God ~ it’s complicated ~ from Hosea

Narrative connection:

King Ahab and Elijah – last week’s king and prophet pair – lived in the northern kingdom, Ahab ruling from 869 to 850 BCE, roughly, and 120 years have passed between last week’s story and this. For many generations following the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, Samaria and Judah were not disturbed by any military power other than skirmishes between the neighbors. This relatively peaceful time came to an end, however, as Assyria gained super-power status and began military excursions across the Euphrates – first into Syria and then into the northern kingdom. Conquered states were spared complete destruction only by submitting to severe terms of probation – testing their loyalty to Assyria’s rule, becoming vassal states with puppet kings. During the reign of Tiglathpilezer III, Assyria became still more aggressive in expansion, reducing once sovereign states to oppressed misery. He introduced a new policy of conquest. Instead of the usual extraction of gold, silver, slaves, and a steep annual tribute, he began the policy of deporting conquered people from their homeland and repopulating the emptied territory with exiles from distant conquered lands. This disorientation eliminated effective rebellion. 

I’ve read this before, but you’re hearing it again because it sets the scene. Abraham Heschel offers this quote from the History of Assyria; “Assyria has been characterized as the nest of the bird of prey from whence set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood. Ashur was its god, plunder it morality, cruelty and terror its means. No people was ever more abject than those of Ashur, no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes. Assyria sums up within herself all the vices. Aside from bravery, she offers not a single virtue.”

Hosea was the prophet during the decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom. He began his prophetic activity in the prosperous days of the reign of Jeroboam II, and continued through the period of anarchy following Jeroboam’s death in 746 BCE. King Jeroboam was succeeded by his son Zechariah, but after only 6 months on the throne Zechariah was assassinated by Shallum, who survived for one month before he was assassinated by Menahem, who was able to hold onto the throne for 10 years. In the meantime Tilgathpilezer had come into power in Assyria, and an inscription dated 738, lists Menahem among a series of kings throughout the region from Mesopotamia to Arabia who paid tribute for the pleasure of their survival. Mehahem was succeeded by his son who was assassinated after two years by Pekah who lasted for three years. Gilead and Galilee fell after a failed rebellion in 733, and Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, who was a vassal lord for Tilgathpilezer. 

The last few years of Israel’s history are still unclear, but Tilgathpilezer died and was replaced by Shalmaneser who laid siege to Samaria, taking it after 3 years and leading away as booty some 27,000 inhabitants and 50 chariots. So ended the political history of the northern kingdom.

In the last 24 years of her existence, Israel had 6 kings, but for Hosea there was no legitimate king. Kingship derived its power from divine election, and God was not consulted, considered nor confessed in the political intrigues, corruption and shifting alliances that took place in those dark, fearful years.

Hosea had warned – as Amos had before him – of the coming destruction due them because of the infidelity of Israel (which he called Ephraim) toward God. The people and king had turned away from God and therefore away from God’s concern for truth, integrity and justice for the poor. And yet the fall of Samaria was not the final chapter in God’s relationship to Israel. Amos had proclaimed the righteousness of God, whose iron will would let justice roll down like an everflowing torrent. Hosea speaks both of the wrath of God who wants nothing more to do with this people, and God’s overarching, unrequited love for them. God is not only the Lord who demands justice and loyalty, but he is also a God who is in love with this people. God could not give up on the people he had promised to accompany. Hosea’s message was not primarily one of doom, in spite of the really horrible violence he describes as his word of God for his people. His message was intended to effect reconciliation and return.

Hosea  

6:4-6  What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

11:1-9  When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

 

The prophets are some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: they are those whose inspiration brought the Bible into being –  whose voice and vision inform our faith, who embody the word of God and bring it to life through their own bodies and personalities and emotions. They are the original practitioners of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. 

But you can’t live, embody, give voice to God and not be a little different, changed.

Still, the prophet was a person, not a mouthpiece. They are endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not their own – and also with a temperament, with concern, character, and individuality very much their own. The word of God reverberated in the body and vocal chords of a specific human form – a physical embodiment fo the word, an incarnation of God’s word that began with the incarnation of creation itself. The divine infused moments that occurred in the prophet’s lives, their backstories and daily doings, none of that is available to us. All we have is the consciousness of those moments preserved in their words on behalf of God.*

Abraham Heschel writes, “The prophets’ experience of God is characterized as a communion with the divine consciousness, a sympathy with divine pathos, a deep concern by God for humanity. The prophets do not become absorbed into God, losing their own personalities, but they share the divine pathos through their own sharply honed sympathy.”

Through it all they teach us about God. But it’s a disturbing, complicated, multivalent lesson.

“It is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophets consternation,” Heschel writes, “but a world deaf to meaning.”  

That sounds like our world, in fact, which makes it all the more difficult to know what to make of the prophets.. and of God.

Hosea comes to see his life as a metaphor for the message God gives him. His relationship to his unfaithful wife, models God’s relationship to unfaithful Israel. Hosea takes up this passionate cause saying NO to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. Hosea tells a terrible, violent tale, yet his goal was to reconcile humans and God. Our reading for today is notably different than the bulk of his message.

These comforting, beautiful lines are not representative of Hosea’s prophecy. In fact, he talks about God much the way Heschel described Assyria. Assyria seems to be given the divine go ahead to destroy, plunder and slay with unspeakable violence.

God is angry (really angry) because the people of the northern kingdom have turned away, and forgotten, and courted other gods. Angry enough to destroy the nation. This sounds – to our ears –  like a bit of an overreaction. It sounds a bit like Jonah pouting about God’s willingness to save his enemies. Jonah was angry enough to die, God to destroy.  If you remember, the enemy Jonah wanted destroyed was Ninevah, the capital of Assyria – not his own people. 

This is a confusing God.

Is God being peevish, feeling jealous of the neighboring gods? Is it so bad that the Israelites added other gods to their worship practices? The fertility and diversity of nature is an astounding wonder – even to us! To people surrounded by desert, the mystery of growth and greening, the dry wadis running with spring rain, sprouting into blossom and bud – evoked profound thanksgiving. The beauty of the first skim of ice on Little Butternut under moonlight, geese honking overhead – I can understand worshiping a neighbor’s gods of land and fertility – wool and flax, oil and wine, grain and fig trees and lambs. Did it really matter that worship of God was shared if there is only one God? The answer was yes, even though we might not think it deserved Assyria as punishment. The people worshipped the gods of the land who in return for the blessing of fertility demanded incense, live sacrifice, sacred prostitution, intoxicants  – self-centered excitements of the flesh – rather than Israel’s God, the holy one who demanded righteousness, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love. The difference is in how we treat our neighbors in the practice of our religion. This is the thing that pleases or peeves God. 

According to the prophets, the thing we get wrong is that we – like ancient Israel and their Canaanite neighbors –  think in individual terms.  As along as we are nice and good-intentioned and basically honest and kind, we’re fine, we have fulfilled the righteousness of the law. Right? But through the prophets we learn that God isn’t so concerned about the behavior of any one individual; God’s concern is for the many, the nation. Assyria was the response to the Israelite communal sin of disregard for God’s justice and compassion. Hosea was chosen to speak for and to the whole nation, not just his family or for himself. If your salvation depended not on your individual actions but on your part of a culture, your advocacy that changes policies for the benefit of multitudes of poor or immigrants, if we were convinced – as Hosea and his people were – that God actually cared about our communal actions – cared enough to destroy or redeem one nation with another – what would you think of that? We have individual agency on behalf of the many. Our individual salvation is communal, depending on the condition of the disadvantaged among us. That doesn’t sound very different from the message of Jesus. Hmmm.

The thing that caught me this week  – well, there are two. The first is that Hosea presents God in this terrible, wrathful vengeance mode against Israel, not Assyria. Assyria is figuratively and literally ripping people apart, inflicting tremendous misery on nation after nation, yet, in the prophetic, inspired understanding, God is punishing Israel through the actions of Assyria, for ignoring God and their covenantal relationship. It doesn’t seem that the cause warrants the means. And that surprises me about God. 

I read this week about the halo effect. If we see an interview of a baseball player, say, who is handsome and well-spoken, who is doing good in the community, we are convinced that he is also a very good player. Our first impression colors and covers all the rest of the facts. He may be mediocre, but we’ll give him extra credit because of the things we like about him.

This also works against people, obviously – racial profiling, hate crimes – negative assumptions based solely on the way someone looks.

We give God the benefit of the halo effect as well. Which is only kind of funny. I believe that God is good, that God is love and loving, creative, invested in this world, this earth, our lives.

And so I don’t know what to do with the discrepancy of a God who comes in vengeance against people he loves. I tend to skim over the reams of prophetic words and biblical history that show God in a very different light to the one I like. There is too much cognitive dissonance, two of these things are not like the other. How can God come in wrath, and come in mercy? How can God’s right arm bear the sword of vengeance and in her left arm nestle lambs against her bosom? How can God create, and save, and destroy out of love? Those actions are opposites, how do they fit in God’s emotional life?

That is Hosea’s concern and, finally, his message.

Listen to the verbs God uses: God’s inward talk and outward talk – on the one hand, but on the other hand. God is complicated.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

‘I desire…’ Does your image of God hold a place for desire – it is an emotion with an unknown outcome  – is your God that vulnerable?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. 

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call,  but he does not raise them up at all. 

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [Cities that were destroyed]

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 

They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria;  and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

‘I desire steadfast love, to be known’ – not worshiped. That’s the other thing that caught me. What we do here on Sundays is worship, I hope, but what we also need to be doing is prying open our hearts to receive the steadfast love of God for us and for our communal lives, our encounters. And, I hope, opening our minds, our imaginations for ways, places, people – unexpected and mysterious – to know God beyond our Sunday worship hour. To experience God’s desire, God’s warm compassion, the cords of human kindness, the human bonds of love God provides.

Tell me, or someone at your table how this goes for you; how you hold together the divergent images of this complicated God.

Reflection on 1 Kings 18:17-39  by Nikki Strandskov

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

There’s a little problem with lectionary readings –not enough context. What is Elijah doing, and why? Most of us are probably not experts on First Kings. So let’s back up a little.

After King Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into north – Israel – and south – Judah. Israel was ruled by a succession of kings, each worse than the last. Elijah began his prophetic mission in the time of King Ahab. Ahab had married a princess from a neighboring country, the infamous Jezebel – a worshiper of Baal and Asherah, a god and goddess who were thought to control thunder, lightning, and rain. Ahab began to worship them and even built temples for them; he also persecuted the Hebrew prophets – Elijah and many more – who preached against idol worship. Elijah came to Ahab and prophesied that there would be no rain or even dew in the land of Israel until Elijah gave the word. Then he fled, and was protected by God for three years. Now we resume the story.

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.  Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word.  Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.  Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”

All the people answered, “Well spoken!”  Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.”  So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made.  At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.  As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.  

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down;  Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”;  with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed.  Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.”  Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time,  so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.  At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding.  Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”  Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

Once to every man and nation – hymn sung

It’s also not easy to find hymns that reference the stories from the Hebrew Bible, but the Hymnary website suggested this one. James Russell Lowell wrote the poem from which its lines are taken in 1845, when the US was heading toward the Mexican War and the abolitionist movement was heating up. Lowell was against the war and pro-abolition. We may envy Lowell – he only had two great moral issues on his mind. When was the last time you had to choose between truth and falsehood? If you read the paper or watched Meet the Press before church, maybe it was only an hour ago. We are inundated with information and opinions, and it’s not always easy when the moment to decide comes.

The prophet Elijah had no trouble making his decision. It was self-evident to him that God – Adonai Elohim – Israel’s one true God – was the only God, and that Baal and Asherah were merely idols. God had given him the power to withhold rain, to cause a widow’s meal and oil never to run out, and even to raise the widow’s son from the dead. 

It’s not clear what led Elijah to provoke the showdown with the priests of Baal and Asherah. Maybe he had pity on the people of Israel – some of whom were still faithful – and decided it was time to bring rain once more. But he had to prove his point, so he set up the contest between the Lord God and the false idols. The Lord God and Elijah prevailed, and, cannily left out of the lectionary reading, Elijah had all the priests of Baal killed, and the rains came.

The powerful Queen Jezebel didn’t like this, and threatened to kill Elijah, so he fled again. He also became very depressed, begging the Lord to let him die in the desert. He and God had won the contest, but Ahab and Jezebel were still in power. But God saves Elijah yet again. He lives to prophesy again to Ahab, who finally repents; but Ahab’s son will still pay the price for his disobedience, as will Jezebel.

What does this story mean to us today? At first glance it seems almost juvenile, a macho contest of “my dad can beat up your dad.” We don’t worship idols – or do we? How often do we put our faith in a particular -ism, our favorite political commentator or news source, or someone who rants and raves like the priests of Baal? Often today it seems that truth indeed is on the scaffold and falsehood on the throne, and each day brings a new crisis. What will I decide, what will you decide, when the moment comes? I take hope and courage from Lowell’s last word:

Tho’ the cause of evil prosper, 
Yet the truth alone is strong; 
Tho’ her portion be the scaffold, 
And upon the throne be wrong; 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, 
And, behind the dim unknown, 
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above His own.  Amen.

 

Kevin McMullin – “Into the Black Sea: Stories of Darkness and Light”

Author, Storyteller, Musician

 

From Kevin’s website:

In the performing arts, as in life, you’re only as good as what you’re doing right at the moment.

And getting diagnosed with a brain tumor, caring for and watching your father die, and living in the aftermath of all that, only drives home the point more forcefully. Much more forcefully. All of the stuff that I’ve done: thetravels, the gigs, the dances, the creative collaborations, the awards, the students taught, the workshops offered – they happened a life-time ago. Somebody wants to know how many times I’ve performed at the Big-Top? Seriously?

These days the question, “Who am I?” looms plenty large. And it doesn’t have anything to do with marketing. I grapple with it daily. Am I my diminished abilities? Am I the dizziness? The anger? The depression? The anxiety? Am I – God help me – the work I do? The people I touch? The granola I make?

I meditate in various ways. And therein lie worlds of exploration of the self, identity, compassion and I don’t know what all. It has helped me survive the challenges life has thrown at me. But it doesn’t offer much for writing a bio.

The new material I’ve been creating is a kind of bio. The best I can come up with for now, anyway. Into the Black Sea: Stories of Darkness and Light is a collection of written and performance works that I’ve assembled to help me make sense of it all. It turns out other people find it worthwhile too. So, who am I? Well, I’ve got a few stories to tell you. If I tell them right, you won’t need to ask.

Ruth ~ week 3

Chapter 3

Boaz said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first, for you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I.  

The meeting of Ruth and Boaz ~ Marc Chagall

Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.’

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’ Then he said, ‘Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.’ So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, ‘How did things go with you, my daughter?’ Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.” ’ She replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.’

Chapter 4

No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, ‘Come over, friend; sit down here.’ And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, ‘Sit down here’; so they sat down. He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.’ So he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ At this, the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’

 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one party took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Acquire it for yourself’, he took off his sandal. 

Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ 

Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 

Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.

 

Besides having a remarkably beautiful name, Alphonetta Wines wrote a short summary of the book of Ruth that I think is very helpful.* I’m both quoting and adding in my own bits to these first paragraphs.

In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman – Mara. In chapter two, Ruth gleans a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, goes to Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child, Obed, brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned to joy.

The genius of the book of Ruth is that it is much more than a simple story since there is such complexity in the layers, hints, and innuendo that lie within the pages. First, since its characters are exemplary, since they enact the lovingkindness of God, the book can be thought of as a morality narrative demonstrating the way of godly living. 

Second, knowing that in the world of the bible, women’s voices are rarely heard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, but their voices move the story forward. They live in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are endangered. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.

Third, it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the possibilities concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. While the details are left to one’s imagination, it is clear that Ruth intends to entice Boaz with her charms, going at night, hoping to avoid being seen, waiting until Boaz is content. wink, wink.

Fourth, although God is silent and acts indirectly through people and situations, God’s care is attested to. As a poor woman from another country, Ruth’s situation is dire, but she is not forgotten. While God is silent, there is a red thread running through scripture – God is on the side of the outcast, orphan, and widow.  It’s true that God is also concerned about people who live in the center, but divine oversight/involvement with Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. God’s got the whole world in his hands, and isn’t about to fumble.

The last point Alphonetta makes is that the book of Ruth is a reminder for us to honor the humanity of every person. There is no need for anyone to think too highly – or too lowly – of others or of themselves. These two women are about as different from each other as two people can be. There are differences in age, nationality, religion, expectations, hopes, capabilities. Theirs is a story about what happens when two people decide that relationship is more important than cultural definitions of what relationships should be, more important than any experiences that might have kept them apart.

Through her friendship with Naomi, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Through her friendship with Ruth, Naomi again experiences joy and laughter, the weight of a newborn against her chest, the smell of a toddler’s hot little head sleeping in her lap. 

In a world, ancient or modern, where people are unwilling to extend themselves on behalf of others and be changed for the better by the encounter, this story stands as an indictment of closed hearts, minds, and spirits of any age.

 

Our Saturday discussion group took this story many directions – each week, actually, but especially yesterday. We thought about Robert and his independence and isolation, about if it’s possible to help someone in situations like that. We talked about the relatively new social structures – President Johnson’s war on poverty – that brought the poor into a safety net of social security. We talked about poor houses and soup kitchens and how you parent your parents or grandparents with dignity, how we have so many gaps to fall into now that families live so far apart. We talked about people we know who have welcomed strangers into their homes for unknown periods of time, not knowing what kind of trouble they’re bringing in with them. We talked about how much life has changed and how current Ruth seems to be.

John Everett Millias

I liked all of that, but it isn’t what I want to get to about Ruth, the book. I want to know why Ruth the person disappears after the birth. That’s why I chose the bulletin cover image. She’s looking kind of wistfully at her own child, trying to see Obed’s little face. The story begins with Naomi and the tragic emptying of the men in her life. She falls into a bitter, often silent depression (I’m guessing). She doesn’t appreciate Ruth, doesn’t have value for her even when Ruth brings home the grain – until she finds out it’s Boaz, her kinsman through Elimelech in whose field Ruth is gleaning. Then she finds glimmers of hope. But she isn’t hesitant to use Ruth, to put her in a very risky, problematic situation in sending her to Boaz’ bed, for Naomi’s advantage at least as much as for Ruth’s. It would be no small coup to end up in Boaz’ household, coming to Bethlehem with nothing but some land your dead husband left you and ending up under the wings of a wealthy, honorable man. 

At the end of the story it’s all about Naomi again. She takes little Obed in her arms, holds him to her bosom, becomes his nurse. The women say, “Naomi has a son!” They even name the little guy. No, stop! he’s not her son. Where is Ruth? Where is Boaz? How does Ruth feel about this? We don’t get to know much of her feelings, she’s busy being strong and resourceful, working all day in the sun.

To their credit, the townswomen also say, ‘your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ But Naomi doesn’t acknowledge that. I wonder if she spends any time getting to know Ruth the Moabite. This is the only time Ruth isn’t called that – the women say – your daughter-in-law – who loves you, as if they need to teach Naomi that relationship. (It’s also the only time love in mentioned in the story). It makes the use of ‘daughter by Naomi and Boaz sound like a convention, not a claim. Ruth’s faithfulness and compassion to Naomi are clearly seen throughout the story, her strength is noted by the foreman at the harvest, her intelligence for finding a way around the patriarchal contractions of her situation, her worthiness as a woman and a mate  – it’s all there, but at the end, has she fulfilled the role she is allowed and ushered out of the Israelites consciousness? She has given birth to a boy – and she is disappeared. Does this book affirm Ruth, or in the end erase her because she is a Moabite, a foreigner, nothing more that a tool, a servant for God to use to move the plot along, to create a family out of nothing and connect it to the royal family – the marvelous golden king David and then on, to another baby boy born in Bethlehem.

Naomi gets Obed because she is a pure Israelite and for most of their history there were laws against marrying foreign wives. It’s why David’s son Solomon was not satisfactory – he had a collection of foreign wives and was pulled away from the one true faith. Boaz is compromised because of Ruth in the cultural way of things. 

I said in one of the other weeks that God uses people – ordinary, unsuspecting people. I hope Ruth was happy. I hope the blessing of the townspeople was true – that she and Boaz would repopulate the tribes of Israel and be blessed. Another thing the discussion group said was that we can only see God moving in our lives in hindsight. It’s only when we stop and look back that we can see or feel God’s presence, God’s moves in the paths of our lives. I think that’s about right, biblically, too. We might want a more present, visible, workable God who minds our timeframe for prayers and happy endings. Ruth doesn’t really give us one, though. It ends with things in the air.

These are the kinds of sermons Liz doesn’t like – there aren’t any answers and only more questions – I believe God works for good and does not lead us into temptation or use us for evil or harmful purposes. That’s as close to an answer as I can come. Does God move in your life? Are you aware of it in real time? Was this story really about Naomi and the way she wrangled a blessing from God using Ruth’s willing loyalty and love for her? Can we learn about God in stories like this that keep God silent and hidden? Which character do you identify with and why? The three principle players are strong and good, but have different qualities to admire or reject. Kind of like us, right?

The hymn that follows is an Advent hymn, but I reminds me of the lucent nature of Ruth – one who brings light into the darkness. And it has a wistful, lullaby like character and it ends with quiet assurance. That’s all you get today, Liz. And the rest of us, too.

Hymn: As the dark awaits the dawn

 

*workingpreacher.org. November 08, 2015. Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 by Alphonetta Wines

“…your people shall be my people…”

We began the book of Ruth last week. Here is a brief recap for those who weren’t here — or weren’t paying attention: 

There was a famine in Bethlehem. Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons went to Moab to find food. While there, Elimelech died; the two sons took Moabite wives – Ruth and Orpah. After living there about ten years, the sons also died leaving Naomi, Ruth and Orpah widowed and vulnerable. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to look for help among her kinsmen. Orpah agrees to return to her parent’s home, but Ruth refuses: “Do not press me to leave you… where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die – there will I be buried.” The two went on and came – empty and bereft – to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Chapter 2

Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 [Unaware of this] Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ 3So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 

4Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ 5Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ 6The servant answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’

8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ 

10Then she fell prostrate, her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ 11But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’    Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favour in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me, and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.’17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about ⅔ of a bushel of barley. 18She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. And Ruth took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. 

19Her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.’ So she told her mother-in-law, ‘The name of the man is Boaz.’ 20Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!’   Naomi said to her, ‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’ 21Then Ruth the Moabite said, ‘He even said to me, “Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.” ’ 22Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, ‘It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.’ 23So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests.

Hymn:   Thy blessings fill our earthly need

Chapter 3

Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. 3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’ 5Ruth said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’

6 So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood; he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’* 10He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first, for you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. 12But, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I.                 {Bum,bum,bum,bummmm}

 

Oh no! Just when it seems like Ruth will have a happy ending we learn of another entanglement – a spoiler for this agreeable – though surprising and somewhat sneaky – plan for safety and a secure future. Someone with a prior claim of acquiring Ruth by marriage. We will hear what happens with that next week (that’s a bit sneaky on my part!) But there is plenty to consider here.

This is an earthly, earthy, story – earthy in about every way it can be. But it is also theological in that God’s love and faithfulness show up through the simplest of everyday, earthen vessels. Ruth is a case study in loving your neighbor as you love yourself. She knows nothing of the law – not being an Israelite, but she consistently behaves toward Naomi with risky love and loyalty –  God’s hesed – the ‘steadfast lovingkindness in action’ that is attributed to God. Although we don’t ‘hear’ from God in the story, there are rumors of God. Naomi attributes good and ill to the actions of God working in the background. She attributes to God what the author says is happenstance, she sees God working through earthy vessels. 

The earthiness part of the story is quite obvious. It’s first seen in the famine that led Naomi and her family to Moab as the story opens; it is seen in the grounding theme of famine, food, and harvest; it’s seen in the conversations and very human problems and situations in which our characters find themselves – it’s also seen in celebration. Harvest is done. Grain is lying heaped on the threshing floor. Deuteronomy relates God’s command for the people to hold a festival at the end of harvest – for the people to consume “whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, beer, or whatever you desire” (Deut 14:26). 

Psalm 104 might be their response: “[You] bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.” (Ps 104: 14–15). Boaz had a gladdened heart! He was in a contented mood (wink, wink). He went to sleep on his threshing floor (not uncommon to prevent thievery) and fell fast asleep.  

This sort of spoiled Naomi’s conniving plan. He was supposed to notice when Ruth, freshly bathed, perfumed, dressed in her best gown (or perhaps not at this point), slid under his blanket at his feet (or perhaps not at this point). Instead he sleeps through it all until he happens to roll over – and whoa! – there’s a woman here! In asking Boaz to spread his cloak over her, Ruth is not saying she is chilly, she is offering a proposal of marriage – probably one of the least romantic and riskiest proposals ever: ‘take me to redeem my dead husband’s name. You are next of kin to him’. 

Shaken out of his grogginess, Boaz does not stop to consider what’s going on or ask more questions or send her away. In fact, he seems honored by her request. Spreading his cloak symbolically brings her both into his bed and under the protection of his wings. And Boaz says, “Yes”. There, on the threshing floor, under the cover of darkness and of his cloak, they exchanged the equivalent of marriage promises.

Like Naomi, he has called Ruth “my daughter” in the past, either hinting at his own age or granting her polite, honored status. Now we hear what he’s been thinking: if she had not been so loyal to Naomi, she would be interested in attracting a younger man.  This is why he had seen her daily for the two months of harvesting yet not made any advances other than acts of kindness: it was his wish not to obligate Ruth into a marriage she might not want for herself. His restraint is in sacrificing his own attraction and advantage of status for the sake of her wishes. And so he feels this proposal, coming as it did into his sleep and not a business deal with Naomi as kin – which might be more expected and proper – he feels it akin to love.      But before anything more can be said or expressed, he tells Ruth there is another who has closer ties, and therefore first rights, and who must first take up or pass on the role as go’el – one with the right to redeem property when there is no head of household. So, it still all might go down the drain. She might become the wife of this other, unknown man. 

Perhaps too much of God is left in the background. We are encouraged to see the movement of the story as being nudged along by an invisible, silent God. As a reader/hearer of the story, we might want God to show up in some more obvious way at this point. As it is we are presented with questions: How much of the plot is contrived  – a novella thousands of years old?   How much of the plot is art reflecting life? Does the plot, do the characters reflect any truth in your life? Is earthly, earthy compassion and kindness and steadfast, loyal love transformative enough, redeeming enough?

In your life? Does God remain behind an invisibility cloak? Do you attribute – well, what do you attribute to God in your daily life?

God intersects with the characters of this book the way many of us experience God: not as a divine physical presence, not as a visible mover of events, but as the one to whom we might attribute some amount of agency, some behind the scenes action in our own circumstances or in the world at large. 

We see football players giving thanks after making a touchdown. We might give thanks when we get a job or get a raise, or escape harm, or get favorable lab results – understanding God’s hand to be at work in our good fortune. But – like Naomi – do we attribute our calamities to God’s agency, too? What if we have escaped harm but others have not, or if we have food to eat and others do not?  The question of God’s activity in the world is a classic and supremely difficult theological dilemma: how do we understand the relationship between human will and happenstance and divine agency?  (see commentary by Cameron Howard, Working Preacher)

  The story of Ruth leads us into these questions about God because it is so similar to our lives even though we are separated by thousands of years. We might not understand the customs, but we get the emotions. We know grief when we hear Naomi’s story; we can imagine Ruth’s heart pounding risk as she lifts the edge of Boaz’ blanket and slides in shivering. We’ve risked everything, risked our hearts… perhaps have been that vulnerable. We might be, or know someone, like Boaz – honorable, wise, patient, longing for something he doesn’t pursue. Do we also see / believe / think possible God’s nudging for good? God’s steadfast lovingkindness in action on the ground among us? 

Can we / do we – like Naomi – point it out for others who can’t see it themselves?

That is where we leave the story for today—with promises exchanged, but questions looming that may change the course of their lives yet again – and, possibly, yours.

Ruth – week one of a small series

Long, long ago, in a country far, far away… Israel stood on the far bank of the Jordan River and heard all that God had done, all that God expected, all that God promises to do for a people chosen to be a blessing to the nations. Across the river lies a land of milk and honey and a new chapter in the life of God’s people. 

Their faithful leader, Moses has died, and a new young squadron leader – Joshua – is chosen to lead the people down from the plains of Moab, to strike and seize the city of Jericho and, from there, engage in military conquest of all the lands of Canaan. Israel, once in possession of the promised land, is charged with establishing a model theocracy – a people governed directly by their divine Lord and King. The trumpets blow, Jericho falls, bloody battles follow, and Israel begins their occupation and purge of the resident tribes.

As the years pass, jealousies and conflicts arise between the 12 tribes of Israel. The Canaanites do not relinquish their land willingly. Neighboring nations take advantage of the general unrest, and the people of promise fall into an age of darkness.  Inter-tribal disputes, rivalries, military skirmishes escalate. Blood vengeance is claimed as law. The tribe of Benjamin narrowly averts genocide. During these dark days leaders arise over Israel, empowered by the spirit of God to guide, govern, and judge the people. Of the 12 judges, we might recognize a few of the names – Gideon, Deborah, Samson. 

Gradually, the land of milk and honey sours. “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” These words – once bound to heart and hand and head – are all but forgotten. The chosen people abandon the covenant they had made with God. The signs of the covenant – hospitality, loving-kindness, mercy – are neglected. This proves to be a godless time among the people of God, and they hold to no king. Fighting, sinning, worshiping the gods of their neighbors, calamity, repentance, crying out to God… this is the pattern of life for generations – and God, in turn, remembers them, hears them, forgives them, raises up among them a new judge to lead them… only to have the cycle begin again. 

The period of the Judges is not a high point in the history of God’s people. In fact, the closing words of the book of Judges are unflattering: “In those days there was no king over Israel, and all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

Into this tumultuous scene…. in the midst of yet another drought and famine in the land of milk and honey, a time when Bethlehem – which means the house of bread – was empty, barren of bread… the story of Ruth unfolds.

A reading from the first chapter of Ruth.

 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and it came to pass that a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and their two sons.  The name of the man was Eli-melek and the name of his wife Naomi. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  But Eli-melech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  They took Moabite wives; the name of one of the wives was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years,  both of Naomi’s sons also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
     Then she started to return to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard that the Lord had had consideration for his people there and had given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, and they prepared to go back to the land of Judah.  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of a husband.” 

Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 

 

 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons,  would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 

    Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

 

 

 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”

She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

The hymn response is #359 Where charity and love prevail

We’re going to pause in the lectionary flow to stay with Ruth for a few weeks. 

The book of Ruth is a short one – just 4 thin chapters. It is a novella in genre, similar to Jonah, set during the time when Israel was struggling to settle the promised land. As I indicated, it was a time marred by unstable politics and environmental crisis. The actual time of its writing is unknown – possibly during the post-exilic period using a storyline and oral history from much earlier. The author is unknown, as is the motivation for telling the story. There are several ideas about this among biblical and Jewish scholars – but we’ll take it as it stands, and let the storyteller get on with it:

“There was a famine in the land, and it came to pass that a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and their two sons.  They went into the country of Moab and remained there.” This would have been a clue. As a theater production, this line would be accompanied by hisses and boos.

Moab was not a kindly-thought-of, neighborly place to go. It is associated biblically with hostility and sexual perversity. In fact, in Deuteronomy, Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the ‘assembly of the Lord’ even to the 10th generation, because “they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor of Mesopotamia to curse you. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live,” says God.  

But the “house of bread” was suffering from a famine when the story begins, motivating Eli-melech to leave the land the Israelites were meant to occupy. It seems significant that he chose Moab taking the story backward to the wilderness, back to the staging ground where, some generations earlier, Moses had reminded the people of their covenantal ties to God. Eli-melech goes back to the place not promised. This is significant in a bad way. Going backwards is rarely a good sign.

So, maybe Elimelech was being disloyal to his land and his God by moving to a forbidden place when Bethlehem was empty of bread, and maybe that is why he died and why his sons and their Moabite wives remained childless even after 10 years. Naomi believes it was the Lord’s hand that afflicted her with the deaths of her menfolk. Maybe so. We don’t tend to believe that of God in this modern era, but we know that ancient people did, and so we will hold that point without judgment and let it be possible. 

However it came to pass, these three widows found themselves in the midst of sterility and death in the high fertile plains of Moab.

What a great ironic way to begin a story. Going backwards is rarely a good sign – unless the people need to start over.

Ruth’s actions, however, echo the ideal marriage.  Leaving her father and mother, she clings to Naomi and vows to take her god, her people, her circumstances – for better or worse, in sickness and in health, and to stay with her even after death has parted them. Naomi has nothing to say to this, and they continue on together.

When they enter Bethlehem, Naomi tells her old friends that she comes back empty. This is not a slight of Ruth (although it sounds like it). What’s worse than being a childless widow?  Two childless widows to feed and clothe and care for.   Despite the famine, Naomi was full when she left because she had her husband and sons. Now she comes back to a prosperous land empty of men – her security and livelihood. She had no choice but to return, hoping for some kind of help and protection from her kinsmen. As an elderly widow, incapable of bearing children for a new husband, she has no value in a community’s eyes, she and Ruth are a burden on their limited resources, and she was literally in danger of starving to death. Naomi is not being dramatic in saying that she comes back to the house of bread bereft, empty, bitter. 

In cleaving to her, does Ruth know what she’s getting into? In her mind, is it simply accompanying, supporting, a mother-in-law of whom she has grown fond? Is she is out for a little adventure or thinking the grass might be greener in Bethlehem – wanting to see the sights, get a new starting place? Does Ruth realize that she puts her life on the line for the sake of this other woman who has nothing to offer, who’s got no ground for promise in the promised land? Ruth sets her stakes, sight unseen, on a people and land and God she knows only through the relationship she has with her mother-in-law (who feels personally afflicted by God). She had a real choice to turn back, to go home, and it seems that Orpah made the wiser decision. Is Ruth simply more baggage for Naomi? Why does she feel this sense of loyalty and love? Is it pity? Is it fear of the unknown – this at least being a known relationship? Was it a choice made out of strength or weakness on her part? We don’t know yet. 

Which choice would you have made?

The issue of belonging is integral to this story. Where does Naomi belong now without one to whom she belongs? Where do the widowed daughters belong? They’ve been out of their mother’s homes for 10 years. They married out of their culture. How welcome are they now among their kinsmen, within the old traditions in Moab?

Is place, land, location where one belongs? The story seems to say yes – especially knowing the prohibition of moving to Moab in the first place.

But Ruth gives it a twist. She belongs – through the irrational law of love – to/with a person, and only through a person to a community and place and God. Her place is with Naomi, but she is out of place.

‘Belonging’ is a deeply rooted theme of the biblical narrative and, I think, a deeply rooted issue with each of us. We want – more than just about anything – to belong. We seek safe places, lives that open to us. We want that Cheers experience of walking in and hearing them call our name.”Norm!” 

That is part of the draw of church, of this gathering of community. On a higher level, if you belong to God and feel that, then you can go anywhere, find yourself anywhere, it doesn’t really matter, because you carry that ultimate sense of belonging with you. That kind of belonging is greater than geography. It lies in the heart of God. It is the chief characteristic of God’s relationship, God’s concern, God’s way of dealing with humanity.  “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” It’s a mobile promise. 

On the other hand, we worship God in a place. We wouldn’t be this community if we didn’t have this place. We wouldn’t gather in this grouping anywhere else. Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. We don’t have those kind relationships anymore. And these Israelites were promised a land through Abraham. They have finally arrived, and so they belong to the land. 

Belonging in relation to a person and belonging in relation to a place are in play in this story. What/where/to whom is your primary sense of belonging? Which one of those? 

Why do you live where you do? What would it take to motivate you to move?

Why do you come to this church? There are those who come for belief; there are those who come for belonging – ideally it would be both. But I don’t think we can downplay the importance of belonging, of that sense of community that we find and try to build here.

God is in the background of the story of Ruth – Naomi feeling afflicted or cursed in her grief blames God; her idea to move back to Bethlehem because God has looked favorably again in bringing good crop yields is another mention. But it is a time when religion was not particularly practiced. There isn’t mention of prayer, no one is invoking God’s name. Religion and a relationship to God is not explicit in the book of Ruth. It was a time when the people, culturally, had forgotten God. 

We know better as readers, and so we’re set to look for signs, for indications that God is working in the background. And, honestly, that’s where we like God to be in our lives, too. It’s easier to trust God in the background than it is to put a present expectation on God… or to have God be right here  – that would be pretty uncomfortable. So Ruth is our kind of story.

I also think we can identify with Naomi’s grief when we look out at the world. The news is a constant source of crises and endless needs. It’s easy to feel powerless, numb, hopeless, frightened; to become passive believing nothing we can do will make any possible difference in nations at war, in politics gone topsy turvy, in the environmental crisis. Naomi is too old, she says, too powerless, too diminished to do anything. We probably feel that way several days of the week.

Our on-going updates of Sami, Jafra and Tamal offer us a face and a person for just a couple of these crises. Somehow knowing one person makes a difference. We are jostled awake. We know a name. We worried about Jafra traveling to see her father. We care about Tamal’s progress and movements. One human out of place hoping for a home and belonging is a drop in the bucket, but the biblical narrative keeps reminding us that one is all it takes. It’s what Tamal needs. One unlikely person showing compassion. One safe stowage to a safe harbor. 

It’s what we need – one family, one pairing, one step outside of our door – and we find meaning and purpose and hope. “Your people will be my people” would be a great mission statement for a church – it is radical; it’s re-defining what it means to belong, redefining what it means to live the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is accompanying our neighbors on their terms instead of hoping they’ll become like us. This chapter of Ruth – with her risky undertaking, might be a good guide.

Like Jonah, I think we’ll find that Ruth is a story for our time….and a challenge to us as we both seek and select belonging.

At the time of the judges, when governance was shaky, when the nations were in turmoil, when all the people did what  was right in their own eyes, an outsider, a Moabite, a woman, a widowed daughter-in-law, in her own quiet, steadfast, understated way exhibits loving kindness to her widowed mother-in-law. 

In so doing, as we will see, she unknowingly keeps Naomi, the community, and the genealogy of this adopted people moving forward. It is Ruth. And in her, God is seen as by reflection.

“They came into Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” 

It’s an evocative, hopeful ending for chapter one.

God with all your heart and soul and strength

This week we find ourselves at the end of Moses’ life as the Israelites are set to leave their wilderness wanderings and settle into the Promised Land. We’ve missed some significant stuff – events that are covered by different years of the lectionary…. Such as Moses bargaining with Pharaoh in Egypt, and the story of ten plagues; the passover, and the people’s liberation and exciting escape from Egypt through the sea. In the desert, there is thanksgiving, and then whining and tromping in very large circles (the Sinai Peninsula doesn’t take 40 years to cross on foot). There is manna and quail and more manna and quail – but never a høst fest – there is God’s covenant with the people at Mt Sinai – their mutual agreement that God will be their God and they will be God’s people; there is the gift of the 10 commandments scribed in stone.

I read that, according to the Talmud (which is the compendium of traditional Rabbinic law, tradition, and interpretation,) one tradition says that when God wrote the law with his finger, the carving went through the full thickness of the tablet, and that the stones were not the gray stone tablets we see in pictures, but were made of sapphire or lapis lazuli – the deep blue of God’s throne. Cool. Anyway, this mountain top experience is immediately followed by the people’s rebellion and idolatry – for which they must stay in the wilderness until a new generation comes of age. 

In the end, Moses is not allowed to cross into the promised land, but looking down over the Jordan river at the fertile valley beyond the desert, he gives his farewell address. This speech lasts nearly forever, it’s the entire book of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses instructs the people, now a new generation from the one he led out of Egypt, reminding them of all that their parents were commanded and had agreed to in the early days of exodus. It is addressed to this new generation as though it were their story, their actions — they are to remember and retell and relive the exodus in perpetuity to remind them of what God has done for them.  In today’s reading, Moses repeats the 10 commandments given 40 years earlier. (and, in case Jeff asks it in Trivia – that is the meaning of the word (duetero-nomy) the second telling of the law.)

Deuteronomy 5:1-21 

Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 

The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are alive today.  The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire.  (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:  

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;  you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. 

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 

You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

 

I got a speeding ticket last Spring at 1:00am on a Thursday night with no else one on the road for miles in either direction in the speed trap coming north into Osceola where the speed limit drops from 55 to 25. In contesting the ticket, I was reminded of the difference between biblical and civil law. 

Here is a mini-sermon on the big picture of the 10 commandments: they are constraints for a free people. They are to promote and protect the rights of the vulnerable.

Imagine you’ve got a really big back yard bordered by a deep, dark woods. And you’ve got a lot of kids. 

Some of your youngsters are eager to explore and are too curious for their own good. They stray further and further away from your voice. Some are mean-spirited and know how to take advantage of their siblings out where you can’t see what they’re up to. Because you love these explorers and love but are annoyed by the naughty ones, you keep them inside, tie them to your apron strings. Hold the little buggers at bay.

Others of your children are terrified by all of that space, of the unknown of the forest, of taking risks – and so they stay close, remain stuck, afraid of discovery and change.

Because of the wilderness – that deep endless freedom – all of your children are bound. 

But,  if you put up a fence, if you mark the edges of your holding, if you show them how far they may safely go, then the explorers can explore independently of you and the homebodies are emboldened by knowing that at some point, they can go no further. And the naughty ones know they are within the purview of the eye of justice and will get their just deserts.

There is safety for all of your children in constraint.

That’s what biblical law was meant to do. Just as children with a big backyard benefit from a fence, so a free people benefit from the law. Through it, God establishes basic freedoms and justice and creates a trustworthy world for all. 

Creation of the world embodied and coalesced primordial chaos to form a world. The law repeats that process constraining chaos to form a just society for the common weal. 

But the law isn’t only for our inter-webbed lives and wilderness. The first three of the 10 commandments are about our relationship with God. God seems to want one… a relationship with us.

Skipping ahead a few verses to Chapter 6:

3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe diligently, so that your days may be long… so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. 5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you arise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 

Vincent van Gogh – The Harvest, 1888 at Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam Netherlands

 

There are places in Scripture when I feel so sorry for God. When you just know God has set herself up for a fall, when the plans and dreams and hopes and fears God has for this people are going to drop into the dust. This is one of those times. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart. And all your soul and all your might.” This is the prime commissioning for the people of God. It still is. Love God. Just that. Get that right, and all the rest will fall into place. The laws will not constrain, because you’ll want to live justly, humbly, with an eye out for your neighbor’s need. That’s what love does.

‘When you’re there in the land that I promised your ancestors I’d give to you – (God leans in closer) – you are the promised people – do you get that? —a land with beautiful cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not acquire, water cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant— when you have eaten your fill, unpacked your bags, fed the camels, watered the sheep, gathered the eggs, and sit back on the front porch, stretching out your legs and pop a cool one, when you look out over this gift of land, my beloved, keep your hubris, your self-satisfaction in check. Take care that you do not forget me, says the LORD your God.” 

And what do you suppose the odds were? How long did it take before they forgot about Egypt and the enslavement which they hadn’t experienced, and the desert with its miraculous, if boring, manna appearing morning and evening? How long does it take for us to make the move from gratitude, to taking something for granted, to thinking it’s our right? 

The people were to re-live the Exodus in the great festival of Passover, to teach the words of salvation to their children and their children’s children.

The Shema, as this passage is known, is as close to a creedal statement as Judaism comes. “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” These words are recited twice a day, morning and evening, as part of a longer prayer. Jesus recites it as the greatest commandment, in Mark, chapter 12, – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these, he said.” 

To agree with or abide by the law is not enough; to feel awe in the presence of majesty is insufficient; to ritualize it in worship and practice it week in, week out, is not the same thing; to act boldly for justice is too little. We are to love God:  to love God with all that we have and all that we are – to love God with all the powers of care, intelligence, wit and will we might possess. 

And in loving God – because love is not an emotion without actions that are called forth or correspond in some way,  we will love the neighbor God entrusts to us – the stranger, the sojourner, the migrant, the guy across the street, the nerd in gym class, your weird great aunt Mergatroid. The command to love God is not for God’s sake, but for our sake, and for all those whom God loves. 

And, like these ancient Israelites – standing on the edge of the desert with bountiful fields in front of them, a land of milk and honey that will soon replace the endless expanse of thorns and thistles and sand that they have known – we, too, need to be commanded to remember. It’s easier to remember God in the desert or in desert places and times of our lives – trudging along with nothing but sand dunes and camel dung. There are fewer distractions there. But in the Promised Land? With streams and flowers and sheep and fishing opportunities and shopping trips? with land to claim and borders to protect and money to be made? With the distractions of prosperity and our inclination not to see past the end of our nose, not to account for the world we will leave behind, yes, we, too, need the command to love God above all those things. These words, these commands are not another form of enslavement, they form a path to freedom – to be reminded to love the Lord your God who loves you above all those things.

So, how is this great commandment accomplished? The Israelites were to live into it by keeping the law in front of them. Moses told the people to recite the law to their children both at home and when they were away, before they went to bed and first thing when they arose, by carrying a copy with them and placing it prominently in their homes. It was to be the “memo to self” that you write on the bathroom mirror in lipstick or shaving foam so that you see your image through the words.

As Christians, we receive the promise in baptism.

God’s covenantal promise is to accept us as we are, adopt us into God’s family, and forgive us all of our sin. 

We believe that God loves us irrationally, as an affair of the heart, as his own particular – and sometimes quite peculiar – people.

I’m guessing, though, that most – all – of us would confess that our baptism doesn’t have enough zing to help us love God with heart and soul and might. It was a one time thing a long time ago – for most of us, before we were even cognizant of the event. 

So how do we love God?

In the realm of church, we live among God’s faithful people in a community of faith and in a mystical, mysterious church beyond borders; we hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; we proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, we care for others and the world God made, we work for justice and peace, and we struggle, day in and day out, to trust God.

That’s good. Now what about your personal life, what about the rest of the week? The prophet said we are to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Maybe it is also true, that we love God by walking humbly with our neighbor. I sometimes worry that my leadership here is too soft, that I don’t push you and nag about the world outside our doors,  that we don’t do enough loving of those neighbors. We need to have conversations about that. But I also think that we love God by being grateful for the gifts, the goodness, the joy of living, the comfort and camaraderie of this congregation and the family and friends who fill your days. I think loving the place, a bit of land beneath your feet, caring for gardens and animals, appreciating the life-giving beauty of music and carrot dishes is also how we love God. 

I might, though, simply be justifying my predilection to love kindness and walk hesitantly with God and my neighbor. 

What do you think? How are we to love God with all our heart and soul and strength? I’d love to hear from you. There is a sticky note on your bulletin, you can hand me your ideas.

J. Gerald Janzen is a theologian who wrote this:

 “…faith is the willingness (however uncertain) to allow the word of divine hope to enter one’s soul; and it is the willingness (however tentative) to bear that word through time, trusting in God to bring forth a future which is beyond one’s own unaided powers.”     “Abraham and All the Families of the Earth” 

Maybe loving God is a reciprocal action when, in the memo to self written on the bathroom mirror, you look at your reflection created in the image of God, and believe that you are somebody to the one who is infinity, and that you are loved. Maybe joy is as good as justice, hope the beginning of mercy. I John says to love one another is to fulfill the law. That’s a pretty good place to start.

In this time for reflection I’d like you to write on your sticky note how we are to love God with all our heart and soul and strength. What might that look like?

 

Sarah laughs

Abraham and Sarah populate one of the longest narratives of the Bible.  I’m skipping a lot of the story in order to get you out by noon. I’m not even telling the best parts. The red thread I’m following today is the promise God made to Sarah.  Our story begins at the end of Genesis chapter 11 as the list of Noah’s descendants winds up.

11:27   “Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.    Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, son of Haran who had died, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

12:1 The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired, and flocks and herds; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

15:1 The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to inherit this reward.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, and said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.  Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son Ishmael.  Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai, the God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram (exalted ancestor), but your name shall be Abraham (ancestor of a multitude). I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, … to be God to you and to your seed. And I will give to you the land where you are now an alien for a perpetual holding; and I will be the God of you.’

God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her… and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ But Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’  God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. (which means ‘he laughs’)

18:1 One day, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’   Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

21:1 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

 

I’ve included this long list of occasions in which the promise was made for a couple of reasons.

One is that it shows the span of years that Sarah and Abraham waited. She knew she was barren all along, so we might wonder how much stock she actually put in the word of Abraham the first three times when he told her the Lord had spoken to him about being the father of nations. She might have looked for his hip flask to see how he’d had.  At any rate, these two old people are accustomed to hopelessness in this regard. Given their ages, the length of their marriage, I imagine they might even be sleeping in different tents…. under different trees… with sheep in between them.         

Anticipation has surely flagged in the 24 years between the first time the promise was given to a 75 year old Abram and this latest iteration. There wasn’t much point in checking the thermometer. The time was past. And she was barren, still was. 

The only difference this time is that Sarah hears the promise, too.

And she can’t help but laugh. She laughed to herself, and then denied it out of fear. These words interest me. In email or texting, one can’t read the inflection to aid interpretation; one can’t see facial expressions – all we have is the words that can be – and usually are – misinterpreted. And the stupid little smiley faces – emojis. 

So, what kind of laughter do you imagine Sarah laughed? The Oxford Collegiate dictionary says this about laughter: “to make the explosive sounds of the voice, and characteristic movements of the features and body, that express mirth, amusement, or ridicule.” Synonyms are listed. I’ve chosen the ones I think might be true of Sarah. You have one in your hand, and your assignment is to produce those explosive sounds characteristic of the type of laughter when I announce your word.  Ready?  I’ve always pictured Sarah, hiding behind the tent flap, leaning in, overhearing every word, suddenly bursting out with a loud, impulsive guffaw. (participatory guffaws) She can’t help it. I mean look at her. Look at Abraham, ten years her senior. “Shall I indeed have pleasure,” she says? There is a healthy dose of skepticism in that laugh.

Perhaps, though, it is complete mirth: a girly, incongruous, joyous giggle. (giggles)  She is looking forward to it – to the whole prospect, the whole promise, the rounded belly, breasts no longer wrinkled and saggy. And the funny, transformed self image makes her titter. (titters)

Or, perhaps, Sarah has had a bit too much of Abraham – his noteworthy attempt to pass her off as his sister, giving her to the pharaoh to bed and please himself with.  It was a selfish act on Abraham’s part to save his own life at the expense of Sarah because he knows she’s barren. Coming on the back of that, this might sound like a bit too much, “You gotta be kidding me,” she laughs with derision. (derisive laughter)  “Not a chance in the moon that I’m going to have pleasure with that old fool.”

Or, maybe Sarah is thinking of Hagar and Ishmael, and of regaining her stature, her place in the hierarchy of women in the camp. And she laughs as one who’s been given the last laugh. (last laugh laughter)

Or maybe she was telling the truth. Maybe Sarah didn’t laugh at all, but was expressing complete non-sensical ridicule and scorn. (snort)  “Who the heck does this stranger think he is. We’ve had enough of this nonsense. I’m 89 years old! Take your full stomach and get on your way; leave us in peace.” 

The thing is we don’t know what she thought of this news except that she laughed to herself and was overheard and was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’ Maybe Sarah was afraid that God doesn’t have a sense of humor when one is certainly needed. Most likely she is embarrassed and afraid of being called out by these three very odd guests who can read minds and knew her name and promise her, at last, the child long promised to Abraham. For a postmenopausal woman to bear a child and give birth… there’s a lot to be afraid of.

The second reason I added all those readings to establish the sense of prolonged waiting for the promise is that the final form of Genesis is believed to have been compiled by editors during or shortly after their return from exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. These were people needing desperately to hear a word of promise that there is new life possible born out of the barrenness of their exile experience. Returning home was almost worse than being captive because there was nothing left of their homes, their villages, cities, temple. Foreign people were living on their land, calling it home. 

What did God’s promise mean to them now? What good was it? They had been gone for a full generation. Isaiah had spoken of the desert bursting into bloom, springs gushing up, a highway appearing to usher them home. What kind of laughter do you imagine they produced faced with the reality of their barrenness, their hopelessness and insecurity and lack of a future. They were Sarah, displaced by her handmaid. And it had been a long time since the promise was made of land flowing with milk and honey. It was a long time since they heard God speak their name. Was the promise still true for them, or had God given up this chosen people – Worse yet, was God not able to transform their desert, deserted experience into a life-giving reality? Was it not possible for God to fulfill those old promises? Sarah’s laughter was perhaps close to despair.

Except she says something that I think is not by chance, we just can’t hear it. She says it to herself, and in Hebrew. “After I have grown old, and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?”

The term in Hebrew for the word pleasure is a cognate for Eden. It implies sexual moistness, fecundity, fertility, creation. These messengers of God are not promising a return to Eden, but Sarah is now promised the pleasure of this creative possibility of Eden located within her barren womb. I can imagine that would have been a powerful word to the exiles. Shall I indeed have pleasure? Is it possible for God to create life? 

If this is a story for ancient Israel struggling with self-doubt and an existential crisis of faith, what does this have to do with us? Have you never cleaned yourself into a corner? Left a floor swept, washed and spotless, but left yourself nowhere to go? I and my desk were sent to a corner in third grade once and I still remember the shame, that sense of fear, the closed in, no option view of a corner: the sense of being called out and caught. Some people live there.

Have you ever suffered from doubt about your worth or value or ability? Have you ever wondered if you are on God’s radar, are of any consequence? These are the questions of the story. They are Sarah’s questions from behind the tent flap as she hears the promise that is for her. If you can believe that God’s desire is for creative, jubilant, abundant pleasure and that it is intended for you, would you be willing to make changes that get you out of your familiar, but miserable corner? Can you imagine a world-view governed by promise and gift rather than judgment and law? Can you turn Sarah’s laughter of disbelief and derision into joy? 

Promise and hope are important words of faith and difficult to get a handle on. Maybe we should try.

And maybe we should laugh more.

 

Cain and Abel

Creation stories begin the Narrative Lectionary each fall. I’m beginning instead with the next story – one that we don’t hear in church, yet is known in popular culture. See Genesis, chapter 4.

This is a creation story in a sense. It plays out the genesis of sin. Just as there are two creation accounts back to back, so we are presented with two depictions of the nature and origin of sin. The first was Adam and Eve’s debacle with the fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent’s temptation and the woman’s lack of moral fiber are typically (falsely) blamed for that one. Adam knew what was going on, he knew what God had told him. But the lure of temptation seems to be mixed into the mud from which we came: they ate of the fruit. God both judged and provided for this couple (and the snake) before sending Adam and Eve into the world outside the garden’s hedges and guarded gate.

Cain, the first child of earth, embodies this dangerous, conflicted knowledge of good and evil. It is a conflict we are well acquainted with. Paul wrote about it in the book of Romans: 7:15″I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”  

God tells Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? [of course you will] And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 

You must master it. We must learn to master unruly dogs, classrooms of first graders and unruly middle schoolers. We must master addictions, our emotions, our desires. If we fail to master them, they will rule over us. “Sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you.” I appreciate that sin is given this ‘poised to pounce’ quality, this sense of animation. The authors of this story were good observers of human nature. Cain had a clear choice. He had a conversation with God. He had time to think this over. He could have mastered his anger, his hurt, his acute disappointment. He could have asked God for an explanation (we would all appreciate hearing it). He could have learned to live with his brother despite his jealousy, in spite of feeling victimized by God who – for some inexplicable reason – chose his brother’s offering over his own.

He could have mastered it. But he didn’t. Instead, we can picture him fuming, spiraling down into rage and justification and vengeance, violence rising. He invites Abel out into the field.

This is a troubling tale on many fronts. It’s of some interest to realize that it’s often taught in Sunday school, but not included in any lectionary. Children understand the sibling rivalry bit; adults perhaps don’t want to look that closely within. We are faced both with temptation from things outside (forbidden fruit) and things within (jealousy, rage, greed). This is the mixed origin and nature of sin.

But what about God’s role here? First and last is the question about God choosing to favor one offering over another. Why was that necessary? We aren’t happy about the capricious, inscrutable nature of God who does things like this without a word of explanation. Is it a set-up, a test like that of Job? Did God not know the outcome, the consequences of his action? And if so, then is Abel simply collateral damage in a test of Cain’s will, of the knowledge of good and evil?   I’ll come back to this.

The second bothersome point is that Cain, who killed his own brother and then asks God the most snarky question in the Bible, “What? Am I my bother’s keeper?” seems quite concerned about his own life. That ‘anyone’ who meets him might kill him as he wanders in his banishment. Point one, that would be a form of justice for him, some might think he’s got it coming.

Point two, he was one of four people in the newly created world and now there were three. What people is he concerned about and where did he find a wife? How does he build a city in the land of Nod? Our storyteller seems to have nodded off and skipped a page!

But maybe not.

By now you know my prejudiced perspective that these are highly edited, mythic tales which tell ancient, perennial truths about humanity and our relationship with one another and with God. They are not historically accurate, but they tell the truth nevertheless. I don’t intend to disabuse you of your opinion if it’s different than that, but this is where I’m coming from. 

So therefore, I’m not concerned about the civilization that lies to the east of Eden. Adam and Eve were set down in the fertile crescent valley to tend and till and bear children with pain. That is the storyline we follow for the truth it tells. The pain for Eve of mothering continues past birth. She must now bear the pain of the death of one son and the banishment of the other who murdered his brother. So much for family bliss. This is the first family. It’s been a steep learning curve.

Adam was given the mixed vocation of farmers to tend and till. In time his sons divided that labor – Cain became the tiller, Abel tended to the flocks. It seems like a good idea. It also seems that shepherds are preferred in the Bible. Farmers hoard into barns, mistreat their workers, don’t leave enough for the gleaners who follow the harvest looking for sustenance. Kings are chosen from the shepherds. Shepherds were the first to follow the star. Jesus is a good shepherd. So God does seem to choose.

The Frugal Gourmet* offers the explanation that shepherding is isolated and yet communal. What is the word for a single sheep (sheep), for a flock(sheep)? They are plural, communal even by name. Shepherds clumped together relying on each other for help and protection. They offered hospitality to strangers and angels and sojourners. Farming, though, is about private ownership and private gain. Food is shared when it’s paid for. 

Jeff Smith writes this: page 21 “In order to teach Cain about His intentions for men and women as children of God, Cain is condemned to wander forever. In that wandering he would finally come to see that the values of the Bible stem from our understanding that we are really nomads, wanderers, and we are to care for and protect one another, not just our property.” 

As to the question of God’s intent, and foreknowledge, and Abel’s death… I’d like to say, “I don’t know,” because that would be true. 

But, given my perspective that this is a teaching story, the lesson centers on Cain and his actions. Names – particularly in Genesis and in the prophets – are intentionally given or significant (like Isaak, which means laughter because Sarah laughed). In Hebrew folklore, Cain means ‘production’ or ‘acquisition’ – a farmer. Eve said, “I have produced a man…” A play on his name. Abel means ’emptiness’ or ‘futility’ – the perfect counterpart of Acquisition. With his life blood that spills out into the land, Abel is an empty character. Like the murder victims in Miss Marple whom we never care about, we are not to spend time grieving Abel. Cain is the protagonist in this drama of good and evil. God’s initial action of choosing is necessary to produce the action of the story. Because it’s not in accepting Abel’s offering, but in accepting Cain, in providing him with a protective mark to shield him, in allowing him to wander away from God’s righteous presence, in providing him with life and a wife and son and future – it is in this choosing – without a word of explanation – that God’s inscrutable and loving nature is taught.

The gospel comes to us through the cross. The good news of God’s over-riding, unexpected love and provision – for even the Cains of this world – is taught through death. This should be no surprise to us – that God chooses life over judgment even for those who cannot (do not) master sin pouncing at the door, those who get yanked around on the wrong end of a leash. The next chapter is a genealogy, and when chapter six picks up the narrative, people have begun to populate the world. And this: 5 “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” 

The consequences of eating forbidden fruit rippled out generation after generation spreading the hubris of thinking we are like God, when there is nothing further from the truth. And still, in spite of this continued grief, God does not change his nature or intentions for human life. There is a strange justice in this kind of love – justice even for Abel, I believe – for everyone.  God alone does not receive justice. He who desires intimacy with his creatures sees them wander away, turn away in disregard generation after generation.

The parable of the prodigal son, I think, completes/retells the story of Cain. He who has wandered away, finally hits bottom and realizes that he has squandered the greatest gift, and hesitantly, but resolutely, makes a return, practicing his apology in begging for forgiveness along the way. The father, however, sees him coming a long way off. And in a manner most undignified runs all out, arms flung akimbo to embrace this wayward child, kisses his cheeks, puts the family ring on his son’s finger and proclaims a feast.

I realize that that is not the ending of the story we’re given, nor the ending of the parable, but I believe it could be. We are given the possibility to master ourselves if nothing else. And that might be enough. 

* ‘The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast’, by Jeff Smith

artwork by Mircea Doinaru