Near the end of the book of Ruth, why did they use sandals as a legally binding method? I assume, but may be wrong, that they needed their sandals, and could have used something less valuable? That however, may be the point.

Here’s something else I learned from your question. The sandal thing was clearly as strange to the audience of Ruth as it is to us, since the author felt he had to explain it:

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.

So the audience understands this detail made the contract binding at one time.

I am quoting heavily from a blog entry by a pastor from Rudtlege Baptist Church, which he wrote in response to this very question. He notes that in Deuteronomy, it says that if a woman asks for Levirate marriage and is denied, she should take off her shoe and spit in the man’s face.

So we know the sandal or shoe (na’ al) was connected to Levirate marriage in this way; we know less about the sandal being used to seal a contract. According to Pastor Vinson, one could seal a bill of sale (especially of land) by lifting  up one’s shoe from the contract and having the buyer set his shoe upon it as a mark of possession. Since part of the legal transaction involves Boaz buying Elimelech’s land, that might explain the shoes.

Vinson also notes that sandals are connected to locks conceptually, and that shoes are connected to power, and when one removes one’s shoes, that is connected to submission. He quotes a book by Edna Nahshon, Jews and Shoes. 

We’ve noted that there’s a common metaphorical link between feet and genitals, as mentioned in Ruth 3 with the uncovering of the feet. So, speculate some, this transaction might be sexual in nature.

Also, argues Vinson, in some Near Eastern cultures, a man could reject a wife by removing a slipper. So perhaps the point of the shoes was for the official next of kin to officially renounce his right to marry Ruth, a right he passes to Boaz. But I didn’t find anything authoritative in my limited search about using sandals in the way that Boaz uses them. Except for his point about shoes in Deuteronomy, I think that Vinson’s’ explanation of shoes in this story is a guess and not a documented fact.

So I, your teacher, believe that the author of this story knew a little about ancient law but not much. This author knew about the connection in Deuteronomy between levirate marriage and shoes, but I speculate that the author is guessing at the rest. You’ve seen above that no one has a really satisfactory answer to your question. If the author of Ruth once knew of a convincing link between marriage contracts and shoes, I don’t know that we’ve ever found it.

Here’s the link to Pastor Vinson’s blog:

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