Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Other Shoe -- Ruth conclusion

The Other Shoe
(Ruth conclusion)

After Ruth has left Boaz, he goes to the town gate; a common meeting place since everybody passes by sooner or later. He finds the kinsman he mentioned earlier to Ruth, the one who is more closely related to Naomi's family than himself and whose rights and obligations take precedence over his own, and invites him to a friendly meeting. Boaz also snags ten elders of the town, older men respected for their experience, to serve as formal witnesses.  

He tells the nameless kinsman (and he never is named; interesting point) that Naomi has a piece of property belonging to her late husband Elimelech that she wishes to sell. Since the unnamed kinsman is Elimelech's closest relative, he has first dibs on the property. 

Where did this property come from? It's never been mentioned before? My NIV commentary has two possible interpretations (not necessarily the only ones):   First, that Naomi owns the land but is so destitute that she is forced to sell. It was the duty of the kinsman-redeemer to buy any land in danger of being sold outside the family.  Or, that Naomi does not own the land -- it had been sold by Elimelech before the family left for Moab -- but by law she retains the right of redemption to buy the land back. Lacking funds to do so herself, she is dependent on a kinsman to do it for her. It is the right of redemption that Naomi is "selling". 

A better question is, how did Boaz know Naomi was entering the real estate market? The account doesn't mention him talking to her. Possibly Boaz had done some research and learned about the existence of the property because he was interested in Ruth. Or possibly he and Naomi did cook up this scheme behind Ruth's back. The text doesn't say. 

The kinsman is all in favor of buying the property, until Boaz drops the (heh heh) other shoe:

   "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) 

This makes the deal less attractive. That meant any children he sired by Ruth would be entitled to a portion of his estate. (Whether any anti-Moabite prejudice has any bearing on his decision is not mentioned). In any case, the kinsman declines the offer. "You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it." 

To make the deal official, Boaz and the kinsman do an interesting piece of business with the kinsman's sandal. The text explains that this is a custom in old times, no longer in practice, to seal the deal in property transactions. (The fact that the writer feels a need to explain the practice to his readers is another piece of evidence suggesting a latish date of composition).  The Nuzi Tablets, Akkadian inscriptions from the 2nd millennium BC, mention a similar custom and this tradition might be what the prophet Amos refers to when he writes: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals." (Amos 2:6 NIV) 

But there's another possible reason for the shoe transaction. I've mentioned the Levirite law which required a man to marry his dead brother's widow in order to preserve the dead brother's line. (Deut. 25:5-6). The passage has an interesting addendum:

However, if a man does not want to marry his brother's wife, she will go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to carry on his brother's name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying "I do not want to marry her," his brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25 7-10 NIV) 

So perhaps the transaction with the sandal was a face-saving way to follow the forms of the Levirite law without publicly humiliating the putz (which might persuade him to marry Ruth after all!) Or perhaps it was just what the text says, a common formality in real estate transactions of the time.  In either case, the kinsman does not gain the stigma of being called “Unsandaled.”  But then again, neither does he gain the recognition of even having a name.  

And yes, through all this Ruth is being treated like a piece of property. Not only that, but she's being treated like an unwanted piece of property.  All I can say is that the Levirite law was intended to protect the rights and interests of the woman, who in that culture had no legal rights except as a wife.   Also, had Boaz approached the Nameless Kinsman saying "I'd like to marry the widow of Elimelech's son, is that okay by you?", then the kinsman might suspect he was playing a fast one with the property attached to her. The matter of the property had to be dealt with first. 

Now that that is settled, Boaz is free to announce his intention to marry Ruth. The witnesses all offer their best wishes: 

"May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah." (Ruth 4:11-12) 

The mention of Tamar and Judah is an interesting one with parallels to this situation; it's an earlier example of the Levirite law in effect (although before Moses codified it). It's also one of those stories you won't hear in Sunday School. We’ll be getting to it in a future essay.

Boaz and Ruth are married and she gives birth to a son, thus completing the joy of Naomi, now no longer bitter. The son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes in turn the father of a kid you might have heard about: King David.

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