Sunday, October 25

Literary Perspectives on Ruth

The book of Ruth tells the story of a quiet, ordinary life in the country - of the woman became the Grandmother of Jesse, Great-Grandmother to King David, and ancestor of Jesus. Ruth is a 4-Chapter Book. Ruth is a perfect idyll in prose. An idyll is a short poem or prose piece depicting a rural or pastoral scene, usually in idealized terms. It can also be considered a novella. The traditional authorship is attributed to the prophet Samuel, but regardless of the author, the pastoral backdrop makes sense given the nature of labor as well as the Hebraic culture at the time this story is set to take place. What follows here is a few brief and cursory thoughts concerning this lovely little book. What insights can we glean if we look at Ruth in a literary context? 
Ruth's introduction begins with “In the days when the judges ruled…” which reminds us of the later stock phrase used after the 1300s, “Once upon a time…”. It also notes “there was a famine in the land.” The previous book, Judges, is set over a couple hundred years with several different judges; when the author states that this is firmly set in the days of the judges it not only roots the story in that period, but tells us from the beginning that a famine is the first cause of narrative trouble that is about to follow. What about the settings? We begin in Bethlehem in Judah, and the country of Moab: the characters are from Judah, and thus have a Jewish background, so we understand that the book will likely have a Jewish worldview or literary understanding. When the men marry Moabite women, a new element is introduced both culturally and religiously within the text – and the return to Bethlehem shows an acceptance of another culture and religion. The road to Judah where Orpah leaves and Ruth stays with Naomi (a crossroads for the three women after a sad end of their husbands) factors into this chapter as well.

Who are the characters? Elimelek is husband of Naomi, he moves his family out of Judah when a famine arrives. He passes away before his sons marry. Naomi is widow of Elimelek and mother of Mahlon and Kilion. Mahlon is the son of Naomi and Elimelek, Mahlon married Orpah. He died ten years after moving to Moab. Kilion is the son of Naomi and Elimelek, Kilion married Ruth. He died ten years after moving to Moab. Orpah was the wife of Mahlon, she was a Moabite. After Mahlon’s death, she leaves Naomi and Ruth afterward and goes back to her people. Ruth is the former wife of Kilion, and a Moabite, Ruth stays with Naomi after her husband’s death to Bethlehem. She also accepts the Jewish God as her god. The townspeople can also be classified this way – when Naomi returns, the people cause a stir. They seem excited at her return, but Naomi acts bitter toward them.
Finally, God - mentioned in passing as “God,” “the Lord,” “the Almighty,” God is the unseen character in the story. Naomi credits him for the bad she has endured (cf. the book of Job).

Now, what insights can we glean theologically from the text? Consider Ruth through the lens of identity: in antiquity your identity was often shaped and given through your town, your nationality and/or the name of your father. For example, in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, after Odysseus has injured the Cyclops he reveals his identity as "Odysseus son of Laertes, King of Ithaca." In antiquity, revealing your name meant that your opponent could have power over you and use your name against you. Ruth’s identity was once tied to her husband and her homeland – Ruth wife of Kilion of Moab – but she becomes by the end of the story someone else – Ruth wife of Boaz of Judah.  Ruth takes on this identity willing, including changing her god, her location and her being (Ruth 1:16-18). We also find several literary themes present, such as the journey or “there and back again” (cf. The Hobbit), kindness, love, compassion, familial bonds.

Another interesting insight is how this book turns on its head the common Hebraic view of the Moabites. Ruth was ridiculed and mocked for being a Moabite. Moab, from who the Moabites come from, was the son of Lot and his daughter. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot's daughters got their father drunk, and both slept with him. Moab was one of the children born to Lot's daughters (Genesis 19:30-36).This was a shameful thing in the eyes of Hebrews - so Ruth was looked down upon. Ruth took her life, which could have been a sad life, and turned it around, making Ruth one of the happiest stories in the entire Hebrew Bible.

It is also interesting to note that Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, setting of the Nativity. Ruth shows us just how "insignificant" this town seems compared to the rest of Israel and Judah. A prophecy, given by the prophet Micah merely a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, says "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans [or rulers] of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2) This was a prophecy regarding the birthplace of one "from ancient times," revealed in the New Testament as Jesus. Bethlehem, a mere country-town in Ruth's day, became the birthplace of the Messiah, savior of the world, just short of a millennium later. Significantly, the book also ends by referring to the genealogy of King David, as Ruth is his ancestor, making Ruth the ancestor of Jesus. We are perhaps inclined to believe that one of the purposes in writing Ruth for the people to hear of humble ancestry for King David, furthered by his early years as a shepherd boy, but it also reminds us that sometimes those with the least have the most love to give.

No comments:

Post a Comment