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Ruth and the Hermeneutics of Virtue


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Morling College, Australia


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In recent decades, a growing number of writers have argued for the claim that good interpretation requires not just skill but character; all else being equal, it is argued, virtuous people, whose interactions with the world are characterized by habits of attentiveness, charity, honesty, courage and humility, are most likely to understand and do justice to the texts they read. The book of Ruth offers a test case in the possibilities and limitations of virtue hermeneutics for biblical interpretation. Lurking just beneath the surface of the novella are a string of interpretive questions about how the commandments of the Torah are to be understood and applied, and about how the character of God is to shape the conduct of his people. Viewed from one angle, Boaz could be seen as the paradigm of the virtuous reader, a biblical parallel to Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. But Boaz is not the only reader of God and God’s purposes within the book of Ruth. At least as important to the action are Naomi and Ruth; their interpretations of the words and actions of God and the readings that are generated by their interactions with Boaz offer a challenge to the sufficiency of ‘virtue’ as a category for biblical hermeneutics.What emerges is a hermeneutic of חֶסֶד that presupposes an expansive vision of the kindness of God, and flourishes within a social matrix radically different from the small circle of wealthy, freeborn, virtuous men imagined by Aristotle as necessary to safeguard the flourishing of good character.


  • 6

     See Edward F. Campbell, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 7; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1975), pp. 3–10; Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther (NSBT 10; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), p. 37; John R. Wilch, Ruth (St Louis: Concordia, 2006), pp. 1–2.

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  • 9

     Webb, Five Festal Garments, p. 44.

  • 11

     See Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 276; Tod Linafelt and Timothy K. Beal, Ruth and Esther (Berit Olam; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), p. 25.

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  • 12

     See Lacocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, p. 71.

  • 15

     Webb, Five Festal Garments, pp. 42–43.

  • 19

     See Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 184.

  • 22

     See Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 193–94.

  • 24

     Webb, Five Festal Garments, p. 37.

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