Thursday, June 28, 2007

Women Treated (Reasonably) Well At Last!

Ruth

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.)