In 21st-century North America, we are a culture that focuses on hands. We don’t really think about it that way on a daily basis, but it’s nevertheless true. We communicate a lot of information with our hands, and you can tell a lot about a person in our culture by looking at his/her hands. All of this is true in other parts of the world, too, but I can only really speak with any confidence about my own.
We can see if someone is wealthy by the state of his manicure and jewelry. Women with many rings, men with expensive watches, and both genders with professionally tended fingernails send off all kinds of messages about who they are, how much material wealth they have, what kind of work they do, and even a lot about their personalties.
We have universally-recognized hand gestures in our culture that indicate an array of emotions (love, happiness, satisfaction, anger…all of these have gestures). We also have gestures to indicate actions we are about to do or want others to do. We have a long history of using hand gestures on this continent to signal our affiliation with certain groups. Everything from elite secret societies to neighborhood sports teams to criminal organizations have used an array of unique hand gestures to communicate with and recognize one another.
We salute with our hands to show respect, which is borrowed from our nations’ British history. English knights, who wore armor, had a body language of meaningful gestures, and the salute is just one that we kept. We also kept “tossing down the gauntlet,” which is removing the glove from a hand and throwing it to the ground in challenge. We also kept the idea of hitting someone with a glove to deliver insult.
We have a convention of removing our gloves before touching someone as a sign of humility and respect. Contrariwise, if you refuse to take off a glove before shaking hands or touching someone, it can be read as insulting.
We shake hands to greet one another. We also shake hands to seal our promises.
A handshake at the end of a business deal is a symbolic promise from both individuals that each will keep his end of the bargain. Many Americans are still in the habit of making “handshake deals” instead of using legal contracts. They often say they do this because, “We still believe in a man’s word.” The handshake, however, remains a significantly symbolic part of “a man’s word.”
Why am I prattling on about North American conventions to do with hands in a post about the book of Ruth? Well, I’m trying to illustrate a point that will be crucial to understanding what’s happening in this biblical story.
My hope is that if you can think about the significance of hands and the meaning we attach to them in this culture, it will help you notice the significance of feet and the meaning we see attached to them in this story about Ruth’s culture.
Sandals, Feet, and Redemption Law
In Part 3, we discussed the uncovering of Boaz’ feet in Ruth’s marriage proposal, and if you don’t recall that part of the story, go have another look at it. I also told you in that post that we’d be discussing the redemption laws for widows and their husbands’ property. To get a good picture of how this all worked, we should start at the beginning, in Genesis.
In Genesis 38, we are given the story of Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman who bears him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. In verse 6, Judah’s firstborn son, Er, marries a woman named Tamar, and that’s where the story becomes relevant to our study of Ruth. The story is about a page and a half long in both of my study translations, so it’s too much text for me to copy/paste into this post, but you need this story for context in Ruth.
Open your Bible, and read Genesis 38.
We are given a lot in this story. There is so very much going on here, and I could write an entire blog post series on Genesis 38, but what I want to focus in on is the idea that this culture views redemption of widows as something that is owed to the woman. The woman has a right to it, in the name of her dead husband. This chapter is not showing us a woman behaving badly. We can know that because Judah exonerates her saying, “She is more righteous than I am.” The trickery and subterfuge that Tamar engaged in to get her due doesn’t look very godly, and it wasn’t, but Judah had put her in a corner with no other options.
Tamar’s Predicament and Right to Redemption
As a widow, no longer a virgin and having no heir to preserve her honor, Tamar had been reduced to poverty and shame through no fault of her own. She lowered herself to posing as a prostitute for a very symbolic reason in this story. A prostitute is exactly what Judah was forcing her to become by refusing to keep his word. It was the only option Tamar would have if her father and brothers stopped giving her charity, and prostitution or beggary would be her certain fate. Judah dishonored himself by trying to dishonor his daughter-in-law, and she revealed his lack of honor by forcing him to honor her. Make sense? It’s very saturated in this honor/shame dynamic that the West doesn’t really understand, but the story of Genesis 38 makes a vivid picture of it for us. Everyone in their culture understood that this was not right–that Judah and his family owed Tamar a redemption marriage.
What is a redemption marriage?
In short, a widow without male heirs was entitled to be redeemed by a brother of her dead husband. The story of Ruth makes it clear that this extended in practice beyond siblings and into the wider extended family. A male relative of the deceased husband would marry the widow and procreate with her until she produced a male heir. This son would carry the deceased husband’s name and inherit all of his land and wealth. The control of that land and wealth (and the wife and the son) would fall to the redeemer until the son came of age.
Turn to Deuteronomy 25 in your Bible. We’ll be camping out there for a few minutes.
We see no explicit description of redemption marriage in God’s law until we get into Deuteronomy, but it is clear right here in Genesis that redemption marriage was already a widely used practice, to the point that honorable men considered it a duty and honorable women considered it their due.
In Leviticus 25, we see the beginning of God’s intentions for redemption laws. In Lev25:35-38, we see God telling Israel to take in impoverished or bereft relatives without charging interest, treating them as the family members they are.
In Deuteronomy 25, we see specific instruction for handling the widow and property of a dead male relative:
5 “When brothers live on the same property and one of them dies without a son, the wife of the dead man may not marry a stranger outside the family. Her brother-in-law is to take her as his wife, have sexual relations with her, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law for her. 6 The first son she bears will carry on the name of the dead brother, so his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
~Deuteronomy 25:5-6, NLT
With this system, everyone retained the honor and wealth built up over generations in the family. It is, on the surface, about bloodlines and family name and wealth. It was absolutely that. In practice, however, it showed God’s provision for women and children. It illustrates his desire for them to be protected from poverty and abuse in a harsh, ungodly culture.
So Where Do the Feet Come In?
This is where we tie it all in to Chapter 4 of Ruth. Go back to Deuteronomy 25, and pick it up where we left off:
7 But if the man doesn’t want to marry his sister-in-law, she is to go to the elders at the city gate and say, ‘My brother-in-law refuses to preserve his brother’s name in Israel. He isn’t willing to perform the duty of a brother-in-law for me.’ 8 The elders of his city will summon him and speak with him. If he persists and says, ‘I don’t want to marry her,’ 9 then his sister-in-law will go up to him in the sight of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, and spit in his face. Then she will declare, ‘This is what is done to a man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And his family name in Israel will be ‘The house of the man whose sandal was removed.’
~Deuteronomy 25:7-10, NLT, emphasis added
The sandal part has finally come in here. We see that a man’s foot is uncovered (by the widow in question) when he refuses to do his duty of honor and redeem his brother’s family. The uncovering of the foot in public is a way to shame him for refusing to “build up his brother’s house.” This puts a different spin on Ruth’s uncovering of Boaz’ feet in private, now, doesn’t it? Can you see how it was a clear request for marriage and why Boaz immediately understood her?
If you have a gander at the very next verses (Deut 25:11-12), you’ll see that this whole redemption of widows and sandals topic is followed by two verses about women who touch another man’s genitals to defend their husbands during a physical altercation. Something about uncovered feet and a man’s reproductive capacity share symbolism in this culture. I touched on that in Part 3, as well.
Here’s how I’m reading this whole thing between Deuteronomy 25:7-12 (and I could be wrong here…keep that in mind)–this is what makes sense to me.
A widow is entitled to the reproductive capacity of a man in her dead husband’s family (a brother-in-law to give her children), but she does not have the right to interfere with the reproductive capacity of another man, even in defense of her own husband (punching or twisting the enemy’s junk in a brawl).
It’s…odd, but the imagery here can help us make sense of what is happening in Ruth chapter 4. I’m sure there’s more going on in there, but looking at it this way gave me mental clarity for understanding Ruth.
Can We Talk about Ruth Chapter 4, Now?
Yes, finally. Phew! I hope that helped. I really do. This is the series of thoughts I had and the processes I went through to find understanding in this story. I truly hope it helped you in some way, as well. I also hope that if you have a different understanding, you will share it with me in the comments. Okay…so let’s close out this post by returning to the text of Ruth, Chapter 4, and the story about men, their feet, and how you work out the business of marrying off a widow.
Bear with me as I paraphrase most of the story in my own vernacular. Please follow along in your Bible as I do this.
Boaz meets with the man first in line for redemption of Ruth. He tells the man, “Listen, Naomi wants to sell off her sons’ land, and you’re first in line. I want it, but I defer to you since you’re a closer relative.” The man says, “Heck yes, I want that land!”
Boaz says, “Awesome, my dude, but remember–if you take the land, you also have to take Ruth, Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law. You have to marry her and give her a son so her husband’s name will carry on.” The man had forgotten that bit. Suddenly faced with responsibility instead a windfall inheritance, he wobbles. “Sorry, Boaz, but I can’t do it. I’ve got my own finances and family to think of. Taking this on, tending that land–only to give part of it away to the son of a Moabite woman? Man, that’s just more than I want to do.”
“Now in those days it was the custom in Israel for anyone transferring a right of purchase to remove his sandal and hand it to the other party. This publicly validated the transaction.”
Ruth 4:7, NLT, emphasis added
So the man took off his shoe and handed it to Boaz, saying, “Best of luck, Boaz. You go on ahead and take it.”
This, my modern 21st-century friends, was a “handshake deal.”
Boaz looks around at the people who saw this whole thing happen between the other kinsman and himself. He announces loudly, “Okay, you guys have all seen this. You’ve all heard us agree to this. I am taking all of this land from Naomi’s family. I am taking Ruth as my wife, and I will give her a son who will inherit the land and carry the family name. You are my witnesses that this was done honorably and legally.”
The elders and the townspeople gathered around confirm that they have witnessed Boaz’ redemption vow here, and they go further, showering blessings upon Boaz and Ruth, herself. They even compare Ruth to Tamar (in a positive way) saying:
“May the Lord give you descendants by this young woman who will be like those of our ancestor Perez, the son of Tamar and Judah.”
~Ruth 4:12, NLT, emphasis added
These final verses show us that the marriage of Boaz and Ruth was fruitful. They have a son named Obed, and the joy Naomi feels is clearly illustrated. Naomi, the poor woman who lost her husband and both of her sons in a foreign land has returned home to a godly nation. She has lost her bitterness, and her family has been redeemed.
In the closing of the chapter, which also closes the book of Ruth, we see the genealogy that trails from Obed down to David, the boy who will one day be the king God selects from out of all Israel. As Christians, we also know that Obed, through Jesse and David, is a father in the line of Jesus Christ. Ruth is listed there, too, as a matriarch of Jesus’ line (Matthew 1:5). So is Tamar (Matthew 1:3).
This story is in our canon for many reasons, but I believe the primary one for the Israelites who wrote it and preserved it was to show the origin story of King David. When we look at the book of Ruth today, as Christians, we also see that it was placed on the hearts of men to write this story and keep it in scripture to show us the origin story of Jesus.
Jesus is the Redeemer.
He comes from a line that began with a redeemed woman, a redeemed Gentile woman who knew what it meant to love people.
Redemption is central to everything in Jesus’ story. Without redemption, there would never have been a line of David. Without the line of David, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph…no Jesus. Make sense? That’s the picture I was seeing here. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? God was at work for a very long-term plan in this story. The birth of Christ was more than 1,000 years in the future for Ruth and Boaz. They didn’t know how special their marriage was in God’s great plans for his people. They were just two people who knew how to love and live with honor.
Well, I’m a redeemed Gentile woman, too. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a son of David, a son of Ruth redeemed me. He paid the debt of my sin, restoring my honor and protecting me from the horrible punishment that would have been my certain fate. How cool is that? This Christ Jesus, who was born from a line of redeemed people in order to redeem the entire world…will redeem you, too. All you have to do is believe that he is who he says he is.
Anyway…that’s the story of the book of Ruth. Thanks for thinking it through with me.