November 29, 2020

Listening to the Story

Naomi & Her Daughters in Law, Chagall

By Chaplain Mike

Ordinary Time Bible Study
The Book of Ruth (3)

How Did I Miss That? Dept.
Inexplicably, when recommending commentaries on Ruth in an earlier post, I forgot to mention one of the finest: The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), by Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. It may actually be the best of the bunch, and it is certainly a good place to start in your study of the Book of Ruth.

The Story of Ruth
As we continue to introduce the Book of Ruth, it is important at some point to consider the fact that, at its heart, this is a story. Of course! you say, but we in this analytical, scientific age sometimes find it hard to disconnect all the dissection equipment and simply listen to stories. We feel we have to do more, and so we get out our pens and paper, check our Bible study software, do our Google searches for additional information, read commentaries and articles, listen to sermons, take classes, have our small group Bible studies, and analyze the story until it becomes lifeless notebook filler.

The writing down of stories has meant loss as well as gain. For we are not, by and large, good listeners anymore. Our imaginations have become stunted from disuse. We don’t delight in the sounds of words and relish skillful wordplay as our ancestors did. Good stories are like well written musical compositions; they “sing” to us. They transport us mentally, emotionally, and imaginatively into other worlds where the air smells clean and the colors are more vivid. We become intimate friends with some of the characters, and mortal enemies of others. We enter into the drama of their lives and it becomes part of us.

This can still happen through reading, but we are one step removed from the storyteller’s inflection, the dramatic pause, the catching of the breath and quickening pace of words during an action scene, the body language and eye’s twinkle that prompts anticipation.

In reading the Bible, however, we are often even more removed because we have been taught so many ways of approaching Scripture that run counter to good story-listening.

Ruth and Boaz Meet, Chagall

In Bible college and seminary I was taught analytical and inductive Bible study, and exegesis in the original languages. It was invaluable, particularly for parsing the forensic arguments of Paul in Romans and for breaking down the didactic and hortatory passages in the Epistles.

At one point in my academic career there was a movement toward exploring more narrative approaches to study and preaching, but this usually involved learning poetics. In other words, we learned literary criticism. We did not learn to tell or listen to or read stories.

Maybe it can’t be taught. Perhaps, like so many things in life, we learn only by being engaged in the activity.

This sets up a dilemma for me in this post. For I would like to write about the story of Ruth in a way that will grab you, delight you, and encourage you. However, at the end of the day, we can’t sit around a room together and listen to someone tell the story so as to bring out its depths. Writing a post on the internet has its limits.

So, I’m going to ask you to read it for yourself, or with your family, or with a group of friends. Read it aloud. Listen while someone else reads it aloud. Read it several times. Read it in different translations. Listen for the storyteller’s art.

For example, here are some things to listen for:

  • Listen for how this story sounds like one of the stories of Genesis, how it contains many of the same elements of those patriarchal stories, how it has some of the same dramatic elements and conflicts, how it in a sense continues those stories, how it even at times specifically points to those stories.
  • Listen for how this story develops. I’ll give you a clue here. The basic movement of the story is from emptiness to fullness. How does each character experience this movement? In what areas of life is the movement from emptiness to fullness experienced by them? What surprising twists and turns take place in the development of the story?
  • Listen for how God fits into this story. When is he mentioned? By whom? Do we “see” him act in this story? If so, how? If not, how do we know he is acting?
  • Listen for the actions and words of the human characters. Ancient stories were not as “psychoanalytical” as our modern tales. We don’t get a glimpse “inside” a character’s mind and emotions. We come to know them through their words and actions. Who are these people? What are they like? How do you picture them? How would you describe their moral and ethical qualities? How do they relate to one another?

When it comes to stories, we have to become good listeners. In addition, we must become like children, open to wonder, capable of “stepping through the Wardrobe” into other worlds of imagination and Joy. This final word, “Joy,” as C.S. Lewis used it, is indeed what I think the stories in the Bible are meant to evoke in us. “…it is that unsatisfied desire which is in itself more desirable than any other satisfaction….I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power, and pleasure often is.” (Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, p. 15f).

Listen to Ruth. Enter its story. Get to know its characters. Follow their path with them. Move from emptiness to fullness and celebrate the God of Joy.

Some want to focus on being clear about the historical nature of this and other Bible stories, and there is a place for that when doing research for other purposes and for practicing apologetics. However, God chose to communicate these events in story format, and it is just as essential that we take the form seriously. If we don’t we will not be good hearers of the Word.

Feel free to come back and comment throughout the week as you take time to listen to the Book of Ruth.

Prayer for the Week
God of all creation, who spoke the worlds into being, we praise the power of your Word. From the beginning you enfleshed that Word in human stories to which we can relate. And one day that Word became human flesh himself and lived among us, telling your stories and leading us to Joy. We thank you for hearts and minds and imaginations to hear the stories through which your Spirit speaks. Open our ears, Lord. Open our minds, our hearts, our spirits. Nourish us with the words of life. As food becomes life to our bodies, may your words give life to our souls. And most of all, may we be led to the Bread of Life, who alone can satisfy our eternal hunger. Amen.


  1. One bit of history that needs to be reviewed, to truly enjoy this story, is the position of Moabites in the Jewish world.
    It makes me think of the Good Samaritan to which Jesus introduced us . I try to read the stories of Ruth and Esther and Tamar as if I were reading it to a child.
    In fact, truth be known, I should read all the stories of the bible this way. It can support my childlike faith.