THE BOOK OF RUTH 4

A Study By Reverend Christopher Cooke

WEEK 4

THE PEACEABLE COMMUNITY [SAKENFELD]
BARTERING FOR A BRIDE [TULL]

At the Town Gate
4:1-12

In Chapter 1, two women discussed marriage, children and economics. In this chapter, two men do so. Ruth carried out Naomi’s plan during the secrecy of the night. Boaz carries out his plan in the full light of day.

Assembling the Participants (4:1-2)

Boaz does not call on Mr So-and-So to settle the matter. Instead he creates a very formal and public context for this conversation. Boaz stations himself by the city gate at rush hour when the nearer kinsman would be likely to pass by on the way to the fields. And just as by God’s providence, Ruth went to Boaz’s field and then Boaz arrived, so here the nearer kinsman arrives right on cue.
“Friend” is not an adequate translation. Mr So-and-So or “what’s his name” would be better. Boaz would surely have known his name. Is he unsettling the other man from the outset? The narrator is certainly devaluing the man.
Boaz assembles ten male witnesses but it is likely other people, including women, would have gathered to see what excitement was to be had. Indeed, more people are added as the story unfolds.

The Transaction (4:3-6)
Boaz Sets the Trap (3-4); Boaz Springs the Trap (5-6)

Patricia Tull notes that the conversation is highly complex. Though its outcome is clear, exactly what is happening to get there is, for a number of reasons, somewhat less than clear. Katharine Sakenfeld argues, with others, that as the whole Book of Ruth is well written and plotted, this would have been clearer to the first hearers and readers. But we just do not fully understand what is going on today.

Three different Biblical laws or practices have been cited:
1. Levirate Marriage – but it doesn’t really fit the circumstances and it does not involve land.
2. Next-of-kin/Redeemer – will fit the land transaction but not marriage.
3. The Jubilee Year – this was the year in which all land was returned to its ancestral owners and all slaves were freed. It happened after every 49 years and the land was left fallow for the 50th year.

It transpires that Naomi has some land after all! Of course when they left in a time of famine, it would not have been worth much. It may well be that it could not be redeemed during harvest time as the standing crops would belong to those who sowed them. The basis of all land ownership was that all land belonged to its giver, God, and was held in trust by members of the community. The Jubilee laws also suggest there was a right for lands to return to the ancestral owners. Boaz says he is giving Mr So-and-So the opportunity to buy this land first. This is a recognizable practice of the usual Next-of-kin/Redeemer transactions.

I like Patricia Tull’s idea of a trap. Mr So-and-So is prepared to buy the land. So Mr So-and-So is not only the first man who should have helped Naomi, he also has the means to do so! Whether or not the property actually exists, Boaz has smoked out the family resources and motivations.

One problem would be removed if we could follow the Revised English Bible translation with absolute confidence. Some Hebrew texts support it. In that translation, Boaz says that he, Boaz, will be acquiring Ruth the Moabite i.e. marrying her. That would be an honourable thing to state in this transaction. Mr So-and-So might well redeem and purchase the land if he thinks it is worthwhile financially. But if Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son, the son would be able to redeem the land back. If that were to occur, or the Year of Jubilee was in the offing then Mr So-and-So would probably back away. It was not worth the investment.

Perhaps the trap is a moral one rather than a legal one. Remember this happens before ten male witnesses (and perhaps numerous women) and therefore the whole of Bethlehem will hear about what happens. Mr So-and-So is prepared to benefit financially from Naomi although he has done nothing to help Naomi in her hour of need. He has done nothing to help Ruth either. Mr So-and-So refuses the whole package and therefore acknowledges the validity of the argument.

Whichever translation we follow, Boaz has cleverly and congenially set a trap for Mr So-and-So, for whom the value of this investment has suddenly plummeted. Mr So-and-So awkwardly backs out of the deal.

We notice that Boaz uses the crassest language about Ruth. He doesn’t want to lose her! The use of language is strategic.

Boaz does not view Ruth as mere property nor does she view him merely as a meal ticket. [Patricia Tull]

Declaration of the Decision (4:7-10)

The agreement between Mr So-and-So and Boaz is formalized by a ritual whereby Mr So-and-So removes his sandal. This has rather bemused commentators.
It is at this stage we learn from Boaz’s lips which of the sons was Ruth’s husband: Mahlon. Again we are probably not talking about formal levirate marriage (usually confined to brothers), but it would be true that the family and the community would remember the story leading up to a birth of a son.
The reference to Ruth’s ethnic background once again by Boaz because he wants to acknowledge what everyone is thinking anyway.

Witnessing and Blessing (4:11-12)

The official witnesses and all the people present agree to the arrangements. This is an important occasion for the whole community.
The community expresses its prayer that Ruth (who is not mentioned by name) will fulfil the same role as Rachel and Leah: Jacob’s wives who fathered the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is remarkable because Jacob was instructed to search out an Israelite wife and not marry a foreigner. But Ruth is reckoned with them.
The use of Bethlehem and Ephrathah links to the beginning of the Book and to David’s heritage.
The blessing ends with a reference to Perez, Tamar and Judah – a rather shocking story where levirate marriage is combined with incest. However, 1 Chronicles and Nehemiah make reference to the descendants of Perez who return from exile in Babylon. This reference may have been very pertinent for those listening to the story.
The story of Perez’s birth is also rather shocking. But we have here another story where a woman, like Ruth, challenges the norms of society.
In Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus (chapter 1), four mothers are mentioned but many more were known: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba. All have challenging stories surrounding them. Perhaps this prepares for Mary’s situation.

The Household of Boaz
4:13

Patricia Tull = “in a single verse, Boaz and Ruth are wedded, bedded, and blessed with a son for whose conception God is given credit”.
After all, Ruth has not conceived when married to Mahlon. Lots of women in the Old Testament, from Sarah onwards, have trouble conceiving until God intervenes. This is mirrored by Elizabeth in the New Testament. And Mary also conceives by the Holy Spirit.

The Women and Naomi
4:14-17

In a reprise and reversal of chapter 1, the women of Bethlehem are again pictured in conversation with Naomi. This time, the women speak and Naomi is silent, the words are of joy rather than calamity. Ruth is highlighted rather than ignored.
We might have expected the next of kin/redeemer they refer to would be Boaz. But the context makes it clear that it is Ruth’s son who is referred to. Again it is the general use of the word that is relevant: the son will secure the future of the family.
The Lord is blessed for reversing Naomi’s situation. The women go on to say that Ruth is worth more to Naomi than seven sons = seven is an important round number. It is Ruth’s faithfulness, kindness, loyalty, hesed, to Naomi that has led to this outcome. There is a looking forward to David as the same expression is used between David and Jonathan.
Naomi is not breast-feeding but cuddling her beloved grandson as a doting grandmother – and one who had lost her husband and sons. Naomi does not adopt the boy. Obed is the answer to Naomi’s predicament in chapter 1.

A Longer Genealogy
4:18-22

The final genealogies serve as a punchline at the end of the story. This genealogy, as Katharine Sakenfeld writes, bristles with technical problems. She writes that we should look at the important positions which are the round perfect numbers of seven and ten. Seventh is Boaz and tenth is David. Ruth’s position as a near ancestor of David is further underlined.
Frederic Bush: Recent study suggests that genealogies were expressions or mnemonics of how kinship in such societies was expressed. There is some natural telescoping with the important names of the founders being remembered as well as the more recent generations but some names in between have been lost. With this in mind, a case can be made that this is not an insipid anti-climax but a worthy closure which underlines the story’s message. Berlin’s view should be accepted: there is a poetic function of the genealogy as a coda, a story of conclusion that completes the narrative of the story.
Differing genealogies can be in use at the same time: Family inheritance claims might use the Elimelech-Mahlon line, but in the political sphere, the Boaz-David genealogy was vital.

“Not only does the connection with David elevate the story, but the character of the story elevates David”. [A. Berlin]

Questions

At the Town Gate
4:1-12
Assembling the Participants (4:1-2)

Why doesn’t Boaz just knock on the door of the nearer kinsman?
Why does Boaz – and the narrator – not name him? The best translation is something like: Mr So-and-So.

The Transaction (4:3-6)
Tull: Boaz Sets the Trap (3-4); Boaz Springs the Trap (5-6)

Why hasn’t Mr So-and-So come forward to help Naomi before this?
What do you think of Boaz’s tactics?
What is going on exactly? [Please inform all Biblical scholars as they cannot agree – Frederic Bush devotes 40 pages to these four verses!]
Why does Boaz use such crass language about Ruth?

Three different Biblical laws or practices have been cited:
1. Levirate Marriage – but it doesn’t really fit the circumstances and it does not involve land.
2. Next-of-kin/Redeemer – will fit the land transaction but not marriage.
3. The Jubilee Year – this was the year in which all land was returned to its ancestral owners and all slaves were freed. It happened after every 49 years and the land was left fallow for the 50th year.

Declaration of the Decision (4:7-10)

Why does Boaz still refer to Ruth being from Moab?

Witnessing and Blessing (4:11-12)

What do you know of the people referred to in this blessing?

The Household of Boaz
4:13

“In a single verse, Boaz and Ruth are wedded, bedded, and blessed with a son for whose conception God is given credit”. [Patricia Tull]
Does the role of God in the conception remind you of other Biblical stories?
Who is the central figure here?

The Women and Naomi
4:14-17

How does this compare with the interchange between Naomi and the women of Bethlehem in chapter 1?
Particularly as it concerns Ruth?

A Longer Genealogy
4:18-22

Is this an anti-climax to the Book of Ruth?
“Not only does the connection with David elevate the story, but the character of the story elevates David”. [A. Berlin]
Do you agree with this statement?

Comment by Rev. Christopher

Most commentators stress the importance of hesed in the Book of Ruth. It is difficult to give an adequate English translation. It is variously translated as kindness, loyalty, faithfulness or lovingkindness and it incorporates all these connotations if not more. Many of the Psalms proclaim the hesed that God showers on his people.

The Book of Ruth shows hesed working through the main characters of the story.

Katharine Sakenfeld: Ruth and Boaz, and to a lesser extent, Naomi, chooses to act in ways that promote the well-being of others. The praise accorded to Ruth and Boaz generally comes from other characters in the story. Ruth and Boaz display hesed.
Patricia Tull: In the Book of Ruth, humans are not contrasted by their role as friends or enemies but how far they are conduits of hesed.

E.F. Campbell: The three main characters both give and receive. They celebrate the portrayal of “kindness”. “The Ruth story does not represent the style of life which exercises caring responsibility as a forgone conclusion for God’s people. It is portrayed as attainable but elusive”.

It is Frederic Bush who gives the greatest consideration to this theme.
The narrator primarily advances his plot through dialogue. It is through this dialogue that the characters reveal the hesed.
1. The loving loyalty, faithfulness and obedience of Ruth, the Moabitess, expressed in her commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi which transcended religion and nation.
2. The kindness, graciousness and sagacity of Boaz, expressed in his benevolence and his faithfulness to family responsibilities both in marrying Ruth and redeeming the field of Elimelech for Naomi which transcended the claims of self-interest.
3. The loving concern of Naomi for the welfare of her daughter-in-law expressed in her risky scheme to induce Boaz to marry Ruth.
4. God’s gracious provision of fruitfulness for field and womb. Naomi’s life is restored and her old age is provided for reversing the death and emptiness of the early part of the story.
5. This story of hesed was of utmost significance for its denouement with the preservation of the family line that led from Perez through Boaz and Obed to David.

“Thus, the book of Ruth affirms that God often effects his purposes in the world through the ordinary motivations and events of his people – ordinary people like Ruth and Boaz, or like you and me, the ripple of whose lives stir little beyond the pool of their own community – and in particular through their acts of gracious and loving kindness that go beyond the call of duty”. [Frederic Bush]

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