(April 22, 2015 / JNS) The megillah (scroll) of Ruth, read annually on the second day of the Shavuot holiday, is nothing new to synagogue-goers. But a new commentary on Ruth brings some good news: that traditional Jews have joined the academic approach to studying the bible.
It is understandable that traditional Jews have been wary of modern biblical studies for so long. The aim of the “Higher Criticism” school of thought has been to try to determine the different sources of every line in the bible, and to try to find the precedents and parallels to each biblical passage in the literatures of the surrounding cultures. When they are finished, what such scholars have is a hodgepodge of repetitions and contradictions that have somehow been pasted together. This approach has very little religious meaning.
But there is another scholarly way of reading the bible. Many contemporary biblical scholars now ignore the questions surrounding the different sources that compose the bible. Instead, they treat the bible as a unit and deal with the question of what it means in its present form. These scholars use literary analysis in order to capture nuances in the text, and they are sensitive to echoes and allusions from one biblical book to another. These are methods that traditional students of the bible can also use without compromising their own religious convictions.
Dr. Yael Ziegler’s “Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy,” as well as the two other commentaries that have been published so far in the Maggid Studies in Tanakh series—one on the Book of Jeremiah and another on the Book of Joshua—are good examples of studies of the bible that make use of the methods of literary analysis. Ziegler uses an enormous amount of the rabbinic and the medieval Jewish commentaries on Ruth, but she goes beyond them by studying the bible with the same techniques that modern literary scholars use to study classic works of literature.
Ziegler understands the scroll of Ruth as a religious novel. It has a theme: the transition from the chaos that is found at the end of the Book of Shoftim to the order that is found in the reign of King David. It has characters who grow, change, and develop during the story, as characters do in all serious novels. It has depth that can only be understood by listening carefully to each word of the dialogues, and each twist and turn in the plot.
Naomi sends Ruth out to glean, and in chapter two, when Boaz arrives at his field, he asks the overseer, “Who is that woman standing over there?” The overseer responds with an answer that is verbose and seemingly harmless, but Ziegler reads beneath the text and shows that the overseer is being critical, and not just verbose. He says three things. First, that Ruth is a Moabite, which may be a subtle way of hinting that she does not really belong in these fields. Second, he says Ruth asked for permission to glean from the stalks, something that she technically had no legal right to do. By changing just one word in her request—she asked for permission to glean from the sheaves, he says she asked permission to glean from the stalks—he makes her sound greedy and presumptuous, without directly saying so. The he says that Ruth has been standing since the morning. Gleaners do not stand; they move. They follow the harvesters, they sit and they glean.
Why, then, does the overseer say that Ruth has been standing all day? Perhaps he is hinting that he ordered her to stand and wait until the master arrives and decides whether to give her permission to glean or not. In three brief sentences, the overseer has put Ruth down, and has shown off his own ability to keep unworthy strangers out—without quite saying a single explicitly negative word about her.
What is Boaz’s reaction to the overseer’s report? He turns away from him and goes to talk to Ruth directly. If we listen carefully to the undertones of these few brief lines, we learn to see the overseer as a bigot who dislikes strangers, and we learn to see Boaz is a person capable of catching the hidden implications behind this man’s words. None of this is explicitly stated in the text, but all of it can be inferred.
This is the way a close and careful reader analyzes a text. Ziegler has learned well from the students of modern literature, and she skillfully applies their techniques to the reading of the bible. She thereby enables us to discover many of its nuances, and clarifies its meaning for us all.