Ruth as Literature & Some Themes

We are better able to pay attention to the theology of the story of redemption if we recognize that as a story, it is a work of literature. Leland Ryken says,

There is a quiet revolution going on in the study of the Bible. At its center is a growing awareness that the Bible is a work of literature and that the methods of literary scholarship are a necessary part of any complete study of the Bible.1

Hence, we are required to follow the normal rules of interpreting literature. We use what some might call literary analysis as we look at the structure, the style, and the content of the book of Ruth as a work of literature. Robert Alter, a world-renowned expert in biblical literature, notes:

By literary analysis I mean the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attention to the artful use of language, to the shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative view point, compositional units, and much else; the kind of disciplined attention, in other words, which through a whole spectrum of critical approaches has illuminated, for example the poetry of Dante, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy. . . . The Bible’s value as a religious document is intimately and inseparably related to its value as literature.2

At this point some may say, “Yes but the Bible is not like Shakespeare or Dante; it is the authoritative word of God.” However, Alter argues that this sort of critical analysis of the Bible’s literary art and structure, “far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way.”3 To treat the Bible as a work of literature does not require one to treat it as if it were exactly the same as all other literature. Yet, since the Bible is literature, it simply allows us to use helpful tools to interpret it.

This approach restricts us to the meaning of the author’s actual words, and it liberates us to investigate the use of images as part of the literary structure of the book with more sensitivity to God’s literary, artistic beauty. This enables us to be even more sensitive to the theological instruction that comes by way of divine artistry. When we pay careful attention to the literary qualities of the whole Bible, we also analyze Old Testament writings as part of a larger corpus of redemptive literature as one book. This strengthens rather than weakens our theology.

We are free to enjoy God’s artistic work in the history of redemption as he masterfully weaves together a story that leads us to Jesus. We learn to appreciate the art of language as God communicates to us. One author says,

Where the visual artist works with paint, clay, and bronze, and as a craftsman penetrates deeply into the secrets of his materials, the writer uses language. It is a good starting point for us as readers to realize that whatever a text does, it does through language. . . . Good readers will, in a way, follow in the writer’s footsteps by loving language and handling it creatively.4

This method or approach liberates us to appreciate the redemptive images that flood our minds when we see Jonah pictured on a boat in the midst of the raging waters of the sea. We can note the redemptive images of death and salvation that rush to view when Jonah describes his descent into sheol in the belly of the fish. As Jonah is vomited on dry land, we note the picture of salvation common to other Old Testament writings that describe God’s people coming through threatening waters of judgment onto dry land.

We can interpret stories like Jonah and Ruth as part of the Bible and its overall message of salvation in Christ. It is very important to do this because today we have so many people who would approach the Old Testament as somehow radically separate from the New Testament. Jesus himself holds both testaments together without allegorizing the stories. They are literal stories with actual, historical figures. Yet, our sovereign God has structured them in such a way that they teach us of Jesus. Jesus is truly an artistic redeemer! We can be amazed when we see the connection between God’s sovereign work in the past and his present work in our own lives. Imagine that God was thinking about you and me when he crafted the story of Ruth and Boaz thousands of years ago! This brings new life to Paul’s statement that we are God’s workmanship in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:10). Paul uses the word poema, translated ‘workmanship’ in this passage. Like Ruth and Boaz, we are the poetry of God.

Likewise, there are many other redemptive images that teach us the lessons of God’s covenant. Jesus himself links Nineveh’s repentance to the judgment of the nation of Israel and the mystery of the gospel. We have to ask ourselves relevant literary and theological questions about the images that Old Testament stories use. We should ask, “Is this a common image in the Bible?” “Is this image used anywhere else in a similar context of situation?” “How is this word or phrase used in other parts of the Bible, and is there a connection?” “What has gone before this particular item, and in what way is it connected to the future?” These and many other questions help to guide us into very fruitful avenues of study when it comes to Old Testament stories.

At this point some conservative interpreters begin to get nervous. They may conjure up images of medieval scholars who used allegorical interpretations to hash out all kinds of fanciful stories for preaching. Worse yet, some of them immediately jump to the conclusion that using literary techniques also requires one to adopt liberal theological assumptions. Again, I will note that a redemptive or covenantal approach to the text prohibits fanciful or whimsical interpretations because the reader is anchored to the meaning of the story as a work of literature. Likewise, it does not necessarily undermine the basic authenticity and authority of the Scriptures. The text describes historical events that actually took place. We are limited, therefore, to the literal meaning of the text, and we are bound to use logical methods of interpreting Scripture with Scripture. We are not bound, however, to undermine the authority or authenticity of the Bible as the Word of God.

Respecting the Bible’s literary qualities guards us from trying to transform the beautiful poems and stories in Scripture into abstract theological propositions. Leland Ryken is helpful when he notes,

If we read the Bible as literature, we must be active in recreating the experiences and sensations and events it portrays. We must be sensitive to the physical and experiential qualities of a passage and avoid reducing every passage in the Bible to a set of abstract theological themes. If we have “antennae” only for theological concepts or historical facts, we will miss much of what the Bible communicates, and will distort the kind of book it is.5

This is a wonderfully liberating approach to the Bible. We are not loosed into a realm of allegory. Nor are we compelled to agree with the theological assumptions of the higher critical schools of thought, which treat the Bible as if it were not the authoritative Word of God. Rather, we are liberated to use our image-making and image-perceiving capacities as image-bearers of God. We are also free to probe into the various theological connections that we expect to find in our story to the redemptive metanarrative or, in laymen’s terms, to the story of salvation in history. In Ruth, for instance, if we had nothing else but the genealogy at the end of the story, we could see that Ruth’s story is intimately connected to the coming of Jesus, and thus to our story.

Ruth’s conclusion, written circa 1,000 BC, telescopes us forward to the beginning of Matthew chapter 1, which (not randomly) begins with the same royal genealogy. Thus, Ruth is far more than a love story of “girl meets boy,” but demands redemptive or covenantal attention. We are required to ask the appropriate literary questions, which link us to the necessary theological/covenantal questions, such as “how does this story fit into the whole story of redemption?” For example, does Ruth’s story help us to understand our own story in Christ? If so, what are the connections?

Ruth is a highly structured narrative that definitely points us to redemptive themes. For instance, there are words and phrases that are repeated using a kind of parallelism. In certain places the text is so highly structured that some scholars have suggested Ruth was originally a poem that was transformed into a popular narrative.6 Thus, in particular areas there is an underlying poetic structure that highlights specific themes. Indeed, one doesn’t need to search too carefully to see this kind of structure.

Resurrection through the Faithful Husband/Kinsman Redeemer

If it were possible to summarize the theme of Ruth, then one could say that Ruth is a story of resurrection through a faithful husband. If we are correct about the historical context of Ruth, then it reinforces this theme. For example, once the people of God had received Saul as the king they so desperately wanted (in spite of the warnings that God had given them in Judges), they found that he was not a true husband to Israel. He was not a faithful husband for the people.

Saul had become a false husband, and the land was in need of a true husband. Saul led his family away from the Lord and the promises of the commandments. His kingdom had become unpleasant because he was not a faithful husband. This false husband led his wife into the ways of the nations and away from the way of the Lord.

Such a setting helps us to appreciate what is happening when we see Elimelech leading his family away from the way of the Lord. Elimelech, a false husband, led his family away from the land where the Lord had commanded the people to stay, and thus led his family away from the Lord. He led his family away from the safety of the Lord, and the result was that he and his family were cursed and died. Thus, he left his wife a widow.

Resurrection of the Tribe of Judah

Ruth shows us that in spite of Elimelech’s unfaithfulness, God provides a man who is a model husband from the tribe of Judah. This royal tribe provides a faithful husband who leads the people in the way of the Lord. This husband, in ironic contrast to Elimelech, establishes a godly house with a model husband/king. The highlighted contrast between a faithful and unfaithful husband would have had intense thematic significance to the people of Israel, given the context of recent civil war, and it would have demonstrated clearly the contrast between Saul and David.

David as King

Ruth’s story offers a beautiful and powerful polemic for the authenticity of David as King of Israel. We should know that works of literature are often more capable of stirring the souls of the people than all of the scholarly arguments that could fill a library. Note the powerfully persuasive effects of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in convincing Americans that slavery in the South was exactly like what they read in the story. Slavery in the American South appears to have been quite different in reality than portrayed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet in spite of the historical events that actually occurred, more hearts were swayed by this popular story than by all the book reviews and articles written to the contrary. God knows the power of story!

Yes, God knows the power of a good story, and thus he uses the compelling images from this sweet story to convince his people of the validity of David as king. This story prepares the people for the anointing of David as their king. We can recall that Saul was still ruling as king when God came to Samuel and told him to anoint David as king over the people.

As you can imagine, Samuel did this with great trepidation. Samuel was in mortal danger because Saul was on the throne and was the de facto king. Nevertheless, Samuel anointed David as the legal heir of the throne. This presents a formidable problem: David is anointed but is not yet on the throne. How would the people become convinced that God was the one who had chosen David? Ruth offers a compelling polemic for the legitimacy of David as the God-appointed and proper king. When you read this story you can’t reach any other conclusion but that a sovereign, compassionate God has raised up this woman Ruth and this man Boaz at just the right time in just the right way. The sovereign hand of Providence is unmistakable.

Irony

Probably the most powerful literary tool that Samuel uses in the story of Ruth is that of irony. Irony is the most important device for deepening our meditation on Ruth’s story. Irony is when something that usually means one thing is deliberately twisted or changed to point us towards the opposite. It creates a serious incongruity between the expected results and the actual results. Or, as occurs in Ruth, it creates a painful gap between what the characters expect and what the reader expects. Samuel does this not just once or twice, but he layers the whole story with irony. This study will attempt to peel back the layers of irony so as to deepen our appreciation of God’s grace and mercy to the needy.

Judah and Bethlehem

Irony is used in the names as well as places we read in the story. For instance, the tribe of Judah and the town of Bethlehem are given standing in Ruth’s story. First, we should recall that the tribe of Judah had lost their legitimate standing as heirs in the Promised Land because of the traumatic, incestuous affair that occurred in Genesis 38. You should bear in mind the story of Judah promising his sons to Tamar in order to fulfill the levirate laws. However, as Judah denied Tamar her rights under the levirate laws, she tricked him into having an unwitting incestuous affair that produced his sons, Perez and Zerah. This enormous scandal caused the line of Judah to become illegitimate. The tribe of Judah had a very serious problem regarding legitimacy. Judah’s two sons were illegitimate. This disqualified them for acceptance in the assembly of the people of God. “One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD (Deuteronomy 23:2).

Hence, the story of Ruth reveals how God restored and, if you will, resurrected the line of Judah, thus clearing up potential misunderstanding in regard to David’s rule. When Saul was ruling, David’s line was potentially hampered by Judah’s sin of incest. Consequently, there was great potential for conflict over David’s rule. The whole story of Ruth acts as an excellent apologetic for the legitimacy of David’s rule.

The people knew that illegitimate children could not be proper heirs of the covenant until the tenth generation. Thus, it is no coincidence that at the end of the book of Ruth we have a listing of generations, a genealogy. Here we see that the genealogy in the last verses of Ruth establishes that David is the tenth generation of the tribe of Judah from Judah’s sins in Genesis 38. Ruth chronicles the restoration of the tribe of Judah and narrates for us how God made David the legitimate ruler from the tribe of Judah and points the people of God forward in the hopes that the dynasty of David would rule forever.

The Levirate Law

Ruth offers the reader a rare narrative description of the levirate laws in practice. Her story connects us back to portions of Scripture that help us to unfold the purpose and meaning of the levirate laws. This splendid little tale vividly portrays for us the idea of marriage and inheritance as it relates to the themes God had designed as part of the enigmatic levirate laws.

The levirate laws tell us that if a firstborn son married a woman but died before having a male heir, then one of his younger brothers would have to take the widow as his wife. The firstborn son of this union would then continue the line of the deceased father. Hence, the name and inheritance of the man would not die. Do you see resurrection theme?

For example, if Bob married Susie and he died before having children, then his brother would marry her and produce children. If children were born, the firstborn would be considered Bob’s son. This is exactly the principle Onan violated in the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis 38. Too many people focus on the violation of the idea of birth control from that passage. However, as we learn from the story of Ruth and the purpose of the levirate law, the infraction ran much deeper than Onan’s desire for birth control. Onan was a selfish husband who flagrantly disregarded the purpose of the levirate laws and who would rather see his dead brother’s name die than to risk his own holdings. Genesis 38 teaches us that this is what brought a curse to the house of Judah; not birth control. Ruth now explains to us how that curse was lifted. Boaz and Ruth keep the law, and the curse is reversed and removed. This brings life to the dead house of Judah and thus provides the way for David to become the legitimate king. To say that Ruth’s story is an artistic portrait of the levirate laws in action barely does justice the mastery of God as the divine artist.

Bethlehem

The theme of resurrection and reversal is scattered throughout the whole story of Ruth. We even see the resurrection and restoration of the town of Bethlehem. Up to this point in history Bethlehem was considered a rough and somewhat cursed town. Ruth’s story reverses this blight and brings the cursed little town of Bethlehem into the spotlight as the birthplace of the house of David, the ruler anointed by God. Though we know Bethlehem as the town of Jesus’ birthplace, it was in ancient days understood to be cursed. The name Bethlehem means house of bread. But it did not always maintain this theme in earlier times.

In a variety of ways Bethlehem is used as an important backdrop to the story of redemption. For example, as we see the story opening, the town is referred to as Bethlehem—house of bread—but ironically the town has no bread. This points us to the covenant curse that occurs as the story opens. We also see that as the Lord is honored, the town is restored to its place of plenty. What happens to Bethlehem can be seen in some ways to represent what happens to the whole world in reference to the arrival of God’s blessings or curses. Can you imagine a Christmas season passing without a song that bore reference to the city of Bethlehem?

Faithfulness vs. Faithlessness

There is a strong ironic contrast between faithfulness and faithlessness in Ruth. Elimelech was a faithless husband who sought blessings outside of the covenant. Elimelech’s name means God is king. How could someone with this name reject the covenant and leave the land? Ruth, on the other hand, who is a heathen outsider to the covenant, sought blessings in the covenant and in the land. Where Elimelech had rejected the covenant and left the land of promise, Ruth accepted the covenant and sought to be faithful in the land of the Lord. She becomes faithful in the face of his unfaithfulness. This is highly ironic since Ruth is from Moab.

Her son was named Obed, which means slave. Elimelech, whose name means God is the king, is set in stark contrast to his descendant from Ruth whose name means slave. Elimelech, whose name ironically points to the fact that he should have been a slave of God, did not serve God. Obed, whose name means slave, (Obadiah, for instance, means slave of Yahweh) was actually the child of the levirate marriage, which produced the true king of Israel.

Humble Women and God’s Love of the Needy

Ruth was from Moab. She was a foreigner. Yet, the word foreigner doesn’t capture the disdain most Jews would have felt toward Ruth. This is the Old Testament equivalent to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus chose to teach the proud Israelites of his salvation he chose the most despised ethnic group of the day; he chose Samaritans. Likewise, in our story God brings salvation from the most unlikely of places: from Ruth the Moabitess. From where does salvation come? Does it come from the proud palaces of Israel? Does God bring a king from the mansions of the city of Jerusalem? No, God brings salvation from humble origins in the womb of a humble woman. What a theme!

As a woman, Ruth would be considered less important in the genealogies; but to make matters worse she was a foreigner from Moab. Ruth is one of only a handful of women who are mentioned in biblical genealogies. One of the other women included in those genealogies is just as theologically important because she is called Rahab the Harlot, and she is intimately connected to the story of Ruth—she is, after all, the mother of Boaz. Like Rahab the Harlot, Ruth is given a virtual title, Ruth “the Moabitess.” This marks her ironically as a cursed foreigner. Yet, in God’s great mercy he reverses her condition and not only makes her a legitimate member of the covenant community, but he exalts her as the mother of salvation. What a great story!

Life and Death

Ruth portrays in vivid story form the two ways set before men. One way is a way of life in the covenant, and the other is a way of death outside the covenant. Two ways are set before us—the way of faith and the way of faithlessness. What better way to teach about the contrast between life and death than in a story like this one!

There is a series of ironic reversals in the very opening of the story. The city of bread or the city of life becomes a place of famine and death. From there the family leaves to Moab, historically a city of death for Jews. In the face of death, they leave for life and instead receive death. Then in the face of death they return again to the city that was once dead, but which now is the source of life. In the end they find life in a city that in the beginning was dead.

From the land of death they leave in order to return to the city of bread, Bethlehem. Ruth 1:1–7 comes full circle. This is the theme of resurrection whereby God reverses the plight of his people. Only a few verses into this little story Naomi comes back full circle to where her story began, in Bethlehem. The author also uses repetition of the word “return” to guide us to theme of reversal and resurrection.

God as Faithful Husband/Redeemer

Ruth is much more than a love story. While Ruth provides an excellent story of the love of one man for a woman, it is far more important than this. Ruth unfolds for us the theme of the true husband, Jesus. Ruth teaches us the stark contrast between the faithlessness of the first husband, Elimelech, and the faithfulness and strength of the true husband, Boaz. Boaz comes to Ruth’s aid as a selfless servant. He offers himself to her in order to restore her and her seed. When a man becomes the kinsman redeemer as Boaz became for Ruth, he gives up claims to the firstborn son. This firstborn son belongs to his kinsman. The true husband is faithful, sacrificial and loving. He lays down his life for his bride and leads her in the way of life. What a profoundly beautiful story to instruct husbands, but even more profound is the instruction we receive concerning Christ, the husband of his church.

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1. Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984, p. 11.
2. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books, 1981, pp.12 & 19. Please note that Dr. Alter is not a Christian, and his analysis per se would not lend itself to a Christ-centered interpretation. However, his emphasis on the literary and artistic qualities of the Bible is a great aid in overall biblical studies. See also the Israeli Bible scholar, Shimon Bar-Erfrat’s work, The Art of the Biblical Story.
3. Ibid., p. 12.
4. J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, p. 28.
5. Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, p. 20–21.
6. See Arthur E. Cundall & Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary, (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1968), p. 242.

Rev. L. Charles Jackson is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Dayton, Ohio.

Questions for Consideration

1.    Describe the basics of literary analysis.
2.    Does literary analysis neglect theology?
3.    How is the Bible like art?
4.    What are some helpful questions we ask as we read biblical stories?     
5.    Does this approach undermine the basic authenticity and authority of the scriptures?
6.    What is irony and how is it used?
7.    What are some of the basic themes in Ruth?

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