In the history of every community, there are points when the future success of the many hangs on the behavior of the few. These moments may be dramatic and perilous, like the cold December morning in 1237 AD when Russian emissaries from the walled city of Ryazan turned their backs on an army of Mongol warriors who had demanded their surrender. The miscalculations of those sorry men resulted in the complete destruction of Ryazan and marked the beginning of the Mongol horde’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But these pivotal moments can also be completely mundane, depending not on the judgements of emissaries or the skill of warriors or the wisdom of kings but on average men and women from average circumstances going about their daily business as life presents it. Such was the case as two women arrived at the eastern gate of Bethlehem in ancient Israel. The women were both recently widowed, one an Israelite woman named Naomi and the other her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. They were returning from the land of Moab where Naomi, her husband and sons had moved years before to escape famine in the region of Benjamin. Completely empty handed, Naomi was now returning to her home town with her foreign daughter-in-law hoping to make her way on more familiar territory.
Unbeknownst to anybody in the town that day, the future of Israel, the reign of her greatest King, the wealth of his beautiful hymns, and the prophecies birthed from his memory depended completely on the assimilation of these two refugees into the heart of the community.
The story of these two women’s return can be found in the Bible’s book of Ruth. The book amounts to no more than a hiccup after the great sighs of the Exodus from Egypt and the wheezing exhaustion of the period of the Judges. It is brief and microscopic compared to the great events that surround it; it is a domestic sidenote in the unfolding tale of great men and competing nations. And ironically, the whole story of Israel turns on this moment.
The precariousness of Israel’s situation as well the relational decisions that lead to its solution are elegantly demonstrated through an analytical technique called social network analysis (SNA). Simply put, SNA investigates the relationships between individuals in a system and reveals both an overview of the resulting network as well as insights into the relational patterns that lead to that system’s success or failure. SNA has been used to target populations for immunization, disrupt networks of terror or crime, increase the efficiency of large corporations, and even analyze film and literature.
SNA begins with a catalogue of interactions between individuals. I have counted 97 interactions in the book of Ruth in the following categories: family and genealogical relationships, narrative interactions, speaking events, mentions of a third party, and favors. A network map is created by drawing an arrow from each actor to its object until all interactions have created a spiderweb of relationships. Here is the resulting network map from the book of Ruth. For clarity I have colored the nodes (dots) according to their social context and drawn arrows according to relationship types (dotted for family ties, dashed for weak interactions, and solid for strong interactions).
What stands out to you about the shape of this network? My eye goes first to the genealogic “tails” going into and coming out of the “village” and then to the tangle of relationships in the village itself. According to the color scheme, there seem to be three smaller systems built into the overall picture: a geneological system, Elimelech’s family system and the town system. If we divide up the graph to isolate those systems, we gain our first set of insights into the story Ruth.
The fragility of family lines
The genealogical tails that we see in the large system don’t actually come to light until the last few sentences of the story. What Boaz cannot know is what we see quite clearly in this chain: King David’s existence depends on the birth of Boaz’s son Obed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this relatively simple task is not so easy for Boaz. In spite of his success in agriculture, we discover that Boaz has been unlucky in love. Fields aplenty with no fruit to show for his labors.
This lineage problem demonstrates one of the insights of system theory: linear networks are notoriously fragile. Because each link in the chain is critically important, any interruption will compromise the entire network, including the many people represented by each male in the chain.
We find a perfect example of this susceptibility problem in Elimelech’s family. The story actually begins with the failure of Elimelech’s line which in retrospect heightens the precariousness of Boaz’ potential lack of an heir. Elimelech’s network (called a “fan network”) represents a step up from Boaz’ family line. He has successfully married, had sons and married his sons to their wives. Elimelech’s social network is expanding and we can assume even more stability in his line because of (unmentioned) relationships between Naomi and her sons. But when the men of the family die in Moab, the lineage problem rears its head again and the family disintegrates with each female returning to her original home divested of family and therefore also of future.
So while a family line allows power to be efficiently managed, contained and directed, as long as that power is centralized in one person per generation the system is susceptible to complete and catastrophic failure.
Boaz surely never saw these final verses in his own story and so our sense of retrospective urgency might only have amounted to abiding loneliness for him. But to be fair, none of us have access to the last chapters of our life, do we? We conduct ourselves as best we can in the moment entrusting our future to the Fates or to the mercy of God. But perhaps there are other ways to pass our blessings forward. Perhaps there are patterns of relating that lend more stability, resilience and effectiveness to our relational networks.
Here it is important to look again to Boaz who in the absence of a spouse and offspring has clearly become the hub of his community, making it a surrogate family of sorts. As networks develop toward health, they move through a series of stages: separated clusters, hub & spoke, multiple hubs, and finally core & periphery (Holley, 2012). Boaz has clearly assumed his role as the hub in his community and so advanced its move toward maturity. Is this a power position for him, or is it a strategy for influencing network health? All will be revealed!
On a similar note, as we move forward in Ruth’s story you will notice the role that women play in stabilizing the social structure of the narrative network. But notice as well that they accomplish this not by assuming the same fragile linear power structures previously held by men but by skillfully exerting influence from where they are in the system. One of the tragedies of well intentioned Marxist attempts at power redistribution is that they can replace implicit positions of network influence with recognizable but unstable and potentially fragile power structures. The net effect is that the network overall can become destablized and ineffectual all in the name of fairness.
Could it be that influence within and upon a community has much less to do with power than it has to do with recognizing and skillfully leveraging one’s position within the community?
Implications and Questions:
- What types of interactions would you include in your relational map?
- What stands out to you about the shape and character of Ruth’s network map?
- What advantages and disadvantages are represented by “the pastors’ wall” found in many of our churches?
- Where are power and influence located on Ruth’s network map?