Having family in West Virginia, my sister-in-law Kimberly hates to hear people make jokes about West Virginians. Growing up in Virginia, she certainly heard a lot of them. If you’re not from Virginia, then maybe you don’t know that most West Virginia jokes have something to do with people marrying their relatives. In West Virginia, for example, you are free to marry your first cousin once-removed, but you may not marry your half-cousin. However, Virginians have nothing to joke about—our Western relatives have a law that bans first cousins from marrying each other, while in Virginia, first cousins are free to marry.[i] If you want to compare, I guess the joke’s on us!
While I have never actually known anybody who married a cousin, I have known some people who have married distant relatives. Two of our dear friends found out that they were distantly related to each other, after the wedding. Then there are two different ladies that I have known who each married a man and then his brother after his death. They didn’t do it because they had to—but because they fell in love with one brother after the other. This practice of one brother marrying another brother’s widow, is called levirate marriage. It was common in biblical times, and wasn’t done simply because of love. In fact, it was required by Hebrew law.[ii]
In those days, their idea of the afterlife wasn’t as complete as it is today. For a person to “live on” after they died, it was believed that the family name had to be preserved. So it was very important for a man to have a male heir—both to carry on his name and to inherit his land. If a man died without a male heir, then his brother was supposed to marry his widow, and give her a child in the name of the deceased brother, in order to carry on her late husband’s legacy. Keeping family land in the family was also important, so if land was sold outside the family, it was the obligation of the closest male relative to purchase it back as soon as possible and keep the land in the family name. Also, in those days only men could own property, so if a man died without a male heir, the closest male relative was supposed to purchase the property from his widow, in order to keep the land in the family. Typically, the man who married his late brother’s widow would also purchase his brother’s land from the widow. In this unique role, this man was called the widow’s kinsman-redeemer.
We find this practice exemplified in the story of Ruth. In chapter one, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s son Chilion dies, leaving his widow Ruth. The two widows move from Moab to Bethlehem, where they try to survive on charity. In chapter two, we read how Ruth discovers that the the property where she is gleaning is owned by a man named Boaz, who is a close relative of her late husband and his father. In chapter three, Ruth makes him aware of the family connection, and her need of redemption. He agrees to redeem her, unless there is a closer relative who might do so. In chapter four, Boaz discovers a closer relative who might redeem Ruth by purchasing the property and marrying her. Yet that relative (who shall forever remain nameless) is content to pass on the responsibility to Boaz. Unlike the shirking family member, Boaz agrees to both the land transfer and the wedding, and becomes Ruth and Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer.
We find this word redeem in scriptures. We use it in hymns and sermons, but few people really understand its full meaning. It can mean “to buy back,” as in a land purchase that returns it to family ownership. It can also mean “to make good,” in the sense of giving something value that previously had no value or even negative value. For example, when I take a newspaper to the grocery store and present this coupon, I can redeem the coupon for a dollar value. The coupon has no value in and of itself, but when I redeem it, I can get something valuable for it. The kinsman-redeemer did both of those things. Boaz bought back the property, and he brought Ruth and Naomi out of poverty by taking Ruth as his wife. Further, Boaz gave Ruth a son, Naomi a grandson, and Elimelech an heir to carry on his name.
In her blog, Worshiping with Children, Carolyn Brown of Charlottesville, Virginia points out that Ruth is a story of three people who go above and beyond the call of duty in order to do the right thing.[iii] First, Ruth leaves her homeland behind in order to take care of Naomi. Then, Naomi carefully thinks out a plan for Ruth’s happiness instead of wallowing in her own loneliness. Finally, Boaz redeems Ruth and Naomi, even though there was a closer relative who truly had that duty. In the same way, God calls Christians to go out of their way to take care of the people around them—to lift them out of poverty, loneliness, despair, and that feeling of worthlessness that so quickly destroys the soul. This is the job of the kinsman-redeemer. This is the job of every believer.
It’s our job to redeem our fellow human beings because Jesus modeled that kind of love toward us. Jesus did more than He had to, in order to set us free from poverty, despair, worthlessness, and oppression of the soul. More than the love of a husband for his wife, Jesus’ love for you was the purest, most undefiled kind of love. Jesus redeems all who receive Him when He trades their spiritual poverty for His great riches, when He takes a soul that feels worthless and gives it value and meaning. Then He calls us to love our fellow human beings with the same everlasting love.
In Wake Up Calls, Ron Hutchcraft writes:
A gathering of friends at an English estate nearly turned to tragedy when one of the children strayed into deep water. The gardener heard the cries for help, plunged in, and rescued the drowning child. That youngster's name was Winston Churchill. His grateful parents asked the gardener what they could do to reward him. He hesitated, then said, "I wish my son could go to college someday and become a doctor." "We'll see to it," Churchill's parents promised.
Years later, while Sir Winston was prime minister of England, he was stricken with pneumonia. The country's best physician was summoned. His name was Dr. Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered and developed penicillin. He was also the son of that gardener who had saved young Winston from drowning. Later Churchill remarked, "Rarely has one man owed his life twice to the same person."[iv]
We find ourselves in a similar kind of debtorship to God—we who have been saved by Jesus’ grace. So our Lord calls us to pass on the blessing. Like Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and Jesus, we go out of our way to bless and redeem those around us. We do it because we are thankful—because we are grateful for what our Lord has done for us.
[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage_law_in_the_United_States_by_state. November 21, 2014.
[ii] Deuteronomy 25.5-6
[iii] Brown, Carolyn. Worshiping with Children. “Year B - Proper 27, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 11, 2012)” October 25, 2012.
[iv] Ron Hutchcraft, Wake Up Calls, Moody, 1990, p. 22.