Peter H. W. Lau, The Book of Ruth (NICOT)

Lau, Peter H. W. The Book of Ruth. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xxxii+342 pp. Hb; $48.00   Link to Eerdmans

This new commentary on Ruth replaces Robert L. Hubbard Jr.’s 1989 volume in the NICOT series (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Since 2010, Peter H. W. Lau is a visiting scholar in Old Testament studies at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia. His dissertation was published as Identity and Ethics in the Book of Ruth: A Social Identity Approach (BZAW 416; DeGruyter, 2010), Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth (NSBT 25; IVP Academic, 2016), and a commentary on Esther (Asia Bible Commentary; Langham, 2018).

Book of RuthIn the fifty-nine-page introduction, Lau describes Ruth as a four-act story, artfully constructed in a balanced, symmetrical pattern. The story alternates scenes (for example, home, field, home). The book has several dramatic reversals (death to life, a childless widow to marriage and family). However, Ruth is also theologically rich. “The Ruth narrative is God’s plan for and the history of his Old Testament people writ small” (307).

Commentaries on Ruth discuss the genre of the book. Is Ruth best described as a novella? An idyll? Or is Ruth a folk tale? Based on his careful reading of Ruth, Lau argues that the book is a short story as defined by modern genre categories. Unlike a novella, Lau says a short story allows for the historicity of the story (although it does not rely on the historicity, and many short stories are fiction) (10). Ruth is historical since it attempts to represent the past. The story begins in the time of the judges and ends with a reference to King David. The description of life found in the book fits well into ancient Israelite culture. Nevertheless, the writer is not simply recording historical facts but challenging the views of his readers. Ruth “is narrated history and, as part of Scripture, it continues to challenge us ethically and theologically” (11).

Commentaries typically date Ruth as early as the monarchic period to the post-exilic period. Lau evaluates historical-chronological data, theological-ideological data, literary-stylistic data, social-scientific data, and linguistic-philological data. He concludes that Ruth is impossible to date with certainty, but “the evidence marginally favors a monarchic date” (19). This does not necessarily mean the book was written during king David’s reign or even shortly after that. However, Ruth fits into a context where King David’s lineage may have been questioned. However, Lau is not more specific for the date than “monarchic.”

Later in the introduction, Lau makes several observations about Ruth’s canonical place in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes it is before Psalms; other times, the book is between Proverbs and Song of Solomon. The Septuagint moved the story between Judges and 1 Samuel. All three of these canonical positions suggest a connection to David’s story. No ancient reader would ever connect Ruth to Ezra-Nehemiah (33).

This fits well with his proposed purpose for the book of Ruth. He observes that scholars often suggest the primary purpose of Ruth is to promote kindness, encourage obedience to the law, or justify the Davidic right to rule. If the book was written in the post-exilic period, it is often seen as a polemic against opposition to ethnic intermarriage at the time of Ezra-Nehemiah. Each of these has merit, but they spoke focus on specific themes of the book and do not encapsulate the message and themes of the book of Ruth. He proposes an alternative reading of Ruth with a primary and a secondary purpose. The primary purpose of Ruth is “the providential preservation of the family that produced David” (23). This is more than just the genealogy at the end of the book. Lau traces other literary connections between Ruth and the story of David. For example, Naomi’s family are “Ephrathites from Bethlehem” (1:2), and David is also “the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem” (1 Sam 17:12).

By “providential,” Lau means God is preserving the family of David as he did the patriarchs. There are several inner-biblical allusions to Genesis in the book (famine, childlessness, threats from leaving a birthplace to live with foreigners, buying land due to death, etc.) (26). These are “historical and theological links drawn between the characters in Ruth and Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs” (26). This leads to Lau’s secondary purpose in Ruth, “God’s unceasing providence and kindness encourages people to follow a lifestyle of kindness” (29).

The introduction also briefly covers several theological messages, beginning with the names of God. Concerning God’s providence, God is sovereign and free to do whatever he wills to preserve the family of David. Nevertheless, humans can make choices as they respond to God’s movement. He also discusses the cycle of divine-human kindness, focusing on the concept of hesed.

The introduction concludes with a section on Ruth and the New Testament. First, although the New Testament never quotes from the book, Ruth appears in Jesus’s genealogy in both Matthew and Luke. Foreign families were building the line of the Messiah (52). Second, many see Ruth as a prototypical convert. She is a Moabite who accepts Yahwism (53). Ruth is a witness to God’s mission in the world. Ruth functions as an instrument of God’s mission, and Ruth shapes God’s people for participation in his own mission. Third, the book of Ruth describes the biblical concept of redemption. The redeemed are desperate, and it is costly for the redeemer to save them. Ruth and Naomi are widows living in extreme poverty, but Boaz is willing to redeem Ruth even if the cost is high. The redeemer’s actions are always generous and self-sacrificial. There is usually a kinship relationship between the redeemer and the redeemed. This may point ahead to the incarnation; Jesus, as the redeemer, became human.

The commentary section begins with a new translation of each section. Lau follows this with extensive translation notes, suggesting alternate readings from the Septuagint, targums, And alternative readings of the Masoretic text. The commentary precedes verse by verse, with an exegetical discussion of the Hebrew text. All Hebrew is in transliteration, and detailed syntactical notes appear in the footnotes. Most interaction with secondary literature also appears in the footnotes. The commentary is accessible and will be helpful for readers who are not comfortable with Hebrew. Lau is especially interested in tracing literary parallels within Ruth to demonstrate the author’s artistry. For example, the book begins with Ruth’s ten years as a widow (1:4) and concludes with ten generations leading up to David. The ten-generation genealogy serves to connect David to the patriarchs.

Conclusion. Peter Lau’s commentary on Ruth is a worthy successor to Hubbard’s. Since Ruth is often combined with Judges in commentaries, it does not always get the attention it deserves. Even commentaries devoted to the book are brief. Daniel Hawk’s 2015 Ruth commentary in the Apollos series was only 166 pages; Kirsten Nelson’s OTL volume is only 106 pages. At 342 pages, Lau’s Ruth commentary is substantial and detailed, yet is written in a clear style that will appeal to scholars, teachers, and pastors.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:


Published on March 9, 2023 on Reading Acts.

4 thoughts on “Peter H. W. Lau, The Book of Ruth (NICOT)

  1. I’ve only just begun to read Peter Lau’s commentary on the book of Ruth. It appears to be a thoughtful and scholarly work which I will enjoy reading over the coming weeks. However, missing is any discussion of the fact that the tribes of Gad, Ruben and 1/2 Manasseh settled in the plains of Moab and had been there during the entire time of the judges. Why assume Ruth was not an Israelite, when it seems entirely likely that when Naomi and her family left Bethlehem for Moab, they would have certainly joined their Israelite ‘cousins’ there instead of living among the actual Moabites? God says what he means and means what he says and he cursed intermarriages between Israelites and Moabites and refused entry of their progeny into the assembly to the tenth generation (aka forever). There are many scholarly articles available that address this question of Ruth’s ancestry… I’m surprised Peter Lau didn’t consult them and at least discuss the possibility that Ruth could very well have been an Israelite.

  2. I’m glad to see the book of Ruth getting some focus. It’s long been among my favorites. I suspect the monarchic dating is right; Ruth as a person is probably too obscure to be fished up for use in propping up a point later, and I find it more probably that someone who carried a living memory told stories that were passed on etc and didn’t make it too far into the future before they were noted down. As far as genre goes, I wouldn’t discount eulogy / memorial out-of-hand, and those tend closer to the lives of those who knew and miss the departed. In my experience it can happen that eulogies/memorials can still have a “point” too.

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