So what do we make of Boaz? Ruth is a short story, yet its portrait of him has amazing depth. He is of the royal line, which assumes at this point before David that he is head of the tribe of Judah. He is a wealthy land owner with a foreman and servants. He is used to authority – he is able to protect Ruth from molestation and can call ten men to hear a case at the city gates. He is obviously respected in the community.
Herein is the “problem:” Boaz a very eligible bachelor. That in itself is an understatement. And in a society where the securing of an heir is critical, he has no wife. And by his own admission, he is an older man – he is surprised when youthful Ruth proposes marriage to him instead of the younger men. Why would an older man in his social position with no heir be unmarried?
The story seems to assume the audience will know the answer: he was married, but is not now. Jewish tradition assumes the same, and the Talmud records a discussion on the matter. Rabbi Isaac postulates that on the very day Ruth came to Palestine, the wife of Boaz died. We might find that precision between destiny, death, and Ruth's movements a bit dark. But speaking in the name of the great scholar Abba Arikha (175–247 AD), known simply as Rab, the “Master”), Rabbah identifies Boaz with Ibzan of Bethlehem in Judges 12. Ibzan had thirty sons and daughters. Each of these had to perish before Ruth arrived. As horrible as that would be, the lesson drawn is full of hope and healthy resolution – “Marry again and beget one brighter than the sixty” (Baba Bathra, 91a). In other words, don't give up; a brighter day is coming; God's plan will march on.
To be sure, Rab has his finger on a major pastoral lesson in this story. Yet his connection between Boaz and Ibzan finds no direct support in Scripture and remains speculative. So too, the death of the wife of Boaz is nowhere recorded in Scripture. For that matter, it does not say he was even a widower: it is possible he was single through divorce, a contigency regulated in the law of Moses. What is assumed is that he was married and is not now.
Rab's statement brings another issue to the surface – how old was Boaz? We often smile, thinking mainly of romantic sentiment, at his surprise that Ruth would be interested in an older man. But the question is of some importance. Was this a man of forty years considering the proposal of young, widowed teenager, or a many of 50 looking at a 25-year-old? Rab connects to Ibzan would make him considerably older: it takes time to sire sixty kids, marry them off, and see them all die. He would be an older man indeed. And his surprise could be that of a truly older man genuinely amazed at this youthful lady proposing to be the legal mother of his heir. His comment to her might show more pathos than mirth. We might think less of Romeo and more of Abraham.
(The age of Ruth hinges in part on our reading of 1:4. If the ten years is taken from their marriage, she would be in her twenties. If the ten refers to the years Elimelech's family lived in Moab, she could be younger. The fact that both she and Orpah have no kids points to shorter marriages and that the ten years covers the whole of the families time in Moab.)
It does take us to a common theme in the unfolding history of salvation. Abraham and Sarah are promised an heir, yet their age makes child-bearing impossible save divine intervention. Isaac and Rebekah have similar issues, and only after twenty years does God answer the prayer of Isaac with twins. Judah lost both of his sons before his divine appointment with Tamar produced his rightful heir. The theme goes beyond simple child-bearing to the struggles over the birthright: Jacob and Esau, Perez and Zerah, even the Lord's choice of David himself as the last of the sons of Jesse. The royal line is a divine miracle, shaped by divine election and intervention.
This story follows a pattern. Boaz has lost his spouse. He has no heir. He is older. And he is surprised when God drops this very eligible woman from heaven onto his mat in the middle of the night. God is not hasty, but when he moves according to his will and pleasure, he moves.
This draws an analogy between Boaz and Naomi. They are already linked as relatives by marriage. They are linked also by grief at the loss of spouses. And even as Naomi struggles with her husband having no heir, so Boaz wonders how his heir will come.
Look afresh at Boaz' words to Ruth in 2:11-12:
“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!”
Is it a stretch to read a bit more into these words? That Boaz appreciated the kindness of Ruth to Naomi because he understood Naomi's grief? He knew how hollow loneliness could be. He knew the bite of hopelessness. He knew what it meant for Naomi to have the companionship, energy, and hope of Ruth. His blessing of Ruth was not a token gesture, but arose from an understanding heart and anticipated the direction of God's will.
Ruth is drawn into this analogy. Her sorrow is already tied profoundly to Naomi at the loss of her father-in-law, her husband, and her brother-in-law. Her life is full of uncertainties: she is a Moabite woman in a Hebrew society. Would she be accepted? Would she find a husband? Would she have a child? In short, these three souls are kindred souls: in faith, in family, and in suffering.
Is it a stretch? The elders of Bethlehem will bless the marriage of Boaz and Ruth in 4:11-12, They will ask the Lord to make Ruth as fruitful as Rachel and Leah. They will ask that this family be established and become famous in the region. And as Judah found an heir through Canaanite Tamar, they will ask that this couple will have a son like Perez. Boaz lack of a son has been a community concern, and the elders see Ruth as the answer.
Indeed, when the story was told from generation to generation in Israel, everyone knew Boaz would be the great-grandfather of David. They knew he had no heir. They knew he needed a wife. They knew the twists and turns that were coming as the will of God worked to its a glorious ending. When the words of Boaz to Ruth were heard, everyone knew what they signified about faith and divine blessing. And I suspect that the author of Ruth, tradition names him Samuel, carefully records these words to make that spiritual point.
Her unwavering faith shined brightly in Israel. In the time of Judges, when things were often dark spiritually and socially for God's people, when there was no king and people did as they saw fit in their own eyes, God wove the life of a pagan daughter together with that of a Hebrew mother. Through deep suffering, Ruth's faith in the sovereignty of God sprouted and blossomed into devotion and energy. Naomi was strengthened. Boaz heard the story and, seeing Ruth in person, blessed her in the name of the Lord.
“Hearts united in pain and sorrow will not be separated by joy and happiness. Bonds that are woven in sadness are stronger than the ties of joy and pleasure. Love that is washed by tears will remain eternally pure and faithful.”
Khalil Gibran, Love Letters in the Sand
The choice of Boaz to praise and bless puts us again on common ground with Naomi. She could have wallowed in her bitterness. But seeing the hand of God at work, seeing a glorious future opening up before Ruth, her faith turns to action and is proven genuine. So too Boaz, who sees the character of Ruth and recognizes the impact of her faith, turns away from bitterness to faith, a faith proven in action.
Consider afresh the character of Boaz. What does he praise in Ruth? A person of character judges others by their character. Ruth might have been a beautiful woman, but we hear nothing of outward appearance from Boaz. He speaks of her spiritual devotion, her attitudes, her commitments, and her hard work. He does comment on her youth, but not in an untoward way – he is amazed at her willingness to overlook his lack of desireability and consider a older man like him. This is a humble, thankful assessment of her character that shows his character. At the anointing of David, the Lord will explain to Samuel that man looks at the outward appearance, but he looks on the heart. Boaz is an imitator of God, like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Boaz turns to action. She is a widow who needs protection, and he will provide that protection. She needs provision, and he will provide. She needs justice, and he will be her advocate. He could have taken advantage of this defenseless girl. He could have shamed her. He choses rather to do what is honorable and good. In this Boaz anticipates the justice and mercy of King David. In this Boaz is an imitator of God, the champion of the fatherless and widows, the ultimate source of truth and justice.
Boaz sees the hand of God in the events of life. When Ruth proposes, he recognizes what is happening. This is no small thing: he is a Hebrew of Hebrews, head of the line of Judah; she is a poor Moabite widow. Boaz in accepting Ruth is setting aside social conventions: he marries not for racial purity, beauty, money, power, or expediency; he marries because he sees her character and recognizes the unfolding plan of God. This is a godly man.
And he knows the law and his responsibility to the law. She has only to say “kinsman redeemer” and he is well aware of what must happen. Naomi has full confidence that he is versed in the law of God and will work out every angle of this legal problem. He will bring this to a just and honorable solution. “The man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”
Winston Churchill once commented, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” We might have stretched things a bit here and there to be kind to Boaz. But this is a good man. Ruth is a great woman. David comes from great stock. But that it is to anticipate the next article and the resoluton of the matter.