Studies in Ruth No. 4


Ruth 4:1-22

Review

 

The last chapter ended, as each before it, anticipating events to come, in this case the effort on Boaz’ part to secure his right to marry Ruth.

Text Comment

 

v.1       Remember, towns were on hilltops, so one went up to the gate from the surrounding countryside.  Boaz had spent the previous night at his threshing floor outside of town.  What is suggested here is that Boaz didn’t even go home.  He went to the gate and no further.  He was going to see to his business as soon as possible.  His sitting down was a kind of official act; people would recognize it as an indication that Boaz had legal business to attend to.

            The kinsman-redeemer (the gō’ēl) would have been leaving town to work in his fields.

            It is too complicated a matter to explain here, but it is at least interesting that the text does not say “My friend” as the NIV has Boaz saying in v. 1.  The meaning of the words is more like “So and so” or, even “Hey you.”  [Block, 706]  The point is that the narrator leaves this man anonymous.  Boaz may have named him but the narrator doesn’t tell us what his name is.

v.2       Boaz needed a quorum of witnesses and so collects one.  Archaeological studies have indicated that the side-chambers of ancient Near Eastern town gates were used for town business and often had benches around the walls for men to sit on.  If the gate was smaller and had no such side rooms, the business would have been transacted in the plaza just inside the gate.

v.3       The word “piece” in the phrase “piece of land” is the important word “portion” [תקלח] (cf. Deut. 33:21; Josh. 24:32; 2 Kgs. 9:21, 25).  That is, this was the “portion” of the Promised Land that had been allotted to this clan or extended family.  According to the Mosaic Law, this land was never permanently to leave the family.  The institution of the kinsman-redeemer, the gō’ēl, was designed to prevent this from happening. 

            You notice the “our brother.”  Boaz is reminding the man of the family connection with Elimelech that both of them share.  We don’t know how close a relative either man was though it does not seem that even this new character was Elimelech’s blood brother.

            There is a problem here, however.  The NIV’s translation assumes that Naomi was actually going to sell her piece of land.  However, in the Mosaic law, as we read it in Numbers 27, the land was not hers to sell.  In the event of a man’s death his property went to other relatives, not his widow, in a specified order.  That is what made widowhood such a precarious position in life and why the Law of God was so concerned to protect the widow from exploitation. 

            What seems to be the case here, then, is not that Naomi was going to sell the land so that it would belong to someone else, but that she was going to sell the use of this property for a period of time (as, for example, until the next Year of Jubilee, as in Leviticus 25).  In all likelihood, because of the poverty of the family, the poverty that had led Elimelech to leave Israel for Moab in the first place, the land had fallen into someone else’s hands.  But the law provided for a way to redeem it and bring it back into family control.  That was the job of the gō’ēl.  So, in all probability, this was not simply the disposition of some real estate that Naomi had at her disposal, but a getting back for the family the use of the land that Elimilech had lost to an outsider.

            Now, obviously, nothing has been said about land so far.  Naomi hasn’t indicated in anything she said that she was concerned about the land.  But Boaz knows that it is the land that provides the opportunity for putting things right and the opportunity for his marriage to Ruth.  There is a need to get the land back under family control.

v.4       At the kinsman-redeemer’s first reply Boaz’ heart must have sunk.  But he had a plan-B.

v.5       This verse presents another problem of interpretation, in part because of some of the difficulties presented by the text, but in largest part because we don’t know enough about the laws and customs then prevailing in Israel.  What seems to be meant is that Elimelech’s death had left a second widow in the picture.  This widow will also be involved in any transaction the kinsman-redeemer might make to secure rights to Elimelech’s land.  Boaz makes a point of calling her ”Ruth the Moabitess” perhaps because he wants to make the prospect of this man acquiring the rights to Naomi’s field as unattractive as possible.

            There is, however, nothing in the Mosaic law that required this gō’ēl to marry Ruth so as to rescue the name of Elimelech from extinction.  Either the obligation of levirate marriage – that is the marriage of a widow by her brother-in-law – had been expanded by custom in Israel to include such a marriage as that of this man to Ruth, or Boaz is basing his interpretation of the obligation on the spirit of the law rather than its letter.  After all, if it was to keep a man’s name from dying out, to keep his family line from being extinguished that the obligation of levirate marriage existed, the only way to keep Elimelech’s line from dying out was for this man to marry Ruth, Naomi being past child-bearing age.  At any rate, two customs of Israelite society and two obligations of the law of Moses converge here:  the keeping of land within the clan and the preservation of a genealogical line through the practice of the marriage of a widow by a relative.

v.6       What this seems to mean is that the cost of redeeming the land, of marrying Ruth and of carrying for Naomi was more than this man felt he could afford.  He would be exposing himself to the same sort of financial vulnerability that led Elimelech to lose control of his land in the first place.  There may have been other concerns.  Ruth was a Moabitess and he may have felt that to be a complication.  We don’t know if he had children of his own by this time.  He might have feared that, should he have a child by Ruth and no other, all of his estate might fall to the heir of Elimelech, including his own patrimonial property.  [Block, 716-717]  It was an easier decision to make because Boaz had made it clear enough that he was willing if this man were not.

v.8       The explanation of this custom suggests that Ruth was written long enough after the events themselves that readers could not be expected to understand the meaning of what this man did.

v.10     A legal sounding statement that masks a very happy personal resolution for three people.  The announcement, of course, is made to the formal witnesses.  It is like notarizing a contract today.  It makes it legally binding.  What this transaction amounted to, however, was only the right to redeem the land.  The actual redemption would take place later after Boaz had negotiated with the man who held the property.  We are reminded by Boaz’ speech how much good this man is doing in securing this right.  His words also make clear that marrying Ruth was his central interest.

v.11     Hebrew has no word for “yes.”  So the witnesses simply repeat what Boaz said as their assent.

            Their blessing amounts to the hope and prayer that Ruth be fertile and provide an heir so that Boaz’ goal of preserving the line of Elimelech would be achieved.

v.12     Perez is mentioned for two reasons:  1) he is the ancestor of Boaz as we shall see and 2) he was also the product of a kind of levirate marriage, though, under much more sordid circumstances, as we remember from Genesis 38.

v.14     We said at the outset that, in some ways, it is surprising that it is not called the book of Naomi.  It is her emptiness and her fulfillment that are the bookends of the book. 

            In any case, the blessing that the women seek, the readers of the book will have known, had been fulfilled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  This child became the ancestor of David the king.

v.15     There was a general understanding and acknowledgement among the women of Bethlehem of Ruth’s virtue and, in particular, of her love for Naomi.

v.16     It is not implied, of course, that Ruth did not care for her own child.  However, given Naomi’s barrenness as the setting for this story, her loving of her grandson completes the story of God’s grace to her in a wonderful way.

v.17     Obed is an abbreviated form of Obadiah, “servant of the Lord.”

v.22     The book ends with a climactic postscript reminding the readers that this story concerns not only some individuals in Israel during the days of the judges, but the nation as a whole.  The OT contains no information on most of these individuals in the genealogy.  It is a shortened genealogy, a representative one, as many OT genealogies are, perhaps limited to ten generations for stylistic reasons.

So concludes the lovely book of Ruth.  There are two great facts, or two great biblical themes, that are revealed in this history and I want briefly to mention both of them this evening as we conclude our study in this little book.

The first is the fact and the theme of the remnant.  It will become a more significant theme as the Scripture proceeds, but we have it already here and, indeed, not for the first time.  Over and again in the history recorded in Holy Scripture, the true believers represented only a small minority of the people of God, the church.  The church, in her history, has usually been composed of a larger number of hypocrites, of nominal members, and a smaller number of true believers, of men and women of true and living faith in God and who live righteous lives by that faith.  It was so, of course, during the time the judges ruled in Israel, which was when the events described in Ruth occurred.  We saw in our studies of that larger book how far Israel had sunk into unbelief and wickedness.  She had taken for herself the religion and the lifestyle of the Canaanite peoples around her.  She had become like them, all the while maintaining at least some pretence of the faith of Israel.  By the end of the book it had become all too clear that Israel as a people had forsaken the Lord and had betrayed his covenant.

But Ruth reminds us that it was not so of every Israelite, or every Israelite community or town.  In Bethlehem there remained pious, faithful folk and some very godly people who not only spoke the ancient faith but lived it from their hearts.  Such a man was Boaz and the story and its wonderful outcome turns on his trust in the Lord and his faithfulness to the Lord’s covenant.

And what we find in Ruth we will find many more times in the Bible and in the history of the church since.  During Ahab’s reign we learn directly from the Lord that the believing church consisted of 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal.  Again, in the time of the Lord Jesus, the real believers were a small number of the total population of Jews.  However, as here in Ruth, among that number were some saintly men and women:  Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna, and the like.  And so it has continued.  In the 4th century the Arian party outnumbered the orthodox in many parts of the church.  During the middle ages the number of faithful followers of the Lord Jesus was comparatively small.  After the Puritan revival in the 16th and 17th centuries in England and Scotland, the first third of the 18th century was a time of pervasive nominalism in English speaking British Christianity.  When Isaac Watts was writing his great hymns, believing congregations represented a small portion of the total church.

Ian Hamilton once pointed out to me that, as a matter of fact, through most of its life the Church of Scotland has been primarily nominal and the most vital elements of Scottish Christianity have lived outside of it.  It is certainly the case that that church is primarily nominal today.  Most of Roman Catholicism has always been nominal as even some Roman Catholics will acknowledge.  And what of American Protestant Christianity.  Certainly the large mainline denominations are composed of many more Christians in name only than serious, earnest followers of the Lord Jesus.  The Presbyterian Church USA, for example, gets less than half its membership to church on a typical Sunday.  But, our own PCA gets only two-thirds of its membership to church on Sunday.  As was true in the time of the judges, the culture has leaked into the church and subverted its faith.

When I speak to PCA pastors in the South, many of them tell me that nominalism is a chief concern; they have in their congregations folks they don’t believe are real Christians.  That is not so much of a problem in the PCA in the Northwest, but of course, the church is much smaller out here.

This is a very important thing to know about church history: that believing life has so often been continued only in a remnant of the church.  Those people who used to be Protestants and are urging us nowadays to return to the one church, the mother church – by which they mean either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy – argue that the evangelical church is disqualified as a true successor of apostolic Christianity precisely because it is made up of all these relatively new little groups, offshoots from the main branch or eddies off the main river of church life, they would say.  The true church, they argue, has antiquity, unity, a global presence and the like.  But, of course, one has only to read the Bible to learn almost immediately that the life of the believing church is seldom to be represented by the grand and ancient institutions of Christendom.  It wasn’t so in Israel and it hasn’t been so in the church since.  The prophets lived hard and lonely lives precisely because they were compelled to swim against the stream.

But it is also important to know this for the sake of our own confidence in our convictions.  It is true that Christians must care about unity, as the Lord Jesus taught us so emphatically.  It is also true, however, that we must be faithful to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.  And the fact that this faithfulness may leave us fragmented and, even to some degree, isolated is as likely to be proof of that fidelity as it is likely to be proof that we have carried the point too far.  Christians often have carried the point too far and unnecessarily divided the church, but Ruth reminds us that it is not often that the institutional church in its larger manifestations has been a true friend of faithfulness to Holy Scripture.  The fact that there are smaller Presbyterian bodies, like the Presbyterian Church in America, is virtually inevitable, given the run of spiritual history.  There is always a remnant, but, alas, far too often, that is all there is.  And that is a teaching and a prophecy of Holy Scripture itself.

We expect to find true faith in the world at all times and faithful, godly living.  But we do not expect usually to find that faith in the ascendant in the institutional Christian church; at least we do not if we take seriously the shape of Christian history in the world as it is taught first in the Bible and then in the course of events since then to the present day.

The second great theme of this little book is that of redemption.  One writer has suggested entitling the book The Gospel of Ruth.  Look at that verse 14:

“Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer.”

Does not every believer in Jesus Christ immediately recognize the parallel and the way in which such a statement anticipates the provision of Obed’s greatest descendant, Jesus Christ, who redeemed us not with silver and gold but with his precious blood.

Redemption, as a way of describing the work of Christ, is an idea with a history.  It refers to the deliverance of someone from some bondage, some indebtedness, by the payment of a price.  That price is called the ransom.  In Hebrew the same word group provides us with the verb “to redeem” and the noun “redeemer.”  In the New Testament it is not as clear in English as it is in Greek that the word “ransom” belongs to the same word group as “redemption” or “redeem”  The idea of price paying is always present.  There are other words that mean to deliver people from someone or something.  But the “redeem” word group always includes this idea of paying a price.  That is what made the idea and the related words such force in Christian thought.  We were delivered from bondage but not without the payment of a price. 

And, as I said, that is an idea with a past.  What we find in Ruth, of course, is not the only antecedent of the idea in the New Testament.  We find other situations in the Mosaic Law in which the payment of a ransom will deliver a person from bondage.  For example, slaves might purchase their freedom by the payment of a ransom.  Or, a man who is convicted of contributing to someone’s death, but without malice aforethought, was able to pay a sum of money to redeem his life and escape punishment.  But, what we find here in Ruth is a marvelous illustration of redemption in action.  Naomi and Ruth are freed from their bondage to destitution and a hopeless future by the payment of a price.  That is what Boaz means when he says that he will “redeem” the property.  He will buy it back.  Neither Naomi nor Ruth had the wherewithal to deliver themselves, so they looked to a kinsman-redeemer to do it for them.  And he did.

What an apt metaphor for the work of Christ.  When Paul says in Rom. 3:24 that we are justified through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ he is saying that the way we get right with God, the way we are delivered from our bondage to sin and guilt is through the price that Jesus paid for our deliverance – viz. his death on the cross.  As the author of Hebrews puts it (9:15):  “he has died as a ransom to set them free from their sins…” And who is this Jesus who redeems his people?  Well, he is in every way a kinsman redeemer, the idea that is so prominent in Ruth.  He became man precisely so that he could do for his brothers what no one else could do.  It was his becoming like his brothers in every way – becoming their kin – that made it possible for him to redeem them.

You see how useful this concept was to the early Christians in explaining the work of Christ.  He had taught them that “whoever sins is the slave of sin.”  What is more, the wages of sin is death.  So here we were:  enslaved, given over to death, and now comes our kinsman, our brother, to pay the ransom by which we are delivered.  It is not a perfect analogy.  There are differences between what Jesus did and what an OT kinsman-redeemer did, to be sure.  For example, in Ruth Naomi and Ruth went looking for their redeemer; but Christ came looking for us.  But the practice of redemption provided a metaphor that was close enough to the real thing, a sufficiently literal analogy, that it made for a very helpful way of explaining what Jesus did and why and what the effects of his death are for us.

Ruth is about a redemption and the entire Bible is about a redemption.  Boaz in this way is a Christ figure and we are, all of us, Naomi and Ruth in their poverty, their hopelessness apart from the intervention of another.

Praise be to the Lord for not leaving us without a redeemer!