Day 1 of 5: Tale as Old as Time
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land.
Ruth 1:1 (JPS Tanakh):
Growing up a Christian girl meant that there weren’t that many biblical characters for me to relate to. While the boys got characters aplenty with a variety of skills, personalities, foibles, quests, and triumphs, I was stuck with a measly handful of examples suitable for a young girl to learn about. If, as a Sunday school teacher, you need a Godly Woman for Girls to Emulate while trying to avoid grisly tales of rape, dismemberment, human sacrifice, prostitution, or abuse—there aren’t that many examples of plotted, character-driven narratives. Among such slim pickings, the story of Ruth becomes a common touchstone for Christian women.
As familiar as we can be with Ruth’s story, we often forget that it is precisely that: a Story. Often, we’ve received it as some sort of preserved historical text, a biographical narrative about one of the named women in the lineage of Jesus. We read the book of Ruth literally: the famine driving Elimelech out of Israel happened; Ruth, Naomi. and Boaz actually experienced these events; and Ruth became the biological great-grandmother of the historical King David.
Perhaps everything described in Ruth did happen. Like many of our apocryphal tales about future presidents, perhaps the characters all existed and the end result was accurately told: Ruth the Moabite was David’s great-grandmother, and Washington and Lincoln were honest men, log cabins and cherry trees notwithstanding.
What I would like us to keep in mind this week as we explore Ruth through four contrasting interpretations is how Ruth is fundamentally a story. It’s almost two-thirds dialogue and has well-motivated characters, a three-act chiastic structure, a climax, and a satisfying conclusion. It’s an incredibly well-crafted, excellently composed tale, filled with deep themes and meaning.
It is also not a morality play or educational fable—it is not wrapped up with a neat and tidy little teaching at the end. Heroes and villains are not clearly delineated, and the people in the story are complex. For such a short little book it contains multitudes: trauma, grief, and heartbreak are all mixed up with romance and redemption. Because Ruth is such an incredibly well-told story, it is open to as many interpretations as Hamlet or Pride & Prejudice. In exploring four different approaches to Ruth this week, my hope is that we can find a way of digging into Scripture and finding something new in our sacred book.
Before we return tomorrow, I would like to invite each of you to re-read Ruth. This time, read it the same way you’d read Cinderella. Read the opening line “In the days of the judges,” and let yourself be carried away like you could be when you see “Once upon a time” or “Far, far away and long, long ago.”
What do you see, when Ruth is less biography and more Myth?
Special thanks to my Older Testament class at United Theological of the Twin Cities and Dr. Carolyn Pressler, whose class discussion gave me the idea for this devotional series.