Approaching the Book of Ruth as Human to Human

Many commentators suggest the text of Ruth implies some sort of divine providence. Most recently Daniel Block suggests this idea: “Having heard the story to the end, we know the hand of God is providentially guiding the events” (2015, 37; click here for my review of his work). Daniel Hawk, similarly, considers Ruth to be filled with the Spirit of the Law as opposed to the letter of the Law (2015; click here for my review of his work). Both readings, unfortunately focus to greatly on the issue of God’s presence within the narrative. Jeremy Schipper offers an important alternative:

 “the narrator never notes the possibility of God guiding with a divine hand. In fact, “the narrator explicitly attributes to God only things that are beyond human control” (31)” – My review of Daniel Block’s Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament: Ruth

Schipper importantly emphasizes that God’s guiding hand is not a possibility within the text, as the author no where indicates it. How, then, are we to approach the book of Ruth in terms of historical theology?

lessingAlthough separated by more than a millennium, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) offers a potential approach to reading Ruth. In his play Nathan the Wise, Nathan, a Jew, responds to Daja’s claim that the Recha, daughter of Nathan who was saved by a Templar, should be permitted to maintain the sweet illusion that it was, in fact, an angel who saved her life. Nathan responds:

“To a human being another human being is always dearer than an angel” (Act I, Scene 1).

In other words, Nathan argues people must not always hope for some sort of supernatural salvation or miracle. For, there is more beauty in the interaction and miracle between two human beings than between a human being and an angel. Taking this into consideration, I wonder if Nathan’s model could be applied to the book of Ruth. The characters in the book of Ruth represent the role of humanity with each other, not the divine providence of God. Interactions between Ruth, Boaz, Naomi, fieldworkers, and other minor character, and the events which arise out of those interaction, result primarily due to the agency and independent actions of humans, humans whose involvement with each other is dearer than that with angels or divine providence.

UPDATE (9/19/2016):

For those who are not familiar with Nathan the Wise, I’ve attached a splendid, entertaining summary of the play.

“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.

“Strong as Death is Love” by Robert Alter

StrongAsDeathIsLoveRobert Alter. Strong as Death is Love. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 234, $16.95 (paperback).

Strong as Death is Love is a continuation of a series of translations by the renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Robert Alter (Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley). He is most well known for The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981)  which reads the Hebrew Bible through the eyes of a literary critic and significantly influenced how we read the Hebrew Bible. This work applies his literary criticism to the Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel with a thoughtful translation of the books and brief commentary.

Most valuable, of course, is the option to read alternative translation. Although Strong as Death is Love only focuses on translating five books, it reflects a valuable contribution of his ongoing translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. Beyond offering an alternative translation for scholars to work with, an important accomplishment in and of itself, it offers translation and commentary which non-specialists are able to read. Rather than being caught up in academic mumbo-jumbo and theological focuses, his translation emphasizes the literary strengths and nuances of the Hebrew Bible and helps non-specialists to appreciate the literature. I do hope he eventually merges all of his translations into one translation of the entire Hebrew Bible in a single publication, for it would make a translation sensitive to literary style more readily available.

The only problem with Alter’s translation is the lack of information regarding what “some scholars or interpreters” say. As a single example, he says regarding that Song of Songs that “many interpreters understand this entire sequence as a dream” (19). While his book is written for non-specialists, the lack of reference to who those interpreters are is problematic to people hoping to continue exploring the text. It also prevents the reader from more fully exploring the text with his book as a starting point. Similarly, there is no bibliography of any sort, making it difficult to see what scholarship potentially influenced his comments and translations.

While this critique does demonstrate a difficulty for scholars approaching his translation, it is nonetheless an excellent alternative translation for scholarship and non-specialists alike. His sharp eye as a literary critic allows him to seem beyond the typical theological, text critical, and linguistically focused translations and consider the greater ramifications of the literature for humanity. Thus, as an alternative translation, I recommend his work to scholars. And even more so, I recommend that non-specialists and scholars alike read his work simply to appreciate the literary quality which his translations emphasize.

 

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

“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.

“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.

Musings on “The Exegetical Captivity of the Book of Ruth”

In a recent post by Jim Gordon, he raised a point to consider regarding the nature of commentaries about the book of Ruth (Click here to read the original post). The essence of his question will be considered/answered/discussed in this blog post. Because the first question is the best summary of his post, I will quote his first question and proceed.

Question: Can a man write an adequate commentary on a book in which women’s experience is definitive and central in the story? Is gender irrelevant to how a person approaches a narrative text like Ruth?

Consideration: One point to consider is the amount of scholarship and time being placed into study of the Megilloth. My former professor, Dr. Brad Embry, currently leads the Megilloth group at the Society of Biblical Literature because it has received so little attention. Thus, the amount of people seeking to actively research the book of Ruth is dramatically decreased. This is an important factor to consider in questioning why there aren’t more female author’s.

Furthermore, the hermeneutic utilized by one significantly affects how Ruth is and should be understood. Within a recent class at Northwest University, I experienced this factor. The entire class was about Ruth and each student participated in discussion about the text as we moved through it over the semester. As we moved through the text, it became more and more apparent that each student held a differing view about Ruth as different aspects stood out to them. Interestingly enough, nobody approached Ruth as a piece of literature about women’s experience. Nor do I. To assume that Ruth is specifically about a woman’s experience is a presupposition that should be proven prior to approaching it in that manner, or else the eyes of the interpreter become tunnel visioned to that idea. In my view, Ruth seems to transcend issues of a woman’s experience. Ruth, as a character, is the vehicle through whom God acts, a vehicle which could just as well be a male. Although a male would have conjured up different allusions and spoken to the reader differently, many of the basic concepts could still have been expressed.

I view Ruth as a sort of “indie” book of the Bible (read original post here) intended to speak about issues that transcend the issues of a woman’s  experiences. Emphasis is placed upon the nature of God and the community. Ruth may even be a sort of commentary, though not polemic, regarding traditions of strict separation between Israel/nations. In essence, the hermeneutics and aim of interpretation make a huge difference as to whether or not the gender of reader is relevant in interpreting Ruth. However, that is not to disdain to the value of a female’s interpretation about Ruth as a women’s experience, for this approach yields positive results in that it separates the tangle of patriarchy and permits one to move towards the transcendent value of Ruth.

In conclusion, I pose my own questions. What is the focus of Ruth? While a woman’s experience is an element as play within the book of Ruth, is it really the focal point of the book? Or are there multiple focal points as with indie films?

 

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.