By Wendy Choy-Chan
We have been studying the Book of Ruth this quarter. Each week, we work on translating verses from Hebrew into English. Our minds are filled with Hebrew vocabulary, parsing rules, chiastic structures, word plays, and other information that aims to help us interpret the book. The simple story that has been told many times does not look that simple after all. Was it written to legitimize David’s Moabite heritage, or was it written to exemplify the virtue of “hesed” in the post-exilic period? Is the story about Ruth, or is it really a story of Naomi? Who is the kinsman-redeemer, or who are the kinsman-redeemers in the story?
These are all legitimate and interesting questions to ponder. In addition, there are scholarly articles looking in depth into the use of masculine pronouns for feminine subjects, or the meanings or lack of meanings to the names of various characters in the story. Sometimes I wonder why a book of merely 4 chapters long can generate research material that can pile from floor to ceiling and beyond.
Then one day, I came across a picture on Facebook of a harvest field in Israel. It caught my eye and mesmerized me for a long moment. I was transported back to the Book of Ruth – but this time, I wasn’t thinking of the text or the things I learned in my class, at least not with my mind. I was looking at the golden harvest through the eyes of Naomi. And I felt what she felt. Naomi was so bitter when she first returned to Bethlehem, seeing the abundance surrounding her, but within her, she could only see emptiness. Then, I also saw the harvest through the eyes of Ruth. The golden color of the harvest was like God’s majestic wings, protecting her and providing for her.
My interpretation prompted by the Facebook picture would not be considered critical or historical criticism on the Book of Ruth, but it is an interpretation through the lens of my heart, to feel and experience the story. I step on the field, I feel the wind blow and the barley sway. I see rows and rows of gold as the sun reflects its light on the barley. And I also wonder, what does barley smell like? Hm…
A lot of times in seminary classes, or even in church Bible study or Sunday sermons, so much emphasis is put on understanding the Bible with our minds that we forget to experience it with our hearts. After all, Ruth probably wasn’t concerned with the exact weight of the grain she brought back to Naomi (an ephah), or using proper Hebrew grammar in her dialogue. These details can lock us in our minds and inhibit our hearts to join in the process of interpretation. How much do we miss if we only use half of ourselves to study and experience the Word of God?
Once, I showed my adult Sunday school class a video of a flash flood re-draining a dried-out riverbed. I had the verse Isaiah 44:3 right beneath the the video, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” They all got excited after seeing the video, but it was excitement of the mind – “Where is this place? Where does the water come from? Does it happen every year?” And the questions went on and on. Sadly, nobody got excited in the heart – “Wow, this is what it is like when the spirit of God is poured into our thirsty soul!”
There is a saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps I should add, “Half is less than half of its whole” — using just your mind (or your heart) gives less than half of the whole experience.
Wendy Choy-Chan came to North America from Hong Kong when she was 15. She is now a full-time mom and part-time student at Fuller Northwest studying for her MA in Theology. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Seattle, WA.