Most Christian ministers in the United States and Europe must pass exams to be ordained. In the Episcopal Church, we have the General Ordination Exams (GOEs), normally taken by seminarians in their last year of training and in advance of their ordination to the transitional diaconate. Having sat for several grad school comprehensive exams but mercifully spared the GOEs, I confess that they are very intimidating. Anyone who can write informed, coherent essays on these questions has to know her stuff. Kudos to our senior seminarians who step up to the plate and take their hacks.
After almost a decade of teaching New Testament in an Episcopal seminary, I changed my mind about the GOEs, at least as it tests students in their facility with Holy Scripture. I used to complain — or at least regret privately — that there was almost no way to adjust my pedagogy so to better prepare students for the questions. I have repented of that complaint, and what I once saw as a frustration, I now regard as a virtue of the exam. There is no question of teaching to the test. Can’t be done. And that’s a good thing. The questions are synthetic, contextual, pastoral. Just as in parish life, one cannot see what is around the bend, so also for the GOE Scripture question, one needs to be ready for what one cannot anticipate.
However, were one to characterize the most common strategy employed in the Scripture question, it would be the setting forth of a “repugnance” calling for some adjudication (see Article XX). That is, frequently two texts are set out that appear (or are said to be) discordant (not infrequently an Old Testament view contrasted to a New Testament alternative), or a text is highlighted that offends contemporary sensibilities, or both. The Bible offers an endless supply of such texts, and these are real questions that attentive readers of the Bible will ask. Moreover, such questions would seemingly require the examinee to give an informed — one hopes sympathetic — account of the texts in question as prelude to the harder adjudicating or synthesizing work. This approach has its merits.
The 2011 question on “difference”
Yet, on occasion, the exam specimens of discord are only superficially problematic. For example, the 2011 question offers 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 and Ephesians 2:14–18 as texts “with very different perspectives on the question of how to deal with ‘difference.’” Presumably, the “difference” is that, whereas the Ephesians text celebrates the inclusion of Gentiles into the commonwealth and household of God, the 1 Corinthians text commends excluding from the assembly the man engaged sexually with his father’s wife.
One hopes that it would be not regarded as impertinence for the examinee to suggest that what is “very different” between these texts is the circumstance each addresses and not their “perspectives.” One hopes it is patent that the hostility rooted in ethnic difference is a different matter than sexual behavior: an offense, Paul says, beyond the pale even by Gentile standards (1 Cor. 5:1). That would make for a pretty short (and risky) answer to the question, so perhaps it would also be useful to add that the moral expectations of 1 Corinthians 5 are exactly the same as those expected of the Gentile converts in Ephesians (see Eph. 5:1–5), save that the directives in the allegedly more inclusive Ephesians passage are perhaps even more transformational (“be imitators of God”), hyperbolic (“don’t even name sexual immorality, or impurity, or greed”), and austere (“no sexually immoral, impure, or covetous person has inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God”).
Then it would also be important to note that the enthusiasm for receiving Gentiles into the covenant family in Ephesians is equally celebrated in 1 Corinthians: “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (12:13; cf. 1:24)! Having made these observations, the examinee could be forgiven for worrying that she missed something important in the question. It really can’t be that a church that embraces all persons without distinction of gender, race, or class therefore forfeits its authority to summon these disparate persons to a common moral ethos. Can it? Is this a trick question?
The 2016 question on “immigration”
The previous example came to mind when I noted the 2016 question, offered a couple of months ago, in which the other option for the 2011 question was repeated.
The Bible study group in your parish is reading the books of Ruth and Ezra, and has asked you about the apparent contradictions between these two books. In particular, they are concerned about the role of the “outsider” in the community in light of recent political discussions about immigration. The group has asked you, their Rector, to speak to them about these texts, and you have chosen to focus your discussion on the following two passages.
[Texts from Ezra 9:11–12 and Ruth 4:13–17]
Write an essay of about 1,000 words that forms the basis for a presentation to this Bible study group. The essay should demonstrate awareness of the literary, theological, and historical contexts of the passages while addressing the concerns of the group. Bring in at least two other scriptural references, one of which must be from the New Testament, to support your essay.
We must start with the willing suspension of disbelief. A parish group studying Ruth and Ezra in combination is, well, surprising — but God bless them. There may be a good reason that Ruth and Ezra are paired this way in the question, however. Not only do Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah belong to the third division of the Hebrew canon (the Ketuvim, i.e., “Writings”), there is a historical-critical account of the book of Ruth’s origins that places it not only after the exile but as an intentional counter-narrative to the policies of Ezra 9-10. The story of the inclusion of the Moabitess, Ruth, into the covenant community is said to counterpoise the harsh and inhumane policies of Ezra’s exclusionary zealotism.
Whether or not we deem this a persuasive historical-critical theory, we should be impressed if a non-specialist student should make mention of it, all the more so if he were to offer a critique. I’m not sure if that kind of technical knowledge of the field is common among seminarians, but, in any case, it would not begin to address the concerns of the parishioners.
Indeed, the question as posed does not lead one to say some of the most obvious things that should be said.
- If the question is immigration from the vantage point of the Old Testament, the rector should begin by highlighting neither of these passages, but rather Torah’s generous, though not unproblematic, regard for the “stranger and alien,” as those along with “widows and orphans” under God’s special care and protection (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:9-10, 34; 24:22; Deut. 10:18-19; 24:14, 17; 27:19; Ps. 146:9 or 68:5 ), a theme repeated with vehemence in the prophets (Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Ezek. 22:7, 29; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5). It would seem that texts such as these, rather than narratives about “intermarriage,” would have to be the place to start — even if it temporarily sidetracks the parish Bible study from its study of Ruth and Ezra. In fairness, the question does not quite prevent the examinee from doing just this, but we are told that the rector has chosen to focus the discussion on the two given passages. It would be understandable if a student under pressure wondered if he had the freedom to contravene and implicitly criticize the question.
- However, we will need to say something else as well: the setting of Israel’s endogamous theocracy provides no obvious analogy for the secular, multicultural, democratic nation-state. Save for some radical “theonomists,” no one imagines that we can move facilely from “biblical law” to our United States. Thus, it would be incumbent upon the rector to give some kind of nuanced account both of the underlying motivations for the Torah’s merciful and just treatment of aliens and then ask what sorts of re-enactments are fitting to our political circumstance, or, indeed, whether such concerns transcend any political institutions and now fasten upon the new covenant people of the new exodus. There’s more than one essay in theological hermeneutics here, and that’s even before we get to Ruth and Ezra.
- But if we affirm, as we should, that the favorable orientation to the alien is called for in the Law and reinforced in the Prophets, then we will have yielded to a different canonical hermeneutic as it concerns Ruth and Ezra. Different as they are, both texts depict from the narrators’ perspectives a vivid and salutary fidelity to the Torah. Ruth is the faithful and generous enactment of Torah by a people marked by ḥesed. The story resolves, after all, in a levirate marriage! And Ezra is nothing if not a narrative of Torah-renewal: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7:10). Even of the dissolution of the marriages Ezra 9-10 it is said, “let it be done according to Torah.” Thus, if we allow the middle term of Torah observance, the “contradictions” do seem only “apparent.”
Well, then, to the question. If we finally turn to the narrative of Ruth with “immigration” in mind, an honest reading of the text is likely to prove too much. Ruth, after all, is a proselyte: “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). If the book of Ruth is a text depicting “hospitality” (it is), it is not “radical” hospitality. The reception of the Moabitess as kin is predicated upon a religious conversion. Thus, if there is a model here for the hospitable reception of the alien and stranger, it is that they should convert religiously as a condition for reception and cultural integration. We might remember only a few months ago, when a few of our presidential candidates proposed a religious test for immigration (Christians only), it rightly met with such a flurry of opposition, they backed down. It is doubtful that either the parish Bible study or the GOE examining chaplains would find this an unproblematic appropriation of Ruth, but the text itself does not suggest an inclusivity any more radical than this.
Then turning to the rather less charming Ezra narrative, we should note that any appropriation of this troubling text — for immigration policy or anything else — will have to wrestle with a contested ambiguity and unhappy silences. The ambiguity is the identity of the “foreign wives” or, more particularly, how they are understood in relation to the “people of the lands.” The standard assumption, altogether natural for a reader of the English Bible, that these are women from foreign tribes, is no longer the uncontested consensus of OT scholarship. It may well be instead that the so-called “foreign wives” of “the people of the lands” (ʻam haʼaretz) are syncretized Jews who stayed in the land during the exile and who took up socio-religious ethos of the “pagan” tribes. There is no consensus on the question. But at least one of the options — a compelling possibility — is that ethnicity as such is not the ground of the dissolution of these marriages, and, in fact, even were one to hold the more traditional view, the evident concern in the text is religious and not ethnic as such. In other words, it may be that Ruth, accepted as a proselyte, and the “foreign wives,” rejected as syncretistic idolaters, are actually illustrating the same view: that marriage in Israel should be among persons of common faith, lest fidelity to Israel’s God be diluted by competing loyalties. It is hard to know how we will get from that to immigration.
The unhappy silences are at least two. We do not know if the “foreign wives” had the opportunity for conversion afforded Ruth and Orpah; there is no evidence that they did. Nor do we know what became of these women. We could hope that they were humanely treated and well-provided for, but the text gives no concrete reason for such a hope. We just don’t know. The text’s interest is in the need for consecration and celebrates the obedient response. To read this text is to see persons “othered,” but it is also a reminder that we are reading of an “other” time and place and about the self-definition of a religious community with concerns rather tangential to the modern phenomenon of immigration.
All of that was to say that I would not know how to mark these exams. I have no idea what should count as a pass. The non-answer I just gave was more than 50 percent too long and did not begin to satisfy the requirements. So, it was a hard question, but I don’t think a very good question — in 2011 or in 2016.
Casualties follow in the wake of the “repugnance” model as a means by which candidates for Holy Orders demonstrate their competence in Holy Scripture. As the mainstay of the examination, such questions inadvertently render an unhappy gestalt of Holy Scripture that is arguably more consequential than our durable liturgical paeans to the same as “the word of the Lord.” I suggest that we are now firmly in the final phase of a three-stage devolution of Holy Scripture, common in mainline Protestantism. Every Protestant expression of the Christian faith has in its origins a regard for the Bible as its norm; were we feeling especially confident, we might say it in Latin: the norma normans (the “norming norm”). But somewhere — perhaps in the second half of the previous century — that norm quietly became a resource. The norm became a resource because we are not naïve. We understand that there is no simple, unproblematic movement from biblical text to contemporary world, and so we hedged. It may have been a hedge born of courage or honesty, but, nonetheless, Scripture became a resource, a normed norm (norma normata), albeit with no shared norming criterion. This created some desirable breathing room, but it also set in motion another movement to which the grammar of the GOE Holy Scripture question now bears witness: Scripture as problem. For a church that once pledged its vigilance against “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (again, see Article XX), it is telling that this is now our native instinct — indeed, so native that we will intuit repugnance even when more patient exegesis would have falsified the presumption.
 See, e.g., André Lacocque, Ruth, Continental Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004). The position was no doubt popularized in the early editions of Bernhard Anderson’s widely used textbook, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957), but he subsequently abandoned the view and argued instead for an early, pre-exilic dating of Ruth (cf. 1986, 4th ed.).
 In my judgment, this theory of Ruth’s origins accounts for too little of the text’s features were its purpose exclusively, or even chiefly, as the theory supposes.
 It is rightly noted that Ezra’s determination is not a precise, perhaps even a problematic, understanding of the Torah’s prohibitions, but it is probable that a set of broadly confirming texts lay in the background: e.g., Deut. 7:3-4; 6:14-15; Ex. 34:15-16; cf. Josh. 23:12-13.
 This is the very explicit understanding Ruth’s status in the Targum of Ruth, which interprets Ruth and Orpah’s original desire to return to Israel this way: “They said to her, ‘We will not go back to our people and our god,” but rather we will go with you to your people, to become proselytes’” (4:10; where the italics indicate the interpretive Aramaic glosses). And again, after Orpah recants, Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to go back from following after you, for I desire to be a proselyte” (4:16). This leads to the insertion of a charming scene of catechesis, in which Naomi instructs Ruth at some length of her acquired Torah obligations (4:16-17), which makes the MT “May the Lord do thus to me and more, if even death shall separate me and you” a solemn proselyte vow and pledge of Torah observance. Thus, the Targum depicts Ruth as a model proselyte (cf. 3:10). Indeed, according to the Targum, it was for the sin of marrying daughters of Moab that the lives of Mahlon and Chilion, the sons Elimelech, were cut short. D.R.G. Beattie and J. Stanley McIvor, The Targum of Ruth, vol. 19, The Aramaic Bible (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), pp. 18–32.
 So, e.g., Ralph W. Klein, “Ezra,” in 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Tobit, Judith, ed. by Leander E. Keck, vol. 3, 12 vols., The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999); H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 16, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1985).