Book Review: Ruth [NICOT]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and its utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

NICOT Ruth Peter Lau Review

Peter H. W. Lau serves as visiting scholar in Old Testament Studies at Seminari Theoloji Malaysia, and is the author (with Gregory Goswell) of a volume in the NSBT Series, ‘Unceasing Kindness: a Biblical Theology of Ruth‘, which has arguably well-prepared Lau to write this new volume for the New International Commentary on the Old Testament [NICOT]. Overall, this is in my view a gem of a commentary from Peter Lau. This new addition to the NICOT is a good example of a ‘Goldilocks zone’ book: enough depth for most uses, readable, canonical, calm and Christological. It is now, I think, my new first recommendation on Ruth (I’d also rate Dan Hawk’s AOTC – Lau has the benefit of being newer, Hawk’s is shorter!).

Lau follows – and this is not always the case, as per my review of Goldingay’s Lamentations commentary – the NICOT style carefully, and fills it out well. At xxxiii + 342 pages, it is long for a commentary on Ruth, but not so long that it is unwieldy. Of that 342, 60 pages are of introductory material, and 33 of end matter – so it is around 220 of the commentary proper, including the biblical text. Lau’s introduction is a particularly good example, again fitting into the ‘goldilocks zone’ category – with particular strengths in the canonical and biblical-theological commentary. He is thoughtfully conservative, I think, on the type of the book: “The book of Ruth should be interpreted as a historiographical document, crafted with literary artistry and weighted with ethical and theological implications” (p. 11), and it’s dating: “It is impossible to date the book of Ruth with absolute certainty due to the many variables and the required interpretation of the the available evidence. Nonetheless, an evaluation of the evidence marginally favors a monarchic date” (p. 19). A key aspect of the purpose of the book that Lau identifies is God’s providence: “the Ruth narrative’s literary links with the patriarchal narratives show that divine providence was working even before David’s immediate ancestors” (p. 25) – this is theological and canonical reading, a hallmark of this authors’ approach. Lau identifies five key theological messages, which he weaves throughout his commentary on the book; Names of God, God’s Providence, Human Action, The Cycle of Divine-Human Kindness, and God’s Blessing (p. 35-45).

For example, tying various things together, in commenting on 1:7-19a Lau notes that “Repeated, habitual acts of kindness are characteristic of God (e.g., Exod 34:6-7; Ps 136). ‘Kindness’ is a central theme in the Ruth narrative, appearing at crucial junctures (also 2:20; 3:10).” (p. 87). This is not to paint a monochromatic view of God, though, as Lau comments on Naomi that “In her understanding, Yahweh is the source of both weal and woe…” (p. 95). Noting Ruth’s own address of God as ‘Yahweh’ rather than ‘god’ (p. 105), Lau goes on to note that “true faith is manifest in a life consistent with the requirements of God’s covenant law, so the genuineness of Ruth’s faith will require the evidence of her subsequent actions” (p.105-6). The kind of faith presented in the book of Ruth is the kind of faith that can be pursued and articulated today – and Lau does a good job throughout of seeking to connect the text to the contemporary world, in a way that in my mind was more explicit and applied than some commentaries (including those in this series) that seem to throw as much scholarly ‘stuff’ up in the air and hope that the reader will find something to ‘stick’ with.

The complex relationship, identified in the theological themes in the introduction, between God’s providence and Human Action is well-established as being a key part of the book of Ruth. Lau observes that “we can understand Boaz’s generosity as reflecting God’s lavish provision. In other words, God’s reward to Ruth is being given through Boaz” (p. 162, commenting on 2:4-17). And this is fundamentally intertwined with the covenant-keeping people of God, “Naomi wants Ruth to enjoy these covenant blessings as an accepted member of God’s people” (p. 187). One poignant link to faith today is seen in Lau’s description of prayer: “Then, as now, prayer does not preclude action, or view from the other perspective, God’s will is often enacted through people” (p. 188). With all this in mind, I appreciated Lau’s treatment of the threshing floor scene (chapter 3). Often, innuendo and silence are expanded by contemporary preachers and even writers to say something that the text is not actually saying. Lau observes that “seduction is unlikely on textual and cultural grounds” (p. 193), in a firm and calm demolition of some readings of the text, whilst also being aware of dynamics of shame and more.

Two more cross-canonical observations stuck out to me in my reading of this commentary. First, Lau observes that literary structure in 3:6-15 offers us a “proverbial acrostic [that] fills in the picture of an excellent wife, and the placement of the book of Ruth after Proverbs in the Writings (in the Leningrad Codex) suggests that Ruth is an embodiment of this exemplary woman” (p. 211). I appreciated the authors blending together of understanding the underlying text, it’s location in the canon, and it’s relation to the specific story of Ruth. A strong example of a variety of disciplines informing this commentary. Second, in a way that I’d not clocked before but has now stuck with me (particularly as, at the time of writing, I am reading through Katharine Dell’s devotional commentary on Job), “The birth of a son to Naomi recalls the end of the book of Job. The connection is strengthened when we parallel Naomi’s initial loss and the wording of her accusation against ‘Shaddai’ (1:20-21) with Job’s initial loss and accusation. Just as Job was blessed again with children after maintaining his faith in God, so Naomi (and Ruth) is blessed with a son after ‘returning’ to their faith in God” (p. 293). This small section at the end of the commentary, nearly, is one that has sparked a new canonical connection of deep interest to this reader, at least.

Some words from close to the close of Lau’s commentary sum things up: “From a theological perspective, God’s quiet providence is revealed again: he has heard and answered another prayer” (p. 305). This is a commentary that carefully and respectfully reads the book of Ruth, and the author brings a range of tools to bear. I would strongly recommend this as both an example of solid evangelical commentary on Ruth, and also as a tool for pastors looking to go deeper into this book of the Bible.



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