Sunday, August 9, 2015

Imagination and Meaning in Authentic Text

August 9, 2015

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I had the privilege and joy of spending the day with a small group of women who are serious indeed about practicing their faith. They pruned badly overgrown flower beds and cleaned—really cleaned!—neglected china cabinets and kitchen. And yes—they did windows!! When they were finished I thought I heard the house purr, much like Annie when she has been pampered and groomed.

In-between chores, we studied together the OT book of Ruth. We began with a careful review of the text, reminding ourselves of the historical context and considering the story itself in the form we now have it in English translation. Ruth records a great story, and even a brief review produces both wisdom and pleasure.

However, in my opinion, the lasting impact of the study for us all lay in the something that Walter Brueggemann, OT scholar, views as “imaginative remembering.” Brueggemann argues that this approach permits us to value OT texts as a trustworthy voice of faith while still taking seriously our best critical learning. **

For example, after years of critical study, scholars agree that the authentic text in the form in which we now have it rightly reports the following event: following their night-time encounter at the threshing floor, Boaz sent Ruth away with a generous gift of grain.

Now: consider the imaginative options. Was this act payment in return for sexual favors, or a gift that pledged future provision and protection?

The option a reader chooses depends, of course, on the character of Boaz that the reader has constructed imaginatively from the naked facts that the critical analysis of the text provides. 

The authentic text makes it possible to view Boaz as a shrewd businessman who, in the morally loose climate of the time of the Judges, took advantage of an available sexual encounter, but then “did the honorable thing” by marrying the girl. This view of the text permits us to see Boaz as “doing the right thing," and in doing so, gaining a beautiful wife who gave him a son listed in the genealogy of Jesus, and acquiring, not incidentally, a valuable piece of land in the transaction.

However, the authentic text simultaneously gives us the option for constructing a contrasting view in which Boaz in the morally lose climate of the time of the Judges maintained a life guided by the principles of Torah (God’s Law for Israel). In this imagined context, we see Boaz acting in accordance with Torah requirement for protection and provision for the marginalized and poor, and care of the stranger in the gates.

This use of the authentic text permits us to see Boaz as attracted to Ruth while refusing to take sexual advantage of Ruth although Ruth herself (at Naomi’s direction) had made this opportunity possible. Boaz protected Ruth, he provided for Ruth, and extended a relationship to her that made both Ruth and Naomi safe and securely home again within the community of the family of God. 

This view of Boaz makes the text speak into God’s provision through the Great Kinsman Redeemer for our identity, our safety, and our generativity as women. 

In the lively discussions of the text, it was possible to see the text functioning as the living Word, God speaking into our lives. Who is this God whom we seek to serve? We asked ourselves: Do I see God attending to my needs only incidentally in a world in which He permits exploitation as the cost of safety? 

Or does this God provide protection, identity and new life as the Kinsman-Redeemer who acts out of His character rather than His convenience?

Critical scholarship is crucial in establishing an authentic text. But for the text to become the “living Word,” shaping our faith experience, authentic text in and of itself requires us to enter into the text in this process that Brueggemann describes as “imaginative remembering.”

In this instance we have at hand a reliable text that reports Boaz, “merry” (?) after eating and drinking, curled up to sleep on the threshing floor beside his winnowed grain. When startled awake at midnight, he finds a beautiful, perfumed woman lying at his uncovered feet. 

The text then gives us a brief truncated conversation between the two in which Ruth identifies herself and asks for protection, and identifies Boaz as a kinsman (kinsman responsibilities inferred but non-verbalized). Then Boaz, in turn, identifies Ruth as he believes her to be (a virtuous woman) and acknowledges and accepts his kinsman responsibilities, promising to act on her behalf.

Then the text presents a factual account of the continuing story.

Boaz asked Ruth to stay with him on the threshing floor until morning, and Ruth did so. Then in the dim pre-dawn light before easy recognition was possible, Boaz sent Ruth back to Naomi, sending with her his gift of grain.

What meaning does your imaginative remembering give to that gift of grain carried by Ruth as she quietly left the threshing floor in the dawn’s dim light? 

What identity does your imaginative remembering give to the man Boaz? What happens in your imaginative remembering when you take into account that Boaz was Rahab’s son?

Grateful in these days of diminishment for the Great Kinsman Redeemer who gives me identity, protection and provision, and in whose promise I can rest.

See you next week.


**I heartily recommend the Preface and Introduction of Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. xi-13. And I want to express again my grateful appreciation of the group who often do what you did again Saturday: aid me by your imaginative remembering to find new living truth with which God regularly surprises me in the Word. 

1 comment:

  1. Your teaching is such a gift, Gay. To sit at your feet and learn from you about God and His word is immeasurable!