“Birth is pain, death is Jokanji1” or
How It Was That Her Karma Ran Over Their Dogma...
Pit door at Jokanji Temple, Arakama, Tokyo2
Jokanji Temple is a tiny edifice at 2-Chome 1-12 Minamisenju, Arakawa, Tokyo. Arakama was known as Yoshiwara during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), and was the licensed red light district. Girls were enslaved in the district as prostitutes from their early teenage years until the age of 22, though most died by 17; it is estimated that 20,000-25.000 of them are buried here. It's an unprepossessing area today, full of typical Japanese “Love Hotels” (Radu Hoteru), or short-stay—a few hours, mostly—hotels. That's not to mention illegal brothels, as well. In the late evening mists it seems that ghosts float east from the nearby Sumida River and hover over the old cemetery, popularly known as Naga Kome Dera (“Throw-Away Temple”). “Throw-away” obviously does not refer to old ramen bowls or broken chopsticks. Memories of my visit there—as well one to a similar district in Yokohama—led to the following:
Mom was mom, choral director, senior university administrator and general organizer par excellence. She ruled her realms with strength, compassion and smarts. She was also underpaid, under-promoted and underrated by her male counterparts. Perhaps her greatest talent was the ability to completely ignore the aforementioned masculine nonsense. (Well, most of the time. She could put them in their place when most needed.)
Mom, however, isn't the 'her' of my title. She is also an inspiration, but my blog entry focuses on one of the more interesting juxtapositions in the Christian Bible—the book of Ruth, followed a bit later by those of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ruth was a farmer's daughter, a Moabite widow of a Hebrew. Her Hebrew mother-in-law had been displaced earlier by famine and settled in Moab, where her sons took local wives and then died.
I can relate. Mom and dad were displaced by something called the “Dust Bowl,” mom from South Dakota and dad from Kansas. An Indian immigrant
Farm Equipment buried in Dallas, SD in 19363
once asked mom why she didn't retire 'back home' in South Dakota instead of the little burg of Stanwood, WA. She looked at him long and hard, and then answered, “The wind. It just blow and blows,” and turned back to her supper. Indeed, it blew and blew, bringing billowing, dark clouds of day obscuring dust that forced its way into everything. No farmhouse was secure enough to keep it out, and it destroyed crops, equipment, and people. In my dad's case, the last straw was an accompanying plague—a great cloud of grasshoppers, who settled over his cornfield one evening and lifted off in the morning, leaving nothing behind but dirt.
I grew up on stories of the Dust Bowl and the years of reinvention of self and my extended “Okie” family on the West Coast, broken up from Fairbanks, Alaska to Phoenix, Arizona, including my birth in my parents' new home community in Los Angeles' Arroyo Seco4. When I read about Ruth and Naomi, I often think of mom, trekking out to Seattle to finish her education and discovering her 'new' family of non-relatives, who nevertheless became aunt, uncle and grandma to me5. (Not to mention George, the 'family' English sheepdog and Axel (pronounced 'ahk-zell'), the dachshund.)
The book of Ruth is generally described as a biblical love story, played out in the pre-kingdom days of the judges and demonstrating such qualities as love, loyalty and compassion. It is all of that. But what is it doing in the Bible, stuck between the tales of the Judges and the beginning of the Davidic stories of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles? Outside of brief mentions (such as Eve or Delilah), the Old Testament contains only four females given their own detailed protagonistic story: Deborah, the prophet who kicks Barak in the fundament and puts him to work defending against Canaan6; Esther, the exilic heroine; Susanna, who is saved from false accusations by Daniel; and Ruth, which is as much the story of her mother Naomi as it is of Ruth.
What Ruth is doing there is more complicated than it seems. First, most scholars agree that inasmuch as it tells a story set in the pre-kingdom days with a closing section on the genealogy of the house of David,7 it was written in kingdom days. However, some point out that there are are traces of Aramaic in it, which would point to an exilic or early post-exilic origin—a date involving Persian influence. That theory would suggest that our version is an updated copy, done at a time when Hebrew scribal activity was focused on editing and preserving older scrolls, similar to the prose framework added to the book of Job.8
Deborah and Esther probably earn their place in a male-dominated book because of their key roles in preserving the Hebrew nation and community. Their men could not have succeeded without them. Susanna, on the other hand, has been the subject of canonical debate since the beginning of the canon process following the end of the apostolic church. Her story is included in the Catholic canon9, but not in the Protestant, largely because there is no existing Hebrew version of the story. (Nor is it in the Tanakh.) It has been often dismissed as a 'mere story,' with no direct canonical worth save as a morally instructive fable.
Ruth, however, is a different kind of story. Where Susanna's story depends on the presence of a rigid application of Levitical justice for its drama, with Daniel as the Spirit-inspired hand of God intervening to rescue one of His people from injustice, Ruth and Naomi are people finding ways to survive and prosper against the background of severe difficulties created by their environment and community poverty. Instead of the machinations of evil elders, they find their final deliverance because of and within a holy community.
The story begins with famine. In many areas of the 'land of milk and honey' this was not an unusual occurrence. Largely pastoralists with small herds of goats and sheep in the rocky Judean hills around Bethlehem, settlers around the late Bronze and early Iron age were also engaged in scraping out small terraced fields for limited agriculture. Even a little population growth would have been difficult to support. Naomi and her husband, starving, move to Moab seeking a better life. It is possible that they took the short route over the north end of the Dead Sea where the tribes of Benjamin, Gad and Reuben's territories met, then south through Reuben to one of the river valleys in Moab, or conversely south through the hill country of Judah and up the east coast of the Dead Sea. Either way, Moab, though fertile, was not friendly territory for Hebrews. Nevertheless, Naomi and her husband seem to prosper, their two sons marrying local Moabite women.
A decade after Naomi is widowed, her sons-in-law also die. Hearing that her Judean homeland is doing better, she instructs her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, their home, and look for new husbands, while she returns home to Judah. Given that she is now a stranger, a Hebrew alone in Moab, another risky trip home where she is more likely to find assistance seems advisable. Naomi is nothing if not practical. Without a husband or sons, she can neither contribute to the community nor claim support from it. The Hebrew community at least has, under its laws and customs, some provision for supporting widows.
One of her daughters-in-law, however, refuses to leave her side. Ruth, even though she is not Hebrew, begs to accompany her, and Naomi agrees. Back in Bethlehem, Ruth goes into the barley fields belonging to one of Naomi's former husband's relatives and begins gathering 'gleanings,' the bits and pieces of grain ears left behind the harvesters, which customarily are left there for the poor to gather. This is hot, difficult work, which returns a relatively small reward for a lot of effort. (In my childhood in Oregon's Chehalem Valley, and later in Washington's Skagit Valley, I discovered just how hard agricultural stoop labor like this is.) Nevertheless, with Naomi's advice, she displays qualities that attract the attention of Boaz, the wealthy owner. She is hard-working, she is loyal, she is attractive, and she is aggressively happy to be available. Boaz now follows the customs necessary to clear his way to marry her, and does so, thus ensuring the both her and Naomi's future.
The most famous line in the book is Ruth's plea to accompany Naomi:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God. Ruth 1:16 (NRSV)
“Movers,” which is the classic derogatory American epithet for folks like Naomi and Ruth, inevitably have one or both of two motives: to escape something, or to get something. My birthplace, Los Angeles, is famously known as the place people go to reinvent themselves. However, my experiences teaching in L.A. taught me that there is an equally large population of Angelenos—including, of course, my own family—who came to escape poverty, hunger, oppression, civil anarchy, and even genocide.
It's not clear just why Ruth decided to move. It may have been her affection for and sense of duty to her mother-in-law, the possibility of being rejected by her fellow Moabites as the widow of a Hebrew, or just a desire for adventure or a society she sees as preferable to Moab. As a woman at first traveling, and then living in a strange community, she is and will be extraordinarily vulnerable. Ordinary women, whether traveling or simply seen as strangers, were open to exploitation or violence, with no practical recourse, as witness the Genesis stories of Sarai and Dinah10. Even within their own communities, as Susanna's story shows, they had to worry about their safety in ways that most men would not. Ruth shows a clear recognition of her vulnerability when she eagerly seeks out, with Naomi's advice, the affection and protection of the wealthy Boaz.
Ruth seems to be welcomed for two reasons; one is that she has agreed (see quote above) to convert to Judaism, and the other is that she is female. A woman would be much easier to integrate into the community, since she would likely marry or become available as a servant (read slave). That she achieves the former status is, at best, only partly attributable to her innate qualities of character and diligence. As a woman, she is not, after all, a threat.
Things haven't changed much: as a career sailor, I observed a number of marriages between sailors and foreign women. The degree of acceptance the wives experienced outside the immediate naval base families depended largely on how much the women managed to adapt to and adopt the language, manners and acculturation of America. Accompanying this, at least among Pacific Fleet sailors, was the legend of the sexual availability of Filipina wives outside marriage. Ruth, in fact, might end up gang raped, as Boaz prudently realizes and prevents.
When the Hebrew exiles return to Jerusalem, there is a significant contrast. Ezra and Nehemiah, leading the post-exilic community back to Jerusalem, take great pains to 'purify' people who had been living, many comfortably, in a foreign land. They read out and interpret the Hebrew law and custom and ruthlessly cull out the non-Hebrews, especially non-converts11i.
Living in exile, the returnees have grown used to living easily among gentiles, often intermarrying, learning new languages and customs. To their leaders, the Hebrew scribes appointed by the foreign ruler, this small group, living and rebuilding a tiny portion of the old, large Jerusalem are engaged not only in building anew, but recapturing a culture and religion many of them have forgotten or never known. In light of Ruth's story, it is notable that Moabites are specially selected for approbation, based on their long-ago actions against the Egyptian refugees.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah, trained in scribal schools to be recordkeepers, and more importantly, to administer the written rules and decrees of the empire, go about restoring Hebrew culture and religion by reading aloud and interpreting the Torah. In it, they find strict and uncompromising instructions about membership in the tribe, which requires immediately turning away non-Hebrews, even to the point of separating families and married couples who do not meet the requirements of religious conversion and ethnicity.
In many ways, the stories of Ruth and the post-exilic leaders exemplify the conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees of later Jerusalem, one (Pharisees) the party of the common people, but a minority in the Sanhedrin, and the other the party of wealth and power, who insist on strict observance of the law, with no place for spirituality. Similarly, Ruth and Naomi both enter cultures as strangers and find acceptance based on what they have to offer, while the returned exiles find themselves confronted by the requirement to revert to an older and possibly outdated custom based on the scribes' interpretations of the law12.
Comparisons and analogies can be stretched only so far, but it is still interesting to think about the difference between the early, pre-kingdom stories preserved and edited by post-exilic scribes, and their scribal interpretation of the Torah. Despite the Torah, early Judah was primarily an oral society13, where meanings were derived from face-to-face tellings, retellings and discussions. (It has been said contemporarily--by Jews themselves--that in a room with three Jews, there will be a least five opinions.) Later on, in imperial and urban settings, the combination of commerce and governance privileges the authority of text, and thus those who wield that authority by dint of being its owners and interpreters.
Ruth's Judah is a personal, subjective community; Ezra and Nehemiah's Jerusalem is based on broad, objective and impersonal requirements—the only kind that can be broken into strict, legalistic, textual categories. It is notable that Christianity is essentially a personal faith, brought to us by a Christ who becomes human and calls us first to a close, rather than categorical, relationship. That this has something to say about institutional, rather than communal, Christian communities need not be pointed out. (Although I am doing that, of course. Mea culpa.)
1Engraved graffitti at Jokanji Temple.
3By Sloan (?) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
4Ironically, it means “Dry Creek” in Spanish.
5My dad's mom died long before I was born, but I did have his widowed second wife, who was also 'grandma.'
6Kudos are also due Heber the Kenite, who slew Sisera with a tent peg after the battle.
7 Ruth is David's grandmother: Ruth 13:17-22.
8See especially Schniedewind, William M. How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge UP, 2004), p. 193
913th Chapter of Daniel. It is also included in the Orthodox and Coptic canons.
10Gen 10: 12-20; 34:2
11Ezra 23, Neh 13. 1-3, 23-30.
12There is an obvious parallel in the contemporary Holy Land's uneasiness involving Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and even between right wing Haredim and less orthodox or secular Israelites.
13Oral societies are not necessarily illiterate ones, but ones which privilege the authority and importance of oral, and often symbolic, communications over the textual.