Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 15 (2015) - Review
In her commentary, Ruth, Judy Fentress-Williams sets out to hear anew the voice of Ruth within a multivalent dialogue. This accessible and short commentary reflects the brevity of its subject while communicating its enduring charm. Her interpretation of the book of Ruth is probing. She explores a diversity of readings and places the text into conversation with a variety of dialogue partners. The story of Ruth is an important part of the story of Israel, and Fentress-Williams approaches the book with candor and an appreciation for creative readings. While readers may not agree with all the interpretational options she offers, this exposure to the content of scholarly debates and contentions is a valuable starting point for the readers' own dialogue with the biblical narrative. Her voice, consistently remaining relevant and engaging, calls readers to wrestle with the ways in which this artfully constructed ancient text continues to speak today.
Fentress-Williams' description of her own work, This commentary is, among other things, about dialogue (p. 7), proves true on multiple levels. She uses a dialogic approach to engage the biblical text, exploring the nuances of the story of Ruth when placed in the contexts of other biblical narratives (e.g., the story of Tamar and Judah in Gen 38), canonical placements (e.g., the ordering of the Megilloth, the canonical shape of Old Greek texts), and specific socio-historical settings. Her literary insights on the biblical narrative are also structured around the characters' dialogue. Since, according to Fentress-Williams, the dialogues are vital to the progress of the narrative, it is also central to her own literary analyses. She unpacks the literary beauty of the biblical narrative within its immediate, canonical, and historical contexts and brings the ancient text into conversation with contemporary American culture.
Each chapter of the book of Ruth is given its own chapter within the commentary. Breaking each chapter of Ruth into sections ranging from 3 to 13 verses, Fentress-Williams works through pericopes by offering literary, exegetical, and theological analyses. These analyses are concise, insightful, and carefully crafted. Classifying Ruth as a comedy and valuing the art of biblical narrative with a special emphasis on dialogue, Fentress-Williams provides her own retelling of the story of Ruth in light of genre, narratival elements, and literary tools. In turn, the literary analyses give way to exegetical comments, which explore the critical issues, socio-historical context, themes, and thrusts of the passages. She evaluates the form and function of the literary elements of each pericope to glean meaning and nuance from the text and to continue the intra- and intertextual dialogue.
The third category of analysistheologicalis a concerted effort to present the ways in which this ancient story remains contextually relevant for practical application. Fentress-Williams uses the idioms of and references to contemporary, Western culture to communicate the power and relevance of the biblical text. These culture and language-bound references include: the axiom I am because we are (p. 25); describing the inclusion of Ruth in the canon as a shout-out to the outliers of any society (p. 29); food stamps, WIC (p. 31); the American celebrity Oprah (p. 51); describing God's covenant-making with Israel as marrying down (p. 57); offering the equivalency of an ephah in U.S. pounds (p. 75), and referring to the United States as our country in using Barack Obama's biracialism in a discussion of social constructs (p. 143). These references are both a blessing and a curse. They attest to Fentress-Williams' ability to bring an ancient story into a contemporary context, but also constrict the full power of her commentary to a limited audiencenovice readers in the United States.
The major weakness of this commentary is its appropriatenessor inappropriateness, in this casefor its stated audience. Fentress-Williams identifies her primary audience as theological students and pastors and her secondary audience as upper-level college or university students as well as those responsible for teaching in congregational settings (p. 9). In the introductory material on dating she states, Ultimately, one of the strengths of Ruth, its compatible dialogue with a number of texts, is the very same quality that contributes to the difficulty of dating the text based on content (p. 23). This dialogue compatibility, as Fentress-Williams identifies it, leads not only to difficulty in dating but also to a cacophony of readings. The introduction of multiple meanings or options for interpretation in many cases sounds a dissonant chord, which Fentress-Williams does not resolve. For example, throughout the commentary she leaves the questions of dating and authorship open, exploring the multivocality of Ruth within varying historical contexts. In another instance, she addresses the interpretation and rhetorical power of the use of the divine name, El Shaddai. Offering two translational optionsGod Almighty and breasted oneFentress-Williams is satisfied with expanding possible interpretations without speaking to implications of these interpretations or weighing them for plausibility.
For another audience, holding questions in tension and this unresolved nature of dialogue are appropriate and welcomed. However, if this commentary is to be a tool for theological students and pastors, she seems to raise more questions than she answers for novice readers of the biblical text. The general editor of the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series, Patrick D. Miller, writes in the foreword, The fundamental aim of the series will have been attained if readers are assisted not only in understanding more about the origins, character, and meaning of the Old Testament writings but also in entering into their own informed and critical engagement with the texts themselves (p. 11). Literary dialogue imbues the text with a multitude of possible meanings. However, since this book is intended for novice biblical interpreters, would it not be prudent to establish boundaries for interpretation? There may be a multitude of possible readings, but how does one discern plausible meanings and responsible readings?
Fentress-Williams' Ruth is an ambitious book, addressing multiple levels of meaning within the text for a novice audience. Approaching the book of Ruth with her evident depth of knowledge and aptitude for scholarly engagement with biblical narrative, Fentress-Williams produces a commentary that, despite the limitations surveyed above, is nonetheless readable, engaging, and provocative. This primer on one of the most charming books of the Old Testament invites its readers to listen in on the dialogues of an ancient text as well as participate in the conversation on its continuing relevance.