The ancient Jews cannot be chided too much for their shabby attitude toward foreigners. These ancient Jews had endured four hundred years of slavery under their Egyptian neighbors to the South. Their arrival in the Promised Land became a history of tribal warfare from the time of Joshua until the era of King David. The Babylonians were next in harassing the Jews even to the point of taking the Jewish elite off into exile for seventy years. The kindly Persian ruler Cyrus did allow the Jews to return to Palestine but they were still under Persian rule. The Greeks eventually conquered the Persians, and most of the world in fact, under the military might of Alexander the Great and his son Philip. Brief periods of hard won independence were occasionally enjoyed by the Jews.
Judas Maccabee and his four brothers secured about a hundred years of freedom for their fellow Jews. By the time of Christ, Roman legionaries were quite in charge of Israel as well as the rest of the Mediterrean world. Jewish history in the Holy Land as an organized people would last only about 100 years after the time of Christ. The death of Herod and the tragic siege of the fortress at Masada were the final blow to Jewish political life. Theirs was a scattered destiny after that. Only in 1947 would the Jews return to Palestine as their own people in charge of their own destiny.
So animosity, hostility, and enmity are humanly understandable emotions when one considers the conduct of most of the Mediterrean world toward the ancient Jews. This pervasive acrimony makes the Book of Jonah, a portion of which will be read at Mass this coming Sunday, and the Book of Ruth as well so unusual in their generous and even expansive attitude toward foreigners. Jonah was an actual minor prophet whom God the Father challenged to visit the wicked pagan city of Nineveh and bring those heathens to their knees in repentance and in worship of the Jewish God. Jonah of course would have none of this interfaith generosity and quickly fled to the sea coast to catch a boat to a foreign port where the Jewish God might have no influence. But God was not to be outwitted. Jonah was tossed into the sea by the sailors who thought his presence on board had brought them bad luck.
Jonah’s consequent three-day sojourn in the belly of the “great fish” is certainly one of the most popular happenings in the Bible. Eventually Jonah repented; he did preach to the Ninevites; and they amazingly where converted. Still faithful to his ancient Jewish background, Jonah goes off to the desert to pout. The Ninevites were not worthy of God’s largesse.
The Book of Ruth offers a much more kindly approach to the proper attitude the ancient Jews should have had toward foreigners. Ruth was a Moabite (today’s Jordan) who married a Jewish young man. Orpah (not Oprah) also was a Moabite who married the young man’s brother. The young men were sons of Naomi, a faithful Jew. When famine struck Israel Naomi and her sons and their wives moved temporarily to Moabite territory until the famine should pass. While in alien territory, the two husbands both died. When the famine passed, Naomi chose to return to Israel. Orpah opted to stay behind with her own people. Ruth however insisted on returning to Israel with Naomi, obviously to care for her mother-in-law in her old age. Naomi tried to discourage Ruth but the young woman insisted on accompanying the older woman.
Ruth’s insistence is among the most famous words in the Old Testament: “But Ruth said, “Do not press me to go back and abandon you! Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried.” These tender and heartfelt words on the lips of a foreigner were highly uncharacteristic of the ancient Jewish mentality – and frankly, of any ancient mentality. Tribalism was extensive in the pre-Christian world.
The reluctant preaching of Jonah toward foreigners and the kindly fidelity of Ruth toward a foreigner were not popular messages in the ancient world. Even today, one can still witness the provincialism that pervades the Middle East. Brief hints of benevolence toward foreigners are found in the Psalms and in Isaiah. Resident aliens could expect some sympathy. But the common attitude was keeping foreigners at arm’s length. Jesus certainly had his work cut out for him.
The universality of salvation would be a cornerstone of Christianity. Centuries of insularity had to be reversed. The Gospel had to be preached “to every creature.” The Church makes every effort at missionary activity and enjoys much success in the Third Word. In the Western world, ecumenical and interfaith activities experienced a brief swell of enthusiasm in the middle of the last century. Lately however the various Christian communities have dealt with life issues and social issues in radically different ways. Dogma used to divide the churches. Now sadly, moral issues divide the churches. Christ still has his work cut out for him.