Explain the irony in the chapter title, “The Old Testament,” in The Color of Water by James McBride. 

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Irony is a contrast between what is and what is expected, and chapter five of James McBride's The Color of Water contains many ironies. The chapter is titled "The Old Testament," so it is not ironic that the entire chapter is dedicated to a narrative about a Jewish rabbi and his family; however, the fact that this Jewish rabbi is revealed as being anything but man of God does create some irony.

Ruth's father is a traveling Orthodox Jewish rabbi whose contract did not get renewed (meaning, of course, that he was not doing an acceptable job). He opens a grocery store but treats his children like slave labor and totally disrespects his wife, a woman who does everything to keep the family running smoothly as well as keeping the Jewish holidays and traditions. He shows her no love but treats her as if she were just another contract with which to comply. 

Even worse, this former Orthodox Jewish rabbi (and still practicing Jew) routinely abuses his daughter Ruth. Family and faith, two cornerstones of the Old Testament, are not important to this supposed Jewish man of God. 

Her father is an example of many other aspects of the Old Testament, however; there is much tyranny and strict adherence to a patriarchal society in the Old Testament, and certainly this is part of what Ruth experienced as she grew up. Her father was the head of this family and chose to be a disinterested leader who expected his family to follow and obey without question.

The nest chapter is entitled "The New Testament," and certainly we can understand why Ruth wanted to leave her Jewishness behind her and experience the freedom from the complicated and rigid Jewish laws, which is implicit in the grace of the New Testament. Given her upbringing, it is also not surprising that she adopts this philosophy about God:

“God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a color.” 

It is clear from the way she lived her life and raised her children that Ruth believed more in the grace of the New Testament than the laws of the Old Testament. 

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