AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 61, 2013
KRISTEN MOEN SAXEGAARD, Character Complexity in the Book of Ruth (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2/47; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Pp. ix + 240. Paperback. €59.00.
In this revised version of her doctoral dissertation awarded at MF Norwegian School of Theology in 2008, Saxegaard examines the characters in the book of Ruth through the lens of narrative criticism. In doing so, she challenges the standard position in the scholarship that Old Testament characters are monotypes or are one-dimensional and ‘flat.’ Saxegaard claims that scholarship on Ruth in particular tends to see the text as an idyllic and unproblematic story about two women in quest of a man to assist them in their widowed straits, with the character of Ruth presented as a faithful and self-effacing daughter-in-law, the character of Naomi as lamenting and bitter, and the character of Boaz as the elderly, heroic bachelor who comes to Ruth and Naomi’s aid. Saxegaard’s careful analysis of each character in this short narrative disrupts such assumptions: Ruth is in fact more complex and ambiguous, as a Moabite and a foreigner, Naomi (the protagonist of the story) turns out to be a ‘fully-fledged’ character with whom readers may identify, and so too does Boaz. Even God is characterised as a ‘silent’ character who acts through the words and deeds of the human characters. But Saxegaard’s most insightful contribution comes from the way in which she links her character analysis to the implicit and explicit themes running through the Book of Ruth. The two strongest themes are that of foreign identity and the apparent silence of God in the narrative. Saxegaard demonstrates that each character in the narrative brings a particular ‘voice’ to these themes, and moreover, that the ways in which the characters interact elaborates more subtle aspects of these themes than could be expressed by the voice of one character alone.
Saxegaard's methodology is well-grounded, both in the seminal works on narrative art in the Hebrew Bible and in modern literary-criticism. For all this, however, Saxegaard does not neglect historical-critical inquiry, and she gives adequate attention to matters such as dating and socio-cultural aspects influencing the text, such as the family structure. In analysing the characters in Ruth, Saxegaard largely follows the work of Adele Berlin [Poetics and Interpretation in Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983)], who posits that characters may be set upon a continuum, ranging from the more stereotypical ‘agent’ with little individuality, through to the more complex and multi-dimensional character who exhibits something almost approximating to a ‘personality.’ The more complex character will involve the reader in his or her ‘inner life’—another criteria Berlin expounds to determine the complexity of a character. Saxegaard analyses each character in Ruth, from the main players down to the ’cameo’ appearances and even the anonymous characters in the text. Adding to the work of theorists like Berlin, Saxegaard uses another method of reading the characters, which she aptly calls “namings”: these are descriptive terms that theorists categorise together as ‘direct characterisation.’ Saxegaard discusses these naming in the context of ‘popular etymology,’ drawing on a wealth of research about the significance of Hebrew names for what they tend to reveal about a character.
There are few things I would critique about the argument presented in this book or the methodologies employed. Most of these are not very consequential, such as the necessity of a more sustained discussion of biblical intertextuality or an engagement with recent sources (perhaps too recent for consideration) on this issue [see Yithak Berger, “Ruth and Inner-Biblical Allusion: The Case of 1 Samuel 25,” JBL 128 (2009) 253–72]. My main concern is her blurring of some central and distinct terminology found in the narratological literature, such as ‘implied reader,’ ‘ideal reader’ and ‘narratee.’ Other than this, the greatest drawback to this clearly written and excellent study is the sheer volume of typographical and grammatical errors. There is an error of this sort on almost every page, and often, several on a page. Saxegaard’s first language is not English, and she has particular trouble with selecting the correct English preposition. Greater attention in the proof-reading process would have eliminated many of these errors which detract from the overall quality of the work.
Charles Sturt University (Uniting Theological College)