Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Women in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

The next three books of the Bible tell stories set in Israel during the period of tribalism and chaos before the establishment of the kingship under Saul, David and Solomon.  Joshua tells of the conquest of Israel, and Judges of a series of heroes and (for our purposes more important) heroines who arose to defend the Jewish tribes against their pagan enemies.  Ruth, the first book of the Bible dedicated to a private family, surprisingly makes the hero of that story a mother-in-law, a class of persons who remain marginalized and reviled to this day! 

The Pentateuch, we saw, contained some 65 stories or pieces of legislation involving women.  These three books contain thirteen more such stories, including a whole book premised on the warm friendship between two women.

(66) A Hooker Helps Israel

Joshua 2. 1-21: "Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.  The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.”  So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”  But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from.  At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.”   (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)   So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.  Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.   We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.   When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

“'Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.'

“'Our lives for your lives!' the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.”

 "So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.   She said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.”  Now the men had said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house.   If any of them go outside your house into the street, their blood will be on their own heads; we will not be responsible. As for those who are in the house with you, their blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on them.   But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear. “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.”  So she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window."

From the Hebrew perspective, this story is unambiguously about a heroine, a strong female figure who follows world events, runs a "business," and takes the initiative to save not only herself, but her whole family, in the face of danger.  (She is, furthermore, a foreigner and originally a pagan, though she recognizes God's power.)

From a politically-neutral point of view, though, her story seems to raise questions.  First, was she a prostitute or an inn-keeper?  Not that the two are at odds, but the kind of woman who combined the two occupations in modern times might be called a "madame."  Running a one-woman brothel from a home in which her father and mother, indeed a good part of the clan, live, seems a little bizarre.  One wonders about the rest of the story. 

Second, was Rahab a traitor?  She harbors enemies of her city who come to destroy the place, and whose allies ultimately kill all her neighbors. 

Of course, if Rahab and her family had been forced into their occupation in some way, her decision to save only her family, and her alienation from the society in which she makes a living, might make some sense.  Prostitutes often come from ethnic minorities or the under-class, so she may have already resented the society in which she plied her occupation(s). 

We don't have the answers to those questions.  All we have is the story of a strong but alienated woman who, for whatever reason, risked her life to ally with the people of God against her own city, and thus saved the lives of her family. 

(66) Joshua is described as annihilating everyone in certain cities, not saving young women in this case. 

(67) A Husband, and Running Water, Too

15. 16-19: "And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.”  Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.  One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”
 She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs."

Caleb exhibits what seems to me a strange combination of consideration and lack thereof for her daughter.  But as with the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27, the woman is assertive in asking, and she gets what she wants.  Apparently God isn't asking women to be doormats. 


(67) 1.12-15: "And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.”  Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.   One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs."

A repeat of the story in Joshua 15. 

(68) Two Heroines

4.4-22: "Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.   She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.   She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.   I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”  

" Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

 “'Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.  There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.

Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.

When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor,  Sisera summoned from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River all his men and his nine hundred chariots fitted with iron.

Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him.   At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.  Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite.    Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.”  She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

“Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’”

But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted.  She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “ Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.”  So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead."

This chapter features two heroines, one of whom is not just a heroine, she is the judge and leader of Israel.   She tries to gender-shame a male general into leading arms against the enemy, but he refuses to go without her.  So Deborah is not merely a prophetess of God, she also serves as a military commander or at least aid to the official commander.   Compared to even more famous but unreliable judges like Samson and Gideon, Deborah comes off well. 

The other heroine here, like the prostitute in Jericho, takes Israel's side against what appear to be her own people.  Jael takes bloody measures to ensure her family's safety.  Deborah remains a popular female name to this day (including my cousin), while the name of Jael has been forgotten, perhaps for the better. 

(69) Songs of the Two Heroines (+ Barak)

Deborah and Barak are then given an entire chapter to sing a song of praise to God for their victory.   Chapter Six contains some lyrics of relevance.

5.1-3, 6-7, 12, 15: "On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:

“When the princes in Israel take the lead,
    when the people willingly offer themselves—
    praise the Lord!
“Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers!
    I, even I, will sing to the Lord;
    I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song . . .

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,    in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned;
    travelers took to winding paths.
  Villagers in Israel would not fight;
    they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
    until I arose, a mother in Israel . . .

‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah!    Wake up, wake up, break out in song!
Arise, Barak!
    Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam . . . '

The princes of Issachar were with Deborah . . . "

Nor was our second heroine, Jael, neglected in the songs of praise.  (Though this song ends on a realistic, but troubling, note):   

5.24-30: "Most blessed of women be Jael,    the wife of Heber the Kenite,
    most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
 He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
    in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
 Her hand reached for the tent peg,
    her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
    she shattered and pierced his temple.
 At her feet he sank,
    he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
    where he sank, there he fell—dead.

“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
    behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
    Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
The wisest of her ladies answer her;
    indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
    a woman or two for each man . . . "

So women are both heroines and "spoils" in this story.  The latter role, of course, was the norm in ancient battle, and remains the norm in some societies today.  (Or all societies, to different degrees.  Even UN peace-keepers in modern Africa often seem to regard the local women in that light.)   

(70) Another Female Fighter

9.52-54: "Abimelek went to the tower and attacked it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire,  a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull.
Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died. "

Here again men are depicted as being ashamed, or needing to be ashamed, of losing in battle or being outshone in battle by a woman.  That is, perhaps, universal. 

(71) A Family Tragedy

11.34-40: " When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.

My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.   But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry.  After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.  From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."

Twice in the Old Testament a soldier makes a vow to sacrifice whatever comes out of the house to greet him after he wins a battle, and in both cases it is his child who emerges.  But in the other case, the soldiers talk the general out of fulfilling his vow, with no harmful consequences.  So it is unlikely that the moral here is, "Make rash vows to God and then fulfill them."  Nor is it, "This is a bad man because he fulfilled a rash vow." 

The daughter is remarkable for her calm response.   Of course, this was an age in which sudden death often came to young men in battle and to young women in childbirth, or to either when an epidemic swept through.   Anyway, this story constitutes an interesting excuse to let the girls have a four day camping trip together every year.  One woman lost her life through one man's stupidity: thousands gained a better one.

Some commentators translate this passage in such a way as to deny that any sacrifice took place, and most recognize Jephthah as contravening God's law, some saying he was punished for his crime.  Judges tends to tell its stories in a detached way, though the ending -- as we shall see -- puts those stories in a critical context. 

(72)  Samson's Parents Get the News

13. 1-14: "A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth.  The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son.   Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean.   You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”   Then the woman went to her husband and told him, “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name.   But he said to me, ‘You will become pregnant and have a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from the womb until the day of his death.’”   Then Manoah prayed to the Lord: “Pardon your servant, Lord. I beg you to let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.”  God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. The woman hurried to tell her husband, “He’s here! The man who appeared to me the other day!” . . .

The angel of the Lord answered, “Your wife must do all that I have told her.  She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her.'”

13.21-24:  "When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord.  “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”  But his wife answered, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.”   The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him . . ."

In this story, the angel of God appears twice to the woman, who appears to be the smarter of the two, but only once to the man.  These are the parents of the dysfunctional prophet Samson, powerful in body but weak in will.

(73) Samson's Adventures with Women

In Chapter 14, Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman.  His parents object, but he insists.  On a visit to her, he kills a lion, then later finds a bee's nest in the lion's corpse, and scoops some honey out to eat.  He tells the locals a riddle about the honey from the lion, which they cannot guess.  To avoid paying the prize they had promised (clothing), they threaten Samson's wife, saying they'll burn down her house with her family in it if she doesn't pry the secret out of her hubby. 

"Then Samson’s wife threw herself on him, sobbing, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle, but you haven’t told me the answer.”

“I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother,” he replied, “so why should I explain it to you?”   She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.  Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him,

“What is sweeter than honey?
    What is stronger than a lion?”
Samson said to them,
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
    you would not have solved my riddle.”

 Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast."

This story sets the pattern for the women in Samson's life.  He is a man who can't control his sexual appetite, and who repeatedly goes for foreign women of weak morals and divided loyalties. 

No doubt this pattern fits into the larger Old Testament theme decrying the Hebrew tendency to hook up with foreign women and adopt their degenerate standards. 

(74-5) Power of the Nag: Samson and Delilah

This is probably the most famous story in Judges, in part because of the kinky ambivalence of the "love affair" between the Jew Samson and the Philistine Delilah.  The story also seems to contain an element of humor: "Nag, nag, nag," as Clint Eastwood put it.  But it begins with an overture, reminding us of Samson's on-going tendency to fall for the wrong women. 

Image result for samson deliliah
16. 1-20: "One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her.  The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.”

"But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night.  Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

"Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah.  The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.”

"So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.”  Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” Then the rulers of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them.  With men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame. So the secret of his strength was not discovered. 

"Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.”

"He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”

"So Delilah took new ropes and tied him with them. Then, with men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the ropes off his arms as if they were threads.

"Delilah then said to Samson, “All this time you have been making a fool of me and lying to me. Tell me how you can be tied.”

"He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” So while he was sleeping, Delilah took the seven braids of his head, wove them into the fabric and tightened it with the pin.  Again she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and pulled up the pin and the loom, with the fabric. 

"Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.  With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.  So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

"When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.”  So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands.   After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him.  And his strength left him.

 "Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

"He awoke from his sleep and thought, 'I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him.'"

Delilah proves Samson's undoing, but also that of thousands of Philistines, after Samson's power has returned to him. 

No doubt Samson's story reflects widespread feeling among males about what a force for evil female nagging can be.  But at most it can be taken as criticism of Samson's own choices in women, and warning against following his bad example, not against women in general. 

(76)  Rape and Genocide

Three chapters later comes a story about a Levite and his concubine so horrible, and so strange, that in his book The God Delusion, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins used it to illustrate the supposed immorality and weirdness of the Bible.  I deconstruct his rather sense-deprived misread of this passage in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. 

The text certainly says something about the status of women in that era.  Here we follow the story to see what, if any, light it sheds on how the Jewish canon dealt with the gender status quo.   

19.1-3: "In those days Israel had no king.  Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  But she was unfaithful to him.
She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah.  After she had been there four months,  her husband went to her to persuade her to return.  He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him."

19.23-29: "The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile.  Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.   Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine.   I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish.  But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”  But the men would not listen to him.  So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.   At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.  When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.   He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.  Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.   When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.   Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt.  Just imagine!  We must do something!  So speak up!

This story is bookended by markers meant to let the reader know, if he does not recognize it himself, the all-pervading horror of what happened.  There was no king in those days: indeed, this series of events reflects the free-wheeling, anarchical state of society at the time.  (Though Samuel will warn, accurately, that kingship and the more heavy-handed bureaucratic state it implied would bring troubles of its own.) 

One has to ask if the author is adequately disgusted by the Taliban-like attitude of the "kind" housekeeper and his guest: "Here, rape our two girls through the night, just don't touch the man."  This is Lot's suggestion, too, though it was turned down in that case.  This reflects not only a low view of women, but also a high view of hospitality.  Still, one should differentiate between the perpetrators and the weak men who (like Abraham, already) hide behind their women.   

No doubt the Levite and his concubine already had problems: she had been unfaithful and the couple had separated.  It is hard to fathom the perversity of a culture in which a man who seems kind could yet offer his own daughter to be gang-raped to protect a stranger.  Then  in the morning, the Levite coldly calls his woman to come, she doesn't come because she's dead already, so he cuts her to bits and ships her (no refrigeration, mind you) to all corners of the kingdom in protest.  This ignites a war in which the tribe of Benjamin (where this horror occurred, and which defends the offending village) is almost wiped off the map.  But one clan doesn't fight, so it in turn it destroyed.  Which leads to yet another horror:

(77)  Rape of the Jewish Sabines

21: 10-22: "So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children.   “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.”   They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan . . .  But there were not enough for all of them.  The people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a gap in the tribes of Israel.   And the elders of the assembly said, “With the women of Benjamin destroyed, how shall we provide wives for the men who are left?  The Benjamite survivors must have heirs,” they said, “so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out.   We can’t give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: ‘Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjamite.’   But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”   So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife.  Then return to the land of Benjamin.   When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’”

Plutarch tells a similar story of the founding of Rome and the rape of the Sabines. 

All of this seems marginally comprehensible only in light of the last verse of the book:

"In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

Richard Dawkins relates the story of the rape of the concubine, suggesting that the Bible affirms this horrible act.  That is poor exegesis: the author does no such thing.  The entire book is told with remarkable detachment: in general, well-rounded heroes are in short supply, and even those whom God calls for some purpose, are sometimes deeply flawed human beings.  They are sons of prostitutes or prone to chasing prostitutes and foreign women.   They are petulant and bad-tempered, cowardly and even given to idol-worship.  It seems that part of the social background to the book is a world in which women were deemed expendable, yet could also lead armies, take the initiative, and hear from God.

It's a free-wheeling, Wild-West social environment.  I argue that what the Old Testament accomplishes is to create a system, unique in the Near Middle East, in which tribal freedoms are somehow saved within a more "modern" kingdom with a strong ruler.   Prophets are a big part of that new system, providing checks and balances to the executive branch.

While the prophets both warned Israel against calling a king, and provided an on-going check against royal abuses, the final book in this section of Scripture suggests that God has been working behind the scenes to prepare for the greatest king -- through two women. 

(78) Ruth

The Book of Ruth is one of two books in the Old Testament which feature heroines.  There are only a few other books - Nehemiah, Ezra and Job, not counting the prophetic literature -- which focus on single heroic individuals.  Arguably Ruth and Esther prove every bit as heroic as Job, but with the difference that they both play key roles in the establishment or preservation of the nation of Israel.  (Ruth is the great-grandmother of the great King David, while Esther saves the Jewish people from genocide.)  Remarkably, Ruth is not herself Jewish, but Moabite --a people often depicted negatively in the Old Testament.  Coming soon after the story of Samson and his foreign lovers, Ruth thus reminds us that virtue is not limited to Jews, still less to men. 

Ruth is a gem of a short story, a mere four-chapter story about female friendship as well as romantic love.   A woman named Naomi travels with her husband and two sons from Bethlehem (yes, that Bethlehem) to Moab on the far side of the Dead Sea, to escape a famine.  But during Naomi's ten years in Moab, both her husband and sons die.  When she hears that conditions have improved in Israel, she determines to return home and live out her now sad and lonely life.  She tells her daughters-in-law:

“Return home, my daughters.  Why would you come with me?  Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?  Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up?  Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!

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

Both young ladies loved their mother-in-law.  But Ruth loved her so much that she determined to accompany her back to Israel and face the cross-cultural challenges of living in foreign and rather xenophobic land:

"Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."

Enter Boaz, a relative of Naomi.  Israel has a social welfare system which consists partly of requiring land-owners to leave some of the crops at harvest for the poor to glean.  (A heck of a system, in my opinion -- giving the poor the dignity of investing sweat equity, and saving the rich the trouble of being too picky!)   Boaz arrives at his fields with a godly greeting for his workers ("The Lord be with you!"), establishing what kind of person he is.  He notices Ruth, asks questions, learns about her kindness to Naomi, and begins telling his workers to leave her extra grain.  Under Naomi's guidance, Ruth then makes the next move, and a rather provocative move it seems -- sleeping "at his feet," whatever that may mean. 

By law, as a relative of her late husband, Boaz is responsible for redeeming the girl, or would be aside from one other relative.  After that relative disavows interest in Ruth, Boaz marries her, securing the future welfare of both women, not to mention keeping the family going.  

And what a family that proves to be!    It turns out that it was female initiative, pluck, and nobility, along with Boaz's righteous attitude, that established the great Davidic Dynasty, symbol of Israel's glory years, from which Jesus Christ himself is said to come. 

The Book of Ruth is almost unique among Old Testament books (aside maybe from Song of Songs) in having no real villain.  All three women in the story are depicted mostly favorably, though one daughter-in-law is unwilling to emigrate with Naomi.   Boaz is revealed as noble and godly.  The two chief women are shown as intelligent, spiritual, responsible, and kind, and their relationship is depicted as a beautiful thing, with both sacrificing to show love for the other.  At the same time, the dependence of women on men in a marriage relationship, and the potential for sexual harassment (which Naomi warns about), remind us subtly of the challenges single women faced in that era.

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