When the Story Isn’t the Story

Then he said to the closest relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech.  Ruth 4:3 NASB

Who has come back – Some time ago we looked at Ruth 1:22 (December 5, 2016). We discovered that the grammar is quite odd, adding a definite article in front of a verb. The translation suggests that Ruth is returning to Bethlehem with Naomi, but the grammar says something else. It says that Naomi is accompanied by “the returned.”   A subsequent verse added more information. That verse (1:27) used an incorrect pronoun, placing a masculine pronoun where the text required a feminine pronoun. We suddenly realized that the grammar was telling us a different story. Naomi considered Ruth an “it,” not a person, while the narrator pushed us to see that the story is not about Ruth but rather about the action of returning. We thought we had figured it out.

Now we come to the end of the story, or so we think. Once again we encounter the strange combination of a definite article with a verb, only this time the sentence is about Naomi, not Ruth. We are thrown off kilter. Without warning, we recognize that we have been reading a story without knowing what the story is about. We thought it was about Ruth, the Moabite who makes a covenant commitment to her mother-in-law, and whose demonstration of hesed overcomes generations of ethnic separation. We thought the story was about a woman whose exemplary sacrifice confronts us with our own bigotry. We thought the story was a “love conquers all” novelette. And now we realize we were wrong. Like other carefully crafted Hebrew stories, when we get to the end we suddenly realize that we have to read it all over again because we didn’t read the spaces between the lines. We discover that God’s hand, which is virtually absent in the text, is found in the spaces between the words, and we missed it because we were reading the words but not the story.

This grammatical oddity (hash-shavah) at the end of the story forces us to recall the same grammatical oddity at the beginning of the story, and when we do so, we see that the story is really about “the returned,” not about the characters in the plot or the circumstances of their lives. In other words, Ruth is a story about what returns, and what returns is Ruth to her destiny, Naomi to her God, Bethlehem to civility, Israel to social order and the creation to its Creator. Ruth prepares the way for the people of Israel, fallen from grace through the period of the Judges, to embrace the once and future king, to be ready for the monarchy and for the final expression of that monarchy in the reign of the Messiah. Ruth is about “the returned”—men to God and God to men. It is a cosmic story written in the pedestrian plot of two women and a kinsman redeemer.

Now, maybe, we have it figured out. We will see.

Topical Index: hash-shavah, the returned, shuv, Ruth 1:22, Ruth 4:3