The Best Essay I’ve Ever Read on the Book of Ruth

Peter Leithart, “When Gentile Meets Jew: A Christian Reading of Ruth and the Hebrew Scriptures,” Touchstone, May 2009, 20–24.

Some highlights:

Christological reading that integrates the detailed studies of Jewish scholars has the potential to address some of the complaints against the historical practice of typology. Taking cues from Luke 24​, typological interpretation has traditionally plundered the Old Testament for shadowy types of Jesus.

This is consistent with the New Testament’s Christological use of the Old: Jesus is the Seed of Abraham​, Melchizedek, Moses, David, the sage-king Solomon, Elisha, a prophet like Jeremiah, and, above all, the Last Adam. What traditional typology has often missed, however, is the complexity of these Old Testament types. Each type is itself a rich tapestry of antitypes.

Jesus is David, but David himself is Adam, Jacob, Moses, and Israel. According to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7), for example, David’s sons are sons of Yahweh; but Yahweh already has a son, Israel. Thus, David’s sons personify Israel, and a Davidic Christology is at the same time an Israel Christology.

To say that Jesus is the Son of David​ seems to give us only a skeletal royal Christology, but once we see that the figure of David is elaborated by overt or implicit typological links with earlier figures, we begin to put flesh on the bones. Jesus is not the “second Adam,” as if history skipped from Eden to Golgotha without anything intervening. Jesus is the Last Adam, the last of a series of increasingly complex Adam figures, and as such He embodies, and surpasses, them all.

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At first, Ruth seems unpromising territory for a Christian interpreter. Ruth herself is mentioned exactly once in the New Testament, on page 1, in the genealogy that begins Matthew’s Gospel (1:5). After that, she’s ignored. Boaz gets (slightly) more exposure, gaining a place in Luke’s genealogy as well as Matthew’s (3:32). Beyond that, there are no explicit references to Ruth, nor does the New Testament contain any obvious allusions to Ruth’s story.

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Moab is triply disqualified from association with Israel. Moab himself was the son of the incestuous daughter of Lot (Gen. 19); at Baal-Peor, Balaam unleashed the daughters of Moab into the camp of Israel to seduce Israelite men to fornication and idolatry, provoking Yahweh to bring down a plague that stopped only when Phinehas impaled a fornicating couple with his spear (Num. 25); and when Israel first passed through Moabite territory, the Moabites refused to offer bread and water (Num. 22:1–6; Deut. 23:4), but instead hired Balaam to spout imprecations.

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Ruth the Anti-Type

Her redemption of the Moabite reputation has a double twist. When she sneaks onto the threshing floor the night after the harvest festival to find Boaz—a man old enough to call her “my daughter” (Ruth 3:10)—she is every inch the Moabitess. Like Lot’s daughters, she appears to be approaching a wine-filled “father” seeking a son; like the Moabite women who seduced Israel, she seems to be preying on an unsuspecting Israelite man, and we almost expect a Phinehas to loom up, spear poised.

Yet this Moabitess has already pledged herself to the Israelite widow, and all her Moabitish actions are acts of hesed (cf. 3:10). She does want a son from Boaz, but she acts out of loyalty to Naomi. Unlike her Moabite forebears who refused to bring food to Israel, Ruth is an inexhaustible source of bread for Naomi. Every time she leaves the city, she returns with baskets full of grain (2:17–18; 3:15, 17). This Gentile woman fills the empty Naomi (2:18).

Ruth is the antitype of Lot’s daughters and of the Moabite women at Baal Peor— anti-type because she plays against type, fulfilling the earlier history of Moab by reversing it. In a more straightforward sense, she is an antitype of Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah who dressed herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law in order to gain a son for her dead husband (Gen. 38).

Both Tamar and Ruth dress up and seductively approach a father figure to get a son, and, as the mother of Perez and Zerah, Tamar is in the same Davidic genealogy as Ruth. Judah had other sons, but Perez and Zerah, sons of incest, are the ones that figure in all the royal genealogies, all the way to Jesus. Tamar is the savior of Judah’s seed, and so is Ruth.

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On Boaz “The Prototype”:

As he provides food for the hungry, and permanent land for Elimelech’s widow, he plays the part of Moses and Joshua. Reversing the inverted exodus at the beginning of Ruth, Boaz leads Ruth, and through her Naomi, out of the wasteland into a land of barley, wheat, and wine.

In this respect, Boaz also serves as a prototype of the future kings of Israel, who, according to Psalm 72, render justice to the poor and satisfy the needy. Boaz is Moses-shaped, and David, Solomon, and every faithful king of Judah is a Boaz. More fundamentally, Boaz is an Adam.

This is most striking in the threshing-floor scene in Ruth 3, when Boaz awakes from a deep sleep astonished to find a woman at his feet. He is an improved Adam, who feeds Ruth without seizing forbidden fruit, who protects his bride from want, who fathers the seed that produce the seed who will crush the serpent’s head.

Boaz is Adam, Moses, and Joshua. By conforming to the pattern of Boaz, David also becomes a composite of these types, and as Son of David, Jesus is all this and more. To say that Jesus is a greater Boaz doesn’t strike a note; it strikes a chord.

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The typological redemption of Ruth follows this pattern: Naomi, the Jewish widow, is bereft; the Gentile daughter Ruth joins her; Naomi gets a redeemer when Boaz attaches himself to Ruth. The pattern is not “salvation, then incorporation of Gentiles” but “incorporation of Gentiles, then salvation.”

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Leithart closes with this quote from de Lubac:

Scripture is like the world: “undecipherable in its fullness and in the multiplicity of its meanings.” [It is] a deep forest, with innumerable branches, “an infinite forest of meanings”: the more involved one gets in it, the more one discovers that it is impossible to explore it right to its end. It is a table arranged by Wisdom, laden with food, where the unfathomable divinity of the Savior is itself offered as nourishment to all. Treasure of the Holy Spirit, whose riches are as infinite as himself. True labyrinth. Deep heavens, unfathomable abyss. Vast sea, where there is endless voyaging “with all sails set.” Ocean of mystery.

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