Monthly Archives: September 2008

I Samuel, 24 David’s Mercy to Saul

I Samuel 24-25: David’s Mercy

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 28, 2008.

Introduction             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. I’m afraid that some of my family suffered with a virus for much of the week. It has affected a lot of the students at Wake as well. At times it sounds like I’m teaching in a tuberculosis ward! Things have been a bit quiet at the church. Rev. Christy Clore has been away for continuing education in Scotland. The Moravian ministers had their annual retreat this week, but I’m afraid I had too many commitments to go this year.  Next Sunday night at Wake we the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, the famous chaplain of Harvard University, will be preaching in Wait Chapel. Gomes is one of the most distinguished masters of the American pulpit and is author of several popular books on the Bible. The service is at 7 p.m. in Wait Chapel. Also next Sunday, Home Moravian Church will be having the annual Clark Thompson lectures featuring Peggy Chamberlen, the President Elect of the National Council of Churches. Peggy will be the second Moravian to serve as president of that august body. You will get to hear her on radio in the Adult Bible Class and she will preach at 11:00 in the sanctuary. There are workshops and lectures for the public scheduled at 4 and 7.

I keep hearing from people around the city who listen to this broadcast each week. Some of them tune in after the early worship service, some listen on the way to church. Many listen on days when they cannot go to church. A few people have told me they listen in the shower and as they get ready for church. I try not to think about that while I’m teaching. So, whether you are dressed in your Sunday best or still in bathrobe and slippers, I’m glad you’ve taken a few minutes out of your week to listen to these lessons. By the way, the lessons are all posted on-line on my blog, which had a spike in interest last week with over 100 hits. Not sure what caused the sudden interest.

Conversation between David and Saul:               Last week we ran out of time as we were discussing the scene where David cut a corner of Saul’s robe rather than killing him. We had a lively discussion after the broadcast, and class members raised a couple of points I’d like to share with the radio audience. One person pointed out that David was wise enough to plan for the future rather than just focusing on the needs of the moment. When he rescued Keilah from the Philistines, he was helping to insure that there would be food for his men months down the road. Another person pointed out that David may have been the leader of a guerilla army, but he is not depicted like so many rogues throughout history. David and his men are not attacking Israelite villages and demanding food and other things. They are trying to protect the people. This part of I Samuel may remind you of one of those Western movies like the Magnificent Seven or the Japanese film the Seventh Samurai, which I’ve never seen but all the movie critics say is very influential. You know the type of film: a small band of outlaws comes to rescue of a village oppressed by powerful warlords. It is an ancient motif, and we see it here in I Samuel.

Last week we saw that David was hard pressed by Saul. Unexpectedly, David was able to turn the tables on his adversary. He had a perfect opportunity to kill the king and seize the throne, but he did not do so. The men were dumbfounded. It looked like God had arranged things so David could end the rebellion and take the throne, but David resisted the temptation. He would not kill the king in order to make Samuel’s prophecies come true. Had he taken the throne through murder, he would never escape violence and the fear of violence. David shows the type of restraint that is needed by strong and successful leaders. When everyone expected him to kill the Lord’s Anointed, he refrained, not out of weakness but out of strength. Fans of Stars Wars might say that David resisted the Dark Side. Like Luke Skywalker, he refused to kill his father even though the Dark Father (Darth Vader) was trying to kill him. In other words, this is an archetypal story.

There is an important lesson in this, but it is a hard one to teach. It is one you have to learn over time. We’ve talked all along about the role of human initiative throughout I Samuel. David was a man of action, but here he chooses not to take advantage of a perfect opportunity. It seems almost out of character, and some scholars speculate that this scene was added to the story later in order to show that David did not usurp the throne. Whatever the historical details, the text that we have teaches an important lesson about wisdom. There are times when you want something very much, and you pray that God will grant it, and almost miraculously you are given an opportunity to get it. It is tempting to throw away your values and convictions and take the opportunity, but it is important to resist such temptation. Had David killed Saul that day, he might have become king, or he may have been hated and rejected by the people. Jonathan might have had a change of heart about his friend when he learned the truth. Though it seemed foolish to his men, David was wise not to yield to the temptation to take the throne by violence. There is no rule that can govern your choices in such matters. You have to rely on your moral compass and recognize that if you use corrupt means to achieve an end, you will corrupt what you achieve.

We’ll pick up the reading of chapter 24 at verse 12. Read 24:12-25

David’s Plea for Reconciliation                This is one of the most vivid and moving passages in Scripture. David, the hunted wanderer, resists the temptation to murder the king, and then he risks his life to speak to the king. It was not enough that he brought back part of the royal robe to show his men that he could have killed Saul and chose not to. He had to talk to Saul so that the king would know that he was still alive because David was merciful. This was too important a moment to let slip by without making some effort to convince Saul to break off his pursuit. You may be familiar with the book or musical Les Miserables, which has a scene probably based on this story in I Samuel. Throughout the book Jean Valjean has been pursued by the merciless policeman Javert. If you grew up watching TV in the 50s you know this story better as the Fugitive. Javert, like Saul, is obsessed with finding the outlaw. Valjean knows that Javert will use the law to destroy him, but there comes a moment when the tables are turned and the escaped convict has the policeman in his power. In the musical version, Javert sings: “all it would take was a flick of his knife, vengeance was his, but he gave me back my life.” Javert was shaken to the core by this act of mercy, and in the end he committed suicide rather than live in the “debt of a thief.”

David was merciful to Saul, but he does not want his actions to be fruitless. It is important to tell Saul what he has done so that the king will have the chance to respond. David honors the king as the king, and he assures the king that he is no rebel. As long as the king lives, David will not claim the throne that God has promised him. More important, David pledges that he will not kill Saul. Although he is leader of a band of outlaws and debtors, David assures the king that he is not a traitor. We can hear the longing for reconciliation in David’s words, and we remember that at one time Saul treated David like a son.

Saul’s Response                   Saul’s response is equally moving. He can hear David’s voice, but apparently he could not see him clearly. Perhaps it was the darkness of the cave or perhaps David was wise enough not to expose himself. Saul may have realized that David’s men probably had their spears aimed at him, but that does not seem to be the reason he did not shout out to his guards to seize David. Instead he responds like an old father who is unsure whether his son is speaking to him. His words remind us of Isaac wondering which son has brought him dinner. “Is that your voice, my son, David?” It is a voice he has not heard in a long time. He has had no direct contact with David since he fled that night from the window. Had he met David in battle with his voice raised in a war cry, Saul no doubt would have easily struck him down. But hearing his voice echoing in the mountain caves in En Gedi, hearing the longing for justice and reconciliation in the words of the younger man, Saul does not respond with fighting words or bravado. He weeps.

When a proud and strong man weeps, it is hard not to cry with him. So far in the story we have seen Saul as the warrior willing to sacrifice his own son in the battles of Israel, but at the sound of David’s voice he breaks down. The author does not explain this weeping for us, but lets the image of Saul’s tears have their own effect on us. Was this merely further evidence of Saul’s descent into madness and impotence? Were these the tears of King Lear, completely unmanned in every sense of the word?  Has Saul broken down completely at the knowledge that David showed him mercy, the way Javert did? Or are these tears of remorse, the tears of Ebenezer Scrooge who suddenly recognizes the stupidity and evil of his wasted life?

Perhaps these are the tears of a man who truly loved David at one time, and now recognizes what he had lost when he drove David from his life. The beauty of the Bible is that all of these may be true. Saul wept in response to David’s words. Perhaps even he did not know why. What the text does make clear is that Saul acknowledged the justice of David’s words and acknowledged his own sin.

Saul publicly acknowledged that David had shown him mercy even though everyone expected him to act differently. Saul was placed in the position of every sinner who discovers that God is merciful when expect wrath. Paul Tillich said that God’s love often appears like wrath to those who are caught up in their sin. I wonder if David’s mercy felt like a punishment to Saul, just as Valjean’s mercy was more damning to Javert than anything a court of law could dictate. The key thing in Saul’s speech is that he acknowledged the extraordinary nature of David’s mercy toward him. Saul now recognizes why David will be the king. He is more than a cunning warrior; he is just and wise. He is more than a bold adversary; he knows when to exercise restraint. David chooses to end the violence between he and Saul, but Saul has to respond in kind. He asks David to promise not to cut off his descendents, which David has already sworn to Jonathan. Then Saul goes home.

Sigmund Freud drew upon ancient literature when developing his psychological theories. Freud famously said that every son must kill his father if he is going to develop fully as an adult. He did not mean this literally, of course. We can view this story of David at the cave in En Gedi as an example of what Freud was talking about. One of the intriguing things about I Samuel is that David seems more like the son of Saul than the son of Jesse, whom we barely meet. In fact, David seems more like Saul’s son than Jonathan does. It is not mere politeness when Saul calls David his son in this scene. When David cut off the bottom of Saul’s royal robe, he symbolically killed his father Saul, but he refused to kill him in reality. From this moment on, we see Saul in decline while David grows ever stronger and more royal. This is one of the crucial turning points in the story psychologically as well as politically.

David on his own                David and Saul swear a truce, but they are not reconciled. David does not return to the court of the king. Instead he stays in the wild areas of Israel with his growing number of followers. He will not take the battle to Saul, but his not going to disarm. This is one of those tricky situations in global politics. Do we negotiate a cessation of hostilities, or do we insist on complete disarmament and punishment of evil doers? There are times when the wise course of action is leave somebody alone hoping they will keep their word, but it is always best to keep an eye on them.

At the beginning of chapter 25 we have the terse statement that Samuel died and was buried at his house in Ramah. The text says that all Israel assembled for the funeral, which is a poetic way of saying that all of the tribes were represented at the ceremonies. It is odd that there is no brief summary of Samuel’s reign as judge or recounting of his deeds. There is merely the notice of his death and the mourning of all the tribes. The era of the judges has ended completely, and this verse points us to the establishment of a dynasty. It is not clear if we are to assume that Saul and David were both at the funeral, but it makes for a nice image.

Chapter 25                It appears that Saul leaves David and his men to pursue their own affairs, and in chapter 25 we have a revealing story from this period of David’s life. In two weeks Dr. Megan Moore of Wake Forest will go into more detail on this story, but we have time today to begin our discussion of it. In chapter 25 we meet one of the most remarkable women of the Bible. I’m surprised she is not more famous since she played a key role in David’s rise to power.

 

The Gospel of Ruth, chapter 3

Ruth 3: The Threshing Floor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 23, 2007

Craig Atwood

 

Introduction              Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this fourth Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and many of people here at Home Church will spend most of the day in church. Hundreds of people volunteer as musicians, ushers, dieners, coffee-makers, candle-makers, and decorators so we can host four lovefeasts on Christmas Eve. You’re all invited to join us.

 

Naomi’s Plot             Today we are continuing in our study of Ruth. You may remember that we left Ruth last week gleaning in the fields of Boaz. We saw that Boaz took steps to make Ruth’s efforts more productive and less onerous. At the end of the day, Naomi was amazed at the bounty that Ruth brought home from her labor. When Ruth told her that she had gleaned in the fields of Boaz, Naomi was even happier and praises God that he has shown kindness to the living and the dead. This phrase sounds odd in our time. How could Boaz’s kindness to Ruth and Naomi be a kindness to the dead? The ancient Hebrews did not have a well-developed view of an afterlife. The dead went to Sheol, which was similar to the Greek Hades, but they continued to leave through their descendents. As long as there were descendents, the dead were not forgotten. In an age before life insurance and social security, the living had an obligation to the dead to take care of their children and widows. So, the kindness Boaz shows to Naomi was also a kindness to her husband Elimelech who could no longer provide for her.

 

Redeemer      Naomi then tells Ruth that Boaz is one of Elimelech’s close relatives. She identifies him as a kinsman-redeemer. This is one of the places in Ruth that scholars struggle over how to translate for a modern audience that does not have such redeemers. There is a lot about this Hebrew practice that we don’t know, but the basic idea is fairly clear. The extended family had obligations to assist relatives who fell on hard times. “It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations,” Dickens wrote, and I’m sure many redeemers felt this way. The redeemer was a family member who had the moral obligation to redeem a poor relative who had sold himself or his family into slavery. Slavery in ancient days was in some ways a safety net to keep people from starving, but the Hebrews recognized that slavery is an evil even if it were sometimes necessary. So there was a provision to redeem family members out of slavery. When the NT calls Jesus the redeemer, he is being compared to someone like Boaz who intercedes for a family member who is in trouble. Today we might say that Jesus is the one who bails you out of jail.

 

The redeemer was also the one who paid your ransom if you were kidnapped by a rival tribe or if you were captured in battle. You may recall from English history that King Richard was kidnapped by the German emperor and Prince John had to raise taxes to redeem him. The memory of the hardship caused by the redemption of King Richard shaped the legend of Robin Hood. None of that has anything to do with the book of Ruth, but it does show us that redemption continued in some fashion long after Bible times.

 

The kinsman-redeemer in ancient Israel was also responsible for redeeming land that a member of the family had sold. That becomes important later in the story, and so we’ll save a discussion of redemption of land. Just keep in mind that Naomi recognizes the importance of Ruth making a good impression on Boaz. She was telling Ruth that Boaz had a role similar to that of next-of-kin in our legal system. There is a hierarchy of next-of-kin in most states: spouse, children, parents, siblings, etc.. The next of kin may be asked to make all kinds of legal decisions, particularly at the time of death. We allow people to designate someone other than the next of kin to take care of some of these obligations. We live in a world of written laws and procedures for enforcement, but even in our world many of the duties of a next of kin rely on the goodwill of the person. There is only so far the law can go in forcing a next of kin to do the right thing for a dead person and his or her family. There are many lawsuits in America over next of kin issues, but the ancient Israelites did not have so many lawyers. They relied even more heavily on the powerful force of social pressure and personal morality.

 

Naomi’s Plot             This helps explain something that often troubles readers of Ruth. If Naomi knew that Boaz was the kinsman-redeemer who had an obligation to Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, why didn’t she just go up to him and demand that he fulfill his social obligation? It is quite likely that many kinsmen-redeemers simply failed to do their duty, either through moral lassitude or lack of resources. It is also likely that redeemers resented bailing out their unfortunate relatives and often fulfilled their duty in ways that were not very pleasant for the person redeemed. I can imagine that a lot of people redeemed in ancient times were treated like servants or worse by their redeemers. I’m reminded of the movie “Places in the Heart” when the bank president forces a widow to take his blind brother-in-law as a boarder. He claims that he is fulfilling his Christian duty to his brother-in-law and to a poor widow woman when the truth was that he saw an opportunity to free himself from two burdensome problems at once by forcing the widow to take in a blind border.

 

Naomi did not want to force herself on Boaz. She knew that Boaz had not stepped forward to claim the role of redeemer right away. She waited to see what kind of man he had become over the past decade, but waiting does not mean she was passive. The opening line of ch. 2 may indicate that she intentionally sent Ruth into Boaz’s field hoping that he would notice her. Or it is possible that she saw a God-given opportunity when Ruth returned home. In any case, Naomi let Ruth know that it was good that she was gleaning in the fields of their redeemer. If she were wise, Naomi might work out a solution to several problems. Thus Ruth works through the barley and wheat harvests while Naomi devises a plan.

 

Security         Ruth provides well for Naomi and herself. They have plenty of food to make it through the winter, but Naomi is looking farther ahead than that. We see a change in Naomi over the summer. No longer is she the depressed widow calling herself “Bitterness” instead of “Sweetness.” She is no longer planning to curl up and die along the side of the road. She has someone else to care about and she begins making plans to repay Ruth for her loving kindness. The fact that Naomi will probably benefit from these plans does not diminish the fact that she is looking out for Ruth’s welfare and responding in gratitude to Ruth. I think the commentators who see Naomi as cunning and selfish miss the whole point of the story. She is cunning, but the OT praises such worldly wisdom. It is good to be wise so long as you are also good.

 

Naomi knows that Ruth needs to get married. This may sound odd to modern people, and there are those who reject the Book of Ruth on the grounds that it defines women in terms of marriage. We need to recognize that it is our modern world that is unusual. It may be better, but it is not the way most of the world through most of history has been. So, let us not judge Naomi and Ruth’s actions by our standards. The simple fact is that in the ancient world the only hope for survival and happiness that most women had was marriage to a good man.

 

Normally, Ruth’s father or brother would have negotiated a marriage to someone like Boaz. The men would settle on the bride-price and the marriage contract, and if Ruth agreed, she was married. But Ruth has no man to negotiate for her. Naomi can’t do it. For one thing, she is a woman. For another, she is not related to Ruth. So, Naomi has to be shrewd. There has to be a way to get Ruth and Boaz together so that Boaz will take the initiative and marry Ruth.

 

Naomi offers advice that has helped get young people engaged for thousands of years. Get cleaned up; wear your nice clothes; make yourself smell good; and go to him when he’s is a good mood. A lot of people are shocked to find this passage in the Bible. Some even accuse Naomi of being sinful here, but I think that reflects our distorted view of the Bible and religion. We think the Victorians were right about the relationship of sex, religion, and morality, even though we reject their opinions on proper behavior. We don’t want to recognize that Jews and Christians for over two thousand years have read as sacred Scripture this passage where Naomi gives Ruth advice. But here it is, and we should simply accept the fact that the writers of the Bible knew perfectly well how love and marriage work. Modern science has not improved ancient courtship rituals.

 

Risky Business         In the Song of Solomon, the women singers warn against arousing passion too early because they know that desire is dangerous. Naomi’s instructions to Ruth are not a prescription to be used again and again. She and Ruth both know that there is one chance to make this work. They also know that their plan is dangerous. Therefore Naomi urges caution as well as boldness. Wait until the proper moment, she instructs, and try not to get caught. Ruth is vulnerable and must use stealth in order to talk to Boaz. Think for a moment about what might have happened to Ruth that night when she entered a room of drunken men at the end of the harvest. Having her reputation ruined would be the least of the misery she could have experienced. Had Ruth known the stories in Genesis and Judges, she would have known the danger she faced. I am sure Ruth was tempted to stay home and live by gleaning, but she had the courage to take action.

 

Wisdom teaches us to wait for the opportune moment. Ruth waits until the big harvest festival when Boaz celebrates his prosperity with his workers. They eat and drink and then Boaz lies down contently beside his huge pile of grain. Here we see that men have not changed much in 2500 year. Can’t you just picture him as he lies there looking contently at what he owns? Some readers of this book have been bothered by the implication that Boaz may be a little tipsy when he lies down. It is important to remember that the Bible and most of the great documents of Judaism and Christianity were written before the Temperance Movement in America. Ruth and Boaz were neither the first or last couple who found that words of love sound more eloquent with a little wine. The threshing floor was no longer a workplace. There was music, food, wine, and romance.

 

Uncovering                While Boaz slept, Ruth snuck onto the threshing floor and found him hidden away in a corner. Here we come to one of the most controversial translation issues in the OT. What did Ruth uncover that night? The Hebrew clearly says “feet,” but we know from many other passages in the OT that this word did not always mean the feet that you put sandals on. It is frequently a euphemism for another part of the body. In other words Ruth might have been verifying that Boaz was Jewish. The fact is that the way we read Ruth depends on our view of what a biblical heroine might have done. I think this was an intentional double-entendre that allowed ancient adults to smile knowingly while their children wondered if Boaz woke up because his toes were cold.

 

Whatever Ruth did, the story makes it clear that Boaz woke up in a cold sweat at midnight. He was terrified. What frightened him? Jack Sasson suggests that Boaz may have thought Ruth was the demon Lilith who attacked men during the night and stole their virility. It is possible that Boaz knew his Bible well enough to know what happened to old men like Noah or Lot when they got drunk and were uncovered! Or Boaz might have feared for his reputation. I don’t think we need to read too much into this. I’m sure if I woke up on threshing floor at midnight with parts uncovered that I thought were covered, with a stranger next to me, I would be surprised and scared.

 

I am Ruth       It is dark and Boaz has to ask the name of the perfumed person is next to him. This is one of those awkward moments that you really should try to avoid, by the way. “I am Ruth,” she replies. There is another double entendre here. The Hebrew word for Ruth can mean “a friend” or “a merciful person.” Even today, to be Ruthless is to be without mercy or compassion. Once he hears her say I am a friend in that familiar voice, Boaz relaxes.

 

Covering        Ruth then reminds Boaz that he is the redeemer for Naomi, and she asks that he spread his cloak over her. This was subtle. Ruth reminds Boaz of his obligation to the dead, but she does so in a way that will not shame him in front of others. She also lets him know that it will not be unpleasant for him to do what custom requires. She asks him to take the cloak she has removed and cover them both with it. This not only symbolism their union, it is also the answer to Boaz’s prayer that God would take Ruth under his wing. Boaz covers Ruth with his cloak, and I have no doubt that they exchanged vows of commitment that night in anticipation of a wedding.

 

Boaz says that Ruth has performed an act of loving kindness and he praises her for not having gone after a younger man. This means more than just the fact that Boaz is no spring chicken and might have been lacking in aesthetic qualities. Boaz is telling Ruth is that he respects the fact that she is not looking for a husband simply out of concern for her own happiness. Ruth herself has chosen a kinsman-redeemer as the man she will marry because she knows that this will benefit Naomi. Boaz promises Ruth that he will make her his wife because everyone knows she is a worthy woman. There is no indication that Boaz disapproves of what she has done on the threshing floor. But now it will be up to Boaz to bring things to a good conclusion.

 

Conclusion    We’ll leave Ruth and Boaz under the cloak, but before we go, let me point out that there is a danger in reading the Bible literally. We should not universalize Naomi’s instructions to Ruth and teach our daughters to do this as a general rule. But there is a message in this passage that is universal: there are times when you have to take the initiative and take a risk to insure the future. This is part of faith. As we remember the story of Mary in the NT, keep in mind that she is similar to Ruth. She took the risk. 

Moravian Lovefeast

Theology of the Lovefeast in the Moravian Church

Old Salem Visitors Center, Sept. 22, 2008 Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        It is good to be here with you tonight for this special event. We are enjoying beautiful music, and in a moment we will have a little food. Lynda and her cohort has worked very hard to make this evening possible. Most of you are familiar with the Moravian lovefeast, and I bet some of you have been participating in lovefeasts since before you can remember. Julie and I have always brought our children to church, even when they were infants, and folks often asked if we had put lovefeast coffee in their bottles. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about lovefeasts, for instance, did you know that a lovefeast bun can substitute for a paper towel when a child spills hot coffee on you. You probably have your own tales of things going wrong in a lovefeast. My family often reminds my mom about the time she dropped her bun and we watched as it rolled all the way down the aisle toward the pulpit. Moravians like to share stories about lovefeasts, but tonight we’re going to talk about some of the deeper significance of this old Moravian tradition.

Dieners                        Before we do that though, I want to invite our dieners to come out so you can see them. Tonight’s program is called “variations on a Moravian theme,” and we wanted you to see that Moravian traditions have more variety than you might think. You will notice that our dieners are wearing a variety of outfits representing different congregations and provinces of the Moravian Church. (List: Honduras, Tanzania, Nepal, New Philadelphia, Lititz, Bethlehem.)

Congregations in the Moravian Church are free to dress their dieners any way they want. The dieners’ outfits should highlight the special nature of the lovefeast, but there is no single way to dress a diener. Far more important than the style of clothing is that the congregation remembers that the men and women serving the lovefeast are a vital part of the worship service. They are doing more than providing people with something to drink and eat; they are living examples of Christian service. Tonight I want you to ponder the meaning of dienership, which is a word I just invented.

Dienership:                        Diener is from a German word for one who serves. In the Book of Acts (chapter 6) we read that in the early days of Christianity seven people were set aside to help with the common meals and make sure that everyone who was hungry was taken care of, particularly the widows. Those who waited on the tables were called deacons, which was a Greek word for one who serves. There were male and female deacons in the early church, and eventually deacons had other duties besides helping with dinner. Today denominations use the word “deacon” in many different ways, and in the Moravian Church deacons are ordained ministers who can preside a communion. We Moravians have not lost the New Testament idea of setting aside people to serve food, though. Our lovefeast dieners function much like the original deacons. When dieners serve the congregation a lovefeast, they remind us all that Christians are servants. When people ask me what makes the Moravian Church different from all other churches, I sometimes reply that I often see bishops and denominational leaders serving as dieners rather than being served at lovefeasts.

History of the Lovefeast                        The lovefeast is one of best known contributions the Moravians have made to the broader Christian Church. Especially in this part of the country, there are many denominations that have adopted the Moravian lovefeast, but I haven’t found any non-Moravian church that can serve you a truly hot cup of coffee. Moravians are so closely associated with the lovefeast that it comes as a surprise for many folks to learn that we did not invent the lovefeast. You might say that the Moravians rediscovered the lovefeast, and we certainly made it into a distinctive form of worship, but the lovefeast was part of the church of the apostles.

We read in the NT that the followers of Jesus met regularly for a meal called the Agape, which is a Greek word for Love. We don’t know the details of what happened in those Agape meals of the first century, but there are numerous references to them in Paul’s writings and the Book of Acts. There is no doubt that the early Christian Agape meals were actual meals. They may have been a lot like a modern fellowship meal in a church. It appears that people brought food to share with other members of the church, and Paul had to remind some of the early Christians that everyone should contribute according to his or her ability and eat according to his or her need (I Cor. 11:18-22). For Christians who were poor or enslaved, this fellowship meal was particularly important.

The Agape meal was probably in the evening after work, perhaps at the end of the Sabbath. The people probably sang psalms and hymns; they listened to stories about Jesus or memoirs of the apostles; and they prayed for each other. The meals were probably similar to the dining clubs that were popular in ancient Rome, but in the Agape meal Christians of every social class ate together in love. This kind of behavior was criticized by the pagans. Rich and poor, slave and free, men and women breaking bread together and singing hymns about Christ? It was shocking. It appears that the Agape meals often ended with Holy Communion, and the church may have lost something when the symbolic meal replaced the more practical meal. As Christianity became a legal religion and worship moved out of people’s homes and into large public buildings, the intimate Agape meals died out. This was also about the time that Christians stopped called each other brother and sister. Bishops became rulers; priests were exalted; and worship became very structured and formal. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed, Christians were no longer brothers and sisters sitting together in a meal.

For over a thousand years, Christians did not have lovefeasts. Sure there were feast days, but the feasting was done outside the church.  There were Carnivals outside the church and fasts inside the church. When the Protestants tried to reform Christianity, they studied the NT and dropped many of the practices of the Catholic Church, but only a few Protestants tried to recover the lovefeast. Toward the end of the 1600s a German historian named Gottfried Arnold carefully examined the early history of Christianity, using the NT and writings of the Church Fathers. He rediscovered the centrality of the Agape meal in the early church. Arnold’s historical writings were very popular among the German Pietists, especially the most radical Pietists who wanted to recapture the zeal of the early church.

Revival of Lovefeast                        Arnold was an active participant in a large religious revival taking place in Protestant countries at that time. Pious people began meeting in small groups, often in someone’s home, to read the Bible, discuss basic Christian theology, support one another in prayer, and try to live as Christ taught his disciples to live. Many of them read Arnold’s books and they tried to revive ancient Christian practices, including the Agape meal, which they called the Liebsmahl, or meal of love. One of those Pietist groups became the Church of the Brethren, and to this day Brethren observe the lovefeast as a very solemn meal. In the Church of the Brethren, the lovefeast is a full meal served in church before Holy Communion. The Brethren include footwashing as part of the communion ritual.

You are probably familiar with the story of the first lovefeast on August 13, 1727, but Zinzendorf had known about lovefeasts before he introduced the idea to the Moravians. Like many Pietists, Zinzendorf had read Arnold’s historical work, and he wanted to recapture some of the spirit of the early church. It appears that the Count was experimenting with lovefeasts in Dresden long before the famous event at Berthlesdorf. The rediscovery of the lovefeast among the Moravians was part of a long period of experimentation following the signing of the Brotherly Agreement in May, 1727. Zinzendorf and the Moravians tried to find ways to make their community of faith more like the church of the New Testament. They elected their own elders and appointed people to the various offices mentioned in the NT. They began experimenting with the liturgy and they started having footwashing services in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in John 13.

One of the rituals they revived from the early church was the Agape meal, which was sometimes held in the evening and sometimes for breakfast. It was a simple meal, but it was actually a meal, unlike the “love snacks” that most Moravian churches have today. It always strikes me as odd liturgically when a congregation holds a lovefeast and then invites everyone down to the fellowship for lunch. If we understood the meaning of lovefeast better, we would make the lunch the lovefeast! There was no set food for lovefeasts in olden days. At least one lovefeast in North Carolina consisted of pumpkin mush, but generally there was a sweet roll, which was to remind the worshipers of the sweetness of faith. The beverage was usually tea, which is still the case in most European congregations. For Christmas, our Moravian ancestors sometimes had spiced wine or hot chocolate.

The type of food and beverage was not all that important, so long as it could be enjoyed during a worship service. In our program today, we have a variety of styles of lovefeast buns prepared according to recipes from around the Moravian Unity. We will have spiced tea tonight, but since we’re Southerners, we’ve put ice in it. And you get to keep the glass as a souvenir. All of the buns are home made, which is also an old Moravian tradition. In the 18th century, individuals in a congregation might volunteer to provide a lovefeast for the congregation or a smaller group, such as the Single Brothers. The people in charge of the lovefeast would provide the food and beverage and arrange for special music. Giving a lovefeast was a type of stewardship and a way to serve the congregation.

Since a lovefeast is not a sacrament, like Holy Communion, you don’t need an ordained minister to preside over or plan a lovefeast. Anyone can do a lovefeast! Lovefeasts can also be held for almost any special occasion. In the old days, the Moravians would hold a lovefeast to begin the harvest or when it was time to start a new building. There would be lovefeasts to welcome visitors or to say good-bye to those who were leaving on a journey. There might be a lovefeast for all the people whose wedding anniversaries were on a certain day, or a lovefeast to celebrate birthdays. Lovefeasts could be very large formal church services, or smaller intimate affairs. One year in Bethlehem, there were over 250 lovefeasts, large and small. One of the great things about the lovefeast is that everyone is welcome to share in the meal, whether you’ve been baptized or not.

Jesus and Food                        When thinking about the Moravian lovefeast, it is important to remember that this tradition is deeply rooted in Scripture. When you have time, read through one of the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke or John, and pay attention to how many times we see Jesus sharing a meal. At times it sounds like he went from meal to meal. He told the penitent Zachaeus that he was going to eat at his house, he provided wine for the wedding banquet at Cana. He ate at the home of Martha and Mary. Several times he was the guest of honor at the home of prominent Pharisees, but he also ate with tax collectors. A sinful woman anointed his feet at one meal, and Mary anointed his head at another. Each of the gospels tell the story of Jesus taking five loaves and two fish and feeding a multitude beside the Sea of Galilee. He shared his last Passover meal with his closest disciples, and after the Resurrection, Jesus ate with them again. One day on the beach he offered them fish, and he asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Then he told Peter to “feed his sheep.” This is the meaning of lovefeast. This the question that should burn in our hearts as we share in the lovefeast. Jesus asks, “do you love me?” Then he commands, “feed my sheep.”

Why do the gospels focus so much on Jesus eating with Pharisees and sinners, men and women, the powerful and the powerless? It is because eating was a prophetic action that spoke louder than the words Jesus preached or the miracles he did. In the ancient world, Jews did not eat with Gentiles, and the rich did not eat with the poor. Slaves did not eat with their masters. Roman society had very strict rules governing dining. Dinner clubs were strictly for people of the same social class. But Jesus intentionally and provocatively ate with outcasts, sinners, and women. He ate with those who thought they were righteous and those who truly were. He ate with lovers and dreamers and fools. At almost every meal, Jesus was breaking down barriers and setting an example of the Kingdom of God on earth. Rather than writing letters to the editor about the plight of the poor, Jesus ate with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.

Today                                    If you think about our world today, we are still divided at mealtimes. You may remember what it was like in high school to enter the cafeteria and see the social hierarchy of the school laid out. Remember the controversy if one of the jocks sat with the geeks? It was even worse if someone uncool sat at the table reserved for the popular kinds. The rock group Bowling for Soup has a song that says we never really left high school, and it seems true. Think about restaurants and similar establishments today. How often do you see the wealthy and powerful eating with the lower classes? We still use food to divide people. That is our human nature.

Jesus showed us a different way. Rather than using food to divide people, he used food to unite them so they could journey toward the kingdom of God. At his last meal before he was betrayed, Jesus did more than eat with his friends; he washed their feet. In doing so, he taught them the meaning of love and sacrifice. In that Last Supper, the meaning of all those other suppers became clear. Our Moravian lovefeast is distant echo of those meals of Jesus. It is a ritual that should remind us of the meals that Jesus shared; of the Agape meals of the early church; and all the times Christians have ignored barriers and offered food and drink in the name of Christ.

This traditional Moravian custom can and should be deeply moving. Even though we may do it the same way year after year, it is important to remember what the lovefeast is all about. There are only two things are necessary for a lovefeast: food and love. Someone told me recently that he once saw the word lovefeast written with a hyphen between love and feast. It struck him how different the word looks when both parts are emphasized. It is a love feast; a meal of love; a festival of love. You can have a love-feast with hot coffee and cold buns or milk and cookies. You can have a love-feast with ginger beer and cinnamon rolls, but you cannot have a love-feast without love. You can have a love-feast with beautiful 18th century music or down-home gospel hymns, but you cannot have a love-feast without love. This is what we need to rediscover in our day.

Conclusion                        As we share in a simple meal of buns and tea tonight, I hope you will particular attention to one aspect of this old tradition. The dieners will serve those at the end of the row, but those people will serve the people next to them. You will all serve and be served in this simple meal. Most important, none of us will eat until all have been served (except for the musicicans, I’m afraid). This is not simply a matter of politeness; it is a living reminder of how the kingdom of God works. Just think if we took this lovefeast theology out into the world. Just think if we chose to make sure that our neighbors are fed. What if we use our lovefeast tradition to tear down the walls that divide people, and to reach out in love to the world. 

I Sam. 23-24

I Samuel 23 – David on the Run

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 21, 2008. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this beautiful autumn day. It is the equinox, the time when the days and nights are equal length, and for the next three months the nights will be longer than the days. As a scholar of religion, I find it a bit odd that Christianity does not have a way to observe the autumnal equinox. Our Jewish brothers and sisters will soon be observing their high holy days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year. American churches do observe the changing of the season, but that has more to do with the secular school schedule. But I do hope you will take a moment to be thankful for the summer that has ended and to look with hope to the fall that is beginning. It was a hard summer for many people, especially in Texas. It was a hard week for the American economy. Companies that had long been rock solid were shown to be extremely fragile. Tax payers have now become share holders in some of the major financial institutions in America. I wonder how many of the Wall Street executives and Washington lobbyists who were begging for government funds have been opposed to governmental assistance to the poor and disadvantaged in the past? The Presidential campaign is kicking into high gear, and already the political operatives are up to their old tricks. I hope you will take the time to separate truth from distortion, and that you will make an informed choice in November. I am amazed when I hear people say that it does not matter who is President, and I am saddened when they say that their vote doesn’t count. .

David Rescues Keilah:            Last week we discussed Saul taking vengeance on the priests of Nob who had helped David. The story ended with David offering protection to Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech whom Saul had murdered. In chapter 23 Abiathar assists David by inquiring of the LORD for him. The chapter begins with David being informed that the Philistines were attacking the town of Keilah, which was near the border between Judah and the land of the Philistines. Raiders were robbing the threshing floors of Keilah, which meant that during the winter many people would probably starve. This is warfare at its most basic level. A powerful group of people steals the food from those who are weaker. I often hear skeptics and cynics claim that religion is the cause of most violence in the history of the world, but that’s not true. Wars and conflicts are almost always fought over property and power. Much of the fighting in Iraq today is over who will control the oil wealth of that region. England once waged war on China in order to protect its opium trade. There are still warlords in parts of the world who attack villages during the harvest to steal their food. Many economists and military experts predict that in the near future global wars will be fought over water rather than oil. Religion provides an excuse for war, and it can give wars a holy patina to war, but that just hides the crude reality that wars are about power and property, just as they were in David’s day.

David learns that the people of Keilah are being oppressed by the Philistines, and he asks the priest Abiathar what he should do. Abiathar asked the LORD and he received the reply that David should attack the marauders. We talked about this practice of inquiring of the LORD in an earlier lesson. When the priest was wearing the sacred ephod, he would ask a specific question and then reach for one of the seer stones, the urim and thummin. One was affirmative and the other negative. This was the biblical basis for the Moravian use of the lot in the 18th century, by the way. For the Moravians, this was a way to make decisions based on obedience to the will of God rather than personal will. It was also a way to bring debates to a close since everyone was bound by the decision of the lot. In David’s day, it appears that the urim and thummin were used as oracles. The priest would ask a specific question to see what the future might be. Most ancient rulers used divination as they tried to make policy decisions. In light of the current financial crisis, one might wonder if divination would be more effective than our current system of following economic models.

What is unusual is that David asks twice. First he asks if he should go rescue Keilah, and when his men raise reasonable objections against that course of action, David asks if they will defeat the Philistines. That’s a whole different question. One of the difficulties with the use of the lot for the old Moravians was that sometimes the decision did not work out well. They interpreted a bad result to mean that God was punishing them or that there was a deeper plan, not that God had made a mistake. David took a more prudent route. He was not going to risk the lives of his men without some assurance of victory. David is being prudent and asking for a second opinion rather than simply rushing into battle. Why were the men so worried about attacking the Philistines? For one thing, they were on the run from Saul’s army, and the Philistines were even more powerful. Why pick a fight with the Philistines when you’ve already got Saul against you? On the surface, it does seem foolish to come to the rescue of Keilah, but David was shrewd as well as good. There is no reason to doubt the tradition that David was genuinely concerned about his fellow Israelites and that the rescue of Keilah was bold and heroic, but it also worked to David’s advantage. The only way to win a guerilla war against a superior foe is to have the support of the local population. By rescuing Keilah, David became a hero defending the oppressed, and the people might be willing to support him. He was showing them that he could protect them better than Saul.

Almost Trapped                        David’s plan almost failed. He was successful against the Philistines and even captured many of their animals, but word reached Saul that David was in Keilah. If he struck quickly, he could trap David in the walls of the city and starve him into submission. Saul said boldly that God had handed David over to him, which is reminder that in many wars both sides think that God is on their side. Abraham Lincoln addressed that problem in his Second Inaugural Address, and he was one of the few rulers wise enough to recognize that God may not be wholly on either side in a war. For his part, David was wise enough to recognize his peril. If Saul besieged Keilah, the people might betray David even though he had just rescued them. David consulted with the priest, who told him that David should leave Keilah before Saul arrived. Part of the purpose of this story is to show that the priest could advise David, but Saul could no longer be sure of the Lord’s will since he had killed the priests. Even today leaders often get rid of the advisors that would be most useful. David and his 600 men escaped from Keilah, and they kept on the move so Saul could not find them.

Ziph:                        This is not the most interesting section of I Samuel, but it was probably very exciting at the time. Saul is the cat and David is the mouse, but in the long run the mouse will win. These scenes of David having to flee from stronghold to stronghold because he knows he cannot win a battle against Saul remind us of many moments in history where a rebel band tries to outwit a stronger foe. Think of Robert the Bruce hiding in a cave watching a spider repeatedly build a web. Or think of George Washington retreating again and again during the American Revolution until finally the British are caught unprepared at Yorktown. We could even think of the Afghans using similar tactics against the British Empire in the 19th century and against the Russians in the 20th century. We Americans prefer stories like Rocky where the hero fights toe to toe and wins despite great losses. We like to say that we will always be on the offensive and never sound retreat, but there are times when that is a disastrous approach.

I think it is quite nice that the Bible affirms the principle that he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day. David was brave, but he was also cunning, and he listened when the oracle told him to run away. Day after day, Saul searched for him in the desert of Ziph, but he could not find him. Strangely enough, Jonathan was able to find David. He met with David in Horesh. We can assume that they send messengers back and forth to arrange this unofficial meeting. It must have been a very dangerous affair, especially for Jonathan. It is in this conversation that we learn that Jonathan is planning to support David’s claim to the throne and that he will be David’s second in command. Jonathan claims that Saul is aware that God has already ordained that David will be king. Preachers and biblical commentators point to Jonathan’s assertion that David will be king as evidence of God’s protection over David. They tend to ignore the tragic reality that Jonathan will not live to see David as king. They renew their covenant, but Jonathan will die before the end of the book.

Eventually the Ziphites betray David. The text does not tell us why. Who knows how many people Saul tortured and killed trying to get information about David’s whereabouts? Who knows what threats or rewards the king used to get this information? It is possible that the Ziphites voluntarily agreed to hand David over to the king. After all, David was a rebel and an outlaw. Saul blesses the Ziphites for being loyal to him, and once again we see that both sides call upon the same God. Both David and Saul are convinced that God will bless them and give them victory. We know that David has been chosen by the LORD, but it may not have so clear at the time.

Searching for David            Saul tells the Ziphites to learn all they can about David and his movements. He is determined to track him down, but he is going to wait until he has definite information. It is illuminating that Saul mentions that David is hiding among the clans of Judah. Clearly there were many people in the tribe of Judah who supported David instead of Saul. When David becomes king, he will assert control over all of the tribes of Israel, but under his successors the kingdom will be divided. The descendents of David will rule over Judah and not much else. It appears that this separation between Judah and the rest of Israel was already apparent during the reign of Saul.

David discovers that he has been betrayed again, and that Saul is on his way to capture him in the desert of Maon. Scholars have mapped all of this out, by the way, but its not that important for understanding the story. The key point is that David stays one step ahead of the king. He keeps going deeper and deeper into the wilderness. You can almost feel David’s fear as Saul gets closer day by day, and finally there comes a time when the two armies are separated only by a mountain range. The storyteller does not give us all the exciting details, but it sounds like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid running from the cavalry. Just when it looks like David is going to be caught by the king, something happens to change plans.

Saul has to break off the pursuit because the Philistines have sent a raiding party into Israel. We know how much the king wants to capture David, but he has a greater obligation. He must come to the aid of his people. Commentators, including me, are generally very negative about Saul, but we should not overlook this scene. Despite all of his flaws, he remained a king who came to the defense of his people. It is perhaps a strange irony that David was saved in this case by the Philistines. David recognized that he had an almost miraculous escape, and so he named a prominent rock there Sela Hammahlekoth – the rock of parting. And he took refuge at En Gedi.

Sparing Saul’s Life                        Saul had lost his opportunity to seize David, but when he had defeated the Philistines he returned to his pursuit. David was well hidden in the desert of En Gedi, and Saul could not find him. In chapter 24, we have a little scene that is popular among middle school boys because it is so earthy. The Bible tells us that Saul went into a cave in order to relieve himself. While he was occupied with the call of nature, David’s men told him that Saul was vulnerable. Seize the moment, they said. Kill him while he cannot defend himself. Rather than calling for a frontal assault that would have alerted Saul’s army, David crept up to the cave. Instead of killing Saul, he cut off the corner of his robe, which Saul had removed for obvious reasons.

That was a very odd thing to do, but David wanted to prove to his men and to Saul that he had been close enough to kill the king. It is almost like an Indian brave scoring a coup on an enemy. By cutting the robe, there could be no doubt that Saul had been a David’s mercy, but he did not kill the king. Strangely enough, the text says that David felt guilty for doing this. It is possible that the text got muddled and edited over the years. It would make sense that he felt guilty for sneaking up on the king intending to kill him, and so instead he cut his robe. It seems a little excessive for him to feel guilty for simply cutting the king’s robe, but all we have is the text we have. It says that David rebuked his men for urging him to murder the king while he was alone in the cave.

The Lord’s Anointed            The key point of this passage is clear despite some possible confusion in the details. David publicly acknowledges that Saul is still the king and he is a servant of the king. All of the secret covenants with Jonathan and all of the words of the prophets and priests are set aside at this moment. David may be the king one day, but as long as Saul lives, he will not attack him. The king is the Lord’s Anointed, even if he has gone insane and is trying to kill David.

This was an important thing to add to the story of David because the kings of Judah did not want one of their subjects thinking that they had the right to rebel against them. This whole story of David and Saul was problematic for the kings of Israel since it appears to sanction rebellion against the monarch. This scene was discussed a lot during the history of Europe as Christians debated whether it was ever justified to rebel against their sovereign. When the Puritans separated the anointed head of King Charles from his body in 1649, it sent shock waves throughout Christendom. They had struck down the Lord’s Anointed, and they claimed that they had a divine mandate to do so.

We’ll pick up next week at 24:8

Gleaning with Ruth

 

Ruth 2: Gleaning

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 16, 2007 

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. I hope all is well for you and those you love during this festive season of the year. My wife has been playing in holiday concerts with the Salem Community Orchestra this past week. Friday night we decorated the church with cedar garlands and magnolia leaves. It is one of the high points of my year watching young and old working, talking, and laughing together in a common project. I keep reading that Americans are selfish and competitive, but you would not believe that if you were here on Friday watching people work together for no other purpose than to make the church beautiful for the celebration of the feast of the incarnation of Christ. This week I will be the speaker for the annual Rotary Club Christmas luncheon. One member of the Rotary told me that he had to make a choice between hearing me and having a particularly unpleasant medical procedure and he chose the procedure. That builds a guy’s confidence, I tell you.

Gleaning            This week we turn our attention to the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, which involves an obsolete custom known as gleaning. There are several references to gleaning in the law books of the ancient Israelites, particularly in Leviticus (19:9-10, 23:22). Israelite landowners were forbidden to pick their fields clean. Harvesters were supposed to leave any grain that dropped to the ground. They were not even allowed to harvest the stalks growing on the edges of the field. What was left over as a result belonged to the poor, especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. These were people without a household or land. They were of a lower class than the farmhands who harvested the grain.

This was one way that an agricultural society could provide some form of an economic safety net for the poor. Clearly, the Bible was written without the insights of modern American economists, like Milton Friedman, who claim that people should maximize their profits without concern for the social consequences of their actions. Modern economists would point out that the owners of the field could maximize their profits through a more rational harvesting procedure. Then, if they wanted to feel pious, they could give some of their profits to the poor as an act of charity. The Bible works on a different theory of economics. Gleaning was based on the idea that the land does not really belong to anyone other than God. Humans may have possession of it for a period of time, but only if they use the land with respect for the laws of the true landowner, God. Gleaning was a reminder to landowners that they were stewards of God’s property, and that the poor have a right to food. The division between rich and poor was still there, as it is in our day, but gleaning made it clear that the rich have an obligation to the poor. Leaving grain for the poor was an obligation of justice, not an act of charity.

Gleaning was not welfare the way we organize it today, but it was a governmental program to provide food for those whose circumstances prevented them from participating fully in the economic system. Gleaning was not the same as begging. Gleaners worked hard for the grain they gathered. In fact, it was probably harder than harvesting since gleaning involved picking up individual pieces of grain rather than whole stalks. Perhaps we should call it a workfare program, but the most important point of gleaning is that it was part of God’s law that the poor had a right to glean in the fields of the rich. We should remember though, that gleaners were shadow people without a household who were bent over looking for kernels of hope.

Ruth                        Ruth became a gleaner. Though Elimelech had some land, it was not producing crops for Naomi when she returned from Moab. The storyteller doesn’t bother us with the details of what had happened to Elimelech’s land. Ruth is not a legal brief or a history book; it is a story about Hesed and faithfulness. All we need to know is that Ruth was forced to glean. It is possible that someone had taken possession of the land and it would require legal action to get it back. It is possible Elimelech had sold it before leaving for Moab. It is possible that the land was lying fallow since no one had been there to plant grain for the harvest. Preachers and spiritual guides often tell you to live in the moment, which can be good advice, but the truth is that if farmers lived only in the present we’d all starve. You’ve got to plant and harvest long before you get hungry. Ruth is a story about planning for the future and seizing opportunities in the present.

It is interesting that Ruth asked Naomi’s permission to glean. That could be a sign that she recognized Naomi as the head of their little household. Ruth may have also been worried that Naomi would be too proud to live by gleaning. There are people in this world who are simply too proud to do the things that survival requires. There are those who would rather die than enter a nursing home or accept meals on wheels or go to a drug rehab. Pride is a narcotic that can be self-destructive. Many commentators have wondered why Naomi wasn’t in the fields herself. Perhaps she was too old, or she may have simply been too depressed to get out of the house. It is Ruth who takes action. She reminds me of Ruby in the novel Cold Mountain. She is a woman who knows what survival requires and is willing to risk her life to save her life and the life of Naomi. There are many forms of heroism in this world; most of them do not come with medals.

As it happened            One of the reasons Ruth belongs in the Wisdom literature of the Bible is because it is a story about virtue. In addition to the virtues of loyalty and kindness, Ruth displays courage and prudence by going into the field to glean. She knows that the harvest will not last long and she must seize the opportunity. She plans for the future, and she is willing to work hard in the present. These were some of the fundamental values of our Moravian ancestors as well. Women and men alike should work hard and be wise in their dealings with the world. We didn’t build a town like Salem in the wilderness simply by singing hymns and writing liturgies.

Another reason this book belongs in the wisdom literature is that it has a slightly different understanding of God than some of the books of the Old Testament. There are no miracles in Ruth, but this doesn’t mean that God is absent from the story. All of the characters in the story talk about God and invoke his blessings, but it is ambiguous as to whether it is God or humans who are responsible for what happens. Thus, the storyteller says that “it happened that” Ruth chose the field of Boaz to glean in. That phrase “it happened that” may be pregnant with meaning or it may be just be good rhetoric. The storyteller does not say that God led Ruth to Boaz’s field; merely that it happened that she was there. Was this simply good luck, a chance encounter, or was God at work? The reader has to decide.

In many ways, the difference between coincidence and providence is a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of the old adage about seeing a glass as half empty or half full. A optimist sees the glass as half full; a pessimist as half empty. A realist might point out that it doesn’t matter which is true if you do not drink the water. We waste a lot of time and energy arguing over whether an event is divine providence or coincidence rather than simply receiving it in gratitude. It happened that Ruth found herself in the field of Boaz, a member of Elimelech’s clan. Does it matter how it happened? What matters is that she was there. Ruth accepts the grace that she has received and works hard to be worthy of that grace. We should also be grateful for providence, including the providence that we help make happen.

Boaz                        After Ruth had started working, the owner of the field appeared. He was checking on the progress of the harvest, as a wise landowner should. He greeted his reapers with the accustomed pieties, saying “The Lord be with you,” and they responded in kind. Our first picture of Boaz is that of a well-respected and respectful man. One of the pillars in Solomon’s Temple was named Boaz, a fact that the first hearers may have known. By using the name Boaz, the storyteller may have been painting a picture of Boaz as a “pillar of society,” a man of strength who had standing in the community. Or, the storyteller could have just been telling us what the owner’s actual name was. That is one problem with literary criticism. Sometimes a name is just a name, but Boaz’s name fits his character. He is portrayed as a pillar of the community, a respected landowner who displays the type of wisdom valued in the book of Proverbs. It is possible that he was even a warrior chieftain or a knight.

Boaz notices Ruth. We aren’t told why he noticed her. Romantics like to portray the meeting as love at first sight. Boaz was captivated by the beautiful Ruth who was like a rose among the thorns, according to many paintings. Historians are more apt to note that Ruth was probably dressed like a foreigner and in a small town any strange woman would have been noticed. It is also possible, perhaps even likely, that Boaz was on the look-out for Ruth since he had already heard the amazing story of her devotion to his kinswoman Naomi. It is also possible that Boaz asked who Ruth when he saw how hard she was working. Perhaps all of these things excited Boaz’s interest. The key point is that he noticed her.

The foreman tells Boaz that the Moabitess from Moab has worked without taking a single break. That no doubt impressed Boaz. The foreman gives another pertinent detail about Ruth. She had asked permission to glean. Based on the laws in Leviticus, foreigners and widows, like Ruth, had a right to glean in the fields, and some commentators think it is odd Ruth asked permission. This may be an indication that Ruth did not know Israelite custom, but I think it simply demonstrates that Ruth was always respectful. It is wise and courteous to ask permission even when you have a right to something. We should also keep in mind that people do not always obey the law and observe rights. I imagine there were many landowners in those days who did not allow gleaning, just as there are employers today who discriminate against people because of sex or race. Ruth wanted to make sure that the owner of this field believed in equal opportunity gleaning before she risked herself in the fields with the workers.  

Boaz and Ruth            Once he has gotten a good report on this stranger in his fields, Boaz takes the initiative to talk to Ruth. He calls her daughter, which is both a term of endearment and a reminder that he is older and more powerful than her. He tells her to keep close behind his female harvesters and that he will treat her almost like one of his servants. At this point in the story, we might wonder if Boaz was considering adding Ruth to his household as a servant. There is no indication he is viewing her as a future spouse, but he does reward her for her sacrifices. He gives her permission to drink from the water jars that the men use, which was a great benefit to someone laboring under the Mediterranean sun.

Most important, he orders the men not to bother Ruth. It is not clear what this means. It could simply mean that the men should allow Ruth to drink from their water jars, but it may be more significant than that. Although there were laws to protect woman in ancient Israel, we know that women are vulnerable throughout the world. Ruth had no male to protect her. If she were raped, there would be no one to insist on justice. We have terrible stories in the OT of women being raped, sometimes even to the point of death. The original hearers of Ruth’s tale knew that she was taking a great risk in going into the fields alone, and they would have recognized the import of Boaz’s command that no one should touch her. He has assumed the role of father-protector for Ruth. His order reassured Ruth that she was safe. Why did he do this? It was because he was a righteous man who lived by the code of wisdom.

Boaz tells Ruth that he has heard about all that she has done for Naomi. He knows about her Hesed, her loving-kindness for her mother-in-law, and he wants to reward her for doing the right thing. He knows the risks Ruth has taken and how difficult her life will be, and he has compassion on her. Unlike Ruth, Boaz is not vulnerable. He has power and status and plenty to eat. He draws upon his strength to assist the one who was merciful even though she was weak. In this way, he can also assist Naomi, a member of his clan. Here is one of those great moments in the Bible where worldly wisdom and compassion come together. Just think of how much better the world would be if the Boaz’s of today would voluntarily reward the Ruths around them. Just think if an employer said to an employee, I know how you are taking care of your invalid aunt and are volunteering in school, and I want to make your life a little easier by raising your salary.

The Lord’s Reward                        Boaz blesses Ruth in the name of the LORD and asks the LORD to reward her for her devotion. Such a blessing is really a prayer. Boaz prays that God will take Ruth under his wing and protect her. This is a beautiful maternal image of God, by the way. God is a bird protecting her young from the elements and predators. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that the OT only portrays God as a male. Here God is a mother hen looking over her vulnerable chicks. What I find most fascinating about Boaz’s blessing or prayer is that he is the answer to his own prayer. He prays that God will protect Ruth, but he is the one who has given instructions that she is to be unmolested. He is the one who has taken Ruth under his wings and has become the refuge for Ruth. Keep this in mind when you pray. It is possible that God will use you as the answer to your own prayers.

Ruth responds with appropriate gratitude. Though she has a legal right to glean, she recognizes that Boaz is treating her with loving kindness. He is going beyond a grudging compliance with the law and is showing Ruth true Hesed. She will still have to work hard, but she will not be risking her life to bring home food for Naomi. She will have water and protection from assault. At mealtime, Boaz shows her even more kindness and lets her eat bread and wine with the reapers. In front of them all, Boaz heaps grain for her to eat so that all will see that she has been blessed because she has been good. In this way, Boaz was also able to give Naomi charity without sacrificing her pride. He knew Ruth would take the leftovers home. Like God, Boaz is subtle and good. He tells his male reapers to let Ruth take grain from the sheaves they have already harvested and to drop a few stalks for her to pick up.

Conclusion                        We will leave Ruth working in the fields gathering food for her and Naomi, but before we go we should take a moment to consider the lessons in this story. We have a picture of a woman who seizes the opportunity to live a meaningful and moral existence in a dangerous world. She risks everything to go out into the fertile fields and bring home some of the bounty. She labors hard and without complaint. And Boaz notices her. There is not a word about Ruth being beautiful, but she is compassionate and devoted. Boaz admires Ruth before he loves her. Boaz is a good model for men. He is a pillar of strength who uses his power for good. If only we had more examples of manhood like this today. This chapter gives us something else to ponder today. Think of hard-working foreigners in our country who are struggling against great odds to provide the necessities of life for their families. Could we today show Hesed to those who labor in our fields? Finally, let me say that it may be impossible to tell the difference between providence and coincidence, but we should go ahead and receive all grace with gratitude. Most of all, remember that you may be the answer to your prayers. Be prepared to be an agent of God’s loving kindness and justice today.

I Sam. 22 – Killing Priests

I Samuel 22:6-23  Killing the Priests of Nob

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 14, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                                    Good morning and welcome to this broadcast of the Adult Bible Class at Home Moravian Church. I wrote part of the lesson this week with the sound of the ocean in the background. The North Carolina Association of Health Access Managers had their annual meeting at Carolina Beach, and they invited me to give the keynote address. I’m glad things went well at the conference despite my inexperience as a motivational speaker. As a professor, my motivational speeches usually involve the phrase “if your work is not turned in by Friday, you will fail my class.” As a man of the 21st century, I went to the internet for assistance in becoming a motivational speaker. I found a website called despair.com that publishes beautiful posters with demotivational sayings on them such as: “When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can become deadly projectiles.” “A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.” My favorite has a picture of a grizzly bear catching a salmon. The caption reads “a journey of a thousand miles can end very badly.” I’m not sure why I find such things comforting. We have been looking closely at I Samuel this year, and we have seen that the story of Samuel, Saul, and David is told without rose-colored glasses. It is a harsh and realistic portrayal of the establishment of the kingdom.

Under the Tamarisk                        Last week we discussed David’s abortive flight into the land of the Philistines and his decision to come back to Judah with a rather large band of men. David knew that Saul would see this as a challenge and that he might react violently, so David took his family to safety in Moab. What David could not predict was that Saul’s wrath would be unleashed on others who had no protection. This week we turn our attention away from David and back to Saul. In many ways, Saul is the main character of I Samuel, but he is a tragic figure. He rose to power with the support of priests and prophets like Samuel, but several weeks ago we read a scene that symbolized the rupture between Saul and the priests. Saul’s charisma gradually slipped into paranoia. Last week we saw David pretending to be a madman, but this week we see the development of Saul’s genuine madness.

The story begins with Saul sitting under a tamarisk tree on a hill. Tamarisks are very distinctive trees, and in ancient Israel they may have been sacred. Abraham planted a tamarisk as a way of making a claim on the Promised Land (Gen. 21:33) and King Saul’s bones were laid to rest under a tamarisk. The storyteller is letting us know that Saul is not simply sitting in the shade; he is holding court under a special tree. He also has his spear in his hand as a symbol of authority and power. From the beginning Saul was a warrior, and it is interesting that in I Samuel we never seen him in any other role. He almost always has his spear or a sword in hand. Jesus could have been speaking of him when he said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

Saul is speaking to his officials, his bodyguard and servants. He calls them Benjaminites, which may indicate that he tended to rely on members of his own tribe. Some scholars take this as evidence that he was more of a tribal chieftain than a king. It is hard to go too deep into ancient Israelite politics based on the few sources we have, but it is interesting that David will make a point elevating people from many tribes in his government and even gave authority to non-Israelites. Even if Saul’s kingdom included all of the tribes, it appears that he still thought in terms of tribe and clan. He trusted Benjaminites more than others.

But on this occasion the king was angry with his tribesmen. He asked the men gathered whether they think that David could provide them with the gifts that he has given them. Will this upstart hiding in the mountains be able to give them vineyards and fields and make them generals in his “army”? Saul is reminding them that he has done those things for his supporters. This is the way politics has always worked. Kings and rulers reward loyal subjects by redistributing the wealth of the realm to their supporters. Those who oppose the ruler or are simply too weak to resist him watch their property go to those who are loyal to the regime. It generally works that way in democracies, too, but the mechanisms are more subtle. Still there is ample evidence that even today “to the victory goes the spoils”.

Jonathan                        Saul accuses his closest servants of conspiring against him. This is not uncommon. If you look at Stalin, Mao, Saddam, or any number of modern tyrants, you will see that it was very dangerous to rise to a position or power and authority in their governments. Often rulers fear those who are close to them, and many times this is a justifiable fear. The people who had the opportunity to see most clearly that the ruler is insane were the ones who were most in danger of being shot or imprisoned in a mental institution. Hitler was afraid that a member of his staff would kill him, and some of them certainly tried. We could go down the list.

Saul accuses his servants of complicity in a plot hatched by Jonathan and David. We know that Saul had long been suspicious of his son, but we do not know for sure what he thought was happening between him and David. Perhaps he thought the two were planning a coup so that Jonathan could be king. That sort of thing does happen from time to time in political systems in which change can only come when the chief executive dies. We don’t know the details, but we do know that Saul discovered that Jonathan helped David escape. He knows that Jonathan and David sealed a covenant and swore loyalty to each other. And now Saul has gathered his closest comrades and officials and berates them for not having told him what was going on.

Many commentaries describe this scene of Saul under the tamarisk in terms of his growing paranoia, and that may be true. But keep in mind that Saul is acting like many tyrants throughout history when faced with a threat. It is not just kings and dictators that abuse their advisors this way. Saul may have been crazy, but here he looks like many managers and executives in our day. You may have been in meetings like this with some kind of authority figure. It may have been a teacher, or a coach, or a boss. Things have been going on behind his or her back. There has been murmuring and maybe even some plotting against the authorities. Complaints are evidence of treason, and so the staff begins to whisper to each other and meet in quiet places to discuss what needs to be done. The authorities sense that something is going on behind their backs, but no one does to tell the folks in charge what is really happening. Then comes the confrontation. Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? Why didn’t you tell me that Jonathan was helping David?

The answer, of course, is obvious. Either they did not know, or they were afraid to tell the king the truth. That still happens with government officials, by the way. It is hard to tell the truth to someone who does not want to believe the truth or who will respond irrationally to it. The men gathered before Saul knew that if they had told Saul about David and Jonathan, at least one of the men would be killed, perhaps both of them. They could see that Saul was willing to destroy his kingdom in order to assert his power and authority. Some of them were probably loyal to Jonathan or David. They had decided that silence was prudent, but even that could be dangerous.

Doeg                        At this point a man named Doeg speaks up. You all have known people like this Doeg. He has information that he has kept secret and now he sees an opportunity to prosper by it. He can tell the boss something useful. He can give the boss someone to vent his wrath on. And best of all, he can get a little revenge in the process. You may have forgotten Doeg the Edomite. People like him are easily forgotten, but it is dangerous to ignore them. They are like snakes who strike without warning and do a lot of harm in a mean sort of way.

We met Doeg in Nob when David went to see the priest. He was the chief of Saul’s herdsmen, and the text says that he was “detained by the Lord” in the sanctuary at Nob. Most likely this means that he had been accused of some misdeed and the priests found him guilty. He was probably forced to do some type of penance or to serve the Lord for a period of time to atone for his misdemeanor. Like many of us, Doeg probably resented what the priest had done, and now he could get revenge.

He sidled up to Saul and with an oily manner ratted on Ahimelech the priest. He told the king that Ahimelech inquired of the LORD for David, gave him provisions, and even gave him the sword of Goliath. Doeg was not lying, and he may have thought he was being loyal to the king, but his words were destructive. Doeg was not forced to hand the priest over to a violent and angry king. He was not forced to be an informant for a corrupt regime. He was like the thousands of apparatchiks, like Vladimir Putin, supplying information on their neighbors to the Soviets. He was like the hundreds who supplied information to Joseph McCarthy knowing that the information was going to be used unjustly. He hoped to profit from the misery of another, and that is a fundamental definition of sin.

Read I Sam. 22:11-19

Ahimelech’s Defense                        Saul had Ahimelech brought before him and investigated him. Saul did not even call him by name, but addressed him as the son of Ahitub, which was a way to remind Ahimelech that what he said might have bad consequences for his whole family. Ahimelech appeared humble before his king, but it did not change Saul’s disposition. He did not ask the priest if he had helped David. He made it clear to the priest that he already knew everything that had gone on that day. He could not deny that he had helped David, all he could do was to explain to the king why he had done so. Why had he inquired of the Lord for David and given him arms and food? Why had he betrayed the king and made it possible to lie in ambush for him?

This may have been news to Ahimelech. He may not have known that David had come back to Judah with a small army in defiance of the king. The priest acknowledged that he had helped David just the way the king reported it. This is why it is safe to conclude that he really had inquired of the Lord for David, and that he had given him advise for his journey. Ahimelech tells Saul the truth, but he defends his actions on the grounds that he did not know that he was being disloyal to the king. He tells Saul that he had no idea that David was no longer one of his most trusted men. According to Ahimelech, David was chief of Saul’s personal bodyguard, which may well have been true.

Murdering the priests of God                        But Ahimelech’s defense was in vain. Saul did not believe for a moment that the priest was so naïve about David’s intentions. He assumed that David came to Nob specifically because he knew that Eli’s grandson would assist him. News that the priest had not only fed David but had given him the sword of Goliath was all the proof Saul needed. Even if Ahimelech had truly not known that David was a rebel and a traitor, the simple fact that he had assisted an enemy of the king was enough to seal his fate. At the beginning of this story, Saul was angry at Jonathan, but now he had a new target for his royal wrath. Saul decreed that Ahimelech would die. By implication, anyone who helped David would die.

It was not enough that Ahimelech be executed for treason; Saul decided to kill his entire family. Biblical commentators are rightly appalled at this decision of Saul, and they often point to this as evidence that Saul had truly lost his marbles, but sadly enough, this is the way politics used to be done. Later in the story, David has many family members of his enemies killed. European history is full of such familial murder, and this is still done in some parts of the world. One way to prevent someone from taking revenge in a blood feud is to kill the whole family. It is brutal, but effective. We think politics today is tough, and people get bent out of shape over a comment about lipstick, but at least we no longer use murder and extortion as tools of public policy. We are rightly horrified that Saul would murder children and women in order to protect his throne, but that was normal in the ancient world. We live in a more enlightened age that condemns the killing women and children as part of a political agenda. Except in times of war, of course.

What would have shocked the ancient Israelites is that Ahimelech and his sons were all priests of the LORD. Priests were sanctified. That means that they were set apart from normal society. They were a special class of person, and were even like a separate tribe: the sons of Levi. They did not work like other people or take part in wars. They were not celibate nor were they perfect, but they were treated like sacred vessels. They belonged to the LORD. The ancient readers of this tale would have believed that it was crazy to kill a priest because it meant that the LORD would have to avenge the death of one of his servants. In essence, Saul was inviting a blood feud with God. What had been symbolized earlier in the book when Saul ripped Samuel’s cloak was now coming true in fact.

Doeg the Murderer                        The author makes a point that none of the Israelites was willing to do kill the priests and their families. He wants to show that Saul was isolated even from his generals, and that the Israelites recognized that he was doing something beyond the pale. It is a brief statement easily overlooked, but it makes an important point. Obedience is a virtue only to a point. There are times when people have to disobey the orders of their superiors. Think of how much less evil there would be in the world if people had the courage to say “no” when told to do something immoral or illegal. No, I will not dump that toxic waste. No, I will not lie for you. No, I will not justify waterboarding. Did you know that there were many German soldiers in World War II who refused to participate in the death squads that terrorized Eastern Europe and others who refused to work in the death camps? Most of them were simply reassigned to other duties, but some were executed. If enough people had said no, there might not have been a holocaust. Do you know why so few Jews were deported from Denmark and Norway during the Nazi occupation? The police and government officials refused to cooperate. They said no, just like Saul’s generals.

Unfortunately, that did not stop Saul. He knew that Doeg the Edomite was the kind of man who would do any evil commanded by the king. So Doeg took his sword and slew Ahimelech. The text says that he killed over 80 members of Ahimelech’s family that day, but he most likely had help during the slaughter. There are men who enjoy such things and others who saw an opportunity to rise in the king’s service. Doeg and Saul showed neither justice nor mercy as they killed every living thing in Nob. They treated the city of the priests as if it were under the ban of Holy War. It is bitterly ironic that Samuel had taught Saul how to do this when he ordered him to exterminate the Amalekites. Biblical interpreters for centuries have tried to justify the slaughter of the innocent when ordered by a priest but condemn it when priests are killed. Jesus teaches us that there is no justification for killing the innocent and that we are to love our enemies.

Conclusion                        Saul’s fear of David led him to commit a great crime, but he merely accelerated the crumbling of his kingdom. One son of Ahimelech managed to escape the slaughter and found refuge with David. Saul was losing support and authority in his kingdom while the oppressive and frightened looked to David as their potential savior. It is interesting that when David heard about the atrocity at Nob, he blamed himself for the deaths. He knew that Saul had killed Ahimelech and the others because they had helped David. Though he was an outlaw, David showed more majesty and wisdom than the king at that moment.

Gospel of Ruth, 1:15-22

Ruth 1:15-22 – Hesed

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 9, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this Second Sunday in Advent. I hope it has been a good week for you those whom God has given you to love and care for. First of all, kudos to Coach Grobe at Wake Forest for doing what he said he would do and staying at Wake. The other big news the Atwoods put up the Christmas tree on Saturday. I remember when we were first married and had almost no ornaments for the tree. Julie hit upon the idea of baking sugar cookies and painting them with colored frosting. We hung those on the tree. The girls enjoyed it so much that we have continued the tradition even though we have collected lots of ornaments through the years. I guess a Christmas tree is an expression of who you are, and ours is filled with a variety of ornaments, some made by the children, others received as gifts or purchased on trips. It is a visual reminder of the many random acts of kindness and senseless beauty that have made our lives blessed. I’m sure that one of those decorators on TV would object to the fact that our ornaments do not go together or create a theme, but each ornament elicits memories and helps connect our children to their past. And this is what the Old Testament is like. It is filled with mementoes of Israel’s history, each of which evokes different memories and lessons learned. There is no point trying to make it all consistent or rational. We simply need to listen to what each ornament of Bible says to us. Today we are turning our attention to one of the most beautiful and revelatory passages in all of Scripture.

Read 1:15-22

Chemosh            Last week we watched as Orpah did as her mother-in-law commanded. She went back to her family and we hear nothing more of her. Perhaps she married and had lots of children. Perhaps she was always haunted by the memory of leaving Naomi to her fate. The storyteller does not tell us what happened to Orpah because the great stories are about people who do what is unexpected not those who conform. I was just reading about a Jewish woman who was sheltered by a Muslim family in Yugoslavia during the Holocaust. When the Muslim man was arrested by the Communists after the war, she did not go to the trial to defend him. For years she lived with the regret of having failed to stand up for the man who had saved her life. Before she died, she was forgiven by the man’s widow, and she was able to have him and his wife honored at the Yad Vashem memorial for pious Gentiles. In another war, when Christians were killing Muslims in Bosnia, that woman’s son was able to rescue the Muslim man’s children and bring them to safety in Israel. It is a story that reminds us that the great stories have many chapters, and that righteousness and courage are not the property of just one religion.

 

Naomi tells Ruth to follow Orpah and go back to her people and her god. Incidentally, the word translated as “gods” in most English Bibles is Elohim, which is normally translated as a singular word with a capital G. The English translators have decided for us that the Moabites were polytheists who did not worship the one true God, but the author of Ruth is not so dogmatic. He uses the same word for both gods. The god of the Moabites was named Chemosh, and he was very similar to Yahweh, the god of Israel. It is not clear if the author of Ruth believed that there were different gods for different tribes, but it is interesting that seems to be nothing wrong in Orpah and Ruth worshiping Chemosh. It is dangerous to read too much into a few verses, but this is one of the few glimpses we get in Scripture of a mixed marriage.

Family                        Ruth refuses to go back to Chemosh worship. The Hebrew indicates that she got angry at Naomi for insisting that she leave her. She interprets Naomi’s words as a rejection of her and a sign that Naomi does not recognize the depth of Naomi’s devotion or the breadth of her morality. Ruth replies with a speech that is one of the defining moments of Scripture. There are few verbs in the Hebrew, by the way. Literally it reads something like:  “Where you go, I go; where you shelter; I shelter; your people, my people; your God, my God.” Ruth is stating facts, not her intentions. She makes it clear that this is not negotiable. She is going with Naomi.

 

Ruth’s speech is frequently read at weddings, often with the expectation that the place the couple will lodge in will be comfortable. Ruth’s words sound like the definition of marriage where two people leave their former lives and form a new family, but we need to remember that Ruth is not getting married to Naomi. In order to fully grasp the significance of this little book, we need to recognize that Ruth is giving herself in friendship to another woman without hoping for children or an easy life. Ruth is not simply offering to accompany Naomi on her journey to make sure she gets to Bethlehem safely. That would be kindness worthy of praise, but Ruth is heroic. She has decided to accompany Naomi all the way to the grave; to share her journey through life no matter what. This is a rare and beautiful example of a broader understanding of family and friendship. I have known friends who were this devoted to each other, and the Book of Ruth tells us that such devotion is also of God. Love and loyalty are family values, but not all families look alike.

 

Presence            Ruth is not expecting a prosperous and happy life with Naomi’s people. She knows Naomi has no close relatives, and she knows that she will not be welcome as a foreigner. The word Ruth uses for shelter is intentionally vague. Ruth is saying that she will live with Naomi in a house or a tent or a shack. If she has no home, then she will wander the earth with her. Naomi cannot flee from Ruth’s love. We read of such devotion elsewhere in Scripture. Think of the Psalmist who sang to God: “You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I rise on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me; your right hand will hold me fast.” (Ps. 139:3,7,9) Ruth refuses to let Naomi flee from her presence. She will pursue her and care for her. Like God, Ruth will not leave Naomi without comfort and support. They may die on the journey. They may be destitute in Judah. They may have only a morsel to eat, but Naomi will not eat it alone. Ruth, like God, will be there. Keep in mind that the original hearers of this tale may have been critical of Ruth for abandoning her family and her religion in order to care for this old woman. Think of how you would respond if Ruth were your daughter or niece or sister or a neighbor.

 

Hesed                        The storyteller does not let us know where Ruth learned her morality and loyalty, whether from the Moabites or the people of the Covenant, but he describes her as an embodiment of the Hebrew understanding of God’s loving kindness and faithfulness. God did not abandon his children, even when they were in exile. The Hebrew word for Ruth’s actions is Hesed, a word frequently used to describe God. Hesed is love or loyalty that exceeds the requirements of justice. Orpah was righteous, but Ruth exhibited hesed. Hesed is costly and it cannot be demanded or expected of someone else. It must be freely given. In theological terms, Hesed is a type of grace that is hard to explain rationally. Hesed means doing what you believe is right even though it permanently alters your life, even if the world calls you crazy. Is it any wonder that the New Testament reminds us that Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus?

 

Conversion                        Some have proposed that the main reason Ruth accompanied Naomi was because she wanted to journey to the Promised Land and become one of the Chosen People and have sons who worshiped the one true God. For centuries, Ruth has been lifted up as the model of the convert because she chose to worship Naomi’s God. Rabbis have used her story as way to deal with Gentiles who want to become Jews. Like Naomi, the rabbi should rebuff the would-be convert three times in order to test his or her sincerity. Like Ruth, converts must turn their backs on their people. Christian missionaries have also used the Book of Ruth primarily as a text on conversion. One piece of evidence that Ruth may have already become a worshiper of Yahweh is that she makes a vow to Naomi in the name of Yahweh, the LORD. She solemnly swears that if she lets herself be separated from Naomi, then she will expect Yahweh to curse her. The details of the curse are not spelled out and aren’t really important. Ruth has bound herself to the LORD even before they leave Moab.

 

But if we interpret Ruth primarily as a story of conversion, we misread the story and lose its most important message. Ruth binds herself to the LORD because of her loyalty to Naomi, not the other way around. Yahweh, the LORD will be her God because he is Naomi’s God. This does not read like a conversion story. Ruth does not struggle over whether to abandon Chemosh in order to worship Yahweh; nor does she learn anything new from Naomi’s religion. Ruth displays Hesed to Naomi before she chooses Naomi’s God. It is interesting that we never see Ruth worshiping in the Temple or synagogue. Part of the message of this book of the Old Testament is that God is revealed most clearly in acts of loving kindness and yet we still look for God at shrines instead of in the world.

 

This is the hidden scandal in Ruth that commentators and preachers in both the synagogue and church try to obscure. Ruth could have clung to her religion and rejected Naomi, but she responded with loving kindness. Ruth, the Moabite, displays Hesed before she becomes part of the covenant, before she learns the Torah. There is an important message in this for us to consider in our world today. Just think if Naomi had treated Ruth the Moabite the way many Christians treat non-Christians or many Muslims treat non-Muslims or many Jews treat non-Jews today. I doubt Ruth would have then responded with Hesed. Just think if Ruth had not been open to Naomi’s religion. This story is the best refutation of fundamentalism in Scripture.

 

Silence                        Verse 18 is translated in different ways. It could be that Naomi stopped arguing with Ruth and urging her to go back or that she literally “said no more to her.” The basic meaning is clear. Naomi acquiesces and lets Ruth accompany her, but some interpreters think that Naomi’s silence extended to the whole trip to Bethlehem. Then the question becomes one of interpreting the silence. One commentator suggests that Naomi was angry and did not want to be burdened with this poor Moabite woman or even that she was ashamed to bring Ruth back to Judah! Let me just say that I disagree. The text does not tell us what Naomi thought, but I imagine that she smiled to herself knowing that she was loved and would not be left friendless.

 

Bethlehem                        The storyteller doesn’t give us the details of the long journey from Moab to Bethlehem. We can imagine that it was arduous and dangerous, but the women survived and arrived in safely. They caused a sensation, especially among the women of the town. Naomi had been away for over a decade. Many of the people who had known her were dead. Children she had known were now married and having children. She had left as a wife and mother, a person with status and a place in society. She returns with no one but a Moabite who had been married to her son. We can imagine how Naomi would have changed over the years, bent with the burdens of life and sorrow. The storyteller captures all of this in a single sentence: “Can this be Naomi?” It is left ambiguous whether these words were said with the joy of recognition, like old friends at a reunion or if they were said were shock and concern. Were the women welcoming Naomi back from the dead with open arms or were they embarrassed to see their friend return as a woman of sorrow who was acquainted with grief.

 

In her sorrow, Naomi makes a pun worthy of Shakespeare. Don’t call me Naomi; call me Mara. Naomi’s name is from the Hebrew word for pleasant or sweet. It is like our American names Sugar or Honey. Mara is more difficult for translators. It is a name, similar to Maria or Mary, and in some of the ancient Near Eastern languages it means “power” or “strength,” but it can also mean “bitter.” (Sasson, 33) The storyteller interprets the pun for us by having Naomi say, “Don’t call me Sugar; call me Bitter” because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. Naomi’s homecoming is not a time for celebration. She is aware of what she has lost.

 

El Shaddai            Naomi blames El Shaddai for her misery. That is one of the many names of God in the Old Testament, and it usually translated as God Almighty or simply the Almighty. The truth is that no one knows for sure what the name originally meant. It is similar to ancient words for Mountain, Breasts, and even the Destroyer. Religion scholars have long speculated that the phrase originally referred to a Canaanite deity, but that the Israelites took the name as a synonym for the LORD, Yahweh. The question is why would Naomi call God “El Shaddai” when she returned from Moab. One possibility is that El Shaddai was associated with destruction and power rather than loving kindness. Another possibility is that the storyteller is again using a pun. Shaddai sounds like Shadeh, which means a fertile field. In her bitterness, Naomi is highlighting the fertility she has lost. The fertile got left me barren. Bitterness is connected to barrenness.

 

We cannot know for sure what the significance of El Shaddai is here, but it seems likely that word highlights the power of God rather than his loving kindness. Naomi blames the Almighty for her sufferings and cannot see any other aspects of God. The narrator does not say that God has afflicted her, but that is how Naomi interpreted her condition. Like Job, she has been stricken through no fault and is left with nothing but her life. The word she uses to describe God’s actions is actually a legal term that means “to testify against” someone. Translators disagree on whether it has a judicial meaning here. If it does, then Naomi is saying that she has been punished by God. If not, then she is saying that God has dealt with her harshly without any explanation at all.

 

This is one of the basic problems in human existence. Do we suffer because a just God punishes us for bad things we have done? Or do we suffer because God does bad things to us even when we are living righteously? Unlike modern people, Naomi does not even consider the possibility that bad things are a result of natural causes and random chance. In a prescientific world people expected higher beings to provide rain and food. They gave life and took it away. El Shaddai dealt harshly with Naomi, but she does not know why. The Book of Ruth, like the Book of Job, leaves the question of tragedy open-ended. All she knows is that her life is bitter. She is lonely, grieving, hungry, frightened, and depressed. In front of the women of the town, she gives her lament, hoping that God will hear her and show some mercy.

 

Mercy                        In her bitterness, Naomi could not see that the LORD God was merciful. Naomi said that God had brought her back empty, but that was not entirely true. In verse 22 the narrator reminds us that Naomi did not return alone. Ruth, the bride of her son, was with her. She does not even mention Ruth the Moabite nor do the women of the town take any interest in her, so far as we can tell. But Ruth will be the salvation that God has prepared for Naomi. Without miracles or angels from heaven, God was merciful. Ruth fulfilled her vow to follow Naomi and now she will lodge with her in Bethlehem. And, the narrator tells us, the barley harvest was just about to begin. Naomi will be rescued by the hand of Ruth, but it will not come easy. Next week we’ll walk with Ruth in the fields, gleaning crops.  

Gospel of Ruth – Intro

Introduction to the Book of Ruth

Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast Nov. 25, 2007

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good holiday week for you and your family. It was quiet around the church and campus this week as everyone went their separate ways to be with those they love most. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I have a friend whose family has lobster at Thanksgiving instead of Turkey because the father claims that it is much easier to feel thankful for lobster than turkey. Of course, we know from historians that lobster was more likely to have been served at the first thanksgiving than turkey so he may simply be more historically accurate. Speaking of lobsters, I think one of the bravest people in the history of the world was the person who first looked at a live lobster and said, “I’m going to eat you.” And that is all I have to say about lobster. On the subject of turkey, though, let me point out that Benjamin Franklin did indeed want the wild turkey to be our national symbol because wild turkey helped our ancestors endure in a harsh environment. Hopefully the same is not true for you today, at least not the liquid variety of wild turkey.

I attended the community interfaith Thanksgiving service at St. Timothy’s on Tuesday, and I was glad that Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn lived up to the billing I gave him last Sunday. He told a wonderful Talmudic story about the true nature of gratitude. He repeatedly told us that in Jewish theology, humans are active participants with God in the world. We have the responsibility to work with the design of God for a just and wholesome society and environment. It was a powerful message that I wish more Christians would internalize. For some reason, Christian theology got so wrapped up in the idea that everything is a matter of God’s grace that we forgot that God expects us to respond to grace with action. We are called to work with God in the on-going creation of the world. At the very end of the Hobbit, Gandalf notes with satisfaction that the ancient prophecies have been fulfilled and the dragon defeated. Bilbo snorts in disagreement and says that he had a hand in fulfilling those prophecies. The wise wizard looks at him and says, “Surely you do not doubt the prophecies just because you had a hand in fulfilling them?” During this Advent season as we listen to beautiful prophecies in church, let us remember that we have a role to play in the fulfillment of those visions and dreams.

Ruth                        The reason I am bringing this up this morning is that we are turning our attention to a book of the Old Testament, the Book of Ruth. It is a story about a strong woman who takes action. She does not placidly sit around waiting for Divine Providence to solve her problems; she works with the resources that God has given her and uses them to create a better future. You may ask why I wanted to use this book during the Advent season. You might have expected something on the Messianic prophecies that point to the coming of Christ into the world. Those are important passages of Scripture, but I thought it might be illuminating to take a look at a woman who is listed as a direct ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Book of Ruth, there would not have been a King David or a Messiah if an ordinary woman had not acted with extraordinary wisdom and courage.

Canon                        In the Christian Bible Ruth is placed between the Book of Judges and I Samuel. This is because the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures was organized chronologically. Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges before there was a king in Israel, so it makes sense to place it just before the book that describes the selection of Saul and David as kings. She is thus classified among the “Early Prophets,” in the Christian canon, which implicitly makes her into a prophet.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, though, Ruth is included in the section called the Ketubim or Writings. This section includes the Psalms, Song of Songs, wisdom literature, and novellas like Esther. I think this is a more appropriate location for Ruth because it is more like a short story or parable than a book of prophecy or history. It is quite pointless to try to use Ruth as a bridge between Judges and I Samuel since the only bridge is that Ruth is the ancestor of David. Personally, I am convinced that Ruth should be classified as Wisdom Literature alongside Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Very few scholars agree with me on this, by the way, but that’s okay. I think they are reluctant to call Ruth a book of wisdom because they associate Wisdom literature with wizened old men and government scribes. But women have wisdom, too.

There was some debate in ancient days as to whether Ruth should be considered sacred Scripture and include in the canon at all. It is different from other OT books in that God does not speak or act directly in the story. This is one reason it is wrong to put Ruth among the prophets, by the way. Some rabbis were uncomfortable with the book simply because the main characters are women: Ruth and Naomi, and as we all know, the Bible is about men (he says sarcastically). As we shall see, there are also some shocking aspects related to Ruth’s behavior that continue to bother preachers and teachers. Lastly, some of the rabbis were less than thrilled that Ruth was not an Israelite. How could you have a book in the Bible about a Gentile woman? But the fact that Ruth was an ancestor of the great King David, who in turn was the ancestor of the expected Messiah, convinced most rabbis that the Book of Ruth is indeed sacred Scripture. Plus, it is such a good story that illuminates so many important themes of the OT, it had to be true.

Liturgical Cycle            As Jewish worship developed after the Temple was destroyed, Ruth became part of the yearly cycle of readings in the synagogue. It is one of the Five Scrolls set apart for special festivals. Ruth is read each year on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which was originally a harvest festival and is now the celebration of the marriage of Israel and God. Since Ruth is about the harvest and a marriage, it is a good text for Shavuot. Ruth is also a story about faithfulness, which is a major theme of Shavuot, and it may not be too much of a stretch to claim that in the book itself Ruth is a representative of the faithfulness of God. You may be more familiar with the festival of Shavuot by its Greek name: Pentecost. As we study Ruth, keep in mind that this may have been the scroll read on the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they spoke in many tongues. When Peter gave the first Christian sermon on Pentecost, the text of the day was not the Gospel of John; it was the Gospel of Ruth.

Overview of the Story            One of the reasons Ruth is such a popular story for Jews and Christians is that it is short. Many children have read Ruth because a teacher or preacher told them to read a book of the Bible, and so they checked to see which were the shortest. Ruth is also popular because it is a story. Unlike many books of the OT, Ruth does not include lists of laws and obscure prophecies. It is delightfully straight-forward, and it provides enough description for us to visualize the story without needing a lot of knowledge about the ancient Near East. Though it is set in the time of the Judges, it has a timeless quality. Ruth could be set in almost any rural village in any country of the world at almost any time before the industrial age. It is easy to translate the story for Africa, Central America, or even Asia. In my little country church in the 1970s the youth fellowship made a movie of Ruth that was set here in Forsyth County. As I recall, my sister played Ruth, and the movie was filmed at the quarry because that looked most like our pastor’s slides of the Holy Land. It didn’t win any Oscars, but it was a creative approach to the sacred text that I remember after all these years.

Ruth should be read in a single setting, but we do not do that in most churches in worship. One of the problems with the lectionary is that we have grown accustomed to biblical sound-bites that preachers then expand on. Rarely in worship do we listen to a narrative and let ourselves be drawn into the story. This morning I’m going to read the whole book of Ruth out loud, and then over the next few weeks we’ll discuss it in detail bit by bit.

Read Ruth:

Date and Authorship:            Though Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, it is clear that it was written long after the events it describes. In today’s terms, this is a historical novel. We know it was written later because it includes customs that the author has to explain because they are obsolete. Also, it ends with a genealogy that includes Ruth’s great-grandchild, who was born after she was dead. So, the book does not pretend to be a contemporary account. For the most part, modern scholars agree that it was written long after the period of the monarchy, probably in the 5th or 4th century BC. The vocabulary used in the book is similar to that of books written after the Babylonian Exile. Also, the genealogy of King David given in Ruth agrees with that of I Chronicles, which is a very late book. Had Samuel written Ruth, as tradition claims, we would expect that I Samuel would have included the same genealogy of David as that in Ruth.

Folktale            The fact that the book of Ruth was probably written down in its current form by an anonymous sage in Judah after the exile does not mean that he made the story up. Ruth may have originally been a folktale that had been told for centuries before it was written down. Some of the names in the story, such as Elimelech, are very ancient. The portrayal of the period of the Judges is not dependent on other books of the Bible, and thus may reflect ancient memories. The story also has the polished feel of a folktale told repeatedly to audiences. Years of retelling leave only the best parts of a story.

If it is true that this was originally a folktale, then I think we must consider the possibility that this was originally told in the women’s tents in Israel. We will see that the main actors are two women, Ruth and Naomi, and it strikes me as unlikely that a man would have told their story in this way. The sensitivity to their situation indicates that the original storyteller understood their plight and their limited options. I think that for many years, this story was told by mothers to their sons and daughters to help them understand what it means to be righteous and faithful. Centuries later, one of those sons became a sage and scribe. He took his grandmothers’ tale and turned it into a parable for men and women. Still later, another sage took this ancient wisdom story and used it to protest the racist policies instituted by Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century.

Political Statement:            Yes, this sweet tale of female faithfulness and wise maneuvering also makes a strong political statement that is still relevant. After the Jews were allowed to return from exile in Babylon, they set out to build a new society in Judea. Many of their religious leaders had decided that the reason God let the nation be destroyed was because of the sins of the people. They collected the sayings of the prophets and wrote the history of Israel, and one theme stood out. The children of Abraham were called by God to be different than their neighbors. The Israelites were to abolish idolatry and not be corrupted by Gentiles and pagans. Many of the Jews who returned from Babylon wanted to follow the Jewish Torah as strictly as possible. They thought that if they could separate themselves from all foreign influences, they could remain pure and God would not punish them again.

            This post-exilic Jewish attitude has a long history in Western religion. It remains a point of controversy between Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic Jews. At Thanksgiving, we Americans should remember that the Pilgrims were called Puritans because they wanted to create a pure and perfect Christian society. We see this concern for purity most clearly in Christianity in certain sects, such as the Amish, who intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society. It figured in Moravian history in the desire to purchase 100,000 acres in North Carolina so we could set up a colony without the bad influence of outsiders. The post-exilic Jewish notion that God will punish the nation if the people are impure continues to influence politics in our day as we debate civil rights for homosexuals and foreign workers.

            In order to understand the book of Ruth fully, we need to recognize that one way that the Jewish leaders hoped to purify the nation was to forbid Jews to marry Gentiles. Stories were told about how Solomon’s foreign wives had led him into idolatry and foolishness, and the Phoenician Queen Jezebel was turned into one of the great villains of Israelite history. Foreigners, especially women, were blamed for the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersal of the Israelites. In the 5th century BC, the Jewish governor Nehemiah and the lawyer Ezra went so far as to demand that Jewish men divorce their Gentile wives. We do not know how many women and children were abandoned and left destitute by this policy of ethnic cleansing, but we can imagine the heartbreak caused by this law.

            It is quite likely that the Book of Ruth was written and circulated in the post-exilic period as a form of protest against this inhumane policy of the emerging Jewish state. At a time when there was a strong desire for a descendent of King David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors, someone took an old folk tale about the great-grandmother of David and turned it into a subversive text calling the nation to a higher morality. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that it was a foreigner, a woman from hated Moab, who was righteous and faithful. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that the line of David depended on the love and devotion of a foreigner whom Boaz loved and married. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that morality does not depend on the purity of our blood or separation from foreigners; morality depends on the depth of our love and our willingness to sacrifice for others. Ruth is a rejection of all notions of racial purity and racial superiority. 

Gospel of Ruth, ch. 1

Ruth the Moabite: Prelude

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 2, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class at Home Moravian Church on this First Sunday in Advent. Tonight is the annual Moravian lovefeast and candlelight service in Wait Chapel. It is a beautiful service and the public is welcome. Today we are singing the Hosanna in worship, which is one of my favorite traditions, even though I do not sing well. My youngest daughter has been breaking into Hosanna at random times for a couple of weeks now. Of course, the big news is that it is my 47th birthday. I kept trying to have a mid-life crisis, but somehow I just couldn’t afford it, and now I’ve passed the mid-point. I do think the one thing age teaches is that you cannot undo the past or re-live it. Time is a one-way stream, but memory allows us to learn from experience.

Date and Authorship:            Though Ruth is set in the time of the Judges, it is clear that it was written long after the events it describes. We know it was written later because it includes customs that the author has to explain because they are long forgotten. In fact, it is not clear that author even understands some of the customs himself. Ruth also ends with a genealogy that includes Ruth’s great-grandchild, who was born after she was dead. Since the great-grandchild was King David, we can assume that it was written after he had become famous. The fact is that the book does not pretend to be a contemporary account, far from it. But because the rabbis in the 1st century believed that all sacred books had to have been written by one of the prophets, they decided that Ruth was written by Samuel. Only traditionalists make that claim today, but a few modern scholars argue that Ruth was written in the days of David and Solomon. The general consensus among biblical scholars, though, is that it was written after the Babylonian Exile (587-540 BCE).

The vocabulary used in the Book of Ruth is similar to that of other books written after the Exile, most notably Ezra and Nehemiah. Plus, the genealogy of King David given in Ruth agrees with that of I Chronicles, which is a very late book. Had Samuel written Ruth, as tradition claims, we would expect that I Samuel would have included the same genealogy of David as that in Ruth. Another reason for dating Ruth rather late is that she is not mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament. Had her story been important for the Davidic monarchy, as some interpreters claim, we would expect some mention of her in connection to David.

Folktale            The fact that the book of Ruth was probably written down in its current form by an anonymous sage in Judah after the exile does not mean that he made the story up. Ruth may have originally been a folktale that had been told for centuries before it was written down. Some of the names in the story, such as Elimelech, are very ancient. The portrayal of the period of the Judges is not dependent on other books of the Bible, and thus it may reflect ancient memories. The story has the polished feel of a folktale told repeatedly to audiences. Years of retelling leave only the best parts of a story. If it is true that this was originally a folktale, then I think we must consider the possibility that this was originally told in the women’s tents in Israel. We will see that the main actors are two women, Ruth and Naomi, and it strikes me as unlikely that a man would have told their story in this way. The sensitivity to their situation indicates that the original storyteller understood their plight and their limited options.

I think that for many years, this story was told by mothers to their sons and daughters to help them understand what it means to be righteous and faithful. Centuries later, one of those sons became a sage and scribe. He took his grandmothers’ tale and turned it into a parable for men and women. In that version, Boaz emerges as a model of wisdom and Ruth as the model of loving kindness. But the final version of this folktale was most likely produced during or shortly after the time of Nehemiah and Ezra in the 5th century. It is quite likely that one of the sages took this ancient wisdom story and used it to protest the racist policies instituted by Nehemiah and Ezra. Yes, this sweet tale of female faithfulness and wise maneuvering also makes a strong political statement that is still relevant.

Political Statement:            To fully appreciate the power of Ruth, we need to look at Jewish society in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. After the Jews were allowed to return from exile in Babylon, they set out to build a new society in Judea. Many of their religious leaders had decided that the reason God let the nation be destroyed was because of the sins of the people. They collected the sayings of the prophets and wrote the history of Israel, and one theme stood out. The children of Abraham were called by God to be different than their neighbors. The Israelites were to abolish idolatry and not be corrupted by Gentiles and pagans. Many of the Jews who returned from Babylon wanted to follow the Jewish Torah as strictly as possible. They thought that if they could separate themselves from all foreign influences, they could remain pure and God would not punish them again.

This post-exilic Jewish attitude has a long history in Western religion. It remains a point of controversy between Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic Jews. The Pilgrims we remember at Thanksgiving were also called Puritans because they wanted to create a pure and perfect Christian society. We see this concern for purity in Christianity most clearly in certain sects, such as the Amish, who intentionally separate themselves from the rest of society. It figured in Moravian history in the desire to purchase 100,000 acres in North Carolina so we could set up a colony without the bad influence of outsiders. The post-exilic Jewish notion that God will punish the nation if the people are impure continues to influence politics in our day as we debate civil rights for homosexuals and foreign workers.

In order to understand the book of Ruth fully, we need to recognize that one way that the Jewish leaders hoped to purify the nation was to forbid Jews to marry Gentiles. Stories were told about how Solomon’s foreign wives had led him into idolatry and foolishness, and the Phoenician Queen Jezebel was turned into one of the great villains of Israelite history. Foreigners, especially women, were blamed for the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersal of the Israelites. In the 5th century BC, the Jewish governor Nehemiah and the lawyer Ezra went so far as to demand that Jewish men divorce their Gentile wives. We do not know how many women and children were abandoned and left destitute by this policy of ethnic cleansing, but we can imagine the heartbreak caused by this law.

It is quite likely that the Book of Ruth was written and circulated in the post-exilic period as a form of protest against this inhumane policy. At a time when there was a strong desire for a descendent of King David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors, someone took an old folk tale about the great-grandmother of David and turned it into a subversive text calling the nation to a higher morality. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that it was a foreigner, a woman from hated Moab, who was righteous and faithful. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that the line of David depended on the love and devotion of a foreigner whom Boaz loved and married. The scandal and hope of the Book of Ruth is that morality does not depend on the purity of our blood or separation from foreigners; morality depends on the depth of our love and our willingness to sacrifice for others. Ruth is a rejection of notions of racial purity and racial superiority. With that in mind, let’s look closer at the opening verses of chapter 1.

In the days of the Judges                        Ruth begins with a statement that this story took place in the days of the Judges, which was the period in Israel’s history before there was a king. Interpreters disagree over the significance of this setting for Ruth. Some think that that book was written intentionally as a bridge between the book of Judges and I Samuel, perhaps by the author of I Samuel, but that seems unlikely to me. Ruth gives a different picture of the period of Judges, and it does not connect well to I Samuel, which begins with the prophet Samuel and the anointing of Saul. Some commentators think that the author of Ruth was highlighting that this story takes place during a time of social chaos before the coming of the king, but there is nothing in the book to indicate that. In fact, the society depicted in Ruth seems remarkably peaceful. I think this opening sentence has nothing to do with actual history. “In the time of the Judges” is the equivalent of our phrase “once upon a time” or “in the days of yore.” Ruth is set in the most distant past of the Israelites as a nation in order to make it a timeless tale.

Like many good folktales, Ruth begins with disaster. There is a famine in the land of Israel and a family has to flee to find food. It is curious that the text does not say that God sent the famine, but the characters in the story will interpret the famine as God’s work. This statement about the famine does not have the same impact on modern Americans as it would have on most people who have lived on this planet. There was a famine in the land. The author did not need to give the details about the crops failing, about the rationing and the slow death of the animals. The author did not need to tell about the fear that stalked the people and what hungry humans do to survive. There is irony in Ruth. Elimelech came from Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, and he was of the clan of Ephrathah, which means fruitful. The story begins with the statement that there was no bread in the House of Bread and no fruit for the people of Fruitfulness.

Elimelech took his family to a land where there was food. When we read Genesis, we saw several times that the patriarchs had to leave the Promised Land because they were hungry. The original hearers of Ruth’s story would connect it to older stories about how their ancestors depended on the kindness of strangers to survive. Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to a foreign land, hoping to save their lives. If you ever have the opportunity to name a son, do not name him Mahlon or Chilion. Mahlon recalls one of the plagues on the Egyptians and can be translated as weak or puny. Chilion means perish or perhaps pining away. The Talmud says the names mean blot out and perish, and scholars have long speculated that the boys were always unhealthy, perhaps because of malnourishment. I doubt these are historical names at all. This is an historical novel about Ruth and Naomi. The story-teller is simply letting us know right away that these boys are not going to live long.

Moab                        Elimelech and his family settled down in the land of Moab. That statement does not send a shutter through us like it would have when someone first told this tale around the campfire in Israel over two thousand years ago. Moab was the neighbor of Israel, but it was a hostile neighbor. The book of Genesis claims that the Moabites were descended from the daughters of Lot who slept with their father. The author could have just as well said, and that Elimelech’s family dwelled in the land of their enemies. Just to add to the disaster, Elimelech died.

Again, it would be bad today if your husband took you to live in a foreign land and died, but think what this meant for Naomi thousands of years ago. Elimelech was the one who could protect her in that strange land. He was the one who could provide for her. She has no support except for her two sons, puny and perishing. One boy marries a woman named Orpah and the other Ruth. It is interesting that the word used for taking wives here is the word used in the later books of the Old Testament that forbid the practice of taking foreign wives. Not only does this help date Ruth to the period after the exile, this statement about taking Moabite wives would have set up certain expectations in the original listeners. Not only had Mahlon and Chilion left the Promised Land, they took foreign wives. We are being set up for bad things to happen. Nothing good can come of marrying a foreigner, especially one of the daughters of your enemy. And indeed, the young men soon die, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. Her tragedy is nearly complete. In just five verses, the storyteller has left her almost bereft of hope. All she has to look forward to now is death.

Go back!            We need to pause for a moment and consider Naomi. It is rare that ancient literature makes a woman like Naomi the focus of a story. Who is she? A sojourner in a foreign land without a male to protect her and provide for her. She has lost everything that would normally identify her as a woman in society. She is too old to hope for marriage; she has no grandchildren to care for or to care for her. There is no retirement community for her; no social services; no meals on wheels or medicare. She knows her fate, or at least she thinks she does. She decides to return to the home of her ancestors, to Bethlehem, the house of bread, because she heard that the famine was over. She is going there, hoping to live a few more years before death claims her. She is not looking for a joyous homecoming.

The brides of her sons accompany her on her journey because it is not safe for a woman to travel alone. Clearly, these young women love Naomi beyond the love common for a mother-in-law. The word mother-in-law occurs several times in Ruth, but the only other time it appears in the OT is in Micha 7:6 (Farmer, 905). This was apparently not a social category in ancient Israel. Once Mahlon and Chilion died, Orpah and Ruth had no legal or moral relationship to Naomi, but they still considered her their mother-in-law. Thus the storyteller gives a glimpse into what a wonderful woman Naomi must have been. She is brave enough to journey back home rather than simply curling up and dying in Moab, but she inspired devotion from both her daughters-in-law. The sign that she loved them was that she refused their sacrifice.

“Go back,” she told them. Go back to your real mothers who bore you and love you. One indication that this tale originated with women is that Ruth and Orpah are sent back to their mother’s house not to their fathers. The original hearers would understand what Naomi is saying. She has nothing she can do for them. She knows what it would mean for these young women to leave their country, their families, and accompany her back to Bethlehem. There are no more sons for them to marry; no hope for a future with Naomi. She tells them to fulfill their social responsibility and return to their own mothers. Go back! Do the right thing; do the expected thing; do what is best for you and your families. Go back! Let me die in peace. Don’t risk your own lives. Go back, please. You have met your obligations to your dead husbands.

After some protesting, Orpah what the audience expects a good daughter to do. This is what they would have expected their own daughters to do. Orpah is not criticized in the story, and her name is recorded in Scripture. She is not the foil to Ruth, but by doing what was expected, she highlights how unusual Ruth was. Many years ago, rabbis decided that Orpah meant “stiff-necked” because she turned away from Naomi, but in the story it is Naomi who is stubborn. Orpah reluctantly does what Naomi commands and returns to her home.

Conclusion                        Our time is up for this week, and we need to end with this image of Orpah returning to her people. Naomi and Elimelech journeyed to the land of their enemies and found nourishment and love there in the midst of disaster. So far, there is nothing shocking or surprising in this story. It is sad, but not surprising. The surprise comes next week.

I Samuel 21 – Crazy David

I Samuel 21:10-22:5 – Crazy David and His Band

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 7, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on what was supposed to be a stormy weekend in North Carolina. It is hurricane season in the South, but the weather was nice for the WFU game. It is always nice when the righteous are victorious. Temperatures are already rising on the political scene now that both parties have had their conventions. It was nice to hear that John McCain and Barak Obama agree on many points about the failures of government in recent years, but they disagree over the solutions. One of the most amusing comments I heard about the campaigns recently was by my daughter Sarah. She said she was all that impressed that Ms. Palin hunts moose. How hard could it be to find a moose and hit it? They’re pretty large and don’t move all that fast. I do hope that people of faith throughout the country will be involved in the political process. Religion and politics can be a strange combination. It was interesting to hear an executive of the Southern Baptist Convention accusing the press of sexism for questioning the wisdom of having Sarah Palin as a vice-president. Apparently, the church’s leaders believe that a woman can be trusted with the most powerful military in history, but cannot be pastor of a Baptist Church. No matter what the outcome, this will be an historic election. For the first time in history, the President or Vice-president will be from either Alaska or Hawaii.

We’ve started classes at Wake, and I have 40 students in my Christian Theology class. It is a remarkably good group of students, some of whom are anxious about studying theology. It appears that many of them grew up in churches that taught them that it was wrong for Christians to think about God or ask questions. That saddens me when I ponder the fact that for over 1500 years the Christian Church was the major institution for education and intellectual debate, but now churches have retreated from the life of the mind. Not only should people of faith be involved in politics, we need to be involved in the liberal arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences, and all realms of academic life. I hope that in these radio broadcasts, your curiosity has been piqued and you have had something to think about and maybe argue about with a friend. I want to give a shout out to one of my former students who was ordained last week. Keith Stirewalt was a member of Home Moravian Church when he felt a call to leave a lucrative business career and go to divinity school. He graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Wake Forest and has served for a couple of years as a chaplain at Baptist Hospital. Last week he was ordained as a minister by Wake Forest Baptist Church, and I know that God will find wonderful ways to use Keith.

This week we have one of the strangest stories in the whole Old Testament. It is such a strange story that the biblical commentaries I read have almost nothing to say about it. It is a story that is almost never heard in church, and is not in the lectionary. Only the most fool hearty minister would dare preach on it. So, here I go.

Read I Samuel 21:10-end

David and Achish                        One indication of just how powerful King Saul was is that when David fled, there was no place in Israel where he could hide. He knew that Saul would seek him out, so he had to leave Saul’s realm completely. The closest place to seek refuge was the land of the Philistines, and so David sought protection from Achish the king of Gath. This is one of those stories in the Bible that is so amazing it must be true. It must have been embarrassing years later that David, the Lord’s Anointed, went to one of the Philistine kings in an attempt to escape the wrath of Saul. What is more remarkable is that he went to the king of Gath carrying the sword of Goliath of Gath. You must be desperate if your only hope is that one of your worst enemies will take you in and protect you. This was worse than one of the Hatfields appearing on the front porch of grandpa McCoy looking for help. This is worse than Rush Limbaugh asking Nancy Pelosi for a job. You can just picture the original hearers of this story saying to themselves “was David insane?”

There are actually two stories in I Samuel about David going to King Achish in Gath. We’ll discuss the second one in detail in a few weeks. For now, I’ll just say that it is quite different. In the second story, David comes before the Philistine king as the leader of a fearsome army and is welcomed as a valuable ally on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We’ll see that the king even rewards David with the gift of a city that remained part of David’s familial estates for centuries. In that second story, we have a picture of David as a powerful tribal chieftain who could make a mutually beneficial alliance with a more powerful king. That is not the picture given here in chapter 21. Scholars debate whether both stories could be historically accurate. We can’t solve the historical problem without more evidence than we have in the text of I Samuel, but we can still look at the meaning of the story that we do have.

Busted                        It appears in chapter 21 that David thought he could assume a new identity in the land of the Philistines and perhaps hire himself out as a soldier. Persumably this was the advice he had gotten from the priest in Nob. But David was already too famous for that. Verse 13 says that he was “in their hands” when he appeared before Achish, which may indicate that he had been taken prisoner when the servants of the king recognized him. Here was the feared David who had killed so many Philistines on the command of King Saul. They quoted to the king the couplet that had caused David so much trouble back home: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands. That chant by the dancing women was sung in praise of the young hero, but fame brings its own grief. That chant had turned Saul against David, and now David is haunted by it in his exile. He is too famous to hide; he will have to fulfill his destiny.

It is very interesting that the servants of Saul call David “the king of the land.” Presumably the land is Israel, but it is not at all clear in the text. Some scholars speculate that this may have been a slip of the author who accidentally made David a king before he had a kingdom, but it is more likely that author wanted to show that even foreigners recognized who the real king of Israel was. So far in the story David has been identified as the legitimate king by prophets, priests and even Saul’s children. Now he is proclaimed king by the servants of Achish. A third possibility is that the term king in those days did not have the same meaning that it had later. Achish was one of five Philistine kings, each of whom controlled a major city-state. In the Iliad, there were many kings fighting for Agamemnon who was the “king of kings.” With David’s reputation, it would be natural for the Philistines to assume that he was a king. David was not the last famous person to be proclaimed a king without having been crowned. Just think of Elvis.

The key point is that David’s cover is blown and King Achish realizes that this is the man who once brought Saul over a hundred Philistine foreskins as a bride price. He was not just some shepherd boy or musician; he was a dangerous warrior who was now in the hands of his enemies. When David discovered that he was recognizable even in the land of his enemies, he grew very afraid, as you might imagine. He suddenly realized he was not much safer in Gath than he would have been back in Israel. Since he was “in their hands,” he was not free to go. If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, think of what it was like when Lawrence fell into the hands of one of the Arabian chiefs. Death comes swiftly in these situations. David was in trouble and had to think fast. He did the only reasonable thing to do when you realize that you’ve done something crazy. He acted crazy. You thought Shakespeare made up this ruse in Hamlet didn’t you? Keep in mind that the Bard of Avon knew his Bible very well. I suppose one lesson we could take from David is that if you find yourself in a situation that is insane, it might be wise to act crazy yourself. Not that I’ve ever done so, of course.

Crazy Messiah                        David’s insanity is one of the reasons this story is rarely used in church. I am sure that in Sunday School we did not have a picture of David for the felt board that showed him with spit running down his beard or looking like a madman. We don’t like to think of the Lord’s Anointed making marks on the doors or howling at the moon. It is unseemly to say the least, but it would make Sunday School pageants more interesting. I imagine many twelve year olds would enjoy portraying David acting loony in Gath, but it might get out of hand.

I should mention that it is possible that this story is trying to put a good spin on a problematic story from David’s biography. It is possible that David actually did have a mental breakdown during this ordeal, but later told he folks he was faking it. David would not be the first person to use such as ruse, nor would he be the only ruler in history who was a bit unbalanced. We’ve already seen that Saul had bouts of insanity and religious ecstasy. Later on David dances naked in public. Perhaps he did not always have both his oars in the water, but I digress. The text says that he was pretending to be insane.

 

His plan worked. Achish was appalled by David’s behavior. Rather than having him executed, he asked his servants why they had brought a madman to him. “What? I don’t have enough crazy people around me already?” That may have been an Israelite joke about the Philistines, but it has the ring of authenticity to me. I can picture a king responding just that way.

Part of the method in David’s madness was that people in the ancient world tended to view the insane as under the special protection of the gods. They did not have the categories of mental illness that we have today, and they certainly did not have medications to regulate brain chemistry. They assumed that irrational behavior was caused by the gods or perhaps by demons. Either way, insane people were doubly dangerous. Their actions could cause harm, but if you harmed them, you might incur the wrath of a god. Achish was not going to kill a madman, nor was he going to let him cause problems in the palace. It was much easier just to send David away. David’s plan worked, but think of the cost to him. A short time ago he had been welcomed by dancing girls singing is praises and honored at feasts. He was married to the daughter of the king and his best friend was the heir to the throne. The last judge of Israel had anointed his head with oil and proclaimed him a future king, but here he was in a dangerous exile in the palace of his enemy foaming at the mouth and pawing at the door. He has almost hit rock bottom, but he does not despair. He continues to work towards the future.

Human Initiative                        There is another reason why this section of Scripture is rarely preached in church. There is no mention of God in this story. It does not say that David prayed to the Lord and he was rescued from his enemies. Nor does it say that the Lord showed David how to preserve his life. The text is quite clear that David was afraid and he decided to play the part of a madman. Personally, I really like this aspect of I Samuel. We are constantly reminded that the great figures of the Bible used their own wits and came up with creative solutions to difficult situations. Modern Christians are sometimes too pious to think for themselves and to act boldly. Thank God David did not have to consult a committee. He saw a problem and thought up an ingenious solution. This may have the first time in history that the old cliché was true. His plan was crazy enough it just might work!

David’s Merry Men                        Once he escaped from Achish, David took refuge in the caves of Adullam near the border of Judah. It is place where it was fairly easy to hide, although it was hardly comfortable. I mentioned last week that it is not clear if David’s men had accompanied him when he fled from Saul. It sounds like he was alone in Gath, but we do not know for sure. At the beginning of chapter 22, people begin to join up with David. The Bible says that he attracted people who were dispossessed. Some were debtors. Others were in economic or legal distress. Some were no doubt outlaws and miscreants. We could read this part of the story as an ancient Hebrew version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were living in the wilderness hiding from the Sheriff and prince John. Like Robin Hood, David’s growing band of followers were disreputable fellows living on the margins of society.

Modern biblical commentators like to picture David here as a liberator who reached out to the poor and oppressed, much like Jesus. Or we could picture him as the leader of a band of malcontents, nar’ do wells, and scoundrels who preferred to fight rather than pay their bills. It is possible that Samuel’s prediction about the monarchy had come true, and the king was changing property laws and foreclosing on people’s lands. How we view David at this point depends in part on our understanding of society. The picture we have makes David look a lot like Che Guevara hiding in the jungle or George Washington at Valley Forge. You can view him as a freedom fighter or a leader of an armed gang of bandits. Regardless, the story itself shows David building his own private army of men loyal to him.

Read, if time: I Samuel 22:1-5

Moab                        David learned there was no place for him to hide, and so he prepared for battle. He does take the precaution of removing his parents from Israel. He knows Saul well enough to know that the King would have his family killed. According to this chapter, David’s parents are still alive, but it is curious that Jesse is not named here. David arranges for them to live in Moab. You may remember that one of David’s ancestors had left his home in Bethlehem during a famine and sought refuge in Moab. We studied the Book of Ruth, and saw that one of David’s immediate ancestors was from Moab. Therefore it is not surprising that David’s parents took refuge in Moab. What is surprising is that David personally negotiated with the King of Moab. This demonstrates two things: one, David was already powerful enough and famous enough that he could have access to the king of a neighboring country. It also shows that David was willing to make alliances with the traditional enemies of Israel. This is a very important lesson for politicians and statesmen today. David could negotiate with Moab, why should we fear negotiating with Iran?

Gad                        This phase of David’s life ends when an obscure prophet named Gad comes to him in his cave. We know almost nothing about this man or why he came to David. Was he sent by the prophets at Ramah or David’s supporters? Was he sent by God to remind David that he had been anointed? All we are told is that he appeared one day and convinced David it was time to go to Judah. David left the safety of the caves with his growing band of followers and returned to his homeland. In many ways, this was like Caesar crossing the Rubicon or Pancho Villa crossing the Rio Grande. David was returning to Saul’s realm with an army. Saul’s worst fears were coming true. This was a threat that could not be ignored, and for the rest of the book, David and Saul are engaged in war. Tune in next week and we’ll look at some of the stories from that ancient war.