Redemption and Symbolism in Ruth

This blog post is adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament. 

One of the first matters to require attention is the real import of Ruth’s oft-quoted speech in 1:16–17, expressing her resolve to accompany Naomi. One should take care neither to read into Ruth’s words more than is actually said nor fail to hear them in total context.

As usual in the Old Testament, the cultural and the religious, the political and the theological, are intertwined. Ruth expresses herself in terms of personal and familial loyalty. Ruths conversion is nowhere described, yet the context gives ample clues that she speaks out of covenantal convictions, and these must be highlighted: the use of Yahweh in Ruths oath (the only time in the book on Ruth’s lips), the use of loadedtheological terms in the context, such as Gods visiting His people (1:6), or His kindness (chesed, 1:8). Similar vocabulary is artfully used throughout the book, but it is rarely apparent in English translation. 

Ruth and Boaz

Second, there is the questionable matter of Ruth’s clandestine visit to Boaz at the threshing floor (ch 3). At Naomi’s instigation, it is plain that the purpose of the visit is to prod Boaz into exercising his role as “redeemer” (go’el ), as Ruth explicitly calls him when he awakens (3:9). Both biblical parallels (Ezk 16:8; Dt 22:30; 27:20) and modern Arabic custom make plain that Ruth’s request to Boaz to spread his “wings” (i.e., the corner of a garment) over her meant a request for marriage; that was the specific way Boaz should function as “redeemer” (cf below), somewhat in fulfillment of his own prayer in 2:12.

In other phrases sexual double entendre seems obvious in the Hebrew: words such as lie, know, and especially in this context, feet— which can be a euphemism for the genitals in Hebrew idiom, but which, like the other words, can also be taken at face value, and obviously must be here. The language may imply that the couple began their relationship inappropriately, but such wordplay does not force the conclusion. It is surely no accident that Boaz praises Ruth (3:10) for the honor she shows, as he agrees to pursue the matter promptly. Behind all of this, however, and central to the book’s plot and significance, is the idea of “redemption.”

Levirate Redemption

Levirate laws were widely known in Israel’s environment but also differed widely in detail, and we must reckon with the possibility of provincial variation in the Book of Ruth. Furthermore, even if one ascribes all the legal “codes” to Moses, it is plain that the various collections, taken individually, are each incomplete and often only illustrative. Hence, it may well be that the combination of levirate and redemption responsibilities evidenced in Ruth may have been more common than our few sources would indicate. Likewise, the assumption by a more distant relative of the levirate responsibility when a woman had no brothers-in-law, as Ruth did not, may or may not have been regular practice. And since “redemption” was concerned with persons as well as property, bringing it into connection with marriage of persons may not have been that unusual a step either. The differences in the shoe symbolisms of Dt 25:9 and Ru 4:7–8 probably refer to entirely different situations and are not to be compared at all.

Whatever the sociological particularities, Boaz plainly exercises his obligations as both levir and redeemer. The marriage blessing of Ru 4:11–12 is prominently represented in later Jewish and Christian nuptial ceremonies. Both it and the book’s concluding genealogy (4:18–22) anchor in Boaz’s ancestor, Perez (Judah’s child by Tamar; Gn 38), by marriage into which line Ruth becomes an ancestress of David and an inner participant in the messianic promises to which it was heir. Its fulfillment is heralded by incorporation into the genealogy of Mt 1 at the head of the New Testament, ending with “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (v 16).

Genealogy Following David

It is because the genealogy sets the narrative in its broader redemptive context that the book’s featuring “redemption” is so significant (the verb ga’al is used 20 times in the four chapters). The Book of Ruth is the Bible’s major example of “redemption” in the social context. That background needs to be stressed for full understanding of the theological expression. The first point of extension of the metaphor is the perception of God as Israel’s relative via the covenant, and thence as helper of the helpless, the defender of the defenseless. (Cf also Job’s “Redeemer” in Job 19:25.) The “redeemer’s” concern is not only for persons in an interior, psychological sense, but also for their property, land, or inheritance. The Old Testament’s theological application centers on the exodus (Ex 15:13), but it is developed especially in Is 40–55 to describe the “exodus” from Babylon. Because of Boaz’s “redemption” of Ruth, and their union, the ultimate exodus becomes possible in the Redeemer, Christ. More detailed word study would also have to point out that in New Testament usage redeem has been enriched by merger with the Old Testament companion concept of “ransom.”

It is also fruitful to read Ruth as “messianic history,” that is, noting from the book that the levirate and go’el institutions, concerned as they were with preserving family name, seed, and inheritance, found their ultimate fulfillment in Christ and His kingdom.

Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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