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Jael: Perplexing Participant in the Dark Side of History

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel (Photo credit: cod_gabriel)

When the tribes of Israel settled in Canaan, they failed to evict the resident peoples as God had commanded. This failure was a costly mistake. From then on Israel had to deal with the greatest danger posed by the culture of Canaan: idolatry. Inevitably, the religions of Canaan undermined the faith of Israel. In turning away from God, Israel suffered inescapable consequences: the Canaanites oppressed them, nations attacked them, and they fought one another.

Dangerous co-existence

In trying to co-exist with Canaanites, the people of Israel “led dangerous yet simple lives in which warlike pursuits alternated with ordinary peacetime activities.”[1] God sent judges to deliver Israel from their Canaanite enemies, but Israel never returned to God whole-heartedly. Regional judges were unable to unite the people under one authority, so the tribes functioned in a loose confederation. Lacking a central authority, tribes took matters into their own hands. People did what they wanted without the restraining influence of God’s laws (Judges 21:25).

When Deborah ruled in northern Israel, God sent word for Barak to lead an attack on the army of King Jabin and General Sisera. For twenty years Jabin’s kingdom “had harshly oppressed the children of Israel” (Judges 4:3, 6). Because Barak was reluctant to lead the Israelite forces, Deborah prophesied “there will be no glory for you…for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Intervention

From the outset God said He would win the battle. Working through Israel’s forces with the addition of powerful weather, God defeated the Canaanites. Not a man was left in Jabin’s army–except General Sisera. He fled to the tent of Jael, a woman who lived peaceably with the Canaanites. Jael agreed to hide Sisera, and in her tent he slept, exhausted.

 Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him (Sisera) and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died (Judges 4:21).

 

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victor or Villain?

Somewhere in the story Jael switched alliances and “refused to remain neutral in this crucial conflict.”[2] As a tough, pragmatic Bedouin wife, she sided with Israel. As an ally of Israel, the general was her enemy because he was Israel’s enemy. In a lengthy poem describing the battle (Judges 5:24-27), Deborah praised Jael as most blessed among women for striking the blow that killed Sisera.

Not everyone agrees that she should be remembered with honor. Author Herbert Lockyer severely criticizes Jael with the words murder, revolting cruelty, treachery, foul, reprehensible, executioner. He states, “lacking courage, she dare not attack Sisera fairly.”[3] He adds, “Had Sisera attempted to rape Jael, and in defense of her honor she had killed him, that would have been another matter, but to kill him as an assassin kills a victim was something different.”[4] His most troubling phrase suggests condemnation: “she remains forever censurable for the cruel way she killed Sisera.?[5]

In the book Women of the Bible, Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda take a light approach in discussing Jael. They avoid the details of Sisera’s death and emphasize that Jael was decisive, courageous, and she seized the opportunity to slay an enemy of God’s people.[6] The authors focus on Jael’s strong qualities that women can apply today. Women learn from Jael’s decisive courage to stand up against their enemies. Courageous women need to stay close to God “in the midst of the fray.”[7]

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary discusses Jael in the setting of despair and disorder that characterized the times. “Between the days of Joshua and Samuel, Israel plummeted to moral and spiritual disaster.”[8] When the tribes came together to fight a common enemy, they believed that their enemy was God’s enemy. “Wicked, murdering leaders deserved to die” [9] and killing them was a way to glorify God.

Becoming a cautious observer of history

That God allowed Jael to kill the general is undeniable. Some Bible commentators question whether He approved of the way she did it? Did He favor, like, support, agree, accept, commend, esteem, endorse, back up, sanction what she did?It’s a bigger question than a tent peg execution. Hers was not the most horrific event that occurred in the time of the Judges.

Whether God approved of the way Sisera was killed, I wouldn’t want to comment. Can the word approve be applied to anything that is unlike God? At times God accomplishes His purposes through sinful humankind.

Readers may differ on how to think about the story, but scholars agree that the three centuries under the Judges was a dark time in history. Deborah, Barak and Jael figured in one of God’s merciful interventions in Israel’s past. Reading their stories reminds me to be a cautious observer of history.—Mary Hendren

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( For more information concerning this time period see the dark period of the Judges.)

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[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 376

[2] Same source, p. 415

[3] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 71

[4] Same source and page

[5] Same source and page

[6] Spangler and Syswerda, Women of the Bible, p. 115

[7] Same source, p. 121

[8] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 376

[9] Same source, p. 380

 

 

 

The Story of Ruth: The Kinsman Redeemer

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.” (Ruth 3:1-4)

Naomi knew it was just a matter of time. Once the harvest was over, their livelihood would again be in jeopardy unless…unless a kinsman redeemer[1] would step in and come to their rescue. Boaz, though not the nearest relative, would be their first resort. After all, he already knew Ruth and had shown a concern for her welfare as well as, by extension, Naomi’s own. The time had come for a bold plan.

At the threshing floor

English: Threshing place. The circle is made f...

English: Threshing place. The circle is made from concrete. Harvested straw is put on the concrete surface and a donkey is made to walk on it in circles, which causes the process of threshing. On the left (front of the picture) visible leftovers (mostly tailings and chaff). Around the perimeter there is some threshed straw. On the floor there are some threshed grains. Photo taken near Vlyhada (Santorini, Greece). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boaz worked alongside his hired men at the threshing floor—a cleared solid surface of hard-packed dirt or rock—preparing for the final stage of the weeks-long harvest.[2] Ruth watched as this kind kinsman, or was it one of his workers, expertly urged draft animals, whether oxen or donkeys is unclear, to drag heavy threshing sledges[3] back and forth over the sheaves, breaking down the stalks into husks, straw, and grain kernels. Then experienced hands wielding wooden pitchforks lifted the straw away so the process of winnowing could begin.

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan (Photo credit: Hadi Zaher)

In the cooling evening breezes, waiting crews used winnowing forks, tossing the remaining grain into the air. Mesmerized, Ruth watched lighter stalks and husks (the chaff) be whisked away on capricious currents of wind, and the heavier kernels plummet back to the floor in a haphazard heap. Then mounds of the tawny pellets were scooped up and sifted through trays to remove any remaining dirt and debris. The clean grain was finally ready for immediate use or storage in sealed clay jars.

As the last rays of sunlight grew dusky, weary workers allowed themselves to relax, enjoying food and drink, celebrating harvest’s end. Bellies full and hearts merry, first one and then another fell silent, except for an occasional grunt and snore. Ruth’s gaze followed Boaz through the dimness as he made his way to the end of a grain pile, spread his blanket, and quickly dropped off to sleep.

Naomi’s instructions had been quite clear: Wash yourself, put on your best garment, go back to the threshing floor, and wait for the moment of opportunity. That time had come. Ruth quietly made her way to where Boaz lay, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

Naomi’s strategy was one of enlisting the involvement of the kinsman-redeemer.[4] Now Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet, anticipating the opportunity to bring Naomi’s plan to fruition. His sleep suddenly troubled, she watched him awake with a start sensing her presence in the darkness. “Who are you?” he challenged warily. Ruth responded with her request. “I am you servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me,[5] since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (3:9 NIV).

Flattered by Ruth’s request, Boaz commended her for approaching him, since it is likely that he was considerably older than she, and she might well have chosen a younger man. Rather than interpreting her actions as wily and improper, he afforded her only kindness and respect.[6] He encouraged her to wait until morning for the sake of her reputation and for her own protection. Before first light she could safely return to Naomi, and none would be the wiser. Then he would attend to the business at hand.

Following the rules

Boaz knew there was a kinsman closer than he, and his integrity dictated that he go to him first before proceeding any further. By rights, this relative (who, though unnamed in the Bible, was obviously known to Boaz) could redeem Elimelech’s land either by buying it back, if it had indeed already been sold, or he could buy it outright.

Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz said, “Come aside, friend,[7] sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, sold the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. And I thought to inform you, saying, Buy it back in the presence of the inhabitants and the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am next after you.’”

And he said, “I will redeem it.”

What happened next affords a certain opportunity for speculation. Was Boaz disappointed when the near kinsman quickly accepted the responsibility? He obviously had more than a casual interest in Ruth and her welfare. Or had he anticipated just such a response, and, as the astute business man he undoubtedly was (Scripture describes him as a mighty man of wealth), knew just when to bring up an additional requirement to put the negotiations in jeopardy? Note the various translations of verse 5 below:

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance” (NKJV).

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property” (NIV).

Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (NRSV).

Boaz had just introduced the obligation of a levirate marriage, and the kinsman, recognizing the inherent liabilities that such an arrangement could impose on his own family, quickly forfeited his right of redemption to Boaz.[8] So, in the presence of ten official witnesses and many onlookers, Mr. So and So removed his sandal, thereby signaling the transfer of the property. A communal blessing followed:

And all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman” (vv. 11-12).

The rest of the story of Ruth

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (vv. 13-17). 

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over p...

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Summary

The book of Ruth, in its four short chapters, gives one of the few detailed glimpses into the everyday lives of Old Testament characters in the Bible, and in particular, women. The reader is exposed to the nuances of the desperate plight of three widows, two of whom found themselves displaced and in foreign lands; and marvels at their courageous efforts to survive by hard work and ingenuity. The reader senses the depth of the bond of devotion to both kin and God, and the bitter anguish of loss. The reader observes the realities and rigors of harvest and manual labor; and sits as one of the collective witnesses to the legal proceedings involving rights of inheritance and preservation of a family line. Lastly, the perceptive reader will recognize and value this book as a beautiful exemplar of kindness, the evidence of which is found on every page.

What a gift to have The Book of Ruth preserved in the pages of the Bible!

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For additional reading please view Mary Hendren’s post,  Levirate Law– in Confusion.

The Writings

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[1] A Ga’al (Strong’s 1350), or kinsman redeemer, could act in several ways. By definition according to http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/gaal.html , the kinsman redeemer could marry a brother’s widow to beget a child for him (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), redeem from slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49), redeem land (Leviticus 25:25), or exact vengeance (Numbers 35:19). In the book of Ruth, Boaz acted as a levir as well as one who preserved claim to the family property.

[2] It is possible that Boaz, and /or others, were overseeing the process. The Archaeological Study Bible, in its cultural and historical note on “The Threshing Floor” (page 608), comments that because the threshing floor was the largest open area within a village,“town elders were typically present to oversee the threshing of the year’s crops.” The threshing floor was also a suitable locale for “legal actions, criminal trials, and public decisions.” The city gate was also used for such proceedings as will later be seen.

[3] Sledges were heavy wooden slabs with teeth made of stone, metal or potsherds fastened to the underside. See Isaiah’s vivid description of the whole process in chapter 41, verses 14-16.

[4] Whether this was simply to assure that Elimelech’s landholdings would be preserved within family lines, or to ensure there would be a son to carry on the family name, or both, are topics for on-going discussion. Leon Wood, in his book, The Distressing Days of the Judges (1982), addresses both: “When an owner was forced to sell property due to poverty, it was the obligation of the nearest relative to buy this property back (thus ‘redeeming’ it), so that it could remain in the possession of the original family” (p. 261). Wood goes on to comment that “it was the obligation of the nearest kinsman, in this instance, not only to purchase the property of Naomi—which really also belonged to Ruth, because of inheritance rights through her dead husband Mahlon—but also to marry Ruth and raise up a son to Mahlon who might then inherit that property in due time” (p. 262).

[5] Scholars do not agree as to the meaning and symbolism associated with this action. Some feel it amounted to a request for protection, while others interpret it as a request for marriage. For a detailed examination of challenges present in the wording of the Hebrew text see

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/08-ruth/texts/books/leggett-goelruth/leggett-goelruth.pdf, pp. 192-3.

[6] Some have chosen to attribute to both Ruth and Boaz activities or motives of a sexual nature, but others, such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary in its note regarding Ruth 3:13, write to the contrary: “Both Ruth and Boaz acted virtuously in a situation they knew could have turned out otherwise. Chastity was not an unknown virtue in the ancient world.”

[7] The word friend (NKJV) and kinsman (KJV) in this verse is taken from a Hebrew idiom best translated “Mr. So and So.” It is translated as such in the Tanakh. This idiom is said to have been used when it was not deemed essential to use the person’s actual name. Some think they detect a certain disdain attached to its usage here, since the relative declined to step in to help. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Ruth 4:1-3.

[8] Expositors comments concerning 4:6:”Most scholars interpret the kinsman’s refusal as an awareness that he would be paying part of what should be his own children’s inheritance to buy land that would revert to Ruth’s son as a legal heir of Elimelech.” Others posit he was reluctant to intermarry with a Moabite woman (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-4).

Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament comments on verse 6: “The redemption would cost money, since the yearly produce of the field would have to be paid for up to the year of jubilee. Now, if he acquired the field by redemption as his own permanent property, he would have increased by so much his own possessions in land. But if he should marry Ruth, the field so redeemed would belong to the son whom he would beget through her, and he would therefore have parted with the money that he had paid for the redemption merely for the son of Ruth, so that he would have withdrawn a certain amount of capital from his own possession, and to that extent have detracted from its worth. ‘Redeem thou for thyself my redemption,’ i.e., the field which I have the first right to redeem.”(Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.)

 

The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

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 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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The Story of Ruth: Choices

Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:3-5).

Naomi had arrived in Moab never suspecting the twists and turns her life would take during the next ten years. Now she found herself robbed of the emotional and physical support of not only her husband, but her two sons as well. In her homeland this would have been difficult enough, but finding herself bereft in a foreign land left her vulnerable, facing a uncertain future. It was only natural that she should think of home—Bethlehem in Judah.

She was not entirely alone—her daughters-in-law were quite devoted to her, and she still had her God, although Naomi agonized that perhaps she had fallen from His favor in light of her sad circumstances. Ruth and Orpah were well aware of her dedication to Israel’s God, as they must have seen it demonstrated numerous times over their years together as a family.

Weighing her options

By her own admission, Naomi was past the time of child-bearing. She knew that chances of remarriage, especially in Moab (and likely in her country as well), had she been so inclined, were virtually non-existent. If she went back to Judah, her husband had extended family there, so potentially she could have emotional support and even, perhaps, some rights of inheritance; she would be back in the land of her God; and if worse came to worse, there were provisions in Israel’s law to take care of widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-21).

Decisions. How to close down her home, and arrange for travel. Then there was the matter of Ruth and Orpah, both of whom felt a responsibility for her welfare, and she, for theirs. What should she do? What should they do?

A parting of the ways

News from home gave her the answer. By God’s grace, the famine had finally ended, and there was no real reason to remain in Moab. Informing Orpah and Ruth of her decision was no doubt emotional, but still they insisted on going with her. And so it was that the three widows found themselves on the road to Bethlehem, embarking on a journey not only fraught with potential dangers from roving bandits and miscreants along the way, but one which also posed many unknowns concerning what lay ahead.

That, however, is not what troubled Naomi most. She was quite concerned for the futures of her daughters-in-law. They would be foreigners in Judah, widows without any means of support or probable prospects for marriage—the plight she herself was fleeing.

She pleaded with them, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband…” (1:8-9).

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to t...

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She kissed them and wept.

They cried in protest.

She reasoned, “Turn back…are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?”

Naomi cherished them both—they were like her very own daughters (1:11-13). They loved her in return, each in her own way.

Eventually a tearful Orpah[1] conceded, kissed Naomi one last time, and  returned to the sanctuary of her parents’ home.

Ruth, however, was another matter.

To be continued….

[1] Orpah, Chilion’s wife, is only mentioned in a few verses in Ruth 1, and then she disappears from the pages of the Bible. People have tried to “flesh” her out, but there is little to go on. The Woman’s Study Bible, in its Topic titled “Orpah, the Daughter-in-Law with a Wavering Faith,” says her name has several meanings: fawn, double-minded, nape of the neck (interpreted to indicate stubbornness or being self-willed). Hence, to some, her actions reflected the negatives attached to her name—she left Naomi for entirely selfish reasons. Even the title of the Topic on Orpah presents a definite bias with regard to her actions. However, as mentioned in the introductory post on The Story of Ruth, depending on names and their meanings is quite subjective.

Some draw attention to the statement that Orpah kissed Naomi, whereas Ruth clung to her, inferring a difference of the depth of attachment. The manner in which Orpah returned is in itself viewed subjectively: She was either obediently complying with Naomi’s urging, or she was selfishly looking out for her own future, as well as returning to the religion of her people.

Since there is no definitive statement as to her motive, people continue to construct arguments supporting their particular interpretation.

 

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The Story of Ruth: The Beginning

“Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man from Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).

Famine. A word that had major implications for the land of Israel. Usually it started with a period of drought. If that condition lasted three years or more, the prospect of famine loomed large, bringing with it a dwindling and depletion of food supplies for both man and livestock, as well as affecting commercial ventures. It was a word that evoked great dread. Famine.

Elimelech and Naomi had undoubtedly lived through such regional natural disasters[1] before and perhaps had even grown accustomed to them, but this famine evidently affected the whole land. Even though they were from Bethlehem, the city of bread (normally a fertile area), they, too, were faced with the specter of impending want. Elimelech made a pragmatic decision: He would relocate his wife and two teenaged sons, Mahlon and Chilion, in Moab until the cycle broke, in hopes they would soon be reunited back in their homeland with family, clan, and Israel’s God.

The journey was not especially long, perhaps under a hundred miles, and possibly took less than a week to complete, depending on how many relocation necessities they took with them, whether they had any livestock to care for along the way, and their mode of travel. Though their final location in Moab can’t be determined, it can be assumed that their new home offered potential for subsistence for the foreseeable future.

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that ...

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that of Israel and Judah to the east, with disputed territories such as Nebo and Baal-meon shown here to the north. The map shows Atarot and Dibon, the site where the Mesha Stele was discovered, due east of the Dead Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Moab?

One might ask, why Moab? Possibly because:

  • Travel to Moab was evidently unrestricted, indicating a peaceful relationship, at least for the moment.
  • It was relatively close geographically.
  • The languages were similar.
  • It was generally a fertile land which received adequate rainfall much of the time, and was evidently unaffected by the famine afflicting Israel.[2]
  • There were major trade routes passing through its borders which could facilitate commerce.[3]
  • Moab was polytheistic, as were many of Israel’s Semite neighbors, though its chief god was Chemosh.[4] As such, it seems possible to me that the family (or at least Naomi) could still worship Israel’s God without consequence.
  • This choice, along with other events related in the book of Ruth, is often attributed to the guidance of the unseen hand of God. (See Ruth, “Background Information” in The Woman’s Study Bible.)

Three widows

There is no time frame given for Elimelech’s death, nor a reason. (However a later rabbinic tradition says that Elimelech was punished because of greed or because he forsook his homeland.[5]) The same is true of his sons. What the Bible records is that Mahlon and Kilian took Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, seemingly after their father’s death, and at some time in the next few years they, too, died, leaving two widows and no heirs.

Why?

Studious Bible readers are usually not easily satisfied when there are blanks in Bible narratives, such as why these men all died, and often try to fill them in various ways. For instance, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary mentions one such attempt looks for hints hidden in the meanings of the names of Mahlon and Chilion: Mahlon, linked to the root “to be sterile,” “to be weak, ill,” and Chilion, linked to a Hebrew root word which means “to be finished,” “at an end,” or perhaps, “weakening” or “pining.” The commentary then wisely concludes that “in the face of etymological uncertainties, however, it is best not to read too much hidden significance into the names of Elimelech’s family” (comment on Ruth 1:2). Whether they were generally weak and sickly is just not known.[6]

Desperate circumstances again

After Elimelech’s death, Naomi would naturally have depended on her sons for her survival. When both of them married Moabite women, she would have worked into that context, and still have had a measure of security. But when all the males in her immediate family died she was left with few options. It had been ten years since she first came to Moab, and now her eyes turned back to her homeland.

(to be continued…)

[1] The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, regarding Ruth 1:1-5, posits that this famine could have been due to devastations brought on by the seven-year oppression of Israel by the Midianites in Judges 6.

Scripture records that Midianites and their cohorts would “encamp against them [Israel] and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor donkey….So Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD” (vv. 4-6).

This might also be the reason Naomi was in Moab ten years before she heard that prosperity had returned to Bethlehem. Matthew Henry’s Commentary mentions this as a possibility as does The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

There are, however, differing opinions, and the Bible itself does not speak specifically to the causes of the famine.

[2] The Encyclopedia Britannica (1973) article on “Moab” mentions Moab’s fertility, and its wealth of wine and grain.

[3] See http://www.bible-history.com/maps/ancient-roads-in-israel.html . While nothing is said to indicate Elimelech’s source of livelihood, I feel it is within the realm of possibility that he could have been a tradesman of some sort, and as such, could provide for his family in this foreign land.

[4] See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10898-moab .

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ruth 1:3.

[6] (Ibid) Rabbinic tradition says their deaths were punishment for leaving Judah and for marrying non-Jews, a view that one can still find on the Internet. Other sources mention there was no prohibition to such a marriage, so the controversy continues. See Expositor’s note on Ruth 1:4a and the Critical and Experimental Commentary as examples.

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Deborah: Judge/Deliverer

Wanted: Administrator/Judge for Israel
Duties: Adjudicate disputes, give counsel, defeat Canaanites
Qualifications: Confident, wise, visionary, dedicated
Term limits: 40 years

In the calamitous times of the Judges, ancient Israel did not, of course, post a job description to fill leadership vacancies. In that period of the nation’s history, God Himself provided deliverers to rescue the Israelites from the consequences of moving away from God. God did this because of promises made to Abraham concerning his descendants. God did this because He loved Israel.

Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever (Genesis 13:14-15).

But what if God had turned His back on the nation and left it up to Israel to find leader/judges? What if the people had to scour the land for a qualified leader to set things in order and fend off enemies? Would Deborah (or any woman) have been considered for the job?

Her background

Deborah lived in the hill country between Bethel and Ramah with her husband Lapidoth. Not much is known about Lapidoth or if the couple had children, although Deborah refers to herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). The nation had been floundering, “being in a state of anarchy, more or less, and harassed at times by civil war among themselves, and surrounded by enemies who made attempt after attempt to exterminate them” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 23rd edition, 1962, p. 168). Without the benefit of continual godly leadership, the people did what they thought was in their best interest. If they were given the responsibility of coming up with the right leader, Israel would not likely have looked to a woman, even a mother of Israel. “As the position of women in those days was of a distinctly subordinate character, Deborah’s prominence as a ruler is somewhat remarkable” (All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p. 41).

A few commentators suggest that Deborah became a deliverer of Israel because there weren’t enough good men around or if there were qualified men they weren’t willing to take on the job. The Bible doesn’t support the line of reasoning that Deborah got the job because there were “few good men.” Before God informed Deborah of her role in His plan to rout the Canaanites, she was already holding court and making civil judgments for the people in the hill country. They knew her to be a wise woman who had a connection to God. She was a prophetess and able to “discern the mind and purpose of God” (Lockyer, p. 41). In the time of the judges, leadership may have been mostly bankrupt, but Deborah served because of her loyalty to God.

Public domain

Deborah beneath the palm tree by Tissot (Public Domain)

The Battle

Before the decisive battle recorded in Judges 4, Deborah told Barak that God had selected him to lead Israel’s forces. She informed him of God’s battle strategy (Judges 4:6-7) and twice assured him that the battle was under God’s control (Judges vv. 7, 14). But Barak doubted. He hesitated. He refused to proceed in confidence.

If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!

In the face of his foot-dragging, Deborah made another prophesy.

I will surely go with you, nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

Song of Deborah

Judges 4:12-23 describes the battle. With powerful torrents of rain, God swept away Sisera’s charioteers and terrified horses (v.21). Barak’s forces pursued the enemy with the “edge of the sword” (v.16). Of the Canaanite army, not a man was left. And the battle ended as Deborah predicted: General Sisera died by the hand of a woman (Judges 5:24-31).

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her song Deborah added an interesting detail. The call to gather troops had gone out to all Israel, but only five tribes responded with warriors: Naphtali, Zebulun, Ephraim, Benjamin and Issachar. For the other tribes–Reuben, Gad, Dan, Asher and eastern Manasseh, Deborah had disdainful remarks. (I’m paraphrasing her words for clarity.) “Why did hang back with the sheep? Why did you refuse to cross the river? Why did linger on your ships? Why did you remain on the shore while the others risked their lives!” (Judges 5:14-18).

The story of Deborah ends with the statement that the land had rest for forty years. Deborah understood the power of righteous leadership and made this wise observation:

When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the LORD!

Deborah sets an admirable example for us in that she saw needs and envisioned herself in their solution. She acknowledged the constraints women faced (her references to the honor given a woman in Sisera’s death) but she didn’t doubt her ability. She had no misgivings about believing God. I wonder if Deborah was one of those blessed persons who naturally live in the present? That natural in-the-present tendency combined with a strong relationship to God made Deborah the leader and deliverer perfectly suited for the time.—Mary Hendren

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Reference Guide for David and the Women

One of my favorite Bible personalities is David, King of Israel. Each year when I start my Read the Bible in a Year program, I especially look forward to the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles when the tapestry of his life is woven before my eyes once more. Scenes of battling the giant Goliath, avoiding the ire of the mad King Saul, his vagabond years, family issues, his battles and heartaches appear, forming a brilliant panorama of glory and intrigue. And woven subtly into that rich fabric are unique strands of the lives of women—seventeen (including one group), to be exact. What an intriguing lot they are as they impacted his story in unforgettable ways.

English: Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 37, the 3rd i...

English: Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 37, the 3rd image, Abner (in the center in green) sends Michal back to David. Palti is shown on the left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are few this blog has already profiled (there are others): http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/12/19/rizpah/

http://womenfromthebook.com/2012/12/18/michals-window/

I thought it might be helpful to have a reference guide for later study of these intriguing women, so I have included one below.

Scripture

Woman

Description

1 Samuel  14:49; 18:17-19

Merab

Saul’s older daughter; offered to David after Goliath was slain. Ultimately,  Saul gave her to Adriel the Meholathite. Some posit that David was unable to raise the money for a bride price, hence she was married to another.[1]

1 Samuel 14:49; 19:11-17; 18:18-28; 25:44

2 Samuel 3:13-14; 6:16-23

1 Chronicles 15:29

Michal

Saul’s younger daughter. David married her after presenting the requested bride-price of 100 Philistine foreskins to which he added 100 more. It is said, “She loved David.”

I Samuel 25; 27:3; 30:5

2 Samuel 2:2; 3:2

1 Chronicles 3:1

Ahinoam

Wife from Jezreel; mother of David’s first son, Amnon. She and Abigail were with David during his stay with King Achish of Gath; they were taken captive when Amalekites raided Ziklag; and were among those who went  with David to Hebron when he becomes king of Judah.[2]

I Samuel 25; 27:3; 30:5

2 Samuel 2:2; 3:3

1 Chronicles 3

Abigail

Widow of Nabal. Became David’s wife and bore his second son, Chileab (Daniel). See notes on Ahinoam.

1 Chronicles 2:16-17

Abigail

David’s sister; mother of Amasa.

1 Samuel 28

The Medium of En Dor

Saul consulted her after Samuel died regarding concerns about the Philistines.

2 Samuel 3:3

1 Chronicles 3:2

Maacah, daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur

Wife. Mother of Absalom and Tamar. Her royal origins may indicate diplomatic implications for Geshur, an Aramean kingdom, and Judah.[3]

2 Samuel 3:3

1 Kings 1:5, 11; 2:13

1 Chronicles 3:2

Haggith

Wife; mother of Adonijah. Her name mentioned in three epithets concerning her son.

2 Samuel 3:5

I Chronicles 3:2

Eglah

Wife; mother of Ithream. Of the six mother-son references concerning David’s sons born at Hebron, only Eglah is designated “wife of David.”[4]

2 Samuel 3:4

I Chronicles 3:3

Abital

Wife;  mother of Shephatiah.

2 Samuel 11

I Chronicles 3:5

Bathsheba (Bathshua)

Widow of Uriah the Hittite. Became David’s wife. Mother of Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon.

1 Samuel 26:6

2 Samuel 2:13, 18; 14:1; 16:9

1 Chronicles 2:16

(to cite a few)

Zeruiah

David’s sister; mother of Joab, Abishai, and Asahel—all prominent in the royal bureaucracy. Her status may have derived from being David’s sister, and the mother of  influential men. Her husband is not named.

1 Chronicles 2:16

Abigail

David’s sister.

2 Samuel 14

Wise Woman of Tekoa

Joab sought her assistance to change David’s mind about Absalom’s exile.

2 Samuel 20

Wise Woman of Beth Maachah

She killed Sheba, son of Bichri, to save the city from Joab’s siege.

2 Samuel 3:7; 21

Rizpah

Saul’s concubine whose sons were among the descendants of Saul who were slain as atonement for Saul’s killing of the Gibeonites.

1 Kings 1-2

Abishag

Lovely young Shunammite woman brought to David to care for him while he was dying. She became a political pawn as Adonijah plots to claim the throne upon David’s demise.

2 Samuel 5:3; 15:16; 16: 21;  20:3; 1 Chronicles 3:9

Unnamed concubines

Bore David additional sons. Ten were openly  defiled by Absalom in an attempt to seize his father’s throne. Subsequently these ten were put in seclusion by David and lived as widows until the day of their death.


[1] Carol Meyers, Gen. Ed. Women in Scripture (2000), “Merab,” p. 124.

[2] Meyers, “Ahinoam  2,” p. 48.

[3] Meyers, “Maacah  2,” p. 112.

[4] Meyers, “Eglah,” p. 74.

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