A Literary Approach to Ruth and Esther

Tomorrow marks the end of our reading of the Old Testament as we approach the Books of both Ruth and Esther. While I will save a more general overview and reaction to many of the texts we have read and discussed for the extra credit assignment, I would first like to present (hopefully) relative questions and observations for the sake of discussion in our final regular class regarding these two books.

Names within the Book of Ruth are very symbolic and even reveal certain traits of each character. For instance, Orpah (literally “back of the neck”… and not Oprah) renders the meaning “back turner”, given to her because she turns her back on Naomi in an instant within the story. Two other examples are Mahlon and Chilion, whose names mean “Illness” and “Cessation” respectively. Brettler makes the argument that no parent would ever name their children this and therefore, not only was the book written in hindsight, it should be considered a book of literature. As Brettler points out, this literary method of writing alludes to the idea that this story should not be considered historically accurate word for word, and might consist of a more general and broad theme. Can this interpretation be applied to the majority of the Bible? As the literary-historical critic method of reading urges, this method of approaching the text is absolutely critical in understanding its meaning.

What other names throughout the Bible may have had similar significance? Unmistakably, the writers of these stories used such words and their meanings to convey such a symbolic meaning. For the sake of this investigation, the names of non-humans should probably be excluded. For example, Genesis is the English translation of the Hebrew word “Bereshith” which means “in the beginning”. While this is a very obvious example, other, more clever examples can be traced within the Old Testament. Job or “Iyyob” means “persecuted”. Ecclesiastes or “Kohleth” translates to “preacher”. And Amos renders “burden”. One can easily see the pattern present here. As is with Ruth, looking at the actual meaning of the word gives the reader much insight to the general themes and significance of the story. So then does this allow the reader to understand the story in a more “general” way? That is a more broad type of person, which teaches the lesson to a broad audience? The literary symbolism evidence here often points in that direction. In terms of literacy, this is one of the most interesting lessons learned while reading Ruth, as well as Brettler’s commentary on it.

While Esther is obviously similar to Ruth in many ways, including the central characters both being women, they have their differences as well. (One brief, although randomly pertinent interjection: Esther, comes from the Persian word “star”, which does, I feel, merit some sort of symbolic meaning throughout the text in which her story is told) One major difference between the two is the role of women in each of the stories. In Ruth, the role is much more positive and depicts a community in which women are considered socially equal to that of men. This is found in the instances where the women of the story recover and move on without the instructions or assistance from men. In Esther, the view and theme opposes this. While the success of the woman is prevalent among both, Esther must use her beauty and feminine characteristics to win the King over to ultimately get to where she is going. That is, to save the destruction of the Jews. However, this dependence on the male character differs from the independence found in Ruth. Another crucial difference between these the matriarchic books include the attitude towards foreigners, or non-Jews. The Book of Esther, while in a seemingly hard to understand and not strait to the point way, portrays non-Jews in a less than positive way.

Brettler goes into detailed comparison of the two, including an interesting hypothetical conversation at the end of his chapter. This was particularly neat to me, and definitely a new way of expressing two opinions of separate things. In the final lines of the chapter, Brettler raises a very important and tough question: How did the Bible come to be formed out of so many texts filled with conflicting viewpoints? This question will hopefully be saved for my final blog post, after reading the chapter devoted to the subject in Brettler’s book.

As the books are heavily reliant on female perspectives, and are the only accounts that do so, these books of writing stand out in a sense. Along the ideas of a matriarchy, what can be said in regard to these two texts? Olivia, whose research paper dealt with the matriarchs within the Torah and Pentateuch, investigated this topic in great detail, as it was the subject matter and focus of her research. So, in relation to this subject, I look forward to hearing anything from what would prove to be the classroom expert in the field.

So, in the end, maybe this is an opportune time to end our readings, since both books require the reader to tackle and consider the major task of the entire course: looking at the books of the Old Testament through a literary, critical method and the conclusion that come from such an investigation. While often times this might be frowned upon, that is, the non-literal reading of the scriptures. However, as I have found numerous times throughout the semester, and especially within the texts of Ruth and Esther, it clearly enriches the text and involves an entire new angle to peer into the depths of these works.

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About Ben Ward

Ben Ward is sophomore at the University of Kentucky, majoring in Architecture and minoring in English.
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