By Norm Wakefield and Jody Brolsma
InterVarsity Press, 176 pp.
The pity of this wonderfully titled book, "Men Are From Israel, Women Are From Moab: Insights About the Sexes From the Book of Ruth," is that the title is the best part. In fact, the book isn't really about "insights about the sexes," and it isn't the Christian answer to John Gray's best-selling "Men Are From Mars" series. "Chicken Soup for the Moabite Soul" may have been less catchy, but a bit more accurate.
Like any evangelicals worth their salt, Norm Wakefield and his daughter Jody Brolsma believe the answer to life's challenges--including those sparked by gender differences--is in the Bible. There's nothing wrong with this approach, of course. The disappointment of Wakefield and Brolsma's effort is, as the authors admit, "when you read through the Bible, you don't find many examples of positive relationships between men and women." (You can imagine the titles the authors rejected: "Men Are from Sodom, Women Are Pillars of Salt," "Men Are Really Strong Nazirites, Women Are Evil Philistines," and the surely popular "Men Are Soldiers, Women Are Harlots.")
Wakefield and Brolsma settle on "one Old Testament book that contains a profound example of a healthy, positive relationship." That book is the book of Ruth, long held up as one of the Bible's most romantic stories. In it, recently widowed Ruth, a Moabite, and her Jewish mother-in-law travel back to Israel in desperate need of help. They find it in the care of wealthy Boaz. Ruth soon asks Boaz to marry her, he agrees, and they have a baby who grows up to be King David's grandfather."
Unfortunately, Wakefield and Brolsma can't decide whether they're writing a book about gender or a Bible study. If it's the former, why do entire chapters go by without reference to male-female relationships? If it's the latter, why do they include almost no historical background for the Ruth story, which is so full of references to "near kinsmen," threshing floors, and sandal removals?
Whether it is a Bible study lesson or a Christian echo of Deborah Tannen, the authors neglect some pretty important aspects of the book of Ruth. First, if Ruth offers "a profound example of a healthy, positive relationship," it is also one of the most hierarchical relationships in the Bible. Ruth is destitute, a widow, a gentile, a Moabite, and a woman. Boaz, on the other hand, is "a mighty man of wealth." Wakefield and Brolsma don't address the explicit hierarchy in the relationship. The title suggests that men are closer to God than women are, since Israelites were God's chosen people and Moabites the pagan offspring of Lot's incestuousness. The authors spend a lot of time telling men not to lord power over their wives, but one wonders if they are suggesting men have a God-given upper hand, but just shouldn't act like it.
For a book on the sexes, the book is also surprisingly silent on the sexual relationship between Boaz and Ruth. Even evangelical scholars agree that the plan to send Ruth to Boaz's threshing floor is, in the words of Robert L. Hubbard, "tantalizingly ambiguous and replete with suggestive sexual innuendo." Ruth may not have seduced Boaz (though there's evidence that the "feet" Ruth uncovered were his sexual organs--the Bible often uses "feet" euphemistically); but even if she didn't, Boaz is clear that "no one must know that a woman was here at the threshing floor." For all the tut-tutting evangelicals often engage in about the "appearance of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22), you'd think Wakefield and Brolsma would acknowledge there may be more to the story than Boaz simply protecting Ruth's reputation. They never question Ruth's trip to the threshing floor in the first place.
Their inattention to such details makes Wakefield and Brolsma's Christian retort to John Gray something of a glancing blow. They claim to correct John Gray's "suggestion that we are radically different in our makeup"--an assertion, they say, that "makes people feel better when their attempts at relating collapse." But it is Gray who writes, in his introduction to "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus": "To improve relations between the sexes it is necessary to create an understanding of our differences that raises self-esteem and personal dignity while inspiring mutual trust, personal responsibility, increased cooperation, and greater love."
One wonders if Wakefield and Brolsma made it past the title page of "Mars and Venus." In any case, they offer little reason to read past the title page of their response.