Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Last Book of 2005

The last book I read in 2005 was Ruth and Naomi by Ellen van Wolde (SCM, 1997). She takes the interesting approach of looking at the story of each chapter of Ruth through the eyes of the characters involved. She takes the texts and examines them from each perspective. The approach is quite enlightening and helpful.

However, at each point each perspective is summarised in their own (supposed) words. It is here that the perspective of the commentator comes through, for in these little passages of fiction late 20th century concerns are imported. For example, in chapter 2 where Ruth takes the initiative to glean in what turns out to be Boaz's field, van Wolde raises the issue of ethnic difference. This was a real issue. Moabites were to be excluded from the worship of God. Words like 'tolerance', 'integration' have modern currency. Concerns about those of different ethnic background moving into the house next to you are certainly 20th and 21st century issues. The plight of refugees is an evil of the modern day. But were these the most important issues readers are to take from the text?

Another example: Boaz is introduced in chapter 2. The words van Wolde gives hims are, again, late 20th/21st century words. Is it right to think of Boaz, who was older than Ruth, as 'wedded to his work', a 'workaholic', that he may have been 'unlucky in love', that he had to deal with 'rumours that he was a homosexual'?

And so it goes on. It seems to me that here van Wolde demonstrates her modern liberal concerns. She has defined what the issues are that the reader should be concerned about in reading the ancient text. This seems to be the way she uses to make the text live for the modern reader. However this rather misses the more basic question of what it meant for the people of the day. If we miss this we do not understand scripture at all and therefore have no hope of an appropriate modern understanding. It was irritating to have modern issues thrust into an ancient text in this way.

This rather leads me to my second gripe with this work. It seems that, like many modern biblical theologians (I mean this in the technical, academic sense), they lack of broader view of covenantal history i.e. God at work in history, gathering a people for himself, through the means of covenants. Yes, modern writers make some reference to the historical and religious environment in which the book in question is set, but only in the sense that this is just what happens to 'be'. There does not seem to be the sense that this book is part of a greater, purposeful story. For this one would need to hold to a robust doctrine of providence, election and the unity of scripture. These seem to be absent in van Wolde's work, and therefore her analysis of the text resembles the disection of a cadaver rather than the rounded study of human life.

I liked the novel approach of van Wolde, but there was not enough respect for the overarching purpose of God, and too much respect for modern day human problems.

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