RUTH AND JONAH
Conquered nations and minority groups disappear when they fail to keep their spiritual tradition. The stories told around the family tables help hold on to traditions. In Canada, the Fist Nations were nearly destroyed by a deliberate attempt to transform them into Europeans by separating children away from families and prohibiting them of to remember their culture, to use their language, and to practice their spiritual tradition. The Jewish Nation didn’t disappear even though they hadn’t had the country of their own for three thousand years, thanks to the stories that they kept repeating within families. Many of the stories have been preserved in writings. The present day Bible is a collection of those narratives – folk tales, legends, myths, and poems i.e. Ruth and Jonah.
At a first glance, the books of Ruth and Jonah look like history. The name Ruth appears in the Gospel according to Matthew (1:5) as King David’s great-grand mother. Jonah’s name is found in the Second Kings 14:24. But they aren’t history exactly. If they were historically correct, they should reflect the atmosphere of the period between 1200 and 1025 B.C for Ruth. and Jonah between 931 and 910 B.C. Their style and the basic message do not reflect the time when those two persons lived. It is much more reasonable to assume that they are fictions using the names of ancient mythical figures. They are historical novels in that sense. Historical novels are fictions using the names of real persons and events, but embellished freely with a mixture of real and imagined circumstances and events in order to express an opinion.
The common message both Ruth and Jonah carry is: “Foreigners are also God’s beloved.” It is an astonishing idea which is challenging even today. Imagine, these stories were written three thousand years ago. Reality is the opposite: we are not comfortable with anyone who looks and speaks and behaves differently. In those days, all the strangers were seen with suspicion, and were repelled or killed. Marrying such a person? Impossible! But there they are in the Bible giving the opposing message to commonplace xenophobia.
Ruth was a Moab who lived in the east of the Jordan River. Moabites were arch enemies of the Jewish nation. But in the book of Ruth, she married a Jew, Boaz, and became a great-grand mother of the most beloved and respected king of the Jews, David. But what a seduction scene! In the Bible, “foot or feet” is an euphemism for male genital. (Chapter 3) Fiction or reality? Doesn’t matter. Obviously, the opinion about the Moab evolved after 600 years, and they were no longer enemies.
Jonah’s God, God of Israel, loved the Assyrians in Nineveh so much that He did not want to destroy them when they repented. Historically Assyrians beat the Kingdom of Israel and drove them out of existence. If the Israelites were God’s chosen, how could the Assyrians be His beloved? According to the book of Jonah, God of Israel is no longer a tribal god who only favoured Israel. Never mind the man-eating fish. It’s a humorous fish story – of course not true. But what a place, in a stomach of a fish, to offer a heartfelt prayer of confession! (Chapter 2)
A brief historical background: Two Jewish kingdoms disappeared by 587 B.C. Israel was destroyed by Assyrian Empire in 721 B.C., and Judah in 587 B.C. by Babylonian Empire never to forge a country again until 1948 A.D. with the birth of the present Jewish state of Israel. When Babylonians defeated Judah, they destroyed the temple of Jerusalem and made thousands of people in leadership prisoners and transported them to the city of Babylon. They were captives there for fifty years.
The Babylonians planned to wipe Jewish people out of existence. The first step was to prohibit the practice of religion. Without the Temple of Jerusalem and without leadership class of kings, priests, scholars, and prophets, the plan to destroy a nation nearly succeeded. Before the destruction of the Jewish kingdoms, Deuteronomy was discovered behind a stone wall In Jerusalem. What save them was the tradition kept in those writings of Torah (laws) and stories and sayings of prophets. Traditions were kept in the form of stories preserved their customs, culture, language, and spiritual heritage (religion). That was how the national consciousness remained even without land or a state.
While they were prisoners in Babylon, there appeared two opposing ideologies: nationalist and universalist. The first is represented by the books like Esther and Ezra, which emphasized the importance of the purity of faith and race. The later was represented by books like Ruth and Jonah which stressed tolerance and importance of living in peace with other people. It is interesting that both opposing positions are kept in the Bible as sacred documents.
The seeds of the universalist idealism can be found in the Prophet of Jeremiah, who lived at the time of the final defeat of Jewish kingdom and exile. In Jeremiah 29:1 – 15, the prophet advised people who were taken away to a foreign country of Babylon, to settle down and make home in a strange country and be happy. He said, “Build homes and settle down. Plant garden and eat what you grow. Marry (even locals) and have children. Let your children marry likewise so that they also have their children. You must increase in numbers. Work for the good of the cities you live in, though you were brought there as prisoners. Be prosperous where you live.” It still is the same story we tell to the immigrants in Canada. Isn’t it?
Scholars believe that the two books in question, Ruth and Jonah, were written after 428 B.C. By then the Jewish nation was freed to return to Palestine. During the same period, it is believed that Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, many of the Psalms, minor prophets were written. That was almost 500 years after Ruth was said to have lived. In case of Jonah, there is about 150 years time gap. They are narratives, not laws, sermons, proclamations, or declarations of doctrines. It was the time when they were trying to come to terms with the question: How to keep their culture, religion, and tradition alive while they had already been influenced by Babylonian people, culture, food, and life-style. Some people hated anything foreign while many others enjoyed them and wove them harmoniously into a fusion of the traditional and the foreign – like us in Canada.
The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is a collection of stories, granted somewhat jumbled, that tell the evolving consciousness that went through many stages of development. By the time many post-exile writings were written, many universally held ideals like, freedom, justice, love, mercy, and sacrifice have become common themes. Ruth and Jonah, though very short simple stories, represent the highest point of their spiritual journey.