We return to the book of Ruth this morning, chapter 4, the first 13 verses. Forms of the root word redeem dominate this portion of the story. Hebrew words that share the root, redeem, occur 14 times in this passage alone. Something similar occurred in the first chapters of Ruth. In Ruth chapter 1, the term that occurred the most often was the Hebrew word for return. If you remember, the central moment in chapter 1 is the return of Ruth and Naomi to Bethlehem. Naomi, though, proclaims to her fellow villagers, ironically, that after ten years in the land of Moab, she returns to her home empty and bitter. She had left Bethlehem during a famine with her husband and two sons. She had left home full of family and empty of food. When she returns to her home, she is empty of family but filled with the possibility of food in the barley harvest.
In chapter 2, the Hebrew word for gleaning dominates the text. Ruth happens to be gleaning in Boaz’s fields when he notices her, converses with her, and offers a secure place among his workers to supply food for her and Naomi. The two widows have been provided for, thanks to the generosity and loving-kindness of one of Elimelech’s family relatives, Boaz.
In chapter 3, the threshing floor takes center stage as Ruth begins to use what little power is available to her as a young widow in ancient Israel. With Naomi, her mother-in-law’s encouragement, Ruth sneaks down to the threshing floor where Boaz is with the other workers. After he is asleep, she lays down at his feet and uncovers them. Boaz wakes up suddenly with cold feet to a woman laying next to him, a compromising place to be as a man of substance in the community. What will this look like to the rest of the community if they are found in this place together? Boaz asks who the woman is, and she tells him directly that she is Ruth. Ruth asks Boaz to marry her, a risky move on her part, yet a challenge to make good on the blessing that he had spoken over her in the fields, and surprisingly, Boaz agrees to her request. We must realize that both Ruth and Boaz have shown khesed in its fullness by this point in the story, which brings us to chapter 4. Just because they have already shown this extraordinary kindness and love does not mean that they cannot continue to do so in the final episode of our story.
At the end of chapter 3, we hear the last spoken words of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi tells Ruth to wait and see how Boaz will bring about what he has agreed to in marrying Ruth and redeeming Naomi. Thus, in verse 1 of chapter 4, Boaz enters the village of Bethlehem that morning after the threshing floor and runs into the relative or next-of-kin that is still closer to Naomi than he is, so Boaz asks him to sit at the gate with 10 elders from the village. Boaz is convening a make-shift courtroom or legal assembly, in which the male leaders of the community will act as witnesses to the legal agreements that result. Boaz, then, gives the first of his two speeches, one to the next-of-kin or family relative and the second one to the witnesses, whom he has just asked to sit down. Boaz has taken center-stage now in place of Ruth. Ruth has done all that she can up to this point. Naomi and Ruth’s futures are held by Boaz now.
We can picture Boaz taking a seat with all eyes on him., He takes a deep breath and tells his fellow relative that Naomi has offered the chance to buy Elimelech’s land. Notice that we do not have the privilege of knowing this other relative’s name. Like Boaz’s manager in the fields of chapter 2, we only know him as one of closer relation to Elimelech’s family. Boaz tells him that he has first chance to buy the land, but if he will not, then Boaz will take the chance and purchase it. Of course, this next-of-kin or relative, thinking of the possibilities of expanding his farm operation, commits to purchasing the land.
At this moment, the situation gets a little murky. Biblical scholars are uncertain of what is the intended meaning of verse 5. In most translations, it appears that Boaz tells his fellow relative that the closer relative must perform his duty of marrying the widow whose husband has died so that he can provide her an heir to inherit the land when the heir is old enough, but that particular piece of the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy only applied to brothers and their widows, not to extended family. Most scholars say that there was no such obligation from the law on this other relative, and even if there was, it would be an obligation to marry Naomi, whose late husband had owned the land and had no heir to take on the inheritance. We also must notice what Naomi has already said, which is that she is too old to have another heir beyond her sons who have already died. What scholars have noted, though, is that our Hebrew manuscripts offer two options for what happens. When translators look at verse 5, they must choose between the word written and a later scribal alteration to the manuscript. What appears to be the original word that has been replaced by a scribe at an unknown later time has Boaz telling his fellow kinsman that when the kinsman purchases the land, then Boaz will voluntarily take on the duties of marrying Ruth and provide an heir. The scribal alteration, though, is what our current translations read, which makes it sound like Boaz is forcing his fellow kinsman to marry Ruth along with purchasing the land, which might have little leg to stand on in terms of legal precedence.
In my point of view, I find the original meaning far more congruent with the rest of the story and the themes that we have discussed thus far. However, I do not want to make it sound like it is the only option. Hebrew scholars and rabbis throughout the centuries have found meaning and truth in reading the story either way, so I’m offering the choice to you this morning to reflect on which of the possible meanings makes the most sense to you. I would love to hear how you read it and think about it if you choose to share your thoughts with me.
So then, we continue with the story. In my decision about how to read verse 5, Boaz has just told his fellow relative that when the relative buys the land, Boaz will voluntarily take Ruth as his wife with the intent of providing an heir to Ruth and ultimately Naomi, then we see our central theme come through clearly again, the Hebrew word khesed. Boaz has taken on Ruth’s challenge and creatively thought of a solution to provide security and love to these two widows in the community, security that extends far beyond his duties to care for the marginalized. However, we cannot give Boaz too much credit. We must remember that Ruth forced his hand and called him to do more than was required, following her example of unfailing love and loyalty to her bitter mother-in-law. Ruth has already taken the lead, and Boaz chooses to follow. So now, the closer relative backs out of his commitment to purchase the land because he knows that if Boaz provides an heir to Elimelech’s family, then that heir will one day have a right to the land when he comes of age. Boaz and Ruth both have risked much, but most importantly out of their creativity and ingenuity, they have created a way where none seemed possible. The will and way of God almighty, though seemingly absent from our story, has been accomplished through the love and compassion of God’s people, inspired by God’s law and more.
You might be wondering how I could end there when I still have half of the passage to discuss, and you are right. We know little of the particular legal custom of sharing a shoe as a sign of commitment to a legal agreement, but it is done in the presence of the witnesses. Boaz reiterates his commitment to Naomi and Ruth before these witnesses in his second speech, and the witnesses respond with a blessing on his demonstration of khesed. The witnesses call a blessing of children on Ruth and Boaz, that Ruth’s womb would provide children as the wombs of Rachel and Leah did to Jacob in providing the twelve families of Israel. The witnesses also call a second blessing that the house of Ruth and Boaz would be like the house of Perez, the son of Tamar and Judah. If you don’t remember this story, Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law who fooled or deceived Judah into providing her with children. Judah had tried to withhold his last son from marrying her and performing his duty of marrying Tamar. Like Ruth, Tamar came up with an ingenious solution to her plight as a widow with no power to require more from her father-in-law or brother-in-law. Finally in verse 13, God enters the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. God provides an heir for the family through the union of Boaz and Ruth.
Redemption is the title of my message this morning, so what has been redeemed or restored in this passage. We could say that Boaz redeems the situation of Ruth and Naomi by purchasing the family land and marrying Ruth. We could also say that Ruth, by bearing a child for the family line of Elimelech has redeemed Naomi, who was once empty but is now full. I think that we could even say that Ruth redeems Boaz. Ruth required of Boaz the fullness of the law, of loving neighbor and enemy, of being concerned about more than himself and his interests. Ruth broadened Boaz’s perspective and drew true righteousness and justice out of his already secure and abundant situation. In the end, we could also say that God redeems all three of them if we believe that God, though not mentioned by the narrator, was in the midst of the entire story, even in its messiness and difficulties and suffering and loss and rule-breaking and secrecy and challenge. Maybe we see the hand of God in the midst of our everyday creativity and ingenuity as we attempt to live into the way of Jesus, loving our neighbors and our enemies, offering a hand or heart of love even to those on the margins or bottom of our community.