In a previous post on Psalm 127:3, I wrote that the psalmist believed that sons are a blessing from God. In ancient Israel, a family with many sons was a sign that God was blessing a righteous man.
In expressing his belief that sons are demonstrations of God’s blessings, the psalmist wrote:
“Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3 -5).
In Israelite society, the name and the life of a father were continued in the life of his son. When a man had a son, his son was an assurance that his name would not be forgotten in Israel. Sons helped their father in his old age, brought him prestige in the community, and protected the family in times of danger.
Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society men are the leaders of their household and they make decisions on behalf of their families. Generally, in patriarchal societies, men hold all or most of the positions of power and leadership.
In patriarchal societies, women’s area of influence is in their home. In these societies, women live in a world where rules are defined by men. Women become part of a society that is focused on men and their stories, whereas the stories of women are scarcely told. This minimizing of women’s lives deprive them of their ability to achieve a higher status in society and fails to provide them with relevant role-models.
Only in a patriarchal society could a man say to a childless woman: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8).
But, what did women in Israel think of themselves? Take the case of Naomi and Ruth. Naomi lost her husband and her two sons. She was left a widow, alone with two daughters-in-law, both of them foreigners, who had no part in the religious life of Israel.
When Naomi, together with her daughter-in-law Ruth, decided to return to her hometown, the women of Bethlehem came to meet them. Later on, when Ruth gave birth to a son, the women of Bethlehem came again to congratulate Naomi. The women told Naomi that God had blessed her by not leaving her without a family. They named the child Obed.
The women of Bethlehem also praised Ruth for what she had done to restore Naomi’s family. The women told Naomi that she had a daughter-in-law who loved her and for this reason she was willing to leave her family, her home, and even her gods to follow her. This commitment of a woman to another woman could not be expressed even by a son. For this reason they told Naomi that Ruth was better to her than seven sons.
A family with seven sons was considered the ideal family in Israel. A man with seven sons was a father whom God had richly blessed. A father of so many sons would be called blessed by everyone in his community because his sons would support him in his old age and he was assured that his name would continue in Israel.
Naomi, however, had no sons but she had something more valuable than seven sons: she had a daughter-in-law who, through her son, would revive Naomi’s life and would assure that the one who was childless would become the mother of a numerous and flourishing family.
For all Ruth had done for Naomi, she was better to Naomi than seven sons.
Let’s face it: in a patriarchal society only a group of women could say that a woman was better than seven sons.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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