A Theology of Ruth: The Dialectic of Countertestimony and Core Testimony
The book of Ruth is one of the most well-crafted pieces of literature in the Old Testament. Despite its lesser status within the Jewish canon 1 and the Christian Bible, 2 the narrative of Ruth is well known. This popular familiarity is largely due to the engaging and challenging story the book offers: The tale of two women who overcome several formidable obstacles and succeed in preserving themselves and the family line, which eventually leads to the great King David.
The book of Ruth raises the question of whether or not Yahweh can be trusted
There are many differing views on the theological center of this text, and for this reason determining the theology of Ruth has escaped any semblance of scholarly consensus. Our task here will be to establish a theology of Ruth, recognizing that this is one theological approach amidst several legitimate possibilities. This undertaking will involve: (1) exploring the book’s date of authorship; (2) highlighting the major themes of the book; (3) examining the story of Ruth through Walter Brueggemann’s concept of the dual-lenses of countertestimony and core testimony; and (4) relating the theological center of Ruth to the rest of the Old Testament.
DATE OF AUTHORSHIP
There are two main options regarding the original historical location of the book. Since its concluding genealogy ends with David, the book could well have been written during his reign (ca. 1000 BCE), perhaps even written for the royal Davidic family, but certainly before the Babylonian Exile of 587 BCE. As Kirsten Nielsen comments, “Most recent interpretations therefore agree that the book in some way has David and his family as its purpose and must therefore be dated to the pre-exilic period.” 3
The second option would place the origins of the book much later, sometime after the Exile. Victor H. Matthews suggests that “The emphasis on David’s genealogy and the mixed marriage between Boaz and the Moabite Ruth may indicate a minority voice, raising a religious argument against the enforcement of endogamic marriage practices by Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century BCE.” 4 Neither option has arguments persuasive enough to be entirely convincing. However, both highlight David’s importance. One scholar comments, “Though the author’s purpose may not have been to provide an account of David’s genealogy, it is uncertain that the book would ever have become part of the canon except for its association with him.” 5 The possible Davidic impetus for Ruth’s inclusion in the canon is important, but should not distract us from examining the contents of the text itself and its theological message.
There is no explicit indication of authorship in the book of Ruth and there are few clues to its creator. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld sums up current scholarship on the question when she says, “Given the uncertainty about dating the composition of Ruth, authorship can hardly be determined. Jewish tradition attributed the book to the prophet Samuel. In recent decades, the possibility of a woman author has been explored.” 6 The suggestion is intriguing, but cannot be proven.
There are several major themes in Ruth, and each of these could be identified as the theological center of the book. One scholar remarks, “With so many proposed purposes for the Book of Ruth . . . it is obvious that the book has something for everyone.” 7 We will spend only a short time here summarizing some key themes proposed.
Sakenfeld 8 suggests that the following themes are evident: (1) The community is responsible for those who are hungry; (2) the experience of despair cannot be ignored; (3) people young and old are to be cared for; and (4) the marginalized are to push to the center, and those at the center are to move towards the marginalized. Another commentator boldly suggests that the Ruth character herself is the “mirror of God” by reflecting Yahweh through her actions of devotion throughout the narrative. 9 Nielsen proposes that the primary theme is Yahweh providing “bread and babies.” 10 Huey Jr. echoes this theme of providence and further suggests the importance of redemption and covenant loyalty. 11 Covenant loyalty is related to the use of the Hebrew word hesed, meaning “steadfast love,” “kindness,” and “loyalty.” This central theme is commonly related to the Ruth character. Andre LaCocque argues that “Ruth belongs to the extraordinary. She is characterized by hesed. Punctilious obedience to the law is meritorious, but hesed surpasses personal merit and becomes contagious, one might say. Boaz employs hesed in response to Ruth’s hesed, and one expects that God also employs hesed in return (Ruth 2:12).” 12 The concept of hesed will be briefly explored later, though it is not our primary focus here.
Each of these suggested themes has ample textual support, and considerable space could be and has already been devoted to their study. However, the intent here is to explore Ruth in a more original fashion.
COUNTERTESTIMONY AND CORE TESTIMONY
Walter Brueggemann is considered by many to be the preeminent Old Testament scholar in the field today. There are few who can match his mastery of the text or the eloquence with which he expresses his findings. Brueggemann’s crowning achievement is his book, Theology of the Old Testament, published in 1997. His Old Testament theology is formulated around a courtroom metaphor that examines the core testimony and countertestimony offered regarding the character of Yahweh. There are competing versions of reality in the Old Testament, argues Brueggemann. The core testimony utters the normative “God is good” type claims, and the countertestimony responds by asking “Where is the evidence of God’s goodness?” Brueggemann writes, “Because the work and life of the Old Testament text is primarily to state competing claims, primary attention must be given to the rhetoric and the rhetorical character of faith in the Old Testament.” 13 Our focus here will be to examine these “competing claims” in the form of verbal sentences uttered within the narrative which Brueggemann suggests: “Such sentences were Israel’s first and foremost strategy for making available the character of Yahweh, around which its life is to be understood and lived.” 14 We will call these verbal sentences here “utterances,” a word that Brueggemann does utilize, to emphasize and clarify the vocal nature of this testimony given by the characters within the narrative.
Although Brueggemann does not see fit to even mention the book of Ruth in his Theology, the utterances within the Ruth narrative do fit the core testimony and countertestimony aspects of his approach. Our task here will be to examine the book of Ruth through the dual-lenses 15 of countertestimony and core testimony. This does not necessarily entail following Brueggemann’s methodology to the fullest extent 16 or agreeing with all his claims. Rather, we will examine Ruth through the dual-lenses that focus on competing perspectives of reality and thus interact with the work of Brueggemann in a limited fashion. We will study four passages that provide verbal testimony to the character of Yahweh: Naomi’s conversation with her daughters-in-law (1:8–9; 13b), Naomi’s lament upon returning to Bethlehem (1:20–21), Boaz’s blessing upon Ruth (2:12), and the women’s words to Naomi after the birth of Ruth’s child (4:14–15).
Brueggemann’s approach is to examine the core testimony first, a prudent strategy considering that the core testimony provides the “normative claims” made by Israel concerning Yahweh. In the book of Ruth, however, the countertestimony comes first, as if to shock its readers to attention. A woman named Naomi has lost her husband and two sons in the land of Moab and decides to return to Judah. She addresses Ruth and Orpah, her two daughters-in-law and her only living immediate family: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May Yahweh deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. Yahweh grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband” (1:8–9a). 17 The phrase “May Yahweh deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” is startling. Naomi calls upon Yahweh to follow the example of two Moabite women and treat them with hesed. Sakenfeld writes, “Their kindness is not so much the reason why God should act as it is a standard of behavior that Naomi calls upon God to emulate.” 18
As mentioned earlier, the Hebrew word hesed means “kindness,” “loyalty,” and “steadfast love.” However, Brueggemann nuances the word further: “The term is related to tenacious fidelity in a relationship, readiness and resolve to continue to be loyal to those to whom one is bound.” 19 The countertestimony of Naomi calls Yahweh to follow the example of her two daughters-in-law and enact hesed. Naomi appears to be questioning whether or not Yahweh can be trusted. The “tenacious fidelity” she expects from Yahweh is lacking in her experience. Naomi appears to wonder where is the evidence of hesed, the readiness, resolve, and loyalty of Yahweh in her own life (and this wondering will become even more explicit later in the narrative).
Brueggemann writes that the purpose of countertestimonial questions is “to mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh’s best, true self. These questions arise not in an act of unfaith, but out of a deep confidence that the God of the core testimony, when active in power and fidelity, can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.” 20 Naomi’s benediction for Ruth and Orpah calls for Yahweh to be his “best” and “true self” and to enact hesed in her life, or at least in the lives of her daughters-in-law. Naomi asks that Yahweh allow them to “find rest, each in the house of her husband” (v. 9a). She is asking Yahweh to keep them from anymore “intolerable life experiences.” Sakenfeld comments, “Naomi’s words should thus be taken not as a reference to levirate marriage, but as a heightened rhetorical expression of pain and frustration about her inability to provide for her daughters-in-law.” 21 While this is a reasonable possibility, it seems more likely that Naomi’s words are issuing a call to Yahweh asking him to be active and provide, rather than expressing her own inability to provide for her daughters-in-law. For Naomi, these questions and her call for Yahweh’s mobilization are indeed rooted in faith, and she is asking Yahweh to be his “best self.” After all, the reason why Naomi returns to Judah at all is that she has heard that “Yahweh had considered his people and given them food” (1:6b). There are rumors of Yahweh’s provision, though Naomi herself has not yet experienced it.
Naomi releases Orpah and Ruth from any obligation to her, but the young widows protest. Naomi, however, is not to be deterred and strengthens her argument: “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of Yahweh has turned against me” (1:13b). Here, for the first time, Naomi directly blames the tragic circumstances of her life on Yahweh. Nielsen finds similar claims that misfortune comes from the hand of God in Job 19:21 and 23:2. 22 Brueggemann comments, “Job asks: Is God reliable? And Job, in his rage, entertains the option that Yahweh is not.” 23 Naomi, like Job, is in the throes of tragedy and likewise expresses and entertains the option that Yahweh is not reliable. Notice that in 1:13b Naomi asserts that the hand of Yahweh 24 is against her, and thus she excludes her daughters-in-law who also have experienced profound loss through the deaths of their husbands. As one scholar notes, “She now experiences God as her enemy.” 25 Job handles the tragic circumstances of his life alone and apart from his wife or others who may have been likewise affected. Like Job, Naomi feels that the hand of Yahweh has come against her and her alone.
Naomi and her persistent daughter-in-law Ruth, who has ignored Naomi’s protests, proceed together to Bethlehem. Their arrival should be the occasion for a great celebration with friends and family as it has been at least ten years since Naomi was last in Bethlehem. Instead, it is a moment of profound public lament:
She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but Yahweh has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when Yahweh has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20–21).
The name Naomi means “sweetness” or “pleasantness,” 26 and now she is telling her friends and family: Do not call me “sweetness” but call me “bitterness.” Frederic Bush comments, “Sunk in the depths of her bitter affliction, Naomi cannot bear to hear her name resounding in happy surprise on the lips of the ladies of Bethlehem.” 27 There is sad irony in her words. She had originally left Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” “full” of family and “empty” of food; now she returns “empty” of family, and finds Bethlehem “full” of food. Naomi blames the tragic familial emptiness in her life on Yahweh. Sakenfeld writes, “Like Job, she can see no reason and sees no way out. Like Jeremiah in his laments (e.g., Jer. 15:15–18; 20:7–10), she describes graphically the extent of her pain and lays its source squarely in the only place possible from her point of view.” 28 Naomi has given a scathing countertestimony rooted in her own devastating circumstances. These do not match up with the normative claims made by Israel about the character of Yahweh.
There are two examples of core testimony in the book of Ruth that reflect the normative claims of Israel concerning Yahweh. The first is not explicitly directed towards or against Naomi, but rather to her daughter-in-law by Boaz (2:12): “May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” The benediction fairly represents the normative claims made by Israel regarding Yahweh (cf. 1 Sam. 24:19; Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4).
Ruth has found favor in the eyes of Boaz while gleaning in his field, and he knows all that Ruth has done for her mother-in-law (2:11). Hence, Boaz bestows upon her the words of blessing. Ironically, this core testimony echoes Naomi’s countertestimony in 1:8b–9a. Both testimonies ask Yahweh to “deal” 29 or “reward” 30 Ruth for what she has done in the past, and that Yahweh “act” in a certain way. However, Naomi’s audacious words call Yahweh to act like Ruth (and Orpah), while Boaz’s more conventional blessing makes no such comparison.
Boaz assumes that the core testimony regarding Yahweh remains true. Nielsen argues that “Boaz’s prayer for Ruth occupies a central position in the chapter and can be regarded as a brief summary of the message of the whole book: Whoever seeks shelter under the wings of the God of Israel shall be rewarded.” 31 But insofar as it does not take seriously the counterclaims of Naomi, the conclusion is incorrect. It does, however, summarize the claims for the core testimony and the normative reality in which Boaz’s experience of Yahweh is rooted. The imagery of refuge under the “wings of God” 32 represents safety, stillness, and hope. 33 Naomi has questioned this construal of reality, and she resorted to asking Yahweh to be like her daughters-in-law. In Naomi’s experience, she has been afforded no such protection under the “wings of the God of Israel” and consequently has lost a husband and two sons.
The second instance of core testimony comes near the end of the story. Ruth has been redeemed by Boaz and borne a child (4:13). The women of Bethlehem now invite Naomi to revisit her previous claim regarding Yahweh in light of her new reality:
Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be Yahweh, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you then seven sons, has borne him” (4:14–15).
The women boldly proclaim that Naomi now has a “next-of-kin” or “redeemer” and a daughter-in-law who is “better to you than seven sons.” 34 The women implicitly claim that the core testimony has prevailed in Naomi’s life after all. The normative reality of life with Yahweh has returned to her.
Given Naomi’s powerful countertestimony, it seems doubtful that she will relinquish her prior claims and blithely trade her husband and two sons for Ruth, Boaz, and a grandson. Naomi has experienced the countertestimony in a life-crushing way that will not be forgotten or diminished. We are not told if Naomi relents and agrees with the core testimony uttered by the women. The verse following reads, “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse” (4:16). This act by Naomi does little to adjudicate the remaining tension of the story. The countertestimony she has previously offered is not withdrawn and lingers in the background of this “happy ending” to the story. The core testimony has not necessarily prevailed.
Even so, the narrative does seem to imply hidden workings of Yahweh that witness to a more positive outlook. A series of fortunate events occurs within the narrative. First, Ruth works in the field of Boaz, who happens to belong to the family of Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech (2:3). Second, Boaz showers great favor upon Ruth (2:8–16). Third, Boaz agrees to redeem Ruth (3:13). Fourth, the “closer relative” changes his mind after initially agreeing to redeem the land. Finally, Ruth conceives after marrying Boaz (4:13). We are told nothing of the conclusions Naomi draws from this course of events, and the reader is left to wonder whether she ever did recognize an active Yahweh working behind the scenes. Yet, we must not be too hasty in assuming that these events prove that the core testimony has prevailed for Naomi, as the narrative does not indicate that she withdrew or mitigated her original testimony.
RUTH AND THE OLD TESTAMENT
The book of Ruth raises the question of whether or not Yahweh can be trusted and maintains a theology of tension between the two competing testimonies of reality. The countertestimony offered by Naomi suggests that Yahweh cannot always be trusted and needs to be called to be his “true” and “best self.” The core testimony of Boaz and the women of Bethlehem suggests that Yahweh can be trusted and will take care of his people. In the end, the tension between these two competing versions of reality remains, and the book leaves the question of Yahweh’s trustworthiness unresolved. This narrative comes alongside the book of Job in offering a main character beset by tragic circumstances. Other countertestimonials include the laments of Jeremiah (e.g., Jer. 15:15–18; 20:7–10), Psalms 10, 22, 43, 44, 74, 88, and Ecclesiastes. 35
Brueggemann writes regarding the Old Testament: “The tension between the core testimony and the countertestimony is acute and ongoing. It is my judgment that this tension between the two belongs to the very character and substance of Old Testament faith, a tension that precludes and resists resolution.” 36 If Brueggemann is correct, and I believe he is, then the book of Ruth maintains a theological tension that mirrors and maintains the “very character and substance of Old Testament faith.” The story provides an ideal microcosm for Brueggemann’s courtroom metaphor approach to Old Testament theology, offering competing testimonies in a narrative that allows the tension to remain undiminished in the story’s conclusion.
For some, the lack of resolution in both this theology in the book of Ruth and in Brueggemann’s approach to the Old Testament may be disconcerting. This reaction is appropriate given the tension between this account of Old Testament theology and its simplistic presentation in many of our Sunday schools. However, this stressful tension should be viewed positively as a gift and not glibly explained away. It is this tension at the heart of the Old Testament that allows readers to come alongside the text and continue the process of adjudicating the reality of competing testimonies offered both in the text and the contemporary world. This is a process that must be rooted in faith, but faith cannot ignore or pretend away the realities that so blatantly defy the core testimony. Conversely, faith should not capitulate its claims in light of countertestimony that, at times, seems overwhelming. Many in this world have experienced the tragedy of Naomi and long for Yahweh to be present and active amidst situations where Yahweh is not always explicitly evident. There are also those who have experienced the normative claims of consistent blessing and protection as claimed by Boaz and the women of Bethlehem. These experiences weigh heavily on our interpretation of the text, whether we consciously allow them to or not. Thus, we must patiently adopt the Anabaptist communal hermeneutic and seek to empower voices of every kind to speak and be heard, both those that belong to our believer’s church interpretive community and those we encounter in the Old Testament itself.
- In the Jewish canon the book of Ruth is part of the “Writings” (and one of the five scrolls), which are certainly considered valuable but not given the same theological importance as the Torah and the prophetic writings.
- Ruth is part of the Old Testament, and the New Testament often takes precedence in the life of the church’s reading, thought, and practice. Whether this is appropriate or not is subject to debate.
- Kirsten Nielsen, Ruth, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 28.
- Victor H. Matthews, Judges and Ruth, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2004), 209.
- F. B. Huey Jr., “Ruth,” in The Expositor’s Bible, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 512.
- Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1999), 5.
- Huey Jr., 509–15.
- Sakenfeld, 87.
- John C. Holbert, Preaching the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 114–5.
- Nielsen, 30.
- Huey Jr., 509–15.
- Andre LaCoque, Ruth, Continental Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 32.
- Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 64.
- Brueggemann, 67.
- Perhaps the approach taken here could be construed appropriately as one “lens.” However, it seems more appropriate to further juxtapose countertestimony and core testimony by using the term “dual-lenses.”
- This is beyond the present skills of this writer, but then there are few seasoned scholars who can match Brueggemann’s analysis of the language of the text.
- The NRSV is the translation used in all quotations, though I have taken the liberty of replacing “the LORD” with the Hebrew name “Yahweh” wherever appropriate.
- Sakenfeld, 25.
- Bruggemann, 217.
- Ibid., 321.
- Sakenfeld, 28.
- Nielsen, 48.
- Brueggemann, 387.
- This imagery is also used in Judges 2:15 and Psalm 32:4.
- David Atkinson, The Message of Ruth, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1983), 48.
- Sakenfeld, 36.
- Frederic Bush, Ruth/Esther, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1996), 95.
- Sakenfeld, 36.
- This is a general term meaning “to make” or “do.” When God is the subject this word is a general term used to describe his creative acts. See Eugene Carpenter, “’sh,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 546–52.
- This is the Hebrew word shalom in the piel form meaning to “repay,” “reward,” to “make complete.” See Philip J. Nel, “shlm,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 130–34.
- Nielsen, 60.
- This imagery is prominent in the Psalms (17:8; 57:1; 61:4, 63:7, 91:4).
- Atkinson, 76.
- There is an interesting parallel in the use of the seven sons imagery by the women of Bethlehem in 1 Samuel 2:5 where Hannah also claims that “The barren has borne seven” when she herself has borne only one child. In both cases, the rhetoric makes use of hyperbole and equates a literal one with the more complete symbolic number seven.
- See Brueggemann, 320, 393–99.
- Ibid., 400.