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Ruth in the Church Fathers
"Following the example of Ruth, we must always glean in the field of the Scriptures — ad investigandum et esponendum sancta Scripturae arcanum.... "1
With these words De Lubec synthesises the thought of Irimberto of Admont who, in the twelfth century saw this Old Testament heroine as a symbol of exegetical research. Evidently, we are at the end of a long process of reflection on a text and a personality who, for various reasons, attracted the attention of ancient Christian writers and the Fathers of the Church. If we wish to outline the history of this study it must be said that in the earliest times not much was written about Ruth and the text dedicated to her. From the earliest period down to Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian inclusive, there is only one citation from the Book of Ruth. This is in the works of Mefito of Sardis who, after having undertaken a careful research in the East,2 explained the number and the order of the books of the Old Testament. Without hesitation he placed Ruth after Judges and before the four Books of Kings.
Ruth and the Canon of the Scriptures:
Not a few of the Fathers were perplexed by the problem of the Canon of the sacred texts and the position of Ruth. For example, Origen, in the preface to his Commentary on Psalms 1-25. records that according to Jewish tradition there are twenty-two books in the Testament, as many as there are letters in the alphabet; in this case Judges and Ruth form a single book: Shophtim (Judges). Cyril of Jerusalem says the same in Homilia Catchetica IV,35. On the other hand Epiphanus testifies that the short text is a book in its own right, to be placed after the seventh (Judges) and before the ninth (Job), as established by the Jews after the return from the Babylonian captivity (Panarion 8:6:1- 4). If, according to Gregory of Nazianzen (Carmina 1,12), it is placed in the eight position between Judges and 1 and 11 Kings, Jerome on his part frequently returns to the subject, either to defend the traditional order of the Septuagint or to remark that Ruth belongs, from one point of view, to the prophetic writings (together with Judges) and from another to the hagiographia.3
In De Doctrine Cristiana 8:13 Augustine seems to accept the hypothesis that this little book constitutes the beginning of Kings. Summing up and simplifying the whole question, Isidore of Seville writes: "The text tells the story of the Moabitess from whose stock the family of David descended. The Jews add this small book onto Judges; the Latins, on the contrary, from the fact that it enumerates the genealogy of the king, born of Ruth, affirm. more reasonably, that it belongs to the body of Kings" (In Oros veteris ac novi testaments proemia, 26).
If the problem of the text and its position, nature and definition is of such interest° a truly qualitative leap is made when one begins to reflect on the person of Ruth and her life. Some illustrations which are taken from a wide selection follow:
Ruth: a Type of the Church
Like so many female figures in the Old Testament, Ruth is seen primarily as a type of the Church (typus Ecclesiae). Hippolytus of Rome examines the invitation given by Boaz to the woman to eat bread and dip the morsel in the wine (Ruth 2:14) and, her appetite satisfied, to drink of the water drawn by the young reapers (Ruth 2:9). He concluded that this passage must be read as referring to baptism given in the Church by the Apostles, with whom the reapers are to be identified. Together with the prophets they draw water from the everlasting fount of immortality. Once grace has been received from Christ they are able to slake the thirst of those who are spiritually parched.5
Origen also specified that Ruth symbolises the Church. The woman is typus gentium, (a type of the gentiles), representing pagans who are converted to the Christian Faith. The Moabite became a member of the community of the Lord, having abandoned all that belonged to her ancestors: for this reason she can be seen as the figure of the Church of the gentiles who, despising idols and sacrifices, turn zealously to the religion of Christ. The fact that she was able to surmount the prohibitions of the Scriptures against the Ammonites and the people of her race and enter into communion with Israel, is explained by the Alexandrian with reference to Tim. 1:19. According to this text " The law is not laid down for the just, but for the lawless and disobedient...."
Ruth is thus the virtuous woman who is able to overcome the sanctions of Deuteronomy 23:4. She is even considered to be a model because of her attachment to the Israelite woman Naomi, with whom she vows to stay until death. It is precisely this absolute fidelity to her new people and her new God that is proposed for imitation by converts who are called above all to persevere.6
Ruth in the Genealogy of Jesus
Nevertheless the question most frequently referred to by the early exegetes is the presence of Ruth in the genealogy of Christ (cf. Mt. 1:5) among other women who are foreigners, sinners or negative signs and are very different from the saintly Rachel, Rebecca, Sarah. Origen and Eusebius reflect on this at length. The former, in Horn XXVIII in Lucam, looks at the differences in the "genealogical trees" traced by the two evangelists and arrives at the conclusion that Tamar, Ruth or Rahab are inserted in the text to stress the fact that the Lord and Saviour came on earth to take upon himself the sins of the whole human race; he therefore, wished to be born of a stock which openly numbered foreigners and sinners in its ancestry. Origen solved the problem on a Christological level; Eusebius of Caesarea. who asked himself the same question in Quaestiones Evangelicae X. gave an ecclesiological-type answer. If the call in the Spirit of the gentile peoples was to come about through the gospel, nothing is more natural that to recall Ruth, the foreigner. By her love for God, the woman overcame the limits imposed by the Law and by nobility of behaviour was considered worthy to figure in the genealogy of the Lord, as an example to "all of us who came from diverse stock". "If we bear ourselves in the same way as she did we will obtain the same grace from God". To abandon the customs of her people, as Ruth did, can only bring about good "We will no longer be numbered among the strangers, nor be called such but we will form part of the true Israel and people who are the heritage of God." According to Eusebius, the Moabitess became a foundress of the house of Israel in the same way as Rachel and Leah. The marriage blessing itself, with its reference to Ephrata and Bethlehem, is a clear prophecy of the birth of Christ, whose name will be diffused among all peoples. These latter, like Ruth, once they come to know it, should abandon their traditional rites to give themselves to the true faith.
A Developing Interpretation 7
According to the exegetical process proper to the Fathers, every new reading of a text added further stones to the mosaic, which continued to grow. The phenomenon of stratification is evident in Ambrose who, in the third volume of his Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, Chs. 17-36, whilst leaning heavily on an Eusebian line of thought and making many references to Origen, proceeds with remarkable originality. The women of "bad repute" in the genealogy are not really negative signs but rather the fruit of the imperfect morality of the Old Testament, to be re-read in the light of the New. The typological dimension they have assumed is the primary justification for their presence. The daughter-in-law of Naomi is a special case, probably inspiring Paul's affirmation in Tim. 1:9. The Apostle foresaw that the call of the gentiles would become frequent thanks to the Gospel. The Moabite is a preview of ourselves who are gathered from the nations to enter the Chruch. She is also a model of behaviour for every Christian.
On the background of this traditional canvas, the Ambrosian study develops the virtues of Ruth. Boaz in fact took her to wife not only to obey the law of Moses, but primarily because he had recognised her virtues: devotion to her mother-in-law, fidelity to her dead husband, veneration for God, a search for justice before her own pleasure, as is evident in the fact that she did not turn to young men in her widowhood but to an old man, symbol of perfection. The typological mystery grows with the addition of other details: the nearest relation, who refused to marry her and took off his sandal, is a figure of Moses, or Joshua, or the "dead people" of Israel, who draw back from the face of the true bridegroom, from the image of Christ and those who proclaim the gospel. The significance of the story of the Moabitess is drawn out by starting from these comparisons. Similarly the text for the blessing of couples acquires a particular significance; this is found, among other places, in the liturgy for Christian marriage according to the Sacramentario Gelasiano. Matthew, who calls the nations to the Church through his gospel, justly records that the founder of this assembly of the nations is himself descended, according to the flesh, from foreigners. According to Ambrose this is not without significance, because all must follow Christ, whatever their origins, "abandoning all that comes from our fathers and responding to the one who invites us to honour the Lord..." "Your people shall be my people and your God my God". Thus the believer and Ruth are identified as one and the blessing of the fathers becomes a prophecy of the birth of the Saviour.
The Bishop of Milan had already expressed his ideas in a previous work, the De Fide, taking as his starting point the reading intertwined with two affirmations put into the mouth of the Baptist in the gospel of John: "After me comes a man who ranks before me" and "He who comes after me, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry". Evidently the text of Ruth seemed an extremely useful point of reference to explain the mystical significance of the sandal. "The story is simple but the mystery is profound: one thing is fulfilled, another is prefigured". The entire passage about the marriage which could not simply have a literal meaning is taken in its entirety by Ambrose in a Christological sense, in relation to the one who would come from the Jewish people and who would raise up the seed of the dead people of Israel. Looked at in this way, Boaz is Christ the bridegroom, Ruth is the bride, the Church, at first poor and hungry, then rich with the harvest of the Lord. The typological "fan" unfurls to include the identification of Naomi with the Synagogue (De Fide 111:10.64-74).
By this time the fundamental lines of the Christian interpretation of the short biblical text dedicated to the Moabitess are clearly set out and so they remain, with only a few variations in the works of other important writers such as Theodoret of Cyrus and Augustine. Christology and Ecclesiology are the two points of reference.
Some "Eccentric" Interpretations
It only remains to point out some "anomalies" with respect to the examples noted so far. The first is linked with the name of Paulinus of Nola (Carme XXVII vv.529- 541). According to the poet, what is recorded in these pages of Scripture "appears to be a short story, while in reality it shows the mystery of a great struggle: how two women coming from the same stock behave in two completely different ways. Ruth follows the saintly mother while Orpha in tact abandons her; One daughter-in-law shows herself faithful; the other on the contrary is unfaithful; the first prefers God to her own country, the other prefers her country to life". The events symbolise the choice between good and evil which inevitably marks every human existence, and the opposition between those who take their stand on the side of God and those who are in fact ruined by the world. "Would to God" adds Paulinus "that there was an equilibrium between death and salvation". The "broad road" seduces many and it is easier to lose oneself than to reach safety.
The second reference is at the end of Jerome's Epitophium Paulae (Ch.31 ), in a context of careful rhetoric, rich in biblical quotations. The author turns to Eustochia, the daughter of a deceased parent, to reassure her about the immortal destiny of the woman, undoubtedly received into heaven on account of her merits. He writes: "With Abraham, your mother has heard the words 'Go from your country and your kindred... to the land that I will show you' (Gen 12:1) and , through the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord commanded her 'flee from the midst of Babylon, let everyman save his life' (Jer. 51:6); to the day of her death she refused to return to Chaldea or hanker after the fleshpots of Egypt (Ex. 16:3), but accompanied by choirs of angels she has been made a fellow-citizen with the saints (Eph. 2:19). Ascending to the heavenly kingdom from little Bethlehem, she says to the true Naomi 'Your people shall be my people and your God my God' (Ruth 1:16)."
The passage must be understood as a recapitulation of Paula's entire life; she left her family and her city, Rome, symbol of power and corruption as were Chaldea and Egypt in the biblical context, to dedicate herself to the ascetic life in the Holy Land. Coming as a foreigner to Bethlehem, the saint is identified with the foreigner, Ruth, who accompanied her mother-in-law when she returned from exile to the Judean city. Nevertheless, Jerome speaks of the 'true Naomi'. At the moment of her death Paula, ascending to heaven, turns to the Church, which she accompanies in her return to her country, in the East. In this case, therefore, the change with respect to the traditional reading is very significant. Aperson like Paula, used as a paradigm, proposed by Jerome as a model for other women, is identified with Ruth, while Naomi is no longer the Synagogue, but the community of Christians.
All this confirms the diversity of views which characterises ancient exegesis. An element or a personage may indicate one reality or its exact opposite. It also reveals the great capacity of the Fathers for interpretation, even when confronted by a biblical text absolutely void of epic or poetic resonances and apparently merely a simple family story.
Elena Giannarelli is a Research Scholar in Christian literature in the Department of Classics of the University of Florence. She has published La °pologra temminile nella autobiographia cristiana del IV secolo, Roma 1980; &Gregorio di Nissa, La vita di Santa Macrina, Milano 1988, as well as various articles.
1. cf . H.De Lubec: Exegése medieyale, vol. 1, Pads 1959, p. 62.
2. cf. Melito Sard., "Eclogae", in Eus. Gees., Hist Ecd. IV 2814.
3. On this proposition cf. Jerome's Prologue to Book of Samuel and Books of Kings in Biblia sacra iuxta Vulgatum Editionem, ed R. Weber, vol. 2, pp. 364-366, Stuttgart 1969.
4. cf. AA W. Le Canon de lAnden Testament Sa Formation et son Histoire, ed. J-D Kaestli and 0. Wermelinger, Geneva 1984.
5. cf. Hipp. Rom., In Ruth in Hyppolyt's Meiners Exegetische and Honiedsche Schriften, trans. H. Achelis, p. 120, Gottingen 1987
6. The ideas I have summarised here are expressed by Origen in various texts and fragments, cf. Fragmenta e catenis in Ruth, PG 12 989D; Fraymenta e catenis in Mattheum, ed. Klostermann-Benz, GCS 41, 1, fr. 6,7.
7. Editor's note: Readers are referred to SIDIC, vol. XXI (No.3)1988 for an understanding of the exegesis of the Church Fathers.