Is the Story of Ruth True?

Have you ever read the story of Ruth in the Bible?

It really is a good story, full of word-plays, ironies, twists, and turns.

It's got everyone thing you would want in a story: drama, decisions, death, and a damsel in distress.

And that's just the thing:
The story is so good that it makes you wonder if it's true.

It's not a new question. James Kugel, professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, said, "The story itself has a fablelike quality" (How To Read the Bible, 403).

Maybe it's that fablelike quality that got the book of Ruth placed in the Writings portion of the Hebrew Scriptures.

"Hebrew Scriptures" might be a new term for you, but it's a designation for what Christians also call the "Old Testament." The main difference between the "Hebrew Scriptures" and the "Old Testament" is the order in which the writings are placed.

In our Western English Bibles, the Old Testament is divided into 3 categories:
Historic (Genesis-Esther);
Poetic (Job-Song of Songs);
Prophetic (Isaiah-Malachi).

In that order, Ruth is included in the historical section, right after the book of Judges.

But Jewish people don't classify or organize their scriptures (our Old Testament) that way. They use 3 categories also, but they're different:
Instruction, or Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy);
Prophets, or Nevi'im (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi);
Writings, or Ketuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles).

The Hebrew Scriptures (also called "Tanakh," which comes from using the first letter of each of their categories - Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim - and adding vowel sounds) end with Chronicles, while the Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi. That creates a very different sense when you reach the end.

But it also raises the question:
Does it make any difference that Christians include Ruth in the "historical" category, while Jews include Ruth in the "writings" category?

Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew language at UC-Berkeley, says, "The Book of Ruth, ...is, because of its realistic psychology and its treatment of actual social institutions, a verisimilar historicized fiction" (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 34).

You might or might not agree with Dr. Alter, but he's a scholar on these matters and his opinion is worth noting.

It's not just Kugel and Alter who make the case that the story of Ruth is more like a short-story than a newspaper article. Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible, is trained as a Hebrew and Semitic Languages scholar. Here's how he translates the opening words of Ruth: "Once upon a time..."

So, is the story of Ruth really true?
If you're asking the literal-factual question (Did each of the events actually happen?), then I think you're asking the wrong question. Ruth isn't that type of literature. It would be like listening to Jesus tell the parable about the Prodigal Son, and then asking him if that was a true story (Did it really happen?).

Even if you couldn't go out and find the younger son walking around Jerusalem, it doesn't mean that the story isn't true. It's true on a different level than facts, figures, and data are true. It's not a literal-factual story; it's a historical-metaphorical story.

The same approach might be useful when reading the story of Ruth.

It matters if some events/stories in the Bible really happened (the call of Abraham, the exodus, the promise to David, the resurrection of Jesus, etc.). If those things didn't happen in actual time-space-history, then Christianity is on shaky ground. Historical accuracy, then, matters very much in those cases.

But the story told in the book of Ruth isn't like that. If it functions more like a parable than a historical report, it doesn't shake the foundations of our faith. Whether the actions of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz actually happened or not, they are still incredibly powerful and instructive for us today.


Related Posts:
Do You See What I See?
Some Discernment Required (Always)
Keeping It Together: How To Read the Bible

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