What irritates me is the lengths to which pseudo interpretations have been stretched and forwarded to justify Ruth as a Book, worthy of being placed in the canon of the Bible.
Let us get some facts in here. Facts which are narrated in the Book of Ruth, shorn of all interpretations.
Ruth was a Moabitess, married to one Mahlon and his brother being Chilion; her husband Mahlon and his brother also died; with no male left surviving, Naomi the mother-in-law, was left with two of her daughters-in-law Ruth & Orpah; despite the Liberty granted by her mother in law to her daughters-in-law to go back to Moab, Ruth’s people, Ruth chooses to be with Naomi, but Orpah after a customary leave-taking parts from the other two.
Up to here there is no conflict of facts.
The trouble starts with the entry of Boaz, a man with means, as shown in the Bible, and a man of tremendous Character, which neither gets highlighted by the interpreters of the book RUTH. I think the trap that the interpreters had fallen into is that as ‘Ruth’ had been made the name of the book, they probably feel that they are obligated to believe that Ruth ought to be the protagonist, like Esther became in the book of ESTHER, much later in history, of this book too.
Naomi returns with her daughter-in-law to Bethlehem Judah, the place of her dead husband Elimelech.
Naomi, calls herself ‘Mara’ and elicits sympathy from her people citing that she who had left for Moab, during those years of famine, had returned having lost her husband and her two sons too.
Ruth takes the leave of her mother in law to go gleaning in the fields as that was the season of barley harvest and also they didn’t have the wherewithal for their meals. Ruth, serendipitously reaches the fields of Boaz, her kinsman once removed on her deceased husband’s side.
Boaz notices this woman, enquires his servants and gets a background feed on Ruth. Instructs, his overseer of the harvest, to be kind and even let some of the sheaves fall purposely so that Ruth could glean and gather well.
This Book of Ruth, is so truthful to facts, that an ignorant reader is likely to be misled into emphasising on facts which could advance his or her own interpretation on Ruth and Naomi instead of the real protagonist Boaz.
If not for Boaz’ Character this whole book would have petered into a Book that depicted the deployment of feminine charm to ensnare an older man with means, like Judith in the Apocrypha, and thereby survive the insecurities heaped by circumstances on an unsuspecting young woman.
Neither are Naomi’s instructions to her daughter-in-law Ruth edifying, nor the words uttered by Ruth in the night to a half drunk man exemplary. Yet this Book of Ruth stands as a monument to the character of Boaz, one of the forebears in the line of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus.
Naomi hears the kindness shown by Boaz to Ruth and her scheme is revealed in her utterances thus:
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
When such instructions were given by Naomi to Ruth, the intentions don’t seem very spiritual. But to be fair, when humans are driven to abject poverty they could be forced by circumstances to succumb to any degrading job.
The irony is that Naomi had instructed her daughter-in-law ‘he will tell thee what thou shalt do’, instead Ruth tells Boaz the most appalling thing by shamelessly telling Boaz: “I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.”
It is at this point that the character of Boaz is revealed, despite being inebriated Boaz ever so gently spurns her, and refrains not only from taking advantage of a helpless young widow but assures her that he would do the ‘kinsman’s part’, if the closer kinsman refuses to do his part.
Deuteronomy 25 deals with this ‘kinsman’s part’:
5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.
6 And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.
7 And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.
8 Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her;
9 Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house.
10 And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.
Boaz remembers this law or had contemplated this earlier and probably was working on it, when these two women jumped the gun and made all those indelible statements of disrepute thereby letting many preachers and Christian evangelists either gloss over the statements of Naomi and Ruth or end up sanctifying the profane.
Can you believe it, in one of the Pentecostal churches once a very senior pastor, who later went on to become the Chief Pastor of the Church said that Naomi was symbolic of the Church which prepared the individual to be worthy of the Second Coming of Christ preparing individuals the way Naomi prepared Ruth for the tryst with Boaz – some interpretation and some spirituality.
All these interpretations crop up because one thinks that anything relating to ‘sex’ is anathema.
It was Boaz who with his sanest of interpretations at that spur of the moment deflected the idea of an ‘opportune sexual encounter’ into a ‘Necessity-Right’ paradigm and worked out a solution.
If in Mercantile Law, the Law follows the Merchant, in life Laws are built around ‘order & necessity’.
That Ruth was nubile, though a widow, was recognised by Naomi and an ‘undefiled bed’ had to be provided since she did not have any more sons, Naomi couldn’t. But she saw an opportunity in Boaz.
But why didn’t she work on the kinsman who was closer than Boaz? Maybe Naomi didn’t know; Maybe Boaz was a wealthier man and probably unmarried; maybe Naomi just wanted to keep the wolf away from her doors and wanted Ruth to become a concubine and reap the economic benefits from Boaz.
But Boaz excels over all these human predicaments, in which these two women were caught up, and equitably tunes the law, from its application as was then applicable.
He applies his candidature but finds out the hierarchy and realises that he was next in line after the first and consequently DOES EVERYTHING WHICH RUTH WAS SUPPOSED TO DO.
The Deuteronomy law was to be a claim by the widow and not by a suitor. Here the suitor argues with the first kinsman and there is ‘no spitting’ – (thankfully) as Ruth is still kept in the background.
Further, what is mentioned at Deuteronomy was the law applicable to brothers, not kinsmen. The law relating to Kinsmen and their claims are enumerated in Leviticus 25 chapter and the relevant portion talks of the Redemption rights and the Reversionary Rights which accrue in the Jubilee year.
25 If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold.
On a conjoint reading of the above mentioned portions of the Bible, the law relating to Redemption was applicable on the 50 th year, which was the Jubile year. On that Jubilee year every person who was the inheritor of the property is to be put back in possession of that property which he had ‘sold’ during his times of need. Elimelech, when he left Bethlehem-Judah to escape the famine probably ‘sold’, his inheritance to someone and it could be redeemed by paying for the value till the next Jubilee year. Typically, the arrangement as envisaged in the Bible is one of usufruct Lease till Jubilee year for the purchaser and Mortgage money to the seller with a compulsory reversionary provision on the Jubilee year. During those years of lease/ mortgage the property could be redeemed by the seller or a kinsman.
Using these provisions of law, Boaz concocts a story to shoo away a kinsman who was willing to ‘Redeem’ the property of Elimelech and stumps the kinsman with a condition that the day he bought the property, that kinsman has to marry Ruth too.
Chapter 4:5 reads thus:
Then said Boaz, What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi, thou must buy it also of Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.
I can’t remember any passage from the Old Testament of the Bible, connecting the ‘right to redeem’ with that of the ‘obligation to marry the widow without a child’.
Boaz brings in the nexus. When a man redeems a property as a kinsman of the inheritor he pay only the mortgage money till the remainder of the next Jubilee year; but his advantage is that he becomes the INHERITOR OF THE PROPERTY, leaving it with him for his heirs to possess in the future. The first kinsman was EAGER to redeem.
The purpose of ‘redemption’ was the right vested in a kinsman to retain the property with that Tribe primarily and with the family, if possible. But to raise the name of the dead brother was exclusively cast on the brother of the deceased brother. So what is the kinsman’s part that Ruth initiates with the inebriated Boaz in the dead of the night on the threshing floor? Boaz realised the need of a young widow without a child expressed by Ruth so ‘ruthlessly’ and builds on it. The first kinsman is made to realise that the provision was not merely disposal of a ‘right’ but the presence of a claimant who stood second in line for acquisition of that ‘Right to redeem’ the property of Elimelech. Boaz makes an ASSERTION that he would raise an heir to the memory of Mahlon. An assertion that the property thus redeemed would go as an inheritance to the first child in the name of Mahlon.
This underlying fulfilment of the intent of the law of not only giving the kinsman the right to redeem the immovable property but also to secure the life of a young widow’s physical needs were integrated well and duly performed by Boaz.
Ruth’s necessity was met on the conjugal bed of Boaz; the property was redeemed and Naomi was probably put in possession; Mahlon’s memory was also sustained; Obed was born and probably enjoyed, possessed and had the title to that immovable property as an inheritor of Mahlon’s inheritance; all these happened because BOAZ UNOBTRUSIVELY DID THE RIGHT THINGS AND FOUND ACCEPTABLE WAYS BY INTERPRETING THE LAW AS INTENDED BY GOD.
Is there a better example of an inebriated person dealing with one of the most tantalising situations in life with such probity, in the whole Bible?