Yada Yada Yada: (T)ruth on the Threshing Floor

Click here to read Ruth 3.

The Yiddish expression yada yada yada derives from the Hebrew word yada (pronounced with a long first a), which means “know.” So yada yada yada essentially means “you know, you know, you know.” A way to indicate that you’re cutting to the chase, making a long story short.

Above is a clip of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, when Elaine yada yadas sex. In Hebrew, the word “know” can also mean to know someone sexually. Same with the Hebrew word for “lie down.” It can be literal, like lying down with someone. Or it can mean to know someone carnally. Similar to our English word sleep. If I were to say, “I slept with someone not my wife last night,” you would probably ask for clarification before smacking me in the face. Maybe not 😉

The words “know” and “lie down,” along with the idioms used in connection with a cloak or wing being spread for protection are throughout Ruth 3. The Hebrew is filled with double entendres; and add to that the fact Ruth and Boaz meet on the threshing floor, biblically the site where prostitutes meet their johns, and you’ve got yourself an exegetical stew going.

Seminary is not the most risque place. Most of what we study is really important and heavy. We have to be prepared to deal with a wide variety of possibilities. But every now and then, things get juicy. I’ve found there are two types of religious people when it comes to talk about sex. There are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get interesting; and there are those who shift in their seats because things are about to get uncomfortable. I’m certainly the former.

The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the canon, but also one of the most enigmatic. Lots of congregants have come up to me after service over the past few weeks to express they feel like they are understanding the story for the first time. I mention this not to commend my own preaching, but rather to say that sometimes English translations fall flat. What is at play here in Ruth 3 are commentaries on the nature of power. Who is really in control? Is it Naomi, who sets the plot into motion? Is it Ruth, who goes to the threshing floor to uncover Boaz’s “feet,” which is clearly a euphemism for male genitalia? Is it Boaz, who wants to bed Ruth but is looking for a way to make it culturally justifiable? Numerous books and articles have been written claiming one over another.

Power is as power does.

Boaz clearly has no levitical responsibility to Ruth,that is no legal requirement to marry her as a next of kin. She is a Moabite and not a blood relation. He might have a legal responsibility to Naomi, but most likely not, as she is beyond child-bearing age. We must ask why Naomi forms her plan: is it for her safety or for Ruth’s? Both? Why does Ruth go along? Because she has pledged herself to Naomi? Or because she understands this will be the only way she can discover any sort of protection.

Also at question is the sort of protection she is asking for; is it marriage? Is it permission to live on the land and do more than glean for food? Does she present herself to Boaz to seduce him and trick him into protection? Or does Boaz meet her there so he can purchase her services. The bestowing of six barley complicates the matter even more, as it could be seen as a bridal price, a payment for, ahem, services rendered, or something even more symbolic, like the restoration of six generations of Elimilech’s line. Interpretations abound.

What is the protection here? What is the security? What is the bond between Boaz and Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, Ruth and Naomi? What kind of family will they be?

The system has let Naomi down, and Ruth is an outsider. Can it be made to work for her, and in turn for Naomi, too?

God is in the business of redemption, or forgiveness, of bringing wholeness out of brokenness. But God does not work with magic wands. God works through people and situations. And here, in this beautifully complicated story, we see the ultimate outsider, Ruth, being an agent of redemption. Being one open to God using her to bring together what life has rent asunder.

So often we think we know what a good person looks like; we imagine that if God were going to use someone for good in our lives, those people will likely look like us. Think the same things as us. But this story shows us that God works in mysterious ways, unusual ways, ways that may seem foreign or even uncomfortable for us.

For Christians, the example of Christ mirrors that of Ruth. Jesus went to those who were forced to the periphery and affirmed their blessedness. He brought them into the center of his community because they are at the center of God’s heart. Are we open to that happening with us? For us? To us?

I’ll meet you on the threshing floor.

And That’s the Truth, Ruth: Of Moabites and Muslims

There are some ridiculous things in Scripture. Head-scratching things. Make you slap your mama things. But then there are those things that make me wonder how I ever didn’t believe. I mean, really believe. In God, yes. But even deeper than that; believe that there’s a reason why billions of people across space and time keep reading this book. This damn book. This book that makes me cringe and weep; a book that I can’t stop reaching for, a book that keeps revealing things about myself. About who we are as persons. About how we get so much wrong in the pursuit of doing right.

And I’ll be goddamned if the Book of Ruth isn’t laying the smack down on me right now.

Since I rapped at you last week, there’ve been goings on in the macro and micro. We all know about the shit show that is Drumpf; in my ministry world, people are dealing with a tremendous amount of pain and fear. My therapy is unearthing some stuff I didn’t know was there, and I am asking a lot of people to put a lot of trust in me as I attempt to launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs. I start teaching at Xavier again next week; well, not really. I’ll be in doctoral seminars for the first week, but classes start. So it’s more like

I’ve been living with the second chapter of the Book of Ruth all week, reading it each day, doing the research and study that normally attenuate sermon prep. Faithful Reader knows that I started preaching without a manuscript during Lent and have continued since; the congregation has indicated that with this style they feel more connected to me, and I admit that it forces me to prepare much more thoroughly, and also to rely on the Holy Spirit. I generally go into the service having bullet points in my mind; I craft about three lines in advance that I use as tent poles, and the sermon is built and advanced by my knowing what fifteen minutes feels like, and attempting to end with both an affirmation and a challenge, something that will hopefully stay with people after they leave the sanctuary. That’s the goal. Sometimes I hit the target, sometimes I don’t.

But I’ve been living with the Book of Ruth as a parable. I can’t remember where I read ti first–it might be from The New Interpreters Bible or one of the articles I read by Hebrew scholars–but as soon as I made that connection, it was like I was able to read the book in a whole new way. And, honestly, the Book of Ruth has always been a struggle for me. Many of the interpretations that I encountered in graduate school and seminary left me flat. I just didn’t see how the story was relevant outside of highly spiritualized readings that are anachronistic or ahistorical. But Ruth as parable?

The Moabites have a how you say, interesting history. They arise from Lot’s daughters raping him. Through various time in history, they are both inside and outside of the covenant community. As I wrote about last time, scholars are divided as to when the Book of Ruth was penned, but I am swayed by a later dating from the time of return under Cyrus the Persian. Why does this matter? Because it reflects a time in which the community as a whole is thinking about who is in and who is out, having just experienced for themselves a multi-generational period of diaspora. In the story world, we have Naomi, an Israelite, who has lost all the males in her family. Kinda. In Ruth 2, we learn that Boaz is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased hubby. And if that is the case, we might expect that Boaz marry Naomi. Maybe. But since she is beyond childbearing years, she has no cultural value and therefore has fallen through the sparsely woven safety net that exists for women. And who does she bring in tow with her? A Moabite foreigner who exists as a threat to good Jewish men whose children would not be legitimate, given that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, were they to bed her. The Moabites were much like the Samaritans: distrusted and seen as dangerous.

And let’s look at the Jewish man who is present. There are some odd details in the story. Scholars point out that Boaz and Naomi both speak in a more ancient and formal Hebrew, perhaps meaning to indicate that they are traditionalists that act in nontraditional ways. Even Boaz’s name is significant, given that he bears the moniker of a pillar in the Temple of Solomon which, if we go with a later dating, has been destroyed by the time of Ruth’s authorship. In the story world, though, Boaz is the pillar upon which these relationships will be built. He seems to push the boundaries of the law, which requires leavings for gleaning, to be more generous and inclusive than strict, literal adherence to the law would permit or facilitate. So, too, does Naomi act beyond tribalism. She refers to Boaz as “our kinsman” to Ruth; her legal obligations to her son’s widow ended with his death. But Ruth’s loyalty, expressed in chapter one in terms that scholars regard as the “first conversion,”results in Naomi ignoring law in favor of relationships.

When you think about this story as a parable, you begin to see that God works in contradictions, but also contradictions that lead to more life.

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I was going to preach a different sermon until I read the story last night of an imam and his assistant being gunned down in the light of day. Granted, there is no evidence yet that this is a hate crime. But the shooting is not just a shooting. Of course, no matter the specific details it is a terribly sad situation. The fact that the victims were Muslim, though, cannot be ignored. We cannot just think of them as two victims of a violent society. We must think of them as Muslims before anything else. Whether good or bad, that is the case. And that’s because we have done a terrible job as Americans equating Islam with positive attributes. We don’t think of Islam as just another religion, even though if you watch the Why We Fight propaganda series during WWII you’ll see that Mohammad is cited as one of the historical influences on democracy. Since 9/11, Muslims has been the other. The Moabite. We don’t see them as Americans or New Yorkers or even men. We think of them as Muslim, and for too many people that automatically makes them suspect.

Sweet Jesus forgive us.

So what are we doing to be Naomi or Boaz? I write this to Christians especially, but to all Americans in general. What are we doing to bring the Ruths of our communities into the fullness of relationship? To do more than just glean on the leavings, but to be inheritors of the crops? What are we doing to listen to the Moabites, the ones about whom we have preconceived notions or improper preconceptions? What are we doing as pillars in our community? As ones who can speak in terms of “we” in order to make that more expansive?

What are we doing?

 

 

 

 

In Which the Book of Ruth Passes the Bechdel Test

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(A Sermon Essay on Ruth 1)

Only two books in the Tanakh bear women’s names: Ruth and Esther. I was in my thirties before I learned that my maternal grandmother, who I had always known as Maxine, was actually named Esther. But that’s another story for another time. We’re gathered here today to talk about the Book of Ruth.

There are two differing hermeneutical schools weighing in on Ruth; one holds that the book was written, possibly by Samuel, during the time of the monarchy. Using rough estimates and the assumption that while the monarchy technically begins with Saul, it really doesn’t start until the reign of David (although the author of the above link disagrees), that means that Ruth was written sometime between 1000 BCE-922 BCE. This argument holds that the purpose of the Book of Ruth is to show the transformation from barrenness, darkness, despair, and brokenness–set during the time of the shofet–into the fecundity, light, hope, and transformation of the monarchy.

I am not swayed by this scholarship for a few reasons (Hebrew usage; influence of Aramaic upon language structure; narrative components and theological composition), but mainly because the alternate theory makes more sense, at least for me as a pastoral theologian with substantial training in biblical exegesis.

This view, which is masterfully argued by Dr. Pieter Venter from the Department of Old Testament Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, holds that early Second Temple literature (that is, written after 515 BCE, when the Second Temple was consecrated) has certain hallmark features, and particularly thematic ones at that. And while this is essential in the development of Judaism, which is what must always be given primacy when considering texts from the Tanakh, it is seminal in the development of Christianity. In fact, one might argue that without Ruth Christianity would not exist.

Bible nerds probably chuckled at the last sentence of the paragraph. Or maybe not. It is a quotidian observation to note that Jesus would not exist without Ruth, as Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, who is listed as one of Jesus’ direct forebears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Some Markan scholars, but not me, argue that Davidic lineage is present in the Gospel of Mark as well; but again, that’s for another discussion.) But my joke that’s not really much of a joke is pointing toward something else.

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The Book of Ruth, just like the ministry of Jesus, is about radical inclusivity. Naomi is like a female Job. Calamity has befallen her and she is questioning what she has done to deserve it. Not only has her husband died, but also her sons. In terms of social standing, she is going to fall through the net. She is not of child-bearing age. No one is gonna marry her.  The Levitical laws that seek to protect her–not my type of feminism, but on a historical level we have to acknowledge that the Hebrew law codes did try to provide some manner of cultural protection for women, even if we may find said attempts to be sorely insufficient–are not going to be of use. She encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands, to find some manner of protection or social standing. Naomi is going to return home in bitterness, a fact that she makes plain at the end of the first chapter.

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Although the Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, it contains one of the longest continuous stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And elements of the first chapter will even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Here we have a woman, Ruth, who is a foreigner; in time of chaos and uncertainty, she pledges herself to Naomi in language that is similar to wedding vows. She takes on a new God; she is willing to go to a new land; she will renounce her people and take on a new identity. She forsakes everything that can identify her and protect her.

In many ways, what we see is similar to the covenant renewal ceremony preserved in Joshua 24. But this one is cast in terms of women.

Which is why I introduced you to the prevalent theories regarding when the Book of Ruth was authored; if we go with the latter theory, that is, authorship post-515 BCE, we know that there were ongoing battles regarding what religious observance consisted of. With the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (often called Solomon’s Temple), religion began to shift away from being defined by possession of land, the existence of the Temple, and a Davidic king sitting upon the throne. In exile, the religion of the Hebrews morphed into Judaism, a religion of the book. Knowledge and adherence to the Torah, teaching, made one Jewish. The externals of religion must be matched by the internals of faith; circumcised penises matter less than circumcised hearts. With the return of the people under Cyrus the Persian, the most fundamentalist of Jews were living in Jerusalem. They wanted to make the rules. They argued that marriages to foreign spouses made the children illegitimate. A new Temple required around the clock sacrifices, but some argued that rites and rituals were empty if there was not a spirit of the Lord in the place.

And in the midst of that, in the middle of such an argument, about who is in and who is out, comes a story about a Hebrew woman and her Moabite, foreign daughter-in-law. This foreigner, this interloper, this woman sings a song matched only by Hannah and later Mary. She throws down the gauntlet and displays a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The radical nature of this story cannot escape our minds as we prepare to move to chapter two. We have two women, one who just made marriage-like vows to the other who has returned home only to say, “Y’all best not call me Naomi anymore. My name is Bitter, and you best not get it twisted.” Can you feel their strength? Their defiance? Their willingness to go up against the rules of men if it keeps them out of relationship? With God. With one another. With themselves. And while the rest of the story may bother us (or maybe not), let us remember them as they are now. Standing tall. Chin up. Chest out. Bodies not there for gazing but to be asserted. To announce their presence. Their power is written on the body.

Let us recognize that these two women are badasses.

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