Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 2

In this chapter, Samuel ministers before the LORD while the sons of Eli do evil.

This chapter begins with the song of Hannah, whose primary theme seems to be the reversal of fortunes between those who are strong and those who are weak.  The proud are humbled before the LORD, while the barren woman (Hannah herself) "gives birth to seven [sons]".  Seven, as before, is the number of completion or fullness, so this metaphorically indicates the completion of the barren woman's restoration to favor.  While much of the song is devoted to showing that the LORD controls the fortune of all persons and can make the rich become poor, or the poor become rich, she concludes by stating the pattern underlying this behavior: the LORD "keeps the feet of his godly ones, but the wicked ones are silenced in darkness."  In his strength and power, the LORD judges men by their righteousness.

Verse 10 contains an interesting admission: "he will give strength to his king."  Which king does this refer to, since there is no king over Israel at this time?  I say this ironically.  This verse is probably a slight anachronism, referring to the king who would shortly emerge over Israel.  Indeed, Samuel himself will anoint this king, so Hannah actually plays a role bringing about the kingdom that she anticipates in her song.

Verse 12 tells us that the sons of Eli were literally "the sons of Belial; they did not know the LORD".  Belial is one of the idolatrous gods of Canaan.  It tells us that the priest's servant would take a piece of meat from each offering while the fat was still on it.  If the person offering the sacrifice complained, they would threaten violence until their demands were met.

Taking meat from the offerings is not a sin.  In fact, this is how the priests would make a living.  Certain kinds of offerings had to be completely burnt, but most offerings only required a small portion to be burned, always including the fat from the animal.  The rest of the meat would sometimes be eaten by the petitioner (in the case of a fellowship offering), but in most cases would be given to the priest.  In all cases, eating the fat was a grave sin and is prohibited several times (see e.g. Lev 3:17: "you shall not eat any fat or any blood", or Lev 7:22-27, which says the same thing in more detail).  Verse 17 tells us that their sin was very great, and Leviticus explains in more detail how their behavior was sinful.  As priests, they should be intimately aware of the Law's regulations governing animal sacrifice, so they don't really have any excuses.  If my readers want to learn more about how the Law of Moses governed animal sacrifices, I encourage them to read Leviticus chapters 1-7, which I have previously covered in my commentary (beginning here).

Samuel, on the other hand, is ministering before the LORD in a linen ephod (the priestly garment).  As I said when discussing the previous chapter, Samuel is an Ephraimite, but ministering before the LORD as if he were a Levite.  On the other hand, the sons of Eli are called "sons of Belial", even though biologically they are sons of Levi and have the right to minister in the Tabernacle.

Hannah, for her part, is blessed by the LORD and gives birth to 5 more children.  This is the last we ever hear about Hannah, but we can rest assured that the LORD "visited" her and she has what we can only presume is a blessed life of one sort or another.

On the other hand, it appears the sinfulness of the sons of Eli continue, as they also have sex with the "women who served at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting".  I would guess these are Levite women, but there wasn't any place in the Law of Moses that their service is stipulated.  Polygamy is not against the Law (indeed, Elkanah himself came to the Tabernacle with two wives), but we can easily hypothesize that the behavior of Eli's sons constituted adultery or prostitution or some form of sexual immorality.  Maybe they used their positions of power to coerce the women into sex?  The text doesn't really say, but it's evidently bad.

Eli rebukes his sons. but evidently he does not do enough to stop them.  He "honors [his] sons above me".  An anonymous "man of God" comes to deliver a rebuke to Eli, promising that his family will perish even while the LORD is doing good for Israel at large.  The LORD will raise up a faithful priest (Samuel), "and he will walk before my anointed one always".  The "anointed" is a reference to the future king, whom Samuel himself with anoint with oil as a symbol of the LORD's favor.

If there's one big point to this chapter, it's to draw a contrast between the sinfulness of Eli's sons. the next generation of priests being raised up, and the faithfulness of Samuel.  Samuel is "adopted", in the sense that he comes from another tribe, while the sons of Eli are descendants of Aaron but nevertheless do a lot of wrong stuff.  This reminds me of Jacob and Esau.  Esau was by right the elder son, but Jacob became the son of the promise, the father of the nation that inherited the promised land.  Similarly, Ephraim was younger than Manasseh, but Ephraim was blessed by Jacob to be greater than his brother (Gen 48:13-20).  In this case it is Samuel, the outsider, who is righteous, while the natural-born Levites are sinning in the LORD's presence.

I called it a "paradox" that Samuel gets to serve with the Levites.  This chapter shows us that Samuel is more righteous than the men born into the priestly service, and in a way that is a second paradox.  Like in Hannah's song, the men who were born into power and influence in the priestly service are going to be thrown down, while Samuel who is born as an Ephraimite will "walk before my anointed one always".  This is a second, and more subtle, fulfillment of Hannah's song.  It doesn't matter what family you are born into, if you honor the LORD, the LORD will honor you (v. 30).  The LORD cares more about faithfulness and righteousness than having the right ancestors.  It was kind of the same way with Ruth, who was born a Moabite, but adopted into Israel because of her faithfulness to Naomi and righteousness before the LORD.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 1

In this chapter, Samuel is born.

The story in this chapter should sound vaguely familiar.  Hannah, like many other figures in the OT, is barren.  Before this, we read about the barrenness of Sarah (Gen 17-18), Rebekah (Gen 25), Rachel (Gen 29-30) and Manoah's wife, the mother of Samson (Judges 13).  In two of these cases (Sarah and Manoah's wife), the birth of their son was foretold by an angel.  In the case of Rebekah and Rachel, this did not happen.

In fact, this is even more similar to the case of Rachel because in that episode, Jacob loved Rachel, and the LORD "opened [Leah's] womb" because he "saw that Leah was unloved".  Rachel remained barren for some years, until the "LORD remembered" her in Gen 30:22.  Here in 1st Samuel (what I will typically refer to as 1 Samuel), there seems to be a similar conflict between Hannah and Peninnah.  Elkanah loves Hannah more and favors her, but Peninnah has children while Hannah is barren.

Hannah, just like Rachel, is destined to give birth to a son.  Just like Rachel, it is a real battle for her, however.  Rachel gave birth to Joseph, who turned into a heroic figure for his brothers and father, saving them from a famine.  Hannah will also give birth to a heroic figure, the eponymous Samuel, but only after bitter tears and prayer.

To me, this chapter is a reminder of why polygamy doesn't work.  We saw Rachel and Leah in conflict for years, with Leah feeling unloved and Rachel feeling like a failure for her barrenness.  In this chapter, we see Peninnah provoking and harassing Hannah for years, and Elkanah is about as useless as Jacob (compare Gen 30:2 with 1 Samuel 1:8).

Eli is similarly clueless, unable to distinguish prayer from drunkenness.  As an aside, this makes me wonder if it was a common thing for drunkards to wander into the tabernacle (presumably the courtyard, as the holy place is inaccessible to non-priests).  I mean, is this something that Eli is used to, such that he expected it of Hannah as well?  Remember the context; we are still living in the Judges period, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes".

The birth of Samuel is not predicted by an angel (nor was the birth of Joseph), but Eli blessed Hannah and "the LORD remembered her", just like he remembered Rachel.  Like Samson, Samuel is devoted to the LORD as a Nazirite when Hannah swears that "a razor shall never come on his head".  What is perhaps even more interesting is that Hannah brings Samuel to live before the LORD for the rest of his life, even though he is an Ephraimite.  Remember that service to the LORD is considered the "inheritance" of the Levites.  So I'm very curious what kind of form Samuel's service will take.  Will he be informally inducted as a Levite, or is he just brought in as a servant to Eli and the priests?  If I had to guess, I would suspect that Samuel is not permitted to serve inside the Tabernacle.  It seems contrary to the Law that he would be allowed to do so, and yet later chapters in this book suggest he does just that.

Partly, I think we can ascribe this to the craziness of the Judges era, but it's also clear that the LORD favors and supports Samuel in his ministry (this will become evident in later chapters), even though Samuel is not a Levite and doesn't have a position under the Law of Moses to minister before the LORD.  This is one of the paradoxes of the OT, where God seems to be supporting something that runs contrary to the letter of the Law.  To me, this points to a higher law, like what is expressed in the ten commandments.  If you love the LORD, have no other gods before him, and live in his service, it seems that other parts of the Law are more ... flexible?  I'm not sure exactly how to express this concept, but I think Samuel's service is definitely a paradox of some kind, and it shows that the Law of Moses is not immutable, even in the eyes of the LORD.  I don't know what I'm trying to say, other than that it is very interesting.  I wonder how it should be properly interpreted.

On a minor note, Elkanah and his family are traveling to the Tabernacle is Shiloh to observe the three annual feasts that were laid out in the Law.  Even through this chaotic period in Israel's history, we can see that at least some of the people are observing the commandments.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel Introduction

With Ruth and the judges behind us, we are now on the cusp of entering the kingdom period in Israel's history.  Indeed, in this very book a king is going to be anointed over Israel, to unite the warring tribes, lead the people into battle, and guide them into righteousness and the Law.

Or at least that's the theory.  In practice, we will see many kings spend an awful lot of time leading people into battle and very little time with righteousness and the Law.

1 Samuel, sometimes called 1st Samuel, is the first half of what was originally a single composition, the book of Samuel.  At some point in history (possibly the Septuagint) the book was divided roughly into two halves, named as such.  My readers will notice that the final chapter of 1 Samuel is not really much of a conclusion, and thematically the book blends with the second half very closely.

The authorship and dating of Samuel shares many of the same difficulties as finding the authorship and dating of Judges and Ruth.  The book does not name its own author, and while the events described by the book can be dated, the book does not date its own composition either.  As with most books of the bible, there is a "traditional" author that is listed in the Talmud, and there is one or more "modern" guesses at the authorship.  The traditional author is Samuel himself, while the "modern" guesses usually suggest that the book was composed by multiple authors over some period of time in the 6th or 7th century BCE.  The traditional theory is that the book is a singular work written in one man's lifetime, while the modern theory is that the book is a patchwork of older oral traditions written down and edited and revised until it stabilized into a final form.

It's not my purpose to analyze these theories in depth.  In general, I think if we needed to know who the author was, we would have been told.  That's not to say that figuring out the author would be meaningless, but given that this is a 2600 year old book, it's nearly impossible at this point to come up with a definitive authorship for Samuel, so I think there are more meaningful avenues of investigation, such as the theology, history and culture of the book, rather than trying to figure out who might have written it down.

I'm going to move on.

The content of Samuel is almost entirely stories about people's lives: Saul and Samuel and David.  I think it's one of the easiest books to read in the OT, because it is strictly narrative, and a lot of the stories are actually quite interesting.  I also think it is very well written.  So this is a really good book for first-time readers, and it should be fun to write commentary for as well.

Thematically, 1 Samuel covers the history of Israel's earliest king, from how he was anointed as king over Israel to his death.  This man is king Saul.  King Saul is a literary foil in this story, brought out for the almost sole purpose of showing us what a bad king would look like.  Saul is also a demonstration of the futility and destruction that results when people make decisions without appealing to the LORD for wisdom and guidance.  In that sense, it's similar to the story in Joshua 9 when the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites into signing a peace treaty.

The interplay between Saul and David is probably the most important part of this story.  In particular, we will observe how David, even after being anointed as Saul's replacement, continues to live in deference to Saul, whom he calls "the LORD's anointed", because Saul was anointed before David.  Even when Saul is trying to kill David, David hides and runs away.  When David has it in his power to kill Saul, he declines.  This happens more than once.  I don't want to discuss those stories in depth right now, but I want my readers to focus on how these experiences shape David throughout his life, and think about how they might affect his future kingship.

What I love about 1 Samuel is this: for nearly every other biblical figure, I always wonder about their backstory and how they got to be the men or women that they are.  I wondered about Ruth's story, why she remained faithful to Naomi, and I wondered about Abraham, how he became a righteous man, and about Moses, and many others.  With David, we actually get to see a lot of his backstory before he becomes king, and that story is here.  We see David taken from being a rugged shepherd boy and grow into the rather daunting figure that he becomes.  More significantly, we can see how he is emotionally shaped as he struggles through adversity, and how he grows in humility and dependence on the LORD.

I can't think of anything else I want to add, so let's just dive right in.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 4

In this chapter, Boaz acquires the property of Elimelech and marries Ruth.

As Boaz promised in the last chapter, he goes to meet with this "close relative" who has priority over his claim to Elimelech's inheritance.  From this encounter, we see many details of how Israelite society functioned.

In particular, what we see here is more or less a legal proceeding.  Everything takes place at the city gate, which is where such things happened.  "Those who sit at the gates" is an expression that refers to the elders of a city, those who are honored in the city.  They are like the ten elders who Boaz gathers to witness his dealing with the "close relative".  Their testimony is what Boaz would rely on if there was any future dispute, so witnessing a legal transaction implies a level of reliability.

Some examples of this: Gen 19:1, Lot was sitting in the city gate of Sodom when the two angels arrived.  Even though Lot was a foreigner, he was also wealthy and apparently honored in the city.  Gen 23, when Abraham buys the field from Ephron the Hittite, he does so at the gathering of people near the city gate, amongst many witnesses.  There are also various future references (2 Samuel 19:8, Esther 2:19-21) that imply this legal tradition continued long into Israel's future.  We can also see in Gen 23 that the Hittites had the same custom, and in Esther 2 we can see that the Persians also had this custom.  So it appears to be a cultural tradition that spanned many centuries and nations.

So that's what's going on when Boaz gathers the "close relative" and the ten elders at the city gate.  The transaction itself is another cultural tradition, which is closely related to levirate marriage.  It appears that this close relative is expected to "buy" Elimelech's property from Naomi, but also acquires Ruth as a wife.  The expectation is that, like in a levirate marriage, the close relative would raise up sons for Naomi that would legally be counted as children of Elimelech.  Or perhaps more properly, they would be counted sons of Mahlon, because that was Ruth's husband.  It's not clear why he wouldn't marry Naomi; perhaps she was past the age of child-bearing and therefore ineligible for such a marriage.

Either way, we discover that the close relative is eager to acquire property, but much less eager to acquire a levirate wife, maybe for the same reason that Onan did not want to raise up sons through Tamar in Gen 38.  It's not exactly clear why there is a risk, but probably what the "close relative" is concerned about is that he would have children through Ruth, and if his sons through his own wife die then his inheritance would go to the sons of Ruth.  They would carry on Elimelech's name, so the "close relative" would not have an inheritance in his own name.  It seems that this is one of the legal complications of having biological children who are "regarded" as being the children of another man.  Perhaps it created some sort of ambiguity, where (as biological children) they are permitted to have their father's inheritance, but in the name of the other man.

Either way, the "close relative" relinquishes his claim to the property and Ruth, and Boaz takes it instead.  Although it would be surprising for a man of his wealth and stature, perhaps Boaz was still single at this time and that's why he didn't have any reluctance about marrying Ruth.

Verse 7 tells us another one of their customs, about a man taking off his sandal "to confirm any matter".  I can't imagine any possible etiology for this custom.  Apparently it's just what they do.  However, I can't help but think that this is meant to reference Deut 25:9, because it's also part of the Law that any man who refuses to perform a levirate marriage for his brother is to have his sandal removed by his brother's wife.  In this chapter, it says that the man himself is to remove his sandal as a sign of finality.  So the two customs are not identical, but they are so similar I think they must be related.  This is probably because of some sort of implied significance to wearing sandals.

We also know that in many places men are instructed to remove their sandals as a sign of reverence.  Moses was commanded to remove his sandals in Ex 3, and Joshua was similarly commanded in Joshua 5.  If I had to guess, I'd say that sandals are a sign of authority.  So a man removes them voluntarily to confirm an agreement, but if a sandal is taken from him that is a mark of disgrace.

So that's the first irony in this story, that the "close relative" removes his sandal.  The second irony is that the blessing given to Boaz references "Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah" (v. 12), because that story (which occurs in Gen 38) only happened because Onan sinned regarding his brother's wife, and then Judah sinned by refusing to give Shelah to Tamar as another husband.  This book is about levirate marriage done right, and the very benediction for Boaz refers to his ancestor who had gotten it wrong.  So that's ironic.  Even within this chapter, we have one man refusing his duty to his brother, and another man accepting it.

In the end they get married, and Ruth gives birth to a son.  The son is placed on Naomi's lap as a sign that the son is "accounted" to Naomi and her former husband Elimelech.  This is the same thing that Rachel refers to in Gen 30:3, when she says of her maidservant, "go in to her [i.e. have sex] that she may bear [children] on my knees".  Rachel is referring to Jacob having sex with her servant, but having the children counted as Rachel's.  This completes the story arc for Naomi, who lost everything in Moab and called herself Mara, but now has a son to her name and has Ruth, who is "better to you than seven sons".  Both Ruth and Naomi, we can figure, lived happily ever after, as Ruth gains a new husband and Naomi has her hope and future re-ignited by her son, Obed.

This story would have been part of the book of Judges if it weren't for the genealogy at the very end.  Obed, as we can see, is the grandfather of the future king David.  In fact, this is the first reference in the OT to David, so that's why I haven't talked about him much before, but king David is a pivotal figure in Israel's history, and also in the theology of the OT.  I'll say more about him later.  For now, I will just say that this genealogy is what completes the bridge between the "judges period" and the "kingdom period" in OT history.  What's great about this genealogy is that it ties together figures from three historical periods in Israel who are all directly related to each other.  In this way, it shows us both literally and metaphorically how Israel passed from the time of Judah and Perez (the patriarchs), to the time of Boaz and Obed (the judges), and from there to the time of David (the kingdom).  Nahshon was the leader of Israel during the exodus, so I can probably include that as a fourth period, between the patriarchs and the judges.

Some commentators claim that the genealogy is a late addition and not part of what was originally Ruth's story.  I can see why they would think that, but at the same time I think the entire book of Ruth is serving as a bridge between the judges and the kingdom, and the genealogy summarizes and reinforces that purpose.  So I don't think the genealogy distracts from the message of Ruth, and indeed it would be hard to understand the story of Ruth without looking towards the future, what resulted from Ruth's marriage to Boaz.

It's amazing to think that a Moabite would be an ancestor of king David.  It's even more amazing to me that this would be the subject of a book in the OT, when so much of the bible describes the open hostility between Moab and Israel.  Some commentators suggest that is the entire purpose of Ruth, to show that inter-racial marriages with Moabites were not always a bad thing, and that Ruth must therefore be dated to a time period when that was known to be a controversial issue.

I'm not sure if I believe we can date Ruth's authorship based on this one issue, but I agree that it is central to the narrative in this book.  Israelite men were strongly discouraged from intermarrying with other nations, and yet both Boaz and Ruth are portrayed as righteous in this book, and their marriage results in the later birth of king David.  I think this book was meant to be challenging to its ancient Hebrew readers.  Even to me I feel like it challenges my understanding of the OT and the Mosaic Law.  It's as if God were throwing in a contradiction just to keep us from getting too comfortable with ourselves and our understanding.  It's like God is saying, "you always thought things were supposed to be this way, but now I will do things that way and it will be even better."

I also think God is doing this to show us that there is a higher truth.  The Law is true and is a truth, but there is a higher truth that supercedes it, and possibly also a higher law.  I think we are meant to be unsettled by this book, and that it gives us a glimpse into a different reality that we may not have foreseen.  The Israelites must have known that the Law of Moses forbade intermarriage with other nations, but it seems there is some other law where the LORD approved of it, a law governed not by Ruth or Boaz's ethnicity, but by their righteousness before the LORD.

But just as the window opened, now it closes as we move on to the book of 1 Samuel.  But I want this story to be on people's minds as they read through Samuel, because we should always remember that God does not operate with human prejudices, and that the righteousness of any man or woman is more powerful in God's sight than their ancestors or "being born in the wrong family".  Ruth was born into the "wrong family" but was righteous in God's sight because her heart was pure.  Indeed, God looks at the heart, while mankind only looks at the skin, and as a result mankind misjudges the issues of good and evil.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 3

In this chapter, Ruth visits Boaz at the threshing floor and proposes to him.

This is another very unusual chapter.  There are a couple minor cultural notes I will make, but the most significant thing in my opinion is how Ruth takes the initiative to go visit Boaz and in v. 9, she essentially proposes to him, saying "you are a close relative, cover me with your blanket".  I would guess that's a euphemism for marriage and/or sex.

In many places in the bible, women are passively given in marriage.  For example, Abraham sent his servant to go get Rebekah as a wife for Isaac.  Later, Jacob bartered with Laban for Rachel and Leah.  Rachel did not take any initiative to be married to Jacob, and as far as the story tells us, nobody even asked Rachel for her opinion about marrying Jacob.  And that's just kinda how things went.  For what it's worth, Laban did ask Rebekah if she wanted to go with Abraham's servant in Gen 24:58, but as a general principle, marriages were usually arranged.

That doesn't mean women were married against their will, but they weren't really the decision-maker.  That role, as in the cases of Rebekah and Rachel, typically fell to their fathers or the senior men of the household.  This was just another expression of the patriarchy that existed in Hebrew culture.

In this context, Ruth's actions are very striking because they defy social convention.  Yet this was at Naomi's urging, and Boaz himself describes Ruth's actions as a "kindness" because she "did not go after young men".  So I think Ruth's boldness is unusual, but it's perhaps even more surprising how favorably she is depicted by the author of this book.  In Boaz's words, Ruth is a "woman of excellence".  I believe that we can infer the author's opinion by these comments, which he chooses to include in the text.

I think that's the most interesting part of this chapter.  There are a few other cultural inferences we can make.  First of all, note that harvest time is typically a time of celebration in agricultural societies.  It is the time of year when all of the hard work plowing and sowing and maintaining crops finally pays off, a time of great abundance when people stop having to live off last year's harvest and can eat from the new crop.  That's why verse 3 talks about Boaz "eating and drinking" at the threshing floor, because it is more or less a party.

Even more allusively, apparently women are not permitted at these threshing floor parties.  Naomi tells Ruth to go secretly, and Boaz himself warns her to "let it not be known that a woman came to the threshing floor".  This is not something that is in the Law, and it's not mentioned anywhere else in the bible, so there isn't any additional context that I can bring to this.  In the context of this story, it serves to highlight the boldness of Ruth's actions.  Not only was Ruth trying to initiate a relationship with Boaz, but she did so while secretly going to a men-only celebration event.

Boaz must have liked her, because he agrees to marry her if he can, and also sends her away with six "measures" of barley (probably ephahs?).  But first Boaz has to settle this closer relative who in the levirate system, has higher priority to marrying Ruth than Boaz does (v. 12-13).  So Boaz needs this kinsman redeemer to relinquish his claim on Ruth before Boaz can marry her.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 2

In this chapter, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields during harvest.

This is another interesting chapter.  The reason why I like this chapter is that it shows how Israelite customs formed in response to commandments from the Law.  Leviticus 19:9 (and 23:22) says that the Israelites must not reap the corners of their fields, nor are they permitted to pass over the field twice.  Deut 24:19-21 gives this command in an even more extended way, saying that whether reaping wheat or olives or grapes, the harvesters should only pass over it once and leave the rest for the widows and orphans.

The practical result is what we see in this chapter.  People like Ruth, who did not possess fields of their own to sow and harvest, would go to other people's fields and follow after their harvesters, gleaning from what is left over.  And I don't think it was just Ruth doing this, it became a tradition in Israel that those in poverty could go out and gather after the reapers, essentially collecting the second harvest from what was left behind.

Even so, this was a dangerous thing for a woman and a foreigner to do alone.  Naomi permitted Ruth to do this in verse 2, but they didn't have any other source of food.  Without gleaning in the fields, they would have nothing.  Also, I think it's pretty clear that not every field owner would permit this.  It's part of the Law, but there are many Israelites in this time who did not obey the Law.

Boaz goes beyond the Law, though.  He provides Ruth water drawn from his wells (v. 9), gives her food prepared for his servants (v. 14), and even goes so far as to tell his harvesters to deliberately leave behind grain for Ruth to harvest (v. 16).

When Ruth returns to her mother-in-law, Naomi seems amazed at how much Ruth was able to gather, because Boaz favored her and asked his servants to help her.

So there are a couple things going on here.  The first is what I already mentioned, that Ruth is taking on the risk of physical harm by going out from Bethlehem into the surrounding fields to glean (see e.g. verse 22).  The second is this fortuitous meeting of Ruth and Boaz. The third is Boaz's kindness to Ruth, with Boaz helping Ruth because of "all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband".  It seems that Boaz is a decent guy, but also helps Ruth because of their family relationship through Naomi.  This is in spite of Ruth being a Moabite and a foreigner.

Things in the story are starting to look up.

Bible Commentary - Ruth 1

In this chapter, the eponymous Ruth follows her mother-in-law back to Israel.

There's a lot of things I want to say about this chapter, since I think it's a very interesting chapter.  First of all, note the famine.  Famines are a recurring theme in Israel's history, beginning with the several famines in Genesis (Gen 12, 26, 41) that afflicted Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's generations.  During their lives, Abraham and Jacob both traveled to other lands to escape the famine, and Elimelech and Naomi do the same thing here.

Even though Moab and Israel have mutual enmity, Elimelech seems to settle down; both of his sons get married to Moabite women, and they make a life for themselves.  Perhaps not a good life, but a life.  Of course, we are told in verses 3-5 that Naomi's husband and both of her sons died, so perhaps it was not a very good life at all.  We don't know how they died, but there is an implicit hardship that they must have been facing such that they all died before bearing any children.

Next, note that after Naomi's husband and sons died, she no longer had anyone supporting her.  Sons are particularly important for an older woman because they provide both food and physical protection for you in your old age.  There is no social security in Israel; your children provide for you in old age.  There is also no police force; your sons and relatives protect you and avenge you if anyone tries to harm you.  For an earlier example, see Gen 38.  In fact, Naomi tells the two women to return to Moab because she would not be able to provide husbands for them, which I think is an implied reference to levirate marriage, that Naomi would raise up sons to give to them in marriage.

Verses 16-17 contain one of the most beautiful passages of devotion in the bible.  Naomi is urging Ruth to return to her family and to Moab, because Naomi simply has nothing to give her, nothing but pain.  But Ruth insists on staying with her to the end, no matter what happens.  As with so many other stories, I find myself wondering how Ruth got to this place.  What happened to Ruth such that she desired to follow Naomi, contrary to her own self interest?  What made Ruth want to serve the LORD, rather than the gods of her youth?

In this chapter, Ruth is behaving like Abraham.  Abraham left his family, his home and his gods in order to follow the LORD, travel to the promised land, and to become "the father of many nations."  Ruth does much the same, giving up her family, her land and her gods in order to follow the LORD and Naomi, traveling into a hostile country.  Also remember that this is during the judges period, when "there was no king in Israel" and everyone "did what was right in his own eyes".  Not only is Ruth a foreigner and a widow, but she's also in a hostile and lawless country.  She is following Naomi at considerable risk of both starvation and being raped or murdered.

I marveled at the faith of Abraham, how he was inspired to follow the LORD, and I marvel at Ruth as well.  Abraham did it as a man with many servants; Ruth does it as a single woman.  What hope could they have had?  Naomi changes her own name to Mara, bitterness, as an expression of the bitterness she feels her life has become.  Naomi clearly had no hope.  What hope could Ruth have had for anything good to come into her life, following Naomi into a barren and hostile land?  In what did Ruth have faith?  What promise of goodness inspired her to cling to her mother-in-law, seeking the LORD and refusing to go back to the gods of her people?

When Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in Judah, the people are surprised to see Naomi return without husband and in destitution.  This is the nadir of the story; things are about to turn around.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth Introduction

Ruth is the last book from the judges period, before there was a king in Israel.  Much like the stories in Judges chapters 17 through 21, the story of Ruth is a sort of vignette, telling us about the lives of individuals but also painting a picture of the chaos and danger that reigned during this period.

Thematically, the book of Ruth serves as a bridge between the stories in Judges and the stories that follow in Samuel.  The book of Ruth opens by telling us that the events occurred "in the days when the judges governed", and ends by telling us that the future King David was a descendant of Ruth.  I believe that Ruth (much like Judges) was written with the knowledge and context of the later histories of Israel's kingdom.  It only mentions the future king at the very end of the book, which could be a later edit.  However, there are thematic similarities between Ruth and Judges that imply they had a common author, or at least common knowledge.

The entire book of Judges is devoted to showing us why we needed a king; every story points to the anarchy and sinfulness that filled Israel before they had a king.  The book of Ruth really only has one purpose: to show us part of the history of how that king was brought into the world.  Like I said, it forms a bridge between the period of the judges and the period of the kingdom.  As such, Ruth would not make any sense without the former or the latter.  Without a kingdom to lead us to, Ruth has no purpose.  And without Judges as the context, Ruth doesn't explain why we need a king.

I believe this answers some of the questions about authorship and dating for Ruth as well.  It is likely that it was authored by the same person or group that wrote Judges, and around the same time.  Since the dating of Judges itself is disputed, it's hard to get more specific than that.  I think it is strongly likely that they were written during the kingdom period, but more than that is hard to say.  The authors of all these books leave themselves anonymous.  Tradition says that this book was authored by Samuel, but there isn't any textual support for that.  In my opinion, it's as good a theory as any, because the truth is that we just don't know, and probably never will.

I think these books, like Ruth and Judges, don't tell us who wrote them because we aren't supposed to focus on the author.  I think it's interesting to try to figure out who might have written them, but I don't think it detracts much from our understanding to leave this question unanswered.

Apart from understanding the anarchy of the judges period, we also have to understand the mutual hostility that has formed between Israel and Moab.  These two nations are related through Abraham and his cousin Lot, but from the very beginning when Israel passed near to Moab in the book of Numbers, Moab resisted Israel (beginning, but by no means ending, in Num 22).  More recently, Moab was one of Israel's many oppressors during the judges period (Judges 3:12-14), so they have also been in open conflict.

We should also remember Israel's prohibition against intermarriage.  That, plus the hostility against Moab, makes this entire book a somewhat awkward note.  I want that awkwardness and the latent hostility to be in their minds as they read about Ruth and her journey into Israel with Naomi.  I would say more, but Ruth is a short book so I want to save myself things to say when I write about the individual chapters.

We are on the cusp of something new.  The judges are coming to a close, the kingdom is at hand, and Ruth is the book that ushers it in.