Monday, May 28, 2007

Women on the Edge: "A Restorer of Life and a Nourisher"

Session 5– “’A Restorer of Life and a Nourisher’: Redemption, Reinterpretation, and the Incorporation of the Other in the Story of Ruth”

Texts: Genesis 19:36-38; Numbers 25:1-3; Deuteronomy 23:3-4; 25:5-10; Leviticus 25:25-28; Ezra 1:1-4; 10:1-5, 9-12, 44; Nehemiah 2:1-6; 8:1-3; 13:1-3, 23-27, 30; Ruth 1-4

Ruth within the Biblical Canon
In the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, Ruth appears among the books of the Writings (the Ketuvim), the last section of the Bible, after the Torah (what the Septuagint tradition refers to as the “Pentateuch”, the first five books of the Bible), and the Prophets, or Nevi’im (Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings and the Major and Minor Prophets). This classification may be due, at least in part, to the clear indication at the end of the book that it is written centuries after the period in which it is set. This placement, alongside post-exilic narratives, psalms, and wisdom literature, also tends to focus the reader’s attention on the “parable-like form of the story” (Kathleen Farmer, “Ruth,” New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 383-4), and to lend to support to the hypothesis that book is post-exilic in origin.
Christian Bibles follow the order of the Greek-language translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), placing the book according to the period in which it is set, between Judges and I Samuel.
(On a side note, this is also the reason that the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic and all other ancient, non-Protestant branches of Christianity include books not found in the Hebrew Bible or Protestant Old Testament. Those Greek texts pejoratively characterized by Protestants as “apocryphal” were accepted as Biblical by the Greek-speaking Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint. At the council of Jamnia in AD 92, Jewish leaders adopted the more restricted Hebrew canon, as against the Septuagint, as part of their polemic against the Christian movement. At that point, almost all Christians made use of the Septuagint, including the “apocryphal books,” which non-Protestants refer to as “deuterocanonical,” as the authoritative version of the Old Testament. Luther’s reasons for excising these books from his version of the Bible cannot be detailed here.)
The Problem: Ruth and the Law
Moabites in the Legal Code
· Ruth’s incorporation, not just into the community of Israel and the Biblical Canon, but indeed, into the line of King David’s ancestry, runs squarely counter to a literalist interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:3-4, which places all the people of Moab under a general anathema, without exception, and which derives this prohibition from Genesis 19:36-38 (the Moabites are the products of the incest between Lot and one of his daughters) and Numbers 25:1-3 (the Moabites lead the Israelites into idolatry at Shittim).
Ezrah and Nehemiah
· The anathema placed upon Moabites comes to the forefront in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (the two books were not separated until the 15th Century CE, by Protestant scholars). This book details the events surrounding the return of the middle- and upper-class Hebrews who had been taken into exile in Babylon in three separate stages during the early 6th century BCE. After the conquest of the Babylonian empire by the Persians under Cyrus, the Hebrews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and, eventually, begin reconstruction of the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. This was in keeping with the Persians’ policy of tolerating, even encouraging, subject peoples in the practice of their native religions, so long as fealty was paid the Persian empire.
· Intermarriage between Hebrew men and non-Hebrew women is of special concern to Ezra/Nehemiah. Moabites and Ammonites receive special attention in this effort at racial cleansing. It is important to remember that a large number of poor and less educated people had been left in Jerusalem at the time of the exile, and had presumably mixed with populations of immigrants brought in by the Babylonians: There is a dimension of class conflict, as well as religious controversy, in Ezra and Nehemiah’s efforts to “cleanse” Jerusalem of all foreign wives.
· It is worth keeping in mind, too, that in Israel, the Northern Kingdom, after its cultic centers (Bethel and Dan) had been destroyed and most of its inhabitants carried into exile by the Assyrians during the 8th Century BCE, the few remaining Israelites mixed and intermarried with people imported from throughout the Assyrian empire. This new people, who came to be known as the Samaritans, adopted many Israelite religious beliefs and practices, including following the Torah, but mixed them in a syncretistic religion that included pagan beliefs and deities (for example, some Samaritan coins depicted a male YHWH by image and name on one side, and the goddess Ishtar—who may have been regarded as his consort--, on the other.
The Levirate Law
· The stipulations in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, often referred to as the Levirate Law, specify that the brother of a dead man marry the man’s wife and raise children in his name. The latter, at their maturity, will receive their inheritance from the dead man, and be regarded as his children, rather than as those of their biological father. A surviving brother may refuse this responsibility, but at the price of public humiliation at the hands of the widow.
The Law of Redemption
· The “law of redemption,” detailed in Leviticus 25:25-28, is often confused, following Boaz’s lead, with the Levirate Law in Deuteronomy, but they are not the same, and derive from separate biblical tests. The law of redemption stipulates that the “nearest kinsman” (as opposed to the brother) has the opportunity (not obligation) to purchase the land of a poor relative, in order to restore it to him or his family when they can afford it, or at the time of the Jubilee. This would be done out of concern that land not be alienated from the extended family/clan. There is no indication that the purchase of land extends to other property, or to an obligation to marry the wife or wives of the man who is in danger of losing control of his inherited land.
Ruth and the (Re-)Interpretation of Biblical Tradition
Those who have attended earlier sessions will recognize many similarities between Ruth’s story and that of Rahab in Joshua 2. Not least of these is the fact that both stories place the reader at what seems to be an exegetical impasse: both heroines demand our respect. This is particularly evident in Ruth’s case, as her loyalty to Naomi and her work ethic repeatedly win the admiration of other prominent members of the community in Bethlehem: Not just Boaz (2:11-12), but also his field workers (2:6-7), the town elders and general populace (4:11-12), and the women of the town (4:14-15) sing her praise. But, both stories never let the reader forget that the heroine of each of these stories is not just a foreigner, but a member of a tribe (and, in Rahab’s case, a profession) repeatedly and explicitly anathematized in earlier biblical texts: in Ruth’s case, her name is repeatedly joined to her racial identity: She is not just Ruth, but “Ruth the Moabite” (1:22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10).
In both stories, not only does this member of a despised and—according to the Torah—anathematized group win our respect, but she and her descendants are incorporated into the identity of Israel, the people of God. This is not to be read in terms of her having cast off her former self and identity, but as a reinterpretation of the notion of what it means to be the people of God. Lest the reader miss the former point, both stories make it explicit: “Rahab the prostitute with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. She has lived in Israel ever since” [Joshua 7:25; my emphasis]. In Ruth’s case, this incorporation of the other into Israel, and simultaneous broadening of the notion of what it means to be Israel, is made even more emphatic: the story culminates with a genealogy according to which Ruth the Moabite is the grandmother of King David, making her, as later Jewish exegetes would emphasize (viz. the Talmudic Ruth Rabba), a direct ancestor of the anticipated Messiah (4:18-21).
But, if these texts make it explicit that the incorporation of these women is not to be read in terms of their having cast off their former selves and identity, they do not explicitly draw the conclusion about what this must mean for Israel’s identity. Both texts refuse to lift this burden of redefinition from the reader. However, they do not leave the reader at a complete impasse: Both texts depict central characters engaged in precisely the sort of exegesis—that is, of creative, yet faithful, (re-)interpretation of received scriptural tradition—that is required of the reader her- or himself. Our last session makes clear how this is effectuated in Rahab’s case. In Ruth, the act of reinterpretation is modeled, first, by Naomi, then, even more obviously, by Boaz, and finally, by the community elders, other populace, and women, who receive and sanction the act of reinterpretation.

Naomi sets this chain of reinterpretation in motion by proposing the idea that Boaz lay claim to the right to redeem a destitute kinsperson’s land, as set forth in Leviticus 25:25-28. What is novel in this suggestion is that she should assume the law in question applies to her. She is, after all, a relative not by blood, but only by marriage. Clearly, her proposal rests on the kinship between Boaz and Elimelech, but the latter is dead, a circumstance unforeseen by the passage in Leviticus. Moreover, the designation of Boaz as a “near kinsperson” (3:12), even to Elimelech , seems questionable: neither he nor the “other kinsman more closely related than I” (3:12) is, for example, described as the dead man’s brother. And, if the bond is as close as that of nephew or uncle, it seems strange that that neither is so described.
Biblical interpretation becomes even more complex, and questionable, in Boaz’s hands. He effectively melds two separate laws from two separate books of the Torah: that concerning the redemption of land in Leviticus, and the so-called Levirate law of Deuteronomy 25:5-10, implying that acceptance of the opportunity afforded by the first enjoins the responsibilities of the latter. This link between the two laws is accepted without question by the other “near kinsman,” the elders and, following their lead, the populace, but it is nowhere else spelled out in canonical Scripture. Moreover, the Levirate law, as it is detailed in Deuteronomy, concerns marrying ones brother’s widow. But, Boaz (and the “other kinsman more closely related”) is not Elimelech’s brother, nor is Ruth his widow. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, it is hardly obvious that the stipulations in either Leviticus or Deuteronomy are intended to extend to a member of an anathematized race.
This is not to imply that Boaz engages in an opportunistic misreading of Scripture. Rather, he engages in an interpretation, based on analogy, of the intention behind the laws, as applied to novel circumstances which those laws did not anticipate in detail. If the Levirate law is intended to see to it that no man’s “name may be blotted out of Israel” (Leviticus 25:6), and the law of redemption intended to forestall the alienation of land from Israelite families, Boaz must think, it stands to reason that both should be applied to Elimelech. The application of these laws in these circumstances is creative, but hardly spurious or untied to Biblical precedent. Boaz, we may surmise, desires to remain faithful to, and to be directed by, the proscriptions of the Torah, and it is in this vein that his interpretation is received by the elders and the rest of the community.
We should be clear, however, about what Boaz’s scriptural interpretation and its reception by the community imply about their stance toward the laws in the Torah. To be sure, their respect for Scripture, their turning to it as an authoritative guide, is grounded in the sense that it is divinely inspired, even divinely authored. But, this interpretation rules out a simplistic understanding of the law as being merely transcribed word-for-word by Moses, without being qualified, not just in its reception, but even in its wording, by human limitations. To assume that the law allows for, even requires, human interpretation in the face of novel circumstances, is to assume that the law itself, in some manner, does not predict, nor should be expected to predict, in detail every circumstance to which it might apply. It is to assume that those who live by the law must accept the responsibility of creatively seeking out its intentions in the face of circumstances it does not itself anticipate in detail. It is to assume that the law, though divinely authored and inspired, is also humanly authored, and shares to some degree in human limitations.
These, of course, are just the sort of circumstances posed to the reader by the depiction of Ruth as a faithful Moabite, a creature simply not imagined in the five books of the Torah. Her depiction, like that of Rahab, forces the reader to pose the question: What are we to make of the Biblical prohibitions against any sort of dealings with Moabites, Canaanites, Ammonites, prostitutes, etc, in view of the inclusion within scripture and within the community of Israel of individuals who belong, at least racially or by past profession, to these groups. Adopting Boaz and his community’s mode of interpretation, the answer becomes clear: We are to look for the intention behind these laws, which is to preserve a faith rejected and/or contested by these groups. But, in this case, race or past allegiance matters only inasmuch as the link between them and false faith pertains; that the laws in question fail to imagine the possibility that that link may not, in some circumstances, pertain, may be chalked up to the limitations of human imagination. But, the inclusion of Ruth and Rahab’s stories within Sacred Scripture make it clear that these limitations (in this case, limitations that place blanket judgments about groups ahead of consideration of the character and faith of individuals belonging to those groups) should not be given divine sanction.
Ruth as Biblical Matriarch
Ruth bears many of the traits we have identified among female Biblical protagonists we have previously considered. She embodies the “foreigness” hinted at or explicitly embodied in the characters of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, Tamar, the Egyptian midwives, Zipporah, and Rahab.
Like many of these characters, she bears the traits of an apparently illicit, but ultimately redemptive, use of sexuality (witness the seductive traits and double-entendres of her dalliance with Boaz at the threshing floor, a locale often connotative of sexuality, and even pagan sexual rites, in the Bible).
Like those characters, she is pivotal in the reversals by which underdogs or the undervalued are rescued or redeemed from their low condition: Naomi is rescued from the low and vulnerable status of a barren widow, placed at the center of a family and recognized as an honored mother and grandmother. Boaz is rescued from what is apparently a lonely old bachelorhood. Ruth, herself, is rescued from her status as an anathematized foreigner.
Like in those stories, this pivotal role as rescuer and redeemer is joined to images of fruitfulness, in her case, the fruitfulness of childbearing, couched within the setting of a plentiful harvest. The story’s images move from drought, exile, death, loneliness and bereavement, through gestures of charity and the “gleaning” or rescue of what was thought to be worthless, to images of bounty, homecoming and homemaking, birth and renewed life, and community.
What is unique in her story is the degree to which this redemptive behavior spreads out, as if in concentric waves, beyond herself: She rescues Naomi from lonely bereavement, but is, in turn, rescued by her, restored to a family and community. With Naomi’s help, she rescues Boaz, who, in turns, rescues both Ruth and Naomi, in the process, rescuing Elimelech’s posterity and restoring his name within Israel. And, from all these interlaced acts of redemption and charity come, ultimately, David, and beyond David, the Messiah.
Marginality and Biblical Interpretation
Like the story of Rahab, Ruth brings together two prominent concerns of our study: the marginal position, as women, of the protagonists we have been studying, and concerns about the interpretation of Scripture. As in Rahab’s case, Ruth’s “marginal” status, her apparent insignificance in others’ eyes, becomes a key, not just to her transformative and salvific role with respect to other characters (as is the case with many of the women whose stories we have considered), but also to the transformation of Biblical meaning, itself, and to its salvation from what might otherwise seem to be obsolence. We are encouraged, in these stories, to read the Scriptures from a marginal point of view. As was pointed out in the previous session, this is perhaps precisely because any reading of Scripture long after it was initially written is necessarily marginal: Our world is in many respects rather alien to the world depicted in the Bible and the world in which it was authored.

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