More on motivation and characters in the Book of Ruth

I am just reading through an article by my friend Tod Linafelt (“Narrative and Poetic Art in the Book of Ruth,” Interpretation 64:2, 117-129 [2010]). It is a broad and useful reading of Ruth. You may recall from my earlier post I quoted Campbell who said,

It is inherent in biblical thought generally that a person’s actions and words offer a true picture of the person’s character. Hebrew stories do not have characters with hidden motives and concealed agendas, or if they do, the audience is explicitly told about it.

Todd argues something similar, but different (yet does not cite Campbell, is that part of the journal Interpretation‘s style? there are very few notes) that biblical characters motivations are only ever made clear through their actions or words (“As a rule, it is the actions and the dialogue of the characters that leads to the readers’ judgments about them, rather than explicit commentary or moral evaluation on the part of the narrator.” Page 118), but their inner thoughts are never made clear.

To my mind, one of the most important consequences of the convention in biblical narrative of rendering the inner lives of characters opaque is that it tends to leave open, in a literarily fruitful way, the question of character motivation. Page 121.

What I think is the really clever bit is that “literarily fruitful” means that we can play with the text quite freely, albeit in a somewhat restricted manner. We have room to ask, as I did earlier (and rejected our ability to answer with any certainty) why Boaz waited to reach out to Naomi and Ruth. We are free to speculate as to why Ruth went with Naomi back to Bethlehem in the first place. Could it be that Ruth was not being altruistic, but that she had a horrible home that she left when she married into Naomi’s family and that she knew that no matter how bad Bethlehem might be it could not be worse than returning to a family who had rejected her for marrying an Israelite? Tod is quite right, the possibilities are wide open and quite ripe for our creativity.

But just in case some readers have forgotten, my complaint about such approaches is that we often do not show restraint and have a tendency to argue with a certainty that my reading of Boaz’s motivations is the correct one. When in fact, in absence of any guidance from the text, it is impossible to say that there is a “correct” reading of the character’s motivation.

Tod goes on to explore the two passages in Ruth that he (rightly) views as poetry, Ruth 1:16-7 and 1:20-1. In poetry, unlike biblical prose, we find motivations revealed, he argues. See, for example, the expressions of inner feelings and convictions in the psalms and Song of Songs. It is for this reason, according to Tod, that the author uses poetry here since:

the author wants us to know that Ruth’s primary commitment and motivating factor for her actions is her allegiance to Naomi

Except I don’t see “motivation” being revealed in Ruth 1:16-7. This is Tod’s translation.

And Ruth said.
Do not press me to leave you,
to turn back from after you.
For wherever you go, I will go.
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God shall be my God;
wherever you die, I will die,
and there I will be buried.
Thus may the Lord do to me and more, if anything but death separates me from you.

In this passage Ruth reveals what she will do (go where Naomi goes, die where she dies, etc.) but she never says why she will stay with Naomi unto death. She confesses that she will remain with her (her “allegiance”) but she does not reveal anything about why she will do so. The argument is a bit circular then.

All in all, I think Tod is fully correct in his observations, both in general about prose and poetry in Ruth and our inability to discern and yet the necessity of considering the characters’ motivations. He is also certainly right in stating that the fact that only Ruth and Naomi both have these poetic utterances serve to highlight them as the primary figures in the story. Poor old Boaz is reduced to archaic and confused utterances at the threshing floor.


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