Monday, October 26, 2020

A Moabitess set loose in the House of Israel, contrary to the Law?

 Two weeks ago I posted about a quirk in the Book of Ruth - a quirk which highlights that what we call "Scripture" or "the Bible" is complicated. In this case the complication is the difference between how even the original text (Hebrew) is written and how it has been read (by Hebrew speaking Jewish scholars who compiled the standard Hebrew manuscripts used in our English translations. I noted that how one word is written in Ruth 4:5 is reflected in a recent translation (REB) but how it has been read is reflected in most other translations I have to hand on my shelves.

This kind of complication is not the only complication in Scripture when we dig into it and the Book of Ruth illustrates another kind. My guide in this post continues to be the JPS Bible Commentary Ruth by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Philadelphia, 2011). The complication discussed here is change to our understanding of the Law of Moses within the pages of Scripture itself.

Ruth was a Moabitess who had married an Israelite (Ruth 1:1-5). The Moabites were descended from an incestuous liaison between Lot and his older daughtet. Numbers 21-22 tells the story of the king of Moab seeking to destroy Israel in the wilderness. Numbers 25:1 reports that Israelite men profaned themselves on the eve of entering the promised land with Moabite women. Thus in Deuteronomy 23:4-7 the Moabites are denounced in no uncertain terms: they are specifically excluded from the community of Israel. Further, Deuteronomy 23:8-9 follows up the immediately prior exclusion of Moabites but affirming that Edomite and Egyptian offspring of Israelite spouses are able to be included in the third generation. 

How can Ruth become an ancestor of David when neither she nor her offspring should have existence within the community of Israel according to unambiguous Law of Moses?

In the Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky commentary it is pointed out that rabbinic commentators were alive to this difficulty, for instance, arguing that the Deuteronomic passage applyed solely to men and/or that Ruth converted to the faith of Israel (as a possibility pertaining to Moabite women but not to Moabite men) (pp. xlv - xlvii).

But Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky observe that within Scripture there are "competing traditions" about Moabites:

"Interestingly, Deuteronomy also preserves a different tradition about the Moabites in which the Moabites welcome the Israelites during their wilderness trek (Deut. 2:26-29). The coexistence of competing traditions suggests that the debate about Moabite status was already embedded within Deuteronomy and reflects different hands or changes in attitudes over time." (pp. xlvii-xlviii)

That is, the deeper we dig into what Scripture says, the more we have to ponder about how the "one" Scripture nevertheless includes "more than one" perspective on matters of importance.

The Book of Ruth also figures, in respect of competing traditions about intermarriage.

It is well-known, for instance, that biblical accounts in Ezra-Nehemiah strongly oppose intermarriage between Israelites and people of other nations. On the one hand this "post Exilic" writing reflects the vulnerability of Israel as it is reconstituted in its own land. On the other hand it is not the only postExilic voice which reflects on Israel among the nations. Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky note that, in contrast to the exclusivity of Ezra-Nehemiah,

"Isa. 56:3-7 (also likely from the fifth or fourth century B.C.E.) promises the foreigner a venerable place in God's house." (p. xli)

In respect of Ruth, our commentators observe that,

"her story functions as a counterpoint to the negative attitude toward Moabite and other foreign women in the biblical accounts in Ezra-Nehemiah. In its own biblical context, then, the Book of Ruth exemplifies a way that a Moabite woman can marry a Judean and join the community, despite what we read in Deut. 23. Rabbinic sources will seek a basis for reconciling the tension between Ruth's place in the Jewish community and Deut. 23:4-7 regarding Moabites." (p. xlv)

In other words, on the questions of (i) intermarriage between Israel and other nations, and (ii) exclusion or otherwise of Moabites from existence within Israel, the Scripture of Israel (the Christian Old Testament) do not speak with one voice.

It is not so much that we then conclude the Old Testament contradicts itself as that we observe that within the Old Testament there are signs of lively debate on matters critical to Israel's identity as God's people.

Within the New Testament we also see signs of lively debate - not all of which is resolved neatly (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 11:16 on a particular, but relatively small matter; and Romans/Galatians and James on a relatively large matter concerning salvation via faith and/or works, with considerable importance for major difference within Western Christianity, between Protestants and Roman Catholics).

One of the questions for the church in the world today, which all too often seems to want to present binary solutions for discussion with a disposition to choosing (or imposing) but one option for permanent solution, is whether "faithfulness to Scripture" is understood, or not, as openness to lively and continuing debate.

Monday, October 19, 2020

True Christianity marches through the institutions, including the church?

My attention has been drawn to an article which sets out the history of the recent schism in our church (here). The article is well researched and well written and interviews some of our key religious, academic commentators. Not sure about the headline the sub-editor has given it!

Now, this post is NOT about the schism and I may or may not publish your comment if you are going to comment about the schism.

In the course of the article it quotes Peter Lineham, arguably the most well informed observer of our Kiwi religious landscape.

"That’s led to uncertainty about organised religion’s future. “The whole idea that religion can be held together through institutional structures could just be wrong,” mulled Lineham. “A lot of religiosity today is not neatly confined within traditional frameworks, as [it] used to be. And issues like [homosexuality or transgender rights], which institutions make such heavy weather of, most individuals navigate around much more easily.”"

Now, again, for clarity and for deterrance of possible comments, this post is not about issues like homosexuality or transgender rights, nor about whether institutions are making heavy weather of them compared to individuals.

The question here, the point Peter Lineham makes, which seems worth pondering (albeit at risk of making me positionally redundant) is that of whether institutions [churches in the case of Christianity] are needed to "hold religion together"?

Of course, as a simple statement of fact it is true, "A lot of religiosity today is not neatly confined within traditional frameworks, as it used to be."

It is also true that there is a way of reading the story of Jesus of Nazareth and then of his apostle, Paul of Tarsus, as the story of the breaking down of the "institution" of Judaism (as then experienced) and as the story of a religiosity - the dynamics of the Christian experience in the First Century - which could not be confined in frameworks as traditioned in the consciousness of those who became the first Christians.

What do you think?

For myself, I can see that the church is often an institution (and, on many matters, not only those most controversial, makes heavy weather of things).

But the church reads the gospel. It always has a shot at being what it is meant to be!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

I just love it when ...

... I discover something new in the pages of Scripture, especially when it is a little bit quirky.

So, if you would like a post on the profundity of Anglicanism, please read or reread last week's post on "Participation". 

If you would like some biblical quirkiness then read on.

It begins a little while ago when the Dean of Dunedin, Tony Curtis, gave an illuminating talk on the Book of Ruth. It got me realising that my commentary shelves are a bit light on Ruth and, natch, I ordered a new commentary.

It is the JPS Bible Commentary Ruth by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky (Philadelphia, 2011).

So far I am making my way each night before lights out a few paragraphs at a time through the Introduction - some 70+ pages of erudition, beautifully written.

Yes, yes, I know, normal people read romantic novels and not commentaries on romantic novels!

Anyway, anyhoo.

A vexed question or three in respect of the lovely and flourishing romance between Ruth and Boaz concerns the nature of the law or lore or custom concerning the contracting of a marriage in ancient Israel between people with some kind of kinship tie.

For instance, is the marriage between Ruth and Boaz a "levirate marriage" - a marriage between a man and a childless widow of the man's deceased relative, contracted with the intention of producing a child who will continue the deceased relative's name.

This is discussed in the above commentary from page xxxii to xxxviii and concludes,

"But if levirate marriage does not serve as the rationale for the union between Boaz and Ruth, why does Boaz marry Ruth? And why does he go about it in the complicated, confusing manner described in the book?" (xxxviii)

The next discussion in the Introduction sets out to answer these questions.

Along the way of the levirate discussion my interest was piqued by its discussion of Ruth 4:5 which raises the question whether Boaz says to the nearer "redeemer" on the question of acquiring some land held in the name of Ruth's deceased husband, that, simultaneously, "I will acquire Ruth" or "You will acquire Ruth."

It happens that the Bible I keep at hand by my bed is the Revised English Bible, which I looked up. It reads,

"Boaz continued: 'On the day you take over the field from Naomi, I take over the widow, Ruth the Moabite, so as to perpetuate the name of the dead man on his holding'."

There is no footnote indicating an alternative reading. Something in my memory suggested this was an unusual reading.


The NRSV has,

"Then Boaz said, 'The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man's name on his inheritance."

Although there is a footnote indicating a variation in the Old Latin, Vulgate text, it is not a variation which concerns us here re "I acquire" or "You acquire".

Following the NRSV are the CEB, GNB, NEB, NJB, and NIV.

Is the REB an outlier? If one major translation can differ from others, why not mutually informative footnotes re the viability of the two possible readings?

Back to Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky. Their explanation of the possibility of two different translations is this:

"it is uncertain whether the unnamed redeemer is told that he has acquired Ruth - or will acquire her, when he redeems the land - or whether Boaz himself is acquiring Ruth. The interpretation depends upon whether one follows the written consonantal text (ketiv), kaniti, which seems to mean, "I will acquire" (namely I, Boaz) or whether one follows the Masoretic reading instructions (kerey), kanita, which means "you will acquire" (i.e. the other man). The latter would mean that the redeemers, as a redeeemer, is obligated to take the widow, an expectation not connected with any biblical law of redemption. Because redemption, not levirate marriage, has been the only subject discussed by Ruth (3:9) and Boaz (3:10-13 and 4:3-5), and because nothing indicates either the other redeemer or Boaz is a levir, Boaz's statement stands in tension with all known biblical laws." (page xxxvi)

That is, for those unfamiliar with how Jewish reading and interpretation of the text of the books we Christians call the Old Testament works, sometimes what is written in the text (usually meaning the Masoretic Text) is deemed to be not right and an alternative reading is offered in the margin of the text, a writing down of a spoken or recited tradition in respect of the text. The latter is the kerey. The former is the ketiv.

Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky observe, on p. 76, 

"As a rule, the Masoretes and Rabbinic halakhah consider the kerey the preferred reading of the text."

So, the NRSV etc (indeed, Eskenazi and Frymer-Nkensky themselves) follow the kerey. The REB is a bit of an outlier, following the ketiv.

There you go!

Isn't that more interesting than an ordinary romantic novel?

But, wait, there is more. Next week, or soon after, I will come back to some other points of great and relevant interest in the Book of Ruth.

Maybe our reflection till then could be, 

"What is the actual text of Scripture, from which we seek a "literal" translation?"

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Participation: God in the world; our deification; our ecumenical fellowship

I was very helped in sermon prep this past week by reading a review in Church Times.

The review prompted a bit of a trawl into the subject of "participation" - more on the review and the trawl below - and led to me offering the following thought this morning when celebrating the re-opening of St David's Belfast, a Hurst Seagar church here in Christchurch, which recently has undergone restoration of its woodwork, new and improved lighting (which show off the woodwork), better heating, a new font and new communion rails.

That thought was that it is a mistake to drive a wedge between church as people and church as building because while church as people is important to God (e.g. 1 Peter 2:1-10, our epistle reading), so is church as building because church buildings represent the participation of God in creation as God gifts to us wood and stone and grants to humanity gifts of design and craftmanship.

The review which caught my eye was by Paul Avis (who else!) and it was on the 2021 book by Paul Anthony Dominiak, Richard Hooker: The Architecture of  Participation.

The Amazon blurb is:

"Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity has long been acknowledged as an influential philosophical, theological and literary text. While scholars have commonly noted the presence of participatory language in selected passages of Hooker's Laws, Paul Anthony Dominiak is the first to trace how participation lends a sense of system and coherency across the whole work.

Dominiak analyses how Hooker uses an architectural framework of 'participation in God' to build a cohesive vision of the Elizabethan Church as the most fitting way to reconcile and lead English believers to the shared participation of God.

First exploring Hooker's metaphysical architecture of participation in his accounts of law and the sacraments, Dominiak then traces how this architecture structures cognitive participation in God, as well as Hooker's political vision of the Church and Commonwealth. The volume culminates with a summary of how Hooker provides a salutary resource for modern ecumenical dialogue and contemporary political retrievals of participation."

Hooker himself does not say much directly about "participation" and no doubt Dominiak's thesis will be critiqued in terms of whether he rightly takes those few things as setting out the architecture of Hooker's thought. The five critical things Hooker says which catalyse Dominiak's thesis are:

"all things in the world are said in some sort to seek the highest, and to covet more or less the participation of God himself" (I.5.2)

"‘No good is infinite but only God: therefore he our felicitie and blisse. Moreover desire tendeth unto union with that it desireth. If then in him we be blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with him’." (I.11.2)

"how God is in Christ, then how Christ is in us, and how the sacramentes doe serve to make us pertakers of Christ" (V.50.3)

"Participation is that mutual inward hold which Christ hath of us and wee of him, in such sort that each possesseth other by waie of speciall interest propertie and inherent copulation" (V.56.1)

"wee are therefore adopted sonnes of God to eternall life by participation of the onlie begotten Son of God, whose life is the wellspringe and cause of oures" (V.56.7).

Dominak's book, incidentally, is fearsomely expensive, but the doctoral thesis on which it is based is obtainable here

Naturally for a monograph which is demanding for even the most academic amongst us, a review helps to understand, and to relate the importance of the book to those of us without time to dive into the dense depths of Dominiak's scholarship.

In his review, Avis makes this point which connects to some recent threads of comments here on ADU, and which generally touches on that age old chestnut, that somewhere between Jesus of Nazareth and what Christians think today, a terrible Hellenistic corruption changed plain peasant parables into a sophisticated theology which falsely transformed a radical rabbi into God Incarnate:

"As Dr Dominiak shows, the idea that binds the Platonic philosophical-mystical tradition and Christian, biblical, theology together is participation in God. Though, until recently, the idea of participation in God through grace has been largely neglected in Anglican theology, it is found, not only in Hooker, but in his near-contemporary Lancelot Andrewes and in the subsequent High Church tradition. We also see it in the Cambridge Platonists, John Keble, E. B. Pusey, F. D. Maurice, B. F. Westcott, Charles Gore, William Temple, Michael Ramsey, and Rowan Williams, to name but a few.

To hold this doctrine and to live by it, we need to believe that God has poured God’s power, goodness, and beauty into the creation; that the incarnation has elevated and transfigured human nature; that the sacraments are effective means of union with the Triune God; and that the Holy Spirit never ceases to energise and purify the Church."


"Participation in God connects with the mysterious text in 2 Peter 1.4: “that you may become partakers of the divine nature”. The concept of “divinisation” or theosis, found particularly in the Orthodox tradition, is viewed with suspicion by those who believe that it transgresses the boundary between Creator and creation, divinity and humanity.

But Dominiak shows that deification has many shades of meaning and that such fears are misplaced. He brings together “participation” and the key biblical concept of ecumenical theology, koinonia (fellowship, communion). He suggests that Hooker’s doctrine of participation can be a bridge to closer agreement with the Orthodox Churches."

There is a lot to reflect on here.

What excites me (apart from a helpful insight towards the construction of this morning's sermon) here is:

- claiming Hooker's place in that "best of all theology" pantheon, where the great theologians help us ordinary Christians understand the involvement of God in our lives, in the world we live in along with the purpose of our lives in relation to God;

- setting out how the depths of Hooker's thought relates to the simplest of Christian concepts: fellowship;

- offering a vision for the universal church: all who participate in the God who participates in them may have fellowship with one another.