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Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories
Ruth and Jonah
What would happen to the lesson of the prophets, that God desires mercy and justice more than sacrifice? What would become of the new concept of holiness? What kind of identity would God’s people pursue? Did the people look for the best in another after their own experience of being cast among the lowliest of people? The picture is fuzzy, and the Bible itself is still struggling to find its way. Given the historical circumstances, we might understand if most Jews clung to their identity and difference more strongly than they held to ideals of fairness and compassion. But there were pointers in another direction as well.
The situation right away provokes two judgments. First, the theology of the exiles was probably closer to what we consider true monotheism than that of the People of the Land, although both groups worshiped the same God. Second, the foreshadowing of Jesus must be seen in the rejected People of the Land.
There were friendlier times, as when a new temple was completed and both groups joined in the celebration with massive sacrifices of livestock. I’d say the low point was reached about 50 years later when the priest Ezra, having researched the purity codes of the scriptures, demanded that all Jewish men who had taken wives from among the People of the Land send them packing.
This story is told in the
books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But Ezra’s was not the only point of view in the
new community. The books of Ruth and Jonah, written about this time, show quite
a different attitude toward foreigners and may have been intended as a rebuttal
to the Ezra faction. These are stories. One’s a sweet romance and the other’s a
humorous tall tale. Both are set in the past so they also qualify as historical
fiction. Their authors must have known they were shaking up some religious
sensibilities. They tell of God’s favor
to foreigners, even enemies of
The story of Ruth. In the Book of Ruth a member of a nation that
is an Israelite woman living in the
Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the Lord do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)
To us it sounds like a moving story of a daughter-in-law’s devotion, but at the time it was written I imagine what people saw first in Ruth is that she is a foreigner.
Ruth ekes out a living for herself and Naomi by following up the harvesters in a field belonging to Boaz, gleaning what they left behind. Israelite law required harvesters to leave something behind for the poorest people. Ruth eventually marries Boaz. King David is her great grandson. The story includes three details worth noting.
First detail: Ruth is subject to the typical prejudice against foreigners. She deals with it by only gleaning in fields belonging to Boaz, a relative of Naomi.
Second detail: Ruth engages in behavior that, at least by the time the story was written, was considered questionable. On the advice of Naomi she gets cleaned and dressed up and finds Boaz asleep on the threshing floor after he’s taken on some wine in honor of a hard day’s work. The Bible says she “uncovered a place at his feet and lay down.” Commentators inform us that “feet” could be a euphemism for a man’s genitals. The action was risqué enough, in any case, that some later versions of the story make Naomi the one who lay at Boaz’s “feet,” preferring incest to having any suspicion clinging to David’s blood line. (In that case I’m not sure how Boaz ends up taking a liking for Ruth.)
The third detail is Ruth’s rejection. Boaz can’t automatically marry Ruth because a closer relative to Naomi has, legally, a prior claim. Boaz informs the man that Naomi is selling a piece of property, and the man is eager to buy it. But when informed that Ruth comes along with the property, he backs out, probably thinking he doesn’t want to share his estate with any children he might sire by Ruth.
of Jonah. The Book of Jonah, in the tense situation of post-Exile
feels the same way, so rather than take a chance that the Ninevites might
repent and God would spare them, he leaves on a ship bound for
chastened Jonah goes and prophecies to
Jonah goes off in a huff and sits down in the hot sun outside the city and waits to die. But God gives him shade with a giant cucumber plant that grows up overnight. (I told you it’s a tall tale.) Jonah is pretty happy about the plant, but then God destroys it with a voracious a worm. Again Jonah wants to die. Finally God speaks:
are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not
raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not
be concerned over
Now for the Jesus connection: Jesus was dogged by critics who asked him to show them a sign from heaven. From where we are, on the outside looking in, this makes no sense at all. Jesus has just cured a man of his inability to speak by casting out a dumb demon. What better sign could you want? But they insisted, “By the power of Beelzebul he casts out demons.” (Matthew 12:24)
Jesus knew what was
bugging the questioners. A healing miracle isn’t just a kind deed of
extraordinary power. It’s a challenge to anyone who is used to wielding power
in the ordinary way. It de-centers authority. The signs Jesus was giving might
very well seem to Jesus’ critics to be the work of the devil, sowing seeds of
chaos into a well-run system. They wanted a sign like the one the devil holds
out to Jesus in the temptation story. Jesus could throw himself down from the
top of the
Here the modern
interpreter has a problem because the Jonah story has three major scenes; and
Matthew and Luke, where we find this saying of Jesus, interpret the saying
differently. Matthew has Jesus referring to two of the episodes: the storm at
sea with the three days in the belly of the fish and the preaching to
In Matthew Jesus connects Jonah’s three days in the fish to his own predicted three days in the tomb. According to Raymond Brown, Jesus must not have said that or it would be hard to explain why the apostles were so dismayed at Jesus’ death or surprised by his resurrection. Theologically, it would be harder to see Jesus as truly human if his death was very much unlike ours in that he could predict his own resurrection. Also, it would be odd for Jesus to compare himself to Jonah, who stands for a point of view that is the opposite of Jesus’. Even at the end of the story Jonah never really does come around.
At the judgment the men of
It would have seemed only too fitting for someone later to add the part about Jonah in the fish, especially for Christians who experienced Jesus’ emergence from the “belly” of the tomb. If it happened “on the third day,” early Christians could easily have seen the parallel with Jonah. But perhaps it was the memory of the story of Jonah’s three days in the fish that gave rise to the detail in the resurrection stories that Jesus was in the tomb for (parts of) three days.
We can always read the Jonah
story and take comfort: God is ready, even anxious, to forgive us. But what if, instead
of reading the story, we heard the story from Jesus’ lips? What if this were
one of the stories Jesus interpreted on the way to Emmaus? Would Jesus put
himself in the role of the forgiving God in the story? That would make Jesus
the Great Comforter. But Jesus was more than that. God is more than one who
forgives always. Jesus, in this story, actually takes the place of all the
sinners of this world, especially the most hated, to lift them up. The
Ninevites will rise up at the judgment and condemn “this generation.” They will
rise up with Jesus. So we really have to place Jesus with the people of
The real trick in interpreting this story is to place ourselves in it. The apostles had to figure that out, too. I’m guessing that they, like us, would have preferred to see themselves as the Ninevites, weak sinners who repent and receive God’s mercy. Thinking about their behavior during Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, they would have been very aware of their own failure, and hoping for God’s forgiveness. But this story asks us to look deeper—to see ourselves as Jonah, who nurses resentment at the favor God shows to the hated Ninevites.
Jonah’s holy righteousness
opposes and excludes all that is not holy. That same righteousness put to death
the one who identified with the Ninevites, the hated taxpayers, the despised
poor, the victims of every age. Whether it was Jesus on the road to Emmaus or
their own reflection on the scriptures with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the
apostles came to realize that their sin was not just cowardice and failure at
the end but active participation all along in the thing that put Jesus to
death—righteousness, like that of Jonah, that would exclude others.