Talk of reading through Scripture, whether in a year or during the course of a lifetime, routinely spawns comments on the boringness of Leviticus or the impenetrability of Isaiah–and for good reason, as there are serious roadblocks and detours one faces in traveling across Biblical terrain. For me, one of those is the hopelessness of Judges, a book pocked by disaster repeatedly not averted as God’s people stumble into holes that should have been better marked.
It starts as Joshua fades from the scene–strong, confident Joshua on whom Moses’ mantle rests and under whom the nation flourishes. But quickly that captain’s faith and action fades from memory, only to be replaced by urgent personal concerns: people do what is right in their own eyes. A vicious cycle ensues as people fail, seek God, experience revival and slip back into the mud. The text is as herky jerky as the people’s affections for God, slowing for a biography of Deborah or Samson, then speeding through several decades with a paragraph. Paradoxically, the writer seems both to linger and race for the end, fascinated by the train wreck of this age and eager to put this season to bed.
But those final chapters of Judges–for me, these are among the Bible’s most disturbing. The stories there are tragi-comic for the sheer intensity of emotion and foolishness on display: a mother recovers money her son has stolen and instructs him to use the funds to fashion an idol; a tribe conscripts the Levite who had come to that home as priest to join their band as they go marauding; another Levite, traveling with his concubine (still looking for a way that will preach), stops in Gibeah where the woman dies from abuse at the hands of the town’s citizens and is then dissected by the priest as a call to arms; as a result of this unspeakable act, an entire tribe is nearly obliterated…. You long for this book to end, except that you cannot help wonder what will follow.
There is not long to wait, for in the very next book, we have what looks like a sequel as Ruth unfolds “in the time of the Judges” (Ruth 1:1). Can I bear more of this? you ask, and not without reason. The opening paragraphs are depressing, for in short succession, we meet a famine and three deaths. We are seeing, it seems, the national malaise writ small as we track the life of a single family slammed with misfortune. An illustration, we might say after staggering through Judges, of reaping what you sow. And so it appears for a family that has left its ancestral home on account of a famine, married off its sons to women with sketchy reputations, lost its patriarch and then has no recourse but to return to the home that had previously been so inhospitable.
Naomi, the lone survivor from the group we had first met, voices the despair of a nation crushed by the weight of ignorance and oppression: what once was appealing, she says (and ‘Naomi’ is Hebrew for pleasant), is now repulsive (she takes a new name, Mara, a Hebrew adjective for bitter). Her assessment is a personal one, but it stands nicely for a more national dilemma, we might surmise. This bunch has screwed up, and now they’re reaping what they’ve sown.
And yet, the book is not named Naomi, or Mara, but Ruth–for there is a different focal point to this story, and another way of interpreting what is going on. Sly, this writer who is determined to push back against the weight of Judges with a seemingly simple tale that ends up counter-balancing years of foolishness. For with Ruth, hope lifts a corner of the dark veil over Israel and shines.
Naomi and Elimelech (his name says, My God is King), leave Bethlehem rather than succumb completely to a region-choking famine. There was solid precedent for this in Israel’s patriarchs, who readily bailed out of the land when crops failed. Indeed, it may well be that Elimelech was only one of many responsible parents who took this path as a way of providing for a family that would otherwise perish.
They leave before their sons have married, but again, there is precedent for seeking a spouse outside one’s tribe. Further, if we read back from a later point in the story, it may be that the Moabites they found for their sons were already God-fearers, people very like those who had always been on the fringe of Israel because of their interest in Israel’s God. So rather than seeing Orpah and Ruth as last resorts, it’s possible that Naomi and Elimelech had scoured their new homeland for women who shared their faith.
Elimelech dies, without fanfare, and without any indication that his death is retributive on account of faithlessness. The sons die as well, adding to Naomi’s tragedy, but again, this is not a situation unknown to others. Then the fortunes of Bethlehem change (how did Naomi know this–was she still in touch with folks ‘back home’? Did some from Bethlehem go looking for her? Was there a reverse exodus into Bethlehem by people who themselves were now facing famine?) and the widow decides to return. Her daughters-in-law ask to go with; she declines. Ruth persists and Naomi relents, after hearing Ruth’s wonderful declaration: Your people will be mine, your God mine, too. It’s a statement we hear at weddings, when people say more than they realize. For at weddings, a new wife is not voicing the hope that, coming from a people group that is typically held in low esteem by another, she will receive (but is not really guaranteed of) a warm reception. Rather, she is making a more absolute claim that the two of us are cut from the same cloth: we have similar values, commitments and aims. Ruth isn’t here telling us she’s switching teams from Moab to Israel in hopes of a better life; she’s describing the condition of her heart. She’s one of those ‘God-fearers’ that pop up routinely in the text–people who had no ‘right’ to know what they do because of their background but who, in light of their faith, insist they intend to latch on to the one true God.
The pair returns to Israel, to Bethlehem, and much more than geography changes. A new character is introduced, the winsome Boaz. “The Lord be with you!” we hear as we meet this wealthy landowner calling out to his employees. It is Boaz’s standard greeting and affirmation: he’s a guy who loves God, if the way he acts is any indication, and he wants that love of God to spill out on others. Boaz (the story takes some great turns–and takes longer to tell than to read…) eventually marries Ruth, to the delight of all, and they have a baby who will sire the father of David. King David, who will rightly erase most of the memory of what gave rise to the need for judges.
Such a great story, not least because it straps on to what looks hopeless and breathes the promise of life into what is nearly dead, or should be. And who of us doesn’t need a jolt of that as a new week begins?