I’m so excited to start this book, because as we all know by now, my favorite ones are usually narrative stories (check!) and don’t go on for too long (check plus!). So let’s dive right in to the book of Ruth. It starts with the backstory, which comes before the main heroine gets introduced.
“Now it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land, and a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to sojourn in the fields of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons (Ruth 1:1).” We learn that the man is Elimelech, his wife is Naomi, and their sons are Mahlon and Chilion. They’re in Moab long enough that Elimelech dies, both sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, and then they die as well. It’s all a tragic buildup, particularly for poor Naomi who is now away from her home and bereft of her whole family. But she must be a pretty good mother-in-law, because when she decides to go back home, both daughters decide to go with her. She blesses them and tells them to go home, and protests a bit, but ultimately listens. “And they raised their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth cleaved to her (Ruth 1:14).”
Ruth refuses to leave, and clings to Ruth with the iconic words wherever you to, I will go, your people shall be my people and your God my God. This is when Ruth becomes the first official convert, someone who had another viable option, in this case her home country and family, but actively chose a different life. We honor Ruth for this, which seems very timely today in particular, because today I went with a group of fellow Jewish educators to the newly opened Museum of the Bible for the first time. There’s a lot to reflect on about the experience as a whole, but one thing that particularly interested me in this context is the emphasis on Ruth in the exhibit about Tanakh. One can read a lot into it – she’s the ancestress of David, who Christians believe is the ancestor of Jesus, so of course she’s an important character to highlight. But I like the story of Ruth because it’s ultimately about the power of female relationships, loyalty, and choice. We don’t get a lot of choice in Tanakh. People are often born into their roles, or are obligated in some way. But Ruth’s magic is that she created her own destiny, making her an awesome female biblical role model to boot.
This psalm gives us some context with its opening verse. “A song of David, when he fled from Absalom his son (Psalms 3:1).” It’s a reference back to the saga that we read about in the books of Samuel, when David, the poet/warrior/king of Israel suffered a rebellion at the hands of his own son. While he was on the run, this is a reflection of his feelings. “I will not fear ten thousands of people, who have set themselves against me all around (Psalms 3:7).” Even though David was fighting an army lead by the ultimate betrayer – his son – his faith in God remained steadfast enough to get him through. David is credited with writing many of the Psalms, so I’m sure we’ll encounter him a lot over the next 147 chapters!
“Arm yourselves with purity lest He become angry and you perish in the way, for in a moment His wrath will be kindled; the praises of all who take refuge in Him (Psalms 2:12).” The version of God described in this verse is a volatile one, able to be triggered to anger at any point if a person makes the wrong move. It’s weird to think of God that way. Simultaneously, He is supposed to be all-knowing and all-seeing, and yet He’s almost like an adolescent in terms of quick emotions. I guess it shows why our own emotions are so ever-changing – we are made in God’s image, so maybe this is something we share as well.
This chapter marks the end of several things: the end of Malachi, the end of Nevi’im, and the end of the second of three major sections of Tanakh. Therefore, I decided to focus on the final verses of this final chapter of the Prophets. “Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers – lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction (Malachi 3:24).” Elijah the prophet comes up throughout the Jewish canon, and it’s believed that he will proceed the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, concluding the book of Prophets with a reference to this most famous one seems telling. This verse talks about connecting throughout the generations via the heartstrings of parents and children, all with the goal of achieving a peaceful end of days. It ties up the many messages that I’ve read throughout the last few months, bringing them all together with a cautiously hopeful message. And with that, we conclude the prophets.
Tomorrow, I begin the hardest part of this journey of 929 chapters. I’ll be starting on Psalms, which has 150 chapters in and of itself. It’s going to take over seven months to get through all of them, and I hope I’m able to stay motivated throughout that time. Today marks 567 chapters down and 362 to go!
This chapter is dedicated to the priests. “For a priest’s lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts (Malachi 2:7).” Today, I don’t think there’s anyone who is truly the guardian of knowledge. As an educator, I’m regularly in conversations about how our field needs to change being that we live in a time when anyone can look up any information on their phones instantly. Teachers (or priests) aren’t needed to transmit knowledge and facts. So what is our purpose? Like the priests, we are here to serve the community, providing added value to our learners by applying the knowledge, making it deeper than that which they can Google. We need to view this as holy work, just like that of the priests, of positively impacting the journeys of each learner that we come into contact with.
The final book in Nevi’im opens interestingly. “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel in the hand of Malachi (Malachi 1:1).” Being the prophet of God isn’t described as an honor, or a privilege, but rather as a burden. Bearing the weight of that must responsibility is indeed a heavy task, and I wish more leaders today took that into account, rather than only looking for glory. Leadership roles are burdens, and responsibilities, and should be treated solemnly, rather than as popularity contests. But I digress.
This chapter involves God essentially calling out the people for being insincere. They offer imperfect, inferior sacrifices, demonstrating a lack of respect and honor. Then, they question why God doesn’t show them favor. “O that there were even one among you that would close the doors [of the Temple] and that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain! I have no desire in you, says the Lord of Hosts. Neither will I accept an offering from your hand (Malachi 1:10).” Essentially, stop half-assing things Israelites! People are so lazy, and are seriously always trying to cut corners. And when you don’t bring the best of yourself to a situation, you never get the best results. This is God literally saying that He would rather someone shut the Temple all together rather than give without sincerity and honor. So let’s apply that to all of our lives – doing things wholeheartedly, or not at all. What would that look like?
The final chapter of Zechariah contains a great deal of end-of-days and messianic imagery. “And on that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem from the east. And the Mount of Olives shall split in the midst thereof-toward the east and toward the west-a very great valley. And half the mountain shall move to the north, and half of it to the south (Zechariah 14:4).” It’s crazy that these fantastical statements are being made about real places, places that I’ve been. This chapter is describing such out of this world events that it’s hard to reconcile them with reality. It’s statements like these that have made Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, such a hot commodity over the years. Would it maybe be better if this wasn’t all canonized in the Torah? After all, so many wars have been fought over our tiny strip of land. Would some these elements being left out have stopped all that bloodshed?
With that, Zechariah is done, and tomorrow I start the final (short) book of Prophets. Almost the end of 2/3 of the sections of Tanakh!
“On that day, a spring shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for purification and for sprinkling (Zechariah 13:1).” There are other verses in this chapter that are probably considered much more iconic and important, but this one jumped out to me because it connects to a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The concept of purification through water manifests for Jews today in the mikvah, the ritual bath that women (and men) immerse in so as to attain a state of purity. There’s something very freeing about being in the water, and I’ve personally grown to love the ritual, even though as a secular Jew, it’s not one that came to me naturally. But seeing the origins of water as a pure vessel and means of sanctification here makes me feel even more connected to the rite. The waters of the mikvah are called living waters, and seeing them described here as a spring hits home for me about the history and tradition that I choose to carry on.
This chapter contains a new prophecy from God about the fate of Israel. “Behold! I am making Jerusalem a cup of weakness for all the peoples around, and also on Judah, [that he] shall be in the siege against Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:2).” Jerusalem is the center, but it’s a besieged center. It will eventually be saved, with all those surrounding it, all those attacking it, being consumed by God. Eventually, He will avenge Jerusalem, and protect His city. I recognize that in many situations, suffering eventually gives way to better things, and it’s the difficult moments that enable us to learn and grow. But honestly for many of the past several books, these constant refrains of tragedy without a seeming end have been difficult to read. Why do we need to endure this much? Can we really deserve it?
Throughout Tanakh, there’s a constant theme of God and the leaders of the people as shepherds caring for their flocks. This concept figures prominently into this chapter. “For, behold! I am setting up a shepherd in the land. Those that are cut off he shall not remember; the foolish ones he shall not seek. The lame he shall not heal; the one that can stand he shall not bear. And the flesh of the fat one he shall eat, and their hoofs he shall break (Zechariah 11:16).” If we accept the premise that the shepherd is a leadership model, this descriptor definitely raises a few questions. I personally don’t believe that a good, effective leader forgets the weaker members of his or her tribe, and leaves them behind. It’s definitely easier to do that – once someone leaves the fold, assume they’ve checked out and move on. But I think a true leader doesn’t write people off that quickly, and continues to work for the betterment of even those who aren’t front and center.