Wednesday, May 28, 2008

And now for something completely different...: Ruth 1

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Following the Christian canonical order, we come to Ruth next. There are benefits and drawbacks to this. In the Christian order, we get a book that I guess is as much social criticism of the Joshua/Numbers/Deuteronomy elitism as Judges is, but written so far more positively, which is probably why it's a lot more popular: this one is about how people don't need power to be good, not how people with power are always evil. On the other hand, the Jewish order places it within a later group of books - Song of Songs, Esther, etc. - where God is nearly silent and very withdrawn, which also makes some sense.

Also significantly, this is the only book in the Bible that is named after and written about women. (Esther is named after a woman but is really more about her uncle, Mordecai.) I don't know which group of ancient Jews managed to sneak this into the canon, but it obviously wasn't the ones who pushed through the prayer "Thank you, God, for not making me a woman."

The Bible starts with Naomi, the widow of a Judean living in Moabite territory, and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Their various husbands have died before the story begins. Significantly, they aren't struck down by God for their sins: they simply die. It frames the story completely differently than what has come thus far, even counting the cruelly sarcastic "God did it!" tone of Judges: in this book, people make their own choices, and they're capable of making good ones, and living with bad ones. Naomi decides that with her husband gone, she's going to return to her home in Judah, and her two daughters-in-law agree to go with her. Initially Naomi is reluctant, saying that she thinks she's been cursed by God - by being a son-less widow in her old age - but that Ruth and Orpah are old enough to remain in Moab and re-marry.

Orpah agrees, but Ruth stays with Naomi. In a moment, she converts to Judaism: "where you go I will go, and where you stay 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." Naomi returns to Bethlehem during the harvest and seems to be greeted warmly, although she remains depressed, saying that she would prefer to be called Mara ("bitter") rather than Naomi ("pleasant").

Already the book has set quite a different tone than the dark cynicism of Judges. We have seen a genuine conversion to Judaism based purely on friendship and faith. There is no burning bush, no grand patriarchal "I shall decide for my household" declarations, no plague, no miraculous event whatsoever. No killing - which is how the Israelites usually deal with foreigners - and no deception - which is how the Gibeonites persuaded Joshua to let them survive. Not even a trade deal, conversion for intelligence - the sort of deal the spies made with Rahab in Jericho. The first chapter claims that Naomi and Ruth arrived in Israel during the time of the Judges, but the peaceful agrarian setting of Bethlehem has little in common with the gruesome political intrigue of the book of Judges.