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I apologize in advance for the length of the question.

The book of Ruth is incredibly romantic and powerful, but I don't understand the legal portion of the drama:

Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”—Ruth 4:1-4 (ESV)

So far, so good. The property must remain in the family:

If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold.—Leviticus 25:25 (ESV)

(In passing, it's interesting to see that Naomi would be paid for the land so the effect of the rule is that widows retained some form of property ownership.)

Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.—Ruth 4:5-7 (ESV)

I do see that the custom of perpetuating the name of the dead had legal basis:

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish 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 perpetuate his brother's name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother's wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’—Deuteronomy 25:5-10 (ESV)

But why does Boaz say, "The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite"? How does redeeming some land also introduce a levirate marriage obligation?

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2 Answers

The exact reason for Ruth being introduced to the transaction is undetermined in scholarly literature (Expositor's Bible Commentary Introduction to Ruth).

Here is one possibility that isn't explicit from Scripture, but I can see the law being interpreted this way. Not only must the land stay in the clan, but it must stay as close within the family as possible. While there was still a possibility of an heir being produced, there would be at least an implied requirement of trying to produce an heir even if it is not explicitly stated in the Torah. This would be a stretch beyond the normal rules of levirate marriage.

4:4. why would he want to redeem the land? By redeeming Naomi’s land the kinsman would have prospects for very soon enlarging his own permanent landholdings. Since Naomi had no heir, when she died, the land would revert to his family and be passed on to his heirs. The money put forth for the land would be an investment on future returns. If this was just a case of land redemption, it would have been a very attractive business proposal.

4:5–6. Why does Ruth’s involvement change the situation? Once Boaz interprets the kinsman responsibilities as including marrying Ruth, the economic picture changes considerably. One could forgive the other kinsman for not realizing that Ruth came with the package deal. Only by a significant stretch in custom would he be considered to have any levirate obligations to Ruth (for review of levirate laws see comment on Deut 25:5–10), yet it is clear that that is involved by the reference in verse 5 to maintaining the name of the dead. If the kinsman must marry Ruth, the son that may be born to her would then be the heir to the property of Elimelech’s family. In this case the money that is used to redeem the land is not an investment but simply reduces his family assets. Instead of serving to eventually enlarge his holdings of land, his money would be going to a charitable cause. He would also incur additional cost in providing for Naomi, Ruth and who knows how many additional children. It is even possible that Ruth’s children would have a claim to a portion of his inheritance along with any children he already had. It is likely he is married; the economic impact on his family of redeeming Ruth is thus a chief criterion in his decision.

Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. 2000. The IVP Bible background commentary : Old Testament (electronic ed.) . InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL (emphasis added)

(There is an interesting Hebrew idiom when Boaz calls him over. The English often has "my friend," but the Hebrew (peloni 'almoni) is closer to "Mr. certain one." His name might have been dropped by the author because his refusal to "do the duty of a redeemer" was so shameful.)

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Levirate marriage in the Bible predates the legal source you reference in Deuteronomy 25:

And Judah said unto Onan: 'Go in unto thy brother's wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her, and raise up seed to thy brother.' (Genesis 38:8 JPS)

Therefore, Boaz's concern with levirate marriage and the keeping of property in the family need not stem from uniquely legal concerns but may reflect a basic cultural value and norm that was pervasive at the time.

The JPS Tanakh translation of Ruth 4:5 places a question mark at the end of that verse. This question mark completely changes the intention of this verse and clears up any legal questions on the topic. Assuming Boaz is asking a question here, Boaz is not stating some assumed legal requirement but is asking the redeemer what his intentions are:

'What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi--hast thou also bought of Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance?' (Ruth 4:5 JPS)

In other words, Boaz says to the redeemer: "You said you are willing to the buy the field, but do you intend to marry Ruth as well? (Because I do intend to marry her.)” Boaz is essentially telling the redeemer that he intends to take care of Ruth himself. The redeemer sees he is no longer needed and leaves the story.

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I'm not sure I understand why all the rigmarole. It makes for a great story of redemption and romance, but why did Boaz even bring up the field? It sounds like he did something clever, but I don't know what. Is the point that he managed to get both the girl and the field instead of just Ruth? –  Jon Ericson Jan 11 '12 at 21:20
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So the redeemer for the land and the redeemer for the deceased (that is, the levirate marriage) aren't necessarily the same person? I wonder which is considered the higher duty. –  Gone Quiet Jan 12 '12 at 4:11
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