The Bible: repeated words

Authors learn early to do their best not to repeat words. Repeating words is monotonous in our English literature. Rather than use stairs four times in the paragraph, for example, use stairs and steps and pronouns. If you have to, rewrite to avoid repeats.

ReturnA useful biblical technique is word repetition and, ironically, we often miss it because our English translations plug in synonyms for the repetitions.

But in doing so, we sometimes overlook the author’s point.

For example, there is a return motif in the Bible. The story of Jacob is about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years of exile. The grand story of the Old Testament is the return of a remnant of people to Palestine after the Babylonian exile.

But the story I want to examine briefly is the return story of Naomi in Ruth 1.

The Hebrew word for return in Ruth 1 is shub, meaning return. It carries deep meaning and rich connotations of the rhythm of life, of people returning to a previous condition, of people going out and coming in.

At times, shub is translated return and at other times synonyms are employed. Those are similar in meaning but we miss the repetition which underscores the theme of return. Here is where shub is used in Ruth 1:

  • Ruth 1:6 “…then she started to return with her…”
  • Ruth 1:8  “Go back each of you to your mother’s house…”
  • Ruth 1:10 “No, we will return with you to your people…”
  • Ruth 1:11 “Turn back, my daughters, why would you go with me?”
  • Ruth 1:12 “Turn back,my daughters, go your way…”
  • Ruth 1:15 “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods…”
  • Ruth 1:15 “Return after your sister-in-law…”
  • Ruth 1:16 “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you.”
  • Ruth 1:21 “The Lord has brought me back empty…”
  • Ruth 1:22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth.
  • Ruth 1:22  …her daughter-in-law who came back with her.

That many uses of shub mean something. Although the translation obscures the repetition of shub, we still can uncover what the author intended. He wrote about Naomi’s return. His repetition clarifies his point.

Naomi was returning to her homeland and to God. She was returning to the fullness she thought God had torn away from her. She was returning to the kindness of God’s plan.

Word repetition set the stage for the author’s intended purpose in Ruth.


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