The Redeemer and the Redeemed within the Book of Ruth
A common theme found in the modern interpretation of scripture is redemption. It is the focus of many sermons, books, and blogs, which makes sense due to the retrospective lens of Jesus and the New Testament (NT).
While it is acceptable to look into the past for the pieces of history that played a role in our modern understanding redemption, one must be careful of the opposite and not use our new definition to define the redemption of the past.
The Modern Interpretation of Redeemer
This issue arises in our modern interpretation and understanding of the book of Ruth. Specifically, in the way we interpret the role of redeemer and the role of the redeemed. One must understand the context, meaning, and intent of the word redeemer before coming to a conclusion about who is being redeemed and who is redeeming.
Furthermore, the meaning or intent of the writer of Ruth may reach a conclusion but it does not mean that a modern perception is not valid. The key is to understand what the writer meant before drawing conclusions beyond the writer’s original meaning or intent.
The Ancient Concept of Redeemer in The Book of Ruth
The story found within the book of Ruth is clearly one of redemption and fulfills this role in multiple ways. However, to understand the meaning and role of this redemption, one must consider the context of the culture and era of this story.
Depending on the translation, the word redeem is explicitly used in two to three verses within Ruth: Ruth 3:13, Ruth 4:4, and Ruth 4:6 (NLT). Each of these occurrences uses the Hebrew word gā’al, which in context refers to the “law of kinship” or to be the next in line to marry the widow of one’s kin.
This is shown practically through the gā’al of Naomi by the actions of Boaz. In Ruth 4:4-6, it is stated that the true next of kin refused to redeem Naomi due to the impact it could have on his own estate. The redemption that he was referring to was that of the land and he tells Boaz,
“You redeem the land; I cannot do it” (NLT).
The tradition of redemption found in the book of Ruth is introduced in Leviticus 25 as the LORD instructs Moses on Mount Sinai on what to tell the people of Israel. The LORD gives Moses instructions for the year of Sabbath, along with the year of Jubilee, instructing the people of Israel on specific practices and customs that refer to the upkeep and care of the land that they sojourned.
The LORD then declared in Leviticus 25:23 that
“the land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me (NLT). You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me” (NLT).
Furthermore, the LORD states in Leviticus 25:25 that
“if one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him” (NLT).
Notice that the one who is being redeemed by the close relative here is the male who fell into poverty. However, the reader learns early in the story of Ruth that Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died, along with their two sons soon after. This left Naomi as the land owner and it can be inferred that she was also the head of the household as she instructed Ruth throughout much of the remainder of the story.
Ruth is a Redeemer for Naomi
Ruth was a Moabite widow gleaning the scraps of the harvest and is considered marginalized due to her foreigner status and the circumstances that led Naomi and Ruth back to Israel, such as death and famine. This makes redeeming Naomi a less favorable opportunity for the one who would purchase the land. As previously mentioned, Boaz, who is a close relative of Naomi’s late husband, offers the role of redeemer to the closest relative and rightful redeemer of Naomi’s land in Ruth 4.
Furthermore, in Ruth 4:5, Boaz states that the redeemer would not only redeem the land but would also be required to marry Ruth with the intent of children, redeeming their family household and title as well (NLT). Thus, it is not only the redemption of the land but rather the redemption of the entire lineage of the family.
God clearly states that the land is his and the Israelites are only temporary holders, meaning that the purchase of the land was only temporary. Thus, the ownership of the land would come into question again if there was not a clear heir that would inherit the land after Boaz died.
Since Naomi was too old and unable to bear children, it is the child of Boaz and Ruth that truly redeems Naomi and allows the land to stay in the possession of Elimelech’s family name and lineage. Therefore, Naomi is the one who was redeemed, according to Levitical law, with the role and title of redeemer carried out by Boaz.
How Does the Redeemer Translate to the New Testament?
It is not easy to separate the idea of redemption that we see in the Old Testament (OT) with that of the NT. While the rigidness of Levitical law gives a clear understanding of the redeemer and the redeemed within the book of Ruth, viewing this story through the lens of Jesus Christ and the NT allows one to understand the story in a new light.
The word for redemption that is used in the NT is the Greek word lytroō, which refers to the release of one’s ransom, “to liberate,” or “to deliver” from evil. In comparing the Hebrew and Greek words for redeem, gā’al and lytroō, there is a subtle difference in the purpose of each type of redemption and who they are for.
The term gā’al used within the story of Ruth was shown to have a distinct purpose with clear roles for everyone involved. While the theme of lytroō is found throughout the book of Ruth, the role of this redemption is not as clear as the idea of gā’al found within this story.
Boaz is a Redeemer of Naomi
Looking back to the idea of gā’al within the book of Ruth, the word acquire is often used collaterally with the word redeem. This, along with Ruth’s foreigner status, suggests that Ruth could have been acquired into slavery through the redemption, or purchase, of Naomi’s land.
The act of Boaz acquiring the land through payment to Naomi was a type of gā’al and was not completely unexpected, due to Jewish tradition; however, Boaz redeeming Naomi with a child through the act of covenantal marriage with Ruth was an unexpected act of kindness that better resembles a type of lytroō.
Through the lens of redemption, Boaz goes beyond what was expected of his culture, beyond the act of gā’al, and cares for the marginalized and the foreigner, liberating Ruth and Naomi from the disadvantage of these statuses. Likewise, it was Ruth who first offered to be a redeemer for Naomi after the death of Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion.
In Ruth 1:8-12, Naomi encouraged the newly widowed Ruth and Orpah to stay in Moab and go back to their family home so that they could potentially remarry (NLT).
Orpah eventually agreed but Ruth refused to stay in Moab. Ruth selflessly pledged to be by Naomi’s side until death in Ruth 1:16-18 and followed her back to Bethlehem (NLT). Ruth gave up her right to stay and the heritage of her people in Moab for a foreign land and people, all for the sake of Naomi. It was the kindness, selflessness, and humbleness of Ruth that allowed Naomi the chance of redemption.
When Naomi began to succumb to self-pity and despair, Ruth offered Naomi liberation with her compassion and love for her. This resembles a type of lytroō and thus, Ruth also acts as a redeemer of Naomi through the lens of Jesus and the NT.
The objective was to understand the role of the redeemer and the role of the redeemed within the book of Ruth through the original context of the book, along with a modern interpretation of the text through the lens of Jesus Christ and the NT. The explicit use of the Hebrew word for redeem, gā’al, is used within the text of Ruth to refer to the OT law of kinship originating in the book of Leviticus.
This provides a more rigid definition of the word redeem and specifically refers to the redemption of the family estate and household name and is typically carried out by the next closest kin. Thus, redemption through the lens of the OT and the original context and intent of the book of Ruth places Boaz as the redeemer and Naomi as the redeemed. This is from an explicit and detailed analysis of the text and words used therein.
However, the larger picture of the Book of Ruth can be retrospectively analyzed through the lens of Jesus and the NT. This resulted from an analysis of the text using the theme of the Greek word for redeem, lytroō, which refers to liberation and deliverance as a type of redemption.
While this Greek word is clearly not used in the Hebrew text, the overall theme of liberation is evident in the overall story of Ruth. Naomi is liberated from her circumstances through the kindness and love of others. Thus, redemption through the lens of the NT places Ruth and Boaz as the redeemers and Naomi as the redeemed.
These two perspectives of redemption are often intertwined while reading and interpreting the text of Ruth. Both perspectives offer truth and appear to be valid; however, it is important to fully understand the explicit and implicit forms of redemption found within the text.
Moreover, bias from the reader’s modern perspective should not influence their understanding of the meaning and intent of the original author of Ruth.
One can conclude that the book of Ruth can be observed through the lenses of both the OT and NT, resulting in different outcomes for the redeemer(s) and the redeemed.
1 Snow, A. (2022, August 24). The meaning of Hesed: Hebrew for Love. FIRM Israel. Retrieved October 21, 2022, from https://firmisrael.org/learn/the-meaning-of-hesed-hebrew-for-love/#:~:text=Hesed%20is%20%E2%80%9Cwrapping%20up%20in,Bock.
2 Long, Samuel C. “The Book of Ruth as an Exemplar for Faith Communities.” Priscilla Papers 28, no. 4 (January 1, 2014): 14–17. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.ashland.edu:2648/login.aspx?direct=true&db=33h&AN=64081&site=eds-live.