“Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary” by Jeremy Schipper

RuthJeremy Schipper. Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentary, Volume 7. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016, 221 pp., $75.00  (hardcover).

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

The newest addition to the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary, Jeremy Schipper’s (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Temple University) commentary on the book of Ruth is the most up-to-date coverage of Ruth. His methodology considers Ruth in it’s ancient Israelite literary context rather than it’s canonical position. He operates under the supposition that MTL is the most reliable because of the few significant textual variants and uses other MS for reconstructing difficult translations. Furthermore, he tentatively argues that the author lived in the Persian period. With regard to languages, he focuses more on literary effects of language rather than etymologies because the evidence for such an approach is more compelling. And it is more compelling to interpret orthographic features as an archaizing literary tool than evidence for the date of composition.

Characteristic of all Anchor Yale Bible commentaries, the commentary contains a lengthy introduction, translation, textual commentary, and comments on the textual notes. With regard to his suppositions, I appreciate Schipper’s ideas about Ruth and ethnicity. He writes that “there is no reason why one must read Ruth against the backdrop of condemnations of Judahite marriages with Moabites. One could just as easily read it as one of several examples of texts that discuss such marriages without a clear polemic against them” (40). Scholars have often assumed that Ruth, especially in canonical context, opposes Ezra-Nehemiah. Most recently, this is demonstrated in Daniel Hawk’s commentary on Ruth. Hawk’s commentary, unfortunately, falls into the trap of assuming Ruth is a polemic against Ezra-Nehemiah and “legalistic tendencies” (Click here to read the review). While there are clearly differences, Schipper is justified and wise to avoid canonical interpretation and in turn recognizes the diversity of marriage traditions in ancient Israel. For this reason, he is able to focus on more pertinent textual issues than the extent to which Ruth is a polemic against the nature of marriage in Ezra-Nehemiah.

Another major strength of Schipper’s commentary is his recognition current politically relevant issues. Consequently he is enabled to focus more on issues relevant to the text in it’s own context. For example, in addressing sexual desire in Ruth, Schipper interacts with queer readings. He notes that Queer readings are not anachronistic, just as hetero-normativity readings likewise assume “that all texts reflect one or two universally constant sexual identities” (37). His keen observations on the issue of sexual desire simultaneously address modern sentiments in interpretive circles and focus his own interpretive lens even more.

Finally, I appreciate how Schipper’s careful analysis of the archaic elements are not used to establish a date of authorship. In early scholarship, mismatch in gender, or “gender neutralization”, was used to establish a date of authorship; yet, as he also notes, “scholars have raised enough reasonable doubt to caution against using these forms as solid evidence of the date of Ruth’s written composition” (92). Unfortunately, he does not offer an alternative explanation for the “gender neutralization”. He addresses Timothy Lim’s explanation that the gender discord is meant to distinguish speech patterns of the elderly from the young; however, after his critique that Lim does not consider the gender discord in the narrator’s speech, he offers no alternative. With an issue so pertinent to interpreting Ruth, Schipper should offer some sort of conclusion about how he interprets the purpose of the “gender neutralization”. What, at least in Schipper’s view, is the literary effect of the discord?

Continuing with the issues of his commentary, I have two primary issues. The first has to do with the narrative ambiguity and selective representation. In the introduction, Schipper notes the distinctions between selective representation and narrative ambiguity. While he explains the distinction clearly, he does not explore the possible literary effects of ambiguity. I recall a paper at the Society of Pentecostal Studies specfically on this topic. The presenter suggested that the ambiguity reads the reader by allowing them to fill in the gaps (At the moment, I do not recall who presented this paper), challenging the readers presuppositions about things like ethnicity, identity, and sexuality. I wonder if that may be a solution to the ambiguity present in Schipper’s commentary. Throughout his commentary, he notes moments of narrative ambiguity, often assuming that there must be a single, correct interpretation of the text. Perhaps the quality  of his commentary could have been expanded by exploring the possibility of narrative ambiguity as a literary device.

Secondly, Schipper has much to say regarding the use of the blessing formula. One area which is not approached is the relationship between blessing and it’s perceived function. In the book of Ruth, the blessings are almost always used in relation to the dire situation of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi uses the blessing formula in Ruth 1:8 as something to oppose the emptiness, bitterness, and death facing herself (see Ruth 1:20-21). Boaz’s blessing in 2:12 functions to give Ruth good luck. Likewise, Naomi’s blessing in 2:19 even blesses Boaz for his kindness to the living and to the dead. This is important because it demonstrates that the perceived function of blessings in Ruth actually act in some apotropaic manner. This is supported by Jeremy Smoak’s recent publication The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2015) which argues that blessings in ancient Israel held an apotropaic function. In short, Schipper’s commentary would be improved with the inclusion of discussion about the apotropaic function of blessings in the book of Ruth.

In conclusion, even aside from these two minor issues, Schipper’s commentary is one of the best places to start with any research on the book of Ruth, or even topics relating to Ruth. With nuanced analysis the language of Ruth, Schipper argues convincingly for interpretative choices, raises new questions, and enables to reader to negotiate with the text. Although one must address other commentaries for more theologically focused readings and canonical readings, such as it’s presence within the Megilloth, Schipper’s careful exegetical work established his commentary as a standard for the future of Ruth scholarship. Like any commentary, few will actually read through the whole thing as I did; however, for those who utilize this resource for research, it is undoubtedly a the best commentary on the book of Ruth published within the last year.


The Role of Ruth

Note: Ruth in italics represents the title of the Book of Ruth, while Ruth is regular caps is for the character.

Within the Hebrew Bible and biblical studies, one of the most overlooked portions is the Megilloth (Ruth, Lamentations, Song of Solomon, Esther, and Ecclesiastes). Although people like Dr. Brad Embry (Regent University) have started a Program Unit at SBL for the Megilloth, it remains overlooked. This is unfortunate because the Megilloth act in a unique manner. One major factor so unique about the Megilloth is their sense of being in the genre of “indie films”, or independent films. In essence, an independent film escapes the typical boundary markers set by the film industry. They need not appeal to the mass audience by creating a simple story with everything cut and dry (Note: Don’t think I am saying the whole Bible is cut and dry. I am speaking very broadly). Indie films, rather, demonstrate real life while still raising issues and making points. They don’t attempt to make everything neat and tidy. Within them, certain tensions exist as part of the drive and soul of the film.

In my view, Ruth is quite similar to an indie film. Contrary to the belief that Ruth was solely written as a polemic to Hezekiah and Josiah’s reforms, Ruth seems to be more of a down to earth view of Israelite society which recognizes that society is not nearly as black and white as is oft-portrayed. Ruth see’s no need to cover up the nature of Ruth as a Moabite. It even portrays her as the ideal Israelite and part of the assembly of God. Such actions directly contradict Deuteronomy 23:3-6, God’s command not to allow Moabites into the assembly or provide them with support. Clearly this independent “film” escapes the typical boundary markers set by ancient Israel. By escaping the boundary markers, Ruth occurs in tension with the rest of the Hebrew Canon, tensions utilized to progress the didactic goal of Ruth.

By approaching Ruth as an indie film, there no longer needs to be an attempt to synchronize everything theologically. As is often recognized, the Hebrew Bible displays many theologies, and these should be embraced equally. So, rather than “passing over” (It is Passover right now…) Ruth because it seems insignificant, it should be approached directly with respect for the indie like nature of the narrative. After all, if one fails to recognize that a film is indie and views it through the same lens as a mainstream Hollywood film, the life is suffocated from the film. In the same way, to place such stringent restrictions on how to read Ruth will result in the suffocation of a literary masterpiece.