Under the Bible’s laws for the Jews, there was a certain institution called levirate marriage. The laws of levirate marriage are found in Deut 25:5-10. These laws required that if a man died, his brother must marry the widow and produce an heir. Here you go:
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. “And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. “But if the man does not want to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’ “Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’ “then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ “And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal removed.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, NKJV).
Under the law, the child would the child of the brother who died.
The man who undertook such a marriage was called the kinsman redeemer.
And that’s what everybody gushes over in the book of Ruth… I won’t go into the book’s storyline here, because I’ve preached on the whole book. This blog expands some of the details about how the chapter is to be interpreted. Here is the sermon I preached in 3 formats:
The standard interpretation of this book is wrong. It applies a law that should not have been applied. And right there is the big problem. The kinsman redeemer law doesn’t apply in the book of Ruth. It’s not in here. Unfortunately, it is the standard interpretation of this book, and… It wrecks the story.
What Does the Law Say?
I’m married to a lawyer. Whenever a legal discussion comes up, the first thing Margi asks is, “What does the law say?” I know this may be painful, and unsavory, but you have to think like a lawyer. Boaz is doing that, so we have to do that too. Here are FIVE LEGAL REASONS why Boaz is not Ruth’s kinsman redeemer:
- Because the law applies to brothers, and Mr So and So is not a brother. The law says, “When brothers dwell together…” Elimelek, Mahlon, and Chilion — the father and sons who died — have no brothers. But you might argue correctly that in the Bible, the word “brothers” can also extend to more distant cousins. True, though there is no biblical precedent that I’ve found applying the law beyond literal brothers. But just in case you find one, here’s another reason.
- Because the law applies to brothers “who dwell together” (Deut 25:5). When Naomi and Elimelek moved from Judah to Moab (Ruth 1), they forfeited their rights to this protection under the law. The men who died, died in Moab. It seems that part of the rationale behind the law was shepherding the Jews to stay together; keeping them from dispersing among the nations. To me, this is decisive. Under the law, neither Naomi nor Ruth qualifies for kinsman redeemer protections. The case would settle by now, but there’s more:
- Because the kinsman-redeemer laws were required obligations; they were automatic. A brother had an absolute duty to play the role of kinsman redeemer for his widowed sister-in-law. It was mandatory, not optional. Yet nothing like this happens in Ruth. Nobody came to the aid of Naomi and Ruth, simply because they had no legal rights for such aid (other than gleaning). You don’t see Naomi raising a stink, demanding her rights, etc. That’s because, legally, nobody owed her, and she knew it. We have a long passage of time — barley harvest, wheat harvest — and still, no action to help these women. They’re not entitled to it, legally speaking, which, though tragic, helps the story make its point. Because the beginning of entitlement is the end of grace.
- Because if a man refused to fulfill the role of kinsman-redeemer for his brother, he was disgraced. They spit on him. They changed his name into something like The Big Jerk (Deut 25:9,10). Yet none of this happened in Ruth. In Genesis 38, when a brother failed to perform the role of kinsman redeemer, God fried him with a bolt of lightning or something like that: [first, cover the kids' eyes... But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also. (Genesis 38:9, 10, NKJV)] There is no disgrace for anybody in Ruth simply because the people are not bound by this or any law. In fact, to apply kinsman redeemer laws is to reduce Boaz’s actions from self-sacrifical deeds of grace to reluctant duties/obligations of the law. That is, he doesn’t marry Ruth because he wants to, but because he has to! The whole story line collapses under that flawed scenario.
- Because the Author of Ruth explains the sandal-swap ritual as a signature on a legal transaction; not under the terms of Deut 25:9. Here, I believe, is the beginning of woes. A sandal swap happens in Ruth; a sandal swap happens in the law of kinsman redeemer. Even so, there are significant differences. No spit flies. No names get changed. No men are disgraced. What happens in Ruth 4 is a different, though related and similar, ritual from what happens in Deut 25. Here is all the data we need, supplied by the author of Ruth: Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging, to confirm anything: one man took off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was a confirmation in Israel. (Ruth 4:7, NKJV). In other words, the author explicitly explains the swap under the concept of a business transaction with no mention at all of the kinsman redeemer laws. Similar? Yes. Identical? Far from it.
This is why the laws of kinsman redeemer do not apply in Ruth. I know that was complicated. I hope it wasn’t painful. But it’s important because here’s what it means:
Mr So-and-So owes nothing to Naomi and Ruth.
Boaz owes nothing to Naomi and Ruth.
Nobody owes them anything.
What About Ruth 4:5?
The whole thing hinges on the translation of Ruth 4:5, a notoriously difficult verse. What makes it difficult is a footnote inserted by Rabbis centuries after Ruth was written. In that footnote, the Rabbis suggested that this verse be changed to reflect kinsman redeemer laws (yes, they were that locked in to a wrong interpretation). The specific change they made was to change the verb “to acquire” from the first to the second person form in its second occurrence in this verse.
They respected Scripture enough to leave the body of the text untouched (called a ketibh), only putting their change in a footnote (called a qere). [See the picture below.] Without frying your brain cells it’s enough to know that every English translation follows the Rabbi’s footnote instead of the original Hebrew text… I will offer some examples, underlining the verb in question. Notice the 2nd person form of the verb, and notice the discrepancies in what exactly gets acquired, and if it is required or not:
- Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance.” (Ruth 4:5, NKJV).
- 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.” (Ruth 4:5, NAS95).
- Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.” (Ruth 4:5, NIV).
- 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. (Ruth 4:5, KJV).
In the Rabbi’s footnote, the verb is in the 2nd person (you must acquire or buy). Yet this is not in the original Hebrew, so all kinds of discrepances arise over precisely what or whom Mr. So and So must or should acquire. What a needless mess!
In the original Hebrew, the verb is in the 1st person (I acquire). Even this is not without some minor textual difficulties (see the linked article described below)
There is no debate over these textual facts. The only debate is over whether to trust the original Hebrew text’s form of the verb, or to go with the footnote. Every English translation, as I’ve said, goes with the footnote, having bought into the fallacy of the kinsman redeemer. However, the Hebrew copyists got it right. Here is the translation I offered in my sermon, preserving the 1st person quality of the Hebrew verb:
- And Boaz said, On the day that you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, indeed even Ruth the Moabitess, wife of the deceased, I acquire to raise up a name for the deceased over his estate.
- The Word must always be allowed to speak for itself. While we respect traditional interpretations, we must always make our interpretations subject to Scripture, not the other way around.
- The number of text variants like this is minimal, none affecting the deep truths of Scripture.
- Far from a romantic little story tucked into the Old Testament, Ruth offers a fully formed THEOLOGY OF GRACE at the PRICE OF A SON, masterfully written, and life changing for all with ears to hear.
- My friend, Joleen Hevner, found this excellent though technical treatment of the Hebrew text here, the first thing I’ve ever seen in writing to back up my position.
- Dr Dennis R. Magary, Chair of the Old Testament and Semitic Languages Dept at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, my alma mater, first guided me to this position in our intensive study of Ruth