Ruth 3:11-4:6 Boaz
Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Jan. 24, 2008
Introduction Several people asked why I was doing Ruth in Advent, and the answer is simple. She was one of the ancestors of King David and Jesus. There is more about Ruth than Mary in the Bible, but the church does not tell her story often enough. Since it has been awhile since we’ve been together, let me briefly review Ruth. So far we have seen that the book could have been named for Naomi, who is a central character. She was a woman from Bethlehem who had move to Moab with her family to escape a famine, and there her sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. After her husband and sons died, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth accompanied her because she loved her mother-in-law. In Bethlehem, Ruth had to labor hard, gleaning in the fields so they could eat. In our last lesson, Ruth took the advice of Naomi and went to Boaz at night during the threshing festival. He was kind to her and spread his cloak of protection and love over them both. Ruth and Boaz spent the night together, and he promised that he would arrange things for the best for her and Naomi. Boaz was already impressed with Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her hard work in the fields, but he was even more impressed that she sought him out rather than finding a younger man to marry. He knew she was trying to do what was best for Naomi.
A Decent Man: So far in the story, it is women who have been the main actors. Ruth, in particular, has acted with courage and cunning, but now the plot depends on Boaz. We described Boaz earlier as an upright person, a pillar of his society. Ruth trusted him, and now we see that her trust was well-founded. Notice that he tells Ruth to leave before the morning grows light. He does not want her reputation to be damaged by vicious rumors about her nocturnal activities. In short, Boaz proves to be a gentleman who protects women rather than exploits them. There is an element of self-interest in this as well, of course, since Boaz did not want his own reputation to be harmed, but his main concern appears to be for Ruth.
He also sends Ruth off with a sizeable gift of threshed grain for her mother-in-law. Through the centuries, commentators have speculated that there is something significant in the six measures of barley, but we can’t be sure. It is possible that it represents the six days of work that go into harvesting and threshing, with marriage representing the Sabbath day of rest, but who knows? In any case, it was a lot of barley, and in the context it is pretty clear that Boaz was providing an informal bride price for Ruth. I think there is no reason to doubt that Ruth and Boaz engaged their vows that night, and the tension in the story is whether he will be able to fulfill his promises to her.
Kinsman-Redeemer Boaz introduced an element of suspense when he told Ruth that there was someone else in the village that had a better claim to be a kinsman-redeemer than he did. We never learn this man’s name, but he is the closest thing to an antagonist in this folk tale. He is the one who has failed to come to his kinswoman’s aid, and he is the one who can thwart Naomi’s plans. But he is not a bad man. One of the enchanting things about Ruth is that all of the characters are both human and good. They try to do what is right in difficult circumstances. But this unnamed relative of Elimelech could undo everything by asserting his right to be the redeemer.
This is one of the most difficult historical problems in the story, and I am not sure that we have yet found the solution. The story implies that there was a relationship between redemption and marriage in the time of the Judges, but there is no evidence elsewhere to support this. There is a long debate among modern scholars over the nature of the kinsman-redeemer and marriage laws in Ruth. In the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish literature, there is no indication that a kinsman-redeemer had an obligation to a widowed in-law. The kinsman-redeemer was responsible for rescuing family members from slavery and buying back property that had been sold. There is nothing in the laws that we know of that imply any obligation to someone like Ruth who is outside the family. The kinsman-redeemer mentioned by Boaz had an obligation to Naomi, but not to Ruth. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that the story teller knew the details of ancient Israelite social customs. Remember, this story was written much later than the events it describes, and the writer threw in an old, barely remembered custom to increase the authenticity but he or she did not know for sure how it worked.
Levirate Marriage This has led many scholars to conclude that another ancient Jewish custom applied in the case of Ruth, namely the levirate marriage. You may recall from our study of Genesis that at one time in Israel’s history there was a law that said that a widow without children must marry the brother of her dead husband. The most famous example is in Genesis 38 which tells about Tamar who was married to a son of Judah. When her husband died, she married another son of Judah’s. When he died, Judah refused to let Tamar marry a third son, and she had to live as a non-person in the women’s tents. Finally she tricked Judah into sleeping with her and she got pregnant by him. When the truth was revealed, Judah acknowledged that Tamar was more righteous than he was. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Since Tamar and Perez are mentioned explicitly in the last chapter of Ruth, many commentators through the centuries have assumed that Ruth’s story hinges on the issue of levirate marriage.
There are some problems with this assumption, however. The old custom of levirate marriage served two purposes. It was a way to continue to the family line of the dead man since the first male born would be his heir, but it also provided a home for the widow. When a woman in Israel married, she came under the authority of the patriarch of her husband’s household. It would have been difficult for a father-in-law to arrange a marriage for a widowed daughter-in-law, so it made sense that she should marry within the family. In an age where polygamy was common and acceptable, this was a reasonable solution even though it makes modern people uncomfortable. I wonder if ancient Israelite women paid close attention to how attractive a prospective husband’s brothers were, especially if he was old and not so healthy.
The situation described in Ruth simply does not fit the laws of the levirate marriage outlined in the Torah. Her husband and his brother were both dead, so there was no one in the family for her to marry. Her father-in-law was dead, so there is no patriarch she was responsible to. Legally she should have gone back home to her father in Moab, but she already made the sacrificial choice to go with Naomi. Legally, Ruth and Naomi had no relationship, but they have a bond of love. A kinsman-redeemer had no obligations toward Ruth even though he might have been obligated to help Naomi. If the laws of levirate marriage applied, Ruth would not have had to take extraordinary measures to make contact with Boaz. It is possible that the laws had changed by the time of Ruth or that the laws in the Torah were not standard throughout Israel, but it is more likely that something else is going on in this story.
Boaz’ Promise If Ruth and Boaz exchanged promises of marriage and did what we would expect them to have done, it would be up to Boaz to make arrangements for a marriage. He could have simply married Ruth or even taken her as a concubine, but he wanted to make sure that Naomi was taken care of as well. He did not want to separate Ruth and Naomi, nor does he want to make Naomi depend on charity. Perhaps he had heard of Ruth’s vow that only death could separate her from Naomi, and Boaz did not want to bring that bond. Being a shrewd and well-respected man, Boaz hatched a plan to arrange things for everyone’s benefit. He had to make sure that the unnamed redeemer did not interfere and that the elders of the village approved of his marriage to this foreign woman.
The Ploy In ancient Israel, as in many tribal cultures in the world today, business took at the village gates. Men would spend their days sitting, talking, politicking, and making business deals. It was kind of like the way executives sit in particularly nice restaurants in New York or LA and informally conduct business. In chapter 4 we see Boaz taking his place by the gate early in the morning. When he sees the redeemer, he calls him “friend” and asks him to sit next to him. Over the years, I’ve learned to be suspicious of people who call me friend and ask me to sit next to them. Usually there is something coming next.
Boaz baits his trap by telling the redeemer that Naomi is planning to sell a parcel of land that belonged to Elimelech. So far, we have not heard a word about such a plan. Naomi has not even spoken to Boaz in the story. It is possible that Ruth said something about Naomi’s real estate intentions as she and Boaz cuddled during the night, but I doubt it. Based on what we have in the text, I think Boaz simply made this up real estate deal up. It is a feint or stratagem of Boaz’s. And the poor fellow falls for it.
He very graciously agrees to enlarge his own land-holdings by helping out Elimelech’s poor widow. It is an easy decision since Naomi has no children and there is no danger he will ever have to return the land to her descendents. He can play the role of redeemer and profit handsomely from the exchange. It is easy to be generous in such a situation, especially since he knows that Boaz wants the land. But once he commits himself to the redemption, Boaz springs the trap. “By the way,” he says as an afterthought (kind of like Columbo the detective), “remember that if you take the land you also take responsibility for Ruth the Moabite.”
It is impossible to determine if Boaz is simply bluffing here and trying to convince the poor guy of something that was not true, but there is no evidence that a redeemer had to take responsibility for the widow of a dead relative. Boaz may have been trying to convince the village elders that the redeemer had a moral obligation to care for the woman who had taken care of their kinswoman Naomi. In any case, the news that Ruth was part of the land deal came as a complete shock to the redeemer.
It is still not clear to modern scholars why this was a deal-breaker for the redeemer. He says that it would damage his own inheritance if he took on Ruth as an obligation. The author of Ruth is too good a story teller to fill in all the details of ancient Israelite marriage and real estate law. The point he (or she) was trying to make was that Boaz was a wise and good man. He made sure that his only potential rival publicly repudiated his right to redeem Naomi’s property so he could assume the role of redeemer. As soon as his position as redeemer is assured, Boaz announces that he is acquiring all of the property of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, and he announces that he is taking Ruth the Moabite to be his wife. Her first son will be Mahlon’s.
Conclusion We could rush things and finish Ruth today, but I learned in Italy that a good meal should take time. So we’ll save the final course for next week. Before I sign off, though, let’s review the lessons we’ve learned from this section of Ruth. If Ruth is a model of feminine devotion, courage, and resilience, Boaz is the model of the wise man. We have seen that he was a good manager of his estates and profited as a result. He protected Ruth in the fields, and he provided plenty of food for Naomi without sacrificing her pride. Most of all, he recognized the true worth of Ruth. When she came to him in the night, he treated her with kindness and compassion, and he valued the gift she offered. Boaz used all of the resources at his disposal to shrewdly do the right thing in the right way. Men today can learn a lot from Boaz. Next week we’ll discuss the happy conclusion to this folk tale of faith.