If we read the book of Ruth like we would read any well-written story, we must pay attention to the facts that the writer puts in.
Ruth’s story, as we’ve said here before, is a real story; it’s not made up. It is an account of actual events that happened to real people. But the writer of the story had decisions to make. There was no videotape of these events and even if there was, it would be literally months long.
This writer had to decide what would go in to the telling and what would be left out. An example of what’s left out in this case is the circumstances of the deaths of the three men in Ruth’s family. Her father-in-law, her husband, and her only brother-in-law all die in Moab. That, undoubtedly, was pretty dramatic stuff and would have helped to introduce us to the characters and make us more sympathetic to them. And yet we get not the first detail about any of that. The three men died. That’s all the book tells us.
This writer, like any writer, had an editorial or authorial purpose. There is a point to the story, or maybe several points, and the story – the details that are included in the story – are there to advance that purpose. This writer, like any other, leaves out much, summarizes some, and then in places gives us fine detail.
When we get that fine detail, we must ask ourselves why it is there. Why did the writer choose to bring the camera in so close? How does this detail forward the authorial purpose? How does it advance the story?
The story of Ruth is efficiently written. There are no long asides describing atmosphere or emotion; no florid descriptions of landscapes or people. But it is during the legal proceeding near the end of the book that the writer gives us fine detail – seemingly more detail than was necessary to move the story from point A to point B.
The writer tells us exactly – word for word – how Boaz presents his case to the other near-kinsman – the man who had first right of refusal for the purchase of the land of Ruth’s late father-in-law and, accordingly, under the customs of that day, a corresponding right to marry Ruth.
Boaz first tells the near-kinsman of his right to purchase the land without mentioning Ruth. And the man immediately bites on the offer. Of course he’d like to add the land to his holdings. It’s kind of a windfall for him. It is only then that Boaz explains that his purchase of that land will bring with it the duty to marry Ruth and have children with her. The kinsman then runs like a scared rabbit.
But why did Boaz present his case in this order and why did the writer of the story think that order of presentation so important that it merited such a detailed retelling in this tight, little book?
At first blush, Boaz’s ordering of his case seems counter intuitive; self-defeating. It is clear from the story that Boaz was taken with Ruth and ecstatic at the prospect that she might become his wife. Why then did he pitch the easy part first?
I think it a great mistake to consider Boaz as anything other than wise and strategic. He is described as a man of wealth and influence. He did not get there by accident or by making silly decisions. At every turn in the story, his actions are generous but careful. Thus, the way he orders his case here is not random and not foolish; he has a plan.
I think Boaz was just the sort of man who was intimately familiar not only with the law, but with the community in which he lived. That is to say, not only was Boaz fully informed as to what the legal realities – both procedural and substantive – were for all concerned when he discovered Ruth beside him on the threshing-room floor, we must assume that Boaz knew his opponent in the proceeding. He certainly seems to have known just where that man would be as he arranged for the hearing to take place.
What I see in Boaz’s presentation of the case – in his ordering of his proof – is a kind of reverse psychology. If Boaz would have presented the case in the other order, telling the man first of Ruth and the ensuing obligations, the kinsman might have smelled a rat – or smelled blood. That is, the kinsman may have thought to himself Boaz is presenting this in a negative way. He’s trying to talk me out of this. He must have his own interest. He must really want this. I’d better hang tight here and see what is really behind this. I may be able to drive a harder bargain if Boaz is really that interested.
But Boaz makes it appear that he is actually trying to get the other man to bite. Telling him the good stuff first. Now it may appear to the cynic that Boaz is actually trying to avoid the responsibility that would fall to him if the other kinsman refuses. This makes the kinsman give away his right without a second thought. Pretty slick.
It will be easy to criticize this opinion of mine, I know. Some will say I have built a real house of cards based on very little evidence. But I cannot get away from the notion that the writer of this book meant to tell us something important by including the details of Boaz’s practice here in this proceeding. And I am sure that Boaz went into that courtroom with an overwhelming desire to take Ruth for himself. (That may not have been totally selfish. The guy with whom he was dealing might have been a real loser. Boaz might have known that Ruth would have been miserable in that other man’s household.)
Others may say that I have dwelt on minutiae and missed the whole point of the book. The book, they will say, is a parable of Christ’s love for us – His sacrifice, His providence, and His grace. Who cares then about the details of Boaz’s practice?
I respond with this – the details of Boaz’s practice only deepen and enrich the Christian parable. That is, we, like Ruth, may finally realize that we’re in a mess and that we must humble ourselves, as Ruth did, and rely on the grace of another for salvation.
But it is also true that we may recognize our desperate situation without appreciating fully how complicated it is. Thus, when God acts to pull us out, He moves in ways strange to us, knowing, as He does, the complexities and dangers that we may have been oblivious to.