Monday, October 19, 2009

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Contradictions, Contradictions

One of the primary interpretive assumptions of literalism is that scripture is univocal. Or, to put that in rather less annoyingly academic terms: There are no disagreements. It is all the Word of God(tm), and as such there can be no squabbles among texts. How could there be? If it's all God talkin', God ain't gonna disagree with himself, now, is he? Just 'cause you're Three Persons doesn't mean you get into arguments with yourself. The Bible, from that perspective, is a perfect and seamless system. Just read it, do what it says, and things'll be copacetic for you in the by and by.

There is, of course, a small problem with this approach. It isn't the way the Bible works. Today's case in point was one that surfaced during my personal study this last week. It's the wee tension between the Book of Ruth and the Book of Deuteronomy.

The story of the Book of Ruth is one of the more interesting tales you'll find in the Bible. Following the death of her husband, Ruth refuses to abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, and instead travels back with her to her land. Though Ruth is not Hebrew, but a Moabite, her commitment to Naomi is complete. Despite the threat of poverty, Ruth returns to Naomi's ancestral land, where she is noticed by one of Naomi's kinsmen. Impressed with both her beauty and her fidelity, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife. It's a non-trivial union for the history of Israel, as we hear that their son Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. King David, that is.

The rub, of course, is that Deuteronomy tells us that Moabites are a proscribed people. Torah right up and says that the child of a Moabite is forbidden to enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation. That would, by necessity, include Ruth's descendent David, who most certainly entered the assembly and was the anointed King over Israel. It would also, by extension, include her descendent Solomon, who was instructed by God to build the temple itself. So the guy who God tells to build the temple is simultaneously forbidden to enter the temple? Hmmm.

From my interpretive perspective, there's no problem with this. The injunction against Moabites in Deuteronomy are part of an old code of civil and ritual law. Some of that law still has validity. Some of it..particularly the parts that give divine sanction to old racial grudges...does not. Those little inconsistencies reflect the different ways in which the books that comprise the Bible express an understanding of God's action in our lives. They don't take away from the broader purpose and direction of the narrative, which becomes more and more filled with grace. If we look to lovingkindness for guidance in our interpretation, finding where it can guide us is not so hard.

From a literalist perspective, though, this is another time for exegetical hula-hooping, those delightful gyrations that provide such wonderful aerobic fitness for practitioners of presuppositional apologetics.