Are Souls Gendered?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

The BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently created controversy by announcing that the role of the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a woman. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Doctor is an alien from a planet called Gallifrey whose species have not only the ability to travel in time, but also are able to “regenerate” into a new body instead of dying. The ability to regenerate was originally invented by the writers in order to keep the show going when the actor portraying the original doctor became too ill to continue working. (This literary tactic reminds me a bit of the “invention” of the transporter in Star Trek, which happened because it was less expensive than filming a spacecraft landing on different planets.) “Doctor Who” has been around since 1963, changing actors in the role every few years, and until now, the Doctor’s character has always been male. And some people object very strongly to that kind of gender fluidity, even in a fictional alien from a fictional planet. I have one Facebook friend, a fan of the show from the beginning, who says she will never watch it again.

One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is that it invites speculation about the nature of ultimate reality. What makes us human, and what is the essence of our individuality? “Star Trek”, which began its run about the same time as “Doctor Who” often dealt with these questions. In “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk eulogizes the alien character Spock, “Of all the souls I have known, he was the most human.”  Several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” dealt with this question in the character of Data.  In The Measure of a Man”, Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he a person or a thing? This question is revisited in “The Offspring”, where Data creates another android, Lal. He considers Lal to be his daughter after allowing her to choose her own gender and species. “Star Trek: Voyager” pushes the question a bit further in the ongoing character of the holographic Doctor. Do aliens have souls? Do androids? Holograms?  I suppose it depends on your definition of “soul”, but if you understand “soul” to mean the essence of a person, what makes “you” you, a unique individual, the answer  in all three cases is “yes”.

Fictional characters aside, what is the soul, and is gender an intrinsic part of it? The first creation story in Genesis says that humanity (Hebrew adam) was created in the image of God in both male and female variations. If God created both sexes in his own image, then either God is both male and female, or gender is irrelevant to personhood. I’m inclined to the latter interpretation as I do not understand God to be some kind of anthropomorphized hermaphrodite. “God is Spirit”, Jesus taught,  “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. 

Matthew relates a story in which some of Jesus’s theological opponents try to entrap him by setting up a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession in accordance with the Mosaic commands for levirate marriage. If there is life after death as Jesus claims, then whose property will the woman be? Jesus responds by saying that at the resurrection, marriage will no longer exist because people will be “like the angels in heaven” The woman won’t be anyone’s property because gender roles are apparently irrelevant in life after death.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul states that one’s relationship to Christ is not dependent on ethnic origin, gender, or social status. Faith (not intellectual belief, but trust in and loyalty to) is what is essential to that relationship. There are no second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. The kinds of things we like to use to categorize people into neat binary boxes are irrelevant.

Are souls gendered? I think not, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

 

Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.

Ezra/Nehemiah: Does God Want Us to Build Walls or Bridges?

 

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. (from Ezra 4)

Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.  I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task.  I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, my God.  (from Nehemiah 13)

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are set in the immediate postexilic period. As I mentioned in my post on Chronicles, the exile was really quite significant in the development of ethical monotheism. There was one God and he expected his people not only to believe, but to behave in certain ways. The people had been unfaithful in both belief and practice, and therefore God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the forced removal of its people to Babylon. I imagine that they had a fair amount of time think during this divine time-out, to ponder on what they might have done wrong and what they ought to do differently if given the chance.

Now, with the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the edict of Cyrus in 538 BC, those who wanted to do so were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. In large part through the leadership of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the layman, they worked to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The rebuilding projects did not go smoothly, partly because of lack of money, but also because of opposition from the people who were already living there.  Personally, I think the exclusionary demands of Ezra, Nehemiah, Jerubbabel, and other leaders served to exacerbate that opposition.

The people Ezra calls “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” were apparently Assyrians who had moved in at the time the Israelites were evicted, and were converts to Yahweh-worship. (This is where the Samaritans of Jesus’s time originated.) They weren’t Baal-worshiping pagans; they sincerely sought to worship the God of Israel, but for all intents and purposes, weren’t allowed to do so because they lacked the proper bloodlines. Israelite men who had married non-Israelite women were also required to send their wives and children away. Ezra and Nehemiah believed such harsh measures were needed in order to ensure that there would be no temptation to worship other gods.

I can understand where they were coming from; I really can. They didn’t want the people to fall under judgement for idolatry again. Their motives were right, but I think their methods were wrong. They thought the way to please God was to separate themselves from the rest of the world and thereby avoid contamination by it. I think  God prefers it when the people of God engage with the world in order to transform it. What would have happened, I wonder, if the God-fearing Assyrians who offered to help build the temple been allowed to do so, and the Hebrews used that as a teaching opportunity? What might have happened if the Hebrew men had remained with their families, and followed the Mosaic admonition that  “these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I like to think of the Bible as a great choir or orchestra composed of many voices, and we choose the voices to which we listen. Ezra and Nehemiah are two of those voices, but the melody is Jesus.  I cannot look at the life and teachings of Jesus and think that God wants us to build walls of separation between ourselves and those who are different from us. Jesus was the supreme bridge-builder in bridging the gap between God and humankind, but he also broke down  barriers separating people groups, and the early church seems to have taken that thought to heart. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If the Bible were a Harry Potter novel, Ezra and Nehemiah would want to exclude all the “mudbloods” from participation in the kingdom of God. God, however, is more Hufflepuff than Slytherin. He wants to include everybody. And that’s good news.

Ruth: Intimations of Inclusivity

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?  Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—  would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

The lovely little story of Ruth comes as a breath of fresh air, placed as it is in the Christian Bible following the bloody holy wars of Joshua and the cyclical anarchy of Judges. In the Hebrew Bible, it is placed in the Ketuvim, or Writings, a very varied collection which also includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Set “in the time of the judges”, the story tells of a famine which causes an Israelite family living near Bethlehem to cross the border into Moab and live there “for a while”, which turns out to be about ten years. During that time, the two sons grow up, marry Moabite women, and die, along with their father. The three widowed women must now decide what to do to survive. Naomi, the Israelite mother in the story, advises her daughters-in-law to return to their own people and start a new life. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and insists on returning to Bethlehem with her. When they arrive, she supports Naomi by gleaning, which was a physically demanding and possibly dangerous job for a single, young, female foreigner. After a few plot twists and turns worthy of a Jane Austen novel or BBC drama series, there is a happy ending. Ruth marries a good man; they live happily ever after; and she winds up being the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David.

What’s most interesting to me about this story is that the heroine in this story, Ruth, is an outsider, a Moabite. To say that Moabites were not well-tolerated by observantly religious Israelites would be an understatement. They were thought to be the descendants of the incestuous liaison between a drunken Lot and his older daughter. They were not helpful or hospitable to the Israelites in the time of their wilderness wanderings, and their religious practices included child sacrifice, among other bad things. There are a number of places in the Bible which explicitly command Israelites to avoid interaction and relationship with Moabites. For example. Deuteronomy states that “no Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation.” Nehemiah relates proudly that  “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.” In the book of Ezra, Israelites vow to divorce their foreign-born wives and send them away, along with their children as a sign of their faithfulness to God. “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 3 Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” 

And then we have this story of Ruth, which seems to run completely counter to that kind of thinking. Ruth’s marriage to Boaz is not only okay; but seems to be given a stamp of approval from God himself. She becomes the ancestress of the entire Davidic line of kings, and eventually of Jesus, the Son of God. Perhaps God is more inclusive than we think.  And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Deuteronomy: Not All Who Wander Are Lost

 

For the Lord your God has blessed you in all that you have done; He has known your wanderings through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing.

Deuteronomy, the final book of the Pentateuch, is crafted in the form of Moses’s final speeches to the people of Israel as they ready themselves to cross the Jordan and finally enter the long-Promised Land.  Most of the book concerns itself with reiterating various religious and civil laws, including the Ten Commandments and instructions for the Passover and other festival days. It ends with an account of the death of Moses, and the passing of his mantle of authority to Joshua.

Forty years of Israelite wanderings in the wilderness are summarized in the first couple of chapters, along with an explanation for their delayed entrance into the Promised Land. They weren’t yet ready to take possession of the land and live as God intended, which they demonstrated in spectacular fashion in the incident of the Golden Calf. So God leads them through a long period of what must have seemed pointless traipsing through an inhospitable land. The text gives the reason as one of punishment: forty years is needed for everyone in their unfaithful generation to die off and their places assumed by their children, who would hopefully make better choices. (Of course, they didn’t, but those are stories told in other books of the Bible)

But I wonder: the short passage above from Deuteronomy 2 indicates that the children of Israel were blessed in their wanderings. God was with them, and gave them everything they needed, in spite of their own mistakes and failures. Although their wanderings may have seemed purposeless to the casual observer, they did in fact have a purpose which was only seen in retrospect: they needed time to learn the ways of God. Can it be that even as we wander through our own lives, trying to make sense of all its unpredictable twists and turns, that God is with us, working to bring blessings out of the often unpleasant and uncomfortable messiness of life? Even when we are the guilty party in getting ourselves into a mess in the first place?  I think so.  And that’s good news.