spectacle of shame, many families around the world live together so that the children can care for the elders. In some countries such as Zambia, the government has made it illegal for nursing homes for the elderly to exist. According to Cliggett, the cultural value in Zambia is that it is the responsibility of the children to care for aging parents, and it is shameful if one does not provide the necessary care.Georges adds to a collectivistic understanding of shame by writing, “shame means other people think lowly of you and do not want to be with you.” Isolation and exclusion from the in-group are particularly devastating in collectivistic cultures where acceptance by the in-group is of the utmost importance. Table 2 contrasts the source, language, sin, and the transgressor’s perception of themselves from Guilt/Innocence and Honor/Shame perspectives.
Broke Community Code
I did something wrong
Something is wrong with me
Table 2: Guilt/Innocence vs. Honor/Shame
Flanders sums up the hallmarks of honor/shame and guilt/innocence cultures writing, “Thus, the distinguishing mark of a shame culture is a dependency upon what others think. Conversely, it is not the perception of others that drives guilt cultures but rather a person’s own internal moral compass, the individual conscience.”
Illustrating the differences between honor and shame could lead some to think of honor/shame and guilt/innocence cultures as binary; that is, cultures are either honor/shame or guilt/innocence oriented. However, it would be more accurate to think of shame on a spectrum.Cultures that are geared towards guilt/innocence would lean towards one end of the spectrum where shame is hidden and internal. On the other end of the spectrum would reside honor/shame cultures where shame is external. All cultures have some framework of both, yet most of the world’s cultures tend to gravitate towards honor and shame.
Face and Facework
Shame based cultures also tend to be collectivistic and lean towards cooperation and maintaining face. Like honor and shame, face is a social construct and can be defined as “one’s social image that is publicly and collectively perceived by others.”The process of managing face is called facework and can be defined as the actions, verbal or nonverbal, that people use to retain, gain, or restore lost face. Face and the necessary facework to gain, maintain, or restore face is an essential social skill in honor-shame cultures. Face and facework are intimately woven into the culture and cannot be separated. Christopher Flanders writes that “face is a ubiquitous dimension of all human reality.” Because face is a social construct, Ting-Toomey posits that the amount of face a person can have is dependent on two factors; how much face he or she receives from society and how much face the person claims and expects.
Honor and Shame in Contemporary Mediterranean Cultures
Honor and shame are weighty cultural values in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures today. For example, izzat (honor, respect) among Pakistani Muslims is intimately tied to the birādari (extended family) and even extends to the caste (zāt). A recent Muslim immigrant to Germany explains honor this way: “There is nothing in the entire world that you need to protect more than your honor. Because you’re nothing without your honor. You’d be dirt, just dirt and nothing else. If someone tried to take my honor, then I’d do anything to get it back. Literally anything.” Mischke adds that while some shame-based cultures may avoid shame through denial, others may attack themselves as the source of the shame. This can take the form of suicide, self-abasement, or masochism. Mediterranean cultures, on the other hand, often attack the perceived source of their shame. This can include members of their own family. Men and women have their roles in acquiring and maintaining honor for the family; however, it seems that women are more closely watched as their behavior could cause a significant loss of honor for the family. Shaw believes that a family’s honor “depends to a large extent on the behavior of its women,” and there seems to be a double standard between men and women. Promiscuous women are often severely punished or even killed to restore the family honor, while men are often excused for the same behavior. Very rarely does the media mention a male being executed in a so-called honor killing. These beliefs of honor and shame are so ingrained in the culture that Shaw found that these attitudes still exist in second-generation Pakistanis that have immigrated to England.
Honor and Shame in Ancient Israel
Honor and its counterpart shame are driving cultural values in many Old Testament narratives. Thus it becomes necessary particularly for Western scholars less familiar with these categories to grapple with the concepts of honor and shame. As with many modern-day Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, honor and shame were closely tied to the behavior of family members in Ancient Israel. The fifth commandment instructs the Israelites to honor their parents (Exod 20:12); furthermore, rebellious children who dishonor or disgrace the family and will not listen to their parents were brought to the elders of the community and stoned (Deut 21:18–21).
To offend someone’s honor in Ancient Israel was to take your life in your hands. In 1 Sam 25, David is fleeing from Saul, and he finds himself near a wealthy man named Nabal. David’s men had guarded Nabal’s herds and shepherds from harm, yet when David sent messengers to Nabal to ask for supplies, Nabal insulted David. His honor affronted, David instructed his men to prepare to kill every male in Nabal’s household. If it had not been for the intervention of Nabal’s wise wife, Abigale, many people would have died; instead, her actions restored David’s honor. Nabal, after learning what had happened, “his heart failed him” (1 Sam 25:37), and ten days later, he died. Perhaps it could be said that he died of shame. Abigale’s quick thinking and honorable actions caught the eye of David, and Abigale was elevated to the distinguished position of a wife of the would-be king.
Just as there seems to be a cultural double standard in the modern Middle East when it comes to the behavior of women and men and sexual activity and honor, there also appears to be one in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, Judah was prepared to burn his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar for adultery after it was discovered she was pregnant, but there is no condemnation for Judah, who slept with a prostitute. Only later did Judah find out that the prostitute was Tamar in disguise to trick Judah into a levirate marriage (Gen 38). In the New Testament, the religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1–11). Interestingly, the religious leaders only brought the woman to Jesus. If she was apprehended in the act, where was the male?
Honor and Shame in Ruth
The book of Ruth is full of instances of honor and shame that may be overlooked or misinterpreted by modern Western readers. Indeed, the narrative of shame and regained honor drive the story forward. While the heroine of the story is the book’s namesake, Ruth, it is her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is behind the scenes strategizing to restore the family honor. Behind it all is God, who takes a lowly, despised, and shamed foreigner and elevates her to have the honor of being an ancestor of King David and, eventually, the Messiah. The next few pages will examine themes of honor and shame in Ruth, specifically exploring the death of Elimelek and his sons, Naomi’s return to Bethlehem, Ruth’s interactions with Boaz, and finally Boaz’s interactions with the kinsman-redeemer. By examining these passages through the lens of honor and shame, I hope to bring to the surface themes that may not be evident to those from cultures that rely more on guilt and innocence.
Moving to Moab: A Face Threatening Act
The book of Ruth starts with Elimelek, Naomi, and their two sons moving to Moab to escape a famine in Bethlehem. Moving to Moab could be seen as a face threatening act since relations with Moab and Israel were historically contentious. Moabites were the descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters (Gen 19:37–38) who tried to thwart Israel’s attempt to pass through Moab after the exodus. The Moabite king, Balak, hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. Not only did this fail, but it backfired with Balaam blessing the Israelites. Later, Balaam instructed the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men who then offered sacrifices to the Moabite gods (Num 25:1–2; Rev 2:14). As a result of these actions, the Moabites and their descendants were excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
The Moabites worshiped the god Chemosh (1 Kgs 11:7) depicted as a statue of a woman made from black stone. According to Klein, worshippers would journey to the figure, but some would not return due to “mysterious reasons.”The Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite Stone, indicates that Chemosh once punished Moab by subjecting them to Israelite rule. Regardless, the Israelites were forbidden to make treaties of friendship with the Moabites (Deuteronomy 23:2-6); this was understood to include a prohibition not to intermarry. Living in Moab seemed to present a plethora of possibilities for face threatening acts. Indeed, it was not long before Elimelek’s sons broke the command of Deut 23:6.
Marrying Moabites: Loss of Face
The narrative continues, and Elimelek dies in Moab. Naomi’s eldest son would then be the head of the household, and both sons would continue to support their mother (Ruth 1:3). The sons, Mahlon and Kilion, take Moabite wives, and ten years later, the sons die, leaving behind no children (Ruth 1:6). Examining this passage through the lens of honor and shame, several situations arise that could lead to a significant loss of face and accrual of shame.
To Westerners the death of Elimelek may not seem significant. Indeed, McKeown, who writes from a Western perspective, refuses to attach any cultural significance to the deaths of Naomi’s husband and sons. However, the Targum, written from an Ancient Mediterranean perspective, explicitly claims the deaths of Elimelek, Mahlon, and Kilion were results of their sin.Elimelek died for leaving the promised land, and Mahlon and Kilion died for marrying Moabite wives. Naomi’s status as a widow is a result of the sin of the males in her family. Further, during the ten years her sons were married, they failed to produce offspring to continue the family line or that would continue to provide for their mother in her old age. As a result of their sin, the males die, and their deaths bring Naomi shame.
Naomi now finds herself without a male patron to protect and provide for her. In ancient patriarchal societies, the economic opportunities of women were minimal, and without a male to protect them, women were subject to a loss of social status and potential abuse.Naomi has lost all her support structures, she is living in a foreign land, and she now finds herself bearing the shame of her family’s sin. It seems her only recourse is to return to Bethlehem in shame.
Return to Bethlehem: Shame Exposed
As Naomi returns to Bethlehem, a significant exchange takes place along the road. Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to leave her and go back to Moab (Ruth 1:7). Many scholars see this interaction as Naomi expressing care or concern for the welfare of her daughters-in-law,however, Hawk posits that Naomi is concerned with face. Returning to Bethlehem as a pauper, with no husband or sons, and too old to remarry and produce other offspring (Ruth 1:12) would be shameful enough. How would the community react if Naomi were to return with two pagan daughters-in-law? It is entirely plausible that Naomi saw the presence of the two Moabite women as a face-threatening situation.
Whatever her reasons, Naomi was only partially successful. Orpah returned to her people (Ruth 1:14), but Ruth refused to leave her. Instead, Ruth forsakes her biological family and her god Chemosh, and commits herself to Naomi’s people and God.Not only is she adopting Naomi’s people and Deity, but by committing herself to Naomi, she is attaching herself to the shame associated with the family.
When Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, they cause a stir in the city (Ruth 1:19) with the women asking, “Can this be Naomi?” It is the women that recognize Naomi and with whom Naomi converses.This emphasizes the patriarchal nature of the culture to which they belong. The women would have been the ones Naomi socialized with during her time in Bethlehem, so it would be natural that they would be the ones to recognize these unexpected women who were traveling alone.
As Naomi addresses the women, she changes her identity. Naomi, which means sweet, now refers to herself as Mara, which can mean bitter (Ruth 1:20). Without too much explanation, Naomi tells the women that the Lord has afflicted her, and she returns empty. It seems that Naomi is trying to avoid casting more shame on her husband and sons for their actions while simultaneously casting her current shameful condition at the feet of God.
Gossip and Hard Work: Gaining Face
In ancient cultures, the only retirement system was to be cared for by the members of your family. Without males to provide for them, Ruth and Naomi depended on the social mechanism of gleaning in fields. Leviticus 19:9–10 instructed the Israelites to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor and the alien could work to provide for themselves. That Ruth went out to glean suggests that they were poor and had low social standing.
As the Lord would have it, Ruth found herself gleaning in the field of Boaz, who was related to her late father-in-law Elimelek. When Boaz arrived to inspect the work, he noticed Ruth and inquired about her (Ruth 2:5). Note Boaz’s question, “Who does that young woman belong to?” Boaz was asking about her identity. The foreman’s report reflected well on Ruth, and the passage indicates that somehow Boaz had heard about Ruth. Esler posits that the women in Boaz’s family had carried gossip to Boaz about Naomi and the loyal Moabitess who accompanied her.
At this juncture in the story, the public aspects of honor and shame have come into play. While Naomi, and by extension Ruth, were in a low and shameful status, Ruth had acted in an honorable way towards her mother-in-law within the existing social structures and had gained face. As the biblical account continues, Boaz grants Ruth unpreceded favor by instructing his men not to bother Ruth, by allowing her to drink from the water reserved for his workers, and by telling Ruth to stay in his fields with his female workers (Ruth 2:8–9). Later Boaz tells his men to pull extra out of the sheaves and leave it on the ground for Ruth to gather and not to “rebuke” Ruth if she picks among the sheaves (Ruth 2:16; NIV). Hawk feels that “rebuke” does not quite convey the weight of Boaz’s words. He proposes that Boaz was telling his men to do nothing that would bring humiliation or disgrace upon Ruth.In other words, Boaz was telling his men to avoid doing anything that would cause Ruth to lose face.
Ruth’s actions had gained her a positive reputation; that is to say, her honorable behavior had gained her face. Boaz compounded this by allowing Ruth to glean in his fields, instructing his men not to do anything to shame her, and by telling his men to leave extra for Ruth to collect. These actions were not done in secret but openly among those working for Boaz. Just as Ruth’s positive reputation had reached Boaz through the gossip of women, Ruth’s status was undoubtedly improved, even if only marginally, by Boaz’s actions and the village talk that no doubt occurred afterward. Since honor and shame are recognized by the community, the positive reputation of Ruth and the honoring patron-like actions of Boaz seems to indicate that Ruth and, by extension, Naomi were experiencing a reversal of shame to honor.
It is interesting to note that Ruth is working within the existing structures of the Jewish community. As she does so, a subtle, but noticeable, subversion is taking place. Due to the violent history and animus between the Jews and Moabites, it is likely that some Jews felt there could be no such thing as an honorable Moabite. Much in the same way the Jews in Jesus’ time felt there could be no such thing as a “good” samaritan. It seems that Ruth is subverting structures of honor and shame by working within them and giving them new meanings.Namely, those not Jewish by birth can enter into the community as honorable participants.
The Threshing Floor: A Promise of Honor
Upon returning home, Ruth presents to Naomi the left-over roasted grain and the grain she had harvested. Naomi is astounded at the amount Ruth has gathered. To put this in perspective, Robert Hubbard indicates that Ruth brought home nearly thirty pounds of grain or approximately half a month’s wage in one day.gō’ēl or kinsman-redeemer. It was the responsibility of the gō’ēl to help restore the rights or avenge relatives (Lev 25:25–28; 47–55; Deut 25:5–10) Perhaps this is when Naomi saw the possibility of having the family honor restored by the gō’ēl. Sometime later (Ruth 3), Naomi executes the final portion of her plan to restore her family honor. Naomi instructs Ruth to wash, apply perfume, and dress in her best. Then she tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor and note where Boaz goes to sleep and then lie at his feet. Naomi assures Ruth that Boaz will inform her what to do next (Ruth 3:4).After learning whose fields Ruth had been working, Naomi praised God for what is perceived as a turn of events that can provide Naomi a patron and lift the family honor. Naomi informs Ruth that Boaz is a
Most scholars agree that no sexual activity took place on the threshing floor; however, the story does contain a level of sexual tension.’ānōkî (I) to refer to himself rather than ’ănî, which was utilized when addressing equals or superiors. Nevertheless, Boaz recognizes Ruth’s request as a marriage proposal and praises her.When Boaz awakens, he is surprised to find a woman at his feet! When he inquires about the women’s identity, Ruth claims that she is Boaz’s maid-servant and thus a part of Boaz’s household and entitled to his protection. By asking Boaz to spread his garment over her, Ruth is indicating that she is willing to marry Boaz. Acosta Benítez claims that by proposing marriage, Ruth sees herself as Boaz equal; however, this would not seem to be the cultural norm in patriarchal societies of the ancient Middle East. Schipper disagrees with Acosta Benítez, noting that Boaz uses the formal pronoun
Ruth’s actions honor Boaz when seen through the lens of honor and shame. He commends her, noting that the entire community knows Ruth is a “woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11). The same phrase is used in Prov 12:4, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones”and in Prov 31:10, “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” Honor, as previously noted by Neyrey, is “the worth or value of persons both in their eyes and in the eyes of their village, neighborhood, or society.” Boaz is indicating that the entire community feels that Ruth is an honorable woman, and Boaz is honored that she would be inclined to marry him.
So why does Boaz not marry Ruth? What is stopping them? By applying the lens of honor and shame, it would make sense that Boaz is concerned about maintaining Ruth’s honor. Boaz explains to Ruth that there is another kinsman-redeemer who has a closer claim on Elimelek. While Boaz wants to marry Ruth, it seems he wants to follow the proper cultural scripts to make sure that the other kinsman-redeemer does not lose face and that Ruth is not placed in a possible face-threatening situation. Additionally, Boaz instructs Ruth to leave the threshing floor before daylight to maintain Ruth’s integrity. Boaz does not send Ruth away empty-handed; however, he sends a gift of six measures of barley to Naomi. The exact amount of six measures of barley is unknown, but McKeown points out that since Boaz placed the load on Ruth, it must have been a considerable amount. Further, when Naomi saw the gift, she knew that Boaz would settle the matter that day.In some cultures, a bride price is given to the family of the bride, and Marcus indicates that it was common practice in the Old Testament. By sending Naomi a gift, Boaz was stating his honorable intentions toward Ruth that led Naomi to conclude that Boaz was going to restore the honor of her family.
The City Gate: An Honorable Trap
Chapter 4 starts with Boaz going to the city gate to find the other kinsman to settle the matter of Ruth. The law dictates that the closest kin has the first right to redeem Elimelek’s land, and Boaz likely wants to avoid shaming the other redeemer because he is a relative. Boaz intends to use another law, the levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10), to encourage the unnamed redeemer into abdicating his claim.
Following protocol, Boaz gathers the requisite number of elders needed for a legal transaction and carefully lays an honor trap for his unsuspecting kinsman. Bringing up the law of the kinsman-redeemer Boaz says: “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line” (Ruth 4:2–4a).
Once the nearer kin confirms that he will redeem Elimelek’s land, Boaz brings up the law of levirate marriage and ties it to the redemption of the property. A levirate marriage was when close kin, usually a brother, would marry his brother’s widow to produce offspring to carry on the family name and to keep deceased brothers’ property in the family. If the unnamed kinsman redeemed the land, Ruth could make a claim on him for a levirate marriage. What was the nearer kin to do? The law forbade marriage with Moabites, and such a marriage could endanger his property (Ruth 4:6). If he redeemed the land and refused to marry Ruth, he could run afoul of Deut 25:7–10:
However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
Examining the passage through the lens of honor and shame, it becomes clear that there was great potential here for the unnamed kinsman to lose a tremendous amount of face. Boaz, however, had left the man a way out. Boaz had indicated that he wanted to redeem the land, and he knew about the levirate marriage that seemed to be attached. With a way to preserve his honor and save face, the nearer kin instructs Boaz to redeem the land.
The business concludes with the exchange of a sandal. Driesbach indicates that this was not related to Deut 25:7–10 but rather a way of sealing a land transaction.Victor Matthews, Mark Chavalas, and John Walton concur, adding that the sandal served as the “movable title to that land.” In no way should the sandal ceremony be seen as a fulfillment of Deut 25 but rather a nod to Boaz’s skill at facework.
The story of Naomi ends with the child of Boaz and Ruth placed in her arms, and the women of the city praising God for giving Naomi a kinsman-redeemer. McKeown notes that the text is unclear if the women are referring to Boaz or the baby as Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer.Regardless, Naomi has had the family honor restored, and she now has someone to provide for her in her old age and to carry on the family name. Above it all, the Lord has given Naomi a daughter-in-law that was worth more than seven sons (Ruth 4:15).
In Ruth, then, we see several honor status reversals. First, there is Naomi, who goes from honor to shame to honor as illustrated in Figure 1:
Ruth also experiences an honor reversal. However, unlike Naomi Ruth starts at the bottom as a Moabite and a pagan to reach the highest honor, to be counted among the ancestors of the king.
Viewing the book of Ruth through Mediterranean eyes and the lens of honor and shame, a theme of honor reversal becomes visible. Honor lost due to disobedience to God’s command and honor restored through God’s mercy and faithful obedience and service on the part of Ruth. While it is likely that Naomi cared for Ruth, it is also probable that Naomi would, to quote the Muslim immigrant, “do anything”to regain her family honor. So while the book is named after Ruth, it is Naomi who is the mover and shaker working through Ruth to recover the lost honor of her family.
The lens of honor and shame reveals that Ruth worked subtly within the existing structures of the community to subvert and redefine those structures so that a Moabite could, in the eyes of the Jewish community, become a “woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11). Perhaps this is one of the characteristics of Ruth that attracted Boaz. Rahab, Boaz’s mother, made a similar transition when she left her city of Jericho and became a part of the Jewish community.
The lens of honor and shame also helps readers understand how Boaz, a man of honor, skillfully uses facework to his advantage to gain what he wants. He sets up a situation in which the nearer kin can potentially lose face but provides a way out so face can be maintained. Indeed, the other kinsman may feel he owes Boaz a debt for getting him out of the sticky situation he found himself. Not only does Boaz gain a wife, but he gains standing in the community for marrying such a “woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11).
One of the criticisms often leveled against Christianity is that it is a Western religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Birthed in Asia among honor and shame cultures, Christianity traveled east. Jenkins posits that the church was well established in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan long “before England had its first archbishop of Canterbury—possibly before Canterbury had a Christian church.”By 638, Christian missionaries from Syria had even made their way to the capital of China. By reading the Bible through the lenses of honor and shame, passages and motivations start to make more sense, and Christian workers can help the church in honor and shame cultures reclaim the stories of the Bible. The reality is that people from the Global South can most likely identify, relate to, and teach the principles of honor and shame found in the Scriptures that are often overlooked by believers in the West.
One of the goals of the modern missions movement is to create churches that are self-led, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Included in this paradigm is that they should also be self-theologizing. By encouraging honor and shame cultures to view the Scriptures through their cultural lenses, the national churches will begin to create theological and functional structures that make practical sense for their society. Christian workers from the West serving in honor and shame cultures may find evangelism and discipleship easier to contextualize by exploring themes of honor and shame and letting those themes shine through.
For missionaries serving in the West among multicultural groups, viewing the Scriptures through ancient Mediterranean eyes can help us better understand both honor and shame as well as guilt and innocence cultures and can help us contextualize the message to those from the East who are living in the West. Not only will this help broaden our ability to minister cross-culturally, but it will help us connect the redemptive message of the gospel to cultures other than our own.
Tony Gryskiewicz and his wife Anna live in Vienna, Austria, where they serve as part of the pastoral team at Vienna Christian Center (VCC). VCC is a multi-congregational international church that ministers to people from over ninety nationalities in seven languages. Tony has been involved in ministry for over thirty years, serving as a pastor, missionary, and leader in multicultural youth ministry and is a PhD student at the Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University. His research interests include youth ministry in an intercultural context, the role of faith in teen ethnic-racial identity (ERI), and the impact of international churches in Europe. Tony can be contacted at .
1 James E. Plueddemann, Leading across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 27.
2 Sherwood G. Lingenfelter and Marvin K Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).
3 For the purposes of this paper “The West” are those cultures in North America, North and Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
4 Werner Mischke, The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Scottsdale, AZ: Mission ONE, 2015), 47.
5 Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 15.
6 Saul M. Olyan, “Honor, Shame, and Covenant Relations in Ancient Israel and Its Environment,” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 2 (1996): 201–18.
7 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York, NY: Gotham, 2012), 59.
8 Mischke, 38–40.
9 Lisa Cliggett, Grains from Grass: Aging, Gender, and Famine in Rural Africa (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).
10 Jayson Georges, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 42.
11 For more information on language and sin in honor-shame and guilt-innocence cultures, see Tom Steffen, “Minimizing Crosscultural Evangelism Noise,” Missiology: An International Review 43, no. 4 (2015): 413–28.
12 Christopher L. Flanders, About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Missions (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 58.
13 Mischke, 67.
14 Stella Ting-Toomey, ed., The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural and Interpersonal Issues (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), 273.
15 Flanders, 11.
16 Ting-Toomey, 275.
17 Alison Shaw, Kinship and Continuity: Pakistani Families in Britain (London: Routledge, 2000), 113.
18 Georges, 11.
19 Mischke, 77.
20 Alison Shaw, Kinship and Continuity: Pakistani Families in Britain (London: Routledge, 2000), 163.
21 Shaw, 165–68.
22 Reuven Chaim Klein, “The Iniquities of Ammon and Moab,” The Jewish Bible Quarterly 43, no. 2 (2015): 131.
23 John A Emerton, “The Value of the Moabite Stone as an Historical Source,” Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 4 (2002): 491; W. Pakenham Walsh, The Moabite Stone; A Fac-Simile of the Original Inscription, with an English Translation, and a Historical and Critical Commentary, trans. W. Pakenham Walsh, 6th ed. (George Herbert, 1871), 21.
24 Klein, 93.
25 James McKeown, Ruth, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 29.
26 Milton Acosta Benítez, “Commentary on Ruth,” Journal of Latin American Theology 11, no. 1 (2016): 17–43.
27 McKeown, 29.
28 Acosta Benítez, 24; McKeown, 21–23.
29 L. Daniel Hawk, Ruth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 59.
30 Philip F. Esler, “‘All That You Have Done … Has Been Fully Told to Me’: The Power of Gossip and the Story of Ruth,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 3 (2018): 645–66.
31 Esler, 657.
32 Ibid., 658–60.
33 Hawk, 83.
34 Flanders, 266.
35 Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 179.
36 Acosta Benítez, 36-37; Jason Driesbach, “Ruth,” in Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2012), 538; Hawk,103; McKeown, 59.
37 Jeremy Schipper, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, ed. John J Collins, Yale Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 149.
38 Acosta Benítez, 37.
39 Schipper, 15.
40 Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
41 Neyrey, 15.
42 McKeown, 60.
43 Ivan G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times, The Samuel & Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004),139.
44 Driesbach, 541.
45 Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 541.
46 McKeown, 68.
47 Adapted from Mischke, 182.
49 Georges, 11.
50 See Josh 6:25 and Matt 1:5.
51 Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 11.
52 Derek Cooper, Introduction to World Christian History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 27.