Sunday, August 10, 2014

Underground Movement

It was not my intent to bring up the Gaza Crisis in this blog.  The task of bringing Peace to the Middle East lies far, way far, out of the purview of these little pieces, and much farther out of my competence.  But my mind has a way of making weird connections: whether this is a talent, a curse, or a really annoying habit, I will leave as an exercise for the reader. 

When reading about the system of tunnels dug by the Palestinians in order to circumvent the Israeli blockade of Gaza and, according to Israel, to launch attacks within Israeli borders, I couldn’t help but recall that this was not the first time Israel experienced tunnel warfare.

When David first became king over the tribe of Judah, he ruled from the city of Hebron; but as he consolidated his power and brought the other tribes of Israel under his rule, he decided he wanted a stronger citadel for his capital.  He chose Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was a city on top of a high hill in the mountain region of Judea, whose naturally steep sides were augmented by built-up terraces, making it easy to defend.  It’s thought that Jerusalem might have been the same city as Salem, the city ruled by Melchizadek in the time of Abraham.  If this is the case, it might have been regarded as a holy city even before it became the City of David.  Indeed, tradition holds that the top of the hill, overlooking the city of the Jesubites, was the Mount Moriah mentioned in Genesis 22:1-19, where Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac.

I had always assumed that it lay in the northern part of Judah, because of the way the political boundaries of the region later fell out; but originally its location was within the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe King Saul came from.  So choosing this location might have been a way to mitigate any sense of favoritism the other tribes might have perceived regarding David’s native Judah.

More importantly, although the territory around Jerusalem belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, the Benjaminites had never managed to conquer the city, and it remained in control of the original inhabitants, called Jebusites.  So the city itself was not part of any of the Twelve Tribes, and if David could conquer it, he would have a capital independent of any tribal affiliations.

But conquering the city would not be easy.  The Israelites at the time of Joshua had never managed to displace the Jebusites, and generations of Benjaminites had done little more than occupy the surrounding territory.  When David brought his army to besiege the city, the Jebusites mocked him:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there.  The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.”  They thought, “David cannot get in here.”  (2 Samuel 5:6 NIV)

They did not add, “Now go away, before we taunt you again!” but the thought was implied.  Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, and his attack is described briefly in a single, peculiar verse:

On that day, David said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.”  That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.” (2 Samuel 5:8)

The phrase translated here as “water shaft” is an obscure one in the Hebrew, and some scholars have suggested that David was really talking about grappling hooks.  Possibly to avoid the image of David being played by Adam West and climbing up the walls like Batman, most translations favor the interpretation that David and his army entered the city through an underground shaft the Jebusites used to access their water supply.

The line about “who are David’s enemies” is also a bit peculiar.  The King James and some other translation renders the phrase as “whom David hates”.  The NIV’s interpretation assumes that David is being sarcastic; and that the bit about the ‘blind and the lame’ being barred from entering the palace refers to the Jesubites and is not intended as a prohibition against the handicapped in general.

An interesting point which I didn’t know was that the city David seized and claimed for his own did not occupy the top of the hill, but the hill’s southern shoulder.  The hill’s peak wasn’t built up until the time of Solomon, who used it as the site for his Temple.  (Which perhaps explains why Abraham didn’t mention the Jebusites in the story of him and Isaac in Genesis 22).

Some centuries later, King Hezekiah expanded the city further.  It was during his reign that the northern tribes of Israel, which had broken off into an independent kingdom following the reign of Solomon, were conquered and absorbed by Assyria.  The new city walls built by Hezekiah, incorporating the Tyropoeon Valley to the west, (the ‘Valley of the Cheesemakers’, whom Monty Python’s Brian assures us are blessed), accommodated an influx of refugees from the Northern Kingdom.

For a time, Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrians, but he also prepared for an eventual Assyrian attack.  In addition to the new walls, Hezekiah’s embarked on another project, mentioned only briefly at the end of the section Kings describing his reign:

As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?  (2 Kings 20:20)

That phrase, “…are they not written…?”  is a formula that the Books of Kings use at the close of each king’s reign, evidence that much of the material is probably taken from official court documents that no longer exist.  But this one mentions a pool and a tunnel made by Hezekiah which is not mentioned elsewhere in Kings.  The Second Book of Chronicles describes this piece of engineering in greater detail:

When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to make war on Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him.  A large force of men assembled, and they blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land.  "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?" they said.  Then he worked hard repairing all the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it.  He guilt another all outside that one and reinforced the supporting terraces of the City of David.  He also made large numbers of weapons and shields.  (2 Chron. 32:2-5)
It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.  He succeeded in everything he undertook. (2 Chron. 32:30)

The Gihon was spring on the east side of the hill, outside the city walls.  The name means “gusher”, and it was also the name given to one of the four rivers of Eden.  The Gihon might have been the entrance to the route David used to capture the city.  But Hezekiah had the spring diverted and a tunnel dug to bring the water to a pool inside the city.  This pool is called the Pool of Siloam, and was the site of one of Jesus’ miracles (John 9:7).

The tunnel still exists, and in 1880, archaeologists found an inscription at the Pool of Siloam commemorating its construction:

Now this is the story of the boring through; while the excavators were still lifting up their picks, each toward his fellow, and while there were yet three cubits to excavate, there was heard the voice of one calling to another, for there was a crevice in the rock, on the right hand.  And on the day they completed the boring through, the stone-cutters struck pick against pick, one against the other; and the waters flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1000 cubits.  And a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stone-cutters.

The tunnel was excavated by two teams of diggers, working at either end, on a course which snaked for something like 1770 feet.  Despite its circuitous route under the city, the tunnels were planned so well that there are only a couple inches of difference where the two tunnels meet.

The tunnel was intended as a secure source of water for the city in the event of an Assyrian attack.  Which eventually happened.

Sennacharib, the king of Assyria did invade Judah, capturing several cities and besieging Jerusalem.  2 Kings chapters 18 and 19 tells the dramatic story of this siege; how the Assyrian commander mocked Hezekiah and tried to stir up revolt among the trapped people of the city; how Hezekiah prayed for deliverance, and how the angel of the Lord came and slew a huge number of the Assyrian army, forcing Sennacherib to withdraw.

Many commenters have interpreted this to mean that an epidemic broke out among the Assyrian army, which is certainly a common enough occurrence in times of war, especially during a siege.  Assyrian documents do record Sennacherib’s campaign against Israel and Judah, but don’t mention any defeat at Jerusalem, whether by disease or divine intervention.  It seems likely to me that Sennacherib withdrew for his own reasons – perhaps because the siege was taking longer than he expected, perhaps because of losing too many soldiers to disease, perhaps because of reports that Hezekiah’s Egyptian allies were on their way – and intended to return another time to finish the job.  As it happened, two of his sons later assassinated him, and so he never got the chance.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Other Shoe -- Ruth conclusion

The Other Shoe
(Ruth conclusion)

After Ruth has left Boaz, he goes to the town gate; a common meeting place since everybody passes by sooner or later. He finds the kinsman he mentioned earlier to Ruth, the one who is more closely related to Naomi's family than himself and whose rights and obligations take precedence over his own, and invites him to a friendly meeting. Boaz also snags ten elders of the town, older men respected for their experience, to serve as formal witnesses.  

He tells the nameless kinsman (and he never is named; interesting point) that Naomi has a piece of property belonging to her late husband Elimelech that she wishes to sell. Since the unnamed kinsman is Elimelech's closest relative, he has first dibs on the property. 

Where did this property come from? It's never been mentioned before? My NIV commentary has two possible interpretations (not necessarily the only ones):   First, that Naomi owns the land but is so destitute that she is forced to sell. It was the duty of the kinsman-redeemer to buy any land in danger of being sold outside the family.  Or, that Naomi does not own the land -- it had been sold by Elimelech before the family left for Moab -- but by law she retains the right of redemption to buy the land back. Lacking funds to do so herself, she is dependent on a kinsman to do it for her. It is the right of redemption that Naomi is "selling". 

A better question is, how did Boaz know Naomi was entering the real estate market? The account doesn't mention him talking to her. Possibly Boaz had done some research and learned about the existence of the property because he was interested in Ruth. Or possibly he and Naomi did cook up this scheme behind Ruth's back. The text doesn't say. 

The kinsman is all in favor of buying the property, until Boaz drops the (heh heh) other shoe:

   "On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man's widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property." (Ruth 4:5 NIV) 

This makes the deal less attractive. That meant any children he sired by Ruth would be entitled to a portion of his estate. (Whether any anti-Moabite prejudice has any bearing on his decision is not mentioned). In any case, the kinsman declines the offer. "You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it." 

To make the deal official, Boaz and the kinsman do an interesting piece of business with the kinsman's sandal. The text explains that this is a custom in old times, no longer in practice, to seal the deal in property transactions. (The fact that the writer feels a need to explain the practice to his readers is another piece of evidence suggesting a latish date of composition).  The Nuzi Tablets, Akkadian inscriptions from the 2nd millennium BC, mention a similar custom and this tradition might be what the prophet Amos refers to when he writes: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals." (Amos 2:6 NIV) 

But there's another possible reason for the shoe transaction. I've mentioned the Levirite law which required a man to marry his dead brother's widow in order to preserve the dead brother's line. (Deut. 25:5-6). The passage has an interesting addendum:

However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she will 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. (Deuteronomy 25 7-10 NIV) 

So perhaps the transaction with the sandal was a face-saving way to follow the forms of the Levirite law without publicly humiliating the putz (which might persuade him to marry Ruth after all!) Or perhaps it was just what the text says, a common formality in real estate transactions of the time.  In either case, the kinsman does not gain the stigma of being called “Unsandaled.”  But then again, neither does he gain the recognition of even having a name.  

And yes, through all this Ruth is being treated like a piece of property. Not only that, but she's being treated like an unwanted piece of property.  All I can say is that the Levirite law was intended to protect the rights and interests of the woman, who in that culture had no legal rights except as a wife.   Also, had Boaz approached the Nameless Kinsman saying "I'd like to marry the widow of Elimelech's son, is that okay by you?", then the kinsman might suspect he was playing a fast one with the property attached to her. The matter of the property had to be dealt with first. 

Now that that is settled, Boaz is free to announce his intention to marry Ruth. The witnesses all offer their best wishes: 

"May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah." (Ruth 4:11-12) 

The mention of Tamar and Judah is an interesting one with parallels to this situation; it's an earlier example of the Levirite law in effect (although before Moses codified it). It's also one of those stories you won't hear in Sunday School. We’ll be getting to it in a future essay.

Boaz and Ruth are married and she gives birth to a son, thus completing the joy of Naomi, now no longer bitter. The son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes in turn the father of a kid you might have heard about: King David.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Playing Footsie -- Ruth part 3

Naomi and Ruth have been living fairly well, thanks to Ruth's perseverance and the generosity of Boaz. He has allowed Ruth to glean in his fields, made sure that she has grain to take home and seen to it that she isn't harassed by his workers. The harvest is coming to a close now and Naomi is thinking about Ruth's future.  She tells Ruth to make herself pretty and go down to the threshing floor, where Boaz will be supervising the winnowing. And here’s where things start to get steamy.

During the threshing season it was customary for the landowner to spend the night near the threshing floor to protect his grain from theft. Ruth is to wait until Boaz is asleep, then uncover his feet and lie down. "He will tell you what to do," Naomi advises. 

I think one reason why Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz at night was so that she could make her request in private. If she had approached him during the day, she'd be publicly accusing him of failing to live up to his family responsibilities and demanding her rights. He'd be under a lot of pressure and no matter how Boaz answered the request, he would be publicly embarrassed. This way, Boaz could make a decision without the whole town watching him. 

Then again, perhaps Naomi was trying to set up a romantic situation.  Some commenters have said that the Hebrew word translated as “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for a different, more private part of the body.  They suggest that Naomi’s plan is to have Ruth wait until Boaz passes out drunk from partying and then crawl into bed with him.

I don’t think I agree with this interpretation, though.  The wording of the text, “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits,” (Ruth 3:7); or “…his heart was merry” as the King James Version puts it; to me suggests happy and mellow, rather than staggering drunk.  Then again, maybe I’m reading into the story what I want to see.

But when I try to envision how the scene might have taken place, I just can’t picture it.  Ruth pulling back Boaz’s robe enough to expose his toes, and then backing off to wait and hope is subtle.  Ruth hitching up his garment to expose his feet, legs and dangly bits is less so.  It makes you wonder how Boaz managed to sleep through that.  Maybe he was passed out after all.

No, I prefer to interpret Boaz’s feet as feet.  I don’t doubt that Naomi hoped the intimate setting would give Boaz ideas; but a one-night stand with Boaz would not have helped Ruth’s or Naomi’s situation any.  Yes, she might have been able to shame him into marrying her.  Or she might have prompted him to denounce her as a fornicator and slut.  And if Naomi really wanted the two of them to have sex, she might have done better advising Ruth to uncover her own “feet”.  Instead, Ruth does something different.

Ruth is careful to maintain deference to Boaz. She does not lie by Boaz's side, the way a wife would or a lover. She lies at his feet, like a servant, or even a dog. Our egalitarian society finds this repellant, or at least strange. Maybe that’s why we’d rather have the feet mean something else and have Ruth act in a more sexually aggressive manner.

I don't think her behavior is due solely to the position of women in the culture of the time; part of it is a matter of class. Boaz is a wealthy landowner, and Ruth is a poor relation and a foreigner at that. She's aware that she has a lower status. 

In one of his parables, Jesus advises not to grab the seat of honor next to the host when you go to a party, because if a more important guest shows up, you'll get bumped and look like a dork. (Luke 14:7-11)  My translation does not actually use the word "dork", but I’m sure that’s what Jesus meant.  How much better, Jesus says, it is to choose a lower, humbler seat for yourself and have the host urge you to move to a better place.  

This is what Ruth does. Instead of presuming upon her family connection, she assumes a servant's place and waits for Boaz to make the next move. We might find her attitude submissive, but she's not too humble to make a fairly brazen request, nor to remind Boaz of his duty to honor that request. 

Boaz wakes up in the middle of the night (probably his feet were cold) and finds a girl, lying at his feet!  "Who are you? he asked.  "I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer." (Ruth 3:9, NIV) 

The word translated as "corner" and in the RSV as "skirt" literally means "wings", so in a sense she is asking him to "spread his wings over her," and become her protector. She is asking him to marry her. That’s how the phrase is used in Ezekiel 16:8, in which the relationship between God and his People is compared to a Bad Romance.  

Or, as has been suggested, Ruth might have been saying, “Open your robe so that we can Get Jiggy.”  Sexual intimacy is indeed implicit in the garment metaphor, but Ruth is asking for more than just sex.

She reminds him that he is next-of-kin, or the "kinsman-redeemer" as the NIV puts it. Boaz has a family responsibility to look after his relatives. This goes back to the Levirite Law mentioned a while back. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). If a man dies without a son, his brother is obligated to marry the man's widow to provide him with an heir to carry on the family line and to take care of the widow. 

Boaz is pleased and flattered by her request. He has been impressed by her character and is more than willing to take her as his wife. There's just one obstacle: another kinsman who is more closely related to the family than he is, whose rights and obligations take precedence over Boaz's. But the wheels are turning in his mind, and he's probably already working on a plan. 

Why does Boaz send Ruth away early before anyone else can see her? My guess is that he did it to protect her reputation -- and his own as well. If people knew the two of them had spent the night together... well, some people might think they were, ahem, playing footsie. 


The next morning, Naomi hears Ruth story with satisfaction. Boaz is clearly interested in the girl.   "Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today."  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Who's That Girl?" -- Ruth part 2

Naomi and Ruth have settled down in the town of Bethlehem, but they are jobless, without a protector and dependent upon friends and neighbors. It's harvest time, and Ruth takes the initiative and offers to go gleaning in one of the nearby fields.  

The harvesting process went something like this: First men would go into the fields with hand sickles. They'd cut down the ripened grain and leave them lying in the fields. The next crew, usually of women, would come behind them and bind the cut grain into sheaves. The sheaves would be transported, either by donkey or by cart, to the threshing floor where cattle would tread the grain in order to loosen the grain from the straw. Next winnowers with large forks would toss the threshed grain into the air. The wind would blow away the lighter straw and chaff and the heavier grain would fall at the winnower's feet. Next the grain would be gathered up and sifted to remove any remaining foreign matter and then bagged. 

Now when the harvesters and binders went through the field, they generally left some grain standing and a few loose stalks lying around. Usually, the owner of the field allowed gleaners to follow the binders and pick up any leftovers. In fact, the Law of Moses required them to do this. 

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:9-19 NIV) 

Modern business practices emphasizes efficiency to increase production by eliminating waste, but Moses commanded that a certain amount of leftovers be preserved to provide something for the poor.

The same charity, incidentally, was extended to the animals too: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (Deuteronomy 25:4) 

This is what Ruth decided to do: she would go into one of the nearby fields where a harvest was going on and follow the harvesting crew, picking up whatever scraps of stray grain she could.  It just so happens that the field she goes to belongs to a kinsman of her father-in-law Elimelech; a man of standing named Boaz. 

Boaz was a prosperous landowner and decent, godly man.  We get a glimpse of the type of man he is by how he treats his employees.  Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, "The LORD be with you!" "The LORD bless you!" they called back. (Ruth 2:4 NIV)  A blessing and response that is echoed in churches every Sunday.  We get the picture of a decent, pious man on good terms with his workers.

He notices Ruth working in the field and asks his foreman, "Whose young woman is that?" The foreman explains who she is.  Now one thing that interested me is that the text never tells us that Ruth is beautiful; (or that Boaz is handsome for that matter). We can speculate that she was -- after all, something must have called her to Boaz' attention -- but the Bible doesn't tell us that. It does suggest that Boaz was touched by the story of Ruth and Naomi's plight and impressed by Ruth's diligence in working in the field.  He gives Ruth special permission to do her gleaning right after the girls who bind the sheaves and to drink from the water jars set aside for the workers when she needs to. He gives his workers special instructions not to harass her, as they might some other unfamiliar single girl.  He even goes as far as to offer her lunch and he goes on to instruct his harvesters to make sure they leave plenty behind for her to pick up. 

Thanks to Boaz's generosity Ruth returns home with quite a haul for a day's gleaning. Naomi rejoices in their change of fortune.  "The LORD bless him!" Naomi said to her daughter-in law. "He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead." She added, "That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers." (Ruth 2:20 NIV)  This is a big change from "I went away full but the LORD has brought me back empty!" 

Naomi calls Boaz a "kinsman-redeemer" in the NIV translation. King James reads "one of our next kinsmen" and Revised Standard Version says "one of our nearest kin." Likewise, the New English Bible calls him "our next-of-kin." The NIV rendering suggests something more than just a relative; a kinsman-redeemer had a greater responsibility to his immediate family: to protect the interests of needy members of the extended family, to provide an heir for a brother who had died (that, you'll recall, was the levirate law); to redeem a relative who had been sold into slavery and to avenge the killing of a relative. (The Hebrew word translated here as "kinsman-redeemer" may also be translated as "avenger"). 

Ruth's meeting with this kindly relative renews Naomi's hope, and she tells Ruth to stay with her benefactor. Ruth continues to work in Boaz's fields through the barley harvest and after that the wheat harvest.

But when the harvest is over, what will she do then?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Call Me Bitter" -- Ruth part 1

Last week’s piece on the Council of Jerusalem wound up taking longer than I intended, so this week I’m going to cheat and recycle a four-part examination of the Book of Ruth I wrote some years back for a different online community.  And no, the Story of Ruth is not exactly an obscure one, but I hope that maybe I can touch on some points you might not have heard.

The Book of Ruth is set during the period of the Judges; the time between the Israelites' entrance into the Promised Land and the establishment of a monarchy. At this time, the Israelites did not have a central government, but rather each individual tribe ruled itself. The closest thing they had to a king were the judges, who for the most part were arbitrators and sometimes spokesmen for God who occasionally led the people in time of war.

Jewish tradition claimed that the prophet Samuel was the author of the Book of Ruth, but this seems unlikely, since the book refers to David, who did not become king until after Samuel's death. Some scholars believe the book was written during the monarchy, perhaps during the rule of David's son Solomon. Other scholars point to some words in the text that suggests influence from the Aramaic language, which would have come much later; say, in the time following the Babylonian Captivity.  Some commentators have suggested that the book was written as a rebuttal to the Book of Ezra, which condemns the practice of intermarrying with foreigners, by telling the story of a Moabite girl.

In the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, Ruth is placed near the end.  The Tanakh is divided into three categories:  The Torah, or Law of Moses; the Prophets, containing both the books of the prophets and the more important books recording the history of the Kingdom of Israel; and the Writings,  which is sort of everything else, containing poetry, wisdom literature and a few shorter narratives. The Book of Ruth, having neither Moses nor any prophets, gets stuck in the back with Esther, Job and Nehemiah. 

In the Christian Era, Jerome reorganized the books of Jewish Scriptures, subdividing the categories and placing the books in rough chronological order by setting, if not necessarily by composition.  In Ruth’s case, at least, I like this arrangement better, because the Book of Ruth provides a welcome respite between the dark and grim Book of Judges and the bloody, battle-filled books of Samuel.

There are no flashy miracles in the Story of Ruth and no exhortations of Divine Wisdom. It's just a sweet romantic story about a young widow who is a stranger in a foreign land and who finds happiness in a kind and loving benefactor. Perhaps that is miracle enough. 

A man named Elimelech travels to Moab with his wife Naomi and his two sons to escape a terrible famine. Elimelech means "(My) God is king" and Naomi means "pleasant." They came from Ephrathah, an old name for the town of Bethlehem. You might remember from Christmas programs the prophecy of Micah:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, Out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel... (Micah 5:2 NIV)  

Moab was a neighboring country on the east shore of the Dead Sea, about a fifty mile journey from Bethlehem. Moab and Israel had bad blood between them ever since the time of Moses. (Numbers 22:1-4; 25: 1-3) In fact, in Deuteronomy it states:   
No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. -- (Deuteronomy 23: 3 NIV) 
Despite this enmity, Elimelech and his family found a home in Moab and his sons married Moabite girls; one named Orpah and the other Ruth. (And yes, Orpah is whom Oprah Winfrey was named after; the spelling just got messed up). Then tragedy struck. First Elimelich and then his sons died, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone.  This was a major catastrophe. In the culture of the time, women had little to no rights of their own. The Man of the Family, either the woman's father or her husband or her son if her husband was dead, was head of the household; he was responsible for taking care of the women-folk. A widow with no sons was a pitiable creature forced to rely on the charity of friends and neighbors.

Was the death of Naomi's husband and her sons divine punishment for letting the boys marry wicked Moabites?  Ezra probably would have said yes; but the author of Ruth makes no such suggestion.  On the contrary, Ruth is praised by the text as a virtuous woman, and the ancestress of... ah, but we'll get to that.

Even though Naomi had lived in Moab for ten years, she undoubtedly felt she would do better in her homeland. She heard that the famine in Judah had ended, so she decided to return to Bethlehem.  Her daughters-in-law wanted to come with her, but Naomi tried to dissuade them. They were both young enough that they could possibly find another husband; Naomi was not. What's more Naomi could not provide a new husband for either of them. 

This is an important point, touching on what's called the levirate law. When a man died without a son, his brother was legally obligated to take the widow and provide her with an heir to take care of her. This happened in the weird and sordid story of Tamar and Judah (Genesis ch. 38) which we’ll get to another time.  It is also the basis of the hypothetical question the Sadducees pose to Jesus regarding marriage at the Resurrection (Matthew 22: 23-33) The levirate law becomes important later in this story. 

Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to go home. They'd be better off among their own people than sharing in her bitterness and misery. Orpah decides that she's right and bids Naomi a tearful farewell. Ruth, however insists upon staying with Naomi. 

"Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you star I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (Ruth 1:16-17)

This passage is sometimes used as a wedding text, especially in churches which perform same-sex marriages.  I’m not sure how I feel about this; does every expression of affection between two people have to be about sex?  But it is a beautiful passage.  And it also provides a rare example of a Bible story that passes the Bechdel Test.

The test was devised by a character in cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and has gotten some popularity as a tool to look at gender relationships in popular culture.  A movie which passes The Test is one which (1) has at least two women in it – preferably named characters – (2) the women talk to each other, and (3) they talk about something other than men.

The books of the Bible were written largely by men in a male-dominated culture, and it probably didn’t occur to them to write much about what the women were doing.  In a couple of places, though, we get these moving, personal looks at the women of the Bible.  Not many; the only other story passing the Bechdel Test that comes readily to mind is the scene between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in Luke chapter 1; but the ones we see are special.

The formula “May the LORD deal with me ever so severely…” is one which occurs frequently in the Books of Samuel, which suggests to me that they might have had the same author. (Which I think would mean it was written earlier; or that the author of Ruth was simply imitating the style of Samuel)

Interesting to note that the word Ruth uses here, rendered in most English translations as "the LORD" and in the KJV as "Jehovah" is YHWH, or "Yahweh", the special Hebrew name for God. This is the only place in the book where Ruth says this word and the fact that she swears by the Name of the Jewish God is a sign that she's serious about adopting her mother-in-law's religion.

Naomi returns home and her old friends and neighbors are excited to see her.  But Naomi takes no joy from her return . “Call me Mara.” (bitter), she says. 

"I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. ...The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." (Ruth 1:21 NIV) 

The word translated "afflicted" here can also be translated "has testified against", as it is in the King James Version. The New English Bible renders this passage: "The Lord has pronounced against me; the Almighty has brought disaster upon me."  The Anchor Bible, likewise renders it: "For Yahweh has testified against me / And Shadday has pronounced evil sentence on me." ("Yahweh" of course is the Holy Name of God as declared to Moses. "Shaddai" is an archaic term for God, apparently used in patriarchal times and the time of the Judges; it's usually translated as "the Almighty").

In the Anchor Bible's notes, the translator comments:  “She portrays herself as a defendant in a legal action in which the charges and testimony are in effect unknown to her, in which she has been deemed guilty, in which punishment has already been meted out. Worst of all, her antagonist is God.”  In this Naomi has a lot in common with Job, framing her complaint against God in legal terms. The prophet Jeremiah does the same: You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? (Jeremiah 12:1 NIV)

But for all her self-pity and complaint, Naomi already possessed a great blessing in her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who is kind and devoted, and as we will see in the next chapter, bold and resourceful as well.  

Naomi may be bitter now, but are going to change.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Foreskin Wars

You’ve probably heard the question – or perhaps you’ve asked it yourself – why Christians get hung up over certain passages in the Book of Leviticus, but ignore others.  The Levitical prohibitions against eating shellfish or wearing polyester/cotton blends are usually the ones mentioned.  The official answer involves drawing a distinction between Ceremonial Law and the Moral Law, and seems a bit hair-splitting.  And maybe it is.

But the question has been around for a while.  Some Jewish scholars have held that certain parts of the Law of Moses will be superseded in the Post-Messianic Era; although they disagree which parts those might be. There are instances where the Learned Rabbis, unable to come to a consensus on the interpretation of some point of the Law, have deferred a definitive ruling until the Messiah comes.

The early Christians, believing that the Messiah already had come, didn’t have that out; and so they needed to determine how much of the Law of Moses Christians need to follow.  This formed the core of the Church’s first major controversy.  For the sake of a snappy title, I’m going to call it the Foreskin Wars.

As the Early Church spread out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth, as the fellow said, more and more Gentiles became attracted to the Message of Christ.  This posed a problem for the Church leaders.  How should they deal with these new Gentile converts?

For one faction in the Church, the answer was obvious:  to join the community, one would first have to become a Jew.  For that reason, the Church has come to call this group the “Judaizers”. I’m not sure if I like that name; it sounds like a Hebrew Arnold Schwartzenegger.  Elsewhere, Paul refers to them as “the circumcision party” because in order to become a Jew, one must first be circumcised.

Circumcision, the cutting off of the male foreskin, was established as part of God’s covenant with Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 19.  It was required not only of Abraham and his male children, but also of all the males in his household, even his slaves and servants.  It was a physical sign of belonging to the Tribe of Abraham.

The Gentile response to this, of course, was “You want me to cut off my WHAT???”

Some  members of the circumcision party came to Antioch, the city in Syria which Paul used as his home base.  Paul and his partner Barnabas disputed the claim that converts needed to be circumcised in order to receive salvation.  The local church decided to send a delegation including Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to get a ruling from the apostles and the elders of the Church as to who was right.

Here the text makes a remarkable statement, one that I don’t remember noticing in previous readings of the passage.  Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

If you’re like me, you’re probably used to thinking of the Pharisees as the Bad Guys in the Gospels; and yes, the Gospels describe several clashes between Jesus and Pharisees over interpretation of the Laws of Moses.  But he had more in common with the Pharisees than he did with the Sadducees, the faction among the Jewish leaders most prominent in the Temple organization.

A lot of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings are similar to those reflected by the Rabbis of the Pharisaic school.  His rhetorical question “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11) is an example found in rabbinical discussions on the Sabbath; and perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching, “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 7:12) is a restating of the Rabbi Hillel’s famous summary of the Law a generation earlier:  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn"

It is not completely surprising that there were some adherents of the Pharisaic traditions among Jesus’ followers.  But it is even less surprising that of his followers, these would be the most concerned with maintaining the Law of Moses.

Which brings us back to the Council.

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.”  (Acts 15:6-7)

Peter was alluding here to an incident recorded in Acts chapter 10, where he received a vision from the Lord with which prompted him to accept an invitation by Cornelius, a Roman official who was curious to hear Peter’s message.  This led Peter to an important understanding:  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)

At the Council, Peter went on to say,

“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”  (Acts 15:8-10)

Peter’s mention of the Holy Spirit was a potent argument.  The church in which I grew up tends to downplay the Holy Spirit except when unavoidable like on Trinity Sunday or the Feast of Pentecost because we Lutherans tend to be suspicious of extreme outbursts of enthusiasm, but the Book of Acts mentions frequent occasions where believers and new converts had ecstatic experiences which they attributed to the presence of God.  That these Gentile converts also experienced this same thing seemed to Peter and the other Apostles irrefutable evidence that God approved of them.

James the Brother of Jesus, who later tradition named James the Just to differentiate him from other Jameses and who had become an important leader among the elders of the Church by this time, stepped in with a compromise.  I get the feeling that he sympathized with the circumcision party; his epistle certainly emphasizes that Christians have an obligation to do Good Works just as Moses had commanded.  But James could not deny the evidence of Peter and Paul either.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” he said. (Acts 15:19)  He recommended that the new converts not be required to be circumcised, but to have them abstain from a few practices common among the Gentiles which are prohibited by Mosaic Law:

(1) food polluted by idols
(2) sexual immorality
(3) the meat of strangled animals
(4) eating blood
Of these prohibitions, the first is largely obsolete; idolatry takes on more subtle forms these days and doesn’t usually involve sacrificing food.  The last two are based on the Levitical view cited by Doctor Van Helsing that “The Life is In the Blood” and that it is therefore uncool to consume it.  Animals killed for food were to be drained of blood as much a practical before being cooked.  These prohibitions have been largely ignored in cultures that enjoy blood sausage.

The second one, so broad and vaguely-worded, is the one that the Church has obsessed over for the past two millennia.

I suspect that Paul found even these bare-bones prohibitions more restrictive than he liked.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8:1-13) we find him finessing the rule about food sacrificed to idols, and he devotes much of his Epistle to the Galatians to insisting that Salvation is not predicated on following certain rules.  One of the sad ironies of Paul is that although he argued forcibly against legalism in Galatians and many of his other letters, his writings have also been used to justify most of the legalistic practices that have burdened the Church ever since.

James’ compromise was a big turning point in the development of the Church.  It averted the Church’s first major schism, and made the message of Jesus more accessible to the wider Gentile audience, but at a price.

Up to this point, the followers of Jesus could consider themselves a Jewish sect.  Heck, they were Jewish.  But with the Council of Jerusalem, that changed.  You can argue that this was the true source of the enmity between Judaism and Christendom:  not the blame for the Crucifixion, nor the blasphemous claim of Christ’s Divinity, but rather this decision by James and the other Apostles that the Jewish Identity as defined by the Laws of Moses no longer mattered.
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.  (Galatians 3:26, 28)
That was Paul’s ideal of Christian equality; but in practical terms, the Church could either be a Jewish one, or a Gentile one; and when it made circumcision and the Law of Moses optional, the Church ceased to be Jewish.

Oh, the Leaders of the Church tried to have it both ways.  Even Paul urged his student Timothy, a young man with a Jewish mother but a Greek father, to become circumcised in order to demonstrate that he was not advocating Jews to reject the Law.  He did not make that request of his student Titus, a Greek.

When Paul visited Jerusalem for his last time, James and the elders of the Church warned him that rumors had spread that Paul was teaching Jews to turn away from Moses and to stop circumcising their children.  They suggested he accompany some men who going to perform a purification ritual at the Temple, to show everyone that he was fine with following the Mosaic traditions.

A good plan, but it didn’t work.  Some troublemakers stirred up the crowd at the Temple, claiming that Paul had brought a Gentile into the sacred Temple grounds.  The text calls them “some Jews from the province of Asia”.  These might have been the Jewish Christians of the circumcision party whose teachings prompted Paul to write his letter to the Galatians, or they might have been some of the members of the local Jewish community who opposed Paul when he traveled through Asia Minor.  The text doesn’t specify.

Either way, they started a riot which brought in the Roman authorities to quell the disturbance.  Paul was arrested, in part for his own protection, and remained a prisoner for two years while the Roman judicial system tried to figure out what to do with him.

In the end, Paul requested to have his case heard by Caesar; which was his right as a Roman citizen, but which further emphasized the rift.  Henceforth, the fate of Christendom would be linked to Rome, not to Jerusalem; and the Church would be a Gentile religion, not a Jewish one.



Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Spy Who Hid On My Roof

(Originally posted as part of the D'var Torah series at Daily Kos, June 15, 2012) 

The Gospel of Matthew starts out with a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, tracing his line back to Abraham.  It seems likely that the author of Matthew was writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, because he frequently connects events from the Gospel narrative to prophecies in Scripture.  As a kid, I found the genealogy in Matthew chapter 1 both boring, (there are a awful lot of "begats" in there) and fascinating, (trying to pick out the names I recognized from Sunday School).
The genealogy, not surprisingly, is mostly a male one, with Fathers begetting Sons begetting more Sons after that unto the umpteenth generation.  But the author of Matthew does pick out four women to mention in the lineage of Christ.  And these aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect.  He makes no mention of Rebekah, or Rachel, or even Sarah the Mother of Nations.  
No, the ones Matthew chooses to honor are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.  One an adulteress.  One a prostitute.  Two are widows, one of which pretended to be a prostitute.  And all of them foreigners.  Four Inconvenient Women of the Bible, women who don't seem to fit the expectations we have of The Virtuous Woman.
We get Rahab's story in Joshua chapter 2.
Forty years have passed since the Children of Israel paused just outside the Promised Land and Moses sent spies to scout out the Land of Canaan.  The spies had given a discouraging report, (“Those guys are freakin’ Nephilim, man!  They’re huge!”) which dismayed the Israelites, and the people’s lack of trust angered the Lord. Now Joshua, one of the original twelve spies and one of the two who gave the land a good report, leads Israel and sends another pair of spies into the city of Jericho.
The spies come to the home of a woman named Rahab, whom the text tells us is a prostitute.  Or was she?  Some scholars have argued that the word used to identify Rahab can also mean “innkeeper.”  This may be true. I suspect, though, that these scholars are chiefly looking to sanitize the story.
When soldiers show up looking for the spies, Rahab hides them and gives the soldiers a false trail to follow.  She offers to help the spies sneak out of the city and asks them to promise to protect her and her family when the Israelites attack.  
Why did Rahab hide the spies?  Perhaps as prostitute she was considered a social outcast and therefore had little loyalty to the city she lived in.  And I have to admit, the romantic in me likes to think that something happened between her and one of the spies.  That's the way it would work in a James Bond movie.
The reason she gives the spies is a pragmatic one:  she has heard about how the Lord had led the Israelites through the Red Sea and defeated the Amorites, and she recognizes that the people of Israel have divine backing.  In fact, she tells them that the whole city is terrified of their approach, which is why the king of Jericho has his men searching for spies.
The spies arrange for Rahab to tie a scarlet cord to her window and have it hanging out, so that the Israelites will know which home to spare.  They want to make sure nothing goes wrong.
It occurs to me that Rahab's scarlet cord parallels the blood the Israelites were commanded to place on their door and lintels the night of the First Passover, so that the Angel of Death would spare their homes.  Which was probably where the spies got the idea.
Thanks to Rahab, the spies make it safely back to their camp and give Joshua their report.  And later on, when the walls come a-tumbling down and the Israelites conquer the city, Joshua honors the vow his men made and spares Rahab's family.  The text tells us that she lives among the Israelites to this day.
That's the last mention we have of Rahab in Joshua.  According to the genealogy in the Book of Matthew, Rahab married Salmon, who was the great-great grandfather of King David.  I don't know where Matthew got that.  The only genealogy I can think of covering that period is the one in 1 Chronicles, and that one only traces the male lineage.  Perhaps he was following an oral tradition about Rahab not written down in Scriptures; or perhaps he inserted her into the genealogy for other reasons.
She is mentioned two other places in the New Testament.  The author of the Book of Hebrews includes her in the epic chapter listing the heroes of faith in Israel's history (Hebrews 11:31), and the Apostle James cites her as an example of a person whose actions demonstrated her faith (James 2:25).

And who was this heroine of faith?  A harlot and an outsider; but also a loving woman protective of her family, and a woman who recognized the hand of the Almighty; and ultimately she became a part of the community of Israel.