Friday, January 29, 2021

Rev. Yolanda Norton: “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth”

Rev. Yolanda Norton is an Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Chair of Black Church Studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a Visiting Instructor at Moravian Theological Seminary, and adjunct faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary. She is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel and Theology and Practice Fellow at Vanderbilt University and holds a Master of Divinity and Master of Theological Studies degree from Wesley Theological Seminary and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Syracuse University.

Norton also created Beyoncé Mass, "a womanist worship service that uses the music and personal life of Beyoncé as a tool to foster an empowering conversation about Black women—their lives, their bodies, and their voices". This originally evolved out of a chapel service developed by students in Norton’s class “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible” at San Francisco Theological Seminary. (Now I want to take that class!) 


In her essay, “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth” Norton argues that the book of Ruth is a more complicated narrative than traditional interpretations have permitted. Norton says “the text masquerades as a treatise on the inclusion of the other” when it actually seems to be “a commentary on the assumed virtue of membership and participation in the Israelite community” (265). Norton is criticizing the implication that it is a good and honorable thing to sacrifice everything - one’s land, people, god, even one’s own self, “for the supposed privilege of participating in what the text depicts as the most desirable community,” in this case, Israel (265). 

Main points:

  1. Most of us have heard many sermons and Bible studies where Ruth was praised for this deep loyalty and commitment to give up everything to go with Naomi. But for Norton, a womanist reading of the book of Ruth should expose this “assimilationist tendency of the text” while also emphasizing “the power, agency, and authority that Ruth takes in the narrative despite the embedded oppositional forces at play” (266). 
  2. Womanist hermeneutical analysis of any text requires interrogation of the ways race, class, and gender intersect in the story (265). Therefore, we interrogate the words and narrative choices in the text for what they mean for the women on the margins of society. Norton says the book of Ruth was meant to serve the agenda of the existing power structures of Israel, “to protect and promote certain norms” (278). 
  3. The power of womanism, for Norton, is its refusal to try to “explain away elements of biblical literature that modern sensibilities might find problematic or objectionable in order to produce a more congenial text,” and its willingness to expose those elements and look at the implications for today (266). 
  4. The gaps in the text are also very important to Norton (and other womanist interpreters), and call us to pay attention to what is going unsaid. For example, the text does not tell us very much about Ruth’s past or her “emotional well-being” even though it mentions Naomi’s emotional state more than once. Norton says this might tell us that Ruth is “mired in persistent trauma” (276).
  5. In spite of her loyalty to Naomi and her marriage to Boaz, Ruth remains outside the communal structure of Israel, referred to as an acquisition, “Ruth the Moabite” (Ruth 4:10). Norton further connects the moral teachings of loyalty and fidelity that have been emphasized in many traditional interpretations of this text as causing more harm to Black women (277). 

Some people get uncomfortable and resistant to interpretations and perspectives they have not heard before. However, I think it is important for those of us who still want to study and wrestle with the Bible to be willing to challenge ourselves, especially if we are white people, to widen and deepen our perspectives by listening to other voices, especially those of Black women, paying more attention to the voices and experiences of the marginalized and oppressed. 

Works Cited

Norton, Yolanda. “Silenced Struggles for Survival: Finding Life in Death in the Book of Ruth,” in I Found God in Me: A Womanist Biblical Hermeneutics Reader, edited by Mitzi J. Smith, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. 2015.


This is part of my final project for "Womanist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.":

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