“Ruth” by L. Daniel Hawk

L. Daniel Hawk. Ruth. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, August 2015, 158 pp., $24.00 (hardcover).

*I would like to express my gratitude to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a review copy of Ruth.

L. Daniel Hawk’s commentary on Ruth is a valuable contribution to the study of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Megilloth.  He currently teaches at Ashland Theological Seminar as the professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. Prior to his commentary on Ruth, he contributed one commentary and an analysis on the book of Joshua. From a Christian Canonical perspective, then, Hawk seems the best option to write the commentary on Ruth for the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series. This series is oriented towards preachers, teachers, and students whilst focusing on the original text, providing a tool for the academy and pulpit. This commentary, therefore, does approach the book with a theological bias of geared for ecumenical purposes; however, the work is still valuable for those outside of a church context.

His introduction provides a framework to understand his approach to Ruth. Importantly, he considers Ruth to have been composed in a post-exilic era, between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. He also introduces an important through line of his hermeneutic, namely the idea of Center and Periphery and of the value of Ruth for a post-exilic audience. Each chapter of Ruth is then divided into five sections: a unique translation, verse notes, form and structure, comments, and explanation. For the more advanced readers the verse notes provide higher level, scholarly notes on translations and interpretive issues. Similarly, the form and structure and comments provide discussion that is simpler, yet still somewhat challenging for the unexperienced reader. The explanation category is convenient because it, based off of the previous information, synthesizes the elements discussed in previous categories. In effect, his division of the chapters in Ruth provide the less experienced or scholarly oriented reader to grasp the  essence of his interpretations.

There are several strong elements to his analysis and interpretation of the book of Ruth. First of all, his focus on ethnicity and identity and its intricate and complex dynamics between the Other and Self, the Center and Periphery, is unique and provides clear explanation of the movement of the Ruth narrative. Secondly, he draws on many discussions from past scholars and summarizes well scholarship up to this point, making his work valuable for those even beginning study of Ruth and the Megilloth. Third, because much of his work is rooted in the historiography of Joshua, Hawk presents a full picture of how Ruth interacts with various themes through the Hebrew Bible.

There are, though, two main weaknesses of his work. First, he does not discuss, or even reference, the use of Ruth through traditions. While he does touch upon the fact that Ruth is associated with Passover, he does not explicate this point nor examine the implications for its associations with the feast. In doing so, he effectively sidelines an element and theme in Ruth which many would consider to be of primary significance (58). Second, and more significantly, Hawk assumes, and hence concludes, that Ruth is a polemic book over and against the ideas found within the post-exilic environment. He notes that “Ruth as a whole opposes law with narrative, a fixed identity with a flexible identity, and a rigid hermeneutic with an expansive one” (137). This sort of conclusion demonstrates not how Ruth understands the Law in the post-exilic context, but how he understands the Law in the 21st century. 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 Hawk’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.

But how can the ideas in Ruth be explained in light of Ezra-Nehemiah? A solution to consider is to recognize the dialogical nature of Ruth. Unlike some biblical authors who may, more or less, disagree with each other polemically on certain points, the author of Ruth illustrates an example of lived religion whilst still operating in the confines of Law and tradition. Essentially, unlike Hawk’s understanding that Ruth is polemical against Ezra-Nehemiah’s ideas on identity, ethnicity, and law, it is better to understand Ruth as engaging in dialogue with Ezra-Nehemiah’s ideas on identity, ethnicity and law. To interpret it otherwise is to misconstrue the text into what it is not based on ones own context and understanding of the Law and its value.

In conclusion, while Hawk’s commentary on Ruth is full of depth and analysis that provide clearer comprehension of the narrative, one must wonder to what extent his purpose effect his conclusions. This concern is apparent in his conclusion which focuses extensively on Ruth’s opposition to Law in the post-exilic context. Hawk explains this by noting that Ruth focuses on the Law as means to an certain end rather than the end in and of itself (140). This still, though, demonstrates his own sensibilities about the value of performing and living Law for Ezra-Nehemiah and other anti-foreign traditions in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Thus, his conclusions about the book of Ruth as a whole are not incredibly strong or reliable as they deviate from the text and context. Yet this is no reason to dismiss the value of his commentary on Ruth. Because his commentary is the most recent on Ruth, it is valuable to scholars and students hoping to catch up with scholarship in a work that covers the form, language, and intertextuality quite well. His contribution to Ruth and study of the Hebrew Bible may not contain the strongest conclusions, but it definitely provides necessary, thorough discussion of Ruth and its study, and is easily accessible to any reader or student of the Bible.