The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

Product Details

 

I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

**************************************************

 

Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part Five)

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

 

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”

The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?”  since that is how so many people see the issue.

 

But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question.  Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew.  He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American.  By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’”   So was the Apostle Paul.  So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus.  So what?

When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures.  His answer was, more or less:  I don’t see any contradiction.  To me it’s all one thing.

Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age.  He is right to do that.  He’d be wrong not to.

The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.

 

Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality.  One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:

Dylan is not an intellectual.  He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.

Dylan is not C. S. Lewis.  He is not a systematic theologian.  He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience.  Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience.  We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts.  We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  That’s not who Dylan is.  It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates.  Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.

Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs.   For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living.  He did not set out to find and exploit a market.  He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul.  Even if that took him away from the market.

Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others.  He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours.  The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel:  Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”

 

If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists?  That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?

Marshall offers several ideas on the point.  There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession.  In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on.  Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that.  He just goes on to the next chapter.

 

Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism.  This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here.  The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.

But the book is a wonderful piece of work.  I could hardly put it down.  The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated.  It deals with an amazing subject; this Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winning American poet.  Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own?  Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:

The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience.

Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And Amen.

Bottom line?  Here is the conviction the book leaves me with:  Dylan’s conversion was no stunt.  It was not a result of confusion or delusion.  He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold.  They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand.  They may be cherished.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Meditation on Psalm 123

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . .

Bob Dylan

 

In the Psalm that was our lesson yesterday morning the ancient poet assumes a posture of servitude to God:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

 

In commenting on this Psalm, Eugene Peterson writes that the idea of servitude is anathema in today’s age: “Freedom is on everybody’s lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated.” But, he adds, “not many feel or act free. We are a nation of complainers and addicts . . .”

Peterson and Dylan are on the same page here.  We do not reject God in return for freedom or personal autonomy; we simply, in Peterson’s terms, “trade masters; we stay enslaved.”

 

This may be the greatest deception of the hour in which we live.  Our culture, top to bottom – including now the government – exalts the individual as the ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality.  Thus, today, we hear about one man’s “truth” that may be different from the “truth” of someone else.  Thus, today it is seen as sheer bigotry and closed-mindedness to hold to any objective sense of right and wrong, any sense of morality.  Today, the truth is not what was revealed to Moses and Isaiah and not what is revealed in Jesus Christ; but, rather,  whatever occurs in the mind of each man and woman.  No one can judge; there are no real standards.  Any discrimination is wrong.

This philosophy, which now reigns practically unchecked, is perhaps the principal dynamic in the dissolution of the family and thus the community and nation and finally, and ironically, the individual.

Here is Dylan commenting:

Tell that [that there is absolute truth] to someone and you become their enemy. There does come a time, though, when you have to face facts and the truth is true whether you wanna believe it or not. It doesn’t need you to make it true . . . that lie about everybody having their own truth inside of them has done a lot of damage.

 

We are not the masters of our own fate.    That’s just who we are; it’s just how we are made.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil and it may be the Lord

But we’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Boaz of Bethlehem: Attorney at Law

Image result for boaz at the city gate

 

If we read the book of Ruth like we would read any well-written story, we must pay attention to the facts that the writer puts in.

 

Ruth’s story, as we’ve said here before, is a real story; it’s not made up.   It is an account of actual events that happened to real people.  But the writer of the story had decisions to make.  There was no videotape of these events and even if there was, it would be literally months long.

This writer had to decide what would go in to the telling and what would be left out.  An example of what’s left out in this case is the circumstances of the deaths of the three men in Ruth’s family.  Her father-in-law, her husband, and her only brother-in-law all die in Moab.  That, undoubtedly, was pretty dramatic stuff and would have helped to introduce us to the characters and make us more sympathetic to them.  And yet we get not the first detail about any of that.  The three men died.  That’s all the book tells us.

This writer, like any writer, had an editorial or authorial purpose.  There is a point to the story, or maybe several points,  and the story – the details that are included in the story – are there to advance that purpose.  This writer, like any other, leaves out much, summarizes some, and then in places gives us fine detail.

When we get that fine detail, we must ask ourselves why it is there.  Why did the writer choose to bring the camera in so close?  How does this detail forward the authorial purpose?  How does it advance the story?

The story of Ruth is efficiently written.  There are no long asides describing atmosphere or emotion; no florid descriptions of landscapes or people.  But it is during the legal proceeding near the end of the book that the writer gives us fine detail – seemingly more detail than was necessary to move the story from point A to point B.

The writer tells us exactly – word for word – how Boaz presents his case to the other near-kinsman – the man who had first right of refusal for the purchase of the land of Ruth’s late father-in-law and, accordingly, under the customs of that day, a corresponding right to marry Ruth.

Boaz first tells the near-kinsman of his right to purchase the land without mentioning Ruth.  And the man immediately bites on the offer.  Of course he’d like to add the land to his holdings.  It’s kind of a windfall for him.  It is only then that Boaz explains that his purchase of that land will bring with it the duty to marry Ruth and have children with her.  The kinsman then runs like a scared rabbit.

But why did Boaz present his case in this order and why did the writer of the story think that order of presentation so important that it merited such a detailed retelling in this tight, little book?

At first blush, Boaz’s ordering of his case seems counter intuitive; self-defeating.  It is clear from the story that Boaz was taken with Ruth and ecstatic at the prospect that she might become his wife.  Why then did he pitch the easy part first?

I think it a great mistake to consider Boaz as anything other than wise and strategic.  He is described as a man of wealth and influence.  He did not get there by accident or by making silly decisions.  At every turn in the story, his actions are generous but careful.  Thus, the way he orders his case here is not random and not foolish; he has a plan.

I think Boaz was just the sort of man who was intimately familiar not only with the law, but with the community in which he lived.   That is to say, not only was Boaz fully informed as to what the legal realities – both procedural and substantive – were for all concerned when he discovered Ruth beside him on the threshing-room floor, we must assume that Boaz knew his opponent in the proceeding.  He certainly seems to have known just where that man would be as he arranged for the hearing to take place.

What I see in Boaz’s presentation of the case – in his ordering of his proof – is a kind of reverse psychology.  If Boaz would have presented the case in the other order, telling the man first of Ruth and the ensuing obligations, the kinsman might have smelled a rat – or smelled blood.  That is, the kinsman may have thought to himself Boaz is presenting this in a negative way.  He’s trying to talk me out of this.  He must have his own interest.  He must really want this.  I’d better hang tight here and see what is really behind this.  I may be able to drive a harder bargain if Boaz is really that interested.

But Boaz makes it appear that he is actually trying to get the other man to bite.  Telling him the good stuff first.  Now it may appear to the cynic that Boaz is actually trying to avoid the responsibility that would fall to him if the other kinsman refuses.  This makes the kinsman give away his right without a second thought.  Pretty slick.

It will be easy to criticize this opinion of mine, I know.  Some will say I have built a real house of cards based on very little evidence.  But I cannot get away from the notion that the writer of this book meant to tell us something important by including the details of Boaz’s practice here in this proceeding.  And I am sure that Boaz went into that courtroom with an overwhelming desire to take Ruth for himself.  (That may not have been totally selfish.  The guy with whom he was dealing might have been a real loser.  Boaz might have known that Ruth would have been miserable in that other man’s household.)

Others may say that I have dwelt on minutiae and missed the whole point of the book.  The book, they will say, is a parable of Christ’s love for us – His sacrifice, His providence, and His grace.  Who cares then about the details of Boaz’s practice?

I respond with this – the details of Boaz’s practice only deepen and enrich the Christian parable.  That is, we, like Ruth, may finally realize that we’re in a mess and that we must humble ourselves, as Ruth did, and rely on the grace of another for salvation.

But it is also true that we may recognize our desperate situation without appreciating fully how complicated it is.  Thus, when God acts to pull us out, He moves in ways strange to us, knowing, as He does, the complexities and dangers that we may have been oblivious to.

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.

Image result for ruth and boaz

 

Boaz of Bethlehem:  Attorney at Law

 

 

 

By its own terms, the Book of Ruth is historical.

 

The story of Ruth is about a few common people who lived in Israel during the period of the Judges, more than a thousand years before Christ.  They were common people, but not just any common people, for, as the writer tells us, they had the uncommon destiny of becoming the great-grandparents of King David and, accordingly, ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So the story of Ruth, by its own terms, is history; and account of real events that happened to real people.  But it reads like fiction – like the very best fiction.  That is to say that it is neither polemic nor explicitly didactic.  Rather, it is presented as a story that unfolds, scene by scene with a plot and character development.  We feel for the characters; we don’t see what’s coming; and we revel in the happy ending.

One of the most poignant of the scenes in this story takes place on the floor of Boaz’s threshing room.  You’ll recall that Boaz was a farmer, but not a “dirt farmer.”  He wasn’t eking out a living on a few acres with a few hogs and cows.  He was, as the King James so eloquently puts it, “a mighty man of wealth.”   I compare him to a couple of Jane Austen heroes – Messrs. Darcy and Knightly – both of whom were men of “wealth and influence” and gentlemen farmers.

Early in the story, Ruth, who is without status or income, humbles herself to take on the heavy, sweaty, labor of gleaning in Boaz’s field.  Gleaning was a task reserved for the poorest of the poor, as a kind of social welfare system, and the work was long and hard and the expectations meager.

But our heroine has the good fortune to catch Boaz’s eye on the first day in the field.  Boaz’s interest in Ruth is obvious from the very start and he soon makes his approbation known in his instructions to his own workers.  Ruth is to be unmolested in his field, and she is to be immediately given easier work and greater reward.

Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law.  Her affection for Ruth is genuine and she, being a native Israelite, is familiar with the laws and customs that affect her destiny.  Thus, when the time is ripe – and Naomi is the one who knows when that time is – she sends Ruth down to Boaz’s threshing room to, ahem, as the King James so politely puts it, seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee.

All that is true, to be sure, for if Ruth accomplishes what Naomi had in mind, then she will have rest, in the sense of security, and things will, indeed, be well with her.  But what Naomi has in mind is – dare I say the word – a kind of seduction.  What Naomi wishes for Ruth is that Boaz will marry her.  How great would that be:  Going from a penniless gleaner in the dusty field to the wife of a man of wealth and consequence?  Pretty good catch, Boaz was.

It is probably fair to say that Naomi’s scheme was in every respect a legitimate one.  The story makes it very clear that there would have been nothing wrong with Boaz marrying Ruth and that, in fact, he might have had something of a legal obligation to do so.  And nobody would be hurt.  Boaz has not hidden his affection for Ruth, and there is no evidence in the story that she would displace others in marrying him.

So it was a legitimate scheme, but it was a scheme!  The text itself tells us that Naomi told Ruth to bathe herself and put on her finest perfume and raiment.   How quaint.  Might we say that this was the tenth-century BC version of what twentieth-century AD songwriters have expressed in these lines:

Put on your red dress baby . . .

And:

Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings

Got bracelets on her fingers now and everything

Oh, my, my, she looks so fine

Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel number five

 

Naomi is also careful to tell Ruth not to let herself be seen Boaz until he has had his fill of drink.

One is tempted here to another comparison to a Jane Austen novel.  One thinks of Mrs. Bennet and her efforts to get her own daughters married off to rich men.  You see, it is clear from our story – as was clear in Pride and Prejudice – the mother’s (or mother-in-law’s) personal interest is tied up with the interest of the younger girl in getting a rich husband.  In both cases, the older woman will enjoy the security of the rich man’s estate and avoid the miserable prospect of a penurious old age.

All is fair in love and war, and if we read the story to say that Naomi intended that Ruth would seduce Boaz there and then on the threshing-room floor (this conclusion does not call for any stretch of the imagination, really), well then, we might say, so be it.  Boaz was a grown man; he loved Ruth; and their marriage would have, as Mr. Collins wrongly supposed about his own proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, “suited everyone.”

And it is just here that we get to the point of today’s lesson.  Although Boaz obviously welcomed the prospect of marriage to Ruth, he had a cooler head than Naomi or anyone else might have imagined.  Thus, when Boaz is awakened to find the dolled-up girl of his dreams beside him in bed, he does not do “what comes naturally.”   Not only is Boaz awake, he is aware of all of the interests that might be affected by his actions and he curbs himself and immediately embarks on a course to make everything come out right.  Sounds rather Darcy-esque, don’t you think?

We may start our analysis of Boaz here by saying that Boaz had exercised the virtue of temperance.  He had taken a drink or two that evening, but he obviously was not drunk.  Lot was drunk before he had sex with his daughters and Jacob was so drunk on his wedding night that he didn’t realize he was sleeping with big sis Leah and not his beloved Rachel.

But Boaz is not overcome with drink; he keeps his head in the middle of these most seductive circumstances.  He is wise enough to know what everyone is up to.  He knows Naomi; knows her interest in this economic matrix, and he knows how the legal landscape lies, too.   You see, the one bit of wealth that Ruth retained an interest in was a plot of land that had belonged to her late father-in-law, Elimelech.   Boaz knew that and he also knew that there was another relative of his who had first dibs on that plot of land.  But with the land came Ruth.

Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but if he had acted there on the spot it would have been, as they say in the movies, “complicated.”    The man with the prior claim on Elimelech’s land would have been given an out.  He might have argued – probably successfully – that by virtue of what had happened on the threshing-room floor, Ruth was married to Boaz, but nonetheless, by operation of law, he would have retained the right of first refusal for the plot of land.  Thus, the other kinsman might have bought the property, thereby separating the ancestral estate from Ruth and Naomi.  Although Boaz was a wealthy man, he knew such a separation would not be in Ruth’s best interest.  So, with cooled heels and a cool head, he took the matter to court.

I am a lawyer.  I spent a near forty-year career trying criminal cases, mostly in federal court.  And I have to say that when I read the account of Boaz’s practice and procedure here I smile with admiration and approval.  We don’t know everything Boaz knew at the time.  We don’t know anything about this other kinsman who had the right of first refusal on the land purchase.   For all we know, he may have been a real snake.  But we can be sure that Boaz knew, for he played the other party like a violin.  The writer is very careful to detail just how things went down in that legal proceeding.  Boaz gave the good side of the story first – hey, buddy, here’s a nice piece of real estate that you have the right to add to your portfolio . . .

The kinsman bites on that offer, but then comes the catch: there are strings attached.  You see, if you buy the land, you have to take Ruth along with it.  That means marriage and children and the diminution of your present estate that will pass to your present family.  This would not play well at the dinner table at home, so the kinsman passes on the land and Boaz, accordingly, gets exactly what he wants: what is rightly Ruth’s will stay with her and all will, as they say “live happily ever after.”

But if Boaz would have done the deed there on the threshing-room floor, he would have had, as we say in the business, “Brady material,” as he began the legal proceeding at the city gates.  That is, he would have been in the possession of information damaging to his own case that he would have been under an ethical duty to disclose to the other party.

If he had already been married to Ruth – and we are to assume that if Boaz had taken advantage of the situation that had been served up to him the night before, that would have consummated a legal marriage – Boaz would have been under a duty to disclose to the other party that the land could be his without the obligation of taking Ruth on, since Ruth would have been, as they say, already spoken for.

What is so beautiful about this from a lawyer’s point of view is that it is completely clean.  Boaz doesn’t hide anything that the other party has a right to know.  Sure, if that other guy had known that Boaz was sweet on Ruth he might have driven a harder bargain.  Might even have extorted the land away from Boaz by offering to let Ruth go and marry him.

But on the day of the proceeding, there was no legal relationship between Ruth and Boaz.  Thus, there was no legally-established fact to be disclosed.  What foresight!

Thus, Boaz is a man not only of temperance, wealth and consequence, he is a man of prudence!