Nov 19, 2018

Names in the Book of Ruth

When I teach Ruth, I often note the significance and role that the names of the characters play in the narrative. While I obviously think that such an approach is valid, one needs to exercise a bit of caution as noted by James Schipper below.
Regarding the names of characters and geographic locations in the narrative, critical commentaries, including the present one, often provide information about possible etymologies of these names based on cognates in Hebrew or related Semitic languages. Nevertheless, there is no hard evidence that Ruth’s author was aware of the etymological origins or significance of the names that she or he used, especially if the etymology reflects an Ugaritic cognate and the author lived during the early Persian period, as I tentatively argue. For example, even if one were to explain the origins of Bethlehem as “house pf Laḥmu [a Canaanite deity]” on the basis of Ugaritic cognates known to contemporary scholars, one does know whether Ruth’s author was familiar with this cognate or other possible Ugaritic cognates that I discuss throughout the NOTES. One can be certain, however, that the author of Ruth knew the Hebrew words bêt (“house of”) and leḥem (“food”) since forms of these words occur throughout the book. One could translate Bethlehem as “house of food” (bêt leḥem) on the basis of popular rather than historical etymology. This creates a play on words in that there is a famine in the house of food (1:1; consult comments on 1:1–7a).
James L. Schipper, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible 24c (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 7.

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