A short time after we were married, my wife Shannon and I discovered that one of the seldom spoken of perks of marriage is that you now have someone else to blame for all your mistakes. When I was single and I misplaced my keys, it was always my fault. But now, when I lose my keys or misplace my phone, I don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility myself, I have a wife to blame! I have someone else to curse out under my breath as I search the house for my missing items. This is obviously not the greatest perk of marriage, but it is sometimes nice to shrug off some of our responsibility for the ways things are onto someone else.
Unfortunately, blaming others, especially women and foreigners, is a time honored tradition that I cannot claim to have invented myself. Indeed the practice of blaming women for the problems of the world goes back well into the BC era, and can be found in several places in our Bible. Throughout the centuries many Christians have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in such a way as to make Eve responsible for bringing sin into the world. This is quite a stretch considering that only Adam was commanded by God not to eat the fruit and that he made his own decision to do so. Nevertheless, this text has been used countless times to place the responsibility for sin onto a woman.
Where it really gets bad, this blaming of our problems on women, is when the female and the foreign overlap: our own women are bad enough, but foreign women, they are truly to blame. When the very survival of Israel as a people was threatened during their time in exile in Babylon, the leaders of the community insisted that the best way for Israel to survive as a distinct people was to avoid marrying women outside of Israel. In this way, they believed they could preserve the distinctive identity of Israel; they could avoid assimilation. Even after the exile, when the Judeans began returning to Jerusalem, this prohibition on mixed marriage remained strong. Ezra, the man sent to help rebuild the Temple, insisted that the Judeans not intermarry with the other peoples. These foreigners, these women, would dilute the faith of Judah and lead its people into sin and abomination. According to this view what was holy about Judah was its racial purity, the Judeans were God’s people by birth and any mixing with other ethnicities would damage this identity. So it was these foreign women who were the problem, they were destroying the racial purity of God’s people.
Given this male tendency to blame women, especially foreign women, for the ills of the world, one has every reason to expect that the biblical book of Ruth, which is about a moabite woman, a foreign woman, is all about how she ruined everything. This is not the case. Ruth is lovely little short story about how a daughter-in-law’s love and devotion to her mother-in-law saved their lives and helped to make a new life for themselves in Bethlehem. Ruth the Moabite woman, is the hero of this Israelite story. That alone would be enough for this book to be incredible, it is quite rare in the world, even today, for a man to lift up a woman, especially a foreign woman, as a hero.
As remarkable as that is, the book of Ruth is actually far more radical. Though it may appear as nothing more than a quaint short story about how two women help one another survive, the ending of the book reveals the hidden impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite woman, was the great grandmother of the legendary King David. The great patriarch of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem, the Israelite par excellance, has foreign blood running through his veins. David himself was racially mixed. And if David wasn’t racially pure, than neither were his descendants that ruled after him. The kingdom of David that Ezra and his contemporaries held up as the ideal to be restored through their prohibition on inter-marriage was always a kingdom of mixed race and ethnicity. Racial purity was a myth. It never existed. So the way to God, the way to holiness, cannot be racial purity.
If race or ethnicity is not what defines God’s people, than what does define them? What made Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Ruth, and David people of God if it wasn’t race? The people of God are people who live in covenant relationship with God. Noah lived in covenant with God long before the birth of Israel. Abraham was a wandering Aramean who entered into covenant with God and then became the ancestor of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, but she too made a promise, a covenant, with God and Naomi when she said, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” What gave Israel its identity as a people was not their race, their ethnicity, or even their homeland, what gave Israel its Identity was that they lived in covenant with God.
As followers of Christ, we too live in covenant relationship with God, a relationship opened to us by Jesus Christ. What makes us Christian is our adherence to this covenant- our promise to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. It is not our history that makes us Christian. It is not our nationality, ethnicity or race. It is not our culture or our good fortune. What makes us Christian is our decision day after day to try to live in covenant relationship with God as we know Her in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the very same God as the God of Ruth. This God does not love us because of our race, or our ethnicity, or our homeland, for this God created all lands and all peoples. This God loves us simply because we are Hers, and She calls us into loving relationship with Her and with the rest of Her creation. Racial purity is always a myth, it does not exist and it is of no concern to God. All of our other identities are meant to melt away in the presence of our identity as people of God. We are not American and then Christian. Not white and then one of God’s people. We are, first and before all things, beloved children of God seeking to live in covenant with Her. When we fail to do so, when we value our national, racial or gender identity above our identity as God’s people, we cease to be people of the covenant, we cease to be the people of God. And when that happens it isn’t the fault of women, or of foreigners, or of anyone but ourselves. We must take responsibility for our identity as God’s people and our actions as people who live in covenant with the God of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.