I just came across a recording of a presentation I made on Mission in the Power of the Trinity from way back in 2008. I made the presentation for a group of Swedish and Estonian youth collaborating on a mission outreach in North Eastern Estonia. Interesting to hear this after having made most of my presentations since then in Estonian. There’s definitely a difference in presentation style. Also neat to go back to the source of passion for a lot of what I’m working on now on the . Give it a listen and engage! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Until now, I have spent most of my time setting the scene and – I hope – dramatizing the tensions that are written between the lines of Ruth’s story. But the real magic of the story is not encoded in the setting or the narrative or even the social positions and potentials of the various characters but rather in the dialogue that takes place between them.
But here we come up against a modern disability that might keep us literates from the wisdom of the Bible’s master storytellers. Our disability is that we often read the Bible for action watching events unfold, judging them on moral grounds and attributing them to divine or human actors. But Old Testament narrative depends much more heavily on speech and dialogue than on narrated action to convey meaning.
In his insightful book The Art of Biblical Narrative Robert Alter explains, “The biblical writers … are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.”
Our principle goal in this study is to reveal patterns of behavior which the main characters have adopted that might contribute to Ruth’s successful integration into the Bethlehem community and the consequent restoration of Boaz’ family line. As we will see, the terseness and structured nature of Hebrew dialogue reveals these patterns quite clearly under the lens of Social Network Analysis. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Hebrew storytellers and listeners were much more attuned to these nuances and didn’t need our sophisticated studies to tell them twice what the text had already so elegantly displayed.
But if like me, the patterns are not immediately clear to you, maybe you’ll join me in taking one final look at the story under the SNA lens. Let’s start by laying out our diagram slightly differently to emphasize relationships rather than social groupings and positions. Additionally, since we are looking for relational patterns we will take Alter’s advice and filter out ties describing Elimelech’s family, Boaz’ geneology and all narrative connections which simply place two or more characters on the stage ready for dialogue. What remains is a graph showing speech acts, mentions of third parties and favors, all of which could be described as interactions with intent.
Now look at the arrows associated with our three main characters: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi. What do you notice?
Mutuality oxygenates the network
As we have mentioned before in regards to Boaz, he controls the vast majority of interaction in the story compared to other characters. He is clearly the dominant figure with whom all in this narrative circle must contend. But how does he employ this influence? It is striking that almost all of his connections are mutual. That could potentially be explained by a command/obedience interaction but in actually fact, Boaz is far more cordial than directive and behaves this way with people of all social stations. For example, when he first arrives on the scene he greets his laborers in the field with a blessing to which they wholeheartedly respond in kind. Furthermore, whenever Boaz requests information, he seems to be invested in the responses and to implicitly trust the person he addresses. When he does give directives, he has a way of preserving the dignity of those he is directing.
A similar tendency toward mutuality can be seen in Naomi who treats Orpah and Ruth like her own daughters at the beginning of the story and entrusts her grandson Obed to the care of the townswomen at the story’s conclusion. Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality invites trust from the community and creates an atmosphere of both intimacy and openness. Perhaps in response to this, Ruth recognizes their openness and responds in kind. These characters’ combined orientation toward mutuality has the effect of oxygenating the community network and allowing developments that might otherwise be restricted.
“The friend of a friend is my friend” goes the saying. In Social Network Analysis, this is called transitivity. The idea is that when a two unrelated people share a common friend, they are far more likely to connect themselves. One of the fascinating patterns to notice in Ruth’s network is the way that complete triangles are formed strategically so that Ruth is eventually secure in her relationship with Boaz but also embedded in the social structure of Bethlehem. I like to call this pattern “network midwifery” because the common friend (most notably Naomi) intentionally fosters independant links between Ruth and pivotal people in the community and then allows Ruth to own these relationships without any interference. It is an incredibly generous act which beautifully returns to Naomi in the form of the townswomen’s blessing when she entrusts her newborn grandson Obed to their care. Of all the transitive triangles formed in the story, the connection between Naomi, Boaz and Ruth is of course the most important and Naomi demonstrates her skill in negotiating this connection in a series of moves over multiple scenes.
Boaz employs another set of approaches to closing relational triangles. The first example we see does not actually appear in our analysis because the final connection is implied rather than stated. When Boaz learns of Ruth’s work ethic from his foreman and then later from the reapers, he legitimates her activity in the fields by involving them in securing her provision.
Another tactic Boaz employs both explicitly and often is the mention of third parties. In his initial conversation with Ruth and then again on the threshing floor Boaz mentions his awareness that the town has spoken well of Ruth. The first time he does this it has the effect of paying a compliment but also engendering the townsfolk to Ruth. He is effectively paving the way for Ruth to begin to trust her new community by offering her their praise second hand. In the second instance, it is possible that Boaz is offering a gently veiled warning that he intends for their relationship to meet and exceed community standards of propriety. But again, he strengthens Ruth’s connection with the community by including them in his and Ruth’s moral decision making process. Boaz may not be much of a ladies man, but I envy his maturity and poise.
Later, in his conversation with the elders, Boaz exhibits similar maturity and community awareness by connecting himself to Ruth only in reference to her relationship with Elimelech, Naomi and their sons. Elimelech and Mahlon are no longer concerned with Ruth’s marital state since both are in the process of composting under Moabite soil. But by making mention of them in the presence of the elders, he dignifies these men and their line, allies himself with their purposes and creates an implicit relationship between the elders and Ruth by transferring her marital status from “widow of the dead son of Elimelech” to “under the care of Boaz”. The language may sound cumbersome, legal and antiquated for our modern ears, but with each connection, Boaz is weaving a web of supportive relationships that will identify Ruth not only as his bride but also as a member of the community in her own right.
Responsiveness and Network Intelligence
In all of this, Ruth is powerless (or rather status-less) but neither inattentive nor passive. As we have noted, she seems to recognize Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality and responds in kind, often boldly. She suggests to Naomi that she go out into the fields to glean and doesn’t hesitate to follow Naomi’s directions on the threshing floor. We can also see that Ruth seems to pick up on the cues she is given and directs her efforts towards those who are most likely to facilitate her integration into the community. She doesn’t engage the town, or the townswomen. She doesn’t appeal to the elders. And significantly, she doesn’t endear herself to one of the young men alongside whom she is harvesting. Whether by virtue of his position, his social intelligence or a combination of the two, Ruth focuses her efforts on Boaz under Naomi’s tutelage.
The result of all this socio-cultural waltzing is of course the birth of Obed and so also the promise of Boaz’ continued line. But it is powerfully significant that the final narrative scene displays Ruth firmly in place alongside Boaz and Naomi restored to social status in the community as the townswomen coo and coddle Ruth’s infant son.
The book of Ruth is a story of mutuality, generosity and responsiveness: a masterful choreography precisely executed and resolving in communal embrace. Doesn’t it make you want to dance?
Ruth’s narrative act by act
(Click on any thumbnail for a full screen slideshow of the entire act)
Elimelech’s family line crumbles
Ruth goes gleaning in Boaz field
Ruth and Boaz’ courtship
Boaz consults redeemer and marries Ruth
Ruth gives birth to Obed
Boaz’ family line restored
Entire narrative sequence
“Power and Influence”
My interest in Ruth’s story arises not only from its obvious parallels to our own time, but also from the fact that it revolves around simple relationship strategies that allowed a few people to enjoy a relatively small social success that contributed directly to the rise of a great nation. In the modern era I fear that we have relegated social or spiritual change to great men who exert great power through great events. Many of us common folk may be asking ourselves: What do my daily actions and relationships have to do with God’s great purposes in the world? What can I possibly contribute to the big picture from way down here in the trenches?
Ruth’s answer to that question will involve demonstrating positions of influence that function alongside social power structures and illustrating relational patterns that make effective use that influence. What does all that mean? It means that no matter who you are or how much power you hold, you can make deliberate daily choices that will significantly change the way your community functions. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty encouraging to me.
What’s the problem?
Before we look at the alternate sources of influence in this story, let’s take a moment to clarify the problem that needs to be solved. As we saw in the previous post, this story is book ended by the failure or potential failure of two men’s family lines.
Elimelech’s family falls apart when he and his sons die in a foreign land, leaving their widows to fend for themselves. His family is divested of its men and any social power they might have held abroad or at home. So Naomi and Ruth set out toward Bethlehem with no social capital save for their friendship and their relational savvy.
Boaz’ family failure initially doesn’t appear that way at all. His seems to be only a tale of twilight romance between a lonely old business man and an industrious young immigrant widow. Only after the story has reached its resolution and Boaz and Ruth’s son Obed has been born does the narrator reveal what might have happened had Boaz’ line stopped with him. We discover that Israel’s famed King David is Boaz’ great grandson, a fact Boaz would never know but which, had he known, would certainly have motivated him to ensure success with Ruth.
So the problem in Bethlehem is this: If the immigrant widow Ruth is unable to secure a place in Boaz’ social order, not only will Elimelech’s and Boaz’ names fade from history, but the Davidic dynasty will never come to pass. For this to happen, three separate communities must somehow integrate: Elimelech’s scattered family system, Boaz’ fruitless family line, and the town of Bethlehem including its women, laborers and power brokers.
Who is in a position to effect these kinds of changes?
Boaz and Social Prestige
There is no doubt that Boaz is central to this story. He maintains a position of power within the culture, he is never far from the narrative spotlight and he is one of the central players in David’s royal family line. We can begin our discussion of influence and power with Boaz because he clearly holds the strongest position in the narrative. But from a system’s perspective, the question is not only what position a person holds within the network but how position relates to the potential of the rest of the network. As the story unfolds, we realize that Boaz is not simply in possession of power but is actively expressing himself in that role and using it to develop the network even beyond his own reach.
Traditional Bible study approaches reveal that Boaz goes above and beyond what the law requires of him in order to extend hospitality and generosity to others. In the next post, we will see one of the wonderful ways that he does the same through relational patterns. But for now, let me put a finer point on Boaz’ influence. Of all the interactions that together compose the structure of this narrative, Boaz is involved in over 50%. He is the initiator of 30% of all interactions and is the object of almost 20%. This makes Boaz both the largest contributor of relationships and also the most prestigious actor in the narrative network. That he is both contributing and receiving relationships is a strong sign that he is not only powerful but also valued in his network.
But another way of talking about Boaz’ influence is to ask how close he is to everyone else in the story. If we imagine that every direct relationship is 1 meter long then we could find the average shortest distance from Boaz to anyone else. The shorter the path between Boaz and myself, the more likely that I will come under Boaz’ influence. Let’s give this a try:
From the point of view of the Narrator and given our 1m relationship length, Bethlehem is a town 2 meters wide at almost all points with Boaz living in the center. But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, we can see that the only path from Boaz to the town’s women will have to be provided by Naomi. (A side note here to Boaz, not every girl is going to come sleep at your feet. You might try just talking to them once in a while!) For another thing, Boaz is often interacting with groups of people (town, elders, women, reapers) rather than individuals. So we can assume that the relational distance in Bethlehem has been simplified for the sake of the story and that Boaz’ influence may not be quite so dominant as it seems here.
Perhaps you can see from this that one way of describing the progress toward resolution in this story is to track the average distance from a character to all others. Boaz’ average distance will change somewhat over the course of the story because Naomi and Ruth are coming closer to him. But it would be even more interesting to look closely at Ruth’s distance to others over the course of the story, especially in comparison to Naomi’s. Ruth starts quite distant from all others and through the combination of Boaz, Naomi and her actions arrives finally at a point far superior to even the elders or the kinsman redeemer.
Naomi and Network Brokerage
I may be quite close on average to everyone in my network, but what if I don’t have direct access to more than a handful? To put the question in Boaz’ terms, what if Ruth was located on the far side of the “women” with whom he had no connection? Or perhaps a little more hopeful situation, what if she lived on the other side of the “town” that he was connected to only generally?
Naomi’s influence in the network arises from the fact that she is the central person connected all the networks that need to be integrated. She is not as connected as Boaz, but she is well connected because it is highly likely that a message moving from point A (the elders) to point B (the women) across the network will have to pass through her hands.
Just as the network crumbles if you remove Boaz, the same is true if you remove the widow Naomi who has significantly less power and far fewer direct connections than Boaz. In fact, the combination of Naomi’s role of broker in the narrative combined with her forward thinking relational patterns are critical to effecting Ruth’s introduction to Boaz and integration into the town.
These are only two examples of the way that network positions differ in their influence from social power. The real magic comes into play when we see how our main characters leverage their positions by Christ-like behavior in order accomplish God’s goals. More on that in the next installment: “Winning Strategies”.
In the history of every community, there are points when the future success of the many hangs on the behavior of the few. These moments may be dramatic and perilous, like the cold December morning in 1237 AD when Russian emissaries from the walled city of Ryazan turned their backs on an army of Mongol warriors who had demanded their surrender. The miscalculations of those sorry men resulted in the complete destruction of Ryazan and marked the beginning of the Mongol horde’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But these pivotal moments can also be completely mundane, depending not on the judgements of emissaries or the skill of warriors or the wisdom of kings but on average men and women from average circumstances going about their daily business as life presents it. Such was the case as two women arrived at the eastern gate of Bethlehem in ancient Israel. The women were both recently widowed, one an Israelite woman named Naomi and the other her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. They were returning from the land of Moab where Naomi, her husband and sons had moved years before to escape famine in the region of Benjamin. Completely empty handed, Naomi was now returning to her home town with her foreign daughter-in-law hoping to make her way on more familiar territory.
Unbeknownst to anybody in the town that day, the future of Israel, the reign of her greatest King, the wealth of his beautiful hymns, and the prophecies birthed from his memory depended completely on the assimilation of these two refugees into the heart of the community.
The story of these two women’s return can be found in the Bible’s book of Ruth. The book amounts to no more than a hiccup after the great sighs of the Exodus from Egypt and the wheezing exhaustion of the period of the Judges. It is brief and microscopic compared to the great events that surround it; it is a domestic sidenote in the unfolding tale of great men and competing nations. And ironically, the whole story turns on this moment.
The precariousness of Israel’s situation as well the relational decisions that lead to its solution are elegantly demonstrated through an analytical technique called social network analysis (SNA). Simply put, SNA investigates the relationships between individuals in a system and reveals both an overview of the resulting network as well as insights into the relational patterns that lead to that system’s success or failure. SNA has been used to target populations for immunization, disrupt networks of terror or crime, increase the efficiency of large corporations, and even analyze film and literature.
SNA begins with a catalogue of interactions between individuals. I have counted 97 interactions in the book of Ruth in the following categories: family and genealogical relationships, narrative interactions, speaking events, mentions of a third party, and favors. A network map is created by drawing an arrow from each actor to its object until all interactions have created a spiderweb of relationships. Here is the resulting network map from the book of Ruth. For clarity I have colored the nodes (dots) according to their social context and drawn arrows according to relationship types (dotted for family ties, dashed for weak interactions, and solid for strong interactions).
What stands out to you about the shape of this network? My eye goes first to the genealogic “tails” going into and coming out of the “village” and then to the tangle of relationships in the village itself. According to the color scheme, there seem to be three smaller systems built into the overall picture: a geneological system, Elimelech’s family system and the town system. If we divide up the graph to isolate those systems, we gain our first set of insights into the story Ruth.
Boaz, Elimelech and the fragility of family lines
The genealogical tails that we see in the large system don’t actually come to light until the last few sentences of the story. What Boaz cannot know is what we see quite clearly in this chain: King David’s existence depends on the birth of Boaz’s son Obed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this relatively simple task is not so easy for Boaz. In spite of his success in agriculture, we discover that Boaz has been unlucky in love. Fields aplenty with no fruit to show for his labors.
This lineage problem demonstrates one of the insights of system theory: linear networks are notoriously fragile. Because each link in the chain is critically important, any interruption will compromise the entire network, including the many people represented by each male in the chain.
We find a perfect example of this susceptibility problem in Elimelech’s family. The book actually begins with the failure of Elimelech’s line which in retrospect heightens the precariousness of Boaz’ potential lack of an heir. Elimelech’s network (called a “fan network”) represents a step up from Boaz’ family line. He has successfully married, had sons and married his sons to their wives. Elimelech’s social network is expanding and we can assume even more stability in his line because of (unmentioned) relationships between Naomi and her sons. But when the men of the family die in Moab, the lineage problem rears its head again and the family disintegrates with each female returning to her original home divested of family and therefore also of future.
So while a family line allows power to be efficiently managed, contained and directed, as long as that power is centralized in one person per generation the system is susceptible to complete failure.
Boaz surely never saw these final verses in his own story and so our sense of retrospective urgency might only have amounted to abiding loneliness for him. But to be fair, none of us have access to the last chapters of our life, do we? We conduct ourselves as best we can in the moment entrusting our future to the Fates or to the mercy of God. But perhaps there are other ways to pass our blessings forward. Perhaps there are patterns of relating that lend more stability, resilience and effectiveness to our relational networks.
Here it is important to look again to Boaz who in the absence of a spouse and offspring has clearly become the hub of his community, making it a surrogate family of sorts. As networks develop toward health, they move through a series of stages: separated clusters, hub & spoke, multiple hubs, and finally core & periphery. Boaz has clearly assumed his role as the hub in his community and so advanced its move toward maturity. Is this a power position for him, or is it a strategy for influencing network health? All will be revealed!
On a similar note, as we move forward in Ruth’s story you will notice the role that women play in stabilizing the social structure of the narrative network. But notice as well that they accomplish this not by assuming the same fragile linear power structures previously held by men but by skillfully exerting influence from where they are in the system.
Could it be that influence over community health has much less to do with power than it has to do with skillfully leveraging one’s position within the community?
Implications and Questions:
- What types of interactions would you include in your relational map?
- What stands out to you about the shape and character of Ruth’s network map?
- What advantages and disadvantages are represented by “the pastors’ wall” found in many of our churches?
- Where are power and influence located on Ruth’s network map?