Ruth: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, by Robert D. Holmstedt. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010. 180 page paperback.
Robert D. Holmstedt teaches ancient Hebrew and other Northwest Semitic languages at the University of Toronto. In the past he has also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, and Wheaton College. This is his first print book, although the author plans to produce works on Esther and Ecclesiastes in the same series, according to his blog, ancienthebrewgrammar.wordpress.com.
With Robert Cook, Holmstedt has written two textbooks for beginners in ancient Hebrew, which are available online (one with sample pages, one in full .pdf). Holmstedt has also authored many journal articles and reviews. With Martin Abegg, he has produced for Accordance software the Holmstedt-Abegg Syntactic Database of Ancient Hebrew. In short, Holmstedt has expertise in biblical Hebrew grammar.
Let’s say you are going to preach a series on Ruth, or teach a series of Bible classes on Ruth. To translate the text, you would turn to lexicons such as Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and/or Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. You might also turn to grammars, where your first choices are probably the works by Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, Jouon-Muraoka, or Waltke-O’Conner.
You would probably turn to a popular commentary, such as those by Paul Kretzmann and The People’s Bible volume by John Lawrenz, or to an older scholarly commentary by Keil and Delitzsch or the recent scholarly commentary from Concordia by John Wilch, among others.
Why buy another work in that case? Let’s be practical. The Wilch volume, the new standard in our circles, lists for $49.99 and has 418 pages. If you are in a typical parish setting, is it really worthwhile to pay another $24.95 (Amazon price at time of this review) for a book that is likely you may not use often?
That depends on your time and interest. If your Hebrew is very rusty, Holmstedt’s handbook is not the book for you. It assumes a fairly strong knowledge of Hebrew. A better option for pastors who feel almost like they are starting over would be for you to pair up with a more skilled friend, or the brothers in your circuit, and work through Robert B. Chisholm’s A Workbook for Intermediate Hebrew: Grammar, Exegeis, and Commentary on Jonah and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006). The workbook is $16.78 on Amazon at the time of this review. It’s simpler than Holmstedt’s handbook, and explains more basics.
Back to Holmstedt. He has not written a standard commentary, but a grammatical handbook. The publisher explains, “Rather than devote space to the type of theological and exegetical comments found in most commentaries, this series instead focuses on the Hebrew text and its related issues, syntactic and otherwise. The volumes in the series serve as prequels to commentary proper, providing guides to understanding the linguistic characteristics of the texts from which the messages of the texts may then be derived.”
Holmstedt also feels he has more to say than the standard grammars, and wants to correct their shortcomings: “For syntax, semantics and pragmatics, the current reference works provide an inadequate description of both BH [biblical Hebrew] grammar properly speaking and the way that the grammar is manipulated for rhetorical effect.” Holmstedt explains his vantage, therefore, in pages 3–16, an approach which he says, “is based in my linguistics research and which goes well beyond what readers will find in reference works.”
Holmstedt also has two other prefatory sections. One covers the role of linguistic features in dating the book (pages 17–39). His conclusion that it was written in the “early Persian period” (39) is questionable, whereas Wilch concludes, “[I]t is likely that this book was written sometime in the latter half of David’s reign” (16). Lawrenz in his People’s Bible commentary concurs with Wilch for the earlier dating concluding that “the likely date for the composition of Ruth is immediately following the establishment of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem” (217).
Holmstedt’s other prefatory section examines the use of language to color the characters’ speech (pages 41–49). An example is in 2:7, where Holmstedt figures the grammar at the end is poor because the overseer is flustered (48).
Of particular interest for WELS readers may be the relatively unpopular reading John Lawrenz opts for in his People’s Bible commentary, as he comments on 4:5. There most translations are like the NIV, where Boaz tells the closer kinsman-redeemer, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite.” Lawrenz writes,
The Hebrew allows two ways of understanding what Boaz said. The key word is “acquire”. When Hebrew was first written, only consonants were used. Punctuation was added in the 8th century A.D. by Hebrew scholars (Masoretes) to prevent a loss of pronunciation. On rare occasions these scholars were convinced the consonants might be wrong. Out of respect for the text as it had been handed down to them, the Masoretes recopied the consonants without change, but put a note in the margin telling the read to read something else. “Acquire” is one of those words. The written text says, “I acquire.” The note in the margin suggests reading “you acquire” instead.
The sense of what is written in the margin, “you acquire,” is followed by the NIV, the KJV, and the ancient Greek translation. It suggests the near kinsman was obligated to marry Ruth as a condition of buying Naomi’s property. It assumes that a form of the levirate law applied in this case. (252–253)
Lawrenz goes on to give reasons for reading the K’thiv form (“I acquire”), rather than the Q’re form (“you acquire”).
Holmstedt concurs, on both linguistic and contextual grounds, on pages 190–192 of his handbook. He gives the interested student of biblical Hebrew good reasons to swim upstream here against most of the standard English translations and many commentaries.
A non-WELS author backing up a WELS author on a controversial point is not enough to make a book a must-buy, and for most pastors this handbook will not be. For those who want to learn how recent advances in the field of linguistics apply to biblical Hebrew and who want a thorough, up-to-date study of the wording of Ruth, however, this handbook will be uniquely valuable.
Interested in more details? Check out the following reviews: