RUTH AND THE JUDGES
On hunger, desire and rock and roll
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
Ruth lives in the age of Judges. “Joshua Judges Ruth,” the title of a 1992 Lyle Lovett album, aptly summarizes this age by reciting the New Testament order of the books preceding her story as a kind of ancient J’accuse.
Early in his eponymous story, Joshua exhibits a Moses-like order and authority: he rules as a judge and general for a single tribe knit together from the patchwork of Israelite ancestors. But by Ruth’s era this has become a mere remnant of tribes whose only connection is its disorder.
In this context, the story of Ruth is one of heroic, implacable desire. She fights back and wins. The hard, judgemental stare of history culminating with the time of Judges appears only so that Ruth can drive towards the realignment of Israelite destiny. The Book of Ruth is a her-story of his-story restored thanks to Ruth’s unexplainable desire to make it so.
But before she can restore a path towards Israelite destiny, she must conquer the Bible’s Wild Wild West. No one is King in Judges because every little pissant prairie punk thinks he already is a king. Stories of aimlessness, warlords, sexual violence and random killing cover the land. Long after the promise of the Promised Land that Joshua and his disciples had been meant to deliver, starvation — as it always does in the Bible — marks a time for urgent change. Emerging from a famished Beit Lechem (Bethlehem, literally the “House of Bread” in Hebrew) Ruth’s hunger is both the literal pain of an empty stomach as well as the ethereal longing of an aching soul of a people that must find a way to make sense together.
No one wants Ruth at first, not her husband and not her husband’s mother Naomi and not any of her klan. The song “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” on “Joshua Judges Ruth” could have been written about this kind of loneliness — Ruth’s rejection, the Land’s rejection of its people, and the seeming absence of the divine force that had once made so many promises through Moses and Joshua.
Ruth must follow her desire out of a hollowed out landscape not unlike Bob Dylan’s “Scarlet Town:”
Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late…
In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows
You fight ’em on high and you fight ’em down in
You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine and gin…
Ruth anchors her desires and ultimately Israelite destiny by finding Boaz, literally “the one in whom there is strength.” Boaz is a man of power and insight, an enlightened lord, but the strength of the tale is Ruth’s commitment at risk of death to seek a destiny only she can understand. Out of Boaz and Ruth comes Jesse and Jesse is the father of David, the King, flawed as he may be, who grounds the Israelite remnant in a kingdom promised, and almost lost, long ago.
Lyle Lovett might have been thinking about Ruth’s courage and desire on another album in the terrific song “Which Way Does That Old Pony Run:”
So this good life you know I must leave
Your new car
And your color TV
But what’s riches to you
Just ain’t riches to me
And if you’re staying out here
Then I’m headed back east
We never know what needs our desires might fulfill or to what riches they might lead. But surely the greatest riches are when our desires serve a good beyond our own.
In a lot of ways, that’s the story of rock and roll. In its sloppy, arrogant, unrelenting way rock saves souls. I started to understand this truth when I discovered the Kinks as a kid. In “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” the Kinks praise the work of creative desire that has no clear reason at first, but ultimately saves many more souls than their own:
Look at me, look at you
You say you’ve got nothing left to prove
The King is dead, rock is done
You might be through but I’ve just begun
I don’t know, I feel free and I won’t let go
Before you go, there’s something you ought to know
Dan is a fan and he lives for our music
It’s the only thing that gets him by
He’s watched us grow and he’s seen all our shows
He’s seen us low and he’s seen us high
Oh, but you and me keep thinking
That the world’s just passing us by
Don’t want to live my life, living in a rock and roll fantasy
But that’s the magic — when desire and destiny meet in a place that ignites fantasy but is also truly of use to others.
So rock on Ruth, Bob, Lyle, the Brothers Davies, and all of those others who, in the words of Neil Young, “keep on rocking in the free world.” And the words of another band I first encountered in that crazy year of discovering rock and roll, as I sign off after five years of writing Rock Midrash for the LABA Journal: “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You.”