Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

André LaCocque, Ruth (trans. K. C. Hanson; A Continental Commentary; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).  Pp. xix + 187.  Cloth, US$28.00, CAN$37.95.  ISBN 0-8006-9515-1.

André LaCocque’s work on Ruth follows on the heels of a previous version of the commentary in French (Le Livre de Ruth, Commentaire de l’Ancien Testament [Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2004]).  The present commentary however, is “not a slavish duplication” (p. xvii). 

LaCocque presents Ruth as a post-exilic novella; a subversive, “midrashic fiction” (p. 12) that brings a “generous comprehension of the Torah” (p. 135).  LaCocque views the narrative through social and legal lenses (p. 2), concluding that the novella critiques the exclusivist element (particularly priestly element [p. 135]) of post-exilic society.  Using a hermeneutic of ḥesed the author moves beyond legalistic Torah observance to the application of the true commandment (although one wonders how its application is measured).  In this way the Law is “no longer a means of control and power . . . but the instrument of peace, reconciliation, and equality” (p. 27).  For LaCocque, such a reading makes the book a canonical bridge to the generous and inclusive ministry of Jesus (pp. 101, 108, 154).

            Much of LaCocque’s reading of Ruth as a subversive document rests on his placement of its composition in the post-exilic period.  Throughout the commentary, he consistently mounts proofs (social, legal, linguistic, form-critical) for this late date, following up the main lines of his argument presented in the introduction.  He includes the genealogy as an intrinsic and original part of the narrative, a fictitious (p. 15) presentation of the glorious king—whose family history included a non-Israelite.  This genealogical fiction is offered to its post-exilic audience to urge the validity of interpreting the Law to include a foreigner into the people Israel.

In a lengthy introduction, he gives an overview of the whole narrative, comments on textual criticism, literary criticism, style, canonicity, date, social environment, and theology.  Following the introduction, he addresses each chapter in a new commentary chapter.  Each begins with several reference passages (pertinent canonical intertexts, and background social and legal texts).  Next, LaCocque has a general discussion of each chapter (most substantial for chapters 3 and 4; minimal for chapter 2).  These are wonderful exegetical interactions with the final form and narrative shape of the book of Ruth, unfolding it through a variety of means: social commentary, interaction with modern critical theories (particularly feminist), and theological commentary.  Following the general discussion, LaCocque works through each chapter scene-by-scene, reproducing the biblical text (NRSV), providing annotations primarily concerning textual witnesses, and concluding with discussion of each verse.

            Much could be said of LaCocque’s very readable work with respect to the intertextual connections he cites (particularly to Genesis 19 and 38), but it is his work in detailing the interpretation of the levirate and redemption laws which stands as the most explicative part of his work.  Here, he builds an argument that neither Naomi (due to her age) nor Ruth (due to her foreignness) is eligible for the application of the levirate law.  Consequently, without hope of issue, there could be no application of the redemption law.  Boaz subverts the Law’s strict application, transferring the claim a younger Naomi might make on the levirate law to the foreign, young woman Ruth, thus also enabling the activation of the law of redemption.  Given LaCocque’s reading of the Law as exclusive and non-applicable, one catches the sense of wonder and joy at the discovery of such ḥesedSurely, if written to a post-exilic, exclusionary audience, the book (at the very least) would chide their hardness of heart, and at the most, invite them into full participation with such a spirit of generosity. 

Not all will agree with LaCocque’s assessment of the non-applicability of the Laws in this particular instance.  Victor H. Matthews’ work, published contemporaneously (Judges & Ruth, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004]) assumes their applicability and stresses that the hospitality protocols of the day encouraged their application even to the foreigner.  A further question is raised by LaCocque’s insistence that Boaz’s generous interpretation of the Law must necessarily be generated in a post-exilic setting; one wonders if such an interpretation (subversive, even) could not have also arisen in a pre-exilic setting.

            Throughout, LaCocque footnotes his work extensively; of particular interest here is his awareness of the rabbinic traditions which bring fresh and helpful insights not often found in non-Jewish readings of the Hebrew Bible. 

This commentary is highly recommended, suitable for graduate students and scholars, pastors and interested lay people.  It provides careful interaction with both the biblical text and the original languages, but is also readable and theologically stimulating.

Lissa M. Wray Beal
Providence Theological Seminary