Thursday, June 28, 2007

Women Treated (Reasonably) Well At Last!


Reading Ruth is a refreshing change! After grief and hardship, two women eventually find peace and security.

Naomi and her husband Elimelech, both Israelites, leave their land during a time of famine and move to Moab. Elimelech dies, but Naomi raises their two sons, who marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. After about ten years, Naomi's sons die too. Without any men immediately in their lives, the three women are now left with uncertainty about how to survive.

Orpah goes back to her mother's house, but Naomi heads back to Bethlehem (the famine has now ended), and Ruth insists on going with her, even though that is not her own land.

Because of the custom that poor are allowed to glean in the fields (gather harvest remains after the landowner harvests the fields), they eke out a living. But it turns out that the field that Ruth gleans is owned by a relative of Naomi's husband, a rich relative named Boaz. He generously allows Ruth to glean, and even offers her protection.

At Naomi's urging, Ruth finally hints rather strongly that Boaz owes her and Naomi rather more than embellished gleaning rights, since he is related to Naomi's husband. Boaz, caught a little by surprise, says, in effect, "er, yes, right!" and notes that there is one other male relative more closely related whom he really should notify first.

This other male relative is intrigued by the prospect of gaining Naomi's land; but then hearing that accepting this also requires him to marry Ruth, the Moabite, he declines. So Boaz now feels free (and seems happy) to accept the land himself, as well as the marriage of Ruth. He marries Ruth; they have a son. Having a son now fully ensures the security of both Ruth and Naomi.

It is a story not only about women of misfortune finding their way to a good life again, but is also a story that establishes a more positive vision of intermarriage. It turns out that the son of Ruth and Boaz becomes the grandfather of King David.

I am relieved that there is finally a happier story. I am also relieved to see rigid rules becoming a little more relaxed.

And yet I do have to point out that the story still raises some concerns.

The major question raised for me is why the relatives of Naomi's husband's family did not step in earlier themselves to take care of the two women.

I am guessing that the reason is that Naomi was now too old for remarriage herself, and that Ruth was not regarded as desirable in marriage because of being Moabite. What Boaz initially did -- being generous in allowing Ruth to glean the fields, and offering her protection and hospitality -- was probably at the time already regarded as above and beyond the call of duty. The fact that he did go further even than that is what makes this still a happy story.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Struggle of Holding Together as a People under God

Judges 13-21

The rest of Judges is worse. More horrifying violence.

I don't have a TV, in large part because I simply cannot stand how much violence there is on TV. So instead I sit and read the Bible and feel subjected to violence every bit as bad, if not even worse!

But I am reminded of George Fox's admonition to read the Bible in the spirit in which it was written. Clearly these recent days I have not been reading it in a good spirit.

The Study Bible I am reading has interpretive notes sprinkled throughout, and I have been intrigued by the tone of the notes in Judges: the authors of those notes interject their own horror and try to extract the intended message: in the end, they finally write, "Rape, civil war, genocide--all resulted because Israel had no king" (emphasis in original; The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Gail R. O'Day and David Peterson, general editors, Oxford, 1999, p. 327).

And so Judges must be in the Bible to show with vivid honesty an important part of the story: how hard it is for a people to hold together well, remaining focused on keeping God at the center.

I think about this general issue in relation to my own perception of Quakerism. Within Quakerism, there is a strong sense of community. Those of us who are active in our Meetings tend to regard our own Meeting as an important community to which we belong. And these communities are defined by and held together by a religious/spiritual orientation. But regarding Quakerism more generally, we are all aware that the range of beliefs and practices is wide. It is all too easy to regard the Quakers we feel farthest from as being "not real Quakers."

This is similar to the tensions that emerged as Israel spread. The different tribes grew apart over time. Judges ends with an extreme example of the tension: many of the tribes gang up against one of them and fight, almost destroying that tribe. But then they realize that it would be wrong to let this tribe die out completely, and so Judges ends with a reconciliation of sorts, as the other tribes now help this one get back on its feet so to speak. (I will refrain from commenting on how exactly they provided the specific help they offered.)

While, in practice, the Israelites did blend and merge with other peoples, their doing this is the repeated refrain of blame for all of their problems, although there is an undercurrent idea that seems slowly to be emerging: it is not the blending that is so bad in itself -- what is bad is that doing this makes it hard for them to maintain their focus on (their) God.

Something I appreciate about Quakerism is the ethic of "being in the world but not of it." This phrase captures a sense of the importance of connecting to the wider world while at the same time maintaining core aspects of one's identity. And I think that Quakerism has succeeded remarkably well in this (although some may argue otherwise in this day of declining memberships in North American and the U.K.). I think this idea is crucially important, and I hope to write more about it here or in my other blog, Embracing Complexity.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Too Much Violence

Judges 1-12

This Book has been too violent for me: Wars; fighting; battles. Cutting off thumbs, toes, hands. The ultimate humiliation is that of being killed by women or children. Human sacrifice (Jephthah sacrifices his daughter – his only child – because he had made a vow that if he won a certain battle, he would sacrifice whoever first walked through the doors of his house when he returned victorious from his battle – and it was his daughter (Judges 11:30-40)).

The overarching story of Judges is that the tribes of Israel never quite succeed in total domination: they keep letting conquered people live instead of killing them all or driving them all away. They usually enslave the conquered people instead, and fail to destroy all of their altars. Gradually, Israelites begin to worship some of the other gods. Their own Lord becomes angry and then permits others to conquer them. They live in oppression for a while. But every now and then someone arises to bring the Israelites back to their true God. These special leaders are the “Judges.” God’s favor is shown through their victories against their oppressors. But when each of these Judges dies, the people relapse to the bad behavior of intermingling with the conquered people and worshipping their false gods again. And so the cycle keeps repeating.

What especially strikes me throughout Judges so far are the following themes:

(a) Only total domination could ensure that the people would forever be free of the temptations of worshipping the “wrong” gods. (But why does this remain elusive? Why can the people not quite accomplish this? Why doesn’t God help them to do so?)

(b) There are glimmers that the Israelites in a way accept the other gods. It’s just that they think that their god is the best. (So this isn’t really the monotheism that I expected. The ethic here is that it is best for a people to be loyal to their god, the best god – not that there is in fact only one “true” god.)

(c) Men still have multiple wives, plus concubines. Sometimes it is the sons of concubines and prostitutes who are the heroes. (But do their heroic actions redeem such women in any way? The prejudice against sons of concubines and prostitutes seems to continue unabated throughout long sweeps of time. Yet the reputations of the men who sleep with concubines and prostitutes never seems diminished. Those women are devalued, as are their sons, unless a son should redeem himself by some extraordinary deed—then he can transcend his “unfortunate” background, but only for himself.)

(d) Victory or loss during a time of war is a sign of your god’s favor (or lack thereof). In other words, this is “might makes right” cast in theological clothing. To lose and become oppressed is to be punished for not being loyal enough to one’s god. To win is reward. (These attitudes are still widespread, I am afraid.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Rest of Joshua

Joshua 2 and 13-24

I saw that Rich of Brooklyn Quaker has started a blog on Pondering the Gospels, and I was struck by his quoting a passage suggesting that Rahab is mentioned in the geneology at the beginning of Matthew. Notes in the edition of the Bible I am reading confirm that the Rahab mentioned in Matthew is taken to be the same Rahab described in Joshua 2!

While we cannot quite say that Jesus is descended from Rahab (since Joseph is not supposed to be Jesus' actual father), I still find this extraordinary! One source of my astonishment is the clear note back in Deuteronomy: "Do not intermarry with them" (Deut 7:3). Of course we do not know whether Salmon and Rahab were married as such, but still...

So now we know why the story of Rahab was included!

The rest of Joshua tells of distributing the land that has been conquered so far amongst the tribes of Israel. There was some land east of the Jordan that had already been distributed. Now the remaining tribes get land as well, except the Levites, who get some towns to settle in and some grazing land for their livestock. The eastern tribes have helped with the conquest of this land west of the Jordan, and now they return home.

Joshua himself recounts all that has happened, and urges the people to stay faithful, and then he dies at 110 years old. The people settle in their new land. A new era in their lives begins.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Holy War"

Deuteronomy 20 and Joshua 1-12

Ok, this part does horrify me. Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy lays out the principles of holy war.

At first it does not look so terrible, because the early passages either look reasonable or can be read metaphorically: Don't be afraid because God is with you. If you are in the middle of an important life transition (have just built a house but not yet dedicated it; have planted a vineyard but not yet harvested it; are engaged to be married but not yet married), or if you are just too afraid or disheartened, then you should not fight (Deut 20:5-9).

Furthermore, there is a passage that says that before attacking a town, offer terms of peace first (Deut 20:10). But there is an edge to this offer: if the inhabitants accept, then they are not to be killed, but to be forced into labor (Deut 20:11). If they don't accept, they are to be attacked, all the men killed, and the women taken "as booty" (Deut 20:12-14). Later, it turns out that this is not even an option for the towns within the promised land, but only the towns that "are very far away from you" (Deut 20:15).

"But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them" (Deut 20:16-17).

Joshua 1-12 then tells the story of this holy war to the west of the Jordan River.

While much happens just as stipulated in Deuteronomy 20, there are exceptions to the "total annihilation" stipulation.

The first town to be conquered is Jericho. Joshua sends spies ahead to check things out. The two men go to the house of a prostitute named Rahab. She ends up hiding and protecting them (Josh 2:14), and so she and her family are protected when the rest of Jericho is annihilated (Josh 6:22-25).

The second exception was that after the conquests of Jericho and Ai, the inhabitants of Gibeon tricked Joshua into letting them live by pretending to be from far away and therefore exempt from the necessity of annihilation. Joshua made a treaty with them before discovering that in fact they were among the peoples he was supposed to annihilate, but now, having made the treaty, he had to keep his promise (Josh 9).

And, finally, in some of the battles, mention is made of survivors who escape to fortified towns (e.g., Josh 10:20); and by the time the Israelites stop fighting and divide the land, there is still land that was intended but has not yet been conquered (Josh 13:1-7).

So it seems that total annihilation was intended, to help protect the Iraelites from being tempted into worshipping the wrong gods, but this total annihilation was not quite accomplished. There are lots of hints that down the road, the Israelites do end up succumbing to such temptation, and so we'll have to read on to see if this in fact does end up happening.

But for now, the holy war has gained the Israelites (much of) their promised land.

So, how are we to read this story of war and annihilation?

One way is to read it literally: when you are obedient to God, and you fight a war and win, it proves that God is on your side. If you lose, it is because God is angry at you because of some flaw in your obedience to God (see Josh 7). So, might makes right because having superior might is a sign of God's favor. Unfortunately, I think that this is an all-too-common interpretation of war in general.

But are there metaphorical ways to read it that are less problematic?

Friday, January 05, 2007

On the Verge of a New Life


Deuteronomy reviews the whole story so far, and provides an updated formulation of the law.

The story of the forty-year journey in the wilderness is recounted in chapters 1-3 and 31-34. It ends with Moses' death. While it is difficult to track the exact timing of the events, it seems that they first arrived at the land they were to conquer after just two years, but because of their hesitancy and fear, and God's anger at them, they ended up wandering for another 38 years until that first generation had died off (see Deut 2:14)!

Moses' death just before they finally entered the promised land is portrayed as God's punishment, holding Moses responsible for his people's rebellion during that crucial moment 38 years ago. This seems a bit unfair. But the tone of the writing at the very end, describing Moses' climbing the mountain and seeing the promised land just before he died, is quite affectionate: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel" (Deut 34:10-12).

I cannot help but think that the portrayal of his death as divine punishment was the writer's attempt to explain how he could have died before witnessing the final fulfillment of his mission. This unfortunate occurrence would seem to make no sense unless there was some way to explain that the Lord could have been unhappy with Moses. While I continue to be troubled by the "death as punishment" motif, at least it is consistent in this part of the Bible. But it is good that the story generally gets told in a more positive way now: that Moses gets a triumphant vision of the future from the mountain just before he dies. Now I better understand the Biblical context behind Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "mountaintop" speech.

I will refrain from commenting on the gruesome conquests thus far. (I have a feeling more such tales are to come.)

Despite being troubled by the tale of conquest, I must confess to being moved by much about the narrative. There is something deeply stirring about this kind of a story: a long journey in which God is trying to unite and guide a group of people to a life that can nourish them and a life in which they can build systems to keep them all reminded of what life is really all about, a life that keeps them connected to God. So much of how they structure this life is intended to account for the inevitable presence of human error, and yet correct for it. Structures and rituals are put into place to allow for healing and rectifying what may go wrong, and to keep people reminded of what is important.

It is really impressive to read this narrative that describes how all of this is formulated and put into place.

A huge portion of Deuteronomy recounts the law, but there are some changes from previous passages that describe this. The footnotes in the edition I read suggest that many of the changes soften some of the harsh edges of previous formulations.

This version of the law is preceded by this passage: "You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it" (Deut 4:2). It is no wonder that after the laws have been tested and refined for 40 years in the wilderness, Moses would have anxiety that further changes might destroy the original integrity of his own divine inspiration. It is a tension with any system of law: how much change is tolerable before some of the original ideals become undermined?

And, because I have been tracking formulations of the 10 commandments, here is the Deuteronomy version: Deut 5:7-21.
  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol...
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God...
  • Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy...
  • Honor your father and mother...
  • You shall not murder.
  • Neither shall you commit adultery.
  • Neither shall you steal.
  • Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
  • Neither shall you covet your neighbor's wife...or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This list looks familiar! It must be the version that is commonly quoted.

After the rest of the ordinances and statutes are listed, this section ends with a blessing and a curse. The emphasis here is on the people's freedom to choose. Moses tries to persuade the people to choose well, and receive the blessing of God instead of the curse (Deut 11:26-28). The curses and blessings themselves are listed in chapters 27-28. The biggest danger the people face is falling into worshipping the wrong gods.

While I am distressed that this concern is translated by many into intolerance for other religious faiths, it can be read differently. When we make God into our own image, we do run the risk of losing touch with the highest and noblest ideals for guiding our lives, and it is true that when we lose touch in this way, we become most vulnerable to behaving in ways that bring on harm to ourselves and others. The plea to make sure that you are worshipping the "right" God is the plea to be ever vigilant in discerning the difference between our "base" desires and impulses, on the one hand, and noble ideals, on the other hand. By "base" I mean those unexamined desires and impulses that we have not yet reflected on and processed in a way that transmutes them -- that is, that brings them into harmony with those higher ideals that can be said to come from God. It is not, in my humble view, that some religious faiths get this wrong and others get this right. Within any religious faith, different interpretations are possible. And so it is not particular religious faiths that can be wrong or right, but specific interpretations of them that can get this wrong or right.

And so the curses can be read not as punishments for getting it wrong, but as consequences of getting it wrong. The reason it is better to get it right than get it wrong is that "wrong" actions just are those that lead to more unfortunate things happening. That's why it is generally better to avoid them, if we can.