What was going on in Ruth 4.2-12?
Was Naomi really selling her own land?
It may seem patriarchal even to pose the question, but did she actually own it?
In Israel at that time, as in the UK prior to 1900, it was relatively rare for a woman to have absolute title to land, it being originally settled as matter of extraordinary legal precedent (Num. 27.3-9, Job 42.15). The justification being given at the time of petition to preserve the 'name of our father'.
Usually thereafter land would pass to nearest descendant (Num. 27.9), and if as in this case there were none, it would fall under the responsibility of the nearest male relative (10,11).
In practice, however Naomi had the right of disposal.
Had the land already been sold to another by Elimelech, to raise funds before going to Moab, in the dearth? Is Boaz using shorthand for an attempt to repurchase it from a stranger, as a proxy?
Or, as we rather suspect, is Boaz here acting as Naomi's agent, with or probably without her explicit consent, mindful of the legal implications of taking Ruth's hand as a kinsman-redeemer and of Ruth and Naomi's initiative for him to wed her?
In any of these cases, if the land was to be sold outside the family, who could redeem it? In Jubilee would it not return to nearest male relative? (Lev. 27.24)
If a close relative on the other hand purchased it, it would fall to him in perpetuity, even beyond the Jubilee. This the unnamed, closest relative to Naomi, perhaps Elimelech's brother, must have known, hence his eagerness to expand his own possessions(4.4b).
Boaz rests his razor-edged response on the necessity of sustaining the name of Mahlon, v. 5, and thus fulfil his duty to Ruth of protection and paternity for future offspring. To act as kinsman to gain Elimelech's land, but deny Mahlon's widow her rights as kin would be a foul injustice. Boaz pressed this, ten senior witnesses concurred, and the anonymous relative withdrew his interest.
Acting as a kinsman in the redemption of the land was inextricably bound to the Levirate duty to Ruth (Deut. 25.6-7, Gen. 38.6-11). However strange this may seem to us, it was vital life insurance and a means of potential comfort in those times as Tamar's wily ruse revealed (Gen. 38.14-26). Only by discounting Ruth's standing in Israel or the sanctity of her marriage to Mahlon, both no doubt tempting possibilities given her pagan roots, could this bond be severed. Boaz insists on honouring her and upholding her rights.
He acts not merely as one willing to be her redeemer, but also first as her advocate and spokesman in the unfamiliar minefield of the customs and law of Israel.
As an indication of his concession of rights, the nameless man handed his shoe to Boaz. This seems to reflect a ritualised acknowledgement of the shame he avoided by dodging his duty to Ruth, and its consequences (Deut. 25.7-10).
The irrevocable link between the redemption of Ruth and land inheritance in Elimelech's name mirrors questions related to the genealogy of Messiah through Mary
, and of other important inextricably linked fruits of redemption and inheritance.