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Chapter 20: The Court Case

It was not Boaz’ duty to marry Ruth. There was a closer kinsman whose duty it was, either an older man such as Elimelech’s brother or perhaps his brother’s son. We are not told, and so the identity of that closer kinsman has remained deliberately anonymous. No doubt this was to protect a righteous family from unnecessary shame.

Boaz loved Ruth and wanted to marry her, so he took the initiative into his own hands. We read in Ruth 4:1,

1 Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there, and behold, the closest relative of whom Boaz spoke was passing by, so he said, “Turn aside, friend, sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down.

Once again, the scene opens with an apparent coincidence that reveals the hidden hand of God at work. The author lets us know that Boaz simply followed the leading of the Spirit, and it happened that the nearer kinsman passed by the gate of the town. By this we know that God was directing the events according to His sovereign will to bring about the right marriage that would bring forth the heir, the grandfather of David, the future king of Israel.

Boaz called to his anonymous kinsman, saying, “Turn aside, friend, sit down here.” The NASB incorrectly calls him “friend,” which is not a proper term to use in a redemption story such as this. A “friend” does not have redemption rights, though he may redeem property if the current owner agrees to it. Instead, the Hebrew text uses the term peloniy almoniy, which more literally means “so and so” or “such and such.” The KJV says, “Ho, such a one.”

The author (Samuel, I believe) went out of his way to use anonymous terminology. All we really know for sure is that he was a close relative and that Boaz knew him personally.

The City Gate

The gate of the city was the public courtroom, the place where the judges sat to judge disputes or, as in this case, to settle legal matters. Hence, Genesis 19:1 says that “Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom” when the two angels came to investigate. Lot was thus identified as a judge in Sodom.

We also read in Gen. 22:15 that God appeared to Abraham the second time to confirm the promise, and there He added more blessings on account of Abraham’s willingness to give up his son, Isaac. Gen. 22:17 then says,

17 Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed will possess the gate of their enemies.

The blessing of many children was part of the first revelation in Gen. 12:2, where God promised to make him “a great nation,” and this was repeated in Gen. 17:6, saying, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful.” However, it was only after Abraham had given the promised son (Isaac) back to God that the blessing of possessing “the gate” was added. In other words, the seed of Abraham was to govern and judge the nations. And, of course, Paul says that the seed of Abraham includes all who are in unity with Abraham by exhibiting his New Covenant faith (Gal. 3:7, 29).

In Gen. 23:10 and 18 Abraham purchased a burial cave, and the transaction was recorded officially “at the gate of his city,” where the judges were sitting.

Calling the Court Session

Ruth 4:2 says,

2 He [Boaz] took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.

In a small town, it would not take long to gather ten elders who had the authority to judge at the gate. Instead of having jurors as such, the ten judges formed a panel that decided matters by consensus.

The Status of the Property

The hearing itself began in Ruth 4:3,

3 Then he said to the closest relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech.”

The wording in the NASB makes it appear that Naomi (really, Elimelech) had not sold the land before moving to Moab. We are given the impression that Naomi was now bankrupt and needed to sell the property to raise money on which to support herself. But if that were the case, why would the kinsman redeemer be called upon to purchase it? Why would Boaz have to defer to that kinsman redeemer? Property could be sold to anyone, regardless of kinship.

It is only when property is sold to a stranger—or to someone outside of the family—that a kinsman is called upon to redeem both the property and the kinsman-slave himself. The law gives the right of redemption to the kinsman, and as long as the kinsman was able to pay the price, the previous purchaser did not have the right to deny the kinsman his right (Lev. 25:47-50).

It seems obvious that Elimelech had sold his property when he moved to Moab, for why would he leave the land empty and unproductive? Would he not want to sell the land in Bethlehem so that he might rent or buy a house in Moab?

When Elimelech died, Naomi returned to Bethlehem but did not have the means to redeem the family estate. In such cases, the law commanded a near kinsman to buy it if he had the means to do so. In such a case, the redeemed property and the redeemed people were to serve their kinsman redeemer until the Jubilee (Lev. 25:53, 54).

The problem was that Boaz himself did not have the first right of redemption. If he had gone to the present owners of the property and offered to purchase it, they could have refused his request. The “so and so” nearest kinsman also possessed the lawful right to marry Ruth, and so Boaz could not overstep those lawful boundaries and marry her without running the risk of having the “so and so” kinsman deciding to assert his right.

The laws of redemption in Leviticus 25 did not specify the order in which redemption rights were dispensed. We see nowhere that the nearest kinsman had the first right of redemption over other kinsmen. Naomi’s case gives us this detail through an example of case law.

Redeem All or Nothing

We also learn that the right of redemption involved a package deal, where the redeemer had to redeem both the property and the people involved. In this case, the redeemer was not allowed to take what he pleased and leave the rest. It was all or nothing.

In Ruth 4:4 Boaz says,

4 So I thought to inform you, saying, “Buy it before those who are sitting here, and before the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if not, tell me that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”

“So and so” was willing to redeem the property, even as Boaz was willing to recognize his right of redemption. However, the situation changed when Boaz informed him of his duty to marry Ruth if he chose to redeem the property. Ruth 4:5 continues,

5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.”

Well, that changed everything! Boaz had gone to court by himself, keeping Ruth far away in case “so and so” might catch a glimpse of her beauty. Likewise, Boaz made sure that “so and so” knew that she was a Moabitess, which certainly did not put her in a favorable light. It is likely that “so and so” had not met Ruth and knew nothing of her faith or beauty, and Boaz made sure that he remained in a state of informed ignorance.

Ruth 4:6 says,

6 And the closest relative said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.”

We are not told how marrying Ruth might jeopardize his own inheritance. Obviously, he had the money to pay the redemption price. Marrying Ruth would not add to the cost of redemption. It may be that he was already married and that a prenuptial agreement had forbidden that he should marry another. Such was the earlier case when Jacob married the daughters of Laban (Gen. 31:50). Jacob had two concubines, the handmaids of Leah and Rachel, but they were not full wives, so this did not violate his agreement with Laban.

Whatever the case, the reason that “so and so” could not claim his redemption right was not important enough to include in the story. We are only told that “I cannot redeem it.” He did not say, “I do not wish to redeem it,” which would imply a preference. The implication is that for some reason he was not allowed to marry her, as this would violate a prior contract.

Taking the Sandal

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 Deut. 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 above 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 Deut. 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, Romans, or other people. The law of God suggests an entirely different meaning.

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 his brother’s widow. This puts the law of the sandal in an entirely new context, showing that God and the widow 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 (Mal. 1:2, 3), he was also protected by the law from losing the birthright (Deut. 21:15-17) until he had proven himself to be unworthy—that is, “a stubborn and rebellious son” (Deut. 21:18). Only a first-born son who was stubborn and rebellious could 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 a lesser 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 of redemption would not allow Jesus to redeem only a part of the earth and its people. So we read in 1 John 4:14,

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 (Col. 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 Cor. 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 include everyone who has ever lived on the earth. Thus, He will indeed be “the savior of all men” (1 Tim. 4:10), for to do otherwise would be a sin.

The Witnesses

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 (Gen. 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 (Deut. 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 (Deut. 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.