Writings: Unpublished

The Real Story Has Yet To Be Told

How Star Wars Helps Us Read the Book of Ruth and Scripture in General

Originally posted on The Ekklesia Project Online

Author: John C. Nugent

04/17/02+ Share

Drawing upon the Star Wars movies, this popular level essay exposes how and why readers of the book of Ruth routinely miss key authorial clues as to its central storyline. Readers will not only learn what Anakin Skywalker and Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi have in common, but they will also learn important lessons about how to read Scripture. Without entirely leaving the original author's intentions behind, readers will learn what additional lessons God's living and active Word continues to teach as Israel and the Church continue to read it in light salvation history's forward progression.

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Intergalactic Twist

Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. He worked diligently to become a Jedi Knight. He saved the rebel alliance from ultimate destruction. He conquered the forces of evil. In a nutshell, he was the star of the blockbuster trilogy Star Wars--or so I thought. Long after the series seemed to have ended, there were rumors of a prequel (or, more accurately, a threequel). I was skeptical at first, but my cynicism abated shortly after I purchased a copy of the original trilogy prefaced by interviews with producer George Lucas. Those interviews changed how I viewed both the storyline of Star Wars and, surprisingly, the book of Ruth.

Toward the end of the Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), arch villain Darth Vader made the paradoxical claim that he was Luke's father. We were stunned. How could this be? Befuddled fans debated this claim until it was finally confirmed in the final episode, Return of the Jedi. Still many of us wondered what the point was. What purpose could this agitating revelation possibly serve? At the series' end it began to make sense: Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker, would be redeemed. He would atone for his sins by personally vanquishing the wicked Emperor while being martyred in the process. As a result, he was united with his forefathers who dedicated their lives to advancing the good side of the Force. I have to admit that when all of this transpired I was oblivious to its full significance. I considered it a mere add-on, the product of an eleventh hour brainstorm designed to spruce up a perfectly fine story of how my hero Luke climbed the ranks of Jedi

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knighthood to single-handedly (pun intended) bring down the evil empire. I assumed this, of course, because I had not seen the entire series and because modern culture had trained me well how to identify heroes. Luke embodied the stuff of which all good heroes are made: good looks, interesting friends, humble origins, and a free spirit.

When I watched the George Lucas interviews, however, I discovered how badly these assumptions failed me. In them Lucas discusses how his epic's plot actually hinges on the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. It was no mere subplot. And after the prequels are released, explained Lucas, the waiting world will finally grasp the centrality of the ominous figure in black. Until then, in Lucas's words, "The real story hasn't even been told yet." Despite my childhood understanding, Luke was not the star of Star Wars; his father was.

Naomi Neglect

As Luke's heroism overshadowed his father's redemption in the Star Wars movies, Ruth's noble character typically overshadows the centrality of her mother-in-law's redemption in the biblical story. That is, the book of Ruth is often read in one of three ways, all of which portray Ruth as the star.1 One reading emphasizes Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi in remaining by her mother-in-law's side and, in turn, God's faithfulness to Ruth in providing her with a wonderful husband. Another telling summarizes the book as a love story and dwells upon Ruth's romantic encounters with Boaz. A third reading focuses on the genealogical connection to David (and ultimately Jesus) in the final sentences and stresses his lineage from such humble and faithful individuals as Ruth. Though each of these readings is helpful and highlights important aspects of the book, unless they acknowledge the centrality of Naomi, the real story has yet to be told.2

One may often get to the heart of a narrative by paying careful attention to how it begins and how it wraps up. These bookends are crucial in setting the context for a story's plot and without them the reader will miss a great deal of the author's intent. The book of Ruth is no exception. The

1 Such readings are encouraged, of course, by the title that was later affixed to the story.

2 The claim that Naomi, rather than Ruth, is central to the plot of this story is not novel. Though I discovered it independently, others have made similar claims. Their corroboration, however, only serves to underscore my thesis that readers assumptions often drown out the narrator's voice. Despite the fact that scholars have been seeking to awaken our consciousness to Naomi's role, readers persist in relegating her to the background.

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story opens with Naomi, a Jewish woman, who recently lost both her husband and her only two sons. She considers this no mere accident, but rather a deliberate act of God. In her words, "The hand of the lord has turned against me" (1:13).3 When she returns to her home town of Bethlehem with Ruth in tow, the townswomen are mortified at her loss and Naomi asks them to address her by a new name--a name more appropriate to her trials, saying:

Call me no longer Naomi [meaning pleasant], call me Mara [meaning bitter], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full but the lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? (1:20-21).

Naomi's complaints are not rhetorical flourish. They are not incidental details meant to serve some greater purpose of the book of Ruth; they are the author's explicit means of establishing the book's central crisis: Is Naomi right? Has God forsaken her and shamed her household? If Naomi's plight were indeed the thrust of the story, then one would expect the rest of the book to resolve this crisis, particularly at the end. This is precisely what happens. Of course Ruth remains faithfully by Naomi's side and soon meets with Boaz who eventually marries her; but these events are not narrated in such a way as to draw attention to Ruth, as if for Ruth's own sake. Rather they are evidence that God has not forsaken Naomi after all. Instead he intends to give a new start to her terribly marred life.

This is how Naomi interpreted these events from the outset. When Boaz graciously welcomes Ruth to glean from his fields, Naomi is not concerned for Ruth's love life; instead, she focuses upon God's action on her own behalf, saying: "Blessed be [Boaz] by the lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" (2:20). This verse reveals Naomi's conviction that God is providing for her by sending Boaz to marry her daughter-in-law. Through their relationship, Naomi realizes that her husband's name and land may be preserved and her own

3 All citations in this essay are from the NRSV.

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dignity as a Jewish woman may be restored. For Naomi, this means a future. She (the living) and her husband (the dead) will not be written off as a dead branch in Israel's family tree. Boaz also understands the situation in this way. At the town gate, he proclaims before the elders that he is redeeming the land and marrying Ruth--not because he finally found the woman of his dreams, but "in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred" (4:5).4

This reading is confirmed by how the author concludes the story. Notice what does not happen. When Ruth and Boaz have a son, the three of them do not settle into a quaint little house with a white picket fence to live happily ever after. Furthermore, the townswomen do not boast over Ruth's good fortune or fine taste in men. Instead, all eyes are on Naomi:

Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age" (4:14-15).

Then something quite scandalous takes place. Naomi takes the child from Ruth, places him upon her own bosom and becomes his nurse (4:16). This means the child was officially entrusted to Naomi, as confirmed by the townswomen's exclamation in the following verse that "A son has been born to Naomi"--not Ruth. Modern sensibilities have been clearly violated here. Does not this child rightfully belong to the parents? Are not Ruth and Boaz better able to provide a stable, nurturing environment in which little Obed might flourish? Ruth has lost complete control. She is not even allowed to name the boy; Naomi's friends do that (4:17). Indeed, by the end of this story Ruth has all but faded from view.

Even though they are from completely different worlds (not to mention galaxies), Naomi and Anakin Skywalker share much in common. Incomplete tellings of their own stories have diminished their rightful place in their respective dramas. Though invaluable and irreplaceable as supporting cast members, Luke and Ruth were never intended to eclipse the true stars.

4 The biblical practice by which a dead man may yet have children through the offspring of a near relative, sometimes called the Levirate Law, is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

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Lessons for Scripture Reading

This reading of Ruth teaches us at least two lessons about how to read Scripture. The first has become a truism and requires little explanation: context is critical for understanding biblical texts. Without the first three movies it was difficult for many of us to grasp the heart of the Star Wars saga. Likewise, when key elements of the opening and closing chapters of Ruth are ignored, the story's main plot is misconstrued. Second, try as we may, we cannot help but read our own experiences and convictions into the biblical text. In the case of Ruth the modern penchant for romance, Christian awareness of Jesus' lineage, and the seemingly eternal status of the nuclear family beckon us to familiar readings. On the contrary, the strangeness of kinsmen redemption, the primitive utility of arranged marriages, and the selflessness of surrendering one's parentage blind us to countless narrative clues.

Yet we cannot stop here. A careful reading of the above reading exposes at least two lingering modern biases. To begin with, the individualistic culture of which we are a part would have us trade one set of individualistic readings for another. That is, we may succumb to the temptation to supplant individualistic readings highlighting Ruth with equally individualistic readings emphasizing Naomi. To do so would be to ignore the fact that Naomi's story is not her own; rather, since being penned it has always belonged to the people whose God inspired it. Ruth then is Israel's story. Naomi's loss is Israel's loss. Her restoration belongs to Israel as does her son. We see then how exiled Israel is much like Naomi. She lost her husband (the land) and her two son's (Israel and Judah). She cries out from a foreign land to a God who seems to have abandoned her altogether. But God did not forget Israel. He raises a non-Jew, Cyrus of Persia, who offers her hope. Yet this Gentile could not ultimately fulfill Israel's hopes. A child remained to be born--a "servant" messiah in whom lies her hope for a better future.

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Of course, Israel is no longer the sole proprietor of this story. Indeed, Ruth's place in Jesus' genealogy teaches us that Israel did not know her own story until it was fulfilled in Mary. What would it mean then for this story to be shared by both Jews and Christians? How might Christians tell Naomi's story in light of Romans 11, which holds out salvific hope for all of Israel? Could Moabitess Ruth be the Gentile church, boldly usurping ethnic Israel's spotlight and in the process extending the hope that makes ethnic Israel's restoration possible?

We have clearly gone too far afield. Modern hermeneutical primers would remind us that the text could not mean today what it could not have meant to the original audience. Consequently, if Naomi is the primary figure and her redemption is the book's central theme, all other readings must be subordinated to it. This presupposes, of course, that the original author (not to mention the divine author) cherished the notion of mutually exclusive readings. On the contrary, both the inspired New Testament writers and the early church fathers' uses of Scripture demonstrate that this was simply not the case. The book of Ruth may then be about Naomi's restoration AND Ruth's faithfulness AND messianic ancestry AND Israel's restoration AND, I would even go so far as to say, ethnic Israel's mysterious hope for salvation through Christ's body, the Church.

Fortunately, we need not navigate the abyss of postmodern meaninglessness nor climb the unscalable mountain of modern scientific exactitude. Rather we must discern our way through the maze of our own biases after an elusive "right" reading well aware and somewhat comforted by the fact that the Word we discern is living and the God we serve breathes life into our most slanted readings. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face; and only then will the real story be told.