The book of Ruth is a beautiful story centred on Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. We see God and God’s people reflecting God, his kindness and redemptive work. If you want to dig deeper into the text, you need to keep listening.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review Ruth, a volume from the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary or AYBC for short, by Edward F. Campbell Jr. 188 pages, published by Yale University Press in May 2003. It’s available in Amazon as a paperback for USD31.99, strangely there isn’t a Kindle version. If you want an electronic version, you can head over to Logos, which is offering this book for free for September.
I’m quite excited for today’s review. This commentary on Ruth is the free book for September and I just concluded a sermon series on … guess what… Ruth(!). In the month of August, there are four Sundays, four sermons for the four chapters in Ruth. My head is still living in the barley fields of Bethlehem.
If you are a new listener, I just want to quickly say that while I try to spend equal time reviewing light and heavy books, my aim is to make sure you gain something out of the review, no matter where you come from. Whether or not, you are familiar with the book of Ruth or the technicalities of studying the Bible. There will be some technical terms ahead which is true for any field, whether it’s photography or dress-making but don’t let the photographers, dress-makers or theologians’ technical talk detract you.
Alright, with that, let’s get to the book.
The first thing to note is the Anchor Yale Commentary Series describes itself as:
a project of international and interfaith scope in which Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars from many countries contribute individual volumes. The project is not sponsored by any ecclesiastical organization and is not intended to reflect any particular theological doctrine.
Unlike other commentaries, the AYBC is an interfaith project. You ask, “How useful can a commentary series be if there is no theological tradition to bring them together?” Surprisingly useful as you will hear.
The book is divided into two main parts, the introduction and the commentary. In the introduction you will find among many things, a discussion on the genre of the book. Campbell says it’s a novelle which implies the Ruth is fictional. He tells us about the original manuscripts related to Ruth. This tiny little four chapter book is not as simple as it seems. All these technical talk on the literature, history and theology can be very dry if not for the clarity and enthusiasm Campbell brings to this commentary.
At one point, Campbell writes in spontaneous praise:
I stand in awe of this author. He was a genius.
And that he is in awe throughout the whole commentary. Look at how the author has structured the story. Look at how he uses word-play. Look at this amazing piece of literature! Campbell’s genuine love for the subject, getting into the mind of the author, makes it easier for readers to overcome the technical hurdles along the way.
Yet, you may not like how Campbell begins his book. And be tempted to close the book, not willing to read any further. Because Campbell who stands in awe of this genius, also thinks that the book of Ruth is not historical.
In the introduction, he tells us how other scholars have tried to draw out earlier versions of Ruth. For example, one scholar suggests that initially the story only had Naomi. Ruth was added later. Another scholar says the story of Ruth came from a piece of poetry, “perhaps an old nursery tale”. To me, this discussion is so bizarre because it’s so speculative and I was relieved to read Campbell’s conclusion that trying to trace the development of Ruth is a blind alley.
However, in a subsection titled, “Historicity”, Campbell says the better question is not whether it’s historical but whether it’s plausible. After affirming there is much historical accuracy in the book, he concludes:
This in no way diminishes the judgment that the Ruth book contains a fictional story; it is simply a plausible one, and its information is a good guide to life and custom, and to realistic expectations about human living under the rule of God.
And it is after this paragraph that he says, he stands in awe of the author. He was a genius. A genius not for the history that he recorded but for the story that he made up.
I disagree with him. And I hope you do too. At the same time, I hope you will get this book, read it and use it as a resource.
Campbell believes Ruth is not historical. I believe it is. So consider this: what does it mean if our starting position is different but our conclusions on some passages are the same? It could mean that these conclusions are not dependent on prior assumptions but stand alone based on the text itself.
On the other hand, what does it mean if our conclusions are different? It could prompt us to study why we differ and how did we arrive at those conclusions.
Everybody who reads a commentary should know this, but my repeating this is a good reminder for all. When we read a commentary we are joining a conversation with knowledgeable people. We are not going under an authority, in addition to Scripture. The big test is whether you can trace the steps to reach your favoured theological position without naming names.
The introduction is surprisingly spicy, but we still have the main dish, which is the commentary. There are seven chapters in the commentary. Each chapter is divided into three sections: Translations, Notes and Comments. Campbell did his own translation of the original manuscript, which is different to other translations in some parts and he explains and defends his translation in the Notes.
The Notes is where you get the fullness of his scholarship, he gets into the original manuscript, the Hebrew, the grammar and meaning and cites and engages with fellow scholars on these matters. If you don’t know your Qumran and Syriac manuscripts, J and E narrative, masculine plural ending and reflexive Niphal form, then you can skip them and go to the Comments section.
If you only read the Comments section, you will finish the book quite quickly and you will know what Campbell thinks of the book of Ruth. If you want to know how he substantiates them, just go to the Notes. If you are using this book as a reference, you are not reading this book cover to cover, then you can zoom into that word or verse and see what scholars are saying about it.
I’ve given you a broad layout of the land, and now like Ruth, I’ll go into the field, I will glean some fruit of the land and share them with you.
Knowing What You Didn’t Know
The first thing I want to check in any commentary on Ruth is how does the commentary writer understand Naomi’s complaint.
Naomi has lost her husband and her two sons. She asks her two daughter-in-laws to leave her and return to their father’s house. Ruth refuses to leave her and follows Naomi home. When the people in Bethlehem see her and call out, “Is that Naomi?”, Naomi says in Ruth 1:20–21 (ESV):
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
Campbell’s translation is more colourful:
“Don’t call me ‘Sweet one,’
Call me ‘Bitter one.’
For Shadday has made me bitter indeed.
I was full when I went away,
But empty Yahweh has brought me back.
Why call me ‘Sweet One’?
For Yahweh has testified against me
And Shadday has pronounced evil sentence on me.”
Naomi says very strong words. How do you take it?
Is Naomi wrong to say such things? Do we say she is speaking out of her grief and thus out of kindness we should not take her words seriously? Or do we say she is speaking clearly on who God is, there is Biblical truth here, and thus we must listen carefully to understand the believer’s relationship to suffering.
In his commentary, Campbell analyses the use of the Hebrew word return, how the Ruth story-teller understands God’s activity and hesed kindness, and covenant, and the legal aspect of Naomi’s complaint, which leads him to assert:
… not only is complaint tolerated by God, but it can even be the proper stance of a person who takes God seriously! Anyone who ascribes full sovereignty to a just and merciful God may expect to encounter the problem of theodicy, and to wrestle with that problem is no sin, even when it leads to an attempt to put God on trial. Petulant Jonah, earnest Jeremiah, persistent Job — Naomi stands in their company.
A commentary is helpful when you know what you don’t know and you go to the relevant page to find the answer to your burning question. A commentary is especially enlightening when you don’t know what you don’t know.
Not Knowing What You Didn’t Know
Did you know that Ruth uses different words for servant? In chapter 2, when she responds to Boaz’s kindness to her, for letting her glean in the field among many other kindnesses, she says “you have spoken kindly to your servant.” The word for servant here is siphah.
In chapter 3, when she comes to Boaz in the night to ask him to be her redeemer, she says, “Spread your wings over your servant.” The word for servant here is amah.
You couldn’t tell this from the English translation. And there is probably nothing to Ruth’s changing words for servant. Translators and commentators say the two words are synonymous, they carry the same meaning. But Campbell shares a fascinating bit of trivia:
Over a century ago, a damaged inscription was found on a tomb facade nearly buried beneath a home in the village of Silwan, across the Kidron valley from the temple mount in Jerusalem.
Campbell tell us that a scholar by the name of Avigad was the first to make sense of it. The inscription on the tomb reads:
“This is [the sepulcher of …] yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and no gold here, but [his bones] and the bones of his ʾāmāh with him. Cursed be the man who will open this!” Avigad translated ʾāmāh here as “slave-wife.” Surely this is correct; it is more likely that the ʾāmāh was indeed a beloved slave-wife than that she was buried with her lord simply in order to serve him in the netherworld!
Personally, I think this begs more questions than it answers but if there is a shift in meaning, there is an intentional suggestion of marriage from Ruth to Boaz, then Boaz is one of the few men who got the hint.
This is an example of coming to this book, not knowing what you don’t know, and profiting from the labours of scholars. They have done the hard work of digging up a tomb, translating the inscription, and connecting a word found there to what Ruth says to Boaz and adding flavour to the scene. All we do is just read and benefit.
However, this is an inconsequential piece of trivia. It has no major impact to the big story one way or the other. Let me share the one part of the book that made me most uncomfortable.
Let’s Talk about Sex
As I mentioned, Ruth went to Boaz at night to ask him to be a redeemer. The way she did it is not something pastors would tell young vulnerable single woman to do. She went to Boaz at the place where the men were working in the middle of the night, uncovered his feet and laid down by his feet.
This is sufficiently scandalous. Campbell tells us there is more!
He tells us that as the storyteller tells the story, Hebrew listeners will hear words with double meaning. For example, when a man lays with a woman, it can have two meanings in English and also in Hebrew. Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet. Another word with double meaning is peculiar to the Hebrew that is “to know”. For a man to know a woman can be to know her in an intimate manner. Naomi told Ruth to not make herself known to Boaz until he has finished eating and drinking. There are others which got me uncomfortable.
For thousands of years, Ruth and Boaz have been examples of a chaste and pure relationship. Is Campbell telling us that’s not true?
Does this roster of double entendres mean that the story-teller is simply seeking to titillate his audience? Emphatically not. His intent is much more serious than that. Having led his audience to participate in the mystery and ambiguity of the scene, he obviously means to say that it is of extreme importance whether or not here at the threshing floor things will go forward according to what Israelite custom and Israelite ḥesed-living calls for.
Thanks to Campbell, that passage is a lot more mysterious and ambiguous than before because he highlights the Hebrew words. So did they or didn’t they?
And thankfully, Campbell uses the Hebrew to set our hearts at ease.
Once again, the story-teller signals us: the verb he uses is not “lie down,” that ambiguous term, but Hebrew lwn/lyn, “to lodge,” the same term Ruth had used in her avowal to Naomi in 1:16. No ambivalence here! This term is never used in the Hebrew Bible with any sexual undertone. The dark ambiguity gives way to the clarity of the kinds of human commitments which characterize this story. Now it becomes clear that both of these people are worthy, and will do things in righteous fashion.
Imagine how complicated life would be if the storyteller had opted to say Ruth lay down with Boaz while waiting for the sun to rise. Or if Boaz to Ruth said, “Since we are here, let us get to know each other.” Even if it was all innocent, the choice of words would compromise their reputation or give license for loose living.
Round Up and Other Recommendations
So just to round up, this commentary on Ruth from the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary Series is great to get into the Hebrew, grammar and literary aspect. I would use it as a reference but not as a main commentary. Call me old-fashioned or nit-picking, but I think it’s important we both look at Ruth as a historical record rather than a fictional story, no matter how well-crafted the story may be.
I used a bunch of commentaries for my sermon prep, including the New International Commentary on the Old Testament by Robert Hubbard, Jr., Tyndale’s by Leon Morris and I’ve always enjoyed reading the Reformed Expository Commentary and for Ruth it’s by Iain Duguid. But I want to make special mention for the one from the New Studies in Biblical Theology. The title is “Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth” by Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. It’s not a verse by verse commentary like the others but it helped me pay attention to God’s kindness and hiddenness and Ruth’s place in the canon.
If a commentary on Ruth deserved a Razzie award for being the worst, I nominate the one from Berit Olam series by Tod Linafelt. Compare Linafelt against Campbell.
Campbell, in the Anchor Yale commentary, said we should take the characters as the story-teller presents them and not see Ruth as a “scheming woman trying to butter up a vain old man.”
Linafelt, on the other hand, in the Berit Olam commentary, wrote this:
Boaz the kindly and pious pillar of the community slips easily into a blustering paternalistic figure who is caught off guard by the surprisingly quick-thinking and mock-deferential Ruth. When Ruth appears next to Boaz in the middle of the night in chapter 3, he is clearly flustered, more than a little frightened, and acquiesces to her suggestions quite easily.
I have little patience with Linafelt’s creative and highly speculative analysis. So if you are going to study Ruth, get the New Studies in Biblical Theology one by Peter Lau and Gregory Goswell and stay away from the Berit Olam one by Linafelt, unless you are in the mood for alternate history novels.
This is a Reading and Readers review of Ruth, from the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary | AYBC series by Edward F. Campbell Jr. 188 pages, published by Yale University Press in May 2003. Available in Amazon as a paperback for USD31.99 and free in Logos for September and only September.
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