McKeown, James. Ruth. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 152 pp. Pb; $22. Link to Eerdmans and an interview with McKeown at EerdWorld.
James McKeown wrote the Genesis commentary in the Two Horizons series. This new volume on Ruth attempts to follow a similar method for reading a biblical book canonically and theologically.
He begins with a short twelve-page introduction to the book of Ruth, although the bulk of the introduction is a summary of the plot of the book. Since the goal of the commentary is a theological reading of the book of Ruth, some of the more technical critical questions are unimportant. It is possible the book dates as early as the time of David and intended to explain his Moabite roots, or as late as the time of Ezra-Nehemiah as a more sympathetic view of foreign women. McKeown is inclined to see the purpose of the book as ambiguous, although this does not limit the theological significance of Ruth.
The commentary proper moves through the book by pericopae. Although McKeown occasionally comments on the Hebrew text, the primary focus of the commentary is on the story of Ruth in English (p. 1). He sometimes compares several English translations, especially for some of the difficult idiomatic phrases in the book, such as the blessing formula in 4:11. In several sections it is necessary to explain customs of the Ancient Near East, such as the exchange of sandals on Ruth 4:7-8. McKeown interacts with secondary literature on Ruth, but most of this material is in the footnotes. This makes for a very readable commentary, useful for both scholar and layman.
The main feature of the Two Horizons series of the series is the theological interpretation of Scripture. In this commentary there are two chapters dedicated to biblical theology, about half the book. In “Theological Horizons” McKeown examines Ruth’s canonical connections. Although Ruth follows Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, McKeown is not interested in the juxtaposition of Ruth and the “Woman of Valor” (Proverbs 31:10-31). I find this somewhat remarkable since the Hebrew canon is the original order. If canonical placement is important, I would prefer to see Ruth read as an example of Wisdom Literature, perhaps juxtaposing it with its canonical partners, the final chapter of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.
Rather than use the Hebrew canon, McKeown points out that in the Septuagint, Ruth appears between Judges and Samuel. Ruth therefore functioned as a kind of bridge between these two books. Following the work of Yizhak Berger, McKeown explores the theme of offspring, land and blessing in Ruth and Genesis. Most commentators use Deuteronomy to illuminate the practice of gleaning or the Levirate marriage, but McKeown argues Ruth illustrates how Israel might show love to the foreigner (Deut 10:17-19). But Ruth also draws into question the exclusion of Moabites from the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:3-6). Ruth is also canonically related to Judges and serves as a canonical link between Judges and Samuel. While the Judges are sometimes called “men of valor” (אִ֣ישׁ חָ֑יִל Judg 3:29; 20:44), Ruth is a “woman of valor” (אֵ֥שֶׁת חַ֖יִל, Ruth 3:11). Ruth is a righteous person in a dark age of violence.
But the book of Ruth also looks forward to the time of David, a Moabite descendant who enters a levirate marriage with Abigail. Several parallels between Ruth the story of David can be made, but it is not clear to me how this relationship works. This is a problem for all inner-canonical studies since it is almost impossible to prove which direction the influence goes. Did the author of Ruth tell the story with knowledge of David’s relationship with Abigail, or vice versa? On the one hand, this is unknowable, but on the other hand, it might not matter for this kind of theological reading of the book of Ruth. On a literary level, two texts are being compared in order to develop a theological reading. Historical critical questions of sources and dependence are of little consequence when using this hermeneutical method.
The final section of the book, “Theological Issues, Themes and Approaches,” creates a short biblical theology based on Ruth. McKeown demonstrates how Ruth views God as the sovereign creator who provides for his people. God’s providential hand is seen throughout the book, although he appears to be hidden from the characters in the story. It is Naomi’s experience which makes this theme clear and shows the hiddenness of God should not be mistaken for the absence of God (p. 116).
Since the theme of Land is important throughout the Hebrew Bible, it is no surprise to find Ruth highlighting the idea of God as the giver of land to his people. If God has given land to his people, they are responsible for using it ethically, as Boaz’s treatment of the poor widow Ruth demonstrates.
Perhaps the most important theme of Ruth is redemption, and McKeown adds to this the theme of universalism. God will redeem all people. Redemption looks back at the original Exodus, but also forward to the ultimate redemption planned by the sovereign God. While property or a person may be redeemed according to the Law, the broader context of the Canon uses legal redemption as a metaphor for salvation, especially in Job and Psalms. McKeown points out how the theme of redemption extends to the New Testament and salvation through Jesus Christ. Perhaps what is surprising from an Old Testament perspective is redemption will include foreigners, even Moabite women!
McKeown includes a section in this chapter surveying Feminist studies of Ruth. Since it is a book focused on the activities of two women, Ruth has attracted a great deal of attention from feminist biblical scholars. Taking Naomi’s advice to Ruth to return to “her mother’s house” (2:8) as a hint of authorship, Carol Meyers suggested the book may have been written by a woman (p.134). McKeown does not comment on the suggestion, but unlike other critical issues, this observation would have an important hermeneutical impact on a commentary on Ruth.
Conclusion. Like other contributions to the Two Horizons Commentary series, McKeown delivers a canonical and theological reading of the book of Ruth which will stimulate anyone studying the book of Ruth.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.