The last act of Ruth opens at the city gates. Different cultures develop different methods of conducting local business. There has to be a space for deliberation: a commons, a large house, a town hall, a temple, a palace or castle, the streets, a public square. Some person or persons have to oversee the deliberations and reach verdicts. Ancient Israel chose the area around the city gates for the resolution of mundane issues, and Ruth 4 gives a window into the workings of ancient government.1
Boaz gathers ten of the elders of the city. Later Judaism will make ten the minimum number to consitute a legal “community” – it is enough for the purposes of Boaz here. He collects the closer kinsman with whom he must conduct his business. The stage is set.
His plan is honest but requires a bit of work and timing. He has talked with Naomi and she has put the property up for sale, forcing the issue. He informs the other kinsman of the available property and his intention to redeem that property if the other kinsman doesn't want it. It would have been easier had that kinsman passed on the property – Boaz would have been clear to marry Ruth. But the greater the effort, the more satisfying the prize. The kinsman wants the property.
So Boaz takes the next step. He links the custom of Levirite marriage to the redemption of the property. This is a stretch, but in this case it is a very sensible stretch. Elimelech's widow and his son Mahlon's widow are present in the community and they are putting the land up for redemption. Ruth is of child-bearing age and deserves a husband who will carry on Mahlon's name. Further, this would secure her future and that of her child: if the property goes without Ruth, when she remarries, her child would lose his claim to that property. Boaz simply states that the two customs will be linked in this case, with the elders giving tacit approval.
The other kinsman reacts as Boaz anticipated. It is no small thing to take on another wife and another family. This man evidently has an heir already, and he is building that son's inheritance. Another piece of property is desireable for increasing profits from farming or pasture; and without an heir from Elimelech, that property would become his family's and substantially increase his wealth. If however the widow comes as part of the package, not only must her family be maintained (including Naomi), but that land will eventually return to her son as his inheritance. Ruth's son can repurchased that land, or he can wait for the year of Jubilee when it will become his without payment. In either case, it will be a drain on the wealth of this nearer kinsman.
Be kind to that nearer kinsman. Personal loss is an important part of any equation. He need not be a greedy man or horribly insensitive to the needs of a widow to act as he did. He might have taken Ruth as wife as an act of mercy to provide for her future. But Boaz has already said he wants that property, which means he wants Ruth as wife. And unless that nearer kinsman is excessively dimwitted, he recognizes what is happening. and bows out of the redemption. Boaz announces his intentions toward Ruth and the property, he states the full meaning of what is happening for the family of Elimelech, and the elders of Bethlehem bear witness.
Everything works out perfectly for everyone. The line of Elimelech continues and his property goes to his heir, Obed, the son of Ruth. And in the wonder of divine providence, that same son is the heir of Boaz and the grandfather of King David. The two lines become one, and as the line of Boaz will never fail, so the line of Elimelech will never perish.
Naomi has a grandson. In one of the happiest scene of Scripture, he is placed on her lap and she becomes his nurse.
“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
Her life is restored.
We can say the same surely for Boaz and Ruth. Two souls sharing a common sorrow find common healing together in a second marriage. The mercy of God is wedded to the mercy shown by both, and righteousness is the foundation of their home.
The stage is set for the king. His throne will be a throne of righteousness. His house will be a house of mercy. He will fight for the fatherless and widow. He will stand as a banner for the nations. And his son, the Messiah, shall airse with healing in his wings.
And they all lived happily ever after ...
1Who wants a footnote in a blog? Yet here there is a good overview of city gates that should be mentioned: “City Gates and their Functions in Mesopotamia and Ancient Israel,” N. N. May & U. Steinert (eds), The Fabric of Cities: Aspects of Urbanism, Urban Topography and Society in Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Leiden/Boston: Brill.