According to the custom of the day, before Boaz could legally marry Ruth he needed to get a release from a nearer related kinsman, known as a “guardian-redeemer”or “kinsman-redeemer” (Ruth 3:12-13). Even after this unnamed man decided that it was not financially viable for him to redeem Ruth (Ruth 4:1-6), to make the process legal, Boaz needed to seal the deal with a strange ritual. In a tradition that is perhaps comparable to the modern spit handshake or pinky swear, a shoe was removed and exchanged to ratify the agreement (Ruth 4:7-8).
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemption and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel. (Ruth 4:7 NASB)After this procedure was followed (Ruth 4:8), every bond was broken between the kinsman redeemer and Ruth and consequently Boaz was legally free to marry her (Ruth 4:9-10).
The fact that the author described the custom in an aside to the reader indicates that this means of authentication was as foreign to the original readers as it is to its contemporary counterparts.
Kirsten Nielsen (b. 1943) explains:
In order to follow the course of events the reader must be told that there was a particular custom linked to the closing of an agreement in ancient Israel. The custom...is clearly no longer in use, but the audience is to understand that at the time it was legally binding. (Nielsen, Ruth: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 82).The text is ambiguous regarding exactly which party removed their na`al, which is translated both generically as “shoe” (ASV, KJV, MSG) and specifically as “sandal” CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV).
André Lacocque (b. 1927) describes:
The sandal...in question here derives from the Hebrew root...which means “locked” (closed with a strap), as in Song of Solomon 4:12. Here, and there, one can see an erotic allusion, which is also not absent from Deuteronomy 25:5-10...“The shoe is namely a symbol of the law, of judicial process. Already in ancient Egypt, the sandal was the symbol of power, authority.” (Lacocque, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, 133)Many have read this exchange through the lens of levirate marriage, a mandate by which a brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow in hopes of continuing the dead brother’s line (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Tod Linafelt (b. 1965) writes that “one cannot overlook the resonance of this sandal ceremony with the strikingly similar ceremony in the context of levirate marriage (Linafelt and Beal, Ruth and Esther (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 71).”
If a man refused a levirate marriage, the woman was to pull the sandal off of his foot and spit in his face (Deuteronomy 25:9)! As such, some have seen the kinsman-redeemer as disgracing Ruth.
Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950) counters:
There is no sense in this passage that the next of kin is humiliated by this exchange. Having been presented with the economic factors involved in redeeming the field and acquiring the responsibility for Ruth, he makes a business decision not to accept this responsibility. Although this is a public declaration, it does not appear to damage his social standing. It merely gives Boaz the legal right to step in as redeemer. (Matthews, Judges and Ruth (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 240)For the kinsman-redeemer, the business of marriage was all business. Perhaps this is why Boaz went to great lengths to ensure that his union with Ruth was legitimate and properly documented (Ruth 4:1-12).
How do we seal contracts today? What unique customs do Americans follow that might seem strange to outsiders? How are modern marriage contracts ratified? Have you ever questioned these practices (e.g. the marriage license, wedding ceremony, etc.)? Why did the terms of this contract “have to be the shoes”?
In her book Jews and Shoes, Edna Nahshon writes
the ceremonial nature of the transaction makes it clear that the shoe was not used as a barter in a quid pro quo exchange but in a legal/symbolic capacity. Some scholars...link the shoe scene with an Arab form of divorce in which the male removes his shoe and declares “She [the wife] was my slipper; I have cast her off,” and to the Arabic use of na’l (shoe) in the sense of “wife of the husband”...Jacob Nacht [1873-1959], writing in 1915, cites a shoe ceremony practiced among some of the Jews then living in Palestine where it was customary for the bridegroom to send a shoemaker to the bride’s house to prepare shoes for the bride and female family members, this indicating that a date for the wedding had been set. (Nahshon, Jews and Shoes, 4-5)Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (b. 1943) adds:
In the Old Testament “feet” and “shoes” symbolized power, possession, and domination (Joshua 10:24, Psalm 8:6, 60:8, 108:9). When Moses removed his shoes (Exodus 3:5; cf. Joshua 5:15), he acknowledged Yahweh’s lordship; when David walked barefoot, he showed his powerlessness and humiliation (II Samuel 15:30; cf. Isaiah 20:2-4; Ezekiel 24:17, 23). Feet and shoes also played symbolic roles in ancient property transactions. According to the Nuzi texts, for example, to validate a transfer of real estate the old owner would lift up his foot from the property and place the new owner’s foot on it. In the Old Testament, to “set foot” on the land was associated with ownership of it (Deuteronomy 1:36, 11:24; Joshua 1:3, 14:9). Therefore, the sandal transfer in Ruth 4:7 may be a symbolic offspring of such ancient customs. If so, the practice had come a long way: originally associated with transfers of land ownership, in Israel the custom had become a symbol for other transactions as well. (Hubbard, The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 251)
Though the practice seems strange, the theoretical framework is not entirely different from modern contracts. In his legal textbook, The Idea of Private Law, Ernest J. Weinrib (b. 1943) writes, “The external nature of action implies a world of shared social meanings...in order to appropriate a person will perform the act that signifies appropriation in that person’s society: in one society the act may be the shoe’s stepping, in another the hand’s seizure or the laying on of a spear (Weinrib, The Idea of Private Law, 104).”
The process worked and Ruth and Boaz became a happy legally married couple (Ruth 4:13) because all of the parties involved agreed to the terms of the shoe deal. It was not the shoes, it was the shared social meaning.
If you had to seal a contract by the exchange of one common item, what would it be? How important is it to you that you are or will be legally married? Is the marriage contract a public or private issue?
“Love is a feeling, marriage is a contract, and relationships are work.” - Lori Heyman Gordon (b. 1929), marriage and family therapist