Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth: A Syntagmatic Reading

26 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2017

Date Written: August 8, 2016


This article addresses the methodological problems presented by the legal, literary and historical issues presented by the Book of Ruth. It argues for the primacy of a syntagmatic approach, dealing with the legal problems in the form and sequence in which they are presented in the text, and giving primacy to what the narrative itself appears to imply about legal practices rather than interpreting them in the light of other legal and narrative sources. But the text is a literary narrative, which requires us to ask such questions as what the audience is assumed to know, about both background facts and legal practices, and about the knowledge and assumptions of the different characters at each stage in the plot. Moreover, we should not assume a purely passive audience, for whom knowledge is either transparent or non-existent. Rather, we may use the model of a modern “whodunit”: the very interest of the audience is maintained by requiring active participation in working out what is really going on as the plot proceeds, and not least in focusing on the deliberate ambiguities (such as what happened on the threshing floor) with which the narrator presents us. The primary “whodunit” arises at the very beginning of chapter 1: what happened to Elimelekh’s land when the family moved to Moab, and is resolved only in the proceedings at the gate in chapter four.

Suggested Citation

Jackson, Bernard, Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth: A Syntagmatic Reading (August 8, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Bernard Jackson (Contact Author)

University of Manchester ( email )

No Address Available
United Kingdom

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