The Theology of the Book of Ruth

When I recently facilitated a class on the book of Ruth, one of the aspects of the book that caught my attention was how God becomes present through the actions of others. God acts directly only once (Ruth 4:13), all other divine activities are mediated through human characters. For example, Boaz acknowledges that Ruth has sought refuge under the wings of Yhwh (Ruth 2:12), yet it is Boaz under whose wings Ruth eventually finds herself (Ruth 3:9). God’s presence in the book of Ruth is not accompanied by great fanfare, with signs or with wonders, but belongs to everyday occurrences. I was pleased to see this picked up on and articulated by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi in her introductory essay “The Theology of the Book of Ruth” in the JPS Commentary on Ruth I discussed yesterday:

The book seems to teach that the capacities and actions initially projected upon God by the book’s protagonists, in turn, empower people to emulate God. It helps them sustain one another through their blessings and wisdom, enabling them to act in God’s stead. Human happiness and success are essentially the consequence of such personal actions in response to presumed divine providence. And it is only when people have taken care of one another that God intervenes. (lii)

Eskenazi ties this in well with the theology of ḥesed in Ruth, continuing the discussion from yesterday:

The central question one may ask is: What are we to believe or do in a world where God’s presence is not self-evident? If we view Ruth against the historical backdrop of Judges, this question becomes even more pointed: What are we to do in a world pervaded by chaos and violence? In answer to these questions, Ruth delineates a theology of ḥesed—generosity that goes beyond the call of duty. Human ḥesed, when rightly cultivated “for the sake of heaven” (in its later Rabbinic formulation), serves as a real power for good even when—perhaps especially when—God’s presence is not otherwise discernible.

In Ruth, it is human beings who bring God into the world, depending upon how they choose to interpret the texts of their lives. So, too, readers are invited to make interpretive choices when responding to the book or to moral ambiguities in their own lives. Ruth’s narrator would have readers weigh in on the side of ḥesed. (liii)

When people, based on their reading of the Bible, wonder why God used to be so involved in the mechanics of the world—performing signs and intervening in the natural order—and yet why God seems aloof in our own day, they often fail to recognize that many of the people written about in the Bible experience God within the natural order. The book of Ruth demonstrates that the Bible is comfortable when God doesn’t perform a litany of miracles to advance the human story.

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