Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ruth as Pro-David Propaganda: Ruth 2-4

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

Ruth starts working in the fields, doing something she has a legal right to in Israel but doesn't today (an interesting example of how society has become more oppressive): she goes into farmers' fields and begins collecting food left behind by the harvesters for the poor. By chance, she meets a wealthy landowner named Boaz who tells him she can stay with his servants and thus get more of the food (he also tells "the men not to touch you" and offers her free water). Ruth is shocked by the charity but Boaz, honourably says that he's heard that Ruth was nice to Naomi and now feels that Ruth deserves a "rich reward" from God for her good deeds. Boaz is clearly attracted to her, beacuse he then quietly orders his men to leave extra food and permit Ruth to gather "among the sheaves," which evidently is a social miscue. Naomi is pleased by the good fortune of her daughter-in-law, claiming that "in someone else's field you might be harmed" but she will be safe with Boaz.

Somewhat dubiously, Naomi then essentially suggests that Ruth should go and seduce Boaz. The Biblical account is innocent and vague, suggesting merely that she lay on his uncovered feet for the night, after which Boaz gives her some barley and sends her home. Presumably there are thick layers of euphemism here. Later, Boaz decides that he will marry Ruth (first he gently manipulates the lawful kinsman-redeemer, who would have had first claim to Ruth in marriage). Should I be pleasant or cynical about this sequence of events? At least nobody launches a holy war and demolishes the town, as probably would have happened in Judges.

This is where my positive feelings about Ruth end. Hopefully Ruth actually ended at 4:10 in its original because then it would remain the romantic short story that it's been so far. Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure how positive I would have been, really. This story may be about Ruth, but according to the story, being Ruth is all about being a good wife. She loses her husband and moves to Israel; she promptly marries and becomes a fully accomplished "young woman." Still, at least no one dies.

Unfortunately, the ending for Ruth is kind of weak. Either it used to end early and was later appropriated, or this was the goal all along, but with the last half of chapter 4, it comes to appear that the purpose of this book is not to explore the much more human story of a woman converting to Judaism, but to provide a heroic story to prop up King David (and, by extension, the descendants of David).

There's something interesting about royal genealogies. I'm not talking about the long, unbelievably detailed lists of legal heirs to the throne routinely updated by, say, the British Crown. No, I'm talking about the medieval and ancient genealogies routinely made by the very "objective" historians and genealogists of the royal court, in which, for example, various noble houses developed competing and almost certainly spurious "lineages" linking themselves to historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and even the rulers of Troy. (Others went the Christian route and linked themselves to David or even the family of Christ.)

This is essentially the role that Ruth is twisted to play for King David and his line of rulers. In a transparently self-serving move, some royal scribe from the Jerusalem court invokes the story of Judah and Tamar, as "the elders" of Bethlehem bless Boaz and Ruth and pray that they will have great "offspring." Immediately, she conceives a child, which the last author of Ruth takes as proof positive that Naomi, too, has redeemed herself from the tragedies of her time in Moab (after all, she's now a grandmother). The Bible carefully specifies, then, that this infant - named Obed - is the grandfather of King David.

And, just to hammer home the point that David is of good lineage, it closes with a completely patrimonial genealogy which has nothing to do with Ruth at all, since in fact it's Boaz's: it turns out, lo and behold!, that Boaz is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Perez, son of Judah. So David really is of direct lineage from Judah!

There are only two things that need to be said about this ridiculous genealogical addendum to Ruth. First, it ruins the story: the purpose clearly shifts from a story about Ruth to a story about the grand lineage of David. This is propaganda, contrived by some official historian of the later court of the Kingdom of Israel as an effort to provide some great historical "proof" that David and his descendants were indeed well qualified for leadership of Israel by their history of being humbly blessed by God.

Second, this genealogy is plainly wrong. From Perez's birth to Obed's, there has probably been about 500 years - 400 years in Egypt, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and change. (We're not sure just how much change is left over because it's not clear at what point in the time of the Judges that this story occurs.) By my account, this would mean that every man in the genealogy was a good eighty years old when his wife bore the next link in the chain. Even by the rather lengthy lifespans of some of the old Israelites, this seems completely implausible. You have to wonder why a few more links weren't added to make it look real.

So, what to do with this little story? On the surface, most of it is kind of nice - until you realize that it's basically about Ruth finding a husband, which I suppose might be intended as very empowering by the Israelite who wrote this (given the sexism of the time), but now seems a bit sexist. Even that would be ok, except for the ending, which is clearly veering towards propaganda.