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Ruth 4:7 says,
7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemption and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel.
This “custom” was based on the law in Deuteronomy 25:9, which says,
9 then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’
The first thing that we notice by comparing these two verses is that the law is confrontive, while the example in the Book of Ruth is congenial and that the sandal is used in place of a signature. Further, the law has the woman spitting in his face, whereas there is no mention of this in the Book of Ruth.
It may be that Samuel did not want to shame the family, but since Ruth probably did not attend the court session, it is almost certain that she did not spit in the face of the near kinsman. In fact, it is more likely that both Ruth and Boaz wanted to make it as easy as possible for the near kinsman to give up his right of redemption. It was not in their best interest to try to shame him into taking her as his wife.
Understanding the Law
The law establishes both duties and rights. In this case, the nearest kinsman had a duty to build up Elimelech’s household by giving Naomi a son through Ruth. From Ruth’s perspective, the law gave her the right to marry the nearest kinsman. If the kinsman failed in his duty, Ruth had the right to spit in his face and to declare publicly that the near kinsman had refused to “build up his brother’s house.”
The anonymous kinsman did not fulfill his duty, and Ruth did not exercise her right. Beyond that, the explanation of the law given in Ruth 4:7 suggests a broader use of the sandal in legal matters. Giving one’s sandal had become legal evidence of the transfer of property in general.
In fact, even the Hebrew word for “sandal” speaks into this law. The word is nahal, “sandal, shoe.” The root word is na’al, “to bar, lock, or bolt.” Even as a man would bind his feet with thongs in a pair of sandals, so also did the transfer of a sandal make the transfer of property as legally binding as a signature today.
Understanding the Legal Language
It seems that the law had inspired both legal custom and idiomatic language of the day. Gesenius’ Lexicon tells us,
“In transferring a domain it was customarily symbolically to deliver a shoe (as in the Middle Ages a glove); hence, the casting down a shoe upon any country was a symbol of taking possession. Psalm 60:8, “Upon Edom will I cast down My shoe,” i.e., I will take possession of it, I will claim it as My own….”
The example in Psalm 60:8 is part of a longer passage where God revealed His intent to claim territory and to reject Edom. Psalm 60:6-8 reads,
6 God has spoken in His holiness: “I will exult, I will portion out Shechem and measure out the valley of Succoth. 7 Gilead is Mine, and Manasseh is Mine; Ephraim also is the helmet of My head; Judah is My scepter. 8 Moab is My washbowl; over Edom I will throw My shoe; shout loud, O Philistia, because of Me!”
Most of the claimed territories were parts of Israel, including the land of Gilead that formed the eastern half of Manasseh. “Moab is my washbowl” meant that Moab held unclean water, for when men poured water over their hands or feet in those days to purify themselves, they did so over a washbowl. The water was then rendered ceremonially unclean.
Hence, a washbowl was claimed by God and even a necessary household item, but it was also despised. It could be cleansed in the usual fashion, of course, and then used for other purposes, but because the people washed their hands before eating meals, the washbowl probably remained unclean most of the time.
This has relevance to Ruth herself, of course, because she was from Moab. Using this metaphor, we can say that she had been cleansed by faith, having been washed by the water of the Word, though most of the Moabites remained as unclean “washbowls.”
The language above regarding Edom is of particular interest to us, since the language suggests some connection to the law in Deuteronomy 25:9. God says, “over Edom I will throw My shoe.” Some say this refers to a conqueror tossing his sandals to a slave so that he may clean them. But that seems to be a custom derived from the culture of the Greeks, Roman, or other people. The law of God suggests an entirely different connotation.
The law suggests prophetically that it is related to bringing forth an heir from a childless widow. God is the widow’s covering, representing her in court, much like Boaz represented Ruth. But the shoe in this case belongs to God, who is seen casting it toward Edom, as if to reject Edom’s claim upon the widow. This puts the law of the sandal in an entirely new context, showing that God and the widow that he represents retain the right to refuse to marry a near kinsman (in this case, Edom).
In the same manner, Ruth was not duty-bound to press the issue of marriage at the gate of the city. She could have remained a childless widow, if that had been her preference.
So God casts His shoe over Edom, stating in the divine court, “I (representing the widow) refuse to marry Edom to bring forth an heir of the Kingdom.” This suggests that Edom was fully unqualified to bring forth the heirs of the Kingdom, or the sons of God. Yet at the same time, such a statement recognizes that Edom actually had the first right to try to bring forth the sons of God. After all, Esau was indeed the first-born before Jacob, and because he was a hated son (Malachi 1:2, 3), he was also protected by the law from losing the birthright (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) until he had proven himself to be unworthy—that is, “a stubborn and rebellious son” (Deuteronomy 21:18). Only then could the first-born be disinherited.
Boaz Receives the Sandal
Ruth 4:8 says,
8 So the closest relative said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself.” And he removed his sandal.
The nearest relative did not mind redeeming the property, but he did not want to marry Ruth the Moabitess. So he told Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” and with that right of redemption came also the right to marry Ruth. The law itself commands the widow to remove the sandal of the kinsman, so we could assume that in this case Boaz was required to remove the sandal, as he was acting on Ruth’s behalf.
Ruth 4:9, 10 says,
9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance, so that the name of the deceased may not be cut off from his brothers or from the court of his birth place; you are witnesses today.”
The full case was thus stated with clarity for all the witnesses to hear. The law of redemption is thus fully clarified to show that one may not redeem just a portion of the property. A redeemer is required to redeem all of the property as well as the people in it.
This is important especially when the law applies to Jesus Christ, who is our Kinsman-redeemer. In essence, the law would not allow Jesus to redeem only a part of the earth and its people. So we read in 1 John 4:14 says,
14 And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
Again, 1 John 2:2 says,
2 and He Himself is the propitiation [expiation] for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
Having purchased (redeemed) the whole world by paying its sin-debt to the law, He was required by the law of redemption to purchase the people as well as the property. That is what we learn from the story of Ruth and how the law required the near kinsman to redeem her along with the property. This historic example shows how the law of redemption does not allow Jesus Christ to pick and choose what to purchase and what to discard.
In other words, the law demands the redemption of all. Paul calls it the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20). Paul tells us that we are ambassadors of Christ, called to tell the world that God is “not counting their trespasses against them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This, of course, opens up a larger question of how God may accomplish this without violating His law.
A fuller account is given in my book, The Restoration of All Things. A longer explanation is given in Creation’s Jubilee. The legal point to remember from the Book of Ruth, however, is that a redeemer is forbidden to claim property without also taking those who are attached to that property. In the case of Christ, the property is the whole earth, and the people are the sea of humanity. Thus, He will indeed be “the savior of all men” (1 Timothy 4:10), for to do otherwise would be a sin.
Ruth 4:11, 12 concludes the court case, saying,
11 All the people who were in the court, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel; and may you achieve wealth in Ephrathah and become famous in Bethlehem. 12 Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah, through the offspring which the Lord shall give you by this young woman.”
The public bore witness to these court proceedings and to the verdict. Then they blessed Ruth, asking God to be fruitful and allow her to build Elimelech’s house even as Rachel and Leah (Jacob’s wives) had built the house of Israel.
The people’s blessing also implies that Elimelech’s property being redeemed by Boaz was located specifically in Ephrathah, which is just outside of Bethlehem. It is where Benjamin was born and where Rachel died in childbirth (Genesis 35:16-20). It is probable that Rachel’s grave was located on this property. No doubt this was what the people had in mind when they compared Ruth to Rachel.
Moreover, they blessed Ruth a second time by comparing her to Tamar, who had built the house of Judah in Genesis 38. This is of interest, because Judah’s incest with Tamar had produced his twin sons, Zerah and Pharez, causing a ten-generation delay in bringing forth the king in Israel (Deuteronomy 23:2). Boaz was the seventh generation; Obed was the eighth; Jesse was the ninth; and David was the tenth generation.
The law in the following verse (Deuteronomy 23:3) applied the same principle to Moab, which had been born through incest with Lot. Lot lived three generations before Judah, so it is conceivable that Ruth was the tenth generation from Lot.