Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
Summary: A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture.
The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is a favorite book of many. Ruth’s reply to Naomi who tries to send her back to her own people in Moab where she might have a future is among the most memorable of scripture:
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.
Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.
Your people will be my people and your God my God.
Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.
May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely,
if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:17-18, NIV)
Ruth’s care for her mother-in-law, and in turn the care of Boaz for Ruth, culminating in his willingness to act as kinsman-redeemer for her and Naomi, point to the “unceasing kindness” of this book’s title. From tragedy in the first chapter through these acts of kindness to the birth of a child, a forebear of King David, the story evokes every emotion. I personally think it one of the best short stories ever written.
This work does not add to the many good commentaries on Ruth. Instead, the authors seek to tease out the theological themes in Ruth with connections to the rest of scripture, making this a work of biblical theology. They begin with the theme of the “unceasing kindness” of Ruth, and how this might have been a counterpoint to post-exilic works like Ezra and Nehemiah that emphasized separation from idolatrous nations. Ruth is an outsider, a Moabitess, who by law should be excluded from Israel (along with her children to the tenth generation, which would include David). Yet she embraces Naomi’s God, the God of Israel, and acts with covenant faithfulness and kindness toward her mother-in-law. In turn, her kindness is recognized by Boaz, first with favor, then with redemption, underscoring that separation is only meant for those who follow other gods, not for those who embrace Yahweh. She even becomes part of Yahweh’s purpose to raise up a king, and David’s greater son.
Next, in chapters 3 to 5, the authors explore the different arrangements of the canon, pair Ruth with Judges, with Proverbs, and with the Psalms. The pairing with Judges shows God’s preparation for David’s kingship. With Proverbs, and following Proverbs 31, we see Ruth as the wise and excellent woman. With Psalms, we see a parallel to many Psalms in the movement from lament to praise, and the seeking of refuge under the wings of Yahweh (and in Ruth, Boaz).
The following chapters explore wider theological themes. Chapter 6 considers the meaning of famine, not only in Ruth, but more widely, exploring whether the choice of Elimelech and Naomi to migrate to Moab was a wise one. Chapter 7 explores the hiddenness of God in books like Ruth and Esther, and the interplay of providence and human responsibility. Chapter 8 develops the idea of redemption and whether Boaz can be considered a “type” of Christ, even though he is not named such in the New Testament. They suggest that he can, noting that he meets four key criteria: correspondence, historicity, intensification of the antitype, and theocentricity. Chapter 9 focuses on the mission of God, and how the inclusion of Ruth, and indeed her part in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations through Israel, makes a critical contribution to our theology of mission. The authors make a fascinating application in observing how in our age of travel, the world literally may be at our doorstep, in the present day migrations of people. Chapter 10 then summarizes their findings of the biblical theology of Ruth.
I found this work quite helpful. Although I’ve studied and taught Ruth on several occasions, I had not thought about the canonical connections and had only considered some of the theological themes explored here, particularly their discussion of separation and inclusion, famine, and mission. This biblical theological approach made me more keenly aware of the rich variety of teaching in scripture and it ability to address a variety of questions, including when to separate, and where to include.
This work, like others of the series is marked by accessibility to the non-specialist and conciseness. It elucidates, without belaboring, the rich palette of themes in Ruth that can help make the preaching of this book more than exegesis and commentary on a great story. It helps connect this great story with the yet greater story of all scripture, and how we might find ourselves in that story.