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.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Family Connections

In 2002, a stone ossuary, a casket used to contain the bones of the dead, was discovered in Israel bearing the inscription:  “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”.  Public reaction broke down into roughly three categories:  there were those who celebrated the find, because it’s always nice when archaeology corroborates something in the Bible; there were those who questioned it, suspecting that the inscription was a hoax; then there was the vast majority of Christendom whose reaction was:  “Jesus had a brother???”

James, like Mary, is another of those names which occur frequently in the New Testament, to the reader’s confusion.  The best-known one is James the son of Zebedee and the brother of John.  The bar-Zebedee brothers, along with Simon Peter, seem to have been Jesus’ closest friends among his twelve disciples.  Jesus had another disciple named James, who is called the son of Alpheus, or sometimes James the Lesser, either because he isn’t as prominent in the Gospels, or possibly because he was shorter.

But who was the brother of Jesus?

The first mention of Jesus’ siblings comes in the third chapter of Mark:

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said “He is out of his mind.” … The Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.  Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.  A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Mark 3:21, 31-35 NIV)

His first mention comes in the book of Matthew where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches in the local synagogue.  The people who here him are amazed.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?  Aren’t all his sisters with us?” (Matthew 13:55-56)

Catholics have long found this passage problematic.  The Catholic Church has traditionally maintained that Mary was sinless and that she remained a virgin her entire life.  Saying that Jesus had brothers and sisters strongly suggests that she and Joseph … well … Did It.

Some scholars have gotten around this by saying that the word “brother” used here in the text may also be translated as “relative”, meaning that James was a cousin of Jesus or maybe even a wacky uncle.  Although “wacky” is not an adjective that really suits James.

Another popular explanation, and this one actually seems plausible to me, is that Joseph was a widower when he wed Mary, and that James and the other siblings were children of his previous marriage.  This makes a certain degree of sense.  The Gospels don’t mention Joseph after Jesus’ childhood, and so it seems reasonable to guess that he was much older than Mary and had died before Jesus started his ministry.  And the brief mention in Mark chapter 3 of the family trying to bring Jesus home to me carries the strong vibe of the Responsible Older Brother trying to get the Rebellious Kid to settle down.  I might be reading into it, though.

Despite at first thinking his brother was crazy, James did come around.  Later on in his ministry, Jesus’ brothers came to him again, this time to give him advice on public relations:  “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.” (John 7:3)

Jesus ignored their advice and didn’t go down to Jerusalem until he was good and ready.

After Jesus’ Resurrection, James seems to have become more closely associated with his Disciples, becoming a prominent leader of the Early Church, called by later tradition “James the Just”.  When Peter was imprisoned by Herod in Acts chapter 12 and then miraculously freed, Peter told his friends to “Tell James and the brothers about this.”  (Acts 12:17)

James came up with the compromise that settled the circumcision crisis at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 15, and he is mentioned in some of Paul’s letters as an important figure in the Jerusalem Christian community.  I always assumed that this was James the brother of John, but James bar-Zebedee was already dead by this point, executed by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-3).  Paul identifies the James he knew as James the brother of Jesus in Galatians 1:19.

So how did James wind up a respected figure in the Church?  He wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t even one of the larger group of followers who gathered around Jesus.  He didn’t even approve of Jesus and his ministry at first.  Well, obviously he eventually came around to support his weird little brother the rabbi.  If, as has been suggested, James was an older brother, perhaps the Twelve deferred to him as an elder.  Or it might have simply been a matter of family connections; as Jesus’ oldest living male relative,  he took over the family business, so to speak.  At least taking on an administrative role.

James and Paul had an interesting relationship.  I get the feeling it was a combination of cautious respect and mutual antagonism.  After Paul’s conversion to Christianity, he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James, who confirmed his bona fides and gave him further instruction in the teachings of Jesus.  In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul cites James’ approval as one of his credentials as an apostle.

Yet there was friction between the two as well.  A split was growing between the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem – the Home Office, so to speak – and the newer communities starting up outside Judea, like Paul’s home base in the Syrian town of Antioch, which were becoming more predominantly Gentile.  A disagreement arouse over how the Church should treat these Gentile converts, which led to the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts chapter 15.  In this case, James brokered a compromise between the two factions, but elsewhere we get a strong impression that he wasn’t exactly on Paul’s side.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul tells of an incident where Peter was visiting the church in Antioch.  Peter had no problem hanging out with the gentile members of the community until “certain men came from James.” (Galatians 2:12).  Then, for political reasons, Peter decided it was expedient to keep kosher.  Paul called him out on this hypocrisy.

Granted, this is Paul’s version of what happened.  Some scholars have noted a discrepancy between the story Paul tells in Galatians and the Acts account of the Council of Jerusalem where Peter was strongly on Paul’s side.  I’m not sure if this is an inconsistency in the Bible as much as an inconsistency in Peter.  I suppose a lot depends on when the two incidents took place in relation to each other.

A greater conflict lies between the epistles of Paul, Galatians especially, and the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the Just.  Martin Luther strongly considered leaving that book out when he was compiling his German translation of the New Testament, and grumbled that it was “an epistle of straw”.  The Book of James seems to run counter to the doctrine of Salvation by Grace which Luther derived from Paul and which forms the core of Lutheran understanding of the Gospel.

Luther was far from the first reader to notice this tension between the two Apostles.  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” Paul says, “not by works, so that no one can boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)  Yet James counters:  “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? … In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith, I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”  (James 2:14, 17-18)

I think what was happening here is that James was speaking from the long tradition in Judaism – which continues to this day – that good deeds, moral actions, are an essential component to the godly life.  It has been suggested that James’ letter was written in reaction to early reports of what that nut Paul in Antioch was teaching, or to people who were misunderstanding Paul.

Luther eventually figured out how to reconcile the two, at least to his own satisfaction.  Paul is not saying that Good Works are unimportant; only that they are not the means by which people draw near to God.  In fact, in the verse immediately following the famous Ephesians 2 passage, Paul adds:  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…” (Ephesians 2:10)

In other words, we shouldn’t be doing Good Works to try to get into Heaven; we should do Good Works because they’re the right thing to do.  Which is what the Atheists have been telling us all along.  I’ll have to think about that a bit.

When Paul made his last trip to Jerusalem, he met again with James to report on his travels.  Apparently rumors had come back to Jerusalem that Paul was teaching Jews to turn away from the Laws of Moses, which wasn’t exactly true, but close enough that it was re-opening the schism that the previous council had averted.  James and the elders of the Church recommend that Paul perform a public act of ritual purification to show that he still respected the Law.  It didn’t work; and in the resulting riot, Paul wound up arrested.

Scriptures does not say what happened to James the Just after that.  According to the First Century Jewish historian Josephus, the High Priest took advantage of a vacancy in the Roman governorship of Judea in AD 62 to condemn James and have him stoned.  Some of the Early Church Fathers stated that James died during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 69.

But where was James buried?  Maybe in that ossuary with the controversial inscription.  The collector who revealed the James Ossuary to the world was accused of being part of a forgery ring.  Although the box itself was genuine, dating back to the First Century, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which investigated the discovery, decided that the words “brother of Jesus” had been added to the inscription at a later date.  Other experts who have examined the ossuary have disagreed.  And so the argument goes on.

James probably wouldn’t have thought it important.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Still, Small Voice

(This piece, with slight alterations, was originally written for the D'var Torah series, a weekly series of meditation and commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures posted by the Elders of Zion, a group on the Daily Kos website.)
I never liked gym class in high school.  I was never very good at it.  About the only sport I cared for much was volleyball.  I did okay in volleyball.  But there was one thing about it I found frustrating.  Whenever I made what I thought was a good return, I never had time to pat myself on the back for it.  I knew that within seconds the ball would come back and I'd have to be ready for it.  No one would remember the great save I made if the ball came back to me and I botched it.
It seemed to me that this was a metaphor for life.
Perhaps Elijah could have empathized with me.  
For a brief, shining moment, Elijah was on top of the world.  At the Lord's command, he had gone to King Ahab to challenge the Prophets of Baal.  Elijah and the Prophets of Baal met on Mount Carmel to have a Prophet-off:  both would build altars to their respective deities, and whichever prophet's prayers were answered would be the winner.
You probably know the story.  Four hundred priests of Baal danced around their altar, praying and imploring their god to answer them, while Elijah mocked them.  "Shout louder!  Maybe he's taking a nap, or out to lunch!  Maybe he's in the john!"
Elijah built his altar with twelve stones, one for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  When it came his turn, he commanded that the altar be drenched three times with four large jugs of water.   Then he prayed.  And the fire came.
The Fire of the Lord came down from Heaven and burnt up the offering, and boiled away all the water that had been poured on it.  And everyone knew who was God in Israel.  Elijah slew the Prophets of Baal.  And then, to punctuate the miracle, the Lord sent rain.  For seven long years the land had suffered under a drought as the Lord withheld the rains; but now the heavens opened up and Elijah, laughing Elijah, told Ahab to hurry home if he wanted to avoid a drenching.
It was a spectacular demonstration of the Lord's power and a vindication of Elijah seven years of ministry and exile.
But that was yesterday.
1 Kings Chapter 19 picks up as Elijah is running ahead of Ahab's chariot, caught up in a divine adrenaline rush.  It was what Christians like to call a "Mountaintop Experience", after the story of the Transfiguration; (which, come to think of it, also involved Elijah).  At one point in that story, the Disciple Peter said, "Wow, this is so cool.  Maybe we should, I dunno, build three tents up here and just stay here." (Mark 9:5, Revised Wilcken Version).
Ah, but the problem with having an experience on a Mountaintop is that eventually you have to come back down to earth; and this is what happens to Elijah.
Ahab is still King in Israel.  More important, his wife Jezebel is still Queen, and she is majorly cheesed.  Despite the tremendous victory on Mount Caramel, nothing has significantly changed in Israel.  Expect that Jezebel is more determined than ever to kill Elijah.
So Elijah flees, south to Beersheba in Judah; and from there he ventures out into the desert.  He travels until he comes to a broom tree, and there he falls in a heap.  All he wants to do is crawl under a rock and die.  "I have had enough, Lord.  Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (1 Kings 19:4)
He doesn't die.  An angel shows up an feeds him, and nags him until he gets up and continues on his journey.  He travels for forty days and forty nights through the wilderness his ancestors traveled for forty years.  I wonder if during that trek his words to the Prophets of Baal came back to to him.  "Shout louder!  Maybe your god can't hear you!  Maybe he's asleep!"  It certainly must have seemed to him like God was out to lunch.
Elijah finally ends up on Horeb, the Mountain of God; the place where the Lord spoke to Moses.  And there, finally, he hears the Lord speak to him.  "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
"I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty.  The Israelites have rejected you covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."  (1 Kings 19:10)  What he doesn't say, but is implicit in his complaint is, "AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT???"
The Lord doesn't answer right away.  He tells Elijah to stand outside on the mountainside, because He's going to pass by.  And as Elijah watches and waits, a tremendous windstorm whips the mountains, strong enough to rip apart the very rocks; and it's followed by an earthquake, and then a raging fire; like the miracle on Mount Carmel, awe-inspiring demonstrations of divine power.
Elijah realizes that he does not sense the Lord's presence in these calamities.  They're just a lot of special effects, "Full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing," as the fellow said.
Then comes the voice; the still, small voice; the gentle whisper that he might almost miss.  It tells him that the Lord has not forgotten him.  He will deal with His enemies in His own way, not with flashy cosmic destruction, but through earthly means.  And he tells Elijah that there are seven thousand in Israel whose knees have not bowed down to Baal.  Elijah is not the only one left; he is not alone.
We want signs and wonders.  We want St. Michael to descend with a flaming sword and dispatch the Enemies of Righteousness.  We want the Lord to Smite the Wicked.  But more often the Lord works through humbler means, like you and me.  And rarely does He command us to do any smiting; more often he calls on us to build, to heal; and to cultivate leaders who will do His will, which is what Elijah is called to do.
And if it looks like God isn't doing anything, maybe what he's doing lies just on the periphery of our senses and we aren't paying enough attention.  And maybe He's not performing miracles because He wants us to have the chance to do things ourselves.