In the story of Ruth, the eponymous protagonist is so desperate to follow her widowed mother-in-law back to Israel that she swears an oath. Regardless of the translation one chooses, the sense is the same: Ruth promises to stay with Naomi for at least as long as they both shall live. But Ruth’s intention with respect to the two widows’ postmortem proximity is not so unanimous in the translations. According to the NRSV, Ruth says, “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” The NJPSV is representative of many other translations with its rendering, “Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” The difference may seem trivial, but the contradiction between the phrases is total—either death will not ultimately separate them, or it will.
The issue here is neither theological, nor archaeological. It is of a linguistic nature. What does the Hebrew phrase mean? The solution to the problem is fairly straightforward. The first step is to recognize that Ruth’s statement is an oath. Oaths often employ formulaic, elliptical phrases. Therefore, it is necessary to gather together in one place as many of these formulas as possible so that the patterns, tendencies, and divergences may be seen within a larger matrix. Blane Conklin’s study intriguingly compiles these phrases and formulas in order to solve the mystery of interpreting biblical Hebrew oath formulas.
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Conklin’s study successfully gathers together data that is helpful in addressing the various markers that introduce biblical oaths. In doing so, he has elucidated the meaning and morphosyntactic function of these oath markers and illustrated the way in which certain oath particles mirror the use of these particles in biblical Hebrew . . . there is little doubt that this study represents an original linguistic contribution to the study of oaths and contains some important new understandings of various oath formulae and the particles that introduce them.
—Yael Ziegler, Herzog College, Israel
Blane Conklin currently works for the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of books and articles relating to biblical Hebrew.