Volume 17 - Issue 1

The Book of Ruth, NICOT

by R. Hubbard

It is safe to say that this will remain, for some considerable time to come, one of the most useful and enlightening commentaries available on the lovely little book of Ruth. The format is standard but eminently useful. It begins with a generous 80 pages of introduction, covering text, canonicity, literary criticism, authorship and date, purpose, setting, genre, legal background, themes, theology, an analysis of content, and a select bibliography. Even though one might not agree with all the author’s conclusions, these are all succinctly and fully addressed. The bulk of the text, some 200 pages, is devoted to the ensuing translation and verse-by-verse commentary, the divisions of which follow the outline set forth in the preceding analysis of content. The comments themselves are lucid and the argument is almost always easy to follow, a result achieved by a most judicious relegation to the introduction and to the footnotes of the more complex and esoteric matters of grammar, interpretation and socio-legal background, as well as the author’s interaction with the other points of view pertinent thereto. The book concludes with detailed, and hence most useful, indices of subjects, authors, Scripture references, and Hebrew words (in transliteration!). The reason that this text may well remain one of the most useful and enlightening is doubtless its constant and close attention to the theology that informs the narrative. This attention marks not just the ‘theology’ section of the introduction, but the text throughout. In particular the author gives careful and insightful attention to that feature that above all characterizes the role of the God of Israel throughout the book, viz. the way in which Yahweh’s providential guidance is constantly present yet hidden behind the everyday actions and activities of ordinary people. In so doing he sets forth for us numerous examples of the fact that ‘the book’s teaching is simple and straightforward: whenever people of faith practice God-like ḥeseḏ toward each other, God himself acts in them’ (p. 72).

Now, no one can undertake to comment on and elucidate the text of Ruth without discovering two contrasting facets that attend that task. On the one hand the book is a masterpiece of literary art. Through a skilful combination of brief narrative and extended dialogue the narrator artfully applies the Hebrew techniques of narrative art to the smooth development of plot and lifelike fullness of characterization. So well is this done that we arrive at the resolution with little sense of problems unresolved or questions unanswered. On the other hand, as soon as one delves below the surface and seeks to correlate plot development and the details of societal and family customs and obligation that provide the nexus of cause and effect that link these developments into a coherent and credible whole, one faces a whole series of complex, difficult, and in a number of cases intractable problems. It is to the credit of this commentary that, in the main, it handles both of these contrasting facets of interpretation with good judgment and insight.

Thus, the author with skill and discernment regularly notes and draws the implications of the narrator’s adept use of the literary devices of inclusio, keywords, disjunctive sentence structure and summary sentences to signal the beginning and end of individual narrative units and to tie together larger narrative divisions. Particularly in introductions to and summaries of these larger narrative divisions, he helpfully draws out for the reader the implications of the narrator’s use of literary device and artifice for the meaning and development of the story.

When one turns to the way in which the author has handled the complex problems of the correlation of plot development and the details of societal and family customs, obligations, and legal formulations that inform the story, one can only extol the good sense he exhibits. Thus his interpretation assumes that, lacking good evidence to the contrary, one will grant to the narrator that his story conforms to the principles of good story-telling, i.e. that it complies with the principles of intelligibility, self-sufficiency, and credibility (pp. 49–50). Secondly, he recognizes that attempts to align precisely the customs in Ruth relative to marriage and the redemption of land to the passages dealing with levirate and redemption in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are unnecessary and ill-advised (pp. 50–51, 57). Thirdly, and most important, the author’s approach to the role of levirate marriage in Ruth is exemplary. In this reviewer’s judgment he quite correctly recognizes the following facts, all too seldom observed in the interpretation of the book. (1) Since there are no brothers of Elimelech extant and the language from the two examples of levirate marriage (Gn. 38; Dt. 25:5–10) plays little if any role in the book, the marriage of Ruth and Boaz is not a levirate marriage per se (pp. 50–51, 57). (2) There is no allusion to the levirate law in 1:11–13 (p. 109). (3) In Naomi’s designation of Boaz in 2:20 as ‘one of our kinsman-redeemers’ she does not have in mind the provision of an heir for the line of Elimelech in accordance with some levirate-type obligation. Rather in the light of her focus on marriage, not an heir, in 3:1–2 ‘marriage alone was her concern here’ (p. 187). (4) On the other hand, contrary to some recent opinions, he very correctly posits that the book of Ruth does assume a family responsibility, moral not legal in nature, i.e.voluntary, in which it was incumbent upon the kinsman-redeemer to take on two obligations: on the one hand the obligation to marry the wife of a deceased relative and so relieve the destitution and shame of her widowhood, and on the other hand the obligation when a deceased relative died without a male heir, to marry the widow and produce a descendant who would inherit his property (pp. 51–52, 57–59, 189, and n. 41), obligations which are very similar to those of levirate marriage.

One wonders, however, whether the author has been fully consistent in following out the implications of this line of interpretation in three connections: first, in regard to the meaning of Ruth’s request in 3:9; secondly, in regard to the main theme he posits for the book; and thirdly, in consequence of the first two, in regard to the specific period to which he dates the book. In regard to the first he has concluded that Naomi’s identification of Boaz as ‘kinsman-redeemer’ and a relative in 2:20 and 3:1–2 relates only to an obligation to marry the widow of a deceased relative. Does it seem likely, then, as he posits, that Ruth’s request in 3:9 went beyond Naomi’s intentions: ‘Naomi’s instructions intended simply to obtain a husband for Ruth.… By invoking the gō’ēl custom on her own initiative, however, Ruth subordinated her own happiness to the family duty of providing Naomi an heir’ (p. 213)? But Hubbard avers that the responsibility of the gō’ēl alluded to by Naomi in 2:20, and the only one alluded to thus far in the story, is that of the duty to marry the widow of a deceased relative. Hence, since the symbolic act Ruth speaks of in her request (‘spread the corner of your garment over me’) relates specifically and narrowly to marriage, how could Ruth in the grounds for her request (‘since you are a kinsman-redeemer’) suddenly be using the term gō’ēl to imply a responsibility to benefit Naomi by providing her with an heir? Note that she has not identified herself to Boaz immediately prior by saying ‘I am Ruth, wife of the deceased’ (or’wife of Mahlon’, cf. her identity in 4:5, 10). Rather, she has called herself simply ‘Ruth, your handmaid’, an identity that stressed her status as one eligible for marriage to a man of Boaz’s position (as Hubbard notes, p. 211), not as the widow who must raise an heir to her husband’s estate. In this light it is difficult to see how Ruth could be using gō’ēl in any different sense than Naomi did in 2:20 or that is implied in her reference to Boaz as a relative in 3:1–2. It does seem very likely that Boaz, in his response to her request in 3:12–13, speaks almost enigmatically in such a way that he seems to have more in mind than simply marriage, but Ruth in 3:9 surely does not.

Secondly, in regard to the main theme of the book, one wonders if it is correct to say that ‘The dominant theme is God’s gracious rescue of Elimelech’s family from extinction by provision of an heir’ (pp. 39, 63). In the light of the above understanding of 3:9, not a word about the problem of the lack of an heir for the line of Elimelech has surfaced in the story prior to the hint that Boaz has more in mind than marriage in his reply in 3:12–13. Surely Naomi’s bitter cry in 1:20–21 does not sound this theme as Hubbard postulates (p. 39), but rather expresses the affective dimensions of the death and emptiness of the life of Naomi, whose bare outlines our author sketched in 1:3–5 and began to fill in in the painful dialogue of 1:8–13. And the women in 4:17a do not joyously voice the resolution of this theme (p. 39), but rather Naomi’s restoration to life and fullness. This final scene, 4:13–17, focuses exclusively on Naomi’s restoration. Yahweh is not celebrated by the neighbour-women in 4:14 because he has not left the line of Elimelech without a descendant, but because he has not left Naomi without a redeemer to care for her in her need. And the women do not see the meaning of this child in the fact that he is the heir of Elimelech and will inherit his property, but in the fact that he will restore Naomi to life and support her in her old age (4:15). Nor do they celebrate his identity by crying, ‘A son has been born to Elimelech’, but rather, ‘A son has been born to Naomi’ (4:17a). Indeed, it is only Boaz in the scene in 4:1–12 who views his marriage to Ruth as ‘in order to raise up a descendant for the deceased on his inheritance’ (4:10) and who raises the issue of the redemption of the family land. His purpose in doing so is to induce the nearer redeemer to cede him his prior right to marry the widow and redeem the field. It is only in this scene, in the male world of the legal assembly in the city gate, that the issue of an heir for the line of Elimelech is a matter of concern. Hence the central and all-absorbing theme of the book is the second one Hubbard mentions in his introductory section on themes (pp. 63–64), viz. the restoration of Naomi from death and emptiness to life and fullness. This renders it quite unlikely, then, that the major purpose of the book is ‘political …: to win popular acceptance of David’s rule by appeal to the continuity of Yahweh’s guidance in the lives of Israel’s ancestors and David’ (p. 42).

Thirdly, in regard to the ‘setting’ of the book, i.e. the era in which it is to be dated, the author’s arguments that the book is pre-exilic and probably dates earlier in that period than later (pp. 30–35) are, in this reviewer’s opinion, well taken. However, if the above considerations regarding major theme and purpose are at all cogent, the major basis the author posits for dating it to the reigns of David or Solomon (pp. 44–46) are lacking.

Frederick W. Bush

Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena