Monday over Coffee: "If Ruth Could Among Foreign Corn..."

Published January 10, 2022 by SMBC

If Ruth could among foreign corn begin the line of Judah that led to David...then what is not possible, and what would not be disallowed.
— Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin is an American novelist. He served in the British Merchant Navy and in the Israeli infantry and then in the Israeli Air Force. He's studied at Harvard, Oxford, and Princeton. He's earned a living as a dishwasher, a factory worker, and a stevedore. He now has a Virginia farm on which he makes hay. Mostly though, he's a writer. He provides foreign policy commentary for the Wall Street Journal and has penned speeches for presidential candidates. Most of the time though, he writes arresting short stories and marvelous novels that lend credibility to the elusive notion of hope.

Helprin is Jewish. His first novel, Refiner's Fire, which tells the tale of Marshall Pearl, born in 1947 on a sinking ship off the coast of Haifa at the moment the Jewish state was established, reveals Helprin's deep knowledge of both ancient and modern Israel. Poet Joyce Carol Oates, remarking on the sheer beauty of the novel in her 1977 New York Times book review, stated, "despite its formidable length, [it] probably should be read aloud." Her praise continued: " goes on and on, at whim, stringing together feats and jokes and implausibilities, yet is always winning."

The New York Times' 1983 review of Helprin's next novel, Winter's Tale, which tells a magical fable about a New Yorker called Peter Lake, noted, "...good and evil lock horns time and again in this work, and evil does not prevail. Men and women of virtue and intellect are regularly awarded honors. Children who die untimely deaths are miraculously raised from the grave. [Even] smoke-cloud disasters...are themselves found not lacking in silver linings.... Not for some time have I read a work as funny, thoughtful, passionate or large-souled."

There's a sort of Old Testament quality to Helprin's writing that reminds me of the story of Joseph. The story of Queen Esther. The magnificent story of Ruth. The story of the prophet Elisha. The story of Jonah. For in each of these ancient tales, good and evil lock horns time and again and evil does not, in the end, prevail. Joseph is left for dead by his brothers, then wrongly accused of assault and imprisoned, then forgotten. Yet, by the conclusion of the book of Genesis, he's saved two kingdoms and his family. In these centuries-old Biblical narratives, men and women of virtue and intellect are awarded honors. Esther, exiled, a pagan king's concubine, becomes queen—then, against all odds saves her people.

In these revered Biblical accounts, children who die untimely deaths are miraculously raised from the grave. Elisha raises a poor woman's little son from the dead. In these historic chapters of the Old Testament, silver linings and crucial lessons are detectable in many, if not most, of the disaster tales: Jonah and the whale, for instance. Time after time there are miraculous escapes from catastrophe and incredible returns from exile. Redemption cascades from suffering. Families regather. Nations rise again.

The story of Ruth begins in bitter sorrow, bereft, a refugee in a foreign land. But she demonstrates considerable pluck, asserting a remarkable agency over awful events against all odds in the midst of a new community. With a beautiful marriage and the birth of a child, her story ends with these words: And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. 

In these venerated stories, God strings together—through the lives of these heroes and heroines of the faith—improbable feats, jokes (most often at the expense of the arrogant and powerful), and implausibilities that somehow, even after thousands and thousands of years, still ring true to us.

Our lives sometimes don't feel so heroic but rather mundane, pockmarked by detours and unfortunate off-ramps. But what if we really came to believe in the comeback stories of Joseph, Esther, Elisha, Jonah, Ruth, or even Peter Lake or Marshall Pearl? What if we—thoughtfully, passionately, with large and expansive souls, under God's guidance and our own agency—committed anew, against the odds, to becoming true heroes and heroines of our faith.

It seems both the best stories of the past and the best stories of today are the ones that brazenly sound the heroic theme that suffering can be redeemed, that God can do much with little, and that the odds can be overcome. We are a part of God's miraculous epic when we believe, if Ruth could among foreign corn begin the line of Judah that led to David...then what is not possible, and what would not be disallowed.

God — Help me to believe in heroic possibilities. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk