Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Naomi and Her Daughters

Publisher: Zondervan

Author: Walter Wangerin Jr.

Many Christian readers are already  familiar with the story of Naomi and Ruth. It's often touted as one of the most beautiful stories of friendship in the bible. The sad recounting of the Levite who gives over his wife to the sex crazed mob in the book of Judges to protect himself is also known to most readers although structurally these story lines are presented as unrelated in scripture. Wangerin weaves them together brilliantly in ‘Naomi and her Daughters’, providing a back story of events in Naomi's life that propel her and Ruth together on a journey to Bethlehem.

Throughout the novel, Wangerin uses an italicized typeface whenever he directly quotes the bible. This is helpful for the reader to discern Wangerin's beautiful fictionalized embellishments from what's been lifted out of the Word of God "as-is".

Fictionalized accounts of historical events prove justice to their story when they draw interest so severely that the reader is provoked to research the story further. Wangerin accomplishes this with ease and I repeatedly compared his account of the events of that time against what is recorded in Judges and Ruth, finding it to be accurate in essence. Wangerin forces his readers to consider these historic events from a new perspective, personalizing the characters in a way that leads us to identify with them; to care for them; to realize the similarities of character that persist in man throughout the span of generations and geography.

From the beginning, Naomi is presented as utterly practical and wise. In chapter three she tells her son (who is heading off to war against the tribe of Benjamin) that she won't cry for him but will consider him dead until she hears he has come through the battle alive. And when the civil war seems to be lost despite God's urging that the men aligned against Benjamin continue, she reflects on the matter-of-fact truth that at that point God had simply told his people to go up against the tribe of Benjamin in battle; he had not ever promised it was to be their fortune to win. Still, she is balanced in character with a nurturing love for others. After her return to Bethlehem with Ruth she sets in motion a resourceful plan to provide for Ruth's future and her family's legacy. She also tends to one who is extremely undeserving, showing grace and mercy.

Wangerin is able to illustrate how the people of God in that time are fixed in their resolve in a way that baffles modern mindsets. They stand beside their traditions to honor and protect male house guests even though innocents will be brutally sacrificed by the action. They stand by their fields to harvest even though they are consumed with worry for their men who have gone off to war (Chapter 5, pg 36). They stand by their oaths made before the Lord, even though they were made in angry haste and will bring great pain to themselves or thousands of others. In this way, parts of the novel that seem to be the most unbelievable are actually the most representative of the corresponding passages in Judges and Ruth. As if in response to our suspect disbelief in such foreign reasoning, Wangerin gives these words to Naomi in Chapter 42, where Naomi is expressing the importance of recording and recounting her stories and what could happen if they are discarded: "God will be lost. People will think that love is all - a kindly, grandfatherly love. They will build their idols along the lines of niceness. Mercy, compassion. Not death. Not the requirements of covenants."

Perhaps the most well written chapter is number 38, within which Wangerin places the reader right alongside Ruth as she steps out bravely to embrace her destiny. Her trembling fear as she completes a daring and irreversible act that places everything at risk; her joy in the risk rewarded - these feelings easily transfer onto the reader who cannot help but be moved by the raw emotions of the scene.

Overall a great novel that spurs the reader to not only open the bible for a rereading of the corresponding passages but also Wangerin's other published pieces.

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