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Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives, by Jennifer L. Koosed. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament Series. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2011. 173 pp. $49.95.
This exciting book delivers far more than its title might suggest to the untutored reader. It is a work of biblical scholarship that displays close attention to textual nuance, careful historical reasoning, and a command of both traditional and contemporary commentaries. However, the way in which it accomplishes these conventional tasks is of as much interest as its exegetical findings. Koosed succeeds not only in producing a wonderfully textured portrait of the biblical Ruth, but also in reimagining the scholarly vocation.
Relationships structure the book, which has chapters devoted to Ruth and Orpah, Ruth and Naomi, Ruth and Boaz, and (Ruth) and Obed. Interspersed among these chapters are “agricultural interludes” exploring the book of Ruth’s most central and most overlooked relationship: the one between the characters and their food. Under the influence of Agnès Varda’s documentary film The Gleaners and I, Koosed describes her work as “gleaning.” She explains, “My task in this study is to take the source material—the Hebrew and Greek texts, the traditional commentaries, the modern monographs, the literary allusions, the peer-reviewed articles, the artistic representations, the [Jewish and Christian] liturgical practices—and arrange, edit, juxtapose. My method is eclectic as befits a gleaner, employing such criticisms as feminist, literary, postcolonial, and queer, and also availing myself of the full harvests of historical, archaeological, and sociological methods” (p. 10). Koosed’s eclecticism is anything but haphazard. Each source and method is carefully and thoughtfully engaged and skillfully and accessibly presented to the reader.
Eschewing both easy piety and cheap cynicism, Koosed highlights the ambiguity in the biblical portrayal of Ruth (and of God). This ambiguity lends credence to many of the divergent interpretations of Ruth and her story, such as whether and how Ruth loved Naomi and/or Boaz. It also suggests some unexplored aspects of Ruth’s character. For example, Koosed finds an element of tricksterism at work in Ruth’s enigmatic speeches. In general, Koosed presents an unflinching portrait of the difficult circumstances that Ruth had to negotiate, but also allows room for Ruth to have agency, raising the possibility that her disappearance from the end of the book may reflect an exercise of autonomy rather than an experience of victimization. Koosed compellingly challenges the assumption of most interpreters that the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis and the anti-Moabite law of Deuteronomy demonstrate the existence of an anti-Moabite attitude on the part of the Bethlehemites in the story and the book’s earliest “readers.” However, it was unclear to me why the historical argument about the relationship between Deuteronomy and Ruth led Koosed to question the status of Moabites in the community (p. 33), but not the existence of gleaning as a “right under the law” (p. 76).
Koosed does not make mention of contextual (or, better, contextually conscious) biblical scholarship. Nevertheless, her work is a welcome contribution to that conversation, particularly for its intellectually rigorous ways of utilizing experience. Mindful of the ways in which her experience shapes her encounter with the biblical Ruth, she shares that experience with the reader in ways that move beyond simple self-disclosure. The relationship between Koosed and Ruth underlies and enhances the exploration of all the other relationships. Koosed makes fruitful connections to her own experience of pregnancy, motherhood, and agricultural work, as well as her encounter with certain contemporary films and novels. Some of these films and novels belong to the category of Ruth’s afterlives, but Koosed does not limit her engagement of them to analysis of their use of the biblical text. Instead, she highlights the ways in which they help attune her to different possibilities within the book of Ruth itself. As she explains with reference to The Gleaners and I, “the interpreter is the nexus where the film is brought into dialogue with the Bible” (p. 8). By making visible the ways in which she is formed and informed as an intellectual studying the biblical Ruth, Koosed refuses both pseudo-objectivity and solipsism, instead inviting her readers to share in her journey of discovery.
In her acknowledgements, Koosed remarks, “I hope that this book is an ample demonstration that [Albright College’s] family-friendly policies help to create and sustain a community of scholars. Happy people simply teach better and write more” (p. xiii). Gleaning Ruth far exceeds this modest goal. It not only constitutes the distinguished work of a happy scholar, but also demonstrates that the richness of a scholar’s experience translates into the richness of her work. Whole people think more deeply and write more effectively, and yet such wholeness remains elusive for many academics, especially women and those involved in the woman-associated work of caring for young children. This book should be celebrated as the triumph of a new kind of academic work not predicated on isolation and detachment.
Amanda Beckenstein Mbuvi