Messiah, the Kinsman Redeemer
And he said, Who art thou? And she
answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine
Mosaic Law had a provision for a man who died childless. It called for his brother to take his brother’s wife as his own and raise up seed in the name of his deceased brother. This provision is also called the Levirate Law, from the Latin levoir, meaning brother-in-law. Here is how it reads:
“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.”—Deuteronomy 25:5,6
The Story of Ruth
The usage of this law is illustrated in the book of Ruth. Because of a famine in Judea, a certain man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion moved to the land of Moab. There his sons married Orpah and Ruth. In the course of time Elimelech and his sons died.
Naomi then resolved to move back to her native city of Bethlehem. Orpah, with tears for her departing mother-in-law, remained behind. But Ruth refused to leave Naomi, left her own homeland, and went to Judea with her.
Accepting her experiences in Moab as a chastisement from the Lord, Naomi asked her former friends to no longer call her Naomi (meaning “pleasing”) but Mara (“bitter,” in the sense of grief).
Being poor, Naomi sends Ruth to glean wheat in the field of her husband’s relative, Boaz. This provision for the poor was another feature of Mosaic Law (see Leviticus 19:9, 10). There she is most graciously received; Boaz even tells his servants to leave extra handfuls for her to gather (Ruth 2:16).
Under the instruction of Naomi, Ruth is asked to go down to see the winnowing of the barley. This was usually done in the evening since it was cooler and there were stronger winds to blow away the chaff. It was customary to reward the hard work of the servants with a large meal, accompanied with plenty of wine. Under the influence of the heavy meal and the wine, the workers were soon fast asleep. While Boaz was sleeping, Ruth came and lay at his feet, probably perpendicular to him, in a customary servants’ position.
Spreading the Skirt
“And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.” —Ruth 3:8,9.
These verses have been confusing to many, largely because of the translation of two Hebrew words. In verse 8, the word translated “afraid” is charad (Strong’s #2729) and literally means to tremble or quake. In this context, we suggest the thought is that, in the cool of the night, Boaz shivered and turned himself to wrap his covering more tightly around him. In the process, he was surprised to find a woman at his feet.
Her response to his question revealed that she was his kin, and she asked that he “spread his skirt over her.” The word translated “skirt” is the Hebrew kanaph (Strong’s #3671), which is more generally translated “wing.” One example is Psalm 17:8, “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings.”
Ruth’s request, therefore, was to come under his protection, granting her the right of a kinsman. Boaz knew well what she was claiming: under the provisions of the Levirate Law, marry her and produce the child which her first husband had not done before he died.
Technically, Boaz was not the kinsman of Ruth, but of Naomi’s husband Elimelech (Ruth 2:1). However, since Naomi was beyond childbearing age (Ruth 1:12) and had no heir, her right passed to her now widowed daughter-in-law.
Boaz demurs, stating that while he is willing to perform the kinsman’s role, there is a closer relative who should be given the first opportunity to do the kinsman’s part. He offers to negotiate the matter with this person on Ruth’s behalf.
While we are not specifically informed of the exact relationship between Elimelech, Boaz, and the nearer kinsman, it is not unreasonable to assume, on the basis of the Levirate Law, that all three were brothers and possibly Boaz was the youngest.
The next morning Boaz went to the gate of the city to settle the matter of who would buy the field Elimelech sold and marry Ruth to raise up an heir in the line of Elimelech. Rigidly adhering to the law as laid out in Deuteronomy 25:5,6, Boaz assembled the elders of the city and the nearer kinsman. He then outlined the situation and offered the nearer kinsman the right of redemption, which he accepted until it was pointed out that acceptance also meant the production of an heir from Ruth for the property. The nearer kinsman then refused the offer because it would mar his own inheritance.
How a marriage to Ruth would mar his inheritance is not explained. There are two possibilities: 1) he already had a wife and children and the birth of a son by Ruth would introduce dissension in the household over the inheritance; or, more likely, 2) having a wife but as yet no children, he feared that if he produced a son by Ruth, there would be no one to perpetuate his own name and inheritance.
As a symbol of the transfer of the kinsman’s redemption privilege to Boaz, this nearer kinsman took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz. The shoe represented the claim to exercise this privilege. The author of Manners and Customs of Bible Lands has this to say about this practice: “It probably originated from the fact that the right to tread the soil belonged to the owner of it, and so the transfer of a sandal was a symbol of the transfer of the property or possession.” This custom is alluded to prophetically in Psalm 60:8 and Psalm 108:9, “Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe; over Philistia will I triumph.”
Boaz then publicly declares in the presence of the elders his intention to buy the field, marry Ruth, and produce an heir to keep the inheritance of Elimelech and his sons alive.
The only feature of the Deuteronomic commandment not observed is the spitting in the face of the nearer kinsman, possibly because Boaz had no desire to shame him, or less likely, that there was a degree of legitimacy in the claim of the kinsman that it would mar his own inheritance. Curiously, Obed, the son of Boaz and Ruth, is not credited to the line of Elimelech or his sons, but to Boaz (see Matthew 1:5 and Luke 3:32).
Parallels with Jesus
While it is nowhere stated in the Bible that the narrative of Ruth is a type, some interesting parallels can be drawn between the story and that of Christ Jesus. As the right of redemption was the sole province of the nearest kinsman, so Jesus had to be related to father Adam and the race carried in his loins.
The apostle Paul elucidates this principle: “Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” ( Philippians 2:6-8, NASB).
This same concept is succinctly stated in Hebrews 2:14, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same.” Albert Barnes captures the intent of this verse: “Have a human and not an angelic nature. Since they are men, he became a man. There was a fitness or propriety that he should partake of their nature.”
Thus Jesus left the glory that he had and became a man—fully human and not an angel or a hybrid God-man—and thus able to offer himself as a ransom (Greek: antilutron, “a corresponding price”) for Adam and his descendants (1 Timothy 2:6).
But as there was an even nearer kinsman than Boaz with a priority on the right of redemption, so there was the potential of the Law, and the people developed under it, from whom the kinsman’s duty had to be secured. But the inheritors of that Mosaic covenant, while willing to purchase the earthly promises represented in the field of Elimelech, were both unwilling and unable to marry the spiritual covenant with its spiritual seed, the Church.
Thus the right of redemption is obtained by the transfer of possession, shown in the rite of the shoe, from the Law to Christ. Whether these further parallels were intended or not, the central fact remains: Christ left his heavenly glory behind to become a human being, and as a perfect human gave his life to exercise the redemption rights of a kinsman for the human race.