Wednesday, November 5, 2014
A new tool for our box?
Was Naomi a mommasan? Were the men in Judges 19 pimps and sexist pigs? What are we to make of scenes like Absalom raping his sister and then despising her for it in Judges 19? In the case of Naomi and of Judges 19, I would argue in a strict sense no. But they are stories in the Bible which speak to the questions of human trafficking, of gender violence, of sexist attitudes. We speak of the Scriptures as be God’s Living word. One of the amazing discoveries of those who do study the Scriptures is that they often engage us as different levels at different times in our faith walk. An easy example would be the Parable of the Lost Son. Some think of it as the Parable of the Loving Father. Others consider it the Parable of the ungrateful older brother. And there can be nuances to those positions. Which interpretation is right? Which one is the correct interpretation? Are we not more likely to say that the right interpretation is the one which allows us to see God at work in our own lives at that particular given moment?
David, on behalf of Archbishop Justin and of Pope Francis, is determined to keep this effort steeped in the love of God as expressed through the Word and the Sacrament. As one who often walks in the shadows ad dark places of human beings and who cares for fellow sojourners in those dark spaces, I cannot commend that focus enough. The contextual Bible study which Fulatta taught us today has the possibility of helping those who care for survivors and perpetrators, I think, in a way that allows the Word of God to come alive to them. I think, however, it’s use can be dangerous and even opposed. The question we as the Church will have to answer is whether the benefit outweighs the danger and the potential for misuse.
The method is dangerous because it can cut Scripture from its moorings. By that I mean the method allows Scripture to be read absent the Tradition of interpretation handed down from one generation of God’s people to the next for millennia. One of the fundamental understandings of the Church is that we engage Scripture in light of our own experiences and contexts but mindful that God’s people have provided a theological framework for the very passages we read. Fulatta’s discussion of Naomi and Ruth is a wonderful example of the danger and the need for those moorings.. Understand that as I point out the danger, I would in no wise tell a survivor he or she is wrong for seeing their own experience in the passage. From a perspective, Naomi could appear as an aunt/uncle/beloved cousin/mother/etc who sells a member of the family because she is desperate. Similarly, Ruth could agree to do what her slaver says because she is desperate but loves the slaver. A survivor of the sex trade could see themselves in Ruth’s behavior, particularly in the Hebrew, in the threshing floor activities. Those rescued from labor situations might well assume the other men on the threshing floor are slaves like they were. Perhaps the entrance of Ruth would remind them of other slaves being sent to serve them sexually. All these experiences might well and accurately come to mind when they confront a passage such as Ruth 3.
The problem is when we allow their context and experience to begin to create their god rather than reveal to them the God of Scriptures. While their are certainly analogous experiences which could inform the passage and allow survivors to enter into dialogue with the Lord, we cannot leave those reading assuming that their context and experiences are the Truth being revealed by God. Those leading the promotion of this methodology seem to want to stop at the survivors’ interpretations. But we can in no wise accept that Ruth is a trafficked victim or that Naomi was a trafficker or that Boaz is the “patriarchal rich ruler who seeks younger beauty.” Naomi’s story is one of redemption. She and her husband left Israel for Moab against the proscriptions of God. Worse, she and her husband found Moabite women as wives for their sons, marrying outside the people of Israel. Naomi and her husband, at the beginning of the story have lost faith in God’s promises to them. They travel to Moab to take care of themselves, as it were.
Interestingly, God does not condemn the ladies because of Elimelech and Naomi’s willingness to forge their own path. Instead, His grace is ever present. Naomi chooses to return to the land of her birth, but she gives her daughters-in-law and opportunity to stay with their people. Orpah chooses to stay, but Ruth declares that she will follow Naomi. Naomi’s people are now her people; Yahweh is now her God and her Lord. Her choice nets her a righteous man as Kinsman-Redeemer, a typology of the Christ who will come to redeem all of God’s people. Even more amazingly, from the standpoint of expectation, Ruth, a Moabite woman, will be grafted into the Holy Family Tree. When Jesus’ genealogy is recounted in the Gospels, Ruth will stand in the line of great-grandmothers.
Do I like the method of Bible study for drawing people into its narrative? Absolutely. Do I think God minds if we allow such passages to draw people into discussions that are outside the tradition in which they have been handed down? Absolutely not. Can it end, though, without revealing, perhaps at some later time, the truth or truths conveyed in the passage? No. Failing to do so leaves the one interpreting in light of their context to think that God Himself is somehow subject to the contexts in which they have lived. Scripture often shows how God is at work in the contexts of various believers, but He is always at work revealing His purposes, His truth, and His offer of salvation. For us clergy and lay leaders who try to open up the Scriptures to those in our care, this Contextual Bible Study method provides us with yet another tool in our box to reach those seeking God. But, as always, it is a tool which can be misused, as are many of the tools given us by God. We need only to exercise care, as is often the case, when using the tool to make sure we use it to His glory.