“Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Ruth” by Daniel Block

Ruth1Daniel Block. Ruth: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Series: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, pp. 291, $26.00 (Amazon).

The book of Ruth is one of the most intriguing short-stories in the Hebrew Bible and is the subject of many recent commentaries. Due to its ambiguous nature and intertextual biblical references, Ruth perplexes scholars. In this volume, Daniel Block (DPhil, University of Liverpool; Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament  at Wheaton College) attempts to contribute to our understanding of Ruth through discourse analysis. While his organization of the text is no doubt strong and an excellent contribution, I had several major issues with this volume.

First of all, Block pushes for an composition date prior to the 6th century BCE. While he acknowledges his dating is on the fringe of scholarship (33), he does not deal with several other major issues connecting to dating. For example, throughout his work he draws on intertextual connections in order to demonstrate and interpret certain element of Ruth. Yet in drawing out the elements, he doesn’t deal with the date of authorship for those works which are often dated to the Persian period. Thus, in order to assume a pre-6th century BCE composition date, he needs to deal with the dating of other books which he references in support of his interpretations.

Additionally, his historical reasoning is not strong when discussing various aspects of the book of Ruth. So, in order to support his argument that Ruth should be interpreted as a “historiographic document” (37), he depends on Matthew‘s utilization of Ruth for Jesus’ royal claims. Most scholars know that the author of Matthew did not hold the same standard for historical accuracy as we do in the 21st century; thus, his argument is quite weak in that regard.

Third, Block tends to make enormous theological assumptions, not reading the text within its own context. For this, I will list various moments in which he does so.

  • “Having heard the story to the end, we know the hand of God is providentially guiding the events” (37)
    • Jeremy Schipper (Yale University Press, 2016) aptly notes that the narrator never notes the possibility of God guiding with a divine hand. In fact, “the narrator explicitly attribute to God only things that are beyond human control” (31). Thus, Block is in error to claim that God’s hand guides all events in Ruth, a claim made throughout his commentary.
  • “However, by highlighting Ruth’s Moabite origins the author has portrayed both Naomi and Boaz as exceeding the letter of the law in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and grasping the spirit of the Mosaic Torah” (33); “Boaz in particular was not bound by literalistic application of Israel’s laws but had grasped the spirit of the Torah of Moses” (46).
    • Block anachronistically applies the modern idea of the “spirit of the Torah” versus “the letter of the Torah”. Although the idea is arguably present in New Testament literature, to examine Ruth through a framework like this is wrong and disregards the context of the literature. This is a common occurence in many evangelical commentaries. Recently, I critiqued Daniel Hawk on this point. Although his commentary on Ruth was different in many regards, I will quote my comment on his work because it is just as relevant to Block’s commentary:

      His conclusion about the book of Ruth fits in with a comment about the value of law and religiosity by Mark Elliot: “Why one seems reluctant to see law as religious and the religious as legal perhaps says more about our sensibilities” (“Atonement” in OEBT, 62). In the case of Block’s comment, his conclusion that Ruth opposes the law and fixed identity demonstrates his failure to see the value of law in Ruth. This is likely due to his focus on demonstrating how chapter four of Ruth connects to Jesus and the Church. – Read original post here (I switched out Hawk’s name for Block).

  • “Ruth would be “redeemed,” though both obviously hoped that Boaz would be the man to do it” (42); “this extraordinary reaction is best attributed to the hand of God controlling his heart and his tongue when he awoke” (49).
    • These are two examples from a plethora of statements. Generally Block reads far too much into Ruth, assuming that he knows what the characters are thinking based upon his own sensibilities. Had Block removed the conjectural comments on the thoughts and actions of characters in Ruth, the length of the book would have been cut in half. Unfortunately, the vast amount of conjectural comment significantly drags down the potential value of his commentary.
  • He attempts to connect all concepts of who is considered an Israelite, rather than considering Ruth solely in its own context (54). It is more of a biblical theology than interpretation of a unique text.
    • As a Biblical Scholar and commentator, one would expect Block to be more respectful of the historical contexts within which various pieces of literature were written. Unfortunately, he focuses so much on connecting Ruth to the New Testament and other biblical literature that is (potentially) outside of Ruth‘s context.

In conclusion, I do not recommend this commentary. While it may be of value for some preachers and for grasping the flow of text, the commentary is not very valuable for scholars due to intense theological presuppositions and lack of a well defined methodology. One is better off using something like Jeremy Schipper’s recent commentary on Ruth (2016).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Zondervan for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.