This week I read the book of Ruth. It’s a short book–only four chapters. By publication time I may read something else, and if that happens then I’ll probably have other things to discuss here, but in the mean time I can say a few things about what I read and move on to another topic that has been on my mind a little bit.
First, Ruth. This book provides a short account of how a foreign woman became integrated into the genealogy of King David. Ruth was a Moabite, and she married one of the sons of Naomi and her husband (all the men do have names, but they die at the start of the story and they’re not really that important other than for establishing the Ruth feels a familial bond with Naomi despite being an in-law; it’s sort of like the starting scenario on Bunheads but without the dancing and terrible pacing). Naomi is an Israelite, and when her sons and husband die, she decides to move back home instead of living as an alien widow in another country. She releases her daughters-in-law from their obligation to her, and one of them chooses to go back to her own family; Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, putting herself in the position of the alien widow living in another country. When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean wheat behind the workers of her relative Boaz, presumably because he’s kin and she knows that he won’t have his workers chase Ruth away or beat her for taking part of their harvest. One thing leads to another, Ruth has a sexual encounter with Boaz, and Boaz goes before the elders of the town to get another cousin of Naomi’s to give up his right to marry Ruth and carry on her first husband’s line. Ruth marries Boaz, and everyone lives happily ever after.
This is a simple, straightforward story that provides a glimpse of compassion carried out in a social system that could be less than compassionate. Even before Boaz decides to pursue marrying Ruth he’s depicted as a kind person who gives her and Naomi grain to make bread for themselves rather than letting them glean. He recognizes that there is an order to things, and someone who’s more closely related to Naomi has right of first refusal to take Ruth as a wife, so he acts in the socially preferred way all the while clearly having a desire to marry Ruth himself, presumably because he has fallen in love with her. Still, if you subtract the element of romantic love, what we see from Boaz is someone who recognizes when people whom he has limited obligation to are in need and goes beyond what would be mandated to do what is right. That’s admirable stuff, especially when you remember the context is that Naomi is a widow who has been away from home for a couple decades at least, and Ruth is a foreign woman with no prospects at all. Boaz gets nothing out of his generosity here (I mean, besides the fact that he clearly finds Ruth attractive), but he understands the right thing to do and does it.
So I like the book of Ruth; it’s short, simple, and straightforward in its message.
The other thing that I’ve been thinking about in the last few days is on the personal nature of God. In expressing my frustration with the practice of reading the Bible daily last week, someone reached out to me to offer their thoughts on the whole quiet time concept. One thing they pointed out was that they felt like it was meant to be part of an ongoing conversation between a person and God. Many of the texts of the Bible purport to reveal the character of God, which is a perfectly valid purpose for any religious text. What the comment got me thinking about though was about the whole aspect of evangelical Christianity that emphasizes the idea of the “personal relationship” with God and Jesus. I don’t know if this is a phenomenon that’s peculiar to white evangelicalism. I can see where it comes from; if you assume that the Bible is divinely inspired, and your definition of divine inspiration is built on the idea that God dictated each word and phrase to the authors of all the Bible’s texts, then it is reasonable to suggest that the Bible acts as a conduit for direct conversation with God.
I totally get that.
The problem is this: what if you don’t understand inspiration in that way? God is very much a subject of the texts of the Bible, and I think it’s a collection of writing that’s valuable for understanding the traditions that gave rise to early Christianity. In the sense that the Bible is about God, I think it’s divinely inspired. You have generations of writers presenting ever refining iterations on what they believe the character of God must be. I’m just not the kind of Christian who believes that the Bible is a book from God anymore. The fact that I prefer to describe it as a set of texts rather than as a unified document with a unified, divine author is testament to that.
So with this shift in hermeneutic, I find myself trying to figure out what my new angle is supposed to be. The model that I’ve actually been drawn back to repeatedly is the one presented in Judaism. In addition to the Torah, which is treated as scripture, the Jewish tradition also has the Talmud, which is the collected commentary from rabbis about the Torah. Part of religious engagement in Judaism requires reading Talmud, which (at the risk of probably being overly reductive) is a formalized method of grappling with the theological perspectives of others and learning to position yourself within that ongoing conversation. Rachael pointed out to me recently that one of the major advantages of this model is that it trains adherents to become comfortable with existing within a tradition with lots of disagreement among fellow practitioners. The ahistorical, God-wrote-every-book-themselves approach to reading the Bible pushes Christians towards a more isolationist attitude, I think (this is a pitfall of the non-magisterial approach of Protestantism in general).
So when I recalibrate my understanding of what I’m doing when I read the Bible, I think that I need to take into account the reality of conversation within my faith tradition. If I’m going to continue with quiet times, I think the next logical step for me may be looking for texts outside the Bible to meditate on different aspects of God. Being reminded that the faith is a communal project that’s been in progress for millennia is a really comforting idea, and one I’d like to pursue more.