Back when I was in school, my friends and I were huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Each Monday’s lunch break would revolve around the previous Sunday night’s episode. At first we focused on how Jean-Luke Picard dealt with whatever alien beings he encountered that week. But over time we became engrossed in the longer plots that surfaced again and again in later programs. Would the android Data ever get the emotion chip that his creator made for him? Would the Borg assimilate the galaxy?
Key to enjoying the show was noticing how earlier episodes shed light on the current story. Each program would tell a good tale, but a long-time follower would see the intrigue grow as the plot thickened over time. We were engrossed in a soap opera, a space-age Days of Our Lives.
As I learned to read the Bible in its ancient setting, I was surprised that it does the same thing. The Scriptures were written by people who saw reality in light of their recollections of their ancestors, so they would sprinkle reminders of past history through their writing, in order to hint at the deeper significance of the events at hand. Memory, history, and family were central to the fabric of its ancient Eastern culture, and we need to read with these in mind.
Take the story of Ruth, for instance.
I used to simply see that book as a heart-warming story of a woman who snagged herself a good husband because she was kind to her mother-in-law. But if we lived in biblical times, our ears would have pricked up to a scandalous detail of Ruth’s family past, that she was a Moabite.
Immediately we’d think of the unseemly history of her people. We’d recall that when the weary Israelites were journeying to the Promised Land, the people of Moab lured them into sexual immorality and worshiping idols (Numbers 25:1). From that point on, the name “Moabite” was associated with lewdness, even more disgusting because it was how they worshiped their false gods. God even declared that the Moabites were barred from being a part of the assembly of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:3. Was their crime ever forgivable, we’d wonder?
Then we’d recall their origins in Genesis 19:30-38, in the not-so-nice story of Lot and his daughters. After Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, they got their father drunk so that they could become pregnant by him, since their husbands had refused to leave the city and died. One gave birth to a son named Moab, and he became the father of the Moabite people. A-hah, we’d say! In ancient thinking, the character of a family was assumed to be defined by its ancestry. If your fathers were warriors, you were a warrior. If your ancestors were immoral, you’d likely be the same way too.
Keeping these ideas in mind, now let’s turn to Ruth. She was a Moabite woman who had returned to Israel with her mother-in-law after her husband died. An ancient listener would immediately wonder, was she as immoral as those who came before her? She said that she would worship the God of Israel, but would God ever accept her?
Reading her story through her family history, we’d realize that she faces the exact same situation as Lot’s daughters. Like them, she was a widow who desperately needed children. Naomi even told her to approach Boaz when he was sleeping outside by his harvest, after he had eaten (and drunk) his fill. But unlike her ancestors, Boaz proclaimed that she was a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:10). He then married her, and her son became the grandfather of King David. Not only that, but Ruth even appears in Matthew 1:5 as part of the line of Christ!
Ruth turned from her people’s unseemly past to embrace the God of Israel. Not only did he accept her and cleanse her from her history, but he gave her a key role in his supreme act of salvation. Those of us who struggle with an embarrassing family history or an immoral past should rejoice to see how God redeemed Ruth and used her for his wonderful purposes.
Understanding how texts interrelate has given me a whole new perspective on reading the Bible. Growing up, my children’s storybook Bible had trained me to read it as a series of short stories, mostly unrelated, each with its own moral lesson. Only later did I discover that it is an epic saga with a delightfully interwoven plot. Intriguingly, it often explains why you find some unsavory stories in your Bible. They aren’t there as moral examples, but to cast light on the deeper meaning of other events.
When I used to read the stories by themselves, some of them frustrated me because they didn’t show me how to live. But the difficult ones actually have a far deeper purpose. They illustrate how the terrible sinfulness of man runs pervades human history, but then how God graciously intervened to bring Christ into the world. We need to read with the eyes of an ancient person to see how that message is woven into the fabric of the Bible from beginning to end.