No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, ‘Come over, friend; sit down here.’ And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, ‘Sit down here’; so they sat down. He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.’ So he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ At this, the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one party took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Acquire it for yourself’, he took off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
This deal is intended to fail. Ruth’s name is left out of the conversation until the unnamed kinsman has agreed to buy the land. Result: a U-turn. The man wants the land but not the foreign woman who comes with it. He takes off his sandal, echoing an earlier practice which allowed a widow, whose husband’s next-of-kin refused to marry her, to pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face, publicly shaming him (Deut. 25). Removing a sandal became common practice ‘to confirm a transaction’. However, refusing to give the woman a home and perpetuate her husband’s name was still seen as shameful. The Israelite (whose name is not known…poetic justice?) is less faithful to God’s Law than the Moabite woman, whose steadfast love is described three times as hesed – God’s lovingkindness (Ruth 1:8,2:20, 3:10).
Ruth’s words to Naomi are fulfilled: ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ The public affirmation and blessing of Ruth and Boaz by the people and the elders (4:11-12) places her among some of the great women of Israel. Today she is remembered as an ancestor of David, and named in the lineage of Jesus.
Ruth’s story is about hunger and fear, love and commitment; it is about courage and risk – walking into an unknown place needing bread and welcome. This is the reality of life for many people today, fleeing hunger, poverty and war. The story is also about a society providing ways for people to survive: wheat left at the edge of the fields; laws which give support and security to widows, including Ruth the woman of Moab, ancient enemy of Israel.
Today in the UK our politicians have deliberately set out to create ‘a hostile environment’ for immigrants. Companies and councils drive spikes into the ground to prevent homeless people from sleeping in shelter. What welcome would Ruth find here today?
God who looked on all that you made and declared it good, Christ who spread out your arms on a cross in loving embrace, Spirit who came in wind and flame to inspire and empower: teach us again that your love is for all and inspire us to challenge injustice and prejudice wherever we find it. Amen
The Rev’d Heather Pencavel is a retired Minister and a member of Thornbury URC.