“This Law is Irrelevant” on Ruth 4 by Joe Ellis — May 29, 2022
The best type of laws we have reflect the conditions in which we live. For example, before the invention of cars, it would’ve been silly to have speed limits and traffic lights. Can you imagine riding your horse and seeing speed limit signs saying the maximum speed limit was 100 km/h? Can you imagine yourself in a left hand turn lane with your horse and carriage, waiting for the light to change? The conditions in which we live impact the types of laws that we will have.
Mike C has a book that illustrates this perfectly. It’s a picture book of stupid signs — like a sign that says “30 minute parking, violators will be towed” and the sign is in the middle of the desert and there’s not another living soul for hundreds of miles. Ideally, our laws and signs reflect the conditions in which we live — so we have relevant laws around speed limits and traffic lights which are made to lower the incidences of traffic fatalities and the rest — they reflect the realities of travel by car.
As we’ve been working through the book of Ruth, we’ve been learning about a set of laws that reflected the conditions of life for the ancient people of Israel — these laws come front and centre in today’s reading. We need to note that only a culture with a high mortality rate, where widows were economically vulnerable after the death of their husbands, only a culture like that could give rise to a laws like the ones we read about in the book of Ruth. After all, the best type of laws we have often reflect the conditions in which we live.
So, for ancient Israel, God instituted the law concerning Levirate Marriage due to His concern for the continued family line of the brother and the well-being of the widow. This is how the law worked. If a brother died without kids, it was the responsibility of another brother to take the widow as his own wife and have kids with her and support her as his own wife. The widow’s firstborn would then be considered the son of the deceased brother.
This seems strange in our culture because we don’t have the exact same living conditions or values. But Levirate marriages did a few things in Israelite culture. First, it made it so that a widow would still be provided for by the next of kin. The law made sure that the woman would not fall to ruin on account of her husband’s death due to the particular laws around inheritance in a male dominated economy. Back then, this law also made it so that the family land would remain within the family undiminished, and the inheritance would be passed on through the widow’s firstborn. Finally, the law made it so that the deceased brother’s name would continue on — the continuation of the family name was sort of like helping the deceased live on. The perpetuation of the family name became a sort of immortality, the person lives on through their descendants. Those factors made this at times a really helpful law for many people.
The book of Ruth shows us how necessary a law like Levirate Marriage was for some people in this ancient culture. So when you read the book, you think — “Boy, this law seems strange, but I’m really glad it worked out so well for these people in the story.” Then you reflect a bit deeper and become filled with a bit of wonder that God would foresee to draft a law several centuries earlier that would be so instrumental in helping these guys out. That’s the story of Ruth.
Ruth had been aware that Boaz was her kinsmen redeemer for quite sometime. When the time was right, Ruth approached Boaz and said in Ruth 3:9, “May you spread your wing over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman.” She is essentially saying to Boaz — ‘It is time you fulfill your role as Kinsmen Redeemer and marry me.’ Boaz informs Ruth that there is one other more closely related to her dead husband than he is — that other one must get first chance at fulfilling the role of the redeeming kin. Yet Boaz settles the matter that very day. Boaz goes to the gate of Bethlehem, waits for the other redeeming kin, and then gathers ten elders as witnesses. Court is in session. He lets the other guy know about the opportunity of acquiring the inheritance of the deceased. At first the other guy is keen, but when he finds out he also has to take on Ruth and the deal with their firstborn, he says ‘thanks, but no thanks.’
Of course, Ruth is delighted that the other guy is a flake. So is Boaz. Boaz stands up before everyone gathered and says that he has not only acquired the property of his deceased kinsmen, but he will also provide for Ruth, the Moabite. He will take her as his wife and he will “raise up the name of the dead on his land, and that the name of the dead will not be cut off from his brothers and from the gate of his place.” (Ruth 4:10)
Again, while reading the book, we are filled with thanks that God would draft such a law and that Ruth and Boaz are obedient to that law. The townspeople are thankful, also. The elders pray a blessing that Ruth will be like Rachel and Leah — who were the spouses of Jacob, who together became the founding father and mothers of Israel.
They also pray that Ruth might be like the house of Perez to whom Tamar gave birth by Judah — this is a reference to Leah’s son, Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar was in a similar situation as Ruth. Tamar’s husband died childless. Her father-in-law was slow in doing what was required of him as kinsman-redeemer, so Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, got her father-in-law to sleep with her, she became pregnant and they lived happily ever after! Strange story, right? But the family line continued and Tamar was provided for! The elders are thinking, if God would work through and bless this woman, Tamar, posing as a prostitute, how much more will He bless Boaz and Ruth who have acted uprightly throughout this whole situation. And God does bless their situation — the narrator tells us that both Judah and Tamar, as well as Boaz and Ruth are in the family line of King David.
In fact, the story of Ruth is about God working through these two people and their obedience to a strange law, resulting in the greatest king in Israel’s history being born! The narrator tells us that God granted Ruth to bear a son, his name was Obed and Obed bore Jesse, and Jesse was the father of King David. And so ends a beautiful story of how God works through the conditions of a particular culture to bring about shalom, peace, a happy ending. God works through Boaz and Ruth and their obedience to the law which preserves widows from destitution, but they preserve the bloodline of not only King David, but also of Jesus Christ.
Praise God for the law of Levirate Marriage. But that doesn’t mean that it would be a good law here and now, nor will it be in the future. In fact, I’m a little creeped out by the idea of marrying my sister-in-law. Our culture conditions are totally different, and this law would be totally inappropriate today.
Not only that, but Jesus says that this law is destined to be absolutely and permanently obsolete. Read this passage from Matthew 22:23-33 below. (I’m going to insert the names of Ruth and Boaz to help make the connection with our story). Note that the Sadducees weren’t thinking of the book of Ruth when they came to Jesus).
The same day some Sadducees came to Jesus, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother, Boaz. The second brother, Boaz, also died childless, and so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman, Ruth, died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will Ruth be? For all of them had married her.”
Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (which means they do not die.) And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.
Now that we’ve been steeped in the laws of Levirate marriage, we can grasp a little more of what Jesus and the Sadducees are talking about. You see, the story that the Sadducees tell is more ridiculous, but not that dissimilar from what happens to Ruth. Except that in the Sadducees’ story, Boaz would die, as well as his brother, and his brother and his brother, on down the line. The Sadducees are trying to make the point that the idea of resurrection is ridiculous — whose wife would she be? In our story, we might ask, “Who’s wife would Ruth be in the Resurrection, Mahlon (her deceased husband) or Boaz’s?” But Jesus says to this question: “You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
These words of Jesus have been taken in all sorts of unintended directions. Like, we will have no relationship with our husbands or wives when we’re in heaven. Some have taken this passage to assume that we’ll turn into angels. But here Jesus isn’t saying any of that. As we learn in the story of Ruth and Boaz, marriage was, and still is, an institution to help cope with the problem that people die. The Levirate law about marriage very explicitly had to do with continuing the family line in the face of death. Marriage and having babies is a way of helping the human race not die out. Yet in the resurrection, we will no longer be troubled with death. This means that Levirate marriage will be especially unnecessary in a world without death. A key point the Sadducees were wondering was not about which of the seven husbands the widow would love most in heaven, but which of the resurrected husbands would fulfill the command to have children and keep the family line going. Of course, they were basing their assumption on Genesis 1:27, which says a main purpose of marriage, but it’s not the only purpose, is to be fruitful and multiply. In the Resurrection — people won’t die, so we won’t need to have kids to prevent the human race from dying out. So Levirate Marriage, and marriage for the purpose, of having kids will be irrelevant. In the new world that
the Creator God will make there will be no death, and hence no need for procreation.
In the world to come, in the world of the Resurrection, the concerns of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz would be obsolete. The story of Ruth would seem even stranger to us then, than it does now. We’d need some preacher to say, “This law made sense because people actually stopped living back then.” The law won’t make sense in the resurrection because we will not die. Hence, there will be no law in the new creation that ensures our family line won’t die out. After all, the type of laws we have should reflect the conditions in which we live.
That being said, I want to note two things. First, just because our present worries will be made obsolete by the resurrection — that does not mean that our present worries don’t matter to God. Amazingly, our earthly, temporary concerns, which will probably be obsolete in the life hereafter, these concerns matter deeply to God. That’s why God instituted the law of Levirate marriage in the first place. It was a way of anticipating the worries and concerns of people within a particular culture. It doesn’t matter if those concerns were temporary — they still matter. Levirate marriage is not remotely a universal law, it certainly doesn’t apply to us, but God saw that it would help Ruth flourish. So, He cared enough to implement a law a few centuries before Ruth was born to make things go better for her. God has certainly set things in motion centuries before you and I were born so that things might go better for us. He cares about our welfare, especially the welfare of those who would be most vulnerable in society — that’s what so many of the laws in the Old Testament were designed to ensure. You might not make that connection when you read about Levirate Marriage in the book of Deuteronomy, but it becomes crystal clear when you read the book of Ruth — you read Ruth and say, “Oh, this is why that law is so important. Praise God for anticipating laws that would promote human flourishing in that culture.” That’s what so many of God’s legal injunctions were intended to do — restrain vice and minimize suffering to help people flourish. In the laws of the Old Testament, God is working with the limitations of the people to create a society where people can flourish — the laws weren’t intended to create a utopia, but were created as a shining example of what human life together with God could look like.
Biblical Scholar, Scott McNight, says that of all the ancient cultures you could live in — if you were poor and marginalized, you would be most well off in Israel. And we see that throughout the story of Ruth — Ruth is continually the beneficiary of laws, like the gleaning law and the Levirate Marriage Law, working for her welfare in her incredibly vulnerable situation. Just because a law like Levirate Marriage will be obsolete in the Resurrection (and just because, it’s obsolete to us right now), does not mean it doesn’t matter to God. God works within the limitations of time and place to bring about flourishing. God cares deeply about our temporary concerns, needs, worries, and fears.
So the book of Ruth challenges us to emulate Boaz and Ruth — we are to also work within the limitations of our time and place, and find ways of partnering with God to ensure the flourishing of our sisters and brothers in need. Maybe the things we do today won’t apply tomorrow. Maybe it will seem silly to people looking back on us in a few hundred years — but that’s not the point. The point is to discern how we can be faithful today, in this moment, in these conditions, with our limited resources and knowledge — because that’s the material in which God works. God cares deeply about these things that will soon pass.
The second thing I want to point out is this — God’s grand plan of resurrection is connected to our tiny acts of faithfulness in this time and this place. Let’s go back to Jesus’ response to the Sadducees. Jesus says the law of Levirate marriage will be totally unnecessary in the Resurrection — in light of that, one could possibly think that nothing we do here and now will have any bearing on how the story of God’s Resurrection and New Creation unfolds. According to Jesus, Boaz and Ruth’s mighty act of faithfulness will be obsolete in the age of Resurrection. Perhaps, we might imagine, that Jesus will just return and God will make all things new, despite what we do or what we don’t do. We might suppose that nothing of what we do really has anything to do with God’s grand story of redemption and resurrection. So, we might suppose — God will do His big thing and we will do our little things, but the two don’t really connect. In the end, the resurrection will make all our little acts of faithfulness obsolete. Not true!
That’s where Ruth and Boaz offer such a beautiful counterpoint. Ruth and Boaz acted faithfully in the best way that they knew how. It didn’t matter that the law would one day be obsolete — they acted faithfully and their act of faithfulness resulted in the birth of a beautiful child named Obed, and Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam….. and so on. I could keep reading the genealogy of Matthew until we get to the verse that says “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah”. God could have written His story of redemption and resurrection without us, but He doesn’t want to. God chooses to involve unlikely people like Ruth and Boaz to continue His grand story of redemption and faithfulness to His people. If Boaz and Ruth had not acted faithfully in the best way that they knew how — the line of Israel would not have continued and the one who is our Lord and Saviour could not have been born. The faithful actions of Ruth and Boaz made it possible for Jesus to be born — the whole story of Resurrection moved forward because of these two faithful humans. Even though our small acts of faithfulness might seem utterly disconnected and irrelevant to the grand story of God redeeming this whole world — the story of Ruth invites us to consider otherwise. Ruth invites us to consider that God might be quietly working out His grand story of redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people, people like you and me.
May we learn to live like Ruth and Boaz — living faithful lives in our particular time and place. And, may we get a glimpse of the faithfulness of God working through the unlikeliest of people — God who has been at work to transform our lives and this world far longer than we could possibly imagine.