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THE MARRIAGE AT THE GATE
A SIMPLE ceremony of Oriental life brings to a climax the history which itself closes in sweet music the stormy drama of the Book of Judges. With all the literary skill and moral delicacy, all the charm and keen judgment of inspiration the narrator gives us what he has from the Spirit. He has represented with fine brevity and power of touch the old life and custom of Israel, the private groups in which piety and faithfulness were treasured, the frank humanity and divine seriousness of Jehovah’s covenant. And now we are at the gate of Bethlehem where the head men are assembled, and according to the usage of the time the affairs of Naomi and Ruth are settled by the village court of justice. Boaz gives a challenge to the goal of Naomi, and point by point we follow the legal forms by which the right to redeem the land of Elimelech is given up to Boaz and Ruth becomes his wife.
Why is an old custom presented with such minuteness? We may affirm the underlying suggestion to be that the ways described were good ways which ought to be kept in mind. The usage implied great openness and neighbourliness, a simple and straightforward method of arranging affairs which were of moment to a community. People lived then in very direct and frank relations with each other. Their little town and its concerns had close and intelligent attention. Men and women desired to act so that there might be good understanding among them, no jealousy nor rancour of feeling. Elaborate forms of law were unknown, unnecessary. To take off the shoe and hand it to another in the presence of honest neighbours ratified a decision as well and gave as good security as much writing on parchment. The author of the Book of Ruth commends these homely ways of a past age and suggests to the men of his own time that civilisation and the monarchy, while they have brought some gains, are perhaps to be blamed for the decay of simplicity and friendliness.
More than one reason may be found for supposing the book to have been written in Solomon’s time, probably the latter part of his reign when laws and ordinances had multiplied and were being enforced in endless detail by a central authority; when the manners of the nations around, Chaldea, Egypt, Phoenicia, were overbearing the primitive ways of Israel; when luxury was growing, society dividing into classes, and a proud imperialism giving its colour to habit and religion. If we place the book at this period we can understand the moral purpose of the writer and the importance of his work. He would teach people to maintain the spirit of Israel’s past, the brotherliness, the fidelity in every relation that were to have been all along a distinction of Hebrew life because inseparably connected with the obedience of Jehovah. The splendid temple on Moriah was now the centre of a great priestly system, and from temple and palace the national and, to a great extent, the personal life of all Israelites was largely influenced, not in every respect for good. The quiet suggestion is here made that the artificiality and pomp of the kingdom did not compare well with that old time when the affairs of an ancestress of the splendid monarch were settled by a gathering at a village gate.
Nor is the lesson without its value now. We are not to go back on the past in mere antiquarian curiosity, the interest of secular research. Labour which goes to revive the story of mankind in remote ages has its value only when it is applied to the uses of the moralist and the prophet. We have much to learn again that has been forgotten, much to recall that has escaped the memory of the race. Through phases of complex civilisation in which the outward and sensuous are pursued the world has to pass to a new era of more simple and yet more profound life, to a social order fitted for the development of spiritual power and grace. And the church is well directed by the Book of God. Her inquiry into the past is no affair of intellectual curiosity, but a research governed by the principles that have underlain man’s life from the first and a growing apprehension of all that is at stake in the multiform energy of the present. Amid the bustle and pressure of those endeavours which Christian faith itself may induce our minds become confused. Thinkers and doers are alike apt to forget the deliverances knowledge ought to effect, and while they learn and attempt much they are rather passing into bondage than finding life. Our research seems more and more to occupy us with the manner of things, and even Bible Archaeology is exposed to this reproach. As for the scientific comparers of religion they are mostly feeding the vanity of the age with a sense of extraordinary progress and enlightenment, and themselves are occasionally heard to confess that the farther they go in study of old faiths, old rituals and moralities the less profit they find, the less hint of a design. No such futility, no failure of culture and inquiry mark the Bible writers’ dealing with the past. To the humble life of the Son of Man on earth, to the life of the Hebrews long before He appeared our thought is carried back from the thousand objects that fascinate in the world of today. And there we see the faith and all the elements of spiritual vitality of which our own belief and hope are the fruit. There too without those cumbrous modern involutions which never become familiar, society wonderfully fulfils its end in regulating personal effort and helping the conscience and the soul.
The scene at the gate shows Boaz energetically conducting the case he has taken up. Private considerations urged him to bring rapidly to an issue the affairs of Naomi and Ruth since he was involved, and again he commends himself as a man who, having a task in hand, does it with his might. His pledge to Ruth was a pledge also to his own conscience that no suspense should be due to any carelessness of his; and in this he proved himself a pattern friend. The great man often shows his greatness by making others wait at his door. They are left to find the level of their insignificance and learn the value of his favour. So the grace of God is frustrated by those who have the opportunity and should covet the honour of being His instruments. Men know that they should wait patiently on God’s time, but they are bewildered when they have to wait on the strange arrogance of those in whose hands Providence has placed the means of their succour. And many must be the cases in which this fault of man begets bitterness, distrust of God, and even despair. It should be a matter of anxiety to us all to do with speed and care anything on which the hopes of the humble and needy rest. A soul more worthy than our own may languish in darkness while a promise which should have been sacred is allowed to fade from our memory.
Boaz was also open and straightforward in his transactions. His own wish is pretty clear. He seems as anxious as Naomi herself that to him should fall the duty of redeeming her burdened inheritance and reviving her husband’s name. Possibly without any public discussion, by consulting with the nearer kinsman and urging his own wish or superior ability, he might have settled the affair. Other inducements failing, the offer of a sum of money might have secured to him the right of redemption. But in the light of honour, in the court of his conscience, the man was unable thus to seek his end; and besides the town’s people had to be considered; their sense of justice had to be satisfied as well as his own.
Often it is not enough that we do a thing from the best of motives; we must do it in the best way, for the support of justice or purity or truth. While private benevolence is one of the finest of arts, the Christian is not unfrequently called to exercise another which is more difficult and not less needful in society. Required at one hour not to let his left hand know what his right hand doeth, at another he is required in all modesty and simplicity to take his fellows to witness that he acts for righteousness, that he is contending for some thought of Christ’s, that he is not standing in the outer court among those who are ashamed but has taken his place with the Master at the judgment bar of the world. Again, when a matter in which a Christian is involved is before the public and has provoked a good deal of discussion and perhaps no little criticism of religion and its professors, it is not enough that out of sight, out of court, some arrangement be made which counts for a moral settlement. That is not enough, though a person whose rights and character are affected may consent to it. If still the world has reason to question whether justice has been done, -justice has not been done. If still the truthfulness of the church is under valid suspicion, -the church is not manifesting Christ as it should. For no moral cause once opened at public assize can be issued in private. It is no longer between one man and another, nor between a man and the church. The conscience of the race has been empanelled and cannot be discharged without judgment. Innumerable causes withdrawn from court, compromised, hushed up or settled in corners with an effort at justice, still shadow the history of the church and cast a darkness of justifiable suspicion on the path along which she would advance.
Even in this little affair at Bethlehem the good man will have everything done with perfect openness and honour, and will stand by the result whether it meet his hopes or disappoint them. At the town gate, the common meeting place for conversation and business, Boaz takes his seat and invites the goal to sit beside him and also a jury of ten elders. The court thus constituted, he states the case of Naomi and her desire to sell a parcel of land which belonged to her husband. When Elimelech left Bethlehem he had, no doubt, borrowed money on the field, and now the question is whether the nearest kinsman will pay the debt and beyond that the further value of the land, so that the widow may have something to herself. Promptly the goel answers that he is ready to buy the land. This, however, is not all. In buying the field and adding it to his estate will the man take Ruth to wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance? He is not prepared to do that, for the children of Ruth would be entitled to the portion of ground and he is unwilling to impoverish his own family. "I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar my own inheritance." He draws off his shoe and gives it to Boaz, renouncing his right of redemption.
Now this marriage custom is not ours, but at the time, as we have seen, it was a sacred rule, and the goal was morally bound by it. He could have insisted on redeeming the land as his right. To do so was therefore his duty, and to a certain extent he failed from the ideal of a kinsman’s obligation. But the position was not an easy one. Surely the man was justified in considering the children he already had and their claims upon him. Did he not exercise a wise prudence in refusing to undertake a new obligation? Moreover the circumstances were delicate and dispeace might have been caused in his household if he took the Moabite woman. It is certainly one of those cases in which a custom or law has great weight and yet creates no little difficulty, moral as well as pecuniary, in the observance. A man honest enough, and not ungenerous, may find it hard to determine on which side duty lies. Without, however, abusing this goal we may fairly take him as a type of those who are more impressed by the prudential view of their circumstances than by the duties of kinship and hospitality. If in the course of providence we have to decide whether we will admit some new inmate to our home worldly considerations must not rule, either on the one side or the other.
A man’s duty to his family, what is it? To exclude a needy dependant, however pressing the claim may be? To admit one freely who has the recommendation of wealth? Such earthly calculation is no rule for a true man. The moral duty, the moral result are always to be the main elements of decision. No family ever gains by relief from an obligation conscience acknowledges. No family loses by the fulfilment of duty, whatever the expense. In household debate the balance too often turns not on the character of Ruth but on her lack of gear. The same woman who is refused as a heathen when she is poor, is discovered to be a most desirable relation if she brings fuel for the fire of welcome. Let our decisions be quite clear of this mean hypocrisy. Would we insist on being dutiful to a rich relation? Then the duty remains to him and his if they fall into poverty, for a moral claim cannot be altered by the state of the purse.
And what of the duty to Christ, His church. His poor? Would to God some people were afraid to leave their children wealthy, were afraid of having God inquire for His portion. A shadow rests on the inheritance that has been guarded in selfish pride against the just claims of man, in defiance of the law of Christ. Yet let one be sure that his liberality is not mixed with a carnal hope. What do we think of when we declare that God’s recompense to those who give freely comes in added store of earthly treasure, the tithe returned ten and twenty and a hundred fold? By what law of the material or spiritual world does this come about? Certainly we love a generous man, and the liberal shall stand by liberal things. But surely God’s purpose is to make us comprehend that His grace does not take the form of a percentage on investments. When a man grows spiritually, when although he becomes poorer he yet advances to nobler manhood, to power and joy in Christ-this is the reward of Christian generosity and faithfulness. Let us be done with religious materialism, with expecting our God to repay us in the coin of this earth for our service in the heavenly kingdom.
The marriage of Ruth, at which we now arrive, appears at once as the happy termination of Naomi’s solicitude for her, the partial reward of her own faithfulness, and the solution, so far as she was concerned, of the problem of woman’s destiny. The idea of the spiritual completion of life for woman as well as man, of the woman being able to attain a personal standing of her own with individual responsibility and freedom, was not fully present to the Hebrew mind. If unmarried, Ruth would have remained, as Naomi well knew and had all along said, without a place in society, without an asylum or shelter. This old-world view of things burdens the whole history, and before passing on we must compare it with the state of modern thought on the question.
The incompleteness of the childless widow’s life which is an element of this narrative, the incompleteness of the life of every unmarried woman which appears in the lament for Jephthah’s daughter and elsewhere in the Bible as well as in other records of the ancient world had, we may say, a two-fold cause. On the one hand there was the obvious fact that marriage has a reason in physical constitution and the order of human society. On the other hand heathen practices and constant wars made it, as we have seen, impossible for women to establish themselves alone. A woman needed protection, or as the law of England has it, coverture. In very exceptional cases only could the opportunity be found, even among the people of Jehovah, for those personal efforts and acts which give a position in the world. But the distinction of Israel’s custom and law as compared with those of many nations lay here, that woman was recognised as entitled to a place of her own, side by side with man, in the social scheme. The conception of her individuality as of individuality generally was limited. The idea of what is now called the social organism governed family life, and the very faith that was afterwards to become the strength of individuality was held as a national thing. The view of complete life had no clear extension into the future, even the salvation of the soul did not appear as a distinct provision for personal immortality. Under these limitations, however, the proper life of every woman and her place in the nation were acknowledged and provision was made for her as well as circumstances would allow. By the customs of marriage and by the laws of inheritance she was recognised and guarded.
Now it may appear that the problem of woman’s place, so far from approaching solution in Christian times, has rather fallen into greater confusion; and many are the attacks made from one point of view and another upon the present condition of things. By the nature school of revolutionaries physical constitution is made a starting point in argument, and the reasoning sweeps before it every hindrance to the completion of life on that side for women as for men. Christian marriage is itself assailed by these as an obstacle in the path of evolution. They find women, thanks to Christianity, no longer unable to establish themselves in life; but against Christianity, which has done this, they raise the loud complaint that it bars the individual from full life and enjoyment. In the course of our discussion of the Book of Judges reference has been made once and again to this propaganda, and here its real nature comes to light. Its conception of human life is based on mere animalism; it throws into the crucible the gain of the centuries in spiritual discipline and energetic purity in order to make ample provision for the flesh and the fulfilling of the lusts thereof.
But the problem is not more confused; it is solved, as all other problems are, by Christ. Penetrating and arrogant voices of the day will cease and His again be heard Whose terrible and gracious doctrine of personal responsibility in the supernatural order is already the heart of human thought and hope. There is turmoil, disorder, vile and foolish experimenting; but the remedy is forward, not behind. Christ has opened the spiritual kingdom, has made it possible for every soul to enter. For each human being now, man and woman, life means spiritual overcoming, spiritual possession, and can mean nothing else. It is altogether out of date, an insult to the conscience and common sense of mankind, not to speak of its faith, to go back on the primitive world and the ages of a lower evolution and fasten down to sensuousness a race that has heard the liberating word, Repent, believe, and, live. The incompleteness of a human being lies in subjection to passion, in existing without moral energy, governed by the earthly and therefore without hope or reason of life. To the full stature of heavenly power the woman has her way open through the blood of the cross, and by a path of loneliness and privation, if need be, she may advance to the highest range of priestly service and blessing.
To the Jewish people, and to the writer of the Book of Ruth as a Jew, genealogy was of more account than to us, and a place in David’s ancestry appears as the final honour of Ruth for her dutifulness, her humble faith in the God of Israel. Orpah is forgotten; she remained with her own people and died in obscurity. But faithful Ruth lives distinguished in history. She takes her place among the matrons of Bethlehem and the people of God. The story of her life, says one, stands at the portal of the life of David and at the gates of the gospel.
Yet suppose Ruth had not been married to Boaz or to any other good and wealthy man, would she have been less admirable and deserving? We attribute nothing to accident. In the providence of God Boaz was led to an admiration for Ruth and Naomi’s plan succeeded. But it might have been otherwise. There is nothing, after all, so striking in her faith that we should expect her to be singled out for special honour; and she is not. The divine reward of goodness is the peace of God in the soul, the gladness of fellowship with Him, the opportunity of learning His will and dispensing His grace. It is interesting to note that Ruth’s son Obed was the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. But was Ruth not also the ancestress of the sons of Zeruiah, of Absalom, Adonijah, and Rehoboam? Even though, looking down the generations, we see the Messiah born of her line, how can that glorify Ruth? or, if it does, how shall we explain the want of glory of many an estimable and godly woman who fighting a battle harder than Ruth’s, with clearer faith in God, lived and died in some obscure village of Naphtali or dragged out a weary widowhood on the borders of the Syrian desert?
Yet there is a sense in which the history of Ruth stands at the gates of the gospel. It bears the lesson that Jehovah acknowledged all who did justly and loved mercy and walked humbly with Him. The foreign woman was justified by faith, and her faith had its reward when she was accepted as one of Jehovah’s people and knew Him as her gracious Friend. Israel had in this book the warrant for missionary work among the pagan nations and a beautiful apologue of the reconcilation the faith of Jehovah was to effect among the severed families of mankind. The same faith is ours, but with deeper urgency; the same spirit of reconciliation, reaching now to farther mightier issues. We have seen the Goal of the race and have heard His offer of redemption. We are commissioned to those who dwell in the remotest borders of the moral world under oppressions of heathenism and fear, or wander in strange Moabs of confusion where deep calleth unto deep. We have to testify that with One and One only are the light, the joy, the completeness of man, because He alone among sages and helpers has the secret of our sin and weakness and the long miracle of the soul’s redemption. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation: and lo, I am with you." The faith of the Hebrew is more than fulfilled. Out of Israel He comes our Menuchah, Who is "a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ruth 4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17