Review of K. Saxegaard, Character Complexity in the Book of Ruth

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Saxegaard, Kristin M., Character Complexity in the Book of Ruth (FAT II, 47; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Pp. XV + 240. Sewn paper. €59.00. ISBN 978-3-16-150385-6.

This book is a slightly revised version of Saxegaard's doctoral dissertation, completed in 2008 under Karl William Weyde and Kåre Berge (Norwegian School of Theology). Saxegaard views the text of Ruth through the lens of narratology, focusing on characterization so as to “show how complexity might be read into” the characters in Ruth (p. 4). The second focus of the book is to demonstrate how such a close reading of the characters “generates theological themes” (p. 6).

The book is divided into three parts: (1) Introduction; (2) Character Analysis; (3) Conclusion. The first chapter outlines the problem, in Saxegaard's judgment, of the one-dimensional reading of OT characters. The next chapter outlines her methodological approach. Saxegaard's approach to character analysis builds on Adele Berlin's classification of characters into types, agents, and full-fledged characters (p. 18). Saxegaard then outlines her understanding of the naming of characters, and its importance for characterization: names not only describe a character, they “also place and evaluate a character's role in the narrative” (p. 28). Saxegaard identifies three parallel plots in Ruth. The first two plots are closely intertwined and share the theme of famine and fertility: in the land and in the family. Also connected is the third plot, focusing on God's presence. After an outline of relevant social and political structures, Saxegaard then makes an interesting contribution to the dating debate: she considers Ruth to be contemporaneous with genealogy of 1 Chr 2, judging the genealogy as earlier, not later than the narrative, in contrast to what most scholars propose (pp. 36–38). Regarding genre, Saxegaard eschews identifying a single genre for Ruth in favor of a combination: novella—“historicized fiction” (after Alter), family narrative, and polemic narrative (pp. 47–52).

The second section is the heart of the book. It contains analyses of the main characters (chs. 4–7), which are preceded by those of the minor characters in the book (ch. 3). Saxegaard examines Elimelech, Mahlon, Chilion, Orpah, Mr. So-and-So, and Obed, and finds that these minor characters, or “agents,” are important not only for the plot but also serve to enrich a reader's understanding of the main characters.

Chapter 4 deals with Naomi, whom Saxegaard rightly views as the primary main character, as well as the most complex. Naomi's complexity is reflected in her names (personal names and names describing family roles), and her actions in the narrative. Naomi's silences are understood to be syntactically ambiguous, placed intentionally by the narrator to confirm the complexity of Naomi's character, and to invite the reader to consider possible reasons for her silence (p. 86). Saxegaard herself views Naomi's silence as an expression of sorrow (Ruth 1) and relative contentment (Ruth 4), although whether Naomi returns to her former “pleasantness” is left as an open question, according to Saxegaard (p. 103). Naomi's similarities with Job, “the OT prototype of the sufferer” (p. 93), are examined. Naomi is found to be unlike Job, for she is not alone, does not address God, and does not explicitly state any understanding of God (p. 95).

In Chapter 5 Saxegaard examines Ruth and finds her identity unclear. Consistent with the difficulty of interpreting her personal name is the difficulty of interpreting Ruth's character, particularly since her inner life is not revealed (p. 105). Saxegaard discusses the ten different designations for Ruth (e.g., “the Moabitess,” “daughter-in-law,” “foreigner,” etc.) that appear in the narrative, and suggests that these designations reinforce the sense of difficulty in pinning down a unified description of Ruth's identity (p. 128). The three times Ruth is asked for her identity in the narrative add to this sense of uncertainty about her identity (p. 128). Saxegaard concludes that in examining Ruth's designations, her identity is multifaceted: “She is simultaneously a foreign Moabite and a faithful daughter-in-law, a seductive handmaid, and a worthy woman” (p. 128). In the second part of the chapter, Saxegaard analyzes Ruth's actions. Especially prominent is Saxegaard's discussion of foreignness and the issue of her possible conversion. For Saxegaard, talk of conversion or even assimilation is not apt because Ruth retains the descriptor “the Moabitess” throughout the narrative (p. 133). On this point I do not find Saxegaard's reading convincing. Even though “the Moabitess” label remains with Ruth through most of the narrative, it is not used by the end of the narrative. Ruth is named at least four times after 4:10, never with the identified “the Moabitess.” Also, a more precise definition of “assimilation” would have helped in the discussion, as well as reference to relevant anthropological or social-scientific insights into this type of phenomenon. Saxegaard goes on to highlight the surprising nature of a foreigner being involved in building up the house of Israel (p. 138) and also discusses the unclear nature of Ruth's proposal to Boaz on the threshing floor (p. 140). Perhaps a consideration of Paul Kruger's article might have shed some light on the latter issue.[1] Saxegaard concludes the chapter by classifying Ruth's character as full-fledged, with “traits of the type” (p. 142).

Boaz, the only other full-fledged character, is analyzed in chapter 6. His designations and descriptions are found to be consistent with his actions in Ruth: he is a steady pillar of society. He is also called a “redeemer,” and in this chapter Saxegaard outlines how the three characters (Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz) refer to גאל differently. Saxegaard views the threshing floor scene as another example of ambiguity, leaving the question of what exactly happened open to the reader (p. 157). She also discussed the crux interpretum of Ruth 4:5, preferring the ketib reading, “I acquire,” which presents Boaz as “eager, stressed and clever” (p. 161). Consistent with this reading and interpretation, Saxegaard also considers Boaz to have traits of a “trickster” in his dealings with Mr So-and-So (p. 163). Although the Levirate law of Deut 25 is considered by Saxegaard to be irrelevant to the situation in Ruth, Boaz applies this law for his benefit (p. 160). Boaz's motivation for marrying Ruth is identified as personal dedication and procuring an heir for himself, not his stated aim of preserving Mahlon's name (p. 164). Saxegaard closes the chapter by drawing attention to the Boaz's role as “spokesman of Yahweh” (p. 167) and one who takes the place of Yahweh (p. 169). I find this too strong a demarcation; instead of either God or Boaz, does the textual evidence not more clearly point to a ‘both and’ situation? Perhaps even God is acting through Boaz (cf. Ruth 2:12 with 3:9). Saxegaard briefly admits this possibility (p. 169), but reasoned arguments against it would have strengthened her own stance.

After rightly pointing out that God is often ignored in analyses of biblical characters, Saxegaard proceeds with an analysis of God's designations and actions, following the same pattern of the previous two chapters. Saxegaard adjudges God to be a character in Ruth, but a silent character. The narrative description of his direct action in granting conception to Ruth (4:13) is downplayed by Saxegaard; thus, although God is silently present, he also leaves the characters to their own devices (p. 194). Saxegaard views God as being unaffected by the other characters; indeed, “there is no interaction between God and the other characters” (p. 195). This seems, I think, to be an overstatement since one could identify a pattern of prayers by the characters throughout the narrative being answered by God as the narrative develops. Much of this, however, turns on how the character's speech to/about God is interpreted—whether as “prayers” or as “address of God” (p. 193 n. 112). Further, Saxegaard seems too quick to dismiss the possibility of God working in the narrative (1:6; 4:13). Yet Saxegaard does not consider God to be completely absent, being present through the acts of hesed performed by Orpah and Ruth, Boaz, then Ruth again (p. 190). As for character typology, God is considered a type (p. 195).

Finally, in chapter 8 Saxegaard summaries the traits of the main characters and draws together her conclusions about two theological themes: foreign identity and God's silence. Regarding foreigners and mixed marriages, Saxegaard argues that the narrative does not present a unified answer (p. 204). The view derived from the character of Naomi is negative, while Boaz's view is positive. Similarly, through an examination of the characters, Saxegaard finds a complexity of views of God: “to Boaz, God blesses; to Naomi, God has become distant; and to Ruth, he seems of less importance” (p. 206). There is ambiguity to God regarding his presence, whether he blesses or not, and to whom Yahweh is God (p. 206). The chapter concludes with some short reflections on the flexibility of application of the law in Ruth and with how readers can identify, to some extent, with all three main characters—Boaz, Ruth and Naomi.

A focus on theological themes deriving from a narratological analysis is welcome, rather than just a free-standing narratological study. Yet I wonder if, instead of, or in addition to focusing on the differing voices of each character regarding theological themes, a stronger theological thrust for each theme can be derived from an overall reading of the narrative. Certainly, in her initial methodological reflections Saxegaard outlines the ambiguity inherent in using an implied reader, but she also highlights the importance of following the nuances of the plot and the “artistic qualities of the narrative” (pp. 11–12). While Saxegaard has fruitfully applied especially the “character” aspect of narratology, perhaps more consideration of the overall “plot” and the judgments of the narrator might have been helpful in finding the overarching viewpoint of the implied author, and hence in reducing some of the ambiguity that Saxegaard identifies. For instance, in regards to foreign presence in Israel, I do not consider the book of Ruth so ambiguous. Read as a whole, the Ruth narrative presents the case that foreigners (especially those who are virtuous, in the mold of Ruth) can build up the house of Israel and can be accepted into the community of faith. Boaz's acceptance of Ruth then performs an exemplary function.

The typographical errors were a distraction at times. Without consciously seeking them, I spotted 44 typographical errors in the main text and footnotes of the book. The Index of Modern Authors similarly contains errors and is incomplete.

Nonetheless, this is a welcome contribution to Ruth studies. It deserves consideration by both those interested in the book of Ruth and those interested in narratological approaches.

Peter Lau, Seminari Theoloji Malaysia

[1] P. A. Kruger, “The Hem of Garment in Marriage: The Meaning of the Symbolic Gesture in Ruth 3:9 and Ezek 16:8,” JNSL 12 (1984), 79–86. reference