A little over 40 years ago a movie came on the scene that is still considered one of the best comedies ever made. “Blazing Saddles” provided audiences another of Mel Brooks’ gleefully executed off-the-wall, no-holds-barred schtick-filled film parodies - this time it’s Westerns - but in this film, he added a twist. Or, more to the point a gut-punch.
Brooks takes a typical Western scenario - a mysterious stranger comes to town to heroically bring law, order and salvation to a Wild West town on the verge of being undone by a nasty villain - and he sets that archetypal story on its ear by making the mysterious stranger… a black man. The set-up is this: the villain (Hedley Lamarr) realizes the presence of a black sheriff (named Bart, natch) will send the imperiled benignly racist all-white town running for the hills. This will make it then super easy for Lamarr to grab the town’s real estate for himself. Nyah nyah nyah….
Because it’s Mel Brooks, this noxious scheme is played out with all the over-the-top gags and silliness of the rest of the film.
The combination of stock plot, serious issue and crazy silly tone allowed Brooks (and Richard Pryor, who was among those writing the screenplay) to make some very bold and controversial statements about still-prevailing racism in America that the audience could both more easily and more deeply accept, because the tough stuff was saturated in pointed cleverness and humor.
In the wake of current events that have engendered the “Black Lives Matter” movement as well as today’s significantly heightened anti-immigration invective and current snub to Syrian (read “Muslim”) refugees, I look at this film and its pungent message about race and fear, outlandishly conveyed, and I see how it still jabs American society on so many levels. How might Blazing Saddle’s humor - smart, bitter, and more than a bit bit over-the-top - provide a helpful tool in allowing today’s difficult realities to sink in?
I would say these questions apply to a book of the Bible that is, in its own surprising way, a “Blazing Saddles” of its own.
I’m talking about the Book of Ruth.
I know that may sound as outlandish as a bunch of cowboys sitting around the campfire eating plates of beans and then loudly…you know…. to suggest that Ruth can and should be appreciated like a Mel Brooks’ comedy, even one with serious purpose.
But it’s twue! It’s twue!
Nevertheless, Ruth is usually described, and presented, as one of the nicest, most lyrically sweet and genuinely romantic stories in all of scripture:
A beautiful-but-poor girl, widowed too soon, decides to forsake everything and journey with her also newly-widowed mother-in-law back to the latter’s homeland and there start a new life at her side.
In her new homeland, while gleaning the fields like other poor folk, the young widow catches the eye of the rich owner of the field, and they are taken with one another.
They fall in love, and after a series of delightful surprises and revelations, they marry, have a son and live happily ever after. Not only that, but this son goes on to become the grandfather of King David, Israel’s greatest ruler as well as the greatest ancestor of Jesus.
It’s twue! It’s twue! How womantic!!
In the most superficial sense, the Book of Ruth is the Bible’s version of “Cinderella.” (And doesn’t every sacred library need one? :))
Upon deeper reading, however, one will see that this “stock” fairytale storyline has quite a stunning caveat: Ruth is a Moabite. The Bible’s Black Bart for sure.
And this is why….
While throughout the Old Testament there are a number of nations described as constantly at war with the Israelites and, therefore, worthy of contempt, the Moabites are pegged as a people whose behavior toward God’s people was particularly horrid.
We’re told in Numbers 22 and Judges 11 that when Moses and the Hebrews reached the fertile plains of Moab and Edom on their way to the Promised Land, they asked permission to pass through on the so-called “King’s Highway. They promised not to bother the land or take from the locals’ precious water supply. Even so, the travelers were not allowed to pass through.
Not only that, but Numbers 22 continues to tell how the Moabites then sought an oracle named Balaam to curse the Hebrews and destroy them so they couldn’t cause trouble as they detoured. However, God saw to it that that curse was never uttered. Balaam’s talking donkey hilariously prevented it. (And yes, a blog on Balaam’s donkey is forthcoming!)
In the culminating section of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23, where Moses is attributed to proclaiming who will and won’t, if they should wish, be allowed into Israelite community, several of Israel’s enemies are to be granted access at some point (those of the third generation following that proclamation). However, no Ammonite or Moabite was to be admitted ever, not even to the tenth generation.
The message was and would always be, “Moabite, Go Home!”
By the 5th and 4th centuries BC, asthe Israelites were rebuilding their Temple and their lives after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the subsequent awful exile into Babylonia (at least the intelligentsia and upper classes were herded off), a wave of super-conservative thinking swept over the people. It became imperative that Israel now live in a state of absolute blood purity in order to retain God’s favor and protection so destruction and exile would never happen again.
Therefore, at Ezra 9, we witness the prophet and his henchmen proclaiming all “mixed marriages” that took place while the exiles were away were now to be annulled. All “foreign” wives were to be considered essentially “Moabite” and thrown out of Israel along with their children produced with Israelite husbands.
That’s where the Book of Ruth comes in. Believed to have entered the biblical canon at about the time of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ruth takes the “Cinderella” story archetype and turns it on its ear by making the lovely plucky heroine a detested Moabite who invades Israel, wins the “prince’s” heart and bears a child who, with plenty of the worst kind of foreign blood, nevertheless grows up to become the greatest symbol of national pride Israel, and especially her conservative element, has ever known.
It’s twue it’s twue it’s twue!!!
When you walk through the Book of Ruth understanding this background as well as wearing Comic Lenses, it’s amazing, I think, what lively, funny, painfully relevant messages come through, for such a time as this. And so schticky!!
And that will comprise Part B of this blog entry. Stay tuned!