Friday, March 16, 2012

Thoughts on Ruth

The Cotton Pickers (Winslow Homer, 1876), LACMA (Public Domain) 
Previously, I discussed what I consider to be one of the most important but greatly ignored themes in Ruth in “Sometimes a Woman's Got to Do What a Woman's Got to Do,” which connected the Ruth 3 scene with Hosea 9:1’s statement about prostitute’s wages on the threshing floors. For my reading last year, however, I turned my attention to what might be called the “Tamar Problem.”

As many of you know, as a teen, I was taught the perspective of Tylerite Christian Reconstructionism, a theonomist movement that looked to the Mosaic Law for guidance on how to create a perfect society, God’s millennial kingdom here on earth. The belief is that, rather than following basic ideas such as “Love thy neighbor” from the Bible and applying common sense to real life situations, Christians need to follow the case law down to the jot and tittle. Of course, this view is not immune to debate. Proponents aren’t in agreement on how to divide the Pentateuch into “judicial law,” “moral law,” and “ceremonial law,” nor can they settle on how to appropriately reinterpret ancient codes for today’s cultures, political systems, and economies. Both are key to deciding which specific laws Christians should place themselves under to usher in a believer’s utopia.

Unfortunately for Christians who hold this view, it’s clear that following the law doesn’t guarantee that everything will go smoothly. Case in point: the apocryphal story of Susanna, in which an innocent woman is legally condemned by the testimony of two witnesses. What’s missing from the discussion is the human element. “Doing the right thing” cannot and will not guarantee perfect results, something clearly lost on most advocates of Christian dating, courtship, and betrothal and the wait-and-be-content doctrine. There are too many variables in life for formulaic-driven orthopraxy.

The story of Ruth illustrates this problem. In 1:11-13, Naomi wisely informs her daughters-in-law that it was unrealistic to expect customary levirate marriages (c.f. Deuteronomy 25:5-10) when she’s too old to bare any more sons.*Perhaps she was thinking of Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar patiently waiting out the best years of her life for a third husband to grow up after his older brothers incurred the wrath of God (Genesis 38). Orpah and Ruth had no foreseeable future with Naomi, save relying on the kindness and charity of strangers (Ruth 2). The system would work as stated, when two brothers, men old enough to testify in public, lived in the same household at the same time, but was extremely inefficient when applied on a more general scale.

Now, for spiritual reasons unknown to us, Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law, despite the unlikely prospect of ever finding a husband. Perhaps she, like the girl in Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Pickers, looked up from gleaning and asked herself, “Is there anything more to life than this?” Or maybe she was too intently focused on her immediate survival. Yet Naomi remained dissatisfied with the arrangement, instead preferring to scheme Ruth a way out of the endless drudgery of field work (Ruth 3:1), and Ruth complied by chasing a man who technically wasn’t supposed to be her target. Rather than the happy ending coming “because of” a flawless “kinsman redeemer” system, it might make more sense to say that, through God’s grace towards a pagan woman, everything worked out in the end “in spite of” it.

*Oddly enough, to do this, Naomi probably would’ve had to marry Boaz or the other relative.