More reasons than I realized as to why I like a seemingly insignificant Old Testament book
APOLLOS Old Testament Commentary 7B: Ruth
Author: L. Daniel Hawk
Publisher: Apollos (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press, England) (www.ivpress.com)
People seem surprised when I tell them that Ruth is one of my favorite books in the Bible. They wonder why I like such a small (only four chapters), seemingly insignificant book. It has few references to God and little theological content.
I probably haven’t helped much by saying that I like a good story. Maybe I have not realized all the reasons why I have been drawn to it. I do know that I was thrilled with the surprise of having L. Daniel Hawk’s commentary arrive in the mail. He articulates why I cherish Ruth.
Warning: this article contains spoilers. If you have never read this particular book in the bible, you should stop now before you continue. It won’t take long, but take your time. The text itself is better than my review or any commentary.
As noble as some of the characters in Ruth behave, I had never thought of the story as being scandalous. Yet Hawk highlights an insider/outsider motif. Ruth is not only an outsider, but a Moabite, a race with a history of antagonism in relation to Israel.
The threat of idolatry looms behind the prohibition of intermarriage with Moabite or other foreigners. When a relatively small company of Jews repopulated their homeland, it was marriage to foreign women that caused the godly Ezra so much consternation.
So how can an outsider like Ruth from a hated people group be accepted into the community of Israel? Ruth tells the story, and Hawk’s analysis is masterful. I will let him speak: “The book of Ruth plays directly off these sentiments (of antagonism towards Moab – reviewer’s addition) and turns them on their heads. In Ruth the reader encounters a Moabite who joins the Israelite community and devotes herself to Israel’s God. She personifies the faithfulness (hesed) that defines the heart of ideal Israel. She marries an upstanding Judean male and becomes the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king. Although she is ‘Ruth the Moabite’ throughout the narrative, the final mention of her name does not include the ethnic signifiers. In the end she is only ‘Ruth’ (4:13), fully indentified with the covenant community (Glover 2009: 294, 302-303)” (23).
It’s astonishing where Hawk, or should I say the story, takes us: “The book concludes, however, with the community’s blessing of a Moabite wife as better than seven (Israelite) males (4:15), articulating the conviction that faithful foreigners can become valued members of the covenant community” (25-26).
In reaching this conclusion, the author briefly summarizes the relationship between law and narrative. He sees a flexible understanding of the law. Think of Jesus refusing to chastise his hungry disciples from picking and eating kernels of grain on the Sabbath. Christ responds to this challenge from the Pharisees by directing their attention to an episode when David and his men were fleeing from Saul. They broke the law by requesting and receiving the bread that was only meant for the priests. Hawk notes three things from this exchange that bear on Ruth’s acceptance into the community: “First, Christ set a narrative text in opposition to a commandment. Secondly, he implied that sustaining life takes priority over the strict application of the commandment; both David and the disciples broke commandments in order to assuage hunger. Thirdly, he commented on the role of the law: laws are made to serve people, not the other way around” (138).
Does this make the author a theological liberal? No, he has found exquisite beauty in a text that reflects God’s hesed, his steadfast love. He writes, “Ruth resists the idea that membership in the covenant community is restricted to those who can trace a bloodline to the nation’s ancestors and that walls must be erected to keep ethnic others safely outside. It presents an alternative vision that recalls the heart of the covenant tradition, that is, that Israel is a community constituted by covenant rather than be genetics. Israelite identity, in other words, is ultimately volitional, not innate. One becomes an Israelite by the decisions one makes to live in devotion to Israel’s God and to display the devotion to others that lies at the heart of the commandments. Ruth reveals that Israel’s internal walls though have gates, and it establishes the means by which outsiders may pass through them to unite with those who bear the blessing of Abraham. Ruth the Moabite confesses Israel’s God, exemplifies covenant devotion and, in due course, receives the blessing of Yahweh and a standing among Israel’s ancestors” (140).
At first I thought that this commentary wasn’t oriented enough towards application. I would have liked to have seen more along these lines, but in reviewing passages like the foregoing, I realized that it is here, and it’s exceptional. It’s just not what I expected. I was looking more for pastoral insights and how readers can apply this to their own lives.
The author doesn’t get into types and allegories, places that others frequent. Perhaps he believes that would read into the text something that is not explicitly stated. Frankly, it’s probably better to start with something like this, which is careful, sometimes technical exegesis. This is a sure foundation.
Nevertheless, I would welcome the opportunity to read Ruth in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, though at the moment it remains a projected but not yet published title. My reason is that the reformers use allegory, but within limits. These two different types of commentaries will make excellent companions. I can turn to this volume for clarity and precise meaning. The other will help with the many possible applications.