Ruth and Popular Custom in Ancient Israel (10 February 2016, 1 Adar-A, 5776)
An argument against Ruth not having been a foreign non-Israelitess is based on a parallelism with Levirate marriage i.e. 'Yibum' in Hebrew, and with Ancestral Land Redemption.
The Bible describes how Boaz married Ruth. It involved Boaz going through a process of Ancestral Land Redemption and also taking Ruth to wife due to her being the widow of one of his kinfolk.
This is not the same as Levirate Marriage but it has parallels to it.
If Ruth was married to Boaz by something like Leviriate Marriage, the Nay-sayers say, she must have been an Israelitess from the beginning.
The Book of Ruth tells us how Boaz decides to marry Ruth. Boaz was a relative of the family of Noami through her dead husband, Elimelech (Ruth 2:1).
Boaz has a claim to a field that once belonged to Elimelech. We learn that redeeming the field and marrying Ruth go together. Boaz must first redeem the field and only then can he marry Ruth. The problem is that there is another relative who has a prior claim. This other relative must first renounce his own claim and only then can Boaz go ahead and redeem both the field and Ruth along with it (Ruth 3:13).
The kinsman expresses willingness to redeem the field but when he hears that it involves taking Ruth as well he declines (Ruth 4:6). Boaz is next in line so Boaz then takes both the field and Ruth. The transference of ownership between the kinsman and Boaz is made by the kinsman removing his shoe and handing it to Boaz (4:8). Boaz declares to the elders that he hereby has acquired all that belonged to Elimelech and his two deceased sons (Ruth 4:9). This includes Ruth whom he takes to wife (Ruth 4:10).
All these proceedings are apparently based on local custom and not on strict legal applications. They are however parallel to various aspects of Close Kin Redemption of property and Levite marriage. The claim is made that Levirate marriage was only valid with an Israelite woman and therefore Ruth must have been an Israelitess.
Deuteronomy 25 (NASB):
5 When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. 6 It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. 7 But if the man does not desire to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, My husband's brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband's brother to me. 8 Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, I do not desire to take her, 9 then his brother's wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house. 10 In Israel his name shall be called, The house of him whose sandal is removed.
In reply we say that what was done with Ruth is parallel to the Law for Levirate marriage but not the same as it, as explained below. The Laws of Levirate Marriage only applied to brothers from the same father. The law was that if a man married and died without offspring his brother would either marry his widow or release her in a special ceremony. The ceremony involved spitting on the ground in front of the brother and removing a type of shoe from his foot. If he did not go through with the ceremony but instead married the widow he would then inherit the property of his deceased brother. If however he declined to go through with this marriage but preferred the ceremony he lost the inheritance. This had nothing to do with purity of lineage. If the wife of the deceased brother was a convert who had been born to a foreign people but had converted then the Levirate Marriage or Releasing Ceremony had still to be undergone. This is still the Law today. What happened in the case of Ruth is parallel to the Law for Levirate marriage but not the same as it. Neither Boaz nor the kinsman were brother to any of the deceased but rather next of kin.
In the case of Ruth we noticed parallels not only to Levirate Marriage but also to the Laws of Jubilee.
Leviticus 25:8-11 tells us that we are to celebrate a Sabbatical ("Shemittah") every 7th year and not work the fields on that year. We must also release all debts (Deuteronomy 15:1).
The Jubilee year is held after 7 cycles of 7 years have passed. In this year all family lands that have been bought or alienated through debt must be returned to their hereditary owners.
So too, if before the Jubilee Year land is sold it may be redeemed by the person who sold it or by one of his kinfolk.
13 On this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his own property. 14 If you make a sale, moreover, to your friend or buy from your friends hand, you shall not wrong one another. 15 Corresponding to the number of years after the jubilee, you shall buy from your friend; he is to sell to you according to the number of years of crops. 16 In proportion to the extent of the years you shall increase its price, and in proportion to the fewness of the years you shall diminish its price, for it is a number of crops he is selling to you. 17 So you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.
The story of Ruth has parallels to both Levirate marriage and the Redemption of family land in the Jubilee Cycle. Instead of a lengthy explanation of how and why and what exactly happened in the story of Ruth from a legal point of view we hall hereby give a brief outline based partly on the explanations of the great Rabbinical Commentator, Nachmanides, and others.
Ruth was a Moabitess. Moabite males could never be accepted as converts to the Israelite Religion i.e. to the equivalent of Judaism in those days. Females from Moab could be accepted as converts (Talmud, Ketubot 7b, Yebamot 77b). This was the Law BUT there was a period when knowledge of this Law had become blurred (Talmud, Yebamot 77b). Not everyone was aware of it. There were those who thought that the taboo against Moabites also applied to the females. Right up to the time of David there were those who mistakenly so thought the case to be. When the Kinsman was told that redeeming the land also involved marrying Ruth he backed out.
6 The closest relative said, I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.
The words translated as "because I would jeopardize my own inheritance" may be preferably rendered straight from the Hebrew as, "lest I destroy my inheritance" hinting at a fear of family union with Moab and children of uncertain status (Midrash Ruth Rabah 9). This may be (as suggested by F. Melster in the Commentary, "Daat Mikra") another reason why Naomi attempted to turn both her Moabite daughters-in-law back from following her (Ruth 1:8).
In the case of Levirate Marriage and other laws something parallel to them had been practiced before the Giving of the Torah but under a different formulation. The Law of Moses in some cases regulated existing practices.
We find for instance that Judah married his son Er to Tamar. Er died so his brother Onan then married Tamar. Onan in his turn also died. Judah then told Tamar to wait till the next son, Shelah, should be old enough and then marry him too. Judah however was afraid that Tamar had some kind of jinx about her and that Shelah was also liable to die if he take Tamar to wife (Genesis 38:1-11). Tamar seeing when the time came that she was not given to Shelah covered her face like a local whore and waylaid Judah by the wayside. Judah let himself be seduced not knowing that his conjugal partner at the time was Tamar. Later it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant. Tamar revealed to Judah what had happened and proved it to Judah. Judah admitted to being the father. From this union were born the twins Zerah and Perez (Genesis 38:1-11).
Nachmanides points out that before the giving of the Torah, Levirate Marriage could be carried out by any male member of the family. Judah as well as his sons had therefore been a valid candidate to perform the Yibum from the beginning. The Law of Moses later restricted Yibum to brothers only (Deuteronomy 25:5).
A similar situation developed with property. Land had to stay in the family. When a field had been lost to outsiders the next of kin had the right to redeem it as set down in the Mosaic Code.
23 The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. 24 Thus for every piece of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land.
25 If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold. 26 Or in case a man has no kinsman, but so recovers his means as to find sufficient for its redemption, 27 then he shall calculate the years since its sale and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and so return to his property. 28 But if he has not found sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he has sold shall remain in the hands of its purchaser until the year of jubilee; but at the jubilee it shall revert, that he may return to his property.
In the case of Ruth common practice had established its own rules parallel to the principles embodied in the above laws. The land of Elimelech (deceased husband of Naomi) had to be redeemed by his next of kin. The childless widow of the deceased son of Elimelech had also to be taken care of by marriage. This was accepted custom later regulated through the Sages by Rabbinical enactment.The two obligations, redeeming the land and caring for the widow, apparently went together. This was not the law but rather established practice in line with the law. The obligation applied to Ruth who had returned with Naomi the widow of Elimelech. It did not involve Orpah the wife of the other son of Elimelech who had turned back to Moab. Naomi and Ruth went together. Marrying Ruth also implied taking care of Naomi. This is indicated in the text where we see Naomi being taken care of and helping raise the offspring of Ruth. Boaz is referred to as the 'Redeemer' of Naomi.
13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. 15 May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him. 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her lap, and became his nurse.17 The neighbor women gave him a name, saying, A son has been born to Naomi! So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Levirate Marriage in Hebrew is known as 'yibum.' The object of yibum was that the soul of the deceased male who had died without seed be placated (cf. Deuteronomy 25:6,9). His widow would marry his brother and their first child be called by his name (Deuteronomy 25:6). This does not mean that he should be given the actual name of the deceased brother. No where do we find this to be the case. It means rather that the birth of the child be accredited to the merit of the dead person. This was widely accepted. Children are not only a blessing. Begetting and bearing them is also an obligation! Elimelech had gone with his wife Noami from Judah to Moab. His two sons Machlon and Chilion had marred Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. These marriages were of uncertain status. When Elimelech and his sons died Noami returned with Ruth to Judah while Orpah remained in Moab. Ruth now became the equivalent of a righteous convert. She had accepted the God of Israel, abided by the laws and behavior of Israelites, been accepted by the community, and she took care of Naomi. Ruth was widely recognized for her righteousness (Ruth 2:11-12). All this in a sense was due to her deceased husband even though he had died before Ruth made the change. Ruth had clung to Naomi the Mother of her dead husband. She had adopted a new mode of life through being attached to Naomi by virtue of having once been married to the son of Naomi. The soul of the son of Naomi was still involved. The behavior of Ruth had kept it in the game. There was a parcel of land that should have been that of Elimelech (or one of his sons) by right but needed redemption by paying a lien attached to it. Redeeming the field meant that it accrued to the redeemer but it was accompanied by an obligation to marry Ruth who was taking care of Naomi who also would have had some prior claim to benefit from the fruits of the field. Naomi and Ruth went together. Neither Ruth nor Naomi could be excluded from the equation. The soul of the dead son of Elimelech in popular understanding also needed to be placated and this too could be done by marrying Ruth. It may not have been the Law according to its strict letter but it was compatible with it and how the populace wanted matters to be resolved.
We find partial parallels to this concept among other peoples of the area. The ancient Arabs had a notion of the heir to property also marrying the widow of the former owner (Burrows p.8). Similarities have also been noted from Persia, India, and even Madagascar (ibid). So too, such was also the case among the Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians (Burrows p.12).
See: The Ancient Oriental Background of Hebrew Levirate Marriage. Author: Millar Burrows ; Source: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 77 (Feb., 1940), pp. 2-15.
The practice in these latter cases was not the same as that in Israel but there were similarities. It reflected what was generally accepted as necessary, or preferred, behavior at the time.
We see from the above:
The Kinsman was reluctant to marry Ruth because he did not want to disturb his inheritance possibly indicating a worry over the status of offspring from Ruth. This shows that there was something to worry about. This would not have been the case if Ruth had have been of Israelite birth.
We also find popular customs and accepted practice operating parallel to Biblical Law. This is an important aspect of the Oral Tradition. It reflected how matters were conducted from the beginning.