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.

1 comment:

Father Ron said...

For me, Bishop Peter, the over-riding, overwhleming, message of the Gospel is contained - not in human philosophical semantics, but in the charism of LOVE:

John 15:10-12

"If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you".

We can only love others in a right spirit when we have asctually experienced the love of God for us - in all our trials and tribulations: "This is MY Commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you!" - Jesus.

I'll always remember hearing one of my Franciscan Brothers preaching on this theme. He asked the congregation if they were aware of how much God loved them. He then held out his arms wide (like Jesus on the Cross) and said "This much". That spoke volumes to me at the time, and still does.

I also remember, in the Church of Santa Chiara (Clare) in Assisi on the Feast of Pentecost, the Friar preacher standing in the pulpit for a minute's silence, before looking out on the large congregation and repeating the words: "Amore di Deo, amore di Deo!" (The love of God). We did not need to actually understand the language of the rest of the sermon. The Joy in his delivery told us all he wanted to say - and all we needed to hear!

Deo Gratias! Happy All Saints-tide!