The scene: a table and four chairs on a patio somewhere in the Universe. On the table are a teapot, several cups, honey, and a potted begonia. It is a lovely golden afternoon.
Ezra and Nehemiah knock on the garden gate of Ruth, great-grandmother of King David, not to mention progenitrix of the Messiah. There is a certain formality among them; they are meeting for the first time.
Ruth, opening the gate: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Ezra, thank you for coming. Nehemiah, I’m so pleased to meet you at last. Please have a seat. I hope you like tea—it’s my own blend of herbs from my garden. Honey, if you like….
Ezra, taking a seat: Thank you for inviting us, Ruth. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Tea would be quite nice.
Nehemiah, also sitting: Yes, we are honored to visit you. We’ve heard so much about you.
Ruth: Well, I suppose you’ve read my book. Most people have. It has even been made into a musical, I believe. And retold over the last few thousand years or so.
Ezra: Yes. I’ve always wondered, did you write it yourself?
Ruth: No, I was too busy taking care of my family. But it’s very accurate.
Nehemiah: A heartwarming story. It sounds as though you and Naomi were close.
Ruth: We had a wonderful relationship. But everyone in town was kind to me, especially after I married Boaz.
Ezra: And being the great grandmother of King David is a very good recommendation. Easily makes up for…
Nehemiah: For being… you know…
Ruth: Strange? Foreign? An Abomination, perhaps?
Ezra: I’m sure it seems harsh now, but we were only responding to what we believed was a major problem in the community. Intermarriage with idol worshippers was potentially fatal to our purpose.
Nehemiah: We were trying to reestablish the temple cult. We really couldn’t risk having all those…
Ruth: …Moabite women married to men from good Israelite families? “Holy seed” were the exact words, I believe.
Ezra squirms a little; adds some honey to his tea.
Nehemiah: Nice little patio you have here. Is that a begonia?
Ruth: I can see why you gentlemen might want to change the subject, but really, Ezra, did you have to be quite so dramatic? “I rent my garment and my cloak and I tore out hair from my head and my beard and I sat desolate…”
Nehemiah: He also said he was “ashamed and mortified” for these “crimes”—the “crime” of marrying an outsider. In retrospect it does seem a bit much.
Ezra: Look who’s talking! And I quote, “no Ammonite or Moabite should come into God’s assembly for all time.” I believe you actually beat the offenders and tore out their hair. At least I only tore out my own…! (Ezra is balding.)
Nehemiah: Again, in retrospect…
Ezra: You mean if you’d known that King David’s great-grandmother would be a Moabitess…
Nehemiah: Hey, I’m not the one who presided over all those divorce proceedings and banished all those women and children.
Ezra: In the end, we only asked 110 women to leave. And not all of them had children. My data suggest that this was only .58% of the clergy and .67% of the laity. Well within acceptable limits.
Ruth: But did you even try to find out what happened to those women and children? Did they have families they could return to? It’s not like they could support themselves.
Ezra: Well, we did try, during those trials, to look at the details, but we couldn’t realistically take care of all of them…. Be reasonable!
Ruth: Did either one of you ever follow up on them? What would have happened to Naomi and me if Boaz and his family hadn’t treated me as kin? We might have starved. And unlike those women you expelled, we had no children to care for. You might have been sentencing these women and their children to death!
Nehemiah: Now who’s being dramatic?
Ezra: And we really had no choice! What we don’t like to mention is that the Persians demanded that we be very clear about who was part of the assembly and who wasn’t. Remember, Nehemiah worked directly for the Empire.
Nehemiah: True; I was the Satrap for the Province of Yehud—the Governor. And Ezra’s mission to renew the temple was officially authorized by the imperial bureaucracy.
Ezra: We had our orders, directly from Artaxerxes. Keep a clear record of the population. Distinguish between the pure seed of the returned exiles and those who had remained in the land. Us and them. And I quote: “All who do not do the law of your God and the law of the king promptly, judgment shall be enacted upon him….”
Ruth, incredulous: “We were only following orders”? That’s your excuse?
Another pause for contemplation, refilling of teacups, admiration of flowers.
Ezra: Admit it, Nehemiah. We both thought that purity was really important. We were terrified of idolatry. That’s what got us to Babylon in the first place!
Nehemiah: It’s true. We were very focused on keeping ourselves separate from anyone who might lead us astray. We did what we thought God wanted us to.
Ruth: You wouldn’t even let the locals help rebuild the temple. They offered to help!
There is a knock on the gate.
Ruth: Who can that be? Come in! We’re on the patio!
Ruth, Ezra, and Nehemiah, together: Jonah! What are you doing here? Great to see you, old friend!
Jonah: Uh, God told me to come here and I thought, well, things go better when I go where God wants me to.
Faint smiles all around. No one wants to embarrass Jonah. He sits, accepts a cup of tea.
Nehemiah: So, the last time we saw you, I believe you were sitting on top of a cliff east of Nineveh, beside a dead vine, arguing with God.
Ezra: Let’s see… God had just asked you a question, I believe.
Jonah nods again: I remember it well. “And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand human beings, who do not know between their right hand and their left, and many beasts?”
Nehemiah: That’s quite a question!
Ruth: And what is your answer? Is Jehovah the God of the Moabites, the Samaritans, the Hittites, the Egyptians, even the Assyrians?
Jonah, pausing, remembering: It would seem so, yes.
Ruth, smiling: More tea, anyone?
The Hebrew Bible, by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 2019).
The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abington Press, 1994).
Nancy Hoyt Lecourt is Professor of English and Academic Dean Emerita at Pacific Union College. She is retired and living in Angwin, California.
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