Saturday, November 17, 2018

We are Family

A few months ago our assigned Old Testament reading was taken from the Book of Esther.  Because it is both short and interesting, I encouraged you to go home and read it for yourself.  This morning we encounter another short and interesting Old Testament book – the Book of Ruth.  I encourage you to take 10-15 minutes sometime today, or perhaps later in the week, to read it.  Only four chapters long, it is a little more confusing than the Book of Esther because it deals with ancient customs regarding responsibility for caring for a childless widow in the family. 

The story begins in Bethlehem, yes, the Bethlehem where Jesus will be born centuries later.  The region is undergoing a severe famine and so a couple, Elimelech and Naomi decide migrate with their sons to the land of Moab because they have heard there is food there.  While only 30 miles away and located on land above the southeastern side of the Dead Sea, the terrain is step and difficult and it will take a week to ten days to complete the journey on foot. 

Moabites are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew.  Although they are related to the people of Israel, they do not welcome Moses and the exiles from Egypt and for this God condemns them for ten generations.  Moabites worship foreign gods and practice abominable acts such as child sacrifice.  More often than not they are at war with Israel, but at the time of this story the two peoples enjoy a period of relative peace and cooperation.  Make no mistake, there are huge cultural differences between Elimelech’s family and the people with whom they now live.

Elimelech dies during their time in this foreign land and Naomi is left with her sons.  Each takes a Moabite wife, one is named Orpah and the other Ruth.  Ten years pass before each of Naomi’s sons also die.  Orpah and Ruth, like their mother-in-law, are now widows.  Naomi receives word conditions have improved in Bethlehem and after having been away for more than a decade she decides to return to her homeland.  She encourages her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab where they will have the opportunity to remarry among their own people.  Neither woman wants to leave her.  Orpah eventually relents, but Ruth stays with Naomi and relocates to Bethlehem. 

Boaz is one of Elimelech’s close relatives and he extends kindness to the two women.  As we hear in today’s reading Boaz and Ruth eventually marry and have a son, Obed.  Obed is one half Jewish through his father and one half Moabite through his mother.  Obed becomes the father of Jesse, who, depending on his mother’s lineage, is at least one-quarter Moabite.  Jesse fathers several sons, including David who will become the King of Israel.  Again, other ancestors notwithstanding, David is at least one-eighth Moabite. 

For a people so consumed with religious purity and an intolerance of intermarriage, this ancestral element of David’s background is scandalous.  That the story is remembered, retold, written down, and eventually included in the canon of Scripture suggests someone somewhere recognized how interrelated we all are and believed it was important to acknowledge it as something good.

I have been reading a book by Adam Rutherford called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, an ambitious sounding title to be sure.  Rutherford is a geneticist who examines what DNA evidence tells us about the history of the human race.  The short answer is it tells us a lot and not a lot.  It can answer some questions, but is unable to give definitive answers to many others.  DNA evidence is very difficult to retrieve from older human remains, but we are learning about migration patterns, mating habits, and a host of other information.  For example, you may be interested to know about 2% of your DNA has been passed down to you from the Neanderthals. 

In one chapter, Rutherford examines family ancestry and pedigree.  Your family tree of direct descendants doubles with each generation.  You have two birth parents, four birth grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on.  Rutherford discusses Chalemagne, who lived around 750 AD.  If you are a direct descendant of his, your family tree contains 137,438,953,472 people.  If this sounds like a lot, it is.  It is more people than are alive today and have ever lived.  So at some point your pedigree begins to fold back in on itself. 

I have found instances of this in my own ancestral tree.  John Tindall and Elizabeth Hutchinson are my grandparents nine generations back in one part of my family line and eight generations back in another.  They are the great-grandparents of Lockhart Hutchinson and also his great-great grandparents.  He had to know something was up because his mother’s maiden name was the same as his paternal grandmother.  All of our family trees are riddled with this kind of overlap.

If I have not confused you yet, keep listening because things are about to get really confounding.  Joseph Chang is a statistician at Yale University.  He set out to examine ancestry not based on genetics, but mathematics.  He asked a basic question: How far back do you have to go to find a person we all share as a common ancestor?  Setting up a model incorporating the number of ancestors we all have (two parents) and the current population he went looking for a point in time when all of our ancestral lines connect.  If you are of European descent the answer surprisingly is about 600 years ago.  Sometime in late 13th century there lived a man or a woman through whom all Europeans are related.  Keep in mind this person is one of only thousands and thousands of people from whom you and I are direct descendants, but we are related through this person.

Thomas Cornell lived from 1593-1655 and he was the first Cornell to immigrate to the colonies.  Rebecca Briggs, his wife, lived from 1600-1673.  They are my great-times-ten grandparents, 13 generations removed from me.  At this ancestral level alone, baring overlap, you are directly descended from 4,096 people.  Now they had several children, some who lived and some who did not.  Their children had multiple children and so on.  Over the generations, some of the lines come to an end when a child does not produce a son or daughter, but, as you can imagine, a lot of people are descended from Thomas and Rebecca Cornell.  One of them is our own George Cornell.  Another is the fabulous Miss Madison Mottley.  Yes, my connection to these two people is only as deep as two out of 4,096 people, but we share some small trace of DNA and are very distant but real cousins.  It is quite possible, even likely, many of us here today have common ancestors even more recent than the 13th century, but at the very least our European lineage intersects at that point in time.

Well, Chang wasn’t finished with his research.  Using more math, he determined we are all related to every European who live a thousand years ago and before.  Rutherford uses this information to state every person of European origin is a direct descendant of King Charlemgne.  Yes, you are from a royal line, many in fact. 

Building on his initial work and tweaking his model based on more recent research, in 2003 Chang set out to determine how recently every human being shares a common ancestor.  Given how the Americas were isolated until relatively recently, you probably realize this date will not be as recent.  Still, you may be startled to learn Chang determined our most recent common ancestor lived just 3,600 years ago.  At the conclusion of an academic paper through which he reported his work, Joseph Chang writes this:

Our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the language we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Remember I told you I would confound you!

Why do you think the Book of Ruth, which is chalk full of beautiful theological and personal themes, ends by noting Ruth the Moabite is David’s great-grandmother?  And what does it say to you genetics and mathematics tell us there is an Adam or an Eve of DNA, someone to whom we are all related?  What do you make of our ancestral interconnectedness not millions of years in past, not hundreds of thousands of years in the past, but well after the advent of recorded history?

It occurs to me when Christians tell the story of Adam and Eve we focus primarily on two things: (1) God created us and (2) we sinned.  Perhaps another meaningful aspect of the story we ignore or underemphasize is we are all related.  The “human family” is not a phrase invented by liberals or Hallmark, it is a reality… a fact. 

You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person who was elected to office last Tuesday and to every person who was not.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every single Veteran who has served our country.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person walking across Mexico from Honduras to America.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person worshipping in our church this morning, and down the street, across the street, and a few blocks away, and in our community and, well, you get the idea.  And you are related, if ever so thinly, to every person worshipping and praying in whatever way their beliefs and traditions teach them. 

I was born in Pittsburgh while my family was transitioning to life in Ohio, so I consider myself an Ohioan.  Still, there is a part of Pittsburgh in me.  I remember when Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates rode the song “We are Family” all the way to the World Series title in 1979.  It is a truth that rallied a team and a city.  Might it be a truth that, through the grace of God, helps us to live in peace, unity, and concord with one another?  Might it be a truth informing how you interact with every and any person who, if ever so thinly, is related to you?