Ruth And The Subtlety Of Divine Providence

I once write an extremely long essay that covered divine providence in the book of Ruth and only managed to get halfway through the book, and I have lacked the sustained time to complete the project so far.  Suffice it to say that while the book of Ruth is a short one at only four chapters, literally every part of it is full of aspects of divine providence that tie in closely to other parts of scripture.  This is so even though the narrative story of Ruth itself is immensely appealing and the story is told in a compact way that has a gracious and feminine touch.  What I would like to suggest, though, is that there are at least three levels of authorship that are implied in the book of Ruth, and these three levels of authorship apply to our own lives as well.  Indeed, there can even be more layers of authorship in non-biblical texts, a matter which is worth discussing as well.

Let us begin with a digression.  There are a great many books that purport to be written by biblical personages and which are popular among some segments of the population.  An elder in the early Hellenistic church was disciplined for having written a pseudonymous work where the Apostle Paul (along with a woman named Thecla) were involved.  This level of authorship is implied authorship, where the actual author of a text presents the text as being written by someone else.  When we find this phenomenon in literature, like the way that Nick Carroway is the implied author of The Great Gatsby, it is a sign of immense sophistication on the part of the author.  When someone pretends to be someone else and writes a text that pretends to be inspired, that is a significant problem that makes a text pseudographical and thus not genuinely spiritual.  This is what we see from the Gospel of Thomas or a great many other works that have been popular among ancient and contemporary gnostics.  A more subtle form of this influence, though, is acceptable, and we happen to find that in the Book of Ruth as well as the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, where the author appears to have used a variety of sources and been strongly influenced by the approach of those sources, so much so that the sources of the work are themselves at least partly the author of the text that is shaped by their testimony and perspective.  This is a matter of subtlety, though, and it is little surprise that in the Bible where we see this particular approach most obviously it is done in books that have likely male authorship while maintaining something of the perspective and approach of women.  Ruth and Esther as well as Luke and Acts show an immense degree of subtle recognition of the worth of women, and all of them have an indirect style of authorship that represents a respect for the testimony of women, and other books of the Bible where this can be found demonstrate the same approach as well.

How many layers of authorship do we find in the book of Ruth?  Well, Ruth is itself a coherent and well-written text that writes a factual account of events that take place over the course of at least a decade to a small family from the town of Bethlehem.  No information is known about the author, but as a unified text we can make a fair judgment that it has a single author who wrote with a variety of purposes that are explained by the subtlety and complexity of the small text.  As is often the case in such writings, the end of the text, which points to the genealogy of David, gives the most obvious point of the author in legitimizing the family history of the founder of an immensely important dynasty.  Yet this author clearly worked with sources.  For one, the book references both the events of the time of Ruth as well as the genealogy of David, which means that either the book was written during the time of David and makes use of earlier sources, or it was an earlier work that was recorded as part of the family history of Ruth and Boaz during the times and updated with a genealogy that points to its larger importance, which means that from the start we are dealing with at least two layers of authorship, one of them during the time of Ruth and one during the time of David.  For the sake of argument, we will assume that this text was a coherent family narrative existing during the time of Ruth and Boaz and their marriage and that it was updated by a later editor who added the part about the genealogy of David.   This implies at least two layers of authorship already.

Even the authorship of the book originally, though, contained multiple layers of authorship.  That is because the material includes information from a variety of sources.  By and large the book contains the perspectives of Naomi and Ruth at the core of the book and the original writer was either one of these two women or someone who knew them well and conveyed their emotional state effectively.  The book also contains testimony from Boaz, although little information about his own interior emotional state, and cites his interaction with the elders at the gate, which implies some sort of testimony from either him or other eyewitnesses (or both), while also including a reference to the earlier story of Judah and Tamar, making this a biblical text that references other biblical texts explicitly.  There are also implicit connections with Leviticus 23 as well as the law relating to levirate marriage, so the author was clearly aware of God’s laws and subtle in his (or her) citation of them.  This implies at least three levels of authorship including original sources, their writing into a coherent narrative that takes their perspective into account as well as using other biblical sources cleverly, and in later redaction/editing to point out the importance of the text in showing a touching incident of David’s family history to the people he was ruling over as king.

And it is with these levels that people usually stop.  Even a seemingly simple and straightforward historical text like Ruth contains three levels of human authorship extending from the personal accounts of people who were trying to live their lives as well as possible and seek honorable marriage in a world where famine was a problem and where it was immensely difficult to be a stranger in town to a text that discusses a matter of interesting and significant family history to a short book that discusses God’s providential care in providing for the family of a promised king who would both help to fulfill biblical prophecy as well as provide the context for further aspects of divine providence in God’s dealings with Israel and Judah and the world as a whole.  The layer that is often forgotten when it comes to biblical texts and their layers of authorship is the authorship that God has.

Throughout the book of Ruth, we see hints that the behavior of the family of Elimelech was subtly influenced by God so as to create a place for God to bring Ruth into Judah as a godly and lovely widow so that Boaz could marry her and raise a family that would eventually rise to rule over all of Israel under David and then eventually be the family that the savior would be born into.  From the famine that prompts the initial departure of Elimelech and his family into Moab and the fact that news of the end of the famine only comes when Naomi and Ruth are widows, we recognize in retrospect the divine timing involved in these events.  Likewise, it so happens that one of Elimelech’s nearest relatives was a bachelor farmer who happens to be gracious and generous and rich.  Anyone who has ever read a romance novel knows how this is going to end when one combines a wealthy and kind bachelor with a beautiful and gracious young widow in a rural atmosphere where the character and godliness of both is made evident to each other and to everyone else around.  God is ultimately the author of both the events of the book of Ruth, by shaping the circumstances that the people in the book respond to, and also by shaping the larger context of the book so that it becomes more than merely a romance between a man and a woman in a small town but part of the grand narrative of salvation by which the Son of God would become the Son of Man and open the way to eternal life for humanity.  We may pretend to be the captain of our vessels and the author of our fates, but ultimately God is the author of our circumstances and has His own plans and goals for our lives.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ruth And The Subtlety Of Divine Providence

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    There is a wonderful proverb that sums up your last sentence which, paraphrased, says that man plans his future and decides what he is going to do, but the Lord directs his steps. He is the One in charge. The book of Ruth is so layered and rich! It is much more than it appears to be. Just as she gleaned the field, we glean more each time we read it.

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