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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 62, 2014

KRISTEN M. SAXEGAARD, Character Complexity in the Book of Ruth (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2/47; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Pp. ix + 240. Paperback. ISBN 9783161503856. €59.00 RRP.

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. 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 (narratology). 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. Otherwise, the reader gains information about characters through their words and actions, or through what the narrator or other characters may say about them. Saxegaard traces all of this in her in-depth analysis of 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” (for example, Ruth is named as a “Moabite woman” and as “daughter-in-law” many times before she is given her own proper name in the narrative). Saxegaard wisely 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.

The analysis of each character in the Book of Ruth is presented in Saxegaard’s work in a clear and consistent manner. At the end of each chapter she summarises the main ‘traits’ exhibited by each character, how they are named by themselves or other characters, and whether or not they can be called ‘fully-fledged’ characters or not. The three main characters, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, all fall somewhere along the spectrum of a ‘fully-fledged’ character. But the most intriguing part of Saxegaard’s work is her examination of the character of God in the narrative. She asks, Is God an absent character or a silent but involved character, and what theological implications might our answers to these questions reveal? Saxegaard concludes that God is a “type,” a silent character “watching in the shadows,” but one who is rarely if ever involved in acting in the plot (only once does YHWH act, and that is to make Ruth conceive a child, cf. Ruth 4:16). Most importantly, God acts through the characters, particularly through Ruth, who demonstrates chesed to Naomi and to Boaz. Saxegaard argues that chesed—God’s attribute—is predicated of characters more than it is of God in Ruth, and that this is how God silently acts. This implicit theme of God’s hiddeness also ties into the other key theme, that of Ruth’s foreigness. Saxegaard claims that it is subversive and shocking to see God’s chesed present in a Moabite, and that through this presentation the reader is asked: If you were shown chesed by an outsider, would you respond warmly, as Boaz did?

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?) 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 pronoun. Greater attention in the proof-reading process would have eliminated many of these errors which detract from the overall quality of the work.

Review by
Broken Bay Institute