CHRISTIAN LITERATURE TODAY

Was blind, but now I see.


1 : 4 February 2002

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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

LOVE THAT IS UNSHAKEN -
FRANCINE RIVERS' RUTH

Francine Rivers. Unshaken. Ruth. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois. 2001.

Cover illustration of 'Ruth' by Vivienne Flesher, courtesy: Tyndale House Publishers

1. GREAT RISK - MOST BEAUTIFUL STORY IN ALL LITERATURE

One of the most beautiful stories in all literature is the story of Ruth. How could anyone make it more beautiful than it is already? Would anyone dare to even narrate it again hoping to succeed in her attempt to bring out at least the original effect? Would anyone be willing to risk one's reputation by trying to re-tell a great story that has been re-told a thousand times? Would anyone even think in these modern times that a story that simply glorifies the relationship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law would be appealing to her readers? Francine Rivers goes beyond all these considerations and takes a great risk to narrate this story about Ruth. And one would not do so unless there is conviction in her heart that the story has something hidden that needs to be revealed and relished.

2. A SHORT BOOK AND AN IDEAL SHORT STORY

One of the shortest books of the Bible, Ruth is also one of the only two books of the Bible named after women. The story of Ruth is a story that deliberately transcends all boundaries: ethnic, linguistic, self-interest, inter-personal limits, gender, etc. When we realize that Ruth is an ancestor of Jesus who transcends every boundary, we come to appreciate why this lineage is subtly but surely pointed out in the Bible.

3. STRUCTURE OF RUTH'S STORY

The Eerdman's Bible Dictionary describes the structure of the Book of Ruth thus:

The book of Ruth has generally been regarded as a perfect example of the Hebrew short story. Complex and elaborate in structure, the story is crafted in a beautiful, highly artistic fashion. The four scenes (corresponding to the four chapters) form a circular pattern in which the third and fourth return to the concerns of the second and first respectively, with variations of this design woven throughout each scene. Meaning is here inseparable from form, and the whole is a work of art. The remarkable literary artistry of the storyteller is evidenced throughout by the chiasm, repeated key words and motifs, ring construction or inclusion (such as the balancing of the family history at 1:1-5 against the genealogy at 4:18-22), analogies, allusions, and other literary devices" (pp. 895-896).

4. FRANCINE'S RUTH AND NAOMI

Francine Rivers recreates the story in modern idiom with values that transcend time.

The story begins with the hint that Mahlon, husband of Ruth, was "dying of a lingering illness that had come upon him months earlier." Ruth "grieved that there would never be children to carry on his name." Ruth's mother asked her, "Turn back to the gods of our people, Ruth. Leave that house of sorrow and come home." She was, however, unwilling to go back to idol worship, or leave her mother-in-law. Naomi thought "of the grief her sons had caused her." Their father Elimelech did not teach them the Hebrew customs. Now after their father's death, they even took Moabite women as their wives. The sons were also dead and gone. While Orpah was persuaded to go back to Moab, Ruth would not flinch from her determination to follow Naomi wherever she went. She declared, "Your God will be my God!" Now, "Naomi knew there was more than marriage to her son that had grafted this girl into her life and heart. And now she would pray that Ruth would be grafted in among her people as well."

5. JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM AND LIFE THEREIN

The journey from the Moabite land to Bethlehem is described in a single sentence of nine words (in English) in the Bible: "So they both went until they came to Bethlehem." But Francine fills the story with episodes that show the devotion Ruth has Naomi. The Bible says, "And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them " Francine develops conversations and incidents that really captures the "stirrings" for us.

"The difficult days of travel were over, but Ruth could see her mother-in-law's grief was deeper and more acute now " (p. 50). None would offer "so much as a loaf of bread or a sip of watered wine," because Naomi had brought with her a Moabite woman, a woman from an idol worshipping community amidst the worshippers of One True God. Ruth had to pluck out the coins that decorated her wedding headdress, and sell the two thin gold bracelets Mahlon gave to Ruth. Only water was free and abundant for them to drink and survive. But this loneliness helped Ruth and Naomi get closer to each other and Ruth to learn more about the Hebrew customs.

6. RUTH MEETS BOAZ

We re-live the experience of the beauty of the biblical narrative in Francine Rivers's writing in every page of the novella. The author superbly handles the initial meeting between Ruth and Boaz. "Her smile mad her quite beautiful. He felt an odd sensation in his chest as he looked into her dark eyes. Here now, what is this? He felt a twinge of embarrassment at his attraction, for he was more than twice her age" (p. 64). "He left her to her work, thinking as he walked away that young Mahlon had shown uncommon wisdom in choosing a girl like this one to be his wife. Not all foreign women were a curse on Hebrew men, drawing them away from the true God into lustful pagan worship. Some foreign women had been grafted in among God's chosen people because of their great faith. His mother, Rahab, had been such a woman" (p. 66).

7. YEARNING IN THE HEART OF BOAZ

Francine has the advantage of hindsight, and the help of the commentators to dramatically link Boaz with Rahab and use that significance to apply to Ruth. The thoughts that ran through the mind of Boaz on seeing the gleaner woman Ruth and on talking to her, ends with sigh: "A pity Ruth was so young, and he so old" (p. 66).

Even after all these years, he felt the pang of rejection. Hadn't he been turned away as a suitor because he was half Canaanite? There were those among God's people who thought the bloodline to Abraham was all that God counted as righteous, and faith a mere by-product of blood (p. 66).

Such thoughts are not explicit in the Bible, but this very anguish in Boaz got revealed when Ruth offered herself to him on that night:

You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich" (Ruth 3:10, NASB).

8. FRANCINE FINDS NICHES IN HIDDEN PLACES

There are several interesting incidents created by Francine to show how Boaz began to care for Ruth right from the beginning. And his interest in the gleaner became an interesting topic for conversation among the reapers!

9. THE SECRET OF NAOMI

Naomi recollected in her mind to her horror that she once rejected Boaz, because he had questionable blood despite his unquestioned virtue. Francine does not reveal it earlier in the thoughts of Boaz, but only in the agony that was caused in Naomi when she came to know that Boaz helped Ruth in the field. With this one revelation, a great suspenseful past of Naomi is revealed to us. We also rejoice how God had transformed her radically to love and care for her Moabite daughter-in-law and to accept the stranger as her own daughter. Her faith in One True God was not just limited to the observance of the Jewish customs and avoidance of the idols, but it is now shown to transcend the ethnic prejudice she had in her life.

10. DOUBT AND CLARITY - ABIDING LOVE

Here below is a powerful passage. This happens on the wedding night:

"When she drew off the embroidered overdress, he felt shock at the power of his desire. "We can wait, Ruth." "It is expected of us." (Ruth says.) Was it resignation or willing acceptance he heard in her voice? "We can wait," he said again. She glanced over her shoulder. Frowning slightly, she turned fully to look at him. She said nothing for a long moment, her doe-brown eyes searching his face. He wanted to hide himself from that perusal but did't. She blinked in surprise. She came to him then, each step across the room tightening the pain in his chest. He was more vulnerable than he had been when he had sought Naomi's hand, for he hadn't loved her as deeply as he loved this young woman. "It's not necessary to wait, my husband," she said softly. "I came to you without compulsion." "Naomi sent you." "I chose to obey. I hoped, but never dared believe, you would find me acceptable" (pp. 122-123).

12. A STORY OF CROSSING BOUNDARIES

A story of conversion, family loyalty, faith, and obedience becomes a superb story of love between two people. Both have been placed in somewhat disadvantaged positions because of social, economic, ethnic and age prejudices, but their love to one another comes from their love of God and His righteousness. The beauty of Francine's narrative is that it does not ignore the other fundamentals of the story. She does not focus only on the love between man and wife as an exclusive theme of the narrative. Although the novella is about Ruth, the story narrated is equally that of Naomi. This is how the book of Ruth deals with the subject, and Francine is faithful to the Word of God even in this. Her focus is on the transformation wrought in us by the love of God. Francine finds beautiful and relevant niches in the biblical narrative, like the coney or shephanim described in Psalms 104:18, and shares her understanding with us in a sweet and comforting language of hope and faith.

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REFERENCE

Myers, Allen C. (Revision Editor.) 1987. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

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