From my commentary on Ruth
I completed my commentary of Ruth and it will be published within a couple of months. I included a commentary of Esther in the book and a commentary of Judith. The following is what I wrote for the final chapter of Ruth.
Chapter 4 is another example of the biblical style of describing events incompletely, ambiguously, and obscurely, leaving it to readers to imagine for themselves what actually occurred. We have no idea why the author of Ruth called Naomi’s nearest relative Peloni Almoni, best translated as “so-and-so.” Was the primary object of the negotiations between Boaz and this man to redeem a field that was sold, or about to be sold? Who owned the field? What part did the marriage to Ruth have in regard to the redemption of the field? Why was the field to be redeemed now, and not earlier? Why did Ruth have to be married? Why did the near relative Peloni Almoni reject her? Who took off his shoe – Boaz or “so-and-so”? To whom did Ruth and Boaz’s son belong – to Ruth or Naomi? Why were ten men needed as witnesses to the redemption of the field? Why didn’t Naomi know that there was a closer relative than Boaz, who had the requirement to redeem the field?
Acquiring Ruth and the Property
Boaz had spent the night with Ruth on the threshing floor and heard her beseech him, “Spread your coat over your handmaid, for you are a near kinsman.” He told her that “there is a kinsman who is nearer than I,” but promised her that in the morning if he “does not perform for you the act of a kinsman…I will do the part of the kinsman to you.” But with all this talk, we have no idea whether they were referring to the redemption of a field or marrying Ruth, or both.
Boaz meets the near relative at the city gate and asks him in the presence of ten men, including elders, if he will redeem the property. The near relative agrees. Boaz then tells him that if he buys the property from Naomi, he will also be buying Ruth the Moabite, “the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” The chapter does not explain any of this. Why must the near relative take Ruth? What connection does Ruth have with the property? True, she was the widow of Mahlon, but there is no indication that she became owner of the property that once belonged to Elimelech and his two sons.
In fact, the chapter states that the property is being bought from Naomi. But could Naomi inherit the property? In the unlikely event that a woman could inherit in those days, Naomi would have been the person who inherited. But, I ask again, what does redeeming property from Naomi have to do with marrying Ruth? If the fields went to Elimelech’s sons when he died, because Naomi as a woman could not inherit them, Ruth as a woman would not have inherited them either. She certainly would not have inherited the portion of her brother-in-law, Mahlon’s brother Chilion. The best we can say is that this was a practice that existed during that time, and we do not know why, or how it was done.
The near relative retracts his offer to redeem the property because of the added condition to take/buy Ruth. He says that if he did so, “I may mar my own inheritance.” Neither he nor the narrator of the chapter explains the reason for his refusal. Boaz then agrees to buy/acquire from Naomi the property belonging to Elimelech, Chilion, and Mahlon and also to buy/acquire Ruth. He mentions the redemption first.
The deal is sealed with what the narrator calls a custom that existed in those days: one took off his shoe and gave it to the other. That practice should not be confused with chalitza, as I will discuss below. The chapter does not indicate who took off his shoe. Most commentators, including the Targum and many rabbis, suppose that Boaz removed his shoe and gave it to the near relative. That symbolic act is similar to our handshakes today. It is a kind of barter, as if Boaz was saying, “You take my shoe and I will take, in its place, the property and Ruth.” We do not know if, after the act, the near relative returned the shoe to Boaz.
Boaz and Ruth give birth to a child, and this child is the grandfather of King David. The Babylonian Talmud contends that Ruth lived to see Solomon’s kingdom.
The narrator states that there were ten generations following Judah, the son of the patriarch Jacob. Half of the ten preceded the entry into Canaan. If the average generation is twenty-five years, then the total time is 250 years, and the period of the judges would have been a hundred to a hundred and fifty years.
Boaz gathers ten men
In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:49, Maimonides offers an interesting interpretation of why Boaz gathered ten men to witness his discussion with Peloni Almoni and his engagement to Ruth. The usage of ten men, as I mentioned previously, is to publicize an affair. Maimonides focuses on the engagement.
In order to prevent strife, to enable children to know their fathers, to encourage family love and concern for each other, and to promote aid from relatives, prostitutes were not tolerated and “sexual intercourse was permitted only when a man had chosen a certain female and married her openly; for if it sufficed merely to choose her, many a person might have brought a prostitute into his house at a certain agreed-upon time and said that she was his wife. Therefore it was commanded to perform the act of engagement by which the man declares that he has chosen a certain woman for his wife, and then goes through the public ceremony of marriage. Compare ‘And Boaz took ten men,’ etc. (Ruth 4:2).”
Arnold Ehrlich interpretations
- Why did Boaz wait for a chance meeting with the near relative, rather than summoning him to a court proceeding? A summons to appear before a court allows the respondent time to consider the case and prepare a response. Boaz wanted a rush decision.
- Boaz, of course, used the near relative’s name when he called him over and spoke to him. However, the author of the tale does not name him, thereby adding a dimension to the drama by emphasizing that the near relative was a nonentity because his refusal to marry Ruth made him less than a man.
- When the near relative contends that marrying Ruth would harm his “inheritance,” he meant his children, for they would be stained by the reputation that their father had married a Moabite.
- Boaz removed his shoe as custom demanded. By doing so he was saying, in essence, “You buy my shoe and I will buy the right to redeem the field.”
- Why was only Rachel and Leah mentioned in the people’s blessing? The Israelites are also descendants of their maids Bilhah and Zilpah! The people were saying that just as Rachel was despised by Leah and was barren, so Ruth too, who had once been despised as a Moabite, should be loved as Jacob loved Rachel and should be blessed with a son.
- This is also the reason why Tamar was mentioned. After she tricked Judah into having sex with her, the people wanted to kill her. They changed their minds, however, and Tamar was accepted and became the ancestress of Boaz. So, too, the people are indicating that Ruth is now accepted in Judea.
- Although the chapter states that the neighbors named Ruth’s son, this obviously didn’t happen. The author of this book is telling readers that Ruth was accepted into the community fully, so much so that they even suggested a name for her son.
Ruth Rabba interpretations
- God caused the near relative to come to the gate where Boaz was waiting so that this righteous man would not have to wait long.
- One reason for the near relative’s refusal to marry Ruth is that he thought that her first husband had died because he had married a Moabite and the near relative didn’t want to put his life in danger. Alternatively, he did not know that the law prohibiting marrying a Moabite had just been interpreted to apply only to males.
- Some rabbis felt that the giving of the shoe was by the purchaser, others by the seller. In any event, the practice of Boaz’s time was discontinued and land was acquired by payment of money, by a deed, by walking in the field through its length or breadth, or by chazaka, which was some act in the field such as breaking something or leveling.
- Why did the people bless Ruth that she should be like Rachel and Leah, naming Rachel first? Four answers are given: (1) Most of the people in Bethlehem were descendants of Leah; they mentioned Rachel first to show respect. (2) Rachel was Jacob’s preferred wife. (3) Rachel was barren for a long time and then had sons, and the people of Bethlehem were expressing their hope that Ruth would likewise have a son. (4) Since Leah sneered at Rachel because she was barren, the people wanted to show her respect.
- Ruth lacked the principle part of her womb, but God repaired it at this time.
Ibn Ezra interpretations
- Why did Boaz tell the first redeemer that he had to marry Ruth? This was not yibbum. The first redeemer was obligated to redeem the field, but Ruth did not want to let him do so unless he married her.
- While ibn Ezra felt that it was Boaz who removed his shoe and gave it to “so-and-so” as a symbolic barter, he recognized that other commentators said “so-and-so” took off his shoe and gave it to Boaz to indicate that “just as I am giving you this shoe, I am giving you my right to redeem the field.”
Adele Berlin interpretations
Adele Berlin has an interesting literary analysis of the book of Ruth. She notes that there are a number of minor characters in the story who “are not important in their own right, but function as pieces in the background or setting, or as aids in characterizing the major characters.” She also notes that the number three recurs in the tale frequently:
- There are three groups: the women of Bethlehem, the harvesters, and the witnesses at the city gate.
- Three characters die before the plot begins: Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion.
- Ruth uses three terms to describe herself in speaking to Boaz: “foreigner” (2:10), “maidservant” (2:13), and “handmaid” (3:9).
- Boaz uses three terms to describe Ruth: “girl” (2:5), “my daughter” (2:8), and “woman of valor” (3:11).
- There are three events in chapter 1: God remembers the Judeans, Naomi hears that God did so, and she starts her return to Judea.
- After three men die, three women start the return to Judea together: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth.
- The book has three endings: One ending is the resolution of both Naomi and Ruth’s dilemma, which is Ruth’s marriage and the birth of her child. The two other endings are the twice-told genealogy leading to King David.
More uses of three
Olam Hatanakh adds a few more uses of the number three:
- The book of Ruth is identified with chesed, “kindness,” in three places: 1:8, 2:20, and 3:10.
- Chapter 3 is made up of three parts: Naomi’s advice to Ruth, the meeting on the threshing floor, and Ruth’s return home.
- There are three biblical tales in which heroines take the initiative regarding sex (Olam Hatanakh agrees that Ruth and Boaz had sex on the threshing floor): Ruth, the daughters of Lot in Genesis 19, and Tamar with her father-in-law Judah in Genesis 38.
 Other biblical verses in which names are not mentioned include I Samuel 21:3 and II Kings 6:8.
 Verse 3 literally states “that Naomi sold,” but verse 5 seems to indicate it was not yet sold: “on the day you buy the field from Naomi.” Some commentators contend that the field was already sold and the redeemer’s duty was to buy it back for Naomi. Others say that she wanted to sell it now and a relative had first choice to buy it (Chacham, Chameish Megillot, Daat Mikra).
 According to the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 111b, a woman may not inherit her husband’s or anyone else’s field, so how could Naomi or Ruth have a right in the field? Is it possible that the Judeans did not follow this law and women did inherit?
 Some commentators believe the near relative’s name was Tob, based on 3:13 (Cohen, Five Megilloth, 58).
 Campbell (Anchor Bible) suggests that Naomi may have known about “so-and-so” but this was her “ploy to force him [Boaz] to act, or to start the ball rolling toward marriage whether to another person or to himself.”
 The rabbis understand that the city gate was frequently the site of the town court (Cohen, Five Megilloth, 60). See Amos 5:15: “enthrone justice in the courts [Hebrew: gates].” The Targum states anachronistically that he went to the court called Sanhedrin (an institution that did not exist during this time; the word is Greek).
 Gersonides suggests that Boaz wanted elders, righteous men, present when he married Ruth because the custom of the time was for people to bless the bride and groom and the blessing of elders is more efficacious.
 The chapter uses the same Hebrew word for acquiring the field(s) and Ruth. It could be translated as “buy,” as JPS translates it, or “acquire.”
 The Targum has Boaz saying, “You must perform the Levirate marriage.”
 The Targum explains that he said he was already married.
 Deuteronomy 25:9.
 The Targum defines the Hebrew na’al as “the right-hand glove.”
 This practice morphed into a similar one called in Hebrew kinyan sudar, “an arranged acquisition.” A contract is sealed when one party gives the second party a handkerchief in exchange for the second party doing what the first party contracts to do. The sudar is used today by many rabbis during the “sale of chametz” – the sale of leavened products to a non-Jew just before the holiday of Passover, when Jews are prohibited from owning leavened products. The handkerchief is returned after the symbolic act. The sudar is not used to confirm purchases of property. See Ruth Rabba interpretations below.
 Bava Batra 91b. Solomon was the grandson of Ruth’s grandson.
 Deuteronomy 23:17.
 Translation by M. Friedlander, Guide of the Perplexed (1881), with small changes.
 Amos Chacham’s Chameish Megillot (Daat Mikra) offers two other suggestions: he was concerned that producing a son with Ruth would create rivalry between his current children and the new son, and that bringing another wife into his home would cause his wife to be jealous. The second suggestion is also in the Targum.
 This is also the view of the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 47a), Gersonides, and others. Gersonides imagined that the custom was purely symbolic and the shoe was returned to its owner.
 Chacham (Chameish Megillot) suggests that the phrase means the neighbors spoke often about Ruth’s son Obed because Ruth was liked. This book also suggests that Obed is a shortened version of Obadiah, “servant of the Lord.”
 The Anchor Bible is similar to this latter view: taking off the shoe (by “so-and-so”) and handing it to another (Boaz) was symbolically ceding one’s right and giving the right to another.
 “The Poetics of the Book of Ruth,” in Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Eisenbrauns, 1994).