According to traditional interpretations, when Boaz sets foot in the story, readers breathe a sigh of relief and exchange knowing glances. We have met the hero. Let the romance begin! His arrival awakens hope that Ruth’s fortunes are about to change for the better. It isn’t uncommon to hear contemporary single women say, “I’m waiting for my Boaz.” But relegating Boaz to a romantic figure not only downsizes him and cheats him of the enormous credit he actually deserves; it also distracts us from the truly powerful role he takes and the deep gospel wisdom his story contains. For far too long, we’ve been cheating Boaz by caricaturing him as “the guy who gets the girl.”
Furthermore, that portrayal raises grave questions about his character. What kind of egregious abuse of power is involved when the owner of the field eyes a female gleaner with romantic motives? How will he dishonor his family by bringing home a bride who lacks social or economic advantages and, worse, is barren? Besides, if Boaz had marriage in mind, what was the hold-up? Why didn’t he at least send her home with his assurance that neither she nor Naomi would ever have to worry about hunger again? Instead, Ruth continues slaving in the hot sun for the entire harvest season.
In fairness to Boaz, the dissonance between the romantic version and the narrator’s portrayal of a man surely means Boaz deserves a closer look. We learn he is an older man of Naomi’s generation when he addresses Ruth as “my daughter” (2:8; 3:10, 11), just as Naomi addresses her (1:11, 12, 13; 2:2, 8, 22; 3:1, 16, 18). The genealogy at the end of the story reveals Boaz is Israel’s native son, born to a prominent family in the leading tribe of Judah. His grandfather Nahshon was the commanding general of the tribe of Judah and the third man in rank after Moses and Aaron. Through Obed, the son Boaz fathers by Ruth, Boaz becomes the great-grandfather of King David, the royal line that ultimately leads to Jesus. Talk about pedigree!
At their first meeting, Ruth knows nothing about the landowner in whose field she comes to glean. So her proposals to this daunting older landowner included a high degree of apprehension. International Justice Mission engages countless legal battles globally to counteract the abuse of widows when tribal strong- men seize their property, depriving widows of their only means of sustaining their families.5 That scenario plays over repeatedly in today’s world. It was the kind of danger Ruth faced.
THE PIVOTAL MOMENT
Much is made about the initial encounter between Ruth and Boaz in Boaz’s barley field. Without question, this meeting is the pivotal moment in the story. But no one could know ahead of time that things would turn out well. Good stories have tension. One of the key questions posed by the presence of Boaz is, how will this impressive man use his power and privilege? For starters, the enormous social and cultural disparity between them could not be more pronounced. They are polar opposites. He holds all the advantages.
The disadvantages belong to Ruth. Throughout human history and right up to the present, the differences between them are the makings of some of the most horrific violations of human rights. Only consider the explosive combinations: male and female, rich and poor, young and old, Jew and gentile, native-born and immigrant, powerful and powerless, valued and discarded. Anyone watching this nitroglycerin mixture would be expecting something terrible to happen, especially when her request implies criticism of how he’s managing his field.
But Boaz’s response to her request to glean in territory that was off-limits to gleaners is a show-stopper. He was not offended, although obviously taken aback. Her perspective on Mosaic law was eye-opening to him. Not only does he listen and grant her request, but he exceeds it with evident determination that nothing must prevent her from succeeding. He even serves her a meal. How countercultural is that?!
A MAN AHEAD OF HIS TIME
We must not miss the earth-shaking implications of his response. Boaz has just been introduced as a man who needs no improvement. In the eyes of the culture (and also of the narrator) he is golden. And yet, his exchanges with Ruth are eye-opening to him. He realizes what she is trying to do. Her perspective sheds new light on a business he has been running for years.
It is one thing for notable theologians such as John Calvin or Jerome to engage in conversation with noble women who are wealthy patrons. It is quite another for a man of Boaz’s stature to engage in conversation with a woman who culturally speaking is beneath him. He is bridging a cavernous gap. Yet, as the story demonstrates, and as he acknowledges, she is in every sense his match. The way he honors her bears that out and goes against the way life typically works in this world.
What if Boaz had dismissed, ignored, rebuked, or even abused her for violating social boundaries? How would the rest of the story have played out? Ruth and Naomi would have lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Naomi would not have revived. It never would have entered her mind to send Ruth to Boaz in hopes of finding shelter. Ruth wouldn’t have attempted to rescue the legacy of Elimelech. His land would have remained fallow until later—perhaps after Naomi’s death. The elders and villagers wouldn’t have witnessed this stellar man becoming even greater by making unrequired, extraordinary sacrifices for Elimelech’s sake. There would be no marriage and no Obed.
Boaz’s response raises a huge issue for Christians. One of the biggest obstacles to a deepening walk with God is resistance to rethinking our beliefs, listening to others, learning, and changing. All through the Bible, God is repeatedly asking some of the people who walked with him the longest to be willing to be wrong and to learn and grow. Sometimes walking with God means learning truth requires means rethinking your entire life. Abraham’s journey with God began in earnest when he was seventy-five—an age when people have a right to be settled in their ways. Abraham had to change, and with each change he grew deeper in his faith. More recently, after decades of ministry, a pastor began to realize he had gotten some things wrong. When one of his parishioners questioned what was happening, the pastor replied, “You gotta give me room to grow.” Room to grow and the courage to change— that reflects what happened to Boaz.
Boaz openly violates cultural expectations in his interactions with Ruth. Instead of showcasing patriarchal standards of masculinity, Boaz subverts them. He bucks the system. He is not held captive to dominant definitions of masculinity. He is free of such expectations and big enough to do the right thing, even when it costs him. In his interactions with this foreign newcomer, Boaz accepts her influence and in doing so discovers room to grow.
Boaz was a man ahead of his time. In the workplace today, equal pay for women remains an unmet goal. Boaz went beyond equality. So Ruth’s take-home pay was as much as fifteen to thirty times what a male harvester would pocket for a day of labor. Boaz pursued the spirit of God’s law—to seek justice for the poor and to feed them.
BOAZ AND THE POWER OF POWER
When it came to the obligations of the kinsman-redeemer and levirate laws, Boaz enjoys loopholes that would make a defense attorney salivate. He isn’t Elimelech’s nearest relative, nor is he Elimelech’s blood brother. Legally, he is beyond the demands of the law. Furthermore, Ruth’s combination of the two laws is highly irregular, especially in Naomi’s case, where the statute of limitations had expired. So when Boaz goes to Bethlehem to press the nearer kinsman-redeemer to purchase land he is likely to inherit anyway and to marry Ruth to produce a male heir for Elimelech, he’s pressing his case beyond the requirements of the law. It raises the question, how did Boaz get away with this?
Boaz’s self-appointed advocacy for Naomi on Ruth’s behalf demonstrates how radically out of step he is with his culture. At the male-dominated seat of government, Boaz gives women a legal voice. He assumes Naomi has property rights and insists that purchasing her land is an urgent matter. If that wasn't surprising enough, he bends the law to require the kinsman-redeemer to fulfill the levirate law too in lieu of a blood brother.
He also bends the law emphatically toward women’s rights—a concept unheard of in ancient times but a pressing contemporary global issue today. And Boaz, a heavyweight among Bethlehem leaders, proves unstoppable. Not only does he push through everything Ruth requested, he depletes his own estate to rescue Elimelech, just as he vowed he would. The fact that not one man attempts to oppose him signifies just how powerful Boaz was.
Boaz shows how male power and privilege can become a powerful force for good. He voluntarily makes extraordinary sacrifices beyond what the law requires. His story also refutes the misguided adage that the rise of women comes at a cost for men. The rise of Ruth influenced Boaz to become a better man—one of the best men in all of Scripture.
Content taken from Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James , ©2018. Used by permission of Lexham Press, Bellingham, Washington, LexhamPress.com.
Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author and international speaker. She blogs at www.carolyncustisjames.com, as a Leading Voice at MissioAlliance, and at Huffington Post, is an adjunct faculty member at Biblical Theological Seminary, and a consulting editor for Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. Her books include Malestrom―Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, Half the Church―Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and The Gospel of Ruth―Loving God Enough to Break the Rules. She speaks regularly at church conferences, colleges, and other Christian organizations and is a visiting lecturer at theological seminaries.