“Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2: 10 NRSV)
The book of Nehemiah is a book of return and restoration dating to the post-exile period and detailing the attempts to rebuild the Jewish community in the 440s BCE. Themes of purity and racial identity abound in Nehemiah, befitting a community struggling to maintain its existence, and afraid of disappearing into the neighboring cultures of the Ancient Near East. Nehemiah builds walls, enacts strict regulations against inter-marriage outside of the faith, breaks up existing families whose makeup violated such regulations, and rejects diplomatic relations with his neighbors.
This is a Judaism of genealogy, of “correct” birth. Jewish identity becomes the mark of belonging in this community and outsiders are not welcome. Purity in religious observance is demanded as well, and faithfulness to the Temple, combined with racial purity, become the guiding principles of Nehemiah’s state.
The reforms achieve their goals. In an age of great syncretism, when smaller cultures throughout the region became assimilated rapidly, first into the Greek and then into the Roman world, Judaism was remarkable in its ability survive, where other Near Eastern religious communities disappeared. Nevertheless, Nehemiah’s world was a restricted one, walled off figuratively and literally from its neighbors. This is an Israel far removed from the cosmopolitanism of David and Solomon.
It is tempting to claim this as the takeaway from Hebrew scripture: to survive one must isolate oneself from the dangerous entrapments of the world. It has a compelling logic to it, and it seems to work. It also resonates with a current political climate where exclusion and isolation are taken to be the best answers to a world which seems increasingly dangerous. But before we move too quickly to endorse such a vision, it is worth considering an alternate one.
The book of Ruth is likely also a post-exilic creation. This is a simple story of love and marriage, of a young Moabite woman finding her way in a community that was not her own. It presents an Israel far different from Nehemiah’s, where the outsider is welcomed and brought into the family. The Israelite Boaz gives care and comfort to Ruth, recognizing her poverty and her isolation. He brings her to his table and eventually marries her. In a remarkable endnote to the text, we learn that among Ruth’s descendants is David, the great hero of Israel. Even the genealogical obsessions of Nehemiah are turned on their head, as the most important Israelite family tree turns out to have a foreign branch.
The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, of a Moabite and an Israelite, would have been expressly forbidden by the laws of Nehemiah. But here the book sits. Composed around the same time as the far different Nehemiah, it causes one to wonder how this book came to be. Why would the compliers of the Bible juxtapose the identity politics of Nehemiah with the inclusiveness of Ruth? Perhaps they weren’t satisfied with a Judaism which preserved itself at the cost of extreme isolation.
We seem to live now in a new age of Nehemiah. We are an increasingly fearful country, and we express those fears in the politics of separateness. The other scares us, so we attempt to wall ourselves off, to champion our “us”-ness and to repudiate their “them”-ness. We drift daily towards an embrace of extreme identity politics with all of the exclusion which that implies. It may be instructive, before we move wholeheartedly in that direction, to ponder the alternatives. It may be time to reclaim Ruth, not just as a pleasant romance, but as a radical challenge to a world of walls.
Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.