Robert Alter’s “Ruth”

Robert Alter, Professor of both Hebrew and of Comparative Literature, has for some years been producing translations of, and brief commentaries on, the books of the Hebrew books of the Old Testament.  The books are each described as “a translation with commentary”.  The latest volume Strong as Death is Love came in the mail earlier in the week.  This morning I read his version of the book of Ruth.

What marks Alter’s translation out from many modern translations is that he sets out to give the English-speaking reader a sense of the Hebrew, and of the quite different language and thought-forms it involved.  It isn’t about making bits of the Bible immediately comprehensible to a 21st century reader coming to it for the first time (for which there is also a place), but about giving a vividness to the texts, some of which risk becoming dulled through over-familiarity.  Alter’s commentary is a series of notes on the text, mostly linguistic rather than directly theological in nature, but which again shed fresh light on old texts for modern readers.

Ruth is a marvellous story, written centuries after the time it was set, but evoking for readers a picture of God’s kingdom as it should be, through the trials and vicissitudes of life.  Famine, expatriation (to the land of the idol-worshipping Moabites), loss of property and death give way, through faithfulness –  that of Ruth and then of Boaz – to restoration, and abundance, and renewed joy in marriage and the promise of descendants.  An outsider makes Naomi’s God – Yahweh, or El Shaddai – her God, and in turn makes her and Boaz great grandparents of King David and, through David’s line, of Jesus, the one who foreshadows that final restoration when suffering, sickness, disease, and death will be no more and the kingdom of God will be established on earth as it is in heaven.

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