THE BOOK OF JONAH 1

A study by Reverend Christopher Cooke

Jonah goes overboard

Week 1

The Twelve Prophets and Jonah.
Amongst the Scroll of The Twelve Prophets, Jonah is an oddity as Peter Craigie and Paula Gooder argue. The other eleven books contain small elements of biography and history but are essentially prophetic books. But Jonah contains a story and the actual prophetic content is very small.

“The book of Jonah is much closer in style to Ruth, the other famous short narrative book of the Old Testament, than it is to the prophetic books.” [Paula Gooder].

However, there are similarities, as James Crenshaw notes, with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings.

Jonah son of Amittai.
There is a reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet of salvation during the expansionist era of Jeroboam II. He was a northern prophet from the Galilee area quite near to Nazareth. Jeroboam’s reign was from about 793-753 or 786-745 BCE.
James Crenshaw argues that the choice of this prophet as the target of didactic satire is doubly appropriate:
1. He proclaimed nationalistic oracles
2. His name means “dove [of faithfulness or truthfulness]”.
Paula Gooder describes Jonah as not a very attractive character. He was stubborn, inflexible, and arrogant. He only did God’s will when he couldn’t avoid it. He was also down to earth, fallible and bad tempered. James Crenshaw goes so far as to call Jonah an antihero! He lists Jonah’s main failings. He thinks Jonah’s version of prophecy is also extremely flawed:
1. He manipulates the facts when answering the sailors.
2. When he prays, he exalts his ego and accuses God.
3. He is spiteful hoping the sailors’ repentance will be short-lived.
4. He eagerly awaits the destruction of Nineveh.
5. He resents the sparing of the repentant Ninevites.
6. He is unrepentant until the end.
7. His main concern was his reputation for accuracy of prediction.
8. He wants to restrict divine compassion to Israel.
This is a devastating mockery of Israelite piety as exemplified by this dubious prophet. On hearing Jonah’s facile confession that deliverance belongs to the Lord, the fish throws up!

Nineveh and Assyria.
Assyria was the great power of the eighth century BCE and threat to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel’s capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in about 722 BCE and there was a policy of integration and marriage between races throughout the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was an important Assyrian city and from 704 BCE the capital. (Judah survived until they fell to the Babylonians).

Questions.

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.
“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.
“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.
“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.
“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?

Commentary by Reverend Christopher Cooke

CHAPTER 1:1-10.

Jonah 1:1-3: The Call of Jonah.

Do the opening verses remind you of other prophetic books?
Does Jonah’s reluctance to obey the divine call remind you of Moses, Amos and Jeremiah?
In what ways is Jonah’s response different from theirs?

The Book of Jonah begins in a conventional fashion for a prophetic work. It is God who speaks first. James Limburg points out that in this short book, “Lord” (translating Yahweh) appears 25 times, “God” 13 times and “Lord God” once for a total of 39 times.

“The atmosphere of the story is quite different from that of Ruth, for example…or Esther… This is a story about Jonah, but more precisely about the Lord and Jonah”. James Limburg.

As Paula Gooder notes the Hebrew actually says: “Get up, go to Nineveh”. This is very similar to God’s command to Elijah to get up and go to Zarephath in 1 Kings 17:9. The previous book in the Twelve Prophets is Obadiah. At the beginning of that book, Obadiah is commanded to go and prophesy to nearby Edom. Jonah is commanded to go to far away Nineveh in what is now Iraq. The Assyrians were also the enemy who threatened invasion of Jonah’s homeland (and the readers would know successfully invaded and incorporated the land and people into the Empire through inter-marriage and integration). Yet this is where God commands Jonah to go! And Jonah is to go there because of the evil found in Nineveh. Jonah is not sent to make converts but to warn the people of Nineveh of the coming judgement.

“God seems to be telling the prophet to proclaim the evil city’s doom”. David Gunn.

Moses, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah all show reluctance to obey the divine call because they think they do not have the qualities needed. Jonah just runs away. I suppose he does “get up” but he sets out in the opposite direction and takes ship on the Mediterranean and sails away heading west. (Tarshish means ‘sea’ and a lot of Mediterranean ports were called Tarshish). Jonah really does not like the sound of going to Nineveh (and who could blame him) but he does not stay at home. Perhaps, Jonah is too afraid to take a hostile message to a feared nation. He decides to put as much distance between him and Nineveh as possible. In doing so, Jonah is also fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Does he think that God is anchored in Israel and that he can escape him?

Those who first read or heard this Book would have been reassured by the opening but then unsettled, like Jonah, by the call to go to Nineveh. Then this is followed by Jonah’s disobedience.

“But the shock of the audience would be followed by complacency: what more could you expect from a northerner, practically a foreigner, being dispatched on a mission to gentiles!” Peter Craigie.

Is there anything similar to the flight to Tarshish in your life?
Are we avoiding God in any way?

Jonah 1:4-10: Storm at Sea.

What was the Hebrew view of the sea?
Does the storm scene remind you of other such storms in the Bible?
How does Jonah come out of it compared to the sailors?

“Jonah’s flight from God is one of perpetual descent. Having gone down to the port of Joppa, and there having gone down into a ship, he now goes beneath the deck, hoping to rest after his trying experience!” Peter Craigie.

Paula Gooder notes that this master storyteller captures the panic of the storm and possible shipwreck in three short verses. The gentile sailors typify the human condition as a whole. They are doing everything they can to save the ship but they are also praying to their own gods – probably Canaanite and Phoenician ones. They are realistic, pious and peaceful men. Their religion calls from them a healthy balance between action and prayer. Through all this Jonah is sleeping. Trying to escape from God, he can only rely on himself. He is exhausted and, possibly, depressed. He is oblivious to the world around him. The captain is a good man and he wakes Jonah up. We might have expected him to have demanded that Jonah help save the ship, but he wants Jonah to pray to his God!

“The captain’s words to Jonah mirror God’s own words at the start of the book. Again, this is more apparent in the Hebrew text: the captain says, ‘Get up, cry to your god’, which mirrors God’s words, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh and cry against it’”. Paula Gooder.

It transpires later that Jonah realizes that he is the reason for the storm but he is reluctant to admit this and does not cry out to God as instructed. He seems to have turned his back on God. Jonah is a prophet and professional of the faith but the inadequacy of Jonah’s faith is shown up by the amateur non-believers. The sailors cast lots and the lots fell on Jonah. In response to urgent questions, Jonah admits his faith in verse 9. It seems to have been drawn out of him. “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” [NRSV]. The RSV translates “and I fear the Lord…” We know that “fear” was used in the sense of “worship” but the sailors take him literally and they become even more afraid. They have extracted from Jonah that he was fleeing from his God. There is also an irony here in that Jonah claims the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” but he is trying to escape from him by going to sea. However, in making his declaration, Jonah who refused to be a prophet to the gentiles of Nineveh is compelled to become a prophet to the gentile sailors! But James Limburg asks whether he is talking about God while he is not prepared to talk to God.

“One of the themes that is drawn out by this book is the obedience of the non-believers in contrast to the disobedience of the believer. Jonah, a prophet to whom God speaks regularly, gets things wrong at every turn and refuses to acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty”. Paula Gooder.

As Christians, would we do any better than Jonah “the professional”?
Can we learn with humility from the non-believers we know?

THE BOOK OF RUTH 4

A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke

WEEK 4

THE PEACEABLE COMMUNITY [SAKENFELD]
BARTERING FOR A BRIDE [TULL]

At the Town Gate
4:1-12

In Chapter 1, two women discussed marriage, children and economics. In this chapter, two men do so. Ruth carried out Naomi’s plan during the secrecy of the night. Boaz carries out his plan in the full light of day.

Assembling the Participants (4:1-2)

Boaz does not call on Mr So-and-So to settle the matter. Instead he creates a very formal and public context for this conversation. Boaz stations himself by the city gate at rush hour when the nearer kinsman would be likely to pass by on the way to the fields. And just as by God’s providence, Ruth went to Boaz’s field and then Boaz arrived, so here the nearer kinsman arrives right on cue.
“Friend” is not an adequate translation. Mr So-and-So or “what’s his name” would be better. Boaz would surely have known his name. Is he unsettling the other man from the outset? The narrator is certainly devaluing the man.
Boaz assembles ten male witnesses but it is likely other people, including women, would have gathered to see what excitement was to be had. Indeed, more people are added as the story unfolds.

The Transaction (4:3-6)
Boaz Sets the Trap (3-4); Boaz Springs the Trap (5-6)

Patricia Tull notes that the conversation is highly complex. Though its outcome is clear, exactly what is happening to get there is, for a number of reasons, somewhat less than clear. Katharine Sakenfeld argues, with others, that as the whole Book of Ruth is well written and plotted, this would have been clearer to the first hearers and readers. But we just do not fully understand what is going on today.

Three different Biblical laws or practices have been cited:
1. Levirate Marriage – but it doesn’t really fit the circumstances and it does not involve land.
2. Next-of-kin/Redeemer – will fit the land transaction but not marriage.
3. The Jubilee Year – this was the year in which all land was returned to its ancestral owners and all slaves were freed. It happened after every 49 years and the land was left fallow for the 50th year.

It transpires that Naomi has some land after all! Of course when they left in a time of famine, it would not have been worth much. It may well be that it could not be redeemed during harvest time as the standing crops would belong to those who sowed them. The basis of all land ownership was that all land belonged to its giver, God, and was held in trust by members of the community. The Jubilee laws also suggest there was a right for lands to return to the ancestral owners. Boaz says he is giving Mr So-and-So the opportunity to buy this land first. This is a recognizable practice of the usual Next-of-kin/Redeemer transactions.

I like Patricia Tull’s idea of a trap. Mr So-and-So is prepared to buy the land. So Mr So-and-So is not only the first man who should have helped Naomi, he also has the means to do so! Whether or not the property actually exists, Boaz has smoked out the family resources and motivations.

One problem would be removed if we could follow the Revised English Bible translation with absolute confidence. Some Hebrew texts support it. In that translation, Boaz says that he, Boaz, will be acquiring Ruth the Moabite i.e. marrying her. That would be an honourable thing to state in this transaction. Mr So-and-So might well redeem and purchase the land if he thinks it is worthwhile financially. But if Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son, the son would be able to redeem the land back. If that were to occur, or the Year of Jubilee was in the offing then Mr So-and-So would probably back away. It was not worth the investment.

Perhaps the trap is a moral one rather than a legal one. Remember this happens before ten male witnesses (and perhaps numerous women) and therefore the whole of Bethlehem will hear about what happens. Mr So-and-So is prepared to benefit financially from Naomi although he has done nothing to help Naomi in her hour of need. He has done nothing to help Ruth either. Mr So-and-So refuses the whole package and therefore acknowledges the validity of the argument.

Whichever translation we follow, Boaz has cleverly and congenially set a trap for Mr So-and-So, for whom the value of this investment has suddenly plummeted. Mr So-and-So awkwardly backs out of the deal.

We notice that Boaz uses the crassest language about Ruth. He doesn’t want to lose her! The use of language is strategic.

Boaz does not view Ruth as mere property nor does she view him merely as a meal ticket. [Patricia Tull]

Declaration of the Decision (4:7-10)

The agreement between Mr So-and-So and Boaz is formalized by a ritual whereby Mr So-and-So removes his sandal. This has rather bemused commentators.
It is at this stage we learn from Boaz’s lips which of the sons was Ruth’s husband: Mahlon. Again we are probably not talking about formal levirate marriage (usually confined to brothers), but it would be true that the family and the community would remember the story leading up to a birth of a son.
The reference to Ruth’s ethnic background once again by Boaz because he wants to acknowledge what everyone is thinking anyway.

Witnessing and Blessing (4:11-12)

The official witnesses and all the people present agree to the arrangements. This is an important occasion for the whole community.
The community expresses its prayer that Ruth (who is not mentioned by name) will fulfil the same role as Rachel and Leah: Jacob’s wives who fathered the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is remarkable because Jacob was instructed to search out an Israelite wife and not marry a foreigner. But Ruth is reckoned with them.
The use of Bethlehem and Ephrathah links to the beginning of the Book and to David’s heritage.
The blessing ends with a reference to Perez, Tamar and Judah – a rather shocking story where levirate marriage is combined with incest. However, 1 Chronicles and Nehemiah make reference to the descendants of Perez who return from exile in Babylon. This reference may have been very pertinent for those listening to the story.
The story of Perez’s birth is also rather shocking. But we have here another story where a woman, like Ruth, challenges the norms of society.
In Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus (chapter 1), four mothers are mentioned but many more were known: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba. All have challenging stories surrounding them. Perhaps this prepares for Mary’s situation.

The Household of Boaz
4:13

Patricia Tull = “in a single verse, Boaz and Ruth are wedded, bedded, and blessed with a son for whose conception God is given credit”.
After all, Ruth has not conceived when married to Mahlon. Lots of women in the Old Testament, from Sarah onwards, have trouble conceiving until God intervenes. This is mirrored by Elizabeth in the New Testament. And Mary also conceives by the Holy Spirit.

The Women and Naomi
4:14-17

In a reprise and reversal of chapter 1, the women of Bethlehem are again pictured in conversation with Naomi. This time, the women speak and Naomi is silent, the words are of joy rather than calamity. Ruth is highlighted rather than ignored.
We might have expected the next of kin/redeemer they refer to would be Boaz. But the context makes it clear that it is Ruth’s son who is referred to. Again it is the general use of the word that is relevant: the son will secure the future of the family.
The Lord is blessed for reversing Naomi’s situation. The women go on to say that Ruth is worth more to Naomi than seven sons = seven is an important round number. It is Ruth’s faithfulness, kindness, loyalty, hesed, to Naomi that has led to this outcome. There is a looking forward to David as the same expression is used between David and Jonathan.
Naomi is not breast-feeding but cuddling her beloved grandson as a doting grandmother – and one who had lost her husband and sons. Naomi does not adopt the boy. Obed is the answer to Naomi’s predicament in chapter 1.

A Longer Genealogy
4:18-22

The final genealogies serve as a punchline at the end of the story. This genealogy, as Katharine Sakenfeld writes, bristles with technical problems. She writes that we should look at the important positions which are the round perfect numbers of seven and ten. Seventh is Boaz and tenth is David. Ruth’s position as a near ancestor of David is further underlined.
Frederic Bush: Recent study suggests that genealogies were expressions or mnemonics of how kinship in such societies was expressed. There is some natural telescoping with the important names of the founders being remembered as well as the more recent generations but some names in between have been lost. With this in mind, a case can be made that this is not an insipid anti-climax but a worthy closure which underlines the story’s message. Berlin’s view should be accepted: there is a poetic function of the genealogy as a coda, a story of conclusion that completes the narrative of the story.
Differing genealogies can be in use at the same time: Family inheritance claims might use the Elimelech-Mahlon line, but in the political sphere, the Boaz-David genealogy was vital.

“Not only does the connection with David elevate the story, but the character of the story elevates David”. [A. Berlin]

Questions

At the Town Gate
4:1-12
Assembling the Participants (4:1-2)

Why doesn’t Boaz just knock on the door of the nearer kinsman?
Why does Boaz – and the narrator – not name him? The best translation is something like: Mr So-and-So.

The Transaction (4:3-6)
Tull: Boaz Sets the Trap (3-4); Boaz Springs the Trap (5-6)

Why hasn’t Mr So-and-So come forward to help Naomi before this?
What do you think of Boaz’s tactics?
What is going on exactly? [Please inform all Biblical scholars as they cannot agree – Frederic Bush devotes 40 pages to these four verses!]
Why does Boaz use such crass language about Ruth?

Three different Biblical laws or practices have been cited:
1. Levirate Marriage – but it doesn’t really fit the circumstances and it does not involve land.
2. Next-of-kin/Redeemer – will fit the land transaction but not marriage.
3. The Jubilee Year – this was the year in which all land was returned to its ancestral owners and all slaves were freed. It happened after every 49 years and the land was left fallow for the 50th year.

Declaration of the Decision (4:7-10)

Why does Boaz still refer to Ruth being from Moab?

Witnessing and Blessing (4:11-12)

What do you know of the people referred to in this blessing?

The Household of Boaz
4:13

“In a single verse, Boaz and Ruth are wedded, bedded, and blessed with a son for whose conception God is given credit”. [Patricia Tull]
Does the role of God in the conception remind you of other Biblical stories?
Who is the central figure here?

The Women and Naomi
4:14-17

How does this compare with the interchange between Naomi and the women of Bethlehem in chapter 1?
Particularly as it concerns Ruth?

A Longer Genealogy
4:18-22

Is this an anti-climax to the Book of Ruth?
“Not only does the connection with David elevate the story, but the character of the story elevates David”. [A. Berlin]
Do you agree with this statement?

Comment by Rev. Christopher

Most commentators stress the importance of hesed in the Book of Ruth. It is difficult to give an adequate English translation. It is variously translated as kindness, loyalty, faithfulness or lovingkindness and it incorporates all these connotations if not more. Many of the Psalms proclaim the hesed that God showers on his people.

The Book of Ruth shows hesed working through the main characters of the story.

Katharine Sakenfeld: Ruth and Boaz, and to a lesser extent, Naomi, chooses to act in ways that promote the well-being of others. The praise accorded to Ruth and Boaz generally comes from other characters in the story. Ruth and Boaz display hesed.
Patricia Tull: In the Book of Ruth, humans are not contrasted by their role as friends or enemies but how far they are conduits of hesed.

E.F. Campbell: The three main characters both give and receive. They celebrate the portrayal of “kindness”. “The Ruth story does not represent the style of life which exercises caring responsibility as a forgone conclusion for God’s people. It is portrayed as attainable but elusive”.

It is Frederic Bush who gives the greatest consideration to this theme.
The narrator primarily advances his plot through dialogue. It is through this dialogue that the characters reveal the hesed.
1. The loving loyalty, faithfulness and obedience of Ruth, the Moabitess, expressed in her commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi which transcended religion and nation.
2. The kindness, graciousness and sagacity of Boaz, expressed in his benevolence and his faithfulness to family responsibilities both in marrying Ruth and redeeming the field of Elimelech for Naomi which transcended the claims of self-interest.
3. The loving concern of Naomi for the welfare of her daughter-in-law expressed in her risky scheme to induce Boaz to marry Ruth.
4. God’s gracious provision of fruitfulness for field and womb. Naomi’s life is restored and her old age is provided for reversing the death and emptiness of the early part of the story.
5. This story of hesed was of utmost significance for its denouement with the preservation of the family line that led from Perez through Boaz and Obed to David.

“Thus, the book of Ruth affirms that God often effects his purposes in the world through the ordinary motivations and events of his people – ordinary people like Ruth and Boaz, or like you and me, the ripple of whose lives stir little beyond the pool of their own community – and in particular through their acts of gracious and loving kindness that go beyond the call of duty”. [Frederic Bush]

THE BOOK OF RUTH 3

A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke

WEEK 3

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld takes a look at the community as depicted in the Book of Ruth. This she calls “The Peaceable Community”.

Theological Themes
1. The Peaceable Community – “The portrait of the community may be regarded as a microcosm of the peaceable kingdom envisioned by the prophetic tradition”. The story is not so idyllic that it is without problems. But we must not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Bible is a very masculine set of documents but here women find a way forward.
2. Examples of Loyal Living (more of this next week).
3. The Place of God in the Story – “A key feature of the book is its effort to relate human care and concern to divine care and concern in the working out of human difficulties and pain along the road to a peaceable community.” God is mentioned repeatedly by the various characters in the story. The action of God does not take the form of direct intervention but happens through the actions of the human characters. Thus within the broad parameters of the gifts of daily bread and of human life itself, the book of Ruth presents God’s working as hidden and mysterious. This is like yeast in bread making.

Why the Peaceable Community?
1. No one is left destitute. The community is responsible for feeding the hungry.
2. Loneliness and despair must not be ignored. They are part of the broken human condition and call for acts of healing.
3. Children are valued and so are old people. They are to be cared for.
4. The marginalized outsider may appropriately be “pushy” towards being included and those in the centre are called to move towards the margins and the marginalized.

By their actions, Ruth and Boaz give us a glimpse not just of how we should live, but also of what the loyal kindness of God may me like. “For Christians that glimpse expands to fullness in Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, son of David, descendent of Ruth, Messiah, who fed the hungry, succoured the grieving, entered into unlikely friendships, and confounded traditional categories of centre and margin.”

Questions

SEEKING SECURITY

Naomi and Ruth
3:1-5

What do you think of Naomi’s advice about dating Boaz?
Why didn’t Naomi go herself to talk to Boaz?
Why did Ruth agree to go along with it?

Ruth and Boaz
3:6-15

Initiating Contact (3:6-9a)

How does Boaz winnow?
What do you think of Ruth’s risky venture?
• Was it a true romance?
• Was Ruth sacrificing herself to an older unattractive man?
• Was this an entrapment of Boaz?

[Katharine Sakenfeld says all these have come up in discussions]
Ruth puts her reputation on the line. Is this what God wants?

Ruth’s Words (3:9b)

What do you make of Ruth’s words?

Boaz’s Reply (3:10-13)

What do you make of Boaz’s reply?
How does that impact on Naomi’s advice to stick with the female reapers?
Ruth shows hesed towards Naomi, but is she showing hesed here?
Is this a personal story or is God there behind the scenes?
What about the complication in the plot?

Departure (3:14-15)

Why was Boaz so generous with the barley?

Naomi and Ruth
3:16-18

What about Naomi’s advice now?

Patricia Tull = “Needless to say, Naomi’s instructions to Ruth have not been passed down through the ages as a model of dating protocol for young women of faith”.
Katharine Sakenfeld = “The determination of Naomi, the daring of Ruth, and the uprightness of Boaz that have already been exhibited are further illustrated in the behaviour of the key characters in these scenes”.
Katharine Sakenfeld = “If God’s providential guidance lies behind the scene in chapter 2, perhaps it is equally appropriate to think of God’s redemptive activity behind this scene in chapter 3”.

Comments from Reverend Christopher

SEEKING SECURITY

Katharine Sakenfeld notes that the structural outline of Chapter 3 is rather like Chapter 2: Naomi and Ruth; Ruth and Boaz; Naomi and Ruth. Patricia Tull points out whereas Chapter 2’s action takes place in public during the day, the action of Chapter 3 takes place in secret in the course of the night.
Whereas Ruth 2’s action comes about through Ruth’s initiative whilst Naomi is inactive, Chapter 3’s action follows Naomi’s initiative and plan.

Traditional farmers today have techniques for sealing the early harvest against weather etc. So the winnowing of the barley may have waited until the wheat harvest was in. However, there may have been some overlap with the wheat harvest as the events take place in the evening. The evening may have been appropriate because it was cooler and there may have been the necessary breeze. Anyway, some weeks have passed since the events recounted in Chapter 2 because the barley harvest is now in.

Naomi and Ruth
3:1-5

Whereas Ruth is often described as “daughter-in-law”, this is the only time that Naomi is described as “mother-in-law”.
Naomi has already made one attempt to provide for Ruth’s security by urging her to return to Moab. Now she has a daring plan. This would also bring an end to the stopgap survival represented by gleaning.
Boaz will be winnowing but he will probably be doing this with his workers. Naomi urges Ruth to take extra care with her dress, her bathing and put on expensive scent. Frederic Bush suggests that Ruth may be putting off her widowhood and he widow clothes.
Ruth is to approach Boaz at night after he has finished eating and drinking. She is to lie down beside him! It will be vitally important that Ruth is not detected lying with a man in a public area during the night! Katharine Sakenfeld: “Never is there any indication of the consummation of sexual relations” but it is a highly charged environment with sexual overtones. Why didn’t Ruth object? Ruth responds to this new and quite bizarre proposal with a simple sentence of agreement to the plan!
Why didn’t Naomi go and speak with Boaz or why didn’t she send Ruth in less compromising circumstances? Sakenfeld suggests:
1. This is good narrative art.
2. The elements of attractiveness that we have seen in chapter 2 have not resulted in any further action by Boaz in the successive weeks.
3. Naomi could have been expected to be rebuffed if she approached Boaz herself.

Ruth and Boaz
3:6-15
Initiating Contact (3:6-9a)

The narrator notes that Boaz was in a contented mood. Ruth acts according to Naomi’s instructions.
What a shock for this upright man to stir in the night and find a young woman lying beside him! Up to now, Boaz has given orders but now he asks a rather startled question. He is off his guard. It is also a departure from Naomi’s expected scenario.
Ruth’s Words (3:9b)
“Spread your cloak over your servant” = Ruth’s language is symbolic and veiled.
1. The Hebrew listener/reader would understand that Ruth is referring to marriage.
2. The word translated “cloak” is literally “wing” and refers back to Boaz’s words of 2:12 that Ruth has sought refuge under God’s wings.
Ruth challenges Boaz to provide, to embody, the divine refuge he had wished upon her earlier. Human action is the vehicle for divine blessing.
Why should Boaz marry her? Not because she has entrapped him because no-one knows as yet. Ruth suggests it is because he is next of kin. But this does not usually extend to marriage! Frederic Bush suggests that Ruth is using the term only in general terms. Boaz is one of the group of kinsmen who has a responsibility for the well-being of Naomi. Bush: “Redeemers are to take responsibility for the unfortunate and stand as their supporters and advocates. They are to embody the basic principle of caring responsibility for those who may not have justice done for them by the unscrupulous or even by the person who lives by the letter of the law”. It is the redemptive act of God which should be our model. As Patricia Tull points out, the social law as outlined in the Pentateuch is suggestive rather than comprehensive.

Boaz’s Reply (3:10-13)
Remarkably, Boaz is appreciative of what Ruth has done! He addresses her as “my daughter” once again. He asks for her blessing again.
1. The first instance of hesed/loyalty is surely Ruth accompanying Naomi from Moab.
2. But how can her proposal of marriage be an even better act of loyalty? Boaz makes reference to the young men she could have attracted and some of them may have been wealthy. Is this why Boaz has been reticent? He acknowledges that there was no legal reason why Ruth should marry within the family. The only beneficiary of such an action is Naomi.
Then Boaz speaks words of comfort. Boaz could have taken advantage of her or he could have exposed her. Ruth has taken the initiative and Boaz pledges to do as she asks. Phyllis Trible describes the encounter as “salvation by courage alone”.
Boaz describes Ruth as a “worthy” woman even though she has no wealth or children (the signs of being wealthy). Literally, this is “a woman of strength”. This seems to reflect Proverbs chapter 31. It is a counterpart to way the narrator describes Boaz. The use of this term “collapses the social distance between them” (Sakenfeld).
Boaz is however concerned about the rank ordering of kinsmen. As in many things, Boaz is scrupulous. His next order again steers well clear of sexual activity. He may well enjoy her presence but who knows what the nearer next-of-kin will decide tomorrow! This brings in another intriguing twist to the narrative. Kirsten Nielsen also notes that “God acts in spite of the hardships that arise, be they hunger, childlessness or local custom”.

Departure (3:14-15)
Ruth’s departure occurs at dawn when once she is a little way from the scene of action, other people would be beginning to stir but not be fully identified in the half-light.
Boaz loads Ruth’s cloak with barley. There is a division here amongst Hebrew manuscripts. Most say “he” went into the city but some say “she”.

Naomi and Ruth
3:16-18

Naomi’s reply indicates a full understanding of the situation. Ruth’s words suggest Boaz still has great concern for Naomi. Naomi expresses her trust in the prompt and appropriate action that Boaz will undertake. Things are better than they were but they are far from settled.
From now on, we do not hear the voices of Ruth and Naomi again. Their future lies in the hands of Boaz (and his oath verse 13).

Patricia Tull = “Needless to say, Naomi’s instructions to Ruth have not been passed down through the ages as a model of dating protocol for young women of faith”.
Katharine Sakenfeld = “The determination of Naomi, the daring of Ruth, and the uprightness of Boaz that have already been exhibited are further illustrated in the behaviour of the key characters in these scenes”.
Katharine Sakenfeld = “If God’s providential guidance lies behind the scene in chapter 2, perhaps it is equally appropriate to think of God’s redemptive activity behind this scene in chapter 3”.
Patricia Tull = “God works throughout the Biblical account, and throughout our own histories, to redeem the ones broken, disgraced, ignored or harmed”.

Church & You Survey

From: York St John University

The Coronavirus, Church & You Survey

You are invited to take part in this national survey…details below

The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously had a profound effect on churches. The lockdown has severely restricted ministry in areas such as pastoral care, fellowship groups, and serving the community. On the other hand, for those with online access, worship has taken on new and creative forms over the last few weeks. Many clergy and ministry teams have risen to the challenge of operating in the virtual environment.

As we pass the most severe period of lockdown, it seems a good time to assess how churchgoers have responded to the experience, and what they think the future might hold. How well have people coped with the pandemic? Has it strengthened or weakened their faith? How has it been for clergy and ministry teams trying to work in this new environment? How have those receiving ministry found this novel experience? Will virtual ministry become part of the post-pandemic landscape, and will this be a good move for your church?

We have developed a survey over the last few weeks in discussion with bishops, clergy and lay people which we hope will enable you to record your experience of the pandemic, the ministry you have given or received, and what you think will happen to churches in a post-pandemic world.

In an article to launch the survey in the Church Times, the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, wrote: “This survey is an attempt to go beyond anecdote… It will capture evidence of both excitement and fears for the future, of where stress levels have changed, and whether personal faith has weakened or grown.”

This is an online survey, which we estimate it will take you about 20-30 minutes to complete. Most of the questions simply require you to tick boxes, though there are options to specify your particular circumstances, and an opportunity at the end for you to tell us your views in your own words. Alongside questions about the pandemic and ministry there are sections which ask about you: these are important because they will allow us to see how the lockdown is affecting different sorts of people in different contexts.

The survey can be completed on mobile phones, though it is more quickly completed on devices with larger screens such as tablets or computers.You can access using the following link: https://tinyurl.com/ycsq9fy2

Please forward this link to any churches or churchgoers you feel might want to take part in the survey and support this research. We should have some initial results within a few weeks and will make these available as widely as we can.

The Revd Professor Andrew Village,

York St John University a.village@yorksj.ac.uk

The Revd Canon Professor Leslie J. Francis,

Visiting Professor York St John University

THE BOOK OF RUTH 2

A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke

Boaz and Ruth-William Hole (1846 – 1917)

Week 2

Genre

J.M. Sasson = a folktale which is not burdened by its historical background.
R.L. Hubbard = a short story with much historical accuracy.
E.F. Campbell = historical fiction about those on the historical margins and how they are provided for: gleaning, responsibility of the family.
Frederic Bush = “an edifying short story”.
Gerald West = marginalised communities have found much consolation in Ruth.

Frederic Bush = the writer of Ruth very effectively employs contrasts between the principal protagonists and the minor characters or agents i.e.

  • Ruth and Orpah
  • Boaz and the “nearer redeemer” (who is not named)
  • Naomi and the women of Bethlehem

These devices are used by the writer to portray Ruth, Boaz and Naomi as the virtual enfleshment of hesed – kindness, graciousness and loyalty that goes beyond the call of duty (and is typical of God).

E.F. Campbell: “The Ruth story does not represent the style of life which exercises caring responsibility as a forgone conclusion for God’s people. It is portrayed as attainable but elusive”.

Theology

Frederic Bush = The Book of Ruth is very different from the stress in much of the rest of OT literature on the overt, and at times supernatural, nature of the divine guidance. “Thus, the book of Ruth affirms that God often effects his purposes in the world through the ordinary motivations and events of his people – ordinary people like Ruth and Boaz, or like you and me, the ripple of whose lives stir little beyond the pool of their own community – and in particular through their acts of gracious and loving kindness that go beyond the call of duty”.
Although God is not a character in the story, God is nonetheless present in the story. This is evidenced by the way the name of Yahweh so frequently rushes to the lips of the participants. “Clearly, at every level of the story the author affirms the uniform OT conviction that the world is fully and uniformly under the control of an all-powerful and all-knowing God.”
Patricia Tull = the books of Esther & Ruth reflect a subtlety of divine presence that resembles much more closely life in our own world than the pyrotechnics of Mount Sinai.

FEEDING A FAMILY

Boaz is introduced

2:1

How is Boaz introduced?

What is he like?

Ruth and Naomi

2:2-3

Why did Naomi stay at home and let Ruth go to the fields on her own?

Boaz and Ruth

2:4-17

Boaz enquires about Ruth (2:4-7)

Was it chance that Ruth happened on Boaz’s part of the village field?

What right did Ruth have to be there?

Why didn’t Boaz reveal his relationship to Naomi when he first met Ruth?

Boaz’s Conversation with Ruth (2:8-17)

What do you make of Boaz’s extremely generous treatment of Ruth?

Was it because Naomi was kin?

Was it because he wanted to act as a “redeemer”?

Was he interested in Ruth? Was he attracted to her?

Ruth and Naomi

2:18-23

Why did Naomi caution Ruth to stick with the women and not the men in verse 22?

What is Naomi’s judgement of God now?

How does that compare with that in the first chapter? [verses 13, 20 &21]

Has there been a time in your life when your anger with God has given way to great joy?

Naomi has returned home because she has heard “that the Lord had considered his people and given them food” [1:6]. But the presence of food in general does not necessarily supply sustenance for any particular family. The second chapter of Ruth narrates a single day filled with events and speeches.

Comments from Reverend Christopher

Ruth in Boas field Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1828

FEEDING A FAMILY

Boaz is introduced

2:1

Of prime importance is the fact that Boaz is related to Naomi on her husband’s side. He is of the same clan as Elimelech. He is not described as “next-of-kin” here (that Hebrew term will appear later).

The narrator describes Boaz literally as a “mighty man of power, a worthy man”. It is a term more associated with warriors than landlords. This indicates his high standing in the Bethlehem community. Boaz is at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum of that community to Naomi and Ruth.

Ruth and Naomi

2:2-3

Ruth is introduced again as a Moabite as she is often to be so in the book of Ruth. She is the foreign outsider. Ruth, by contrast to Naomi, dares to take the initiative to support the two of them.

Gleaning is a primary means of support for the destitute prescribed in Israelite law [Leviticus and Deuteronomy]. The edges of the fields are not to be harvested and the gleanings (i.e. what is not picked up in the first pass-through) also shall be left behind for the alien, the poor, the orphan and the widow. As a poor non-Israelite widow, Ruth seeks out the means of survival for her designated by Israelite law. Ruth does not know about Boaz and is relying upon the kindness of strangers.

We should imagine a communal village field with certain parts designated as belonging to individuals.

God is working behind the scenes. What might be seen as chance is really divine providence.

Boaz and Ruth

2:4-17

Boaz enquires about Ruth (2:4-7)

The third principal character, Boaz appears on stage giving and receiving divine blessing. Boaz assumes that Ruth belongs to some man. There was no such thing as an independent woman. The head reaper replies that she is a Moabite who came from Moab with Naomi. She is described twice in one sentence as “the foreigner”. The head reaper has more to say but this is the corrupt verse in Hebrew. Whether Ruth is gleaning, resting from gleaning, or still awaiting permission to glean at the moment Boaz first sees her, the initiative is now his, and he approaches Ruth.

Boaz’s Conversation with Ruth (2:8-17)

Boaz urges Ruth to stick to his part of the field. In fact, Boaz gives five instructions. The man is used to giving orders! A foreigner from a disliked ethnic group could be easily victimized. It is quite probable that the offer of water was an extra perk. However, he had already instructed the young men not to bother Ruth. Boaz would be seen as Ruth’s male protector. Boaz may have been attracted to her as well.

Ruth’s reply recognizes the special privileges that she has been offered. This is much more than she could have hoped for. Is Ruth’s question rhetorical? Is she confused?

Boaz’s reply suggests he views Ruth’s behaviour towards Naomi as exceptional. Although Boaz does not use the term hesed here, it is implied. This is confirmed by Boaz’s prayer over Ruth. Boaz draws parallels between Ruth’s conduct and that of Abraham. Naomi has previously blessed Ruth. But Naomi’s God who Naomi claimed had deserted her, is now called upon to bless Ruth! Ruth has sought refuge under Yahweh’s wings and Boaz prays that this will be fulfilled. This is a beautiful prayer – another side to the man who gives orders.

Ruth’s prostration shows the humble deferential demeanour of a woman who has a technical legal right to glean but who also needs the goodwill of the overseer or owner to carry this out. Ruth does not yet know that Boaz is related to Naomi.

Boaz approaches Ruth again at the midday meal. This is not a private tryst but a gesture of inclusion in the larger community. Not only is Ruth fed but her status is much improved. As the meal concludes, Boaz instructs his workers to offer Ruth further privileges beyond those usually offered to gleaners. Through this Ruth gleans enough to feed two people for two people for about five or seven days. This reminds us that gleaning was only the flimsiest of safety nets and it was only a short-term solution. Gleaning would only last as long as the barley harvest followed by the wheat harvest i.e. about seven weeks.

Boaz fails to mention he is related to Naomi and yet showers Ruth with attention and help. Like Naomi, he addresses Ruth as “my daughter” (verse 8) – a title which will be found on their lips frequently as the story progresses. Boaz’s concern for her welfare and his concern that she may be molested by the men, suggest his interest may not be wholly paternal.

Ruth and Naomi

2:18-23

At home with Naomi, Ruth shows her mother-in-law first the harvested grain and then the parched grain left over from her meal with Boaz. Naomi is impressed and asks where Ruth has worked. The storyteller withholds Boaz’s name until the last moment. When Boaz’s name is mentioned, we have reached the turning point theologically and rhetorically in the book. Naomi links all the dots!

Naomi invokes a blessing upon Boaz – the hesed she mentions could be referring to Boaz or, more conventionally, to Yahweh – there is an ambiguity (purposely?) in the Hebrew. God has surely shown kindness: Ruth through providence has come into Boaz’s field. God’s kindness has been shown to the living (Naomi and Ruth) and to the dead (Elimelech and their sons). What a change around in Naomi’s view of God! And if God has not deserted her, she is a new relationship with him. Naomi has begun a healing journey. Like many people Naomi has experienced calamity but now she knows that God has not abandoned her.

What Ruth understood as a favour, Naomi understands as loyalty. Naomi uses the technical term for “nearest male relative” who has the right to be a redeemer.

With regard to land, we see this in the book of Jeremiah when Jeremiah redeems land that Hanamel needs to sell even though the Babylonians are about to overrun the land.

We know that Boaz has instructed his male servants not to bother Ruth so Ruth uses the male version for servants. Naomi however instructs her to stick close to the women and this is what Ruth did.

If chapter 1 describes a series of disasters which embittered Naomi and disagreements about which course the women should take, chapter 2 is increasingly overfilled with good-will, good-fortune and well-being.

THE BOOK OF RUTH 1

A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke (Edited 7th June 14.18 by RichardE)

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795

Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men. Only two have the names of women: Esther and Ruth.

Esther and Ruth are not only distinguished by the names of the books but also by being free-standing narratives springing from Judean history.

The characters, Esther and Ruth, are “women in alien lands”.

Authorship and Date.

When we read a book, we usually want to know who wrote it and when it was written. This is difficult for books of the Bible.

W. Lambert: “Biblical narrative exhibits such a rage for impersonality as must lead to the conclusion that its writers actively sought anonymity…Its culture’s and its own remarkable powers of memory encompass everything but the names that produced it”. The writer never refers to himself or herself.

At one time, there were two schools of thought about the dating of the book of Ruth.

  • Some felt that the interest in David and levirate marriage pointed to it being written at an early date during the monarchy well before the Exile. Edward Campbell still favours this.
  • The other extreme was to argue that the book’s positive attitude to foreigners and foreign marriage was a counterblast to the views of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which forbade foreign marriages in the Fourth Century BC.

Language does change and develop over time. Frederic Bush has an excellent summary of this. The book of Ruth exhibits 10 features of Standard Biblical Hebrew and 8 features of Late Biblical Hebrew.

This suggests that the writer must have lived no earlier than the transitional period between SBT and LBT i.e. from just before the Exile in Babylon to the beginning of the return from Exile. Therefore Ruth’s writing is contemporaneous with the writing of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The Second Isaiah (from the Exile) and the book of Jonah also show positive attitudes to foreigners.

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld agrees with Frederic Bush. She suggests that the book of Ruth emphasizes instruction concerning the community’s view of outsiders. David is foregrounded as a means of legitimizing an inclusive attitude towards foreigners and foreign women.

It could have been written

  • Just before the Exile when the Deuteronomic History (Judges-Kings) was being written to counter its emphasis against relationships with Canaanites, or
  • Just after the Exile when it addresses tensions between Jewish returnees from Babylon and those who remained in the land after the fall of Jerusalem.

Text and Unity.

The Book of Ruth has always been included in the Hebrew Scriptures but there is some debate about its positioning.

The text has been very well preserved – only the last eight words of 2:7 present a conundrum.

All who have worked on Ruth think it is a unity. At one time, there was a consensus that the genealogy was a later addition. However, now most commentators believe that the genealogy, with which the book ends, is an integral part of the Book of Ruth.

THE BOOK OF RUTH CHAPTER ONE.

THE BOOK OF RUTH: WEEK ONE

Questions

Patricia Tull points out that of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, 38 have names of men.

How many bear the names of women?

1:1-5

What is the Book of Judges like?

What do we know about Moab and the Moabites?

Departure for Bethlehem

1:6-18

Can you think of any other passages where women discuss amongst themselves in the Bible?

First Speech and Response Cycle (1:6-10)

Why might Orpah and Ruth choose not to return to Moab?

Second Speech and Response Cycle (1:11-14)

What do you think about the reactions of Orpah and Ruth?

Third Speech and Response Cycle (1:15-18)

What do you think about Ruth’s commitment?

Does it compare with that of Abraham’s?

Do you know of anyone who has made a comparable life-changing choice?

Why does Naomi stay silent?

Arrival in Bethlehem

1:19-22

Does Naomi’s lament remind you of other such reactions in the Bible?

Who is the most important character in this chapter?

Are there any signs for Naomi to hope in this chapter? (verses 6 & 22).

Comments from Reverend Christopher

FROM JUDAH TO MOAB TO JUDAH

NAOMI NO MORE

Prologue

1:1-5

The book of Judges presents this era as one of repeated bloody battles between Israel and its Canaanite, Philistine and other enemies. There was also warfare among the various Israelite tribes.

The entire story of Ruth serves as a counterpoint to this picture of the era of the Judges. We move from the level of the tribe to the level of the family.

Famine in the land. Famine and migration because of famine are recorded elsewhere in the Bible but the destination is Egypt (Abraham; Joseph story).

Irony as Bethlehem means “house of bread” or “house of food”.

Moab was among the oppressors of Israel in the era of the Judges.

Moab = “would have been freighted with meaning”. Close but difficult, often hostile, relations. [England & Ireland]. The Moabites are presented in the Bible as descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with one of his daughters. They are hostile to Israelites in Numbers. In Deuteronomy Moabites and Ammonites were not admitted to the worshipping assembly.

The choice of Moab by Elimelech is strange and the consequences quite unsurprising.

“A reader or hearer is even more quickly drawn in when the story’s character makes an improbable decision or takes improbable action in the very first line”.

The long-standing negative view of Moab influences everything that happens in the story and explains the negative attitude of the field workers to Ruth as well as the refusal of the nearer redeemer to get involved. It magnifies Ruth’s decision and Boaz’s behaviour.

Ephrathite can mean someone from the northern area of Ephraim, but here it refers to the geographical or sub-tribe unit that Elimelech’s family falls into. 1 Samuel 17:12 describes this as David’s heritage as does Micah 5:2.

This Bethlehemite family is on the verge of extinction: three women from different homes and two different countries are now a household of widows.

Departure for Bethlehem

1:6-18

Part of the appeal of the Book of Ruth is the woman-to-woman relationship. Conversations between women are extremely rare in the Bible. The book of Ruth devotes more verses to speech between women than the rest of the Bible combined. The first words are Naomi’s to Ruth and Orpah. The last are those of the townswomen to Naomi. [The other extended conversation is in the NT = Mary and Elizabeth. There is also Mary and Martha].

First Speech and Response Cycle (1:6-10)

Naomi is both displaced and bereft. She seems to have second thoughts on the journey.

Naomi instructs Ruth and Orpah to return to Moab and blesses them. The blessing incorporates the first of many references to hesed = kindness, lovingkindness, faithfulness, loyalty. It is the most important theme of the book. It may have been a general wish but it is probably a benedictory invocation of divine faithfulness.

Naomi alludes to their kindness to her and to the dead men of the family.

Verse 9 is a prayer. Although the story of Ruth is one of women making decisions and taking action on their own, their action takes place in the context of this traditional assumption about women’s place in socio-economic structure.

It ends with Naomi’s farewell kiss, weeping and Ruth and Orpah’s rejection of Naomi’s proposal.

Interestingly Ruth and Orpah talk about “returning” with her to her people even though, of course, they have never been to Judah.

Second Speech and Response Cycle (1:11-14)

Naomi reiterates her exhortation and elaborates upon her arguments. She picks up on “return” and uses it in its more expected way i.e. return to Moab.

Scholars have long discussed Naomi’s rhetoric and its relevance to levirate marriage. They probably do not relate to the latter. They are just a heightened rhetorical expression of pain and frustration about her inability to care for her daughters-in-law.

Verse 13 = Naomi speaks of her bitterness because God’s hand is against her. She seems to argue that she is worse off than her daughters in law because if they return to Moab, they could marry again.

Finally, Naomi’s outcry blames God for what has happened in her life. Unlike Job, she is not portrayed as being interested why calamity has struck. Unlike the laments in the psalms, she is not portrayed as asking God for a change in her condition. Her spirit has been crushed beyond the point of prayer.

The second cycle concludes with another time of weeping, followed by Orpah’s departure. Although the narrator contrasts Orpah’s separation kiss with Ruth’s clinging to Naomi, there is no negative judgement on Orpah’s action. Indeed, she is, after all, doing Naomi’s bidding. She is the obedient one and Ruth the disobedient one. Ruth’s power of feeling to leave behind her birth family and nation for a new loyalty is extraordinary.

Third Speech and Response Cycle (1:15-18)

A third time Naomi speaks to Ruth. This time, she argues that Ruth should stick to the Moabites and the Moabite religion. Naomi seems convinced that Ruth should save herself by leaving this God-forsaken household.

Then we have Ruth’s truly remarkable commitment. If she could easily have married in Moab, Ruth has chosen an old woman over a young man. Even if the prospects were not good in Moab in Ruth’s view, it is still a striking decision.

Ruth promises that Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God will be hers as well. Ruth must have been aware that the people of Judah would not readily accept her. Ruth’s decision offers encouragement to present day migrants. Ruth’s formal commitment to a different religion would involve a difficult process. Jews see Ruth as the great example of conversion to Judaism and her statement is the basis for those who wish to convert to Judaism today. For life-long Jews and Christians, Ruth’s decision may be hard to understand. On the other hand, for those who regard all religions as “basically alike” will also find her decision difficult. Finally, Ruth says she will live, die and be buried with Naomi. That is a life-long commitment and burial away from home is a momentous decision in the Middle East. Ruth’s promise concludes with an oath before the Lord = Naomi’s God. There was no belief in an afterlife at the time of writing, so Ruth commits herself permanently and with strength – to even beyond Naomi’s death. Rabbis therefore set Ruth alongside Abraham. Phyllis Trible argues that Ruth’s commitment is even greater because there has been no specific promise or revelation from God.

However, we do not know what the attitude of Ruth’s family to her was like. In the Middle East, the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law is very strong. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi is a model of loyalty in other relationships.

Once Naomi realized that Ruth would not be moved, “she said no more to her”. Ruth has not followed her advice and Naomi makes no mention of Ruth in the next scene. “Ruth’s presence is as much a reminder of tragedy as it is of potential comfort”.

Arrival in Bethlehem

1:19-22

At their arrival, the whole town is excited. Travellers would not have been common perhaps – and two women arriving alone was a strange sight. Naomi is recognized but Naomi responds with irony. Her name means pleasantness but Naomi says she should be called bitterness. Like Job, Naomi can see no reason and no way forward. Like Jeremiah, in his laments, she lays her plight as God’s doing: God has caused the calamity. Unlike Job and Jeremiah, Naomi does not ask why and she does not ask for redress. Naomi talks of leaving Bethlehem “full” and coming back “empty”. The presence of Ruth goes totally unremarked.

Those who have grieved deeply, or accompanied those who have grieved, can argue that this book is about Naomi as much as Ruth.

[Frederic Bush believes Naomi is the main character of the book]. Kathleen Robertson Farmer argues that Naomi is the character who “ most closely mirrors the attitudes and experiences of the people of God, including both Israel and the church”. She is a character who is redeemed by the actions of other people. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. No-one ever chides Naomi for her honesty = psalms.

However, the final words of the narrator hold some hope: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest”.

ESTHER THEOLOGICAL THEMES

Carol Bechtel identifies three Theological Themes in the Book of Esther.

  1. The Importance of Proportion.

In the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, certain Psalms – it is a healthy sense of proportion that distinguishes the wise from the foolish. Shemarayahu Talmon has argued that Esther is a Wisdom tale. This is to take the argument too far. However, the importance of proportion is reflected prominently throughout the book. Ahasuerus and Haman often display a shocking lack of proportion. There are stupendous feasts and displays of pomp, decisions that affect the whole empire are made in an off-hand way and the royal signet ring is passed around without due recognition of the power it gives the wearer. But if Ahasuerus acts because he does not think deeply about things, Haman has a gift for disproportion worthy of a scheming despot. In contrast to these, Esther emerges as the epitome of proportion. Mordecai, although viewed by Jews as the hero, is less easy to grade.

Esther and Haman are clear counterparts. Mordecai and Ahasuerus are a less easy match but there are similarities. Ahasuerus does not mean any real evil but he leaves himself open to be manipulated by Haman. Mordecai does not intend to doom his own people to death but because of his relationship with Haman, this is the result.

Carey Moore represents a long tradition of commentators when he claims “between Mordecai and Esther the greater hero in the Hebrew is Mordecai who supplied the brains while Esther simply followed his instructions.”

Carol Bechtel strongly disagrees with this: “it is Mordecai who – however unwittingly – gets the people of God into this mess. It is left to Esther – with a lot of help from God and a little help from Mordecai – to get them out.”

  1. The Challenge of Living a Faithful Life in an Unfaithful Culture.

It is one thing to live a life faithful to God when one is surrounded by a culture that supports such efforts. It is quite different to live a faithful life in an indifferent or hostile situation. Sidnie Ann White writes: “the tale clearly is meant to entertain… it has a didactic purpose as well,” namely, “to teach Jews how to live a productive life in the Diaspora”.

The one unalterable fact of life for the Jews in the Book of Esther is limited power.

But the Jews are not the only ones with limited power.

There is Queen Vashti. She is a fascinating character. Ahasuerus and Vashti are like two immovable forces that clash – and there can be only one winner. Her resistance to Ahasuerus is an important foil for Esther’s progress. Esther opts, in contrast, for critical compromise. Mordecai’s actions can veer between those of Vashti and Esther.

The Eunuchs are often overlooked in Esther. Most of the interventions by eunuchs are positive such as Hegai’s favour and advice or Harbona’s timely suggestion. There is one negative intervention and that is Bigthan and Teresh’s foiled assassination attempt. Bigthan and Teresh, choose open rebellion and, like Vashti, pay dearly for it. Hegai and Harbona get what they want by being patient and waiting for the right moment.

And then there is God. His name is never mentioned. This fact as Carey Moore notes caused Esther some difficulty in being accepted into the Christian Canon of Scripture. Carol Bechtel writes: “In a manner quite similar to the stories of Joseph and Ruth, God’s presence also is felt in the book’s ‘coincidences’.” “All of this is to say that God is very much a character in this book, though one who evidently prefers to remain anonymous”.

Like the Jews, the women, and the eunuchs in the Book of Esther, we must make difficult decisions about whether to adopt, reject or adapt to our situation.
Yet God is with us in the midst of that struggle. We may wish at times God’s presence and power were a little more obvious. Carol Bechtel.
  1. The Power of the Written Word.

Seen from a slightly different angle, the Book of Esther could also be considered an extended meditation on the power of the written word.

There are, at least, sixty-three references to writing or written texts.

Haman’s whole strategy revolves around the relationship between the written and the oral word. He is often ambiguous when he speaks with Ahasuerus but there is no ambiguity in the decrees he drafts.

The King keeps his own book of days and he has his royal annals read out to him when he cannot sleep. He was “sleepless in Susa” when Mordecai’ part in the foiled assassination is read out. Written texts lose their power when they remain unread.

That is why Jews take the Book of Esther to heart at Purim in accordance with the two sets of letters sent out in Chapter 9.

That an extended meditation on the power of the written word – and the importance of reading it – should arise at this this period is not surprising. This was a time when the people of God sought to collect and edit what would become Scripture, and to redefine themselves as “a people of the book”.

What is surprising is that Christians should be so little interested and engaged. R. Plunkett in a private communication wrote: “every text is a dead letter unless the writer and the reader collaborate to keep it alive”. As long as Esther’s word goes unread, its truth will lie buried.

Patricia Tull makes the interesting point that in the Old Testament, “heroes” are usually presented as complex and morally ambiguous personalities. We just have to consider David to appreciate this. Mordecai, I suggest, may be rather similar to these complex “heroes”.

THE BOOK OF ESTHER 5

By Rev Christopher Cooke

WEEK 5

Chapters 8,9 and 10

8:1-2: King Ahasuerus Makes Some Changes.

Is this poetic justice?
Is this what we expected to happen earlier in the story?

“There is a kind of ‘all’s well that ends well’ feeling at the end of verse 2. Perhaps Ahasuerus thinks he has done enough for one day, or indeed, has done all that needs to be done. Esther has Haman’s house, after all, and Mordecai has the king’s own signet ring. What more could they want”. Carol Bechtel.
Esther and Mordechai-Aert de Gelder (1645-1727

8:3-8: Queen Esther Pleads for Her People.

What is the unfinished business?

“Mordecai and Esther are being heaped with rewards, but their lives are still in danger”. Patricia Tull.

“More striking even than Ahasuerus’s lack of imagination is his lack of power. One cannot help but compare the ‘Mighty Man’ of the book’s introduction with the weak and ineffectual monarch pictured here… One thing, at least, is clear. Esther and Mordecai cannot rely on Ahasuerus for much help. The words of a dead traitor have proven more powerful than the commands of a living king. Their only option is to fight fire with fire – edict with edict”. Carol Bechtel.

Esther throws herself on the King’s mercy once again to show him the seriousness of the situation. Have you ever had to throw yourself on someone’s mercy to open their eyes to a case of injustice?

8:9-17: Mordecai Sends Out Another Edict.

What do you make of Mordecai’s Edict?
How does it compare with Haman’s?

The decree gives the Jews permission to defend themselves; that right may seem self-evident to modern readers but in the world of the Persian court in Esther, where everything is done according to the law, even self-defence must be legislated. The parallelism with the previous decrees emphasizes the wisdom doctrine of retributive justice, but Mordecai’s inclusion of women and children in his counter decree has made him vulnerable to a charge of ‘bloodthirstiness’”. Sidnie Ann White.

Patricia Tull believes the Book of Esther could end here with hardly any damage to its substance. Do you agree?

9:1-19: The Battles.

Does the violence that occurs in this chapter trouble you, given that some of it is requested by Esther? Why or why not?
Would it have troubled you less if Mordecai had been the one to make the request? Why or why not?

“Esther is true to real life as it is lived messily with loose ends and threads coming undone”. Johanna Van Wijk-Bos.

“The conclusion of Esther causes many people uneasiness. Its style and vision are so different from the rest of the book that many scholars think it may have been added by someone other than the author of the previous chapters. The earlier chapters’ keen sense of justice and aesthetics are not so distinct in the book’s conclusion. Yet theological gold can be mined from its very complexity”. Patricia Tull.

9:20-32: The Letters of Purim.

Should the Jews celebrate Purim?
Should Christians read the Book of Esther?

“The purpose of these letters is to give official sanction to the non-Mosaic festival of Purim. Purim, an essentially secular festival originating in the diaspora…” Sidnie Ann White.
“[Christians] would do well to remember, however, the main event of that celebration [Purim]; namely the reading of the book of Esther. Surely, we can manage that much. Indeed, we should more than ‘manage’ it, because there is a sense in which this book may have come into our canon ‘for just a time as this’. It is a book, after all, about the struggle to be faithful in the midst of an increasingly unfaithful culture.” Carol Bechtel.

10:1-3: Where has Esther Gone?

“But like Esther, rather than remaining children, rather than ignoring what is overwhelming to us, each of us had a God-given grace within us to step forward on behalf of people we care for, to engage in small acts of courage, even when we can hardly see what good they will do. And very often, when we do step forward, forces beyond our power will help us, as they helped Esther, in carrying out God’s good purposes”. Patricia Tull.

Reverend Christopher’s comments are shown below

8:1-2: King Ahasuerus Makes Some Changes.

Is this poetic justice?
Is this what we expected to happen earlier in the story?

The multiple silences of the story are brought to an end. Haman is revealed as the enemy of the Jews. Esther is revealed as a Jewess. Mordecai is revealed as Esther’s cousin. Esther is rewarded with Haman’s house (but how will she use it as she is in the harem?) King Ahasuerus remains much the same and hands over his signet ring which he took from Haman, and gives it to his new favourite: Mordecai. The signet ring is like a hot potato (Patricia Tull).

“There is a kind of ‘all’s well that ends well’ feeling at the end of verse 2. Perhaps Ahasuerus thinks he has done enough for one day, or indeed, has done all that needs to be done. Esther has Haman’s house, after all, and Mordecai has the king’s own signet ring. What more could they want”. Carol Bechtel.

8:3-8: Queen Esther Pleads for Her People.

What is the unfinished business?

“Mordecai and Esther are being heaped with rewards, but their lives are still in danger”. Patricia Tull.

Haman’s edict still stands and it cannot be revoked. Esther and Mordecai have to find a way to neutralize Haman’s edict. Esther must first, by her charms, obtain the king’s permission to circumvent the decree. Esther has never been as dramatic or melodramatic as this before. Her appeal is based on her personal favour with the King and not about the ethics of mass murder. We notice that Esther puts all the blame on Haman. She also argues that the loss of the Jews would result in a loss of property for the King. Nevertheless, Esther’s ploy works and Ahasuerus, characteristically, gives her carte blanche. He avoids responsibility once again by putting things in her hands. Ahasuerus displays a basic indifference to the fate of the Jews. Esther absolutely identifies with her people the Jews. Ahasuerus absolutely refuses to take any initiative. It is up to Esther and Mordecai to try and set things right.

“More striking even than Ahasuerus’s lack of imagination is his lack of power. One cannot help but compare the ‘Mighty Man’ of the book’s introduction with the weak and ineffectual monarch pictured here… One thing, at least, is clear. Esther and Mordecai cannot rely on Ahasuerus for much help. The words of a dead traitor have proven more powerful than the commands of a living king. Their only option is to fight fire with fire – edict with edict”. Carol Bechtel.

Esther throws herself on the King’s mercy once again to show him the seriousness of the situation. Have you ever had to throw yourself on someone’s mercy to open their eyes to a case of injustice?

8:9-17: Mordecai Sends Out Another Edict.

What do you make of Mordecai’s Edict?
How does it compare with Haman’s?

Esther calls on Mordecai to help draw up this important document. We have had an edict following Vashti’s rebellion and we have had Haman’s edict. Not surprisingly, Mordecai’s edict follows Haman’s in form quite closely. There are considerable parallels with Haman’s edict in chapter 3. Mordecai does not see this as a case for creative writing. It is very much modelled on Haman’s so that this counter-edict can be as effective as possible. Then there are the differences. Mordecai’s edict gives permission to destroy, kill, annihilate and plunder whereas Haman’s gives orders for the same. Mordecai’s is framed to allow self-defence while Haman’s was undisguised aggression.

“The decree gives the Jews permission to defend themselves; that right may seem self-evident to modern readers but in the world of the Persian court in Esther, where everything is done according to the law, even self-defence must be legislated. The parallelism with the previous decrees emphasizes the wisdom doctrine of retributive justice, but Mordecai’s inclusion of women and children in his counter decree has made him vulnerable to a charge of ‘bloodthirstiness’”. Sidnie Ann White.

This may well fit in with the concept of ‘holy war’ as this is what got King Saul in trouble when he did not carry this out against Agag. However, the verse ending is different in the Hebrew version. In that case, as Carol Bechtel argues, it would be Jewish women and children who are liable to be attacked. (In what follows, the Jews do not take plunder and there is no indication that anyone other than the attackers were harmed). There are two more contrasts between the edicts. Mordecai’s is also sent to the Jews who were excluded from Haman’s circulation list even though they were the victims. Haman’s edict was sent by couriers probably because there was no great urgency. Mordecai’s is sent by express mounted couriers – the pony express. After Haman’s edict, the King and Haman sat down to eat and drink. Mordecai leaves the King alone and appears in splendour in Susa. Now it is the Jews who eat and drink. It is a long way from the sackcloth and ashes and the fasting.

Patricia Tull believes the Book of Esther could end here with hardly any damage to its substance. Do you agree?

9:1-19: The Battles.

Does the violence that occurs in this chapter trouble you, given that some of it is requested by Esther? Why or why not?
Would it have troubled you less if Mordecai had been the one to make the request? Why or why not?

“Esther is true to real life as it is lived messily with loose ends and threads coming undone”. Johanna Van Wijk-Bos.
“The conclusion of Esther causes many people uneasiness. Its style and vision are so different from the rest of the book that many scholars think it may have been added by someone other than the author of the previous chapters. The earlier chapters’ keen sense of justice and aesthetics are not so distinct in the book’s conclusion. Yet theological gold can be mined from its very complexity”. Patricia Tull.

This chapter is full of inconsistences and redundancies. Esther’s appeal to the King seems more routine and less heartfelt than earlier. She is definitely more bloodthirsty than we have seen her earlier. Carol Bechtel would just say that Esther has become more determined. It is not clear why a second day of fighting was necessary other than that the feast of Purim as celebrated is a two-day festival. Haman’s ten sons were killed in the melee, and not executed, which suggests that they were among the attackers. There dead bodies are to be displayed on the gallows. The Jews take no plunder and spare women and children. What happens here is sometimes compared with the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War when Polish Jews rose up to defend themselves from the Nazis. The battles at the end of Esther remind us that violence can be rooted in the desire for peace and security. The celebration is not in the slaughter itself but in the deliverance of the Jewish people.

9:20-32: The Letters of Purim.

Should the Jews celebrate Purim?
Should Christians read the Book of Esther?

“The purpose of these letters is to give official sanction to the non-Mosaic festival of Purim. Purim, an essentially secular festival originating in the diaspora…” Sidnie Ann White.

Mordecai’s letter is not a royal decree but a request to the Jews that they mark this annual celebration. We notice that are to be presents for the poor. Verses 24 to 26 give a synopsis of the book, severely telescoped, and in some cases in disagreement with the main plot. For instance, Ahasuerus is seen in a better light than elsewhere in the book. It reads as if he were the saviour of the Jews. Despite the author’s best attempts, the connection between Purim the pur (Haman’s casting of lots) remains tenuous and murky. There follows a letter from Queen Esther giving it all royal sanction. Although, Purim was not universally celebrated (the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest it wasn’t at Qumran), it soon became a very important festival. At the heart of this festival is the reading of the Book of Esther.

“[Christians] would do well to remember, however, the main event of that celebration [Purim]; namely the reading of the book of Esther. Surely, we can manage that much. Indeed, we should more than ‘manage’ it, because there is a sense in which this book may have come into our canon ‘for just a time as this’. It is a book, after all, about the struggle to be faithful in the midst of an increasingly unfaithful culture.” Carol Bechtel.

10:1-3: Where has Esther Gone?

These verses glory in the greatness of Ahasuerus and Mordecai. What a great king! Mordecai is said to have governed well, looked after the Jews but benefitted the whole of that great kingdom. In this way he is compared to Joseph in the Book of Genesis. This contrasts with the descriptions of Ahasuerus and Mordecai in the main part of the book. And Esther is written out of the story.

“But like Esther, rather than remaining children, rather than ignoring what is overwhelming to us, each of us had a God-given grace within us to step forward on behalf of people we care for, to engage in small acts of courage, even when we can hardly see what good they will do. And very often, when we do step forward, forces beyond our power will help us, as they helped Esther, in carrying out God’s good purposes”. Patricia Tull.

Elizabeth and Rubens

By Jackie Winwood

I attach a picture of our rather large Montana clematis (Elizabeth) and found this appropriate poem which I thought was rather nice-

Photo by Jackie Winwood

Ode to“Elizabeth and Rubens” Clematis Montana

Elizabeth and Rubens were a good pair
until I went and cut down all Rubens hair
now Rubens in my garden is no longer there
and Elizabeth looks like she needs some care