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.
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.