Tessa Afshar. In the Field of Grace. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014. See here to buy the book.
In the Field of Grace is a novel that is based on the biblical Book of Ruth. Here are some of my thoughts about the novel.
A. In the novel, Ruth is not particularly valued by her Moabite family. She finds more of a home in the family of Naomi, an Israelite. This feature of the story had positive and negative repercussions, in my opinion. The positive side was that, because Ruth was marginalized within her own Moabite family, she later reached out to and mentored her grandson David, who himself was the youngest and was marginalized within his family. The negative side was that it somewhat dampened the power of Ruth leaving behind her family and homeland to go to Israel. After all, in Tessa Afshar’s telling, Ruth was not leaving behind that much: she was leaving behind a family that did not love her.
B. Boaz’s first wife in the novel, Judith, had a loyal pet dog named Melekh. There is a positive and a negative to this, and yet Tessa Afshar does deserve credit for attempting to deal with the negative. The positive is that the presence of the dog makes for moving scenes, especially for animal lovers like myself. The negative, of course, is that dogs were not highly regarded in ancient Israel. Search under “dog” or “dogs” on Blue Letter Bible or Bibleworks, and you will see that to be the case. Job 30:1 indicates that dogs could be used to watch the sheep, and yet, often in the Hebrew Bible, dogs are scavengers, or people are compared to dogs in a derogatory fashion. Afshar does put research into her books, so she is probably aware of this. As I look at the scenes about Melekh the dog a second time around (particularly on page 9), I notice that Afshar acknowledges that dogs were not really seen as pets in ancient Israel. This, in the story, was what made the bond between Judith and Melekh so unusual!
C. When Naomi and Ruth were still in Moab, Naomi was telling Ruth the story of Deborah the Israelite judge, and Ruth had never heard the story before. On the one hand, this scene was good because Ruth’s sick and neglected grandfather was listening to the story and asking questions about it, and that made for an endearing scene! On the other hand, the scene looked a bit unrealistic. Moab is right next to Israel. Would the Moabites have been completely unaware of the events that took place in Israel during the time of Deborah, events involving threatening powers? It’s possible, I suppose, but I have difficulty imagining that. That said, Afshar’s portrayal of the Moabites’ vague knowledge of Israelite Yahwism was a positive feature of the novel.
D. Ruth and Boaz are described as not being particularly good looking. This is typical of the books by Afshar that I have read thus far: readers can identify with the protagonists because they are somewhat marginalized, or they deal with low self-esteem, or they are vulnerable. At the same time, Boaz does find Ruth physically attractive, and Boaz is an eligible bachelor. Is this inconsistent with the portrayal of them as plain, or as awkward-looking? A little, perhaps. At the same time, Boaz was a wealthy man, and that could have made him an eligible bachelor. I should also note that, while romance is a salient factor in this novel, Afshar also discusses the significance of Levirate marriage, so the marriage between Ruth and Boaz is about much more than romance in this novel.
E. The novel did address the marginalization that Ruth would have experienced as a Moabite in ancient Israel. I think that the novel could have dwelt more on that, and that the Israelites’ acceptance of Ruth was a bit rushed in the novel. Stories about people gradually overcoming their prejudices can be powerful. At the same time, the direction that Afshar went did allow for moving aspects of the story: Ruth making friends among the Israelites and getting to the point where she truly saw them as her people. Afshar also did well to note the significance of Deuteronomy 23:3 to the story of Ruth. Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibits a Moabite from entering the congregation of the LORD. Yet, Ruth was a Moabite, and she not only intermarried into Israel but also was the ancestress of King David. David and Solomon wrestle with that question in the book’s epilogue.
F. The novel was encouraging in that it talked about God being with people in times of despair. The novel also had good passages about seeing value in the marginalized, and experiencing God’s powerful (yet loving) presence. The novel does more than fill in details about Ruth and Boaz, for there are characters in the story who are not in the biblical story (i.e., Dinah), plus scenes that are not in the biblical story. That made the novel interesting.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.