December 18, 2017

Ruth among the Writings

Ruth in the Fields, Hugues

By Chaplain Mike

Ordinary Time Bible Study 2011
The Book of Ruth (1)

During Ordinary Time this summer, we will have a weekly Bible study on the Book of Ruth. I think this especially appropriate, for Ruth is a story about ordinary people in ordinary settings, in and through whom God did extraordinary things.

For our text, we will be using the NetBible, so that you can make use of their online study tools, including the ability to view parallel translations, study notes and articles, and the ability to download the text to your computer or mobile device.

The two commentaries that have helped me most as I have studied Ruth, that I will be referring to throughout the study, are (1) Ruth (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), the classic work by Edward F. Campbell, Jr., and (2) Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther (New Studies in Biblical Theology), by Barry G. Webb.

Before we start reading and discussing the text of Ruth itself, we must understand the book’s context in the Hebrew Bible, particularly its canonical placement among the Writings, the third part of the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is called Tanakh because the three consonants T-N-K represent the names of its three major divisions: (1) Torah (Law), (2) Nebi’im (Prophets), (3) Kethubim (Writings).

Ruth among the Writings
If you compare a Hebrew Bible (or English Tanakh) containing the “Old Testament” with a standard English Bible for Christians, you will notice one thing right away—they arrange the books of the OT in different orders. Ruth is a good example of this. In our English Bibles, Ruth is placed after the Book of Judges and before 1Samuel, in the section we refer to as “the Historical Books.” However, in the Hebrew Bible Ruth is placed in its third and final division, the Writings. This is also true of other books that we are used to seeing elsewhere in the English Bible, a fact you will notice as you look at the list below. This can be confusing to English Bible readers, but I think it is important; it tells us something about the significance of a book like Ruth for those who first read the canon of the OT.

We may organize the Writings into three basic groupings:

The Books of Wisdom
Psalms
Job
Proverbs

The Five Scrolls (read at Festivals)
Song of Solomon (Passover)
Ruth (Pentecost)
Lamentations (Fast of Ab)
Ecclesiastes (Tabernacles)
Esther (Purim)

The Books of Restoration
Daniel
Ezra-Nehemiah
Chronicles

Jerusalem's Victory over Babylon, Chagall

Response to Exile
These books were collected and put together in the days during and after the Babylonian Exile (as was most of the Hebrew Bible). The exile was a period of profound self-examination and change for the Jewish people. They were bereft of their land and their homes, their kingdom, and their place of worship, the Temple. This forced them to take stock of their faith, their view of God, and their understanding of their calling to be his people. It was during this time that the institution of the local synagogue was formed  as the center of Jewish life, study, and worship. In a new way, God’s Word became the focal point of Israel’s life and worship.

What we do know is that the synagogue became the site for the collection, interpretation, preservation, application, and transmission of the growing biblical corpus. In light of the exilic experience, the Jewish community, gathered around synagogues throughout the world, selected and shaped the holy writings of Hebrew Scripture to help their dispersed nation understand what it meant to be faithful followers of their ancestral God, Yahweh, in their new circumstances. (G. H. Wilson)

The emerging three parts of the Hebrew Bible spoke to their needs in different ways. (1) The Torah instructed them about their roots, God’s original plan for them, and the covenant he had made with them as a people. (2) The Prophets helped them understand how God’s warnings and promises had come true in their history, and what their future prospects were according to what he had foretold. And (3) the Writings helped Israel contemplate God’s wisdom, find their voice in prayer, and respond to the crises of identity they experienced in the exile.

Ruth’s Purpose in the Writings
For our purposes in this study, it is enough to say that The Book of Ruth was one of the works that enabled Israel to remember their identity and rebuild their lives during and after the exile. And so it was placed among the Writings as a story of wisdom to guide God’s people.

Ruth is like an afterword to the book of Genesis, with language and scenes reminiscent of Israel’s founding ancestors on every page. Like the patriarchal narratives, it is a reminder, in the form of a homespun story, of how God’s plan came to pass through unlikely people and unexpected events. Like the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their family, there is travel and interaction with foreigners and the complexity of family relationships. Above all, there is the threat of barrenness and the end of the chosen line of heirs. However, ultimately, providentially, in and through the lives of ordinary folks like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, God provides the chosen “seed.” It completes story begun in Genesis by pointing to David as the seed of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah who will carry on God’s blessing.

David Playing Harp, Chagall

The Book of Ruth shows that the house of David is like that of the patriarchs—a place where grace and truth are found as people live by faith. It points to the future as well, and assures Israel that the world shall ultimately be blessed through David’s seed (Ruth 4:11-12, 18-22). At the time the Writings were collected, the kingdom of Israel lay in ruins and confidence in a bright future was hard to find. Despite such conditions, Ruth’s story points to the line of David as the exiles’ hope for restoration and blessing. And its narrative of hope springing from a hopeless situation would have brought encouragement to them.

Prayer for the Week
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we bless you for calling us to share your life and promises. We confess our inability to bring your blessings to pass through our own weak and sin-tainted efforts. Nevertheless, we acknowledge you as the God who rules history and our lives, and who brings even the humanly impossible to pass. Most of all, we praise you for sending the Seed of Abraham, the Son of David—our Lord Jesus Christ—who by his life, death, and resurrection delivered us from exile and inaugurated a new creation. Today, may we walk as our fathers and mothers in faith have taught us—trusting in you for grace for each moment, and looking for every opportunity to do good for our neighbors. Amen.

Comments

  1. I always thought the blessing at the end of Ruth (4:12) was unusual: “may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the Lord shall give you by this young woman.”
    Given the reference to that story from Gen. 38 (Judah getting his daughter-in-law pregnant while she was disguised as a prostitute), it’s saying that God can take a messy start and dubious circumstances, and bring about something beautiful and full of redeeming grace.

    • I think this is another example of leverite (brother in law) marriage. If the first husband dies without leaving an heir, another member of the line is to take the wife as his and raise a son. That child can very well come ahead of the physical father.

      This was the story of Tamar. Her first husband died. His brother “spills his seed” rather than fulfill his duty. He dies too(not sure of the reason). The 3rd brother is promised to Tamar when he grows up. She is sent to her father’s home as a widow.

      Judah, father of these 3, has no intention of giving his 3rd son lest he die too. When Tamar realizes this, she tricks Judah into sleeping with her. When she gets pregnant, he finds out and tries to have her killed as an adultress. When she proves he is the father, he leaves her alone. She has 2 boys, one being Perez .

      Ruth too has a husband who dies and all of his brothers too. She returns with Naomi her mother in law. In time she catches the eye of Boaz who is a relative also in the line of Perez . By stealth that reflects Tamar, she ends up marrying him and having a child.

      Mary, mother of Jesus, as well as joseph are traced to this geneology. I really relate to both Tamar and Ruth who take things into their own hands to do what is fair.

    • Redeeming grace, yes … especially poignant in light of how Moab (the father of Ruth’s people) was conceived.

      Thank you, Chaplain Mike. I enjoyed reading this and learned so much.

  2. Wow. I never saw the OT books divided up like that. It gives a perspective to their function I seem to have missed all this time. Why on earth do we print our Bibles in a different order?

    What I find really interesting is how the five scrolls correlate with the Jewish calendar. Considering their parallels in the Christian calendar, it seems that the books are read durring the season which seems to be of the most opposite nature of the books theme. Song of Songs at passover? Nothing like erotic love poetry to form a backdrop for Calvary! Or Ruth at Pentecost… A story about an ordinary person durring a season of extraordinary outpourings. And Ecclesiastes, a book complaining about the meaninglessness of life durring the feast of tabernacles, in which God Himself is dwelling with us! I dunno, it just strikes me as ironic. But that is fascinating background information. Why isn’t that in any of my study bibles?

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says:

      Our order comes from the order used in the Greek Septuagint. By the First Century, their appears to have been three canons in use by the Jews, roughly corresponding to the three centers of Jewish culture and learning at the time. The Tanakh represents the final canon used by the “Babylonian School,” which was formed in the context of the Exile and the exiles’ return to Israel (largely in the synagogue/Pharisee system). The Septuagint represents the “Alexandrian School” and represents the canon used by the more Hellenized Jews. Because of the missionary efforts and Christianity’s flourishing among the Greek-speaking world, most of the early Christian communities used the Septuagint for the OT. In fact, the reason the Deuterocanonical Books (aka the Apocrypha) are in Orthodox and Catholic bibles is because they were in the Septuagint. Though the Protestant Reformers ended up using the Tanakh’s canon, they retained the Septuagint’s book order.

      Having spent most of my adult life in Messianic Jewish circles (where various bibles that use the Tanakh order are more common), I sometimes have troubles remembering where some of the less-used books are in my Protestant bibles. The Tanakh order is more intuitive to me.

    • Adrienne says:

      Miguel ~ having sold Bibles in a Christian Bookstore for 16 years I think the answer to your question is because most “popular” study Bibles are really about US. The notes are basically to help you apply the Scripture to our lives. We, especially in the U.S., are in a hurry. We want answers, we want simple answers, we want successful answers. So to really study and understand that a lot of Scripture is NOT about us is rare. We need to care enough to “get into” the book, to open ourselves to the book. to its’ people, to their culture and time etc. We want a few proof verses, verses to help us when we want, comfort, healing, money and so on. To slow down and allow ourselves to be taught, to immerse ourselves in this study is a commitment most of us either cannot or don’t really want to do. As Eugene Peterson teaches we need to approach the book in an attitude of “leisure”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        We want a few proof verses, verses to help us when we want, comfort, healing, money and so on.

        We want a grimoire of short one-verse Magick Spells.

    • The Torah is read each year and correlates to the times of the year. THe Haftorah which is a short reading from the Prophets follows the reading from the Torah on Sabbaths and festivals, and relates to the theme of the Torah reading . The other writings of the Tanakh are not as prescribed on an annual basis.
      Esther is read at Purim i know.
      Ruth is one of my favorites in that the Moabites were not respected and yet became important to the family of David. When you think of it, many times God takes the lesser to make His point.

  3. I’m excited for this study. On a side note, I wanted to say how much I appreciate the art that you put up. It adds a lot for me. Chaplain Mike, I’m not sure where you find the pictures, but you have great taste!

  4. One good reason not to change the order of the OT books in my bible: in the early 90s, there was a Lyle Lovett album cleverly titled “joshua judges ruth”.

  5. I’m am excited about thinking about Ruth differently. Recently I’ve been writing a curriculum about Bronze Age Israel for a church’s camp. Because I’ve been very focused on the historical story of a family not “the chosen people” – must find something profound from God to apply to my life now – that I’ve really been looking at the early OT in a totally different way and loving it. Thanks for continuing that process.

  6. Thanks for this – I look forward to following this Bible study over the summer! I’m learning a lot, both from the posts and the comments.