Theology in 3D

What Are Allusions Good For?: Echoes of Isaac in Ruth (Part 1)

October 17, 2022
Old Testament

In an article in the fall issue of the Journal of Biblical Theology and Worldview, I argue that the Book of Ruth was shaped by its author to highlight similarities between the events in the family of Elimelech and events in the life of Isaac. Supposing I’m right that there really are allusions to Isaac in the Book of Ruth, does it really affect our interpretation of that book? That’s the question I set out to explore in a two-part series of blogposts.

An Allusion

Near the beginning of the article, I highlight nearly a dozen ways that the Book of Ruth has either verbal, structural, or circumstantial similarities to stories connected to the life of Isaac. Some of these may be purely coincidental (though Ruth 2:3 suggests that we should be alert even to apparently unintentional coincidences!). Some parallels, however, are quite robust and are worth looking at in more detail. I focus especially on how the book is introduced, “that [lit. and] there was a famine in the land,” which replicates exactly the introduction to the famines prompting Abram’s sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12:10) and Isaac’s sojourn in Gerar (Gen 26:1). Let’s consider that allusion here.

Meaning at the “Bare Minimum”

Let’s begin by thinking about what that clause in Ruth 1:1, “and there was a famine in the land,” contributes to the story by itself. In other words, suppose it’s not an allusion and we just take it at face value, what’s it there for?

In the first place, the clause “and there was a famine in the land” in Ruth 1:1 is part of the story’s background: after all, something had to happen to get Elimelech out of Israel and set the story’s events in motion. This is true as a matter of plot analysis; but it’s not the whole truth.

Many interpreters have also noted that the Book of Ruth, set as it is in the time of the Judges, a time of widespread and recurrent apostasy, is meant to call to mind the curses of Mount Ebal pronounced on disobedience, particularly the curses connected to famine. This, too, is an important insight. Now if, as I argue in the article (but not here) this verse contains an allusion to the patriarchal narratives, what else does it contribute to the story?

Allusions and Context

This allusion at the start of the story (“and there was a famine in the land”) is meant to resonate with readers familiar with the patriarchal history in Genesis. The echo brings to mind the famines of Abram and Isaac. But why would the author want us thinking of those events as we read about Elimelech and Ruth and Boaz? The answer relates to context, the keystone of responsible hermeneutics. In short, allusions like these bring material from distant contexts into the consciousness of the reader, thus making that material part of the immediate context.

What I mean is this: the grammatical historical approach to hermeneutics has never been interested in “bare meanings” of individual words or phrase or sentences. Careful interpreters read texts, and they read the parts of those texts in the context of the whole, while also taking into account the “world” of the text and its author and first readers. Context tells us “what’s going on,” so that we know what individual parts are doing in that bigger picture. What I’m claiming, then, is that one important function of allusions, though by no means their only function, is to broaden the contextual frame. An allusion tells us that more is going on than we’d know from reading just this single text. I’ll try to demonstrate this by looking at the allusion I’ve highlighted in Ruth 1:1.

Famines in Genesis, Famines in Ruth

The allusion, “and there was a famine in the land,” replicating the introduction to Abram’s and Isaac’s famines, puts the reader on notice that the events of Elimelech’s famine should be understood in light of those earlier famines. But what does it mean to understand Elimelech’s famine “in light of” the earlier famines? That is one of the challenges of reading a carefully crafted history like the Book of Ruth, and the first thing it should do is drive us back to the earlier famine narratives in Genesis 12 and 26 to be sure we understand what they are about. As I argue in the article—and my argument is not original—the famines of Abram and Isaac are occasions for the Lord to make good on his promises, particularly his promise of offspring living in the land, in the face of humanly daunting obstacles. 

Thus Elimelech’s departure from the land, the marriage of his sons to foreigners, their deaths without male heirs, and the clear inability of Naomi to maintain her husband’s land back in Judah are the central problems of Ruth, and God’s restoration of offspring and land through the loyalty of Ruth and Boaz is a sign of his faithfulness, the same sort of faithfulness that maintained the patriarchal promises.  A careful reader should notice most of this even without thinking back to the patriarchal famines. But the allusions also make the reader ask, If God is showing his faithfulness, to what exactly is God being faithful? After all, Elimelech is not a patriarch. If Elimelech died without heirs, it’s not obvious that God’s faithfulness would be threatened. I offer a possible answer to that question in my article, but that answer isn’t the point of this essay. The point here is that the allusion should make us ask the question, and then meditate on the Book of Ruth in relation to God’s covenant faithfulness to the patriarchs, proved in times of famine.

Here, There, and Back Again

What I’ve suggested in this post is that an allusion does two things: it brings to mind the story that’s alluded to, making that story part of the immediate context needed for fully understanding the story that contains the allusion. But in order for that the work, the reader has to go back and reconsider the earlier story in light of the story that alludes to it. We’re used to doing this as we read quotations and allusions to the Old Testament in the New Testament. What we see in Ruth is that we can and should do the same thing as we move between parts of the Old Testament. In my next post, I’ll discuss another allusion in the Book of Ruth and then consider some objections that readers might raise against this mode of interpretation.

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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