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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog


Many have argued that the Book of Ruth can be read as perhaps the earliest short story. In four short chapters, another "foreign woman" (like Hagar, Rahab, Jael, e.g.) becomes essential to the development of the people of Israel. The plot neatly encapsulates the transition from the period of the Judges, a time of lawlessness, to the founding of the kingdom of Israel in the Books of Samuel – and does so in a story about love and loyalty rather than war. Most importantly, this story illustrates a theme that scholar Jack Sasson articulates as, "common people achieving uncommon ends when they act unselfishly toward each other."

Note the literary qualities of this work. It is neatly divided into four scenes (which in this rare case correspond to the chapter divisions), enclosed within an opening and an epilogue - and the latter (4:18-22) points us to the story's importance to the future. Moreover, each scene ends with a summary linking to the next episode (1:22, 2:23, 3:18, 4:13-17). Two-thirds of the story is told in dialogue, lending an intimate quality to the narrative. And the intricate workings of the plot - in some sense, pre-figuring the "marriage plot" of 18th- and 19th-century English novels - bring together insights into both social and legal conventions of the time. The Book of Ruth bears close reading.  

The timing of this reading was not deliberate, but it is a fortunate coincidence. The Book of Ruth foreshadows the Christmas story in two powerful ways: most of it takes place in Bethlehem, and it is the story of the coming together of the great-grandparents of David, greatest king of ancient Israel and ancestor of Jesus. Thus Ruth leads quite directly to the babe in the manger.