Greg Goswell is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Christ College, Sydney, Australia and Peter Lau is Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia and an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney. They are both published authors in their own right, but this is the first work they have written together. As the subtitle indicates, this is a biblical theological study, but a multifaceted one. I found this very refreshing after many biblical-theological studies I have read that concentrate too narrowly on storyline, for example, or a single theme or biblical corpus. This study is narrow, too, in focusing on a Old Testament single book, but it studies its contribution to the message of the whole Bible from many different, complementary angles.
Ruth is first brought into conversation with Ezra-Nehemiah to illustrate its relevance to the issues of the early restoration period. (The authors remain agnostic on the question of whether—as many recent historical-critical studies argue—this was the period in which the book of Ruth was written, focusing instead on how it would have been read within that period.) It is then read after Judges (as it is in the Greek canon) to illustrate its contribution to the royal, messianic theology associated with the figure of David. Next it is read within a wisdom frame, with special reference to its connection with the portrait of an “excellent wife” in Proverbs 31 (which it follows immediately after in most Hebrew canonical orders). Chapter 5 examines the enjambment of Ruth and the Psalter in the listing of Old Testament books in the Talmud, showing the complementarity of story and psalm in the canon.
The remaining chapters look at Ruth in the broad sweep of some biblical themes, beginning with famine in chapter 6 (with special reference to the patriarchal narratives). It then discusses the theme of God’s sovereignty and human agency in chapter 7 (with special reference to Esther and Judges) and redemption in chapter 8 (covering a wide range of scriptures and drawing some conclusions about whether Boaz is a type of Christ), and reads Ruth in missional perspective in chapter 9 (with special reference to the subthemes of love and the law, outsiders, and the risk involved in the missional life). Chapter 10 helpfully summarizes the ground that has been covered, and the ways in which the study as a whole contributes to the ongoing project of exploring both the content and the method of biblical theology. This and the similar summaries at the end of each chapter greatly enhance the clarity and value of the work for the busy student and pastor.
While this is not a commentary in the normal sense, it does contain much high-quality exegesis of both Ruth itself and the other books with which it is brought into dialogue. The constructive and critical interaction with the relevant secondary literature is also of a high standard, and quite extensive (as shown, among other things, by the footnotes, 25-page bibliography, and the judicious argumentation in the text itself where appropriate). While diversity and tensions within the canon are acknowledged, the findings generally favor complementarity and integration rather than contradiction.
One of the weaknesses I found in this book is also its strength. It was good to see a chapter on Ruth and the mission of God. Ruth certainly contributes to a biblical theology of mission. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that to try to extract lessons about how to do mission is forced, or at least needs more demonstration of its validity, since that is not what the book of Ruth is about. Similar weaknesses appear elsewhere. While focus is generally maintained on function within the canon rather than authorial intention, the distinction between the two is sometimes blurred, and inferences about the latter drawn without sufficient warrant. In the chapter on God’s hiddenness and human agency, for example, a sharp contrast is drawn between Ruth and Esther on the grounds that “the author [of Esther] has made a concerted effort to keep God out of the story” (p. 100, my italics) while the author of Ruth has not. This may be true, but could not be sufficiently demonstrated in the space available, and in any case the salient point could have been better made without speculation about authorial intention at all. Both books witness to God’s sovereignty in preserving his people, even though he is more hidden in Esther than in Ruth.
But these are subjective judgments, and I do not want to make too much of them. Vulnerability to criticism of this kind is a price authors have to pay for keeping the broad sweep of a complex discipline like this before us. Depth and rigor are luxuries specialists enjoy and something we can fairly demand of them. The cost of specialization, though, is that the big picture is often lost sight of and fragmentation rather the integration is the result. We need readable studies of modest length like this one to serve as a counterbalance to this tendency, especially in a still expanding and maturing field of study like biblical theology. I am grateful for this book and hope there will be many others like it on other books from both the Old and New Testaments. We will all owe a great debt to those who have the courage to write them.