Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review
The JPS Bible Commentary on Ruth is the most substantial scholarly commentary in English to come out on the book of Ruth in over ten years. The death of Tikva Frymer-Kensky early on in the project left most of the research and, it appears, all of the writing to Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. When possible, Eskenazi included the insights of Frymer-Kensky who left extensive notes on chapters 1 and 2, but also makes it clear that she takes fully responsibility for chapters 3 and 4 (p. xi). Throughout the introduction and commentary, Eskenazi is careful to indicate Frymer-Kensky's contribution and records her perspective on several occasions even though Eskenazi ultimately disagrees with her position. I will first summarize the introduction and make a few remarks on the commentary, then end with a brief evaluation of the work.
The introduction and notes (pp. xvlxxv) take up the first 75 pages and offer a wealth of clearly presented information that is both thorough and concise. According to Eskenazi, it is unclear who the author of Ruth might be since the book does not disclose the author's identity, although it does offer a strong female perspective in an otherwise more androcentric Bible (p. xvii). Five issues factor into the book's date: language, socio-legal institutions, the relationship to other biblical traditions, socio-political matrix (esp. attitudes towards Moabites), and the role of King David. Without offering a definitive conclusion on Ruth's date, Eskenazi argues in favor of a postexilic/Persian period date, due to the linguistic and legal features of Ruth, which are supported by a social context for Ruth as a challenge to the exclusive political dynamics of Israel portrayed in Ezra-Nehemiah (p. xix). This is followed by short discussions on Ruth's genre and place in the canon, each of which follow well-trodden ground. Then, Eskenazi explores Ruth's relationship to Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Isa 56 and Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, and non-Israelite biblical heroes. The intertextual connections with Genesis, for instance, right previous wrongs by indicating that Ruth's inclusion into Boaz's family repairs the breach between Abraham and his nephew Lot and the midnight encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor is the antithesis to Lot's seduction by his daughters (p. xxi). Giving individual sections to examine Ruth's links to other biblical books reveals the extensive intertextual relationship Ruth has with the biblical tradition. Each of these sections could have been expanded and possibly Proverbs and Chronicles could each have been discussed. Finally, the authors list Ruth's tenuous connections to Shavuot, then briefly discuss the background issues of family, inheritance, marriage, and widowhood (pp. xxvixxxii).
From these more general topics, Eskenazi moves to the more central issue of levirate marriage. After discussing Ruth's relationship to Gen 38 and Deut 25:510, she offers seven reasons (to which I will return in the evaluative portion of this review) as compelling evidence against interpreting Ruth 3 and 4 as a levirate marriage despite a long tradition, which, she admits, has effectively interpreted Ruth's marriage in this way (p. xxxvii). Instead, Boaz, who is under no legal obligation to do so, marries Ruth because he is captivated by her virtue (p. xxxviii). In order to avoid the legal injunction against Moabites (Deut 23:47), Boaz extends the responsibilities of a redeemer beyond the expected practice (p. xxxviii). Eskenazi then surveys the different perspectives on intermarriage in the biblical tradition where Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah appear to stand as polar opposites (pp. xxxixxlii). She also surveys the idea of conversion in the biblical tradition and the Rabbinic view (not held by all) that Ruth is an outstanding example of one who converts to become a Jew (pp. xliixlvi). This is all the more amazing since Ruth is a Moabite. The biblical portrait of Moabites is largely negative and, even though there is nothing negative in the book itself about Moabites, her status would have been familiar to ancient readers and thus forms a vital backdrop to how the story unfolds (p. xlviii). From here Eskenazi explores the meaning of ḥesed in the Hebrew Bible and then in Ruth. In Ruth it entails acts of kindness, generosity, and loyalty that go beyond the call of duty (p. l). Ḥesed plays a key role in the theology of the book since it illustrates the power of blessing and ḥesed to transform futility into fertility and despair into hope (p. l). Since God's direct action is only mentioned once in Ruth, the theology of the book is not so much about God's providence as it is about human beings bringing God into the world through their own acts of ḥesed (pp. liiliii). Eskenazi surveys the concept of redemption in the biblical tradition and concludes that the overriding notion of redemption is responsibility for a needy relative (p. liv). This principle of responsibility is behind Boaz's actions towards Ruth in chs. 3 and 4 (p. lv). The introduction concludes with a look at pre-modern Rabbinic and later Jewish interpretations, as well as contemporary readings of Ruth.
The commentary section is 100 pages (pp. 3103) and contains short introductory essays to each major and minor section as well as brief comments on sentences, phrases, and words (following the standard JPS style). This section of the work is judicious, precise, and clear. Very few, if any, novel interpretations are presented, but the argumentation is cautious, cogent, and often convincing. Throughout the commentary, Eskenazi interacts with a wealth of Jewish readings, both ancient and modern.
The commentary is of extremely high quality, as readers of the JPS series have come to expect. It fills a gap of about ten years in which scholarship on Ruth has continued without the helpful synthesis that a commentary can provide. Two major things separate this commentary from previous ones: (1) it is concise and clearly written so that one can easily understand the author's perspective; and (2) it interacts more fully with Jewish sources than previous works. The format of the commentary section makes it easy for one to quickly examine key issues in the text; however, this format sacrifices a more synthetic approach that is better equipped at handling more comprehensive topics that span the entire book or issues, such as for instance intertextual connections with Genesis, which warrant a more extended discussion.
Two more issues deserve comment. First, I am not persuaded that Ruth is unrelated to levirate marriage. Of course, as Eskenazi has pointed out, levirate marriage as envisioned in Gen 38 and/or Deut 25:510 is, strictly speaking, impossible in Ruth. She lists seven objections to levirate marriage playing a role in Ruth 3 and 4, which, as was noted above, she considers compelling. Point one is that the key words levir or levirate marriage is not used in Ruth. In point five Eskenazi says, Neither the narrator, Naomi, or Boaz refer to Boaz as a levir (p. xxxvi). Despite the fact that a word does not need to be present for a concept to be present, these two points are the same. Point six argues that the meaning of Boaz's words in Ruth 4:5 are uncertain (p. xxxvi), but highlighting this uncertainty should not be used as an argument against levirate marriage in Ruth since it neither proves nor disproves this interpretive option. The remaining points make it abundantly clear that whatever is taking place in Ruth it is not exactly the same as levirate marriage, and that redemptionnot levirate marriageis the word used to describe Boaz's actions. Yet as Eskenazi has argued, even the concept of redemption is not strictly applied. In her own words she says that Boaz moves beyond the expected practice (p. xxxviii) and follows the overriding notion of redemption in his actions for Ruth (p. liv). If levirate marriage is not in view because the practice is not strictly followed in the book, it would seem that redemption should suffer the same fate. What if, however, the same strategy of moving beyond the expectations of a practice in accordance with all that ḥesed stands for is also true of levirate marriage in Ruth? Eskenazi says that Obed is not regard[ed] as the child of levirate marriage and he does not perpetuate the name of the deceased since Boaz's, not Mahlon's name appears in the genealogy (p. xxxvi). Boaz's name does appear in the genealogy instead of Mahlon, but Boaz expresses his actions in terms of perpetuating the name of the dead, Mahlon, on his inheritance (Ruth 4:10) in a manner that seems directly connected to the practice of levirate marriage in Deut 25:510. Do Boaz's actions in Ruth 4:10 really stand in tension (p. 81) with his promise to Ruth on the threshing floor? Unconvincing also is Eskenazi's argument that Boaz understands Ruth's last kindness (Ruth 3:10) as a reference to himself (p. 61), rather than to another kindness to Naomi (beyond returning with her from Moab to care for her), which makes good sense if the principles of levirate marriage are in view. Of course, Ruth 3:10 is a highly debated crux in the discussion over levirate marriage. Eskenazi has successfully argued that the approach that sees a kind of levirate marriage in Ruth is unlikely unless it is more carefully nuanced. Eskenazi's view that levirate marriage plays no role in the book at all, however, also seems unlikely. To me at least, it seems that ḥesed functions in the book in such a way that the underlying principles of redemption and levirate marriage are combined to apply to a situation, which, the book is at pains to prove, lays clearly beyond their legal domain. How can Ruth be redeemed since she is not a piece of land, and how can a brother raise up a son to continue the family since he is clearly dead (this eliminates Deut 25:510) and Naomi cannot have another son (this eliminates Gen 38)? Yes, Ruth and Boaz are not legally bound to marry each other; however, it does not follow that their actions are not carefully bound to those laws. Perhaps the distance that ḥesed covers between the law and its application is the point.
Second, though not the fault of the authors, the timing of the commentary was unfortunate. Eskenazi finished writing the commentary on November 15, 2010, but in 2010 and 2011 there has been a considerable amount of scholarly work published on Ruth (e.g. from studies on character, identity, and ethics in Ruth to a detailed study of the Hebrew of the book). More fundamentally, with the exception of a few works in Modern Hebrew, the commentary relies on secondary literature in English. One will probably have to wait for the commentary of Shimon Gesundheit on Ruth in the IECOT series for substantial engagement outside of the Anglo-American context. For now, Eskenazi and Frymer-Kensky's book fills a key need in commentaries on Ruth. Their work is clear, precise, and an outstanding example of commentary writing. It deserves to be read with care.
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