The story of Ruth is deeply rooted in the covenants and culture of the Old Testament. From the very beginning of the Scriptures, when God began to work with His people of Israel. The Abrahamic covenant marks a transition in Genesis’ account of God’s initiated redemption of the world (Genesis 12:1–3, 7; 13:14–17; 15:4–21; 17:4–16; 22:15–18). Initially made to the patriarch while he was still under the name Abram (“exalted father”; 12:1–3; 13:14–18), the promise would later be expanded to the people of the world in such a way as to necessitate a change of title: Abram becomes Abraham (“father of many”; 17:5–8).
God always reminded the Israelites of two things He covenanted with them. God told Israel they were a special people, set apart from all the other nations. God told Israel that they had a special place He had prepared for them. Even today that’s true. There’s a place called Israel at the very center of everything that’s going on in the world. And there is a people—the Jews—spread throughout the earth. In the book of Ruth, there is a continuation of God’s promise to His people concerning a place and a people.
In order for us to cross some cultural barriers to understand this section of God’s Word, two words need to be explained:
- The first word is yābām, יָבָם, meaning “deceased husband’s brother” or “brother-in-law.” In the OT, in order to preserve the people of Israel, the brother of a man who had died without children would marry the deceased man’s wife, and the first child born in that relationship would perpetuate the name of the man who had died. This was known as a levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 instructed the Jews:
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.
- The second word is go’el (גָּאַל), translated “redeemer.” The go’el was an extended family member who was to act as the redeemer of persons or property. We find this in Leviticus 25:25-28:
25 If your brother becomes destitute and sells part of his property, his nearest relative may come and redeem what his brother has sold. 26 If a man has no family redeemer, but he prospers and obtains enough to redeem his land, 27 he may calculate the years since its sale, repay the balance to the man he sold it to, and return to his property. 28 But if he cannot obtain enough to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of its purchaser until the Year of Jubilee. It is to be released at the Jubilee, so that he may return to his property.
Every Jewish family had a piece of property that was theirs by virtue of their inheritance, and the Scriptures taught that even if a person became totally poor and lost everything he had, a member of the family was supposed to buy that property back on his behalf until the year of Jubilee (an observance in which every seven years, Jews got back everything they had lost). So when a person lost his property, one of the family members—the goel (גָּאַל), the redeemer—would buy it back so that family would not lose its inheritance.
So just as the yābām יָבָם perpetuated the people, the go’el (גָּאַל), perpetuated the property, the place.
In the book of Ruth, we see God’s promise for a special people and a special place unfold through the relationship of Boaz, the redeemer, and Ruth, in need of redemption.