Ruth, Naomi and the Levirate Marriage
While the Biblical story of Ruth was originally written to provide a role model for Hebrew girls to emulate, the book is also useful for its vivid picture of life in ancient Israel.
Naomi, her husband, and her two sons had left Bethlehem because of a famine and had moved in search of food to Moabite country where both boys married local girls. Tragedy struck and Naomi's husband and two sons died in quick succession.
Naomi was naturally quite depressed at this turn of events. Hearing that the famine was over she decided to return home to Bethlehem. Not wishing to impose on her daughters-in-law, she suggested they stay behind and find new husbands. One did. The other, Ruth, refused; she insisted on staying with her mother-in-law. The rest of the story showed how Ruth looked after Naomi, and God looked after Ruth.
Although she was a Moabite, Ruth insisted on doing all of the things that would have been expected of a Jewish girl. While young people tended to marry within the village where the bride could continue contact with her birth family, it was clear that the girl moved to her husband's home and not the other way around. Her loyalties were expected to transfer to her new family and home---that of her husband.
Thus when Naomi decided to go back to Bethlehem, Ruth insisted on going too. As a good Jewish girl her place was with her mother-in-law not with her birth family and she refused Naomi's willingness to release her from that obligation.
Everywhere in the ancient world widows were a seriously disadvantaged group. The poor in Israel had two sources of help. They had the right to glean---that is, they had the right at harvest time to follow the reapers and gather any grain that was missed and landowners were expected to ensure that something was left for gleaning. The poor also had the right to expect help from kin who were better off.
Boaz, the owner of the field in which Ruth gleaned, insisted that his workers leave a reasonable portion of the harvest for all of the gleaners. When he heard of the plight of his kin, Naomi and Ruth, he provided them with additional support.
Dying without a son to continue both his name and his life was considered by the Hebrews a particularly terrible tragedy. A brother or cousin could inherit the deceased's property only by marrying his widow and offering her a chance to produce a son with genes as close as possible to those of her husband. Monogamy was the ideal but polygamy was acceptable; thus a prior marriage was not a hindrance, but the kinsman would need both the resources and the desire to support a new wife.
We need not bemoan the misfortune of a woman forced into marriage with a man who could have been a stranger. It was the widow who initiated the proceeding, not the kinsman, and the marriage not only gave her the opportunity to have children but it also meant food, clothing and shelter that might otherwise have been hard to find.
The widow first had to claim her right to what was called a Levirate Marriage. There was, of course, an order of precedence with the oldest brother of the deceased first in line. If he refused then the second brother could accept. Then came the opportunity of other male relatives in their turn. She made the decision to marry, but then had to accept the first man on the list who said yes.
In Chapter Three, following the instructions of her mother-in-law, Ruth went to the Threshing Room where Boaz had fallen asleep. She turned back the blanket at his feet and lay down. This was how a widow claimed her right to a Levirate Marriage. When Boaz awoke, he praised Ruth's devotion to Naomi and agreed to act on her behalf.
In Chapter Four Boaz followed the traditional procedure. He went to the city gate (where important business was conducted) and called for ten elders of the town to sit with him as witnesses. Then when the man who was actually the closest kin and the first in line to inherit passed by, Boaz called him over and in the presence of the elders reminded him of the Levirate rule and asked if he wished to inherit both Ruth and the land belonging to her deceased husband.
The kinsman declined and handed one of his sandals to Boaz. Contracts today have a red seal next to the signature as a symbol of the legally binding nature of the agreement. The sandal exchange was the ancient Israelite equivalent of the red seal.
This left Boaz free to marry Ruth.