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Notes on Ruth (Bruce Jorgensen)

Posted by Jim F. on June 6, 2010

A friend, Bruce Jorgensen, shared these with me and they are so good that they belong here. Bruce has given permission for me to post his notes.

“All the City . . . Doth Know that Thou Art a Virtuous Woman” [Ruth 3.11; cf Prov 12.4; 31.10]
Ruth; 1 Samuel 1; 2.1–2, 20–21. 

This lesson invites us to look at the stories of two women. The Book of Ruth is a self-contained narrative that many commentaries label a “short story” (and it does appear to be a precursor of that modern literary genre); Ruth is also one of only two books of the Bible named for a woman, and Ruth is a Moabite and a convert to Israelite religion. The briefer story of Hannah’s dedication of her first son Samuel to the Lord’s service is a sort of prologue to the account of the transition from the reign of the Judges to the monarchy: Samuel is the last Judge, and as a prophet he anoints Saul as king. The Book of Ruth is so intricate and rich that we may do well to give our time to it alone.

In the Hebrew Bible Ruth belongs with the Writings and is the first of the megillot, the “Five Scrolls” (together with The Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther) associated with important festivals in the Jewish calendar; Ruth is read liturgically during Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks, a spring harvest festival. In the Greek and Latin and Christian canons, Ruth becomes a kind of interruption or interlude in the Deuteronomic history, wedged between Judges and 1 Samuel because its story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled” [1.1] and includes a genealogy of David [4.17–22]. The date and writer of Ruth are unknown; Jewish tradition has ascribed the book to Samuel, but internal and stylistic evidence point toward the monarchy and either during or soon after the reign of David as its time of composition; some propose a well-educated writer in the royal court, others a village bard. The exact date of the events in Ruth is uncertain, and whether all the events are historical or not, the book is clearly a very carefully wrought work of Hebraic narrative art, by a writer who seems to delight in intricate composition, suspense and surprise, complex characters, dialogue, various ironies, and a lot of wordplay.

We begin to get a sense of how carefully constructed Ruth is when we notice its symmetries: its introduction [1.1–5] and conclusion [4.13–17] (before the genealogy of David) each contain 71 Hebrew words, and between these the story plays out in four episodes (which I think of as like acts in a drama), with its main turning point (in its trajectory from Naomi’s desolation [1.5] to her restored fullness [4.14–16]) at the midpoint of the book [2.20]. Drawing on study aids in the NIV and The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), I would outline it this way:

Introduction [1.1–5]: Naomi widowed and childless in Moab [1.3, 5; cf Ex 22.22–23]

1. Naomi, with Ruth, returns to Bethlehem [1.6–22]

a. departure from Moab [6–18]

b. arrival in Bethlehem at the time of barley harvest (April–May) [19–22]

2. Ruth gleans in the fields until the end of the wheat harvest (June) [2.2–23]

a. Boaz shows Ruth great kindness [2.8–16; cf Dt 24.17–22]

b. Ruth reports her encounter with Boaz to Naomi [2.17–23]

3. Directed by Naomi, Ruth meets Boaz at night on the threshing-floor [3.1–18]

a. Naomi tells Ruth how to approach Boaz [3.1–5]

b. Ruth and Boaz talk at midnight [3.8–15]

c. in the morning Ruth reports this encounter to Naomi [3.16–18]

4. Boaz fulfills his pledge to Ruth [4.1–13]

a. Boaz confronts the nearest kinsman in the presence of ten elders [4.1–8]

b. Boaz announces he will marry Ruth, and the elders witness [4.9–12]

Conclusion [4.13–17]: Boaz marries Ruth, and she bears a son “to Naomi” [4.17]

Genealogy from Pharez to David [4.18–22]

A few examples of the dense and intricate verbal texture of Ruth—of course more consistently discernible in Hebrew than in any English translation—include:

• a play on the name Beth-lehem, “house of bread” or “house of food,” and the absence of food (famine [1.1]) and the provision of food by the Lord [1.6] and by Ruth’s gleaning [2.2–3, 17] and Boaz’s generosity [2.14; 3.15];

• the Hebrew verb for “give,” which marks the two explicitly mentioned acts of the Lord in the story [1.6; 4.13], resonates in the gifts of food that Boaz gives Ruth [2.14–16; 3.15, 17];

• the Hebrew phrase eshet hayim, with which Boaz compliments Ruth, translated (in KJV) as “a virtuous woman” [3.11], and its masculine equivalent, ish hayim, which the narrator uses to describe Boaz, translated (in KJV) as “a mighty man of wealth” [2.1]; “worthy” might be a fair English translation in both cases;

• the ten uses of the Hebrew word for “return” in ch 1 and that word’s echo at the end of the story when the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that Ruth’s son will be “a restorer of life” [4.15];

• the Hebrew word translated “cleave” [Gen 2.24; Ruth 1.14] or “cling,” echoed in Boaz’s instruction to Ruth to “abide here fast by my maidens” [2.8; cf 2.21, 23];

• the Hebrew word for “wings” that Boaz uses in blessing Ruth, “a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” [2.12], echoed by Ruth when at midnight on the threshing-floor she asks him to “spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid” [3.9], which could be either a request for protection or a marriage proposal;

• the twenty-three uses of Hebrew words for “redeem” or “redeemer,” translated (in KJV), for instance, by “near kinsman” and “part of a kinsman” [3.9, 12, 13];

• several uses of the Hebrew word hesed, rendered by “kindly,” “kindness,” and related terms in English, used for both divine and human acts [1.8; 2.20; 3.10; cf Ex 20.5–6; 34.6–7; Dt 5.9–10], and sharply contrasted by Naomi’s word “bitterly” [1.20, 21];

• the implications of names like Mahlon (sickly) and Chilion (frail), Naomi (pleasant or sweet), Mara (bitter), and Boaz (which incorporates the Hebrew word for “strong”); the name Elimelech means “God [El] is my king”; the etymologies of the names Orpah and Ruth are unknown, though some suggest Ruth means “a companion” (the English word ruth means pity or mercy);

• some speeches in the story are constructed in the parallelistic patterns of Hebrew poetry [e.g. 1.16–17; 1.20c–21], and chiastic patterns occur in both dialogue [e.g. 1.8; 1.20c–21] and narration [e.g. 1.9b, 14].

Reflecting a bit on reading Ruth against the background of Judges—or perhaps rather as if through a small window that opens out of the grim days of the judges—it seems to me that, after all the blood and fire of that book, which focuses mainly on public and national political events, Ruth comes as a deep breath of fresh spring air in its focus on a more intimate story of a family in a rural town. The Book of Ruth seems to imply that, while all that messy and violent large-scale “history” was going on, the covenantal purposes of God were being “softly” [3.7] fulfilled in and by the generous hearts and deeds of otherwise unknown and “unimportant” people: destitute widows, a stranger or foreigner, a large-hearted and streetwise landowner who threshes with his servants, the men and women of a small town, even an unnamed near kinsman who would rather not do his duty and “redeem” Naomi’s field [4.4–6]. (The Lord, Yahweh, though his name is often invoked by the characters in lament [1.21] or greeting [2.4] or blessing [1.8; 2.12, 20; 3.10; 4.11, 14] or pledge [3.13], is said specifically to intervene only twice in this story [1.6; 4.13]; and those interventions—giving food after famine and giving a childless woman conception—seem more or less usual or ordinary for the Lord God of Israel.) Naomi and especially Ruth and Boaz seem to me to be people who do have the Lord’s law [Lev 19.18] written in their hearts, and who act from the heart. And I suppose that, hearing this small scroll read annually in the spring harvest festival, generations of Jews got its story into their hearts as well, and perhaps that helped to write the Lord’s law there. We might seek to do and to receive the same.

4 Responses to “Notes on Ruth (Bruce Jorgensen)”

  1. Cherylem said

    Very nice post, Bruce. Interesting that you used the phrase”deep breath of fresh spring air.” I told my class that Ruth was like taking a drink of pure water, especially after plodding through the painful and painfully dark Joshua and Judges – for all the reasons you also name. Mainly, Ruth seems to me a book about people, common, every day quiet people, making right choices.

    On the other hand, there is in Ruth a certain answer to Ezra and Nehemiah, who want to purify Israel by getting rid of all foreign wives. Ruth the Moabitess is a powerful type of the outsider, who is all important to the continuation of Israel.

    I like your reference to the Deuteronomic history. Are you teaching this bit of scholarship in your GD classes? I’ve been trying, but sometimes find that the 45 minutes we have coupled with church members overall lack of familiarity with OT make for a tough sell. Still, this Sunday as we’re doing the second 1st Samuel lesson, I’m going to review the Deuteronomic books (again!) and emphasize the early vs late prophets (also again).

    Thanks again for the fine notes.

  2. BrianJ said

    Bruce, thanks for posting.

    “the covenantal purposes of God were being “softly” [3.7] fulfilled in and by the generous hearts and deeds of otherwise unknown and “unimportant” people”

    This is along the lines of what I was thinking as I read through Ruth this year. In the Book of Judges, we see a gradual deterioration of Israelite government—if not society. The book starts out well enough, but eventually we see a guy who make an oath that results in his daughter’s brutal death and then the infamous Samson: exemplar of how to break a covenant. After all this, we read Ruth, where there are at least two examples of covenant-keeping versus covenant-magnifying.

    What I mean is this: we can view a covenant as either a contract—a legal obligation with detailed requirements—or as something more personal, something that obligates us not through restrictions and rules but through a sense of loyalty, etc. The first example of this is with Ruth, Naomi, and Orpah. Orpah and Ruth apparently have some kind of obligation to Naomi, as she is their mother-in-law. Both honor this obligation by staying with her following the death of their husbands/her sons. Naomi, however, releases them from this obligation—from this contract. We should have nothing but respect for Orpah who is honest with Naomi, accepts her release, and returns to her own family. Ruth, however, views her relationship with Naomi as something more than just what marriage laws (or whatever) would dictate; she isn’t with Naomi because she has to be, but because she chooses to be.

    We see this again with the near-kinsman versus Boaz. While the former is a just man who seems willing to fulfill his obligation to marry Ruth, he nevertheless balks when the terms and responsibilities are made clear; he’ll do it, but he doesn’t want to. Boaz, on the other hand, seems driven by something more than just obligation (since, in this case, the responsibilities/costs outweigh the benefits of the marriage), and marries Ruth despite the “high cost.”

    We might talk of this in terms of “letter” versus “spirit” of the law, but for some reason I like thinking of it in terms of “contract” versus “covenant.”

  3. Robert C. said

    Great post, and comments. Brian, I esp. like this contract vs. covenant way of framing this. Given the importance of the kinsman-redeemer (ga’al) in this story, I esp. like how this helps me think about the very notion of redemption (as a covenantal promise, not a mere contract)….

  4. BrianJ said

    Robert: you made me think about some of the different atonement theories and how covenant/contract might play into them, as well as perhaps a different way of looking at Lucifer’s offer versus Jehovah’s (but probably now I am overthinking it).

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