Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Ruth 4) transports me to the old barbershop on Hee Haw, where Archie Campbell plays the comic barber and tells lots of tall tales, spoonerism style, like the Pee Little Thrigs and Beeping Sleuty. My favorite is his rendering of Rindercella, the poor girl who had two sad blisters and a mugly other. She went to the bancy fall and slopped her dripper and then disappeared. The pransome hince went looking for the girl who slopped her dripper, trying it on the two sad blisters (but it fidn’t dit), trying it on the mugly other (but it fidn’t dit), and finally trying it on Rindercella and it fid dit!
Ruth the Moabite was the quintessential Cinderella, or better yet, Rindercella, because her life story was something of a sacred spoonerism – a backwards version of the mainstream story of strife between the prospering people of the Promised Land and their noisy neighbors to the southeast, who for all intents and purposes were worse than red-headed step-children to them. These descendants of Lot and his salty wife were some of Israel’s stiffest competitors for the newly conquered land of Canaan. Throughout the books of Numbers and Joshua and Judges you find account after account of terrorist raids and counter-raids between Moab and Israel. And then here comes the backward book of Ruth. This young Moabite widow woman had the proverbial three strikes against her when it came to securing a decent life within the borders of Palestine. Her widow status was strike one, leaving her vulnerable to the patriarchal whims of the society. Her poverty was strike two, having fled the hunger of her homeland to live off leftovers in the more fertile fields. And her nationality was strike three, as she sought a better life across the border among a people who didn’t have Emma Lazarus’ poem calling out Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
You can find the un-spoonerized, straightforward rendering of this fairy tale in books like Ezra and Nehemiah, where the Moabite wives of Hebrew men were portrayed more as frightening monsters than rags to riches princesses. Scores of these big bad wolf women were ripped from their families and expelled from the community in fits of righteous indignation. Deportation was the law and order thing to do; it was important, after all, to maintain the borders. That’s what sovereign nations do, and remember, Israel wanted to be like the nations. Such patriotic pride and prejudice is predictable; it’s how the story is supposed to go. And then, right in the midst of all this terror and triumph comes the preposterous story of Ruth and Naomi, two savvy widows who take matters into their own hands to re-write the tale. With the elder Naomi playing fairy godmother and giving encouragement, Ruth goes to the bancy fall and meets the pransome hince Boaz, euphemistically uncovering his “feet” and slopping her dripper right there on the threshing floor. And instead of this south of the border seductress receiving the predictable puritanitcal pouncing and expulsion, the story ends with Ruth making her way from the Moabite margins to the very center of Israelite salvation history, getting her name in the credits as great-grandma to King David the Great.
Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible is right in calling this one of the great human comedies of scripture. I wonder what Archie Campbell’s “storal of the mory” would be. For me, one lesson is to have my ears open to the conversation scripture reveals between the predictable and the preposterous in the larger than life stories of humanity’s response to God’s overtures. Many of the stories, then and now, are predictable, as we turn God’s grace into occasions for privilege and prejudice and power struggle. But occasionally, the preposterous somehow finds its way into the conversation, in the form of a Ruth or a Jonah or an Isaiah, reminding us what the unlikely possibilities of grace really are. Who knows, the monsters we have made just might become our heroes one day and find themselves thrust in the center of our salvation history.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome, and don’t forget to slop your dripper.