About: this paper was delivered to Professor Dale Liid at Fuller Theological Seminary during my second year for the second quarter of the Biblical Hebrew class.
Ruth 4:1-4 describes the portion of Ruth where Boaz confronts the next-of-kin. In this text, Boaz publicly and officially declares to him to take charge of his responsibility, since he has not yet acted and fulfilled his duty. Let us examine the text in Hebrew, the original language with which the book of Ruth was written, starting with verse 1.
Boaz went to the city gate most likely during the conversation between Ruth and Naomi in Chapter 3 (these two events may in fact be simultaneous). Although it is not imperative to understanding the story, it might help in understanding the setting to know that the events may be happening at the same time. According to one commentator, Boaz was the head of the Sanhedrin; the Sanhedrin met at the city gate.1 Regardless if this is true, for the text itself does not say Boaz was the head of the Sanhedrin, official matters were dealt with at the city gate. Boaz is seeking to officially settle the issue with the next-of-kin. What was the issue?
The next-of-kin, or גֹאֵל in Hebrew, had not performed his duty. As גֹאֵל, he was to buy the land from Naomi, thus keeping it in the family. But this גֹאֵל had not even so much as indicated that he was going to fulfill his role. As a result, Boaz went to the gate to resolve the issue. After Boaz arrived at the gate, the text literally says, “And behold, the kinsman was passing by whom Boaz was speaking of.” It is as though God orchestrated the event. Boaz was speaking of the גֹאֵל at the gate, and while he was speaking, not as coincidence, he came passing by.2
Boaz took charge at the moment the גֹאֵל was passing by. He commanded him to turn and sit down. But he did not call him by name. The NRSV rendering, “friend,” is misleading. The Hebrew reads פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי. The meaning of this phrase has been lost.3 It is possible that it could be a name, but it is highly unlikely. It is possible that it could have an idea of concealment or secrecy behind it, but this is quite uncertain. It is probably best to take it to mean “So and so” (literally, “certain one–so and so”). Perhaps the reason for this convoluted phrase is the fact that in one copy of the Septuagint, one commentator says, the phrase is translated into Greek to mean “anonymous,” while in a different copy of the Septuagint, the phrase is translated to mean “secret.” It is plausible that this textual variant contributes to the obscure interpretation of the phrase for us today. Whatever the reason, the end result is we have lost the way the original audience heard, interpreted, and understood this phrase.4 One commentator likes the translation “John Doe.”5 However, this translation would lead a contemporary reader to believe that the person’s name is simply not known and so the anonymous name is applied to that person. However, we do not know if the situation merits this translation. Perhaps the real name was known to the original audience, and it was instead left out of the text and replaced with the anonymous phrase for dramatic effect (i.e., “unmentionable one”). In any case, it seems best to leave the translation as “So and so,” so that no confusion or incorrect interpretation might take place.
After commanding פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי to turn and sit, the text says he turned and sat down. In verse 2, Boaz then proceeded to get 10 elders to sit down at the gate. Ten men were necessary for a lawful assembly.6 One commentator says that 10 sages were required to be present for marriage ceremonies, and thus links the situation here in Ruth with a wedding.7 The text itself does not necessarily indicate that a wedding ceremony is occurring. To proclaim a wedding in this text is to interpret beyond the boundaries of the text. In other words, it makes more out of the story than is actually present. We need only to say that an official meeting is taking place, since the setting is at the city gate and ten elders of the city are present, which satisfy the requirements to have an official meeting.
After having assembled 10 elders at the gate, in verse 3 Boaz then speaks to פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי. He says that Naomi is selling the plot of land that belonged to Elimelech, their brother. What is difficult here is the Hebrew word מָכְרָה. It is Qal Perfect, which means it is rendered literally, “She sold.” Did Naomi already sell the land? Verse five prohibits a sale, since Boaz charges פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי to purchase the land, and there is no mention of a waiting period in accord with the law if it was previously sold.8 As in this case, the Qal Perfect can have a present meaning. In this case, the verb ought to be translated, “She is selling,” or, “She is going to sell.” One commentator argues that since the land itself was not sold, only the right to use the land could be purchased, she in fact was not selling the land but was surrendering her rights to the use of the land.9 This understanding seems logical enough, but the text does not strongly support it. Perhaps the text is literally, “She is going to sell,” but in the back of the minds of the audience it was understood that she was selling her rights to the land. In any case, a transaction is in view; it is the goods that are being purchased that are in dispute for this particular commentator. The Septuagint notes that the land was given to Naomi and does not have the idea of a purchase. This issue is not easily resolved. It seems as though the Septuagint translation wants to avoid Naomi selling land in any case, and so interprets it to mean that Naomi was given the plot of land Boaz was talking about. The Septuagint reading is very unlikely to be original, since it can be explained from the more difficult reading. It is somewhat problematic for a woman to be in charge of selling land. The Septuagint wants to avoid this problem and has strayed from the original reading. To sum up this situation, we can be certain that a transaction is in view, but all the specific details surrounding the transaction are uncertain.
Boaz continued speaking in verse 4. He literally said, “I said I will uncover your ears to say,” meaning, “I said I will reveal to you by saying.” Boaz is saying that he has set out to inform פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי of his duties. What were his duties? Boaz explicitly stated the duties, and he underscored the legal ramifications of his decisions, since they were at the gate with 10 elders. He said, “Buy the plot of land before the ones sitting down and before the elders of my people.” Boaz charges him to buy the land Naomi is selling, which is the responsibility of the next-of-kin. One commentator has argued that there are two groups present at the meeting, as indicated by the double use of נֶגֶב.10 Another commentator argues that this double use is a reiteration. The second use is in apposition to the first to note the same group. In other words, there is only one group present.11 Given the setting from verse 1, we should agree with the latter commentator and take the double use of נֶגֶב to be an appositional statement in reference to the same group. Boaz charges the גֹאֵל to purchase the land in the presence of the 10 elders he had assembled at the gate. He conditionally states, “If you will redeem, redeem.” In other words, “If you intend to act as kin, do it!” The second “redeem” is a command. He is firmly stating that if he intends to act as kin, he needs to do it promptly. But Boaz does not stop there. He continues his conditional statement, saying, “And if he will not redeem declare it to me.” Here we must stop to consider some important textual issues.
The text is written as “he will redeem.” However, many manuscript versions have “you will redeem.” It is odd to have the text in the third person while directly speaking to the גֹאֵל. It is problematic to have it in the third person. But it is precisely for this reason that we can say that “he will redeem” is the original text, for it explains the change in the other manuscripts into the second person (and not the other way around). If it was original, since it is difficult, later scribes would have changed it to the second person to make it easier and more in harmony with the context. Given this reason alongside of the fact that there are more manuscripts in support of the third person, the correct reading is “he will redeem.” It should also be noted that this verb is not passive, so any translation wishing to interpret it as “it will be redeemed” is not correct.12
If the גֹאֵל would not redeem the land, then Boaz requested that it be declared to him so that he would know, for there was no one else to redeem the land. But Boaz was next after the גֹאֵל he was confronting. The text reads, “and I will know,” but in the margins of the Hebrew Bible there is a marking indicating that the text should be audibly read as “and I may know.” The difference between the two is important. The former is incomplete, which is understood as an action to be done in the future. The imperfect makes the verb as a result of the declaration. The latter is causitive, which is understood to cause an action to be done. The cohortative makes the verb function as the purpose of the declaration. In this case, the text is written as imperfect, but it is understood by the scribes to be cohortative. In other words, although it is written as imperfect, and this is the original text, it is understood to be cohortative, so that it is not translated “and I will know,” but rather, “and I may know.”13
For the first time in the narrative, the גֹאֵל speaks. He said, “I will redeem.” However, he responds with the imperfect rather than the perfect. The perfect would be used if it were an official declaration, but since he responded with the imperfect, he was indicating that he was willing to perform the duty of the גֹאֵל, but at the same time he was leaving the option open for Boaz to take over.14
In the end, Boaz took the position of גֹאֵל and from his line came King David and eventually Jesus Christ. Boaz was not only a leader, but he was a valiant and noble leader. He helped, by the power and guidance of the Lord, to set things right for Naomi and Ruth, so that Naomi could override her previous declaration to be called Bitter (Mara) and instead be called Pleasant (Naomi). As for “So and so,” we do not know what became of him. We do know that Scripture has purposefully left as much as his name out.
In this text, we come to an important truth. We need to be led by God and to do what is right. Boaz was led by God to do what was right in relationship to his relatives. How often do we complain about having to go meet with relatives in our setting today? It should not be so. Family is important. The Bible places a strong emphasis on the importance of family, including relatives. God honors those who stand by the needs of their family. Boaz was honored by eventually having his lineage blessed with kingship; in addition, he was blessed when his lineage took on the Messiah, God’s chosen one. Therefore, we need to do what is right as God has instructed us to do, including with our family. If anyone has a relative in need, so long as it is possible, come to that relative’s aid. Lend them money without requiring a return. Loan them possessions. Tend to them when they are sick, or when they are near death. Do not forsake family; hold on to relatives.
A family had a grandmother who was a heavy smoker. She developed emphysema and needed an oxygen tank to help her breathe. Eventually, she developed lung cancer. She was in a terrible amount of pain. However, her family did not come to her aid. She was a bitter woman. For some reason or another, she treated her daughter-in-laws very terribly. Her grandchildren suffered psychologically from the verbal abuse that she shot at her sons’ wives. But her sons did not do what is honoring to the Lord. They did not aid their mother. She died bitterly. The story of Ruth demands that we do differently. If we ever find ourselves in that position, we should tend to our mothers even if they have dealt bitterly with us and with our wives. We need to spread the love of God to everyone, including those who hurt, and especially to our family. Just as Boaz acted, so also should we take leadership and honor God by coming to the aid of our family.
Gray, James. The Biblical Museum: A collection of notes, explanatory, homiletic, and illustrative, on the Holy Scriptures, especially designed for the use of ministers, bible-students, and Sunday school teachers. Vol. 3. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, year not found.
Broch, Yitzchak. Ruth: The book of Ruth in Hebrew and English with a Talmudic-Midrashic commentary. 2nd ed. Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1983.
Bush, Frederic. Word Biblical Commentary: Ruth, Esther. David Hubbard, Glenn Barker, John Watts, eds. Vol. 9. Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1996.
Campbell, Edward. Ruth: A new translation with introduction, notes, and commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Zlatowitz, Meir. The Book of Ruth. 2nd ed. Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1993.
1 Yitzchak Broch, Ruth: The book of Ruth in Hebrew and English with a Talmudic-Midrashic commentary, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1983), 90. Cf. also Meir Zlatowitz, The Book of Ruth, 2nd ed. (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1993), 120.
2 Edward Campbell, Ruth: A new translation with introduction, notes, and commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 141. Cf. also Zlatowitz, The Book of Ruth, 120.
3 Campbell, Ruth, 143.
5 Ibid., 141.
6 James Gray, The Biblical Museum: A collection of notes, explanatory, homiletic, and illustrative, on the Holy Scriptures, especially designed for the use of ministers, bible-students, and Sunday school teachers, vol. 3 (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, year not found), 180.
7 Broch, Ruth, 91.
8 Zlatowitz, The Book of Ruth, 123.
9 Frederic Bush, Ruth, Esther, Word Biblical Commentary, David Hubbard, Glenn Barker, John Watts, eds., vol. 9 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1996), 200.
10 Campbell, Ruth, 145.
11 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 207.
12 Bush and Zlotowitz are ones who take the verb to be passive.
13 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 210.
14 Bush, Ruth, Esther, 210.