Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Property Rights in the Book of Ruth

Jo Ann Gardner
Lecturer and writer
Westport, New York

Twenty-first Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 21, 2017
The Century House, Latham, N.Y

 

Fortunately, the Book of Ruth is short. It's four short chapters or what I like to think of as four acts. This is my book, Seeds of Transcendence, Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants, and believe me, I'm not going to talk about plants today. Except that wheat and barley are featured in the drama of the Book of Ruth. So, I'll put this down and we'll get on with it.

Just out of curiosity, how many lawyers are here today? One, two, three, four. Okay. Well, the Book of Ruth is very interesting from the point of view of law and I can't go into it as deeply as I would like to because the minutes are slipping by but you all have a handout with the original laws, the reference to the original laws in the Bible, and you can go home and look them up. And there's a very interesting website. It's called scholarship.law.usl.edu from the University of Florida. There's some interesting articles there.

Oceans of ink, as you probably know have been spilled on interpreting the Bible. We are going to discount all those oceans of ink and we are going to stick to the plain text. The plain text has never failed me yet. Seldom have we had an issue of property rights so neatly wrapped in a story of love. Of course, you all know love. But this is biblical love I'm talking about. It's a special concept in the Hebrew Bible. It's called hesed, which is usually translated as loving kindness. It means a selfless devotion, the selfless obligation, the selfless loyalty to someone else. This is what drives the fulfillment of the property law, or I should say laws, in this story.

So, let's just review very briefly the laws. They are really spelled out in the Book of Leviticus. Ideally, everybody's property would remain as it was originally given by God to the Twelve Tribes. There would be no crossovers. But if for some reason somebody lost their land through debt or some other reason, there were various ways to get it back all spelled out in the Book of Leviticus. The main idea is that a redeeming kinsman or closest kin could redeem the land. What this meant was that redeeming kinsmen could buy back the land so that it remained in the tribe. This was paramount. But the redeeming kinsmen didn't actually own the land. They could use it but they were really holding it in trust for the original owner who kept the original deed. That's something to keep in mind. There were exceptions but that's very arcane. You'd have to read about that in the Book of Leviticus.

Then we have the interesting case of the daughters of Zelophehad. The name that's so hard to pronounce. He was a man who died in the desert wanderings and he had no son to inherit. So, his five daughters petitioned Moses and they said, "Why should our land be lost, our father's name be lost forever and his patrimony because he had no sons to inherit?" Moses didn't know how to resolve this issue so he asked God. God said, "Yes, they have a good case. Let them inherit. If there are no sons, the daughters may inherit the land."

About ten chapters later in the Book of Numbers, whether the men were not on the ball or what, they suddenly see there's a loophole in the law. What if the daughters should marry outside the tribe? Then the land would be lost. So, Moses asked God. God said, "Yes, they have a good case. They have to marry within the tribe." And that law, amended, passes into legal history and is noted in the Albany Law Review - I'm not kidding - of 1873. You can look it up. It's in an endnote in my book. I have an entire chapter on the daughters of Zelophehad as well as the Book of Ruth.

Then we come to Deuteronomy, which spells out levirate marriage. Maybe some of you have heard about that. It comes from levir, that's the Latin word for brother-in-law. It means the obligation of an unmarried brother-in-law to marry the childless widow of the deceased.

So, there we have it. Those are the property laws that we are going to talk about. Now, we come to the Book of Ruth. And I want you to try - I know this isn't easy - but try to put yourselves in the shoes of the audience of the day. I mean this is thousands of years ago. This would be an audience of simple farmers and shepherds. These are not Bible critics. The Bible was actually composed for them. They would understand the Book of Ruth perhaps in different ways from the way we would understand it. They would appreciate points that might pass as fine. I'll try to note them as we go.

So, the curtain opens on Act I. We learn that Elimelech, a man of some substance who owns land, he leaves his hometown of Bethlehem with his wife Naomi and two sons. He goes to Moab because there's a famine. This is not unheard of. There were famines because there was drought all the time. You read that in the Bible. He went to Moab. That's across the Jordan River. It would be the country of Jordan now. That would probably be not unheard of even though Moab was described, I think in Deuteronomy, as a terrible place. It's a pagan nation, of course, but they refused hospitality when the Israelites were crossing Moab to reach the Promised Land. If you did not give hospitality in the desert, you violated the desert code. The desert code, we see this in American westerns and in films. Even to your enemy you give food and drink. Okay? So, they refused that. It's a terrible place.

Anyway, they went there because it was probably a popular place for people to go even though the Bible said it was a bad place. After ten years Elimelech passes away. He leaves no children. The two sons marry women from Moab and they suddenly die and they leave no children. So, we have three widows. Naomi decides at this point that there's no point in staying in Moab any longer. She might as well go home. The two sisters-in-law follow her. They are very devoted to her. She convinces one of them to go but Ruth, as you all know probably in this unforgettable statement, "Where you go I go, your people will be my people, your God my God, where you will be buried I will be buried." That's total and utter commitment to the Jewish people. And don't forget she comes from a pagan nation. Off they go to Bethlehem. We have this marvelous line. It just says the whole city buzzed with excitement over them. You can imagine. This is a small town. The malicious excitement. Here was this woman, Naomi, of some substance. She went away, as the Bible tells us, full. She came back empty and scandalous. She has her pagan daughter-in-law with her.

Now, one of the most important laws in the Torah, two important laws: Love they neighbor as thyself and love the stranger as thyself for you were strangers in Egypt. So, you would think that the people of Bethlehem would rush up to these women according to tradition. They arrived in rags and tatters. Obviously were very poor, in very destitute conditions. You know, "Come home with me. Let me give you a bowl of soup. Let me clothe you." Nothing. All they say is, "Can this be Naomi?" Oh my, that's really putting the knife in. And Naomi says, "Don't call me Naomi," which means sweet, "call me Mara," which means bitter, "because God has not been very kind to me."

So, we're nearing the end of Act I and we learn that this is the beginning of the barley harvest. There's a plant there. That would be the first day of Passover. That's very important to keep in mind, okay. The curtain goes down.

Now, the curtain goes up on Act II. We have this delicious aside to the audience which says, "Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband's side. A man of substance of the family of Elimelech whose name was Boaz." So, only the audience knows this although Naomi must know it. She must know the law. Anyway, Ruth takes stock of their situation. Nobody has paid any attention to her. It looks like a pretty bad deal there and she is determined to feed her mother-in-law, to sustain her. It's unthinkable that her mother-in-law should stoop to pick up fallen stalks, which is called gleaning in the Bible. Although Ruth knows her right and so she says to Naomi, "I'm going out to glean today." Naomi says, "Well, okay." Guess what? Ruth winds up in the fields of Boaz. Boaz comes home. He's been away. He's been in Bethlehem. He comes home. He looks out in his field. He immediately sees that there is something out of place. He says, "Whose daughter is that?" And his workmen explain that since she's arrived here she's been on her feet. She hasn't rested. Why does he note that she's out of place? Well, she's so full of feeding her mother-in-law, she's probably picking up anything that drops. She's violating all codes of behavior by gleaning behind the men when she should be with the women. This is absolutely unheard of. Of course, she stands out in the field. And so, of course, he said, "Whose daughter is that?"

Then immediately, somehow, we have this most intimate scene between Boaz and Ruth. What he says to her is, "Don't go glean in any other field and keep close to my girls." Now, this theme comes up again and again. "Don't go with the men. It's a bad thing to do. Keep your eyes on the field you are reaping. Follow them. I have ordered my men not to molest you." So, you can imagine what was going on. They were shoving her around. She was taking grain that she shouldn't have. She was in the wrong place. "And when you are thirsty take a drink of nice fresh water." She's overcome by his kindness because no one has shown her any kindness. She prostrates herself and she says, "Why have you shown me such kindness?" He said, "I know all about you and everything you've done for your mother-in-law." But it's very interesting, he never declares himself. He must know because he's related to Elimelech, he certainly knows that according to the Book of Leviticus he has an obligation, or he might have an obligation to redeem the land and at least help the women out. Nothing is said.

And then he invites her to lunch. This is absolutely unheard of. There are so many taboos that are broken in this book that an audience would understand and get a great kick out of, that just pass us by. But if you want to know what they had for lunch, go online, Google my name, Jo Ann Gardner forward, f-o-r-w-a-r-d and all my articles will come up and you'll see "Ruth and Boaz have lunch," or something like that. You can read about what they actually ate.

Anyway, after lunch he gives her a big heaping handful of parched grain. She dips her morsel in vinegar which is just wine and then when she got up to leave he gave orders to his men. Now, this is a righteous man. He's opened his fields to gleaning. He follows the law and he's about to break the law because equality before the law is the staple of the Torah. You never shall show favoritism. He's about to show favoritism, big time. He says, "You are not only to let her to glean among the sheaves but you must also pull out some fallen stalks and don't scold her. When she left the field that evening, the Bible tells us, she had ten ephahs and that's after it was threshed. She had to separate the little grain from the stalk. According to custom, she had ten times the amount that an ordinary gleaner would be allowed to take from the field. It was calculated. We can read this in the Mishnah, which is an oral commentary on the Bible, how much grain a gleaner was entitled and would probably be able to pick up, about two fallen stalks per sheaf. It was calculated. But they would have enough grain to earn their daily bread and that was it. So, one ephah is equal to ten omers. Actually she was only entitled to one omer. So, she has ten times the amount that she should have. She has enough grain to feed her and her mother-in-law for five days.

She goes home and she stayed home until the harvest was over. That harvest took forty-nine days. That's important to know. Seven weeks. Seven weeks from cutting the barley, the first of the barley, to cutting the last of the wheat. There are two Jewish holidays there. One is Passover and the wheat holiday is Shavuot. She gleaned for seven weeks and the Bible doesn't tell us that during that time Boaz declared himself. He hasn't said a word.

Naomi is very anxious about this. She's very anxious to see Ruth settled in a good life and to have a husband. So, she suggests to her… It's Naomi who puts together two different laws that I discussed. One from the Book of Leviticus about redeeming kinsmen, which she finally tells Ruth about, the other is levirate marrage. According to Leviticus, a redeeming kinsman does not have an obligation to marry a widow. There's nothing discussed in the law about this. These are two separate laws. Naomi puts them together and she suggests that Ruth doll herself up, go to the threshing floor - and this would be unheard of for an unaccompanied female to go to a whole company of men who have been working all day. But anyway, she tells her to do this. She says, "Go find Boaz and when he's asleep uncover his feet." And then she says to Ruth. "He'll tell you what to do next." That's very important to keep in mind.

So, Ruth goes to the threshing floor. She finds Boaz. She uncovers his feet. Then he says, "Who's that?" And she said, "You are our redeeming kinsman," and, basically, "You have to marry me." She does not wait because she probably doesn't trust Boaz to do as he is supposed to do. She's going to force the issue.

Boaz is so overwhelmed by her loving kindness to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and he's so overwhelmed by her sense of loyalty. Also, I think he's flattered that she didn't go after any younger men. Boaz is supposed to be a lot older than Ruth. It's resolved. Boaz, who knows the law a little better than Ruth says there's one who's nearest in kin and we've got ask his permission first. Curtain comes down on them.

And now we have the last act. This is just a great scene. It's the courtroom. It's outside the city gates. We are told there's ten men, there's a quorum, everything is going to be legal. Boaz nabs somebody and the Bible gives this marvelous name of No-name, indicating he's not going to be too much of a figure in this story. He's indicating a negativity toward No-name. What Boaz describes the case. He's in charge. He says, "Naomi, now returned from the country of Moab must sell the piece of land which belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. I thought I should disclose the matter to you and say that you should acquire it in the presence of those seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you are willing to redeem it" - in other words buy it - "then redeem it." So, No-name thinks, "Well, this is great. I'll get another piece of land. That will be wonderful." Then Boaz, who has very cleverly backed him into a corner says, "When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must acquire the wife of the deceased so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon the estate." In other words, the firstborn son of that union will be regarded as the legal heir to the dead husband. Not to the one who is redeeming. So, it's not in the redeemer's interest, actually, to marry this woman because the land is only going to be temporarily in his control. Since Naomi is too old, it is assumed, to bear children, Ruth is the center of attraction. When the redeemer says that he thinks No-name going to marry Ruth, a pagan from Moab, uh-uh, the deal is off.

So then, they make it legal. Legal in those days we learn from the narrator. It says, "To validate any transaction, a man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other." Such was the practice in Israel and this is what No-name did. He gave his sandal to Boaz. He said, "I'm no longer a redeemer. You are the official redeemer." And thus the story comes to an end. There are a few ends and you can read about it. I guess I'm sure you all want to go home and read the Book of Ruth over again.

What Boaz did, legally speaking, was he used the spirit of the law of redemption to establish a moral, if not a legal obligation, to serve as Ruth's brother-in-law. How we would see this today, I don't know but I think of this as "street law." This was a common sense interpretation. It was certainly an idea that the widow should be protected. How better to protect her than... because a landless person in ancient Israel where everybody owned land was in a very bad position. This was legal as we read in the Book of Ruth, the narrator makes very clear that according to the customs of the day, this was legal. But nowhere is the law of redemption plus the levir found in the Torah. Did Boaz make it up? We must remember that it was Naomi who thought this up. And if Naomi thought it up, it must have been in the air. It was probably an established practice and in line with the law. And that's what you lawyers have to think about. Was this legal? Well, according to the Book of Ruth it was legal, I think, because the whole emphasis that the narrator wants to make to his audience of simple shepherds and farmers is the power of hesed, or loving kindness. This is what drives the law to fulfillment. And this, he is saying to the people, this is the way God wants you to deal with one another. It's certainly an idea that is still fresh and relevant today.

And that's my take on the Book of Ruth. And now we can eat lunch. Thank you very much.

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