In my previous post, I discussed an internal logic to the naming conventions within the book of Ruth as a means by which the book interprets itself. Using puns and names packed with meaning, the book adds dimensions to the story without needing to add more words. In the same way, the canonical placement of the book yields yet more significance.
For a lot of biblical scholars in the 21st century, the primary means of understanding the Bible is by different forms of redaction criticism. Redaction criticism is the means by which scholars try to piece together the “origins” of a book of the Bible. A well known redaction criticism the reconstruction of Q, or Quelle, a source of a lot of the material found in the Gospels. Another form of redaction criticism is the JEDP theory, where four major sources of material are proposed as the background of the Pentateuch.
Brevard Childs is one of the leading scholars suggesting a different way to read the books: canonical criticism. Rather than looking at the backbone of the texts, we take the final texts as they are. Not only do we take the work as a whole (despite any level of previous editing), we have to take the book in its place in the canon. This means that we have to read each book of the Bible not only on its own, but with the other 65 books in the canon.
So, in which ways does it benefit us to read Ruth not only as a single entity, but also as part of the canon?
First, by reading backwards canonically, we have a better sense of the context of Ruth. Ruth gives us a few context clues in the text: “In the days when the judges ruled…”, but a canonical reading is beneficial because it gives us an even more in-depth look into the setting of the book. The canonical placement in the Septuagint order puts Ruth right at the end of Judges. To read the ending of Judges and the beginning of Ruth together is to see: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…”
Secondly, by reading backwards, we’re reminded of different themes that Ruth picks up. Because of the famine “a man” from the House of Bread in Praise became a sojourner in Moab. Famine is a common theme throughout the Bible, which we’ve seen now, because we’ve placed Ruth into the context of canon, a time in which God works to bring a deliverer. Rather than stay and trust that God would bring relief from the famine (as he did when he created Adam, and brought up Joseph in Egypt, and brought manna in the wilderness, etc.), My God is King brings his wife and daughters into the land of the Gentiles. This is an act of unfaithfulness, as God has promised prosperity to Israel, in the land, as long as they are faithful to his covenant.
The rejection of God as king, and Bethlehem as his source of bread, makes Elimelech a microcosm of the story of the Judges. Having recently read the book, we remember that the Judges-cycle records a movement away from God, the need for deliverance, and the return to God after a redeemer is sent. The book of Ruth starts at the beginning of this cycle. This clues us in to what we should expect from the rest of the book. Without reading Ruth in the context of the canon, it could be easy to forget all of these themes we’ve encountered before.
Third, by reading canonically, we read Ruth with more of an eschatological expectation for God to act in hesed love. At the end of the book of Judges, we are wont to despair, breathlessly waiting for God’s redemption. We expect that it may come at the beginning of the book when we met Elimelech. It does not seem to come, as “the man” to whom we are introduced leaves Israel rather than redeeming her. Now, not only must we wait for an answer to Israel’s problems, we must find the answer to a specific family’s problems, too. The tension is raised all the more knowing where this story takes place. When God finally does move, we see it as more than a redemption of a single family, but see it as part of God’s consistent plan to save Israel to make his name known.
This leads to a much more rich understanding of Ruth’s ending. It is more than a few verses detailing Ruth’s successful marriage and family. Ruth is not only the story of David’s grandmother; rather, Ruth’s marriage with Boaz is the answer for Israel’s plight: there was no king in the land, and everybody did what was right in their own eyes.” The problem? There was no king! God’s solution? It’s found in the genealogy at the end of Ruth: Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. No longer merely a genealogy, Ruth shows us God’s deliverance as the tenth generation from Judah (cf. Deut 23:2), brought in when the Gentiles turn to the living God of Abraham.
Finally, reading Ruth canonically changes our expectation for the next books: Samuel and Kings. When we read a genealogy, we know that the final member of the genealogy is significant. Not only that, but Ruth’s ten member genealogy matches other significant ten member genealogies: Stephen Dempster points out that the genealogies from Adam to Noah, and the one from Noah to Abram are both ten generations and both have immense soteriological implications for human history. David is another tenth generation, a new Noah (remember: Naomi wants to find rest for Ruth), and a new Abram (David is king of both Jew and Gentile at different points). David, as the tenth member of a genealogy, is shown to be a vitally important figure in the heilgeschichte. All of these points together, David as the end of a ten-member long genealogy at the end of a book detailing a time without kings, should cause us to expect the next story to be about David. This should cause us to wonder why the first king of Israel is Saul, a Benjamite, rather than Judahite David.
Reading the book of Ruth canonically opens up our understanding a bit more, and we are more open and ready to hear the message of the gospel in the book.