Peculiar Passages: The Case of Ruth, Boaz and the Contractual Sandal

 
Alison Mitchell | August 15th 2019

One of my favourite phrases in the Old Testament is “kinsman-redeemer”*. It comes up several times in the book of Ruth, along with some weird things about sandals and uncovering feet. If we unpack those verses, we not only find out what’s going on in Ruth, but also learn something wonderful about the Lord Jesus.

Potted History (Ruth 1-3): Naomi was an Israelite woman who moved to Moab with her husband and sons. The sons married Moabite women, called Orpah and Ruth, but later, after all three men had sadly died, Naomi decided to move back to Israel. Orpah stayed in Moab, but Ruth went with Naomi. In order to find food for them both, Ruth went to a local barley field to collect any leftover grain that had been missed by the harvesters. 

The field belonged to Boaz. He was Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer. He was kind to Ruth and even gave her extra grain. Ruth continued to work in Boaz’s field until the end of the barley harvest. Naomi wanted to find a safe home for Ruth so she devised an odd scheme where Ruth went to where Boaz was sleeping at night, uncovered his feet and lay down. Apparently, this gesture was a customary means of requesting marriage. So, when Boaz saw her there, he knew that Ruth was asking him to marry her. But he had to check with someone else first as there was another possible kinsman-redeemer…

Leviticus law

In Leviticus 25 v 25 we learn that if an Israelite becomes poor and has to sell their land, it’s the responsibility of their nearest relative (their kin) to buy (redeem) it. This man is their kinsman-redeemer. Naomi has some land to sell, but Boaz isn’t her closest relative. There’s one man who is closer.

Sandal time

Boaz goes to the town gate (where legal transactions were made). He asks ten elders of the town to be witnesses as he discusses Naomi and Ruth with the man who was an even closer relative. To start with, that man is keen to buy Naomi’s land. But then he discovers that he would also need to marry Ruth as part of the bargain. He doesn’t want to do that, so passes over his rights as kinsman-redeemer to Boaz. 

To show that this decision was legal and final, he took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz. We may think this is odd—but so did the people who first read the book of Ruth. So the author very kindly added an explanation for them and us:

“Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalising transactions in Israel.” (Ruth 4 v 7)

It’s possible that the taking off of a sandal was associated with walking the land as a symbol of ownership (Joshua 1 v 3). Whether or not this was the reason, the sandal swap meant the transaction was now legal.

And then—to make this transaction even more unusual—the town elders (and anyone else hanging around the town gate) had a prayer meeting! They asked the Lord to bless Boaz and Ruth with a child, and prayed that the family would be “famous in Bethlehem”.

The greatest Kinsman-Redeemer

The end of the book of Ruth tells us how the Lord answered their prayer. Ruth and Boaz had a son—called Obed. Ruth 4 v 17 tells us that “he was the father of Jesse, the father of David”. The family of King David would certainly be “famous in Bethlehem”.

And wonderfully, David was an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1 v 1, 17) who came as a Redeemer too.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law … He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3 v 13-14)

A true redeemer is someone who is willing to pay a price for the sake of others. Boaz was ready and willing to redeem Ruth. The Lord Jesus willingly paid a much greater price to redeem us. He is the greatest-ever Kinsman-Redeemer!

*Note: The 2011 NIV changed this phrase from “kinsman-redeemer” to “guardian-redeemer”. I still really like the original, so that’s what I’ve used throughout this post.

Alison Mitchell

Alison Mitchell is a Senior Editor at The Good Book Company, where she has written a range of Bible-reading notes for children and families, and is editor for the Christianity Explored range of resources. Alison is also involved with youth training events around the UK, including the Growing Young Disciples training days and Bible-Centred Youthwork Conference.

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