Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Ruth 2-3) transports me to the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, modern day Iraq, more than 3,500 years ago, when King Gilgamesh’s exploits became the stuff of legend and were eventually written down in the world’s oldest book, the set of poems entitled the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many are drawn to the poetry because it describes a great flood, predating the Noah story, complete with one surviving couple and animals put into ship, two by two. Interesting as that is, I am drawn to it because it’s the prototype story of deep friendship, between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. As the poems tell it, Gilgamesh, 2/3 divine and 1/3 human, was a harsh tyrant, and the people of Uruk cried out to the gods for relief. The gods sent a gigantic wildman, Enkidu, 2/3 animal and 1/3 human, to challenge Gilgamesh. A trapper was the first to spot this wildman among the animals, and ran to the King in fear, not knowing what to do with this perceived enemy. We should fully expect the King to send out a military battalion to destroy this fearsome savage creature who poses a threat to the city. But he doesn’t, and here’s the interesting part. Instead, Gilgamesh tells the trapper to go and enlist the services of the temple priestess/prostitute, Shamhat, and have her go and seduce the wildman and tame him with her arts. She complies, and after 7 straight days of sex, and after introducing Enkidu to the products of human culture – bread and beer, he is civilized. To make a long poem short, he and Gilgamesh form a profound friendship, and Gilgamesh’s long process of mourning the death of his friend winds up being the means for him to also become fully human and rule the people justly and fairly.
I just listened to Stephen Mitchell’s version of the epic while traveling to Atlanta, and I’m struck again by how the poem was definitely written in a culture far removed from any Puritan sensibility or morality. The descriptions of Shamhat’s taming of Enkidu through the long sexual encounter makes the modest Puritan in me blush. But I’m also struck by how insightful Gilgamesh was to utilize the power of eros to transform his enemy, instead of using the warlike powers of violence to defeat and destroy him. There’s something of that pre-Puritanical eros power going on in the Ruth story as well, transforming enemies into family. Not once or twice but seven times in this short book Ruth is identified as Ruth the Moabite, to drive home the point that this was no ordinary immigrant coming into Judah, but was one of the hated savage enemies. The Torah includes a prophecy of a star coming out of Jacob to crush the skulls of the people of Moab. Later, 150 years before Ruth, God sent Eglon, the king of Moab, to rule over Judah as punishment for their disobedience, and still later, a left-handed Israelite named Ehud assassinates the hated Moabite king. All this and more gives us the back-story to the bitterness between these peoples. So when God decided to carry on the promise and create an ancestry that would lead to King David, and eventually to Jesus, Ruth the Moabite strolled onto the stage of salvation history. God could have just as easily led Israel to cross the border in a preemptive strike and destroy these enemies, but God actually prohibited the people from engaging in war with Moab. Instead, in providential fashion Ruth the young Moabite widow followed Naomi the old Israelite widow back to the land of promise during harvest time, and the women began plotting how to survive. Their strategy essentially involved bread, beer, and sex. Well, we can only surmise what the harvested grain was used for, but the sex was there. Naomi instructed Ruth to go at night and find Boaz on the threshing floor, and uncover his “feet,” (a Hebrew euphemism for male private parts), and he’d know what to do. It’s not quite as direct a description as we have with Shamhat and Enkidu, but it works. The rest is history, as Boaz marries Ruth, forever binding the enemy lands of Israel and Moab in a genealogy leading to the venerated King David.
It would do those of us in the highly moralized and sexually inhibited version of Christianity that we’ve inherited from the Puritan settlers of America to read and re-read Ruth and the Epic of Gilgamesh a few times. Maybe the hippies’ slogan was right all along; the ancient Hebrews’ version might have been, uncover feet, not force. Channeling the power of love – plying the arts of eros as well as philia and agape – in ways that transform enemies into friends and disarm destructive powers – seems to offer better prospects than repressing it all and transferring that energy into guns and bombs. I still blush, though, to think what that story would look like.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.