Tuesday 5 May 2009

Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn on Ruth

Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth, Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 141pp., ISBN 9780664251352.

A flurry of books appeared in this series – Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation – in the early 1990s, often written by those drawing from outside the traditional disciplines of biblical criticism to find theoretical models which could be adapted to the interpretation of the Bible. The result was some provactive readings of biblical books, including this one by Fewell and Gunn on Ruth.

The traditional reading sees Ruth as a story of loyalty, kindness, and love.

Fewell and Gunn seek to subvert this traditional reading.

In the first part of the book, they retell Ruth as ‘a leaner, tougher story’. Their retelling is effectively an expansion of the biblical story which, according to one reviewer, loses the style and terseness of the original account, and effectively stacks the deck in favour of their own approach. Another reviewer described their retelling as ‘somewhat stilted’. Even so…

The second part provides a reading of the three main characters of the book of Ruth – Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth – seeking to present them ‘as complex people, not merely built around a single primary trait, like loyalty, altruism or generosity’. Fewell and Gunn explore what they take to be the selfish motives of the lead characters, which shows how this story of redemption is ‘compromised’ by suspect behaviour.

Sexual overtones bubble to the surface in their reading. So, for example, mention of vessels, drinking, and eating are said to be subliminal sexual references, and ‘sheaves and grain can be seen as phallic’. Ruth’s request that Boaz spread his garment over her brings his religiosity down ‘to the most basic level of human interaction – sexual intercourse’.

Ruth’s statement of loyalty to Naomi in chapter 1 is said to be hyperbolic, and not without mixed motives. Naomi, for her part, plans (through Ruth) to trap Boaz, the man of substance, on the threshing floor, for ‘sexual intercourse, if not pregnancy, will enforce either marriage or a pay-off’. Boaz is fearful that in his inebriated state, he and Ruth may have had sexual intercourse, and so he marries Ruth as much out of a desire to protect his reputation as out of love or compassion for Ruth.

One reviewer praised the authors of the book for ‘walking the line with apparent ease between celebrating indeterminacy on the one hand and reading for ideological subversion on the other’, and for giving us ‘a provocatively playful reading of the Book of Ruth’. Indeed.

By contrast, in a 1998 Christianity Today article on literary approaches to the Bible, Leland Ryken wrote:

‘Literary criticism can follow other paths than this, but here we find in microcosm the current state of literary criticism of the Bible: iconoclastic and subversive of traditional interpretations, debunking of received views of biblical characters and events, preoccupied with sex and with the human element in the Bible to the relative neglect of the divine.’

Of course, we need to hear the challenge that comes from readings more subversive of the text than we have been used to…

Of course, we need to enquire what subtextual messages there may be about gender and sexuality…

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that the line that would lead to David and eventually the Messiah has been propagated by sexual subterfuge and less than completely honourable means…

But… sometimes a sheaf of grain is just a sheaf of grain.

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