The Redeemer (Ruth 4)
By David Feddes
If you’re a woman without a man–no father, no husband, no grownup son to look out for you–life can be hard. Studies indicate that if you’re a woman without a man, you’re more likely to have financial problems, more likely to live in poor housing, more likely to be hassled, harassed, and harmed by men who prey on vulnerable women. No matter how much we talk about women’s rights, no matter how many laws we pass against abuse and harassment, no matter how much money our government spends on aid to women, the fact remains that it’s often difficult, even dangerous, to be a woman without a strong man to care about you and stand up for you. This is especially true if you live in a neighborhood where most people don’t respect the law and instead do whatever they feel like doing, where home and family structures have collapsed and men see women mainly as sex objects to be used and abandoned. It’s open season for women to be mistreated.
Now, if that’s true even in modern, developed societies with a stable government, well-trained police, and billion-dollar aid programs, just imagine yourself as a woman without a man in an undeveloped society with no strong central government, no police force at all, and no money set aside to help the impoverished. In such a society, your only security would be family; your only protection from poverty and predators would be a man with enough strength and standing to look out for you. Without family and without a strong man–a father, a husband, or grownup son–you’d be in very deep trouble.
That was the predicament of the two widows Naomi and Ruth. They lived in a time in Israel’s history when there was no central government and “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Naomi was an older widow who had lost her husband and both of her sons, while her daughter-in-law Ruth was a younger widow whose husband had died, leaving her childless. Without a man, these two widows would be stuck trying to live on other people’s leftovers, trying to avoid abuse from whatever bullies wanted to bother them, trying to deal with the heartbreak that they might die without leaving behind children and grandchildren.
Naomi and Ruth needed a man. And God gave them one.
In what seemed like an accidental meeting, Ruth came across an older man named Boaz. He was a man of standing and substance. When Ruth had nothing, Boaz helped her; and when Ruth felt like a nobody, Boaz encouraged her. Boaz also just “happened” to be a relative of Naomi’s dead husband, which made him a candidate under ancient biblical custom to be what the Bible calls a kinsman-redeemer, a man who could maintain the family property and carry on the family line by marrying a childless widow and having children with her.
Eventually Ruth went to Boaz and asked if he’d be willing to marry her. Boaz was delighted that Ruth would want him, and he immediately said yes. But then he added that he wasn’t really first in line. There was one closer relative of Naomi’s dead husband, and he had the first right to buy the family property and marry Ruth. After telling this to Ruth, Boaz promised to deal with the matter the very next day. Then he sent her back to Naomi loaded with a generous gift of grain.
The Bible tells about these developments in the first three chapters of the book of Ruth. Now let’s look at the fourth chapter of Ruth and find out how it all turned out. Early in the story the problem was that Ruth and Naomi had no man to serve as redeemer. By the time chapter 4 opens, however the problem has changed: now they have too many redeemers. There’s Boaz, the kind man who is eager to be Ruth’s husband because he loves her. But there’s also the other man who has the prior right to be a redeemer but isn’t the man Ruth really wants to be her husband. Ruth and Naomi could only wait and wonder which one Ruth would end up with.
Who Will Redeem?
Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat there. When the kinsman-redeemer he had mentioned came along, Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down.
Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so. Then he said to the kinsman-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our brother Elimelech. I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of those seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.
“I will redeem it,” he said. (Ruth 4:1-4)
Oh, no! Just when it looked like the love story would have a happy ending, this man wanted to be the redeemer instead of Boaz. When he heard about the chance to get more land for himself by purchasing it from Naomi, he jumped at the opportunity. Naomi was too old to marry and have more children, and so this man figured he could get the land without any additional responsibilities.
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.
At this the kinsman-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.” (4:5-6)
He loved the land, but he didn’t love the lady. He wanted more property, not more responsibility. He wanted to maintain his own name, not someone else’s. Isn’t it ironic, then, that he remains nameless in the story? The Bible doesn’t bother to record the name of this man who was so focused on his own name and property.
Once the man found out that buying the land meant getting Ruth as his wife, he said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” He made it official by taking off his sandal and giving it to Boaz, which was their way of ratifying the contract.
Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelech, Kilion, and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from the town records. Today you are witnesses!”
Boaz knew that God had designed the role of redeemer with a number of things in mind. One had to do with the piece of land God parceled out to each Israelite family. God owned all of the promised land of Israel, and he wanted each family among his people to have its own lasting place in his land. In Leviticus 25:23,25 the Lord said, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants… If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.” As redeemer Boaz was paying the necessary price to keep a destitute family from losing its inheritance and its place in the promised land. Ruth and Naomi couldn’t pay the price themselves, but their redeemer could, and he did.
And, of course, Boaz wasn’t just paying for their place in the promised land; he was also marrying Ruth. He would love her and be her constant, faithful companion. As her redeemer and her husband, he would provide for her needs, protect her from all enemies, and with her he would seek to produce new life and children and a future and a lasting name for a family that would otherwise have died out. As redeemer he would raise the name and family of the dead back to life.
What a relief and a blessing for Ruth and Naomi! No longer would they be poor. No longer would they live on leftovers. No longer would their inheritance in the promised land be in jeopardy. No longer would they be without hope of new life and future offspring and a lasting name among God’s people. No longer would their deceased husbands be dead and forgotten. Their kind and faithful redeemer changed everything.
Public Promises and Prayers
Notice that Boaz didn’t say he would try being a redeemer and husband for a while and see how it worked out. He made a promise! Boaz trusted in a God who makes and keeps promises, so Boaz was willing to make and keep promises himself. And Boaz didn’t keep his promises a secret. These days some people think it’s okay for a man and woman to live together as long as both are willing. But Boaz knew better. He knew that marriage isn’t just private; it’s public. It involves the structure of the community, and it calls for witnesses to make it official. He knew that something is wrong with a love that refuses to go public and make permanent promises in front of witnesses. So Boaz asked the elders and people of Bethlehem to be his witnesses.
They gladly agreed: “We are witnesses.” And they didn’t stop with that. They added an enthusiastic prayer for God’s blessing on Ruth and Boaz. That’s one of the great things about a public marriage among God’s people. The witnesses hold you accountable, and they also support you and pray for you. These witnesses prayed that Ruth would be like Rachel and Leah, the mothers of the Israelite nation, and they prayed that Boaz would be prominent and famous in Bethlehem and produce a family line with Ruth that would be comparable to the leading clan in Judah.
Why did they pray this way? Well, they saw Boaz and Ruth as a special couple, and at the same time they knew Boaz and Ruth needed special prayers. Now that Ruth and Boaz were getting married, would it do any good in terms of offspring? Even though Ruth was still of child-bearing age, it was a disturbing fact that she had been married to her first husband for a number of years without having any children. And it didn’t help that Boaz was an older man, well past his time of peak fertility. The chances of children didn’t look very good. But the people prayed for great offspring anyway. They knew from Israel’s past that God had a habit of starting the greatest family lines among those who at first seem unable to have children. He did it with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebekah, with Jacob and Rachel, so why not do it with Boaz and Ruth?
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.
Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son.” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
David–Israel’s greatest king! What started out as a story of two poor widows in a desperate predicament turned out to be the story of how God was laying the groundwork for the coming of a king. You see, Ruth and Naomi weren’t the only ones who needed a redeemer; all the people of Israel at that time were in a desperate predicament and needed a redeemer. The sinful, confused, oppressed nation needed a rescuer and protector. And God gave them one in the person of King David. Almost all the way through the book of Ruth, it sounds like we’re hearing a quaint story taking place among ordinary people, but it turns out to be leading up to Israel’s mightiest hero: David, the conqueror of the giant Goliath, the one who defeated Israel’s enemies and united the bickering tribes, the poet and songwriter who brought religious revival and turned the sinful nation back to the one true God.
Here we see a thread that runs all the way through the Bible, beginning in Genesis: God’s promise of a child to save his people. The book of Ruth portrays Boaz as a redeemer, but as soon as their baby Obed was born, the people of Bethlehem started referring to the newborn infant as a redeemer, praying that he would become great in Israel. That’s how future-oriented, offspring-oriented, redeemer-oriented their faith was. Their hopes and prayers for a redeemer were answered in amazing ways through David, the redeemer of the nation; but even then, David was not God’s final answer. God promised David that someone from his line, a future son of David, would eventually redeem and rule not only Israel but the world.
And God kept that promise in Jesus. We’ve seen that a number of births in the line of promise leading up to Jesus occurred only after God gave conception to couples who didn’t have much hope of having children. But in the conception of Jesus, something even more astonishing happened: a girl conceived without any man whatsoever. Through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary conceived and gave birth to the Savior of the world. And where was Jesus born? In Bethlehem, the very town that was home to Boaz and Ruth and David. The name Bethelehem means “house of bread,” and it was there that Jesus, the bread of life who meets our deepest hungers, was born.
Now do you see why the story of Ruth and Boaz is so important? Historians like it because it gives us a glimpse of Jewish history and customs from 3,000 years ago, but that’s not why it’s in God’s Book. Literary authorities, such as the great Goethe, have called it the most perfectly crafted short story in world literature, but that’s not why it’s in the Bible. The book of Ruth has a place in the Word of God because it shows that God has a plan and a path for each of his people; it gives a glimpse and a foreshadowing of what a redeemer can do for us; and it shows the unfolding of another stage in God’s plan to provide the great redeemer who was yet to come. God’s gift of Boaz as a redeemer for Ruth and Naomi was just the beginning. His gift of David as redeemer for beleaguered Israel was the next great step. And it was all leading up to the gift of God’s own Son to be the redeemer of people from every language and people and nation.
What Boaz did as redeemer, Jesus does in a much bigger way. As redeemer Jesus takes responsibility to deal with our problems. As redeemer he pays the debt for sin which we could never pay by giving his precious blood for us. As redeemer Jesus rescues and protects his people from all who would harass and harm us, driving back even our most awful enemies, Satan and his demons. As redeemer Jesus secures a permanent place in God’s promised land for all who trust him, and through his resurrection he guarantees an everlasting inheritance in heaven. As redeemer Jesus gives Christians and their families a lasting name in God’s covenant book of life. And as redeemer, Jesus not only provides these blessings and benefits but (like Boaz) becomes the loving and tender husband and companion of his bride, the church.
The book of Ruth shows that God has a mysterious but marvelous plan to provide a redeemer for those who trust in him. It’s quite a story, with scenes of grief and heartbreak, of kindness and generosity, of renewed hope and confidence, of romance and love, of babies and mothers and grandmothers. It’s bursting with all the plot twists and emotions that make a great story, and then, as we get close to the end, we get one last stunner as we learn that Ruth and Boaz’s baby Obed turned out to be the grandfather of King David and the ancestor of Jesus.
But the book isn’t quite finished. The last part of Ruth is a genealogy, a list of ten names covering several hundred years leading up to David: Perez, Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon, Salmon, Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David. Isn’t that a letdown? After a story brimming with emotion and bursting with surprises, the book seems to end with a thud. Why end an exciting story with a boring list of names? Actually, the Bible contains quite a number of genealogies in various books. If we wonder why a fascinating story like the book of Ruth ends with a boring list of names, we will also have to wonder why the fascinating story of Jesus Christ found in the gospel of Matthew begins with a list of names. We might find these lists of names boring, but God seems to think they are important. Why? What’s he trying to say?
One thing God is saying is that he cares about individual people. We might see a dry list of names we know little about; but God knows every name, he knows the person who had that name, he knows every detail of that person’s life, and for each name God knows an eternal soul that is still a person right now and will be forever. Not every name in the Bible’s lists is a big shot, but each one matters to God and has a place in his plan. People like Ruth and Boaz weren’t really movers and shakers in their time. They lived in a period when the headlines belonged to nasty gangs and ruthless foreign politicians and violent, colorful heroes. God had a hand in those people and events that made the headlines, as the Bible book of Judges makes plain, but God also was at work in the lives of ordinary people who weren’t among the movers and shakers. The events in the book of Ruth and the list of names at the end are proof that individual people matter immensely to God.
But there’s a second major message God gives us in that list of names. The message is this: Every story is part of a bigger story. The book of Ruth tells us about certain events and actions and feelings of a few people living in a certain time, but in the final genealogy, God shows that although every individual matters to him, no individual is the whole story. Boaz is one name on the list, but he’s one among many.
Some of us act as though nothing in this world matters except what happens to me and the few people I happen to know. But God’s plan isn’t just about me and the people I happen to know; his plan is as wide as the world, as wide as the entire universe. Some of us have a bad habit of acting as though the world started five minutes before we were born and will vanish the moment we die. But God’s plan is much bigger than the lifetime of any one person. The almighty, everlasting God deals not just in moments and days and years but in generations–and centuries and millennia and eternities! The full significance of my life and actions may not become apparent in my lifetime. It may not show up until a few generations down the road, or even until eternity. Meanwhile, I walk by faith, not by sight. I don’t always see where I fit in the big picture, but God does.
Perhaps that’s why the book of Ruth ends with a list of names that run from generation to generation. This isn’t just a gripping story of personal tragedy followed by a happy ending; it’s a story of God’s plan unfolding in the lives of ordinary people and making them part of something amazing and glorious. It’s a story of ordinary people facing troubles, trusting God, making promises, keeping promises, saying prayers, seeing God answer those prayers, doing what they can and counting on God to bless them, and somehow, in it all, being caught up in God’s glorious plan and linked to God’s great Redeemer.
That message of a divine plan and a faithful redeemer for ordinary people is what you and I need more than anything. Without knowing God has a plan, your life can seem senseless. Without knowing you have a Redeemer to pay your debts, provide for your future, give you new life, and love you forever, you will end up wretched, helpless, and despairing.
So believe God’s Book, the Bible, and put your faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Know that everything in your life happens according to God’s plan for you, and know that his plan for you personally is part of a grand and glorious plan that he has for the whole universe. Know that all of it relates to your Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that he walks with you each step of the journey. You may encounter many twists and turns along the way, but it’s all part of the path God has planned for you. You may endure many troubles and obstacles on your road to glory, but you will get there. Your Redeemer will make sure of it.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.