He Is Our Near Kinsman
The title of Leon Wood’s book, The Distressing Days of the Judges, well describes Israel’s troubled era from the death of Joshua to the coming of Samuel. Judges records the cyclical pattern of Israel’s sin with foreign nations as it worshipped their gods, was enticed by their goods and women, and came under their domination—all until, out of desperation, the people prayed for relief. The Lord then graciously sent judges such as Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson to deliver his covenant people until the next cycle of sin brought distress necessitating another judge. The historical account given under divine inspiration in Ruth explains the setting, people, and situation:
“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there…”
Faith in a Famine
Relocating to a foreign land during famine was not unusual. Famine prompted Jacob to seek food in another country and then relocate to Egypt at the behest of his son Joseph. Yet in Ruth, Elimelech moved his family to settle among the Moabites. This was a risky relocation, because the Moabites were a nation prohibited from entering “the assembly of the Lord…forever” (Deuteronomy 23:4). The Moabites did not assist the Israelites during the Exodus. In fact, they actively hindered them, recruiting Balaam to curse the Jews while they passed through their land (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). For this Moabites were to be excluded from Israel’s worship.
The Moabites were also strangely blessed. They descended from Moab, Lot’s son conceived through incest with his eldest daughter (Genesis 19:37). When the Lord decided to destroy the cities of the plain, Lot’s family was allowed to flee because God remembered it for Abraham’s sake (Genesis 19:29). Lot was Abraham’s nephew, so there was a family relationship with Moab, but more importantly there were crumbs from the covenantal table that fell to Moab because of Abraham. Disturbing as the begetting of Moab was, God favored Lot for Abraham’s sake because he was associated with the covenant people.
When Elimelech and Naomi moved their household to Moab, they settled on its plateau east of the Dead Sea from Judah. In the years that followed, Elimelech and their two sons died. This left Naomi a widow with two widowed Moabite daughters in law—Orpah and Ruth. Naomi had no reason to stay in Moab, and she held property in Israel, so when she heard the fields of Ephrathah (the area of Bethlehem) abounded and were ripe unto harvest, she purposed to return. Naomi told her daughters in law to stay in Moab because she was too old to have another husband and even if she married and bore sons, the women would have to wait a long time for the boys to mature (1:12-14). Naomi held resentment towards God for her difficulties in a foreign land.
As Naomi set out for Bethlehem, Orpah and Ruth joined her. She stopped early in the journey to tell them it would be better if they returned to their Moabite families. Orpah consented, but Ruth resolutely refused:
"Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (1:16, 17).
It is easy to see similarities between the books of Ruth and Esther. Both are named after women challenged by difficult situations who contributed significantly to redemptive history. In the book of Esther, Esther was a blood member of the covenant people whose intervention saved the Jews from destruction. On the other hand, Ruth came under the Covenant through faith. This Moabitess would soon become a crucial link in the chain of generations that would see fruition in Christ fulfilling the seed plot of Genesis 3:15.
The Harvest Is Full
When the women arrived in Bethlehem, it was at the beginning of barley harvest. The town wondered if it was really Naomi and became “stirred because of them” (1:19). When questioned by the people Naomi indignantly responded:
"Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?" (1:20, 21)
Why was Naomi taken aback by the Bethlehemites calling her Naomi? Naomi’s Hebrew name means “my delight,” but here she protests that she had no delight and her name should instead be Marah. She believed her experiences warranted an appropriate nickname. The Hebrew word marah was important because the first camp site for the Jews when they fled Egypt was at the spring called marah. It was thus named because its water was bitter, but then God sweetened it miraculously through Moses (Exodus 15:23ff). Would Naomi’s bitterness be sweetened and would she, as was her name, ever delight again?
Chapter two begins with important information foreshadowing future events—there was a relative of Elimelech named Boaz, but the women’s immediate issue was obtaining grain for bread. Ruth asked Naomi if she could go to the fields and glean. Gleaning was a ministry to the poor stipulated by the merciful grace of the Law of God in Leviticus 19:9, 23:22. When a farmer’s land was harvested workers could neither reap the corners of the field nor recover sheaves of grain that fell to the ground when the barley was bundled. Ruth found a field where gleaning opportunities seemed best, and “it just so happened” that she came “to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (1:3). While she worked, Boaz visited his acreage to see how the harvest was progressing. He noticed Ruth and inquired of his men about her identity. The workers said she was Naomi’s daughter in law. Boaz instructed her to stay on his land, work with his young women in the harvest, drink his water, and be confident that the men would not harass her. He even had sheaves dropped for her to increase her harvest. Ruth appreciatively thanked Boaz, but his response shows appreciation for her faithfulness to the Lord and Naomi:
"All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!" (2:11-12)
At this point, Ruth does not know Boaz is a relative, but he knew she was related to him through Elimelech’s son Mahlon (2:6). After threshing her grain, Ruth went home. Naomi asked her about the day because of the bounty of grain she brought into the house. She determined that Ruth had just so happened to work in Boaz’s field. She expressed her thoughts enthusiastically:
“May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a near kinsman of ours, one of our redeemers." (2:20)
These words show a transition in Naomi’s thought. Formerly she felt abandoned by the Lord; now she shows immense gratitude. The word translated “redeemers” is a form of the Hebrew rendered in Roman characters goel. This occurrence is the first of twenty-three in the book of Ruth with the last one in 4:14. In 2:20 goel is refined by the Hebrew phrase preceding it that is translated “our near kinsman.” Boaz was a kinsman-redeemer. Naomi did not say Boaz was merely a redeemer of hers, but a redeemer of ours. Ruth, even as a Moabitess, was a member of Elimelech’s family and in the covenant household benefiting from the Law. Redeemers provided widows with hope and gave them opportunities to overcome the loss of their husbands. One aspect of the kinsman-redeemer was the Levirate that provided the way for a deceased man without a son to have one through his brother marrying his widow. Even though marriage to a deceased brother’s wife is incestuous in Leviticus 18:16, 20:21, the Levirate was an exception that showed God’s mercy for perpetuating the generations of the deceased. The first son born to the redeemer and his brother’s widow was given the deceased brother’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The kinsman-redeemer could not only act through the Levirate but also regarding property transactions, ransoming one from slavery, and avenging a slain kinsman.
Under His Wings
Chapter three has Naomi telling Ruth how to approach Boaz to obtain redemption by him as goel. Her instructions were secretive and alluring as she told Ruth to apply cosmetics and dress in finery before going to Boaz. She followed Naomi’s instructions and went to the threshing floor. When Boaz finished eating, was filled with drink, and went to sleep, she did as Naomi instructed and uncovered his feet and laid beside them. Boaz rolled over in the night and was startled as he awoke to find Ruth. He asked who she was.
“I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” (3:9)
Previously, Boaz told Ruth she had come under the wings of the Lord when she left Moab with Naomi, and now she asks Boaz to spread his wings over her. The spreading of wings provides a metaphor for protection and redemption with Boaz the goel. But there is more to the meaning of wings and goel than redeemers stepping in to help their kin in trouble. The book of Job provides the record of his endurance through Satan’s abuse as he expressed hope in his sovereign God, “I know that my Redeemer (Goel) lives” (19:25). The kinsman redeemer points to the Kinsman-Redeemer, the Christ. The wings that Boaz mentioned to Ruth were those of their Redeemer; the wings Ruth whispered about to Boaz were his as kinsman redeemer.
Boaz agreed to fulfill the kinsman redeemer duties, but first a problem had to be solved. There was a kinsman nearer to Elimelech than Boaz. When Ruth went home, she related to Naomi all that had happened, and the gift of grain she brought with her from Boaz was indicative of his commitment to the women to be kinsman-redeemer.
Law and Order
In chapter four, Boaz met at the city gate with the other near kinsman, ten elders of the city, and onlookers. The city gate was where business was transacted and both common and private issues could be resolved. The name of the kinsman is not given. Boaz slyly informed him that Naomi has land she must sell, which the man was quite happy to redeem to expand his property holdings, but then Boaz added that if he redeemed the land Ruth went with it and Levirate duties must be fulfilled. The kinsman declined. He removed a sandal as designated in Deuteronomy 25:7-10 to confirm his decision. Boaz then said he would perpetuate the name of Mahlon so he would not be cut off. All of this was well ordered with the Law in mind as Boaz called the crowd to witness:
"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 act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman." (4:11-12)
Judah was one of the sons of Israel (Jacob) born to Leah. Judah’s story, like Ruth’s, involves the apparent loss of a name. In this case, Judah’s daughter in-law, Tamar, was widowed twice-over without any children. Judah, neglecting his responsibility as her father in-law, showed no sign of helping her out of her sorry situation. As a result, Tamar donned a disguise and seduced Judah in order to continue the family line. From this she conceived and bore twins named Perez and Zerah
It is interesting to compare the situations of Tamar and Ruth. The account of Genesis 38 is one of deception, fornication, prostitution, executions by the Lord for sin, and a general love of sinning. Yet God nevertheless continued the family line through Perez. Genesis 38 contrasts with the book of Ruth’s account of a pious Moabitess; Boaz a kind man concerned for righteousness; and Naomi whose bitterness turned to delight in the Lord—even the nameless kinsman did things decently and in order.
What makes the difference between Genesis 38 and Ruth? It a word, it is love for the Law of God. Moses gave the Law to the Lord’s people to provide authoritative written instruction in righteousness as to how they could glorify and enjoy Him. Judah and Tamar did not have the Law so written, but Boaz and Ruth did. More than that, they clearly treasured it, unlike so many Israelites living in the time of the Judges. Ruth is an oasis of piety in the desert of Israel’s distressing days. Application of the Levirate, the proposed redemption between Boaz and the unnamed kinsman, the elders’ presence, the removal of the sandal, as well as other actions were directed by the Law. While the Judges served their duties in impiety, Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth served the Lord as directed by the Law of God.
Ruth is sometimes described as a love story. It is a love story, but it is not a romance. The love story is God’s condescension to bring redemption to His people working through sinners like bitter but then delighted Naomi, kind kinsman-redeemer Boaz, and faithful Ruth the Moabitess. Their marriage linked the generations of the messianic line so Obed could be born to Boaz and through his progeny bring David, the man who would be king in the line that would bring the Kinsman-Redeemer, the Christ. It should not be overlooked that the redemption of Mahlon’s seed took place in Bethlehem where the Redeemer would be born. Bethlehem means “house of bread” and it is fitting the barley harvest had such a significant part in Ruth since it would be the place of Jesus’s birth as the bread of life (John 6:35) as a descendant of David.
Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012).
"Such a Time as This" by Barry Waugh
"If I Could Preach Only One Sermon" by Tim Bertolet
The God Who Hears by Sarah Ivill
The Book of Ruth by Philip Ryken
Esther & Ruth by Iain Duguid
Commentaries on Ruth include: Iain M. Duguid, Esther & Ruth, Reformed Expository Commentary, P&R, 2005, is a readable guide to Ruth that is built on scholarly spadework; C. J. Goslinga, trans. from Dutch by Ray Togtman, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Bible Student’s Commentary, Zondervan, 1986, is a traditional verse by verse commentary that deals with more details than Duguid; David Atkinson, ed. J. A. Motyer, The Message of Ruth, The Bible Speaks Today, IVP, 1983, provides similar information as Duguid but is hampered by attempts to make applications to social problems of the author’s era; and E. F. Campbell, Ruth, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1975, is only for readers who can separate the wheat from the chaff because the author approaches Ruth as an ancient near-eastern religious text and he says of the book, “Ruth is a Hebrew historical short story” (p. 3). The section by Thomas Boston (1676-1732) titled “Christ the Kinsman-redeemer in the Covenant,” on pages 54-58, vol. 1 of A View of the Covenant of Grace from the Sacred Records, reprinted in Philadelphia by Towar & Hogan, 1827, is a helpful summary of the duties of the goel. An important archaeological discovery regarding the Moabites is the Moabite Stone that was discovered by Bedouin in the nineteenth century and is believed to date to the ninth century before Christ. Its Phoenician text has been translated to English in the article, “The Text of the Moabite Stone,” at the Biblical Archaeology Society Online Archive. It tells of the war between Mesha, king of Moab, and possibly an alliance of kings of Judah (Jehoshaphat), Israel (Jehoram), and Edom as recounted in 2 Kings 3.
Image: "Ruth Gleaning" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)