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Stories of JesusChapter 4: The Stories

         

Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

Ruth and Jonah

 After about 50 years of exile the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem. This came about as the conquering Babylonians were in turn conquered by the Persians, who had a different, more accommodating, policy toward their subject peoples. Probably they saw the advantage of having client buffers around their empire who could be cowed into being more or less friendly. The temple was rebuilt—a smaller version. The sacrificial regimen was reinstated.

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 return of the exiles to Jerusalem led to conflict with the “People of the Land.” These were partly descendants of the ones left behind by the forced deportation of 50 years previous. The causes of the opposition included the returnees’ exclusionary attitude toward those who had not undergone exile and, perhaps, had not been privy to the new theological developments of the exiles’ synagogue culture.

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 Israel.

The story of Ruth. In the Book of Ruth a member of a nation that Israel traded and warred with off and on is incorporated into the Israelite people and becomes an ancestor of Israel’s most loved king, King David:

Naomi is an Israelite woman living in the land of Moab at a time before there were kings in Israel. Her two sons have married two Moabite women, but both sons and Naomi’s husband have died. As Naomi starts her journey back to Israel and an uncertain future, she tells her daughters-in-law to stay behind and marry again to Moabite men. Ruth won’t leave Naomi, insisting,

 

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.

 Thinking about the main point: The Jewish Virtual Library says the Book of Ruth is a “subtle but forceful protest against the Ezra-Nehemiah attitude toward foreign women.” (article on Ruth) It’s easy enough to see Jesus in the figure of Ruth. She’s a stranger who freely goes to a place where she will be the lowest in society. She scandalizes. She is rejected (before being vindicated). The story of Ruth challenges the common thinking of the Jews after the Exile in the same way Jesus challenges his time and ours. Ruth’s words tell us what we learn about God:

 Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge I will lodge.

The story of Jonah. The Book of Jonah, in the tense situation of post-Exile Jerusalem, is the Bible’s comic relief. For humorous effect I’d say it even tops the fig leaves that covered Adam's and Eve' nakedness in the Garden of Eden. But the story includes a sharp dig. The author must have known he was touching on some sore points and deliberately used humor and the style of a tall tale to sneak up on his audience. Or else he figured if Ezra came after him, he could always say he was just offering some light entertainment. Actually I’ve read different opinions on whether the story was meant as a criticism of Ezra’s policy of keeping the Jews “pure,” but that’s the way the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel interprets it. I’ll get to Jesus and the “sign of Jonah” after the story:

 Jonah is a prophet commissioned by God to warn the citizens of Nineveh that God is about to destroy them for their bad behavior. At the time in which the story is set, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. That time had long passed, but no Jew could forget the way the Assyrians demolished the Northern Kingdom of Israel and exacted exorbitant tribute from Judah in the South as a price for its survival. To Jews Assyria was a hated Evil Empire.

 

Jonah 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 Spain. God whips up a storm, and the ship’s captain has everybody draw straws to see which one offended his god. (It was a pretty big storm so it needed a big explanation.) Jonah gets the short straw and lets himself be thrown into the sea. Immediately the storm calms. A big fish swallows Jonah at God’s command and three days later vomits him out on the shore.

 

Much chastened Jonah goes and prophecies to Nineveh: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” As Jonah feared, the people do repent. Everyone from the king to the lowest peasant puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes—which is a lot of sackcloth and ashes. Everybody fasts, including the animals; and God relents from the punishment he threatened.

 

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:

 

You 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 Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle? (Jonah 4:10-11)

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 Temple and have the angels bear him up. Jesus had no intention of giving that kind of sign. The only sign you’re going to get, he said as reported in two Gospels, is the sign of Jonah. (Matthew 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32)

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 Nineveh with the repentance of its people. Luke only mentions the events in Nineveh. In addition, there is the question of whether and to what extent we have Jesus’ actual words. The story comes to us, most scholars say, by way of the early Christian community that gave us Q, a hypothetical source of Jesus’ sayings that both Matthew and Luke relied on. To shorten a very long story, one researcher claims that Jesus actually said something like “No sign will be given this generation,” and the Q community added “except the sign of Jonah” and an explanation of that sign’s meaning. Whether the words are Jesus’ own or the creation of the Q community, we still have to decide whether Matthew or Luke is closer to the original version.

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.

 The sign that Jesus promises is completely different. It is God’s favor, which Jesus predicts will be extended to non-Jews and even enemies of the Jews, just as it was to the people of Nineveh. As Luke quotes Jesus:

At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here. (Luke 11:12)

Matthew includes more or less the same words of Jesus after his comparison of the three days in the fish to the three days in the tomb. My guess is that the saying about the Ninevites goes back to Jesus (or, perhaps, only to the Q community) and Matthew’s saying about the fish and the tomb is a later interposition. 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 Nineveh. And Jesus isn’t really giving comfort to his challengers demanding a sign.

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.

Thinking about the main point: God is always willing to forgive, but God is also one who challenges us to see what our sins really are and how amazing God’s forgiveness really is. Jesus on the cross forgave the ones who put him to death.

On to Resurrection