Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Marjo C. A. Korpel, The Structure of the Book of Ruth (Pericope: Scripture as Written and Read in Antiquity, 2; AA Assen, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Van Gorcum, 2001). Hardcover. ISBN 90 232 3657 2. 70,00


The Structure of the Book of Ruth is an original contribution to the relatively vast secondary scholarship on this small biblical book and its structure. Korpel is a careful reader not only of the Hebrew text of Ruth but of the many recent authors who have attempted to represent the formal contours and thematic content of the book. More importantly, she is a careful reader of the earliest versions of Ruth (Greek, Syriac, and Latin), and is the first to use them comprehensively as a source for establishing the micro and macro literary structures of the text.

Korpel begins with a helpful survey of recent commentaries on Ruth, a survey which demonstrates both the widespread interest in literary analysis and the surprisingly divergent views that commentators have produced. Korpel affirms the new interest in syntactical analysis; the new appreciation for chiasmus, (distant) parallelism, and Leitworte; the nuanced discussion of poetic elements in narrative; and the need to distinguish between synchronic and diachronic analysis. However, the plethora of different structural schemas that result from these studies is evidence of a subjectivity that Korpel wants to overcome. Her solution is to look to the ancient witnesses for traditional boundary markers of sense units. In so doing she intends not only to bring more objectivity to the analysis of structure, but she also hopes to contribute to discussions on redaction and dating.

The methodology for the project is outlined on pages 30-47. The aim is a comprehensive (synchronic) analysis of Ruth beginning with its smallest elements, the "foot," a unit consisting of one stress. The next size element is a "colon," the smallest combination of feet determined by reference to the seven primary Hebrew accents and compared with the testimony of other witnesses. These Masoretic "colometric" divisions are generally repeated in the other ancient manuscript traditions. Cola combine to comprise "lines," marked typically (but not completely) also with the main accents, atnah, silluq and soph pasuq. Because line delimitation is not evident in ancient manuscripts (prior to Medieval copies), Korpel supplements the analysis of accents with examination of syntactic coherence, verse/line parallelism, and the balancing of stresses (pp. 39-41). The next level of analysis is the "strophe" (or verse) traditionally determined by the soph pasuq. Korpel again admits that the accent is not as old or reliable as one would hope, so she adds the presence of "separating force" (emphasis through deictic particles, interrogative or demonstrative pronouns, markers of direct speech, etc.). Note that neither lines nor strophe marking is evident outside of the MT. The next level is the paragraph, one or more strophes often (though again not consistently) marked in the ancient texts. Korpel adds the following means to determine paragraphs: parallelism, enjambment (run-on strophes, a kind of anti-evidence), and thematic continuity. The final step is the analysis of macrostructural units which range from "sub-cantos," "cantos," "cantatas," and, finally, the book as a whole. The bulk of the book is then devoted to a very detailed analysis of each of the four chapters of Ruth, following this format. The reader is indebted to Korpel for a discussion of most textual and all accentual variants for each verse in the book. A nice addition is the twenty-one page Index of Parallel Words, a complete collection of paired terms Ruth shares with other biblical texts.

While Korpel establishes a very sensible agenda for the book, one is left somewhat skeptical with the repeated admission that on most levels beyond the colon the ancient testimony is uneven. More disturbing for the thesis is the evidence that much of the ancient testimony is actually not that ancient. While the accenting system certainly preserves older, traditional reading strategies, it is often centuries removed from the autographs. Masoretic marking certainly preserves long-established grammatical and syntactical oriented guidelines, but it is not necessarily original evidence for the inherent literary structures of a given book. The variation in style and skill among Septuagint translators is also widely noted by scholars. One should not grant them undo credit for sensitivities that have not been demonstrated. Korpel's resort to other criteria for evaluating the structure of Ruth is not unreasonable; it is called for by the nature of the data. Thus, while overstating the unique value of her "objective" data, Korpel's method demonstrates an exemplary "critical" integration of this data with conventional and more recent (albeit "subjective" in her terms) kinds of analysis.

While Korpel's project offers information (both statistical and interpreted) that is new to scholarly dialogue about the book of Ruth, it does not offer any indisputable new conclusions about the book (although the results of the method might be different in other texts). She notes that her analysis has provided evidence for a slight expansion of a subcanto (1:11-17; pp. 85-87) and the omission of a strophe between 4:13 and 4:14 (pp. 187-88). She also confirms in the Conclusions that Ruth is "a narrative text in poetic form" (p. 223). Discussions of purpose, redaction, and date are only slightly informed by the analysis. Remarks on cultural background included in the concluding sections of each chapter are not always well supported (e.g., heap of grain as fertility symbol, p. 163), in contrast to the meticulous textual work evidenced throughout. This is also the case for her interesting intertextual reading of Ruth with "Second Isaiah" which constitutes the final three pages of the book. These are not true "conclusions" that follow the body of the work.

The Structure of the Book of Ruth should be appreciated for its thoroughness and for the novel contribution it makes as a bridge between text criticism and literary criticism. One must agree with her that ancient reading conventions should be taken into consideration along with other forms of literary analysis. While this new approach offers another important (hitherto neglected) source of information, this data must be interpreted together with all other forms of textual, linguistic, and literary data. Korpel models this kind of integrated analysis well.

Timothy S. Laniak
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary