Reviewed by Eric Nelson
Daniel Hawk’s Apollos Old Testament Commentary on Ruth is unlike most other commentaries. Whereas most of my commentaries never leave the shelf until I run into a question while reading their titular biblical book, over the past six months—even though I’m not leading a study or doing a sermon series on Ruth—I have returned to Hawk’s commentary time and again. It has been a helpful guide to thorny and personal theological issues.
As I stumble through life, I find myself asking, “How should I minister to someone who is in an irregular situation? How do I understand, account for, and show grace to someone whose identity is outside of Christ yet who is willing to enter into a pastoral dialogue with members of the Body?” So many of the questions and challenges that are the core to the ebb and flow of living a Gospel-centered life, are considered, teased out, and demonstrated in the Book of Ruth, and Hawk not only helps highlight them, he gives his readers a solid theological foundation to parse them out.
- Introduction (25 pages)
- Reading Ruth
- Ethnicity and identity
- Metaphor and narrative
- Ruth and Israel’s past
- The theology of Ruth
- Text and Commentary (about 25 pages for each chapter)
- [Hawk’s] Translation
- Notes on text
- Form and structure
- Commentaries (31 works)
- Other Works (292 articles and books)
Hawk’s work was fortunate enough to find the right commentary series. As you can see from the structure, a fifth of the commentary is an introduction where Hawk has room to introduce ideas and lay foundations. This gives readers a solid running start before entering into the technicalities of the text. His sections on ethnicity, identity, metaphor, and narrative are superb. Although his summary of the historical readings of Ruth is helpful, it’s when he focuses on identity that Hawk’s interpretation really shines.
In fact, the introduction not only proves an excellent survey, for anyone who has just a few minutes to prep for an overview class this section throws enough at you that some theme and context will inspire you and stick—giving you enough interesting context to facilitate significant discussions with.
A brief note on the introduction: So enthused about this portion of the book, I had a friend read it. My friend was just entering a faith community for the first time. He had studied history and has an intense interest on how our society talks about and understands personal identity, so I thought he’d find Hawk’s take on Ruth interesting and encouraging. Even though he had never read a biblical commentary (or even the Book of Ruth!), he noted how much Hawk’s writing reminded him of his work in literary theory. “I confess that I don’t know the Bible well enough yet to fully appreciate [Hawk’s introduction], but I appreciate what Hawk’s doing (providing a thoughtful, well-researched argument with present-day relevance).” How many commentaries are there where you can enthusiastically hand it to a pastor who has read Ruth hundreds of time and also be able to hand to someone one the edge of the Christian faith? Not many, and I can think of no higher compliment to Hawk’s work.
Logic is the dominant tool I use to understand biblical books. When studying epistles, gospels, the Torah, and books like Proverbs, propositions, arguments, causal reasoning are my go-to ways of engaging the text. These are helpful tools in understanding and learning from Ruth, but more than logic, empathy comes to the fore here. As Hawk unpacked Ruth’s identity as a Moabite immigrant, you start realizing how an upright Jewish leader like Boaz is put in.
Four pages into his commentary, Hawk points out that “Ruth the Moabite enters Israel’s social and geographical space, uninvited and probably unwanted.” Hawk’s research on identity helps the reader realize that Ruth is a story where the label Moabite becomes undone and in the process, not only is the family of God enlarged, a hopeless family member is given hope. I stopped and reflected on that line for a while. Who are the people who enter my church’s space whose identity keeps them from being integrated? Consequently, when dealing with the question of what to do with the recent Moabite immigrants, Deuteronomy 23:3-6 is law of the land, and it’s clear and unambiguous:
No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way…You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.
As modern readers of Ruth, it is too easy to forget that Boaz lived in a setting where there was no counter verse to Deuteronomy 23. There was no story of Jewish grace towards a Moabite that would give confidence that you are on God’s side while you appear to flaunting God’s law. If you lived in Boaz’s Bethlehem and took the Word seriously, trusting that covenantal love (ḥesed) was the surest way to faithfully justify functionally ignoring Deuteronomy 23 was not strong moral footing. If you wanted confidence, keep Moabites out of the community of the people of God. It’s harsh, but it’s what is clearly commanded in Deuteronomy.
This is where Hawk’s approach pays off. Through the way he structures his own text, Hawk constantly reminds us that Ruth is a book where the transformation is only understood if we read it on two levels, “with attention not only to the context of the story but also to the way the narrator configures it” (pg. 25). In other words, as Hawk brings us through the details of this story, unpacking, flushing out, sharing technical Hebrew concepts, all laying the groundwork so you can rightly identify with Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. So when ḥesed appears, you’ll be able to understand its power, grace, and (most importantly) how to embody it in your life.
Furthermore, Hawk expertly keeps things at the local level. For example, as you read through Ruth, you aren’t exploring immigration protocols from a distance. Things are described in family terms. From a distance, without the particulars, Boaz’s actions are clear. He should dismiss Ruth. At the family level, Boaz sees Ruth’s ḥesed and worthiness.
Like Don Henley reminds us, “Every form of refuge has its price,” and Hawk pays a price for doing an exceptional job unpacking the narrative as it unfolds. Most commentaries give me what I need to know about a verse, and all I need to do is simply turn to the page that highlights that verse. Hawk’s work doesn’t operate that way; Hawk pulls topics into focus. Unlike other commentaries where you can dive into a couple verses, glean what you need, and leave, Hawk’s Ruth is best to be read straight through. Fortunately, at a mere 125-pages, it’s not a big time commitment—and well worth the price.
Eric Nelson (MDiv, Luther Seminary) is an organizational design consultant at Northwestern Mutual and a leader at Racine Bible Church in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.
Buy the books
Ruth (Apollos Old Testament Commentary)