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A Christian Reading of Ruth & the Hebrew Scriptures
by Peter J. Leithart
Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is widely seen as a breakthrough in Christian relations with Jews. Implicitly chiding centuries of anti-Jewish polemic, Pope Paul VI proclaimed that while “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,” yet “what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” Thus, “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
The Supersessionist Critique
This was not enough for some. Though acknowledging Nostra Aetate as a “dramatic reversal” in the church’s traditional “supersessionist narrative,” Christopher Leighton, Executive Director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, has written that the document continues to express the “ambiguity” and “triumphalism” of past Christian attitudes toward Jews.
In asserting that “the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself,” the church left Jews where they always had been, “in a subordinate role within the grand Christian narrative.”
For Leighton, supersessionism triumphed in the early Church because it became embedded in hermeneutical methods. By finding typological correspondences between the old and the new, by seeking Christ as the looming figure beneath the surface of the Old Testament, Christian readers of Scripture nullified the Jews’ interpretations of their own Scriptures.
Jewish readings were replaced by Christian ones, just as Israel was replaced by the Church. Rosemary Reuther was expressing a common sentiment when she called upon the Church to repent of imperialistic Christological readings of the Bible, which necessarily disallow Jewish interpretations.
Worries that the New Testament and its interpretive strategies are inherently anti-Semitic hang over the recent flurry of efforts to recover traditional Christian modes of interpretation.
Ultimately, this is an unavoidable clash between Jews and Christians. Christians condemn medieval pogroms, but few want to give up Paul; Christians agree that the Crusaders often treated Jews horribly, but they are not willing to admit that this is inherent in our canon. Unless all Jews or all Christians convert, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament will remain a battleground.
Yet, the supersessionist critique has pointed up weaknesses in some traditional typology. Christological interpretations have often been guilty as charged—they do nullify Jewish interpretations because they are inattentive to the specific contours of the Hebrew text and the history it records. When Bede claims that the combination of wood and gold in the tabernacle boards typifies the double nature of Christ, we have reason to be suspicious that he has not thought very carefully about what the tabernacle was and meant to ancient Israel.
No Christian interpreter of Exodus or Leviticus would dare go into print today without absorbing the work of Jacob Milgrom, Menahem Haran, Baruch Levine, and a host of other Jewish experts. Literary interpretation of the Bible has been all the rage for several decades, and many of the best practitioners (Robert Alter, Michael Fishbane, Moshe Garsiel) are Jews.
Increasingly Complex Figures
Christological reading that integrates the detailed studies of Jewish scholars has the potential to address some of the complaints against the historical practice of typology. Taking cues from Luke 24, typological interpretation has traditionally plundered the Old Testament for shadowy types of Jesus.
This is consistent with the New Testament’s Christological use of the Old: Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, Melchizedek, Moses, David, the sage-king Solomon, Elisha, a prophet like Jeremiah, and, above all, the Last Adam. What traditional typology has often missed, however, is the complexity of these Old Testament types. Each type is itself a rich tapestry of antitypes.
Jesus is David, but David himself is Adam, Jacob, Moses, and Israel. According to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7), for example, David’s sons are sons of Yahweh; but Yahweh already has a son, Israel. Thus, David’s sons personify Israel, and a Davidic Christology is at the same time an Israel Christology.
To say that Jesus is the Son of David seems to give us only a skeletal royal Christology, but once we see that the figure of David is elaborated by overt or implicit typological links with earlier figures, we begin to put flesh on the bones. Jesus is not the “second Adam,” as if history skipped from Eden to Golgotha without anything intervening. Jesus is the Last Adam, the last of a series of increasingly complex Adam figures, and as such He embodies, and surpasses, them all.
As with cooking, so with hermeneutics: The proof is always in the pudding. In place of a theoretical argument, then, it is best for me to offer a reading. Here, I focus on the book of Ruth.
At first, Ruth seems unpromising territory for a Christian interpreter. Ruth herself is mentioned exactly once in the New Testament, on page 1, in the genealogy that begins Matthew’s Gospel (1:5). After that, she’s ignored. Boaz gets (slightly) more exposure, gaining a place in Luke’s genealogy as well as Matthew’s (3:32). Beyond that, there are no explicit references to Ruth, nor does the New Testament contain any obvious allusions to Ruth’s story.
Christian interpreters face the obvious question: If the New Testament writers found little or nothing to say about Ruth’s relation to the Christian gospel, how can we hope to be more successful? This book, at least, seems to be exclusively Jewish terrain, impervious to Christian colonization.
On the other hand, the story itself is pregnant with tantalizing hints. We have not one bereft widow but two, many references to food, a hero repeatedly described as a “redeemer,” and a concluding genealogy that leads from Judah to David the king. And this is not even to mention that this book of bread and redemption and miraculous birth takes place largely in the vicinity of Bethlehem. It’s not surprising that pre-critical commentators, such as Isidore of Seville, discovered in the hero of this romance a type of the divine Bridegroom, and in the heroine, a prefiguration of the Church.
Elimelech’s Inverted Exodus
Let’s begin at the beginning. With famine in the land, Elimelech removes his wife, Naomi, and his sons from the ironically named House of Bread to the land of Moab; and before the story is six verses old, Naomi returns to her homeland. It is an exodus and return narrative at MTV speed, but it is a strangely inverted version of the story.
Elsewhere in the Bible, when people leave the land, they return enriched. Abram brings home flocks and herds and servants when he returns from Egypt (Gen. 12). Jacob leaves the land with a staff but comes back with two companies (Gen. 28–32). Israel’s numbers increase so rapidly in Egypt that Pharaoh is afraid of them, and on their way out of Egypt they plunder their hosts.
At the climax of the ages comes the great exitus et reditus of Jesus, who begins in the humble form of a child, but by the time he returns to his Father, he has grown rich, head of two companies. Just as Jesus himself is the composite fulfillment of all types and shadows, so his exodus is a fulfillment of all previous exodus events.
Elimelech’s exodus is nothing like this. Elimelech and Naomi are saved from starvation in Bethlehem, but it’s a bitter rescue, since all the men die when they arrive in Moab. Instead of multiplying, his family diminishes; instead of gaining children, Naomi loses her sons; Leah’s womb opens while Jacob sojourns with Laban, but Naomi’s closes. Every normal exodus moves from emptiness to fullness, from famine to feast. Not Elimelech’s; as Naomi says, she went out full and comes back empty (Ruth 1:21).
The upside-down exodus story at the beginning of Ruth suggests that the book is something more than a domestic drama, and the political frame around the book reinforces the national dimensions of the story. Ruth begins when the “judges judged” (1:1), and ends with the name “David.”
The book is telling not only the story of Elimelech and his family, but the story of Israel, who, throughout the period of judges, cries out: Where is the God of the exodus? Has he forgotten us forever? Where is our Kinsman Redeemer? The movement of the book of Ruth is the movement of Israel’s redemption, her restoration to fullness, which is also a movement from anarchy to monarchy.
From this angle, it becomes clear why Naomi is as central to the story as the title character. She’s the one emptied, then filled; bereft and restored; dead and risen again. The son of Boaz and Ruth is “Naomi’s son” (4:17), and his birth chiastically reverses the loss of Naomi’s sons at the beginning of the book. Naomi is the Hebrew widow, and the story, for all its interest in the Moabite Ruth, is about Israel’s redemption.
The list of barren women in the Old Testament is a who’s who of the wives of the patriarchs, each of whom is—allegorically speaking—Israel (cf. Gal. 4). Naomi’s story is a replay of theirs, with the important difference that Naomi doesn’t even have an elderly impotent Abraham to father her children. Yet, once again the barren woman becomes a mother of children, and thus Naomi becomes a new Sarah, a new Rebekah, a new Rachel, and ultimately a type of the virgin mother who bears David’s greater Son.
In her transformation from barren woman to mother, Naomi, like Sarah, also becomes a type of Mother Church, the woman who bears children by the power of the Spirit. Paul, I suspect, could have written the allegory of Galatians 4 from the book of Ruth as readily as from the Abraham narrative.
The Name of Moab Redeemed
Yahweh’s mechanism for achieving this restoration is an unusual one. The book of Ruth begins with an inverted exodus, and the inversions continue throughout the story. With Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, he intervened to give them children directly; with Naomi, he works through a surrogate mother, a substitute.
The narratives of Judges also provide a neat counterpoint to Ruth. When Israel worships idols and is oppressed by the nations, she cries out until Yahweh raises a judge to save her (Judg. 2). When Naomi complains in the bitterness of her soul, Yahweh gives not a judge, but a woman, a poor woman, another widow, and a Moabite widow at that. Some redeemer!
Moab is triply disqualified from association with Israel. Moab himself was the son of the incestuous daughter of Lot (Gen. 19); at Baal-Peor, Balaam unleashed the daughters of Moab into the camp of Israel to seduce Israelite men to fornication and idolatry, provoking Yahweh to bring down a plague that stopped only when Phinehas impaled a fornicating couple with his spear (Num. 25); and when Israel first passed through Moabite territory, the Moabites refused to offer bread and water (Num. 22:1–6; Deut. 23:4), but instead hired Balaam to spout imprecations.
Elimelech’s decisions are almost comically ineffectual, doomed from the outset: He goes to the stingy Moabites for food, and he seeks wives for his sons from the incestuous daughters of Lot.
Yet, a daughter of this triply notorious nation, the Moabitess Ruth, clings to Naomi and her people. By identifying herself with Naomi’s people and God, Ruth becomes an alter ego to her mother-in-law, and, in her place, busily goes about redeeming both the name of Moab and the Israelite widow Naomi.
Ruth the Anti-Type
Her redemption of the Moabite reputation has a double twist. When she sneaks onto the threshing floor the night after the harvest festival to find Boaz—a man old enough to call her “my daughter” (Ruth 3:10)—she is every inch the Moabitess. Like Lot’s daughters, she appears to be approaching a wine-filled “father” seeking a son; like the Moabite women who seduced Israel, she seems to be preying on an unsuspecting Israelite man, and we almost expect a Phinehas to loom up, spear poised.
Yet this Moabitess has already pledged herself to the Israelite widow, and all her Moabitish actions are acts of hesed (cf. 3:10). She does want a son from Boaz, but she acts out of loyalty to Naomi. Unlike her Moabite forebears who refused to bring food to Israel, Ruth is an inexhaustible source of bread for Naomi. Every time she leaves the city, she returns with baskets full of grain (2:17–18; 3:15, 17). This Gentile woman fills the empty Naomi (2:18).
Ruth is the antitype of Lot’s daughters and of the Moabite women at Baal Peor— anti-type because she plays against type, fulfilling the earlier history of Moab by reversing it. In a more straightforward sense, she is an antitype of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who dressed herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law in order to gain a son for her dead husband (Gen. 38).
Both Tamar and Ruth dress up and seductively approach a father figure to get a son, and, as the mother of Perez and Zerah, Tamar is in the same Davidic genealogy as Ruth. Judah had other sons, but Perez and Zerah, sons of incest, are the ones that figure in all the royal genealogies, all the way to Jesus. Tamar is the savior of Judah’s seed, and so is Ruth.
Boaz the Prototype
Only after Ruth attaches herself to Naomi does the redeemer appear on the scene. Boaz is as complex an antitype as Naomi and Ruth. He is a “mighty man of valor” ( gibbor chayil), which links him with Israel’s military heroes, though his might is displayed in acts of generosity rather than prowess in battle.
As he provides food for the hungry, and permanent land for Elimelech’s widow, he plays the part of Moses and Joshua. Reversing the inverted exodus at the beginning of Ruth, Boaz leads Ruth, and through her Naomi, out of the wasteland into a land of barley, wheat, and wine.
In this respect, Boaz also serves as a prototype of the future kings of Israel, who, according to Psalm 72, render justice to the poor and satisfy the needy. Boaz is Moses-shaped, and David, Solomon, and every faithful king of Judah is a Boaz. More fundamentally, Boaz is an Adam.
This is most striking in the threshing-floor scene in Ruth 3, when Boaz awakes from a deep sleep astonished to find a woman at his feet. He is an improved Adam, who feeds Ruth without seizing forbidden fruit, who protects his bride from want, who fathers the seed that produce the seed who will crush the serpent’s head.
Boaz is Adam, Moses, and Joshua. By conforming to the pattern of Boaz, David also becomes a composite of these types, and as Son of David, Jesus is all this and more. To say that Jesus is a greater Boaz doesn’t strike a note; it strikes a chord.
A New Pattern of Redemption
The specific pattern of Boaz’s redemption is worth some scrutiny. Boaz does all he does as a “near relative” of Naomi, but though he acts on behalf of Naomi, all his kindness to Naomi is mediated through Ruth, Naomi’s Moabite surrogate. He brings Ruth into the company of his own maids, feeds her bread and wine at noon, and insists that she glean only in his field.
Through his attentions to Ruth, he provides bread for Naomi. He agrees to spread the wing of his robe over Ruth, and so provides a son to Naomi, to keep Elimelech’s name from failing in Israel (Deut. 25). He saves the Hebrew Naomi by redeeming the Gentile Ruth.
The typological redemption of Ruth follows this pattern: Naomi, the Jewish widow, is bereft; the Gentile daughter Ruth joins her; Naomi gets a redeemer when Boaz attaches himself to Ruth. The pattern is not “salvation, then incorporation of Gentiles” but “incorporation of Gentiles, then salvation.”
Prior to Ruth, this is a nearly unprecedented sequence in the Old Testament. Only in the Joseph story does Gentile salvation precede Israel’s. After Ruth, it becomes familiar: Nineveh is delivered to invade and conquer Israel, which is later redeemed from exile; Daniel witnesses to Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, and the “salvation” of these Gentile rulers brings the salvation of Israel.
Familiar it may be, but it was enough to make the Apostle Paul gasp: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). The mystery that leaves Paul in silence is the gospel’s revelation both that Israel’s rejection will be the salvation of the world, and that the ingrafting of the Gentiles will in turn lead to the salvation of Israel.
It is a mystery, but a mystery already unfolding under the shadows of the story of Ruth. For the gospel of Ruth is summed up in this: “All nations shall be blessed in you” and, “So all Israel shall be saved.”
Inexhaustible & Unfathomable Riches
The presence of internal typologies within the Old Testament breaks down any simplistic binary contrast of Old and New. In an important sense, Christian interpretation does not acknowledge the Old Testament as a separate entity. There is only the Christian Bible, compiled in clumps over many centuries and completed with the Gospels, epistles, and Revelation. Such a claim obviously sharpens the differences between Jewish and Christian readings, since it implies that the Jews are working with only a partial book.
At the same time, a refined Christological reading is open to Jewish insight on specific texts, careful about the internal workings of the Hebrew Bible, and honors Israel by being attentive to the institutions and events of her history.
By refusing to “jump to Jesus” and by treating the elaborately woven texture of the Old Testament with serious delight, Christians curb the habit of skimming the surface of the book the Jews call the Bible. No doubt, many will see this as another form of imperialism, more insidious because more subtle. I don’t deny it is imperialistic, but it has the advantage of being an imperialism that respects the customs of the colonized, while hoping for their entry into full citizenship.
Whatever their merits as an example of interpretation or as hermeneutical theory, these musings, I hope, confirm the intuition shared by church fathers and rabbis both, neatly summarized in a breathless catena of patristic descriptions of the Bible assembled by Henri de Lubac in Medieval Exegesis:
Scripture is like the world: “undecipherable in its fullness and in the multiplicity of its meanings.” [It is] a deep forest, with innumerable branches, “an infinite forest of meanings”: the more involved one gets in it, the more one discovers that it is impossible to explore it right to its end. It is a table arranged by Wisdom, laden with food, where the unfathomable divinity of the Savior is itself offered as nourishment to all. Treasure of the Holy Spirit, whose riches are as infinite as himself. True labyrinth. Deep heavens, unfathomable abyss. Vast sea, where there is endless voyaging “with all sails set.” Ocean of mystery.
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.