a ruthless bible

22 03 2011

As we walk through the Bible in our little congregation tucked away on the forgotten borders of Sutton, Morden, Mitcham, Croydon and the sewage treatment works of Beddington, it can be easy to understand how the family of Abraham, who have become the tribes of Israel, became a little territorial. So easily we define ourselves by who we are not – we are not them, because ‘they’ are bad. It reminds me a bit of the M Night Shyamalan film “The Village”, where fear of the unknown is used to define and control. We read the dramatic stories of the Exodus, we flinched slightly at the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea, passing briefly over the historical question of why in the Bible it is called the Sea of Reeds but popular imagination is such that we need to keep saying Red Sea…

We passed through the conquest of Jericho, to the book of Judges, and some of the most controversial stories contained in Scripture. Stories that seem to advocate a sort of genocide, certainly military conquest of a violent nature. This is where people get the idea of God – Yahweh – as a violent, bloodthirsty despot. I don’t believe he is, of course, though he is not a cuddly teddy bear either. Some of that comes down to how we believe the Bible was written. Is it God dictating his thoughts, or is it the people struggling to understand theologically what is happening geographically? Is the history re-written with subjective theological edits – such as, we won WWII because God was on our side, or people get STDs as a punishment from God for their sexual immorality – or did God really tell them to slaughter other armies?

These questions are hard for me. They are not easily explained. And so I cling to Ruth. A Bible without Ruth would be a darker place. Certainly the book of Judges would be a darker place. With all the extremes of characters tucked away, I feel in need of a bit of redemption by the end and there is Ruth, poised and ready. You see, for the all the anti-foreigner urges in Judges, and especially anti-Moabism, the book of Ruth tells a story of a family who break all the rules about mixing with foreigners, and are blessed through it; a story that doesn’t allow us to write God off as racist, as nationalist, as someone who wants the muggles, mudbloods and the magic-folk kept separate.

Naomi and Elimelech and their 2 sons move from Bethlehem – ring any bells? – to Moab to escape a famine. MOAB! Naughty people. What would the neighbours say. Suffice to say things go from bad to worse: Elimelech dies, both sons marry MOAB women… and then die. Naomi, who’s name meant ‘pleasant’, is left alone in MOAB with two MOABITE daughters-in-law. She decides to move home, and Ruth, bravely, goes with her. Namoi changes her name to Mara, meaning ‘bitter’. So far, those who would say God judges by the book and shows no grace may have a point.

they looked just like this

Then everything changes. Boaz, a local land-owner, falls for the MOABITE woman Ruth. He first allows her to glean his field (no euphemism intended); and then (and this is romantic), allows her to gather barley from the sheaves and not the floor. He was way ahead of his time. She woos him with a bit of perfume and a subtle blanket manoevre, and the rest, as they say, is her-story. He marries her – he a faithful Hebrew and she a MOAB WOMAN. And the local people bless her by saying “May she be like Rachel and Leah…”; hang on, as in Jacob’s wives, who founded the nation of Israel? This foreign – no, MOAB – woman?

The Bible keeps us this emphasis on her MOABITE origins, and her welcome into the family. As if the writers are proud of this. Really?! The book then ends with this wonderful promise prayed over Ruth and Boaz’s son. Who was called Obed. Who became the father of Jesse. Who became the father of David. Yes, that David.

This story does not make some of the other stories in Judges go away. It does not make some of them any easier to stomach. But this story, this beautiful, unexpected gem of a story, does show our God in a completely different light. Maybe next time we are feeling a bit jingoistic, a bit nationalist, a bit racist or a bit anti-immigrant – and we seek to justify this Bibilically, as some do – then maybe we need to be a little less Ruthless in our criticism, a little less Ruthless in our judgment; and next we feel bogged down in stories of tribal war and ethnic conflict as we read out family history, maybe this little love-story with epic repercussions for Jesus and his family tree will balance our view of god, as we discover a Ruthless Bible – and indeed a Ruthless God – would be a different story altogether.




8 responses

22 03 2011
Mark Greaves

I love this story, surely this is all part of Gods plan to open Jesus up to all the world/Gentiles. As there is now a break in the genealogy of Jesus. Pure Genius

22 03 2011

Maybe the writers of some of the OT books were just as much the victims of stereotyping as we are today.

I’m white so I must be arogant, I am Welsh so i must be passionate, I’m a Christian so I must be against all things enjoyable … And the trouble is that it isn’t just others that see us like that, subtly we become like what is expected.

We are at it again now in Libya. Arabs don’t understand government, what they need is a western style democracy. They have asked for some help so we will give them, not what they asked (we didn’t listen anyway) for but what we know they ought to want and blast their country to hell on the way.

Actually the Bible never mentions western style democracy, not surprising there weren’t any then, it seems quite comfortable with forms of dictatorship, judging instead the actions of the individual. It doesn’t deal in stereotypes, in fact it confronts them and seems to welcome all, seeing good in all. If only we would listen to each other and understand each other and respect each other. Moslems are not all fundamentalists, most Chineese are really nice people, the Japanese really need our help but it is difficult for them to accept it, etc, then we could be more like Ruth and be a voice for peace and love.

Isn’t it ironic that with the web we have the easiest way ever to be global and talk to and understand people around the world. And yet the web has become a powerful tool in stereotyping and spreading hatred. How do we change that?

22 03 2011

I think we change it by listening, and by not joining in when the stereotyping and hatred begin. We can be a part of changing the world, if only in tiny ways. Jesus didn’t shout from the Temple-tops but worked with individuals, challenging and changing and letting word-of-mouth do the rest. Word-of-mouth has it’s dangers, of course, as the game (stereotypically named?) Chinese whispers proves… but it is the best we can do. Oh, and he died almost unnoticed on the city rubbish dump with the common criminals. Successful?

We can challenge the Daily Mail (to stereotype!) view of the world by our words and by our actions. But not by our inaction. That achieves… nothing, I guess?

22 03 2011
Edge of the Unknown

Does this mean I can’t bash people over the head with my Bible and then throw it at them until they agree to be more like me? That doesn’t sound like much of a religion. Boring! You post-modernists are spoiling all the fun. I’m sure it was all much more exciting back in the dark ages.
Is there really no one left that we can justifiably pick on? What about pacifists? No, hang on, how about masochists? I bet they’re asking for it!

22 03 2011

Thanks Edge for your (as ever!) insightful comments. It is of course in my job description to be a spoil-sport…

22 03 2011
Can you imagine the Bible without Ruth? « John 20:21

[…] and Kevin’s blog is entitled a ruthless bible A Bible without Ruth would be a darker place. Certainly the book of Judges would be a darker place. […]

22 03 2011

I thought all Christians were spoilsports – no fun, no sex, no laughter – just serious discipleship. Please don’t spoil my stereotype of myself.

18 09 2012
David Thompson

People have a difficult time understanding God because we build a box and say, ‘God, get in this box’. And God does not fit in our boxes. As is said in the Law, if anyone comes and joins themselves to Israel, they will be just as one born in the land. They will take on the Law and customs of Israel, and BE Israel. So Ruth is not a Moab anymore, but an Israelite.

It’s the same deal with today, nothing has changed. If you are a member of a heathen nation (Gentile), and wish to join yourself to Israel, keep the Law (including that 7th day Sabbath – the 4th commandment!) and then you can receive God’s blessings as laid out in the Law.

God does not change. Mal 3:6. But our box that we like to put Him in – that changes frequently. Psalms 89:34.

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