Theology in 3D

What Are Allusions Good For?: Echoes of Isaac in Ruth (Part 2)

October 24, 2022
Old Testament

In my previous post, which discusses this article in the fall issue of the Journal of Biblical Theology and Worldview, I made the claim that the allusions in the Book of Ruth to the Isaac stories in Genesis are meant to bring those earlier stories into the consciousness of the reader, making them part of the immediate context for reading Ruth. I illustrated this with the allusion to the patriarchal famines in Ruth 1:1, “that [lit. and] there was a famine in the land.”

In this post, I discuss an additional allusion, the exchange of greetings between Boaz and his laborers—“The Lord be with you!” and “The Lord bless you!” (Ruth 2:4)—a pairing that replicates the structure of God’s blessing to Isaac when he begins and ends his sojourn in Gerar (Gen 26:3, 24). After showing how this allusion enriches our understanding of the story of Ruth, I consider two objections that might be raised against giving attention to allusions like this.

Presence and Blessing

I first paid serious attention to these greetings a few years ago in the course of my work as a Bible translator. As our team discussed this verse, the exchange struck me as somehow important. After all, this exchange speaks of God’s presence and God’s blessing, two important themes in Ruth, not to mention the rest of the Bible. But I didn’t realize at that time that I was seeing another connection to Genesis.

It wasn’t until our team was translating Genesis that I noticed this same pairing in the Isaac sojourn story. I supposed it must be a common pairing in the Bible, so I looked for other occurrences. It turns out that, while the pairing of the concepts shows up in other places (think of God’s presence with Joseph and his success in Genesis 39:2, 23), the immediate pairing of the wording of God “being with” someone and “blessing” that person isn’t common at all. It’s not repeated to any other of the patriarchs, and Ruth 2:4 is the closest verbal parallel to Genesis 26:3 and 24 in all of Scripture. So why would the author of Ruth want readers to interpret the events of chapter 2 (and probably beyond) in the context of what the Lord promises Isaac in Gerar?

I believe the author wishes to provide readers with a clue as to how they should interpret God’s apparent absence from much of the story. It’s been noted by several commentators that the author himself attributes only one action directly to the Lord in the entire narrative: the conception of a male heir in 4:13. So where is God in chapters 1–3? The allusion to Genesis 26:3, 24 tells us: every blessing conferred and fulfilled in Ruth (by my count, there are seven blessing episodes in Ruth) is evidence of God’s presence: he is with Ruth, the loyal Gentile convert, and he is with Boaz, the loyal Israelite landowner. Every blessing fulfilled, culminating in the birth of a male heir, is fulfilled because God is there.

A Worry: Untethered Interpretation

One worry that you may have about giving substantial weight to allusions is that it opens up the interpretive options too wide. Anything you want can be an allusion—this story says “fig,” and so does that one!—and then you can use the spurious allusion make the stories mean whatever you want.

However, allusions don’t work that way. If two texts are connected by an allusion or echo, one expects a repetition of whole phrases, or a grammatical structure (along with repeated vocabulary), or a string of concepts, or a sequence of events or places or names. Further, there ought to be thematic coherence between the two texts. And as for making stories mean whatever you want, allusions don’t overturn the plain meaning of the text. They enrich and confirm it. They don’t replace the immediate literary context. They add to it.

Another Worry: Untrustworthy History

Another worry is that reading Ruth in this way might undercut its historicity. The thinking goes like this: Either there was a famine or there wasn’t. Either Boaz and his farmhands greeted each other that way, or they didn’t. If those things really happened, then that’s the reason they’re part of the story, not because of Isaac. And if they didn’t happen—if the author of Ruth put things in the story just to make it similar to things that happened in some other story—then we can’t trust what he says.

There are three reasons that the presence of allusions doesn’t undermine a historical reading of the text. The first is that all historical narratives are selective and shaped. The events and conversations recorded in Ruth are a tiny fraction of the historical happenings that could have been included in the story. It is right, even expected, that biblical authors select those events that connect the stories they write to earlier stories in Israel’s history and shape the wording to highlight the connections.

The second reason that allusions don’t undercut historical reliability is that we know from other stories in Scripture that events really do repeat themselves. God’s son Israel really did get called out of Egypt. And so did God’s Son Jesus.

Which brings us to the third reason: History, especially the history of God’s dealings with his chosen people, is guided by his providence. We shouldn’t be surprised if real history repeats itself in meaningful ways.

Really Reading the Bible

A recent blogpost by Dr. Layton Talbert on Bible study featured a quotation from church historian and theologian John Hannah which I’ll repeat here:

The first book you need is a Bible. I recommend reading it. Many don’t. They study it. . . . I didn’t read my Bible when I was in seminary because I was too busy exegeting it.

The kind of connections I’ve highlighted here are the sorts of things that are noticed by readers, but not necessarily by mere exegetes. We have to read and reread the texts that make up the Bible. When you know a story by heart, down to the very wording, you notice when another story repeats some of that wording or has a similar sequence of events. And then you stop and think about the two stories: What’s similar about them? What’s different about them? What are the themes of the stories, and what purposes do they serve in the larger context of Scripture?

The only way to hear connections like these is to read attentively, and repeatedly, and broadly in the OT. I suspect that that’s the sort of reader the author of Ruth was writing for. It’s the sort of reader I want to be, and it’s what I want for my kids. It’s what I want for the readers of the Bible translation I’m working on, and it’s what I want for everyone who hears me teach and preach.

Joshua Jensen serves as a Bible translator in northeast Cambodia with EMU International. He earned his MA in Bible translation from BJU Seminary and his PhD in linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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