Shakespeare might have written the Book of Ruth.
That's not a comment about the authorship of the Book, but to the category in which it falls. Ruth reads like a play, making it ideal for Small Group study. Each chapter acts like an Act. The Scenes and Acts begin and end and set up the next Scenes and Acts. The story unfolds, square by square, getting bigger all the time until the last fold reveals something shocking and beautiful.
I love Shakespeare. But Shakespeare wasn't Jewish (at least, as far as we know). He wrote epic stories, but there's a rhythm I love that he never quite captured. If only he were Jewish! The Book of Ruth, by an author whose name we don't know, is a Jewish literary masterpiece that has those rhythms. Over and over again throughout the story you find:
- Strategic word repetition
- Chiastic structure
- Significant usage of names
Strategic word repetition
The Biblical languages lack some of the techniques we find in modern English for placing emphasis on words or ideas. We have loads of punctuation at our disposal! We can use CAPS. You can probably think of a few more techniques (bold, bullets, etc...).
Writers writing in Hebrew and Greek used repetition to show that something was important. Paul says "in him" several dozen times through the Epistle to the Ephesians in order to show that the gospel is about our union to Christ. Psalm 119 repeats synonyms for God's word almost 200 times in order to communicate that, even though he has wandered from it, the author know that God's word is important. Ezekiel contains the phrase "Son of Man" over and over again, almost 100 times (if you figure out why, let me know).
This is why we so often ask "The Repetition Question" in our Small Group Bible Studies. If an ancient author repeats a word over and over again, you should take notice. That's just good observation.
And if that's good observation for the Bible Study portion of Small Group, it's also wildly helpful when attempting to care for the people in your Small Group. If a person keeps bringing something up, keeps joking about something, keeps apologizing for something, pay attention. Something's going on there. Maybe God's up to something there.
Chiastic literary structure is a wildly helpful way of crafting memorable prose for oral traditions (which is where much of the Bible started). It takes its name from the chi, a letter in the Greek alphabet that is shaped like an X. A chiastic structure could also be described ABCCBA or ABBA (mama mia!).
Think back to the Book of Daniel (at least the first 6 chapters) and you'll find a chiasmus. Trial (ch 1), Interpretation (ch 2), Worship (ch 3), Worship (ch 4), Interpretation (ch 5), Trial (ch 6). Dr. Miles van Pelt has actually posited a theory that the entire Bible is constructed as a Chiasmus.
The Bible was written to be memorable. This is often lost to our memory-lite culture, where we've replaced our dependence on memory for a dependence on technology (which will work out just fine until the robots rebel, but that's another blog post). As leaders and folks with influence in the Christian community, we want to help make the Bible memorable. People should be able to remember what we talked about in Small Group last week. Maybe using chiastic structures could be the way to go. What if we summarized the passages before and after we studied them? What if we linked our applications to our observations?
Significant usage of names
For many cultures, the meaning of names carried loads of weight. Bethel was "the house of God." Daniel was "God is my Judge." Kal-El was either "Star Child" or "voice of God." This can go for names of people and place and even things.
Etymology can prove a slippery slope. Just because a name sounds like something else doesn't mean that that's its origin, so we have to be careful here. But in the ancient world, people knew what names meant and used them to add deeper layers to their stories. The Book of Hosea is an excellent example of this and is the Ebenezer from 1 Samuel.
We recently named our son William Radford. His name means, literally, Protector of the Reedy Ford. The name has some meaning to us, of course, but not the same powerful and prophetic depth that characterized names in Scripture. It is a step up, though, from my name, which was selected because it would (and does) look good on a business card.
The Bible uses names to point people toward their destinies, toward the end of their story. We should think long and hard about how we use names in our community. What do we call people in our Small Groups? How do we describe ourselves?