There is a story about a Mexican bank robber named Senor Jorge Rodriguez who lived many decades ago. After robbing a bank in Texas, he slipped across the border into his native Mexico. He was pursued, however, by a Texas Ranger whose motto was, “I always get my man!” The Ranger found Rodriguez in a small village not far from the border. He asked the robber where he had hidden the money he had stolen from the bank. But there was a problem. Senor Rodriguez could not speak English and the Ranger could not speak Spanish. The problem was solved when a young Mexican boy appeared who could speak both languages. He translated what the Ranger had asked Jorge. Jorge refused to reveal the location of the stolen money. After several more attempts by the Ranger failed in securing the information, the exasperated Ranger pointed his gun right between Jorge’s eyes and said to the boy, “Tell him that he has two minutes to tell me where he hid the money. If he doesn’t tell me in two minutes, I will blow his head off!” Jorge realized that his life was in danger, so he told the boy, “Please tell the man that if he goes to the well at the north edge of the village and faces south and counts down four bricks, he will find one that is loose. Behind that brick, he will find all the money I stole. Please tell him quickly before he shoots me in the head!” The little boy hesitated and then said to the Ranger, “Senor Rodriguez says he is a brave man, and this is a good day to die.” And thus, Jorge Rodriguez died, the Ranger returned to Texas, and the little boy went home with a fortune.
Of course, the point of this story is that what you don’t know can hurt you, and this is certainly true in the interpretation of the Bible. What we don’t know can impede our understanding of Scripture. And perhaps few books in the Bible have been as little appreciated and understood as this seemingly harmless, pleasant little story of Ruth. The key in interpreting this subversive little story is in understanding the setting of its author. What was going on when the Book of Ruth was written?
Many Old Testament scholars tell us that Ruth was written after the Babylonian Exile. The Hebrew Scriptures as we now have them are the product of the Exile. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, burned the city, put an end to the royal house of David, stole anything in the city that had any value, and took many inhabitants to far away Babylon. This was the end of the independent kingdom of Judah. It wasn’t until 538 BCE that the descendants of these Exiles were allowed to return to what had been their ancestors’ home.
The Jews returning from Babylon had no king, no nation, no independence, no national sovereignty, and little land. The great temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was in ruins. What they did have was their religious tradition, especially the Torah/Law. Two Jewish leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah, were very instrumental in the development of the Jewish religion after the Exile. They stressed obedience to the Law above all other religious obligations. They believed that if the Jews would just obey the Law of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy), then what had happened during the Exile would never happen again. And so, bit by bit, the Hebrew faith of the prophets became a legalistic religion of the priests and the teachers of the Law. Above all else, the Law must be obeyed. Above all else, the Jews must not allow themselves to become contaminated by outside forces. They must remain a holy, pure, and peculiar people set aside by God. This became a time of narrow exclusivism in the Jewish faith. Women in particular suffered under this legalistic revival.
Women had never fared well in the Patriarchal society of Israel, but before the Exile they had a certain amount of independence and even were allowed to assume leadership roles as shown by the achievements of Miriam, Deborah, and Hulda. (Hulda was the prophet who could hear and interpret the Word of the Lord during the reign of Josiah. None of the male prophets had that ability.) But after the Exile, women were excluded more and more from the faith community of Israel. They were at best second class citizens. During their menstrual cycles and after child birthing, they were viewed as unclean.
The narrow-mindedness of legalism and exclusivism went beyond just the treatment of Jewish women. Great care was taken to exclude from the faith community those who were not Jewish in the strictest sense of the word. Foreign women were especially targeted by this intolerance. During the Exile, some Jews had married foreign women as had many of the Jews who had stayed behind in what had been Judah. The decision of Ezra and Nehemiah was brutal and final: these women and their children were to be sent away–exiled from their husbands and fathers and forever excluded from the house of Israel. And so, with great bitterness and mourning, anguish and lamentation, families were torn asunder in order to “purify” the Jewish race.
And in the midst of this bigotry and exclusivism we have the story of Ruth. On the surface, it seems to be a pleasant, even sweet and charming tale. But on closer analysis, we find a subversive story.
Ruth is a woman of courage and wisdom, of strength and determination, of devotion and wits. She knows not only how to cope and survive—she knows how to blossom and flourish. She and her mother-in-law Naomi made a dynamic duo as they plotted their future and survived poverty, famine, and widowhood. Throughout the story of Ruth, the main characters and heroes are women. Naomi’s husband and Ruth’s husband are dispensed with in the first five verses of the book. Even Boaz, Ruth’s second husband, plays a secondary and almost passive role in the story. Ruth’s value is celebrated by the women of Israel when they tell Naomi, “Your daughter-in-law loves you and is more to you than seven sons!” I can’t even begin to tell you how radical a statement that was in ancient Israel.
Clearly the main characters of this tale are Ruth and Naomi. They are able to create an alternative community as they join their lives and resources and remain faithful to one another. Their devotion had been immortalized by those well-known words of Ruth to Naomi. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
I have always found it ironic that these words are often used at weddings to convey the love and devotion, the commitment and bonds between a husband and a wife. Few people realize that they in fact reflect the devotion of an alternative family–two widows who love one another and who are committed to one another and are determined to survive regardless of the odds against them–odds for the most part resulting from a patriarchal system. So, at a time when women were excluded more and more from the positions of power and wealth and when they were denied their independence and demoted in their religious standing, we have the story of two women who beat the system and came out on top.
But there is even more to this remarkable story. You see, Ruth was not Jewish. She was a Moabite. During a great famine in Israel, Naomi and her husband with their two sons went to live in the country of Moab where there was more food available. Their two sons married Moabite women. Naomi’s husband died first and then her two sons. Destitute and widowed, Naomi decided to return to her homeland. And that is when Ruth gave her famous speech pledging her loyalty and love. So, Ruth and Naomi returned to Israel. And with some clever plotting, Ruth snared the Jewish farmer Boaz for her husband. And in time they had a son named Obed. And Obed fathered a son named Jesse. And Jesse fathered a son name David who became the great king and ancestor of God’s Messiah.
Now do you understand how subversive this story would have been in post-exilic Israel? While Ezra and Nehemiah were demanding that Jewish men put aside their foreign wives and children and drive them from the boundaries of Israel, someone wrote a story about a Moabite woman who not only became a part of the Jewish community and faith but who was the great-grandmother of David the king!
But it gets even better. Deuteronomy 23:3–part of the Torah, the Law Ezra and Nehemiah were so intent on having Israel follow to the letter–says this: “No Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Now do you get it? According to the Law of Moses, Ruth should not have been allowed to become a part of the people of Israel. And neither should any of her descendants unto the tenth generation. And yet here is her great-grandson (fourth generation) not only a part of Israel’s faith community but the king–the Lord’s anointed and ancestor of God’s Messiah–the hope of Israel and of the world. Now what do we do with this subversive little story? How should we allow it to impact our approach and appreciation of Scripture?
1) Far too often we read the Bible through preconceived notions–through lens colored by our prejudice and opinions–through eyes accustomed to a narrow theological perspective. We do not expect anything subversive from the Scripture not because there is nothing subversive there but because we live in a culture which has defined religion in status quo terms. Much of the Bible is aimed at transformation and change, upheaval and reversal. (All of Jesus’ parables as well as his understanding of the Kingdom/Queendom of God reflect this reversal and transformation.) We need to be able to read between the lines and to appreciate the subtle ways many biblical authors had to use to communicate the Word of God in an oppressive and authoritarian culture. No document in this history of humankind is as radical as the Bible, and it’s time for the church to recognize how dynamic and transforming God’s word and God’s ways are in our world.
2) We need to appreciate that the Bible is dynamic, not static in its pursuit and presentation of God’s truth. It must be continually reinterpreted by the religious community to fit each new historical context and to accommodate the relentless and expanding nature of God’s will in the world. That is exactly what we see going on with the Book of Ruth. The interpretation of God’s will presented in Ruth is a 180 degree turn from what Ezra and Nehemiah legislated. The Bible is dynamic, not static. If God’s truth is more than we can ever comprehend, then how could the Scriptures be anything but dynamic? And of course, the relevance of this is obvious. A dynamic Bible can produce a dynamic faith community–a growing, changing, healing, redemptive community dedicated to the pursuit of God’s transforming will in a changing world.
3) And finally, the Book of Ruth is about the compassion and grace of God. Whom will God include and whom will God exclude? Ezra and Nehemiah had already made that decision and had reinforced it with legislation. God would not accept these foreign women. God had no place for those who were not pure Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah could even quote chapter and verse–Deuteronomy 23:3 states clearly that for ten generations, no Moabite or their descendants could become a part of the People of God. And in the midst of such dogmatism and prejudice, some unknown author said, “Guess what? The great-grandmother of David the king was a Moabitess, and here is her remarkable story.” Throughout the history of the church and even in our day certain groups have been excluded or disenfranchised by those who could quote chapter and verse (gentiles, “heretics,” slaves/blacks, women, those with mental or physical handicaps, those of different sexual orientations from the majority). Like Ezra and Nehemiah, we can quote chapter and verse, obscure and ambiguous as those passages may be. We can use all the force of legislation, social pressure, shame, guilt, and prejudice to reinforce our view of God’s limited compassion and grace.
But time and truth march on and with it advances in various fields of knowledge. And someone like the anonymous author of the Book of Ruth tells a story–the story of a courageous and committed individual whom we would perhaps exclude but who nevertheless finds her place in the heart of God. And God, always with an amazing and ironic sense of humor, often uses that person and their kind in wholly unexpected ways–for let us not forget that Ruth was not only the great-grandmother of David–she was the direct ancestor of Jesus our Lord. Without Ruth there would have been no Jesus. And where then would we be?
John Powell tells of meeting an African-American woman who shared in a prison ministry. She sashayed into the room with a smile and an exuberant welcome for all she met. Even some of the most hardened and forlorn prisoners warmed to her presence. Powell said to this lady, “I want you to know that you light up a lot of people’s lives by the love you share.” The woman replied, “Ah, Reverend. There are no strangers in this world. There are only brothers and sisters I have not yet met.”
There are three ways we can approach this Table.
1) We can come as though this is our Table and we determine who is welcome to feast on the Lord’s goodness. Such an approach would be an affront to God’s grace.
2) We can come as though we do not belong because of our sin and unworthiness. Such an approach would deny Christ’s affirmation of us as sons and daughters of God.
3) We can come as children of God eager to embrace one another and eager to share this Table with all our brothers and sisters we have not yet met.
As we approach this Table may we choose wisely how we come to feast on the grace of God.
We can approach the world in one of two ways. We can approach it either as filled with strangers or as filled with brothers and sisters we have not yet met. As we follow the leadings of the Spirit, may we remember the story of Ruth and the surprising ways of our God as God’s grace and truth go marching on.