Unlike the secluded events of the previous chapter, the scene here is the most public arena in any ancient Israelite city, the city gate. This was the site for important assemblies and the only proper place for legal business. Boaz knew the nearer kinsman would pass that way, so he positioned himself strategically in view. When the unnamed relative was seated, Boaz assembled the necessary elders (v. 2) and began the legal proceedings.
In v. 3 we learn for the first time of a piece of agricultural land belonging to Naomi. It was apparently a share in the common field that was Elimelech's. OT law was clear that a family's real property was inalienable (cf. 1Ki 21:3 for the strength of this sentiment). In Naomi's poverty, the land would be sold, but must be redeemed by a kinsman-redeemer so that the property was not lost to the family. These are the circumstances Boaz brought to the attention (lit. “I will uncover your ear,” v. 4) of the closer relative.
After the unnamed kinsman declared his intention to redeem Naomi's property, Boaz added a condition to the transaction: marriage to Ruth. Though scholars are uncertain, it appears that popular custom had associated levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-6) as a further responsibility of the kinsman-redeemer. The practices of the kinsman-redeemer and levirate marriage shared the same legal and societal principles. And since these were the same principles undergirding all Israelite law and custom, “the juxtaposition of redemption and levirate practices in Ruth is a natural one” (Campbell, 132-37, but see Hubbard, 49-51). Indeed, Ruth assumed Boaz's role as kinsman-redeemer included marriage (3:9, “since you are a kinsman-redeemer”).
But the closer relative was unwilling to act as kinsman if it required marriage to the Moabitess. On the surface of it, acquiring the field would be a significant expansion of his own property. But an additional wife would fragment the inheritance, and he felt it might jeopardize his own family. We may assume he was not a man of unlimited resources.
An alternative interpretation translates v. 5b as “Ruth the Moabitess, wife of the deceased, I have acquired (as a wife) to raise up the name of the deceased over his inheritance” (see Hubbard and Sasson, ad loc.). In this case, the unnamed kinsman would acquire the field, and Boaz would acquire Ruth. The first kinsman would have to buy and maintain the field but eventually pass it to Ruth's offspring who would have legal rights to the field. The kinsman would incur much expense, with only temporary gain, jeopardizing his estate and family. While this approach has much to commend it, it misses the thrust of the threshing floor agreement (3:9, 12-13) and violates “the internal consistency of the Ruth story” (Campbell, 146). The NIV is supported by LXX and the consensus of ancient versions. (See Hubbard, 58-61, for summary of the arguments).
At this juncture, the narrator supplies legal background which had become obsolete by his own day (v. 7). Presumably a considerable length of time elapsed between the events described and the present edition of the text. Although it is a matter of debate (see commentaries), a legal agreement was ratified by the strange sandal ceremony. The very uniqueness of this act would draw attention to the transaction, which was probably the intention (Morris, 306).
After the two men had agreed upon the appropriate course of action (v. 8), Boaz addressed the assembly and summarized the agreement to which they were witnesses (vv. 9-10). The assembly responded with a blessing first for Ruth and then for Boaz (vv. 11-12). For Ruth, they invoked Yahweh to make her like Rachel and Leah who built up the house of Israel. They also prayed that the family of Ruth and Boaz would be like that of Perez. Specifically they recalled that Perez, who was in fact an ancestor of Boaz (vv. 18-21), was the son of Judah by Tamar (Gen 38). In other words, they compare Boaz and Ruth to another unusual example of levirate marriage that Yahweh had blessed abundantly.
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