* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ruth: A Lovely Story about King David's Great-Grandparents (plus a few lessons in respect, integrity, and trust)

Following the book of Judges in the Protestant canon, there is a short story about a woman named Ruth and how she and her second husband, Boaz, met and fell in love.  On its surface, it is a charming tale about all the things that sell romantic books and films.  Digging a little deeper, however, we can find some interesting tidbits, even though its themes are steeped in the cultural norms of the ancient Israelites.  While the original intent of the story may have had something to do with demonstrating the kind of people David's ancestors were, we can still glean a lesson or two from the story itself.

After losing her first husband, Ruth travels with Naomi, her mother-in-law, back to Naomi's home country, where she remarries one of her husband's closest relatives.  In the culture of the time, this Levirate marriage was an honorable way for childless widows to be cared for, and it was an expected way for the family line to be carried on.  There are other elements of Ruth's relationship with Naomi and her "courtship" of Boaz that readers may assume, but much of what is implied is doubtless lost on us modern readers, since we are not of the story's culture.  Some people wish to read sexual themes into various aspects of the story, and while this is titillating, it doesn't truly add much value to the tale.  There are actually three slightly more important spiritual themes at work in this short book. 

First, it bears mention that Ruth is from Moab, a country whose culture was often at odds with Israelite culture.  Moabites were polytheistic, and the biblical narrative suggests that Israelites were tempted into worshiping Moabite deities from time to time.  The Moabites are said to have been spawned from the incestuous relations of Lot with one of his daughters, and they are the people who hired the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Israelites.  In other words, Moabites are not often depicted favorably in the literature of the ancient Israelites.  So, Ruth's culture is a big deal.  Especially since her great grandson is going to be the one and only King David.  Obviously, the inclusivity of the story is a significant change from the conflict-riddled language of earlier portions of the Israelite tale.  Yes, the fact that Naomi's boys marry Moabites is mentioned, but throughout the story, people treat one another as human beings.  Their heritage is a matter of fact, not a source of embarrassment.

As has been mentioned, Boaz also behaves in an honorable way toward Ruth.  Although he quickly develops feelings for her, there is another man who is first in line by the cultural expectations of Levirate marriage.  Boaz deals with things in a straightforward and honest manner, even though it could potentially cost him the relationship he wants.

Thirdly, the primary characters in this story display a profound trust.  There is little inherent anxiety in Ruth's decision to return with Naomi, and there is a sense of calm in the integrity Boaz displays.    Ruth does take action instead of just sitting back and hoping that things will be alright, but even this action is taken with a sense of quiet confidence.  We could learn a great deal from this depiction of calm and purposeful human interaction.

So, after chapter upon chapter of Israelites treating everyone around them shamefully, including other Israelites, we come across this vision of how things could be if people treated one another with mutual respect, behaved with integrity, and trusted themselves and the people around them.  We might almost wonder if we're reading the same book.  People don't always behave as characters in a storybook, but we have choices about the kind of people we are going to be.  We can choose to treat other people as human beings of equal value, irrespective of how we are treated.  We can choose to act in accord with our most noble selves, to embody authenticity and integrity, even if there are people around us who choose otherwise.  We can choose to approach situations with calm trust, even when others become anxious or fearful.

Your decisions ultimately determine how meaningful and satisfying your life is going to be.  Even if your experiences don't look like the story of Ruth and Boaz, your choices matter.  It's not like anyone told Ruth that she was going to be great-grandmother to a famous king.  She simply did what mattered most to her in that moment, and life took its course.  We are not responsible for orchestrating some strategic master plan in our lives.  We are responsible for the choices we make here and now, in this moment, to be people of integrity.  People who see irrational fear for what it is.  People who see the inherent worth in others.  People who know and value themselves.  If we are able to choose moment by moment to be true to our innermost selves, our lives will never fail to be fulfilling.  And as an added bonus, our impact on the world could be tremendous.

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