Chapter three of Ruth – in fact, chapters three and four – involve an Old Testament institution called “levirate marriage.” Though the notion is in the Bible, that particular designation does not come from the Bible. It is of Latin origin and comes from “levir,” meaning “husband’s brother.”
The whole idea will seem foreign to us, but it is important to understand the idea. Women and children were, and remain (no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise), the most vulnerable members of society. When a husband died in the ancient world, and left no heir, who would take care of his widow? Levirate law said that the husband’s brother (or nearest of kin) should take her into his house and have a child with her. The dead brother’s property would legally pass to the child and not back to the family. The living brother would manage the dead brother’s property and the income would go to support the widow and her family. Presumably, other children that might be born to the widow would be considered heirs of the living brother (note Deuteronomy 25:5-10 refers only to the first child born to the levirate union).
In our modern age where property freely passes from husband to widow on his death, where widows are capable of working and making their own way, this kind of law seems more than archaic. But it is important to remember why it was given: for the protection and care of the widow. That why remains to this day and while the particulars of that practice do not remain, the obligation to make sure the widow is taken care of, protected, and secured is a vital principle and present in the New Testament (see 1 Timothy 5:3-16).
In the case of Ruth, we would like to read this as a romantic story of love between her and Boaz. But notice. Boaz knows that there is a nearer kinsman than himself, and he knows he has no right to marry Ruth if that redeemer elects to take her. He is willing to give her up to him, though he is honored by Ruth’s proposal. Ruth on the other hand is not pledging her love. She is simply asking that Boaz take care of her, and in the process, she makes herself presentable and someone he might want to take care of. The whole story is a bit odd with twists and turns, but that’s what makes it so significant. Out of this very unlikely series of events will come the greatest king of Israel. God is at work.