“I will redeem it,” he said.
Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you will also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it, because it might endanger my estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.” (Ruth 4:4b-6)
After Ruth’s bold request of marriage and protection at the threshing floor, Boaz springs to action. He loads Ruth down with 80 lbs of grain and sends her home before the sun peaks over the horizon. When Ruth arrives home, she tells her surprising tale, only to hear her mother-in-law reply, “the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”
While these women are talking, Boaz is already on the move. He arrives at the city gate – the place where official business gets done – and waits for the important parties to arrive. When everyone is there and situated, Boaz begins his explanation.
The conversation that follows can be difficult for us to grasp. Much of it is understated, because it was simply understood. Our lack of familiarity with Holy Scripture (myself included) only exacerbates the problem. Boaz’s actions are more than a romantic gesture. Boaz acts sacrificially for the sake of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.
In the Bible, the sole economic unit was the extended family. The prosperity and stability of these family units was tied to the land – land that had been given by God to these families to work. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi has no means to work her land or continue her family name. In order for this family to be restored and protected, God commanded that this family needed to be ‘redeemed.’ A close relative, a guardian-redeemer, could (or, rather, should) use his own funds to purchase back the land for the family and, in the case of their being no heirs, marry the widow and produce a son who would be the legal son of the dead first husband.
All of this was part of God’s provision for widows and orphans, who had no family and therefore no means of survival. In Naomi’s case, whoever acted as a redeemer for her family would not only have to buy the land out of his own pocket (not cheap), not only marry Ruth and bring her into the family, but when Ruth had a son, that land would be the inheritance of that son, who was never a legal child of the redeemer anyway, but would be considered a son of Elimelek.
In other words, the guardian-redeemer would have to put up a large chunk of his wealth and the potential inheritance meant for his children to buy land that would go to another family. A large part of his nest egg would be gone with no chance its fruit would go to his heirs.
Knowing this, I think we can begin to understand the guardian-redeemer’s hesitation at Boaz’s request. Once he learns all that is at stake, the cost is too much for him to bear. He chooses his family’s future over Elimelek’s.
I understand this man. As parenthood approaches for Olga and I, I have been getting more cautious. I have found myself less generous as I consider how to support our child and what sort of future I want for my family. The guardian-redeemer looks bad and selfish in this passage, but I get it. God’s command is hard here. It’s costly, and not only for us individually. For Ruth and Naomi to be redeemed, someone would need to love God enough to risk their future.
This makes what Boaz does more amazing. We don’t know if he already had children or not. Either way, this purchase does not increase their inheritance, but decreases it. Did Boaz love Ruth? Did he truly want to marry her? Undoubtedly, but the cost still exists. By obeying God, Boaz risks his own family’s future for the sake of another’s.
What would it look like for us to follow the example of Boaz? I doubt that for many of us it would mean buying land for someone else. Our economic and social reality no longer includes the role of the guardian-redeemer. But there are still ways our families can choose to invest in the lives of others. There are still ways we can include the marginalized and even sacrifice so that others might live secure.
How are we investing, even risking, for the sake of other families, for the sake of other people?
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