16 December 2008

the gospel of ruth

Carolyn Custis James, The Gospel of Ruth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

One of the books which I grabbed at SBL Boston was this one from the Zondervan table. I had seen a brief notice about the title beforehand, but really wasn't planning on this one until I flipped through it for a few seconds on the exhibition floor.  It obviously looked like an interesting read, and it certainly did not disappoint.

Overall this book would do well in either a small group (or Sunday School) setting, or be used for sermon work as it is well grounded in historical data and responsible hermeneutic along with a continuous application of the material to the modern reader.  James works hard to make sure that as we approach Ruth we connect with the realities and emotions which permeate the story.

Of central thesis to understanding "The Gospel of Ruth" is that God is the central character - the main hero - of the story.  This, according to James, is what allows this story to be relegated to the level of the Old Testament's romance novel or a nice vignette about how strong women can survive until the men come along and save them.  James instead wishes the reader to see how each of the main characters lives up to the gospel of God's grace and goodness through their willingness to "break the rules" of culture and convention in the progression of the story.  On this the author introduces the theme of hesed, and rightly so as it is one of the central tenets of Hebrew theology.  James' discussion on hesed is centered upon the actions of the characters, a point of emphasis which comes up repeatedly in her descriptions of "the hesed way of doing things" (e.g. 150).

Another point of success for this reading of Ruth is that it never allows the reader to take the story and find an over-spiritualized rendering which produces shallow faith.  One encounters a real-life drama in these pages - even coming from God's hesed - which reminds us that difficult circumstances still break into our lives and challenge our entire understanding of providence.  Further, James is quick to remind us that lives driven by hesed are not necessarily (and often are not) the easy path.  In a refreshing reading of the threshing room floor which does not get bogged down with what did and did not happen (between two upright characters, mind you), the author instead focuses on the tension which fills the scene and brings us within inches of certain disaster: ". . . Yahweh's people are perpetually confronted with difficult situations and choices" (147).

By the time James reaches the go'el portion of the story, the reader has a new understanding of what the narrative is seeking to accomplish.  Again we are reminded that God is the true hero of the story, and all three characters have an important role in the progression of salvation history.  All have something to lose, something to give up for another, and a world to gain.  All in all I would recommend this book, not only for those who want to read devotionally, but also as a fresh and down-to-earth refresher for the academic community as well (especially those who find themselves teaching Ruth).

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