Ruth, a tale of human kindness and just dealing far beyond the norm, contains elements that for centuries have been the subject of debate. With a sprightly translation and a commentary rich in informed speculation, Edward Campbell considers the questions of layman and scholar alike.
Finding no overt mighty acts, the layman asks, “Why was Ruth included in the Bible at all? Where is God?” Campbell shows that God is not only present throughout but is indeed the moving force behind all the developments of the story. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz each act as God to each other, by taking extraordinary responsibility and performing extraordinary acts of kindness. And it is God who is responsible for the series of coincidences on which the plot hinges.
The scholar’s questions deal with such matters as purpose, date, and genre. Campbell’s research into ancient customs and linguistics suggests to him that Ruth is a historical novelette, entertaining and instructive, composed not long after the reign of King David, during the time of Solomon or within the subsequent century. Campbell demonstrates the storyteller’s skill with sensitive analysis of form, pacing, and wordplay. By delving into word origins and nuances he shows how convincingly the characters are developed. One instance: Naomi and Boaz use obsolescent language, emphasizing the generation gap between them and Ruth.
In addition, the illustrations help the reader understand unfamiliar elements of the story—the setting, the agricultural seasons and harvesting, the clothing of the times, the city gate where elders and interested villagers gather to make sure that all is done in a just and godly way.
“Once again, God is present in this story where responsible human beings act as God to one another. Nowhere more effectively has the story-teller made this clear than in Ruth’s request of Boaz in 3:9: spread your ‘wing’ over me, thereby fulfilling yourself the wish you expressed for me in 2:12, that my payment be full from Yahweh, under whose wings I have come to dwell.” (Page 138)
“She has done so, the story-teller wants us to see, on her own initiative. It was Naomi who devised the plan to get Boaz’ attention, but her instructions to Ruth extended only as far as ‘go and uncover his legs and lie down. Then he will tell you what you are to do.’ In fact, it was not so. It is Ruth who tells Boaz what to do, and she is justified in what she asks, according to the basic principles underlying righteous Israelite living. Once more, Ruth has acted as the very embodiment of what constitutes living according to ḥesed, and Boaz praises her precisely for that; the latter hesed he mentions in 3:10 is her determination to play her part in keeping Elimelek’s inheritance in the family and in making provision for two widows, not only for herself but for Naomi also.” (Page 137)
“One thing stands out as the dissection proceeds, however: this is an intricately woven, magnificently crafted tale, at base the work of one person, a person standing in the mid-stream of Israelite life and thought, a person wishing to communicate to his audiences things very close to the heart of the Old Testament. As well as being an artist, he is also a teacher, teaching with what in many instances is the most effective medium one can choose, a story.” (Page 3)
Edward F. Campbell Jr. is professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.