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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 112–113 

Book Review

Ruth, Jonah, Esther

Eugene F. Roop. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002. 301 pages.

Reviewed by Ben C. Ollenburger

Eugene Roop, president of Bethany Theological Seminary and also professor of biblical studies there, will be familiar to readers of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, for which he wrote the commentary on Genesis. He has returned to comment on other narrative portions of the Old Testament in this volume which covers three books: Ruth, Jonah, and Esther.

Each of these books is unique within the Old Testament. Ruth and Esther have women as their protagonists, but the roles and status of Ruth and Naomi differ dramatically from those of Esther. Jonah is the only prophetic book that consists almost entirely of narrative and dialog. Among the merits of Roop’s commentary are his careful attention to and explanation of the workings of Hebrew narrative. He does not burden the commentary with much theory, but rather helps readers to grasp the salient features of the biblical texts themselves. As to genre, Roop classifies Ruth and Jonah as short stories and Esther as a festival novella (associated with the feast of Purim). These judgments, and the arguments Roop advances in their favor, seem sound. That Ruth is indeed, as Roop says, “the consummate short story” should be beyond cavil.

Speaking of short stories and novellas invites controversy about history, or historicity. Roop does not avoid matters of history or historical context, but he treads lightly, perhaps judiciously, on or around potentially controversial issues. Did a great fish actually swallow an actual Jonah who survived in its belly? Roop writes most explicitly on such questions in regards to Esther, whose narrative “encourages the reader not to insist that the details be verified as historical data.” We would surely do well in applying this encouragement to the reading of both Ruth and Jonah as well.

Roop treats us to an expert and literate reading of biblical texts that have been romanticized (Ruth), reduced to a tract against bigotry (Jonah), or ignored (Esther). Naturally, other interpreters will find points on which to differ. For example, in Ruth’s third chapter the narrator teases us with suggestive language that Roop plays down. And one might ask whether Jonah, in dialog with the Lord (ch. 4), has not finally managed to extract an implied answer, or admission: Yes, God should show compassion! This acknowledgment gains poignancy in light of texts surrounding Jonah, and in relation to God’s repeated statement in Ezekiel, {113} “I will not show compassion” (Ezek. 5:11; 7:4, etc.). Such interpretive matters remain open to debate, especially in allusive texts like Ruth and Jonah.

The BCBC follows a fixed format which includes sections on “the text in the life of the church.” As have previous commentaries in the series, this one sometimes struggles to find that “life.” After commenting on Esther 3:1-6, Roop writes about “mixed motives” in the church. What he writes is worth reading, but its relation to the text remains opaque. On the other hand, Roop’s discussion of “Jonah: Sinner or Saint” grows directly from the text into the church.

Altogether, Eugene Roop has made an excellent contribution to the study of Scripture, and to the church. His commentary counts among the very finest available.

Ben C. Ollenburger
Prof. of Biblical Theology
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana

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