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.

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