A Guardian-Redeemer Whatnow? (Ruth 3-4)
As we read through chapters three and four of the book of Ruth, we’re treated to the answers that were built up in chapters 1 and 2. What would become of Naomi and Ruth? Would Ruth keep her promise to Naomi and God? Would Ruth marry Boaz? And while we are able to gain the satisfaction of closure with all of these questions being resolved, some of the answers might leave us scratching our heads and wondering what exactly happened. Were the machinations of Ruth’s plans put forcefully into place by an overbearing mother-in-law? It seemed as if Ruth was throwing herself at Boaz on the threshing floor. Isn’t that out of line with the actions of a woman of noble character? To the modern reader, there is enough distance in space and time between us and the events of Ruth that we need to fill in a couple of the blanks for all of this to make sense. And the key to doing so lies in our proper understanding of this concept of a “guardian-redeemer.”
The idea of a guardian-redeemer, or kinsman-redeemer, is a concept rooted in Old Testament law in the book of Leviticus. When God fulfilled His promise to Abraham of giving his offspring a promised land, very specific arrangements were made as to who would possess which parts of it. The land was divided among the tribes and the peoples, and God arranged things so that, while the people were given the land to use, they did not receive full ownership rights. His plans for the distribution of the land were to remain in place, and His people were free to occupy their assigned sections. If a person fell on hard times and needed to sell his land, he was able to do so, but with a catch. Full land rights could not be sold. Instead, Levitical law said that a person could sell the use of the property, but there were two primary limitations. First, if the seller later became financially able to purchase the property back, then the buyer had to sell it back to them. Second, if the seller did not buy back the property, the land would revert back to the original owner at the next year of Jubilee (which took place every fifty years). Either way, any financial exchange for a piece of the promised land was providentially limited to a temporary arrangement.
Further, Levitical Law also provided for the actions and responsibilities of a guardian-redeemer. This role would be filled by a male relative, and it provided the responsibility and authority for the redeemer to act on behalf of the individual in various matters to help them in times of need or danger. One of these rights enabled the guardian-redeemer to purchase back a parcel of land that had been sold if the seller was unable to do so. It is critical for our understanding of the book of Ruth that, while the concept of guardian redeemer was set in Old Testament law, the exercising of those responsibilities was purely optional. The guardian-redeemer was empowered to bail out their relative but they were not required to do so.
So now, if we go back to the third and fourth chapters of Ruth, the developing situation begins to crystalize. In verse nine of chapter three, when Ruth implores Boaz to “spread the corners of [his] garment over [her], since [he is] the guardian-redeemer of [their] family,” she is invoking his role tied to the book of Leviticus. It’s complicated, but it plays out simply. According to the law, if a man died, it was the responsibility of his brother to take the newly widowed woman and make her his wife (this is the basis of the ridiculous argument brought by the Pharisees to Jesus in Matthew 22:23-33). In the case of Naomi, her husband’s brother was already dead, and it was the same for Ruth as well. As such, they were left in a bad situation, unable to fend and provide for themselves. Naomi would have to sell the family plot to make ends meet, but that could only sustain her and Ruth for so long. Given this desperate situation, Ruth then went to Boaz, and when asking him to spread the corner of his garment over her, she was asking to be brought under his protection. She was asking him to exercise his right as guardian-redeemer to repurchase the family land and take her as his wife to preserve the family line.
Boaz reacted well to Ruth’s request, but there was one problem. In the hierarchy of possible guardian-redeemers, apparently, there was another man ahead of him in line. So Boaz approached the matter correctly and offered the right of redemption to the other man first. When he declined, Boaz exercised his right as next in line. He purchased the land from Naomi, and he married Ruth.
So hopefully, that bit of Old Testament law helps to bring some color to the book of Ruth and aids in illuminating some of the details that can easily be lost to the modern reader. This is a piece of true history that God preserved for us, but He put this book in our Bibles for a reason greater than just preserving the details of these people who acted so nobly. To state the obvious, the book of Ruth is all about faith, the example of people of noble character, and a God who is always at work, even behind the scenes. But we can’t just stop there; this presentation of the guardian-redeemer is just too important to miss because the book of Ruth also points us to Jesus.
It’s really not much of a stretch to realize that Jesus is our guardian-redeemer. He came to earth in human flesh to make Him enough like us to qualify for this role (it had to be a male relative, remember?). Being fully God, Jesus had the means to purchase us for a price, and it was a great price He paid to redeem us. And just as exercising the responsibilities of guardian-redeemer was purely optional, Jesus chose to do this great thing for us. The story of Ruth and Boaz ties in together nicely with the story of us and Jesus. All of us were like Ruth at one point in our lives, a stranger to the God of the Bible and desperately in need of redemption. Some of us are still in that position. But if we have gone to God, or if we choose to go to Him now and ask to be covered by His garment, He will redeem us. He’s already paid the full price. And if we’ve done that, or if we will do that, just as Ruth became the bride of Boaz, we can become the bride of Christ. What an amazing and merciful God we serve!