Ordinary Time Bible Study 2011
The Book of Ruth (10)
Update: edited with some added content commenting on the deliberately ambiguous portrayal of Boaz and Ruth’s encounter. Did she, or didn’t she?
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There. Do I have your attention?
Few things keep us on the edge of our seats like a little sexual tension in a story. The third chapter of Ruth portrays a man and a woman on a dark night, in a place known for sexual encounters, relating to each other in a scene rife with romantic possibility, temptation, and bold suggestions.
The accompanying artwork by Marc Chagall makes these themes explicit. This chapter, which portrays the climactic encounter in the story of Ruth, leaves the reader breathless.
Who needs Hollywood?
The structure of Ruth 3 is similar to that of the second chapter. A long story about an encounter between Ruth and Boaz is introduced and concluded by shorter scenes featuring Naomi and Ruth.
- Naomi instructs Ruth (3:1-5)
- Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor (3:6-15)
- Ruth reports to Naomi (3:16-18)
The upshot of the story is that Ruth boldly proposes marriage to Boaz. She does so in a way that is fraught with risk to her person and reputation. However, in taking this action, she proves herself once more to be a person of extraordinary love (hesed).
Nevertheless, I have not seen, nor do I expect to see this method advocated in books about Christian courtship and marriage!
Here’s the skinny on what takes place in this chapter.
1. Naomi comes up with a plan to “find rest” for Ruth — that is, marriage, a home, a place of security and stability for now and for the future (see 1:9).
2. Since Boaz is a near relative (see our last study for a discussion of clan responsibilities), and he has been kind enough to help them by allowing Ruth to glean in his fields, Naomi thinks it is time to take the initiative and ask him to step up to a higher, more permanent level of provision for their family.
3. It is harvest time, and they will be winnowing grain at the threshing floor. Boaz will be there. Ruth is to dress herself up, put on perfume, make herself enticing (she may even be dressing as a bride here), and go down to the threshing floor after the evening festivities have ended. When Boaz lies down to sleep, content from his meal and drink, Ruth is to “take careful notice of the place where he lies down. Then go, uncover his legs, and lie down beside him. He will tell you what you should do.”
4. It should be noted that this is a bold, risky plan. The threshing floor was the place where men spent the night during harvest. As such, it was known for “extracurricular” activities such as partying, drinking, and sexual encounters. For a woman to go there dressed alluringly, to lie beside a man, to “uncover his feet (or legs)” — this was most provocative! The phrase “uncover the feet” was sometimes used as a Hebrew euphemism for getting naked and exposing one’s genitals. Did Ruth’s actions go that far? We don’t know, but even if they didn’t, to pull back the robe of a sleeping man, exposing his legs was risqué enough! The audience likely blushed when they heard this ambiguous, suggestive phrase and pictured what might take place. The author’s portrayal certainly makes us wonder.
5. Apparently, all of this was meant as a signal to Boaz that Ruth was presenting herself to him for marriage, asking him to fulfill his kinsman-redeemer duties. Exactly why Naomi felt they had to do this in such a potentially compromising fashion is unclear. Had Boaz been heretofore hesitant? Was Ruth’s Moabite status an issue for him and/or for other potential redeemers? Did he think Ruth would prefer a younger man (see 3:10)? In his commentary, Robert Hubbard also suggests that the storyteller may have wanted his audience to see echoes of the story of Tamar (Gen. 38 — another sexually-charged tale) in this encounter (see 4:12). Perhaps the strange initiative (like that of Tamar’s) will lead to an equally important development in God’s plan of blessing.
6. One big change to Naomi’s plan occurs as Ruth goes to the threshing floor that night. She does everything she is told, lies down by Boaz, uncovers his legs, and he awakens, shivering, to find he is sleeping beside a woman! But Naomi had said, at that point, “He will tell you what you should do.” What happens, however, is that Ruth tells Boaz what he should do! Once again, the author highlights the bold initiative of his remarkable woman!
It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet.
He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.”
7. Ruth says, “Spread your covering [wings] over your maid.” This was apparently a custom by which a man symbolically claimed his bride by placing the corner of his garment over her. In the Book of Ruth, this phrase has a significant parallel in 2:12, where it is said that Ruth had sought protection under the Lord’s wings. Boaz will become a part of the answer to all their prayers by being the human “wings” that provide security and rest for Ruth.
8. Boaz praises Ruth for her hesed. She could have sought a younger man and married for love alone. Instead, she showed loyalty to her mother-in-law and sought not only a husband, but one who could provide for the entire family, now and into the future. In the climactic verse in the book, he calls her, “a worthy woman” — an eshet chayil (the “excellent woman” of Proverbs 31). Ruth has fully proven her faith and virtue.
9. Boaz says he will do as she has requested. However, one hurdle remains. There is one closer relative who must have his say. Boaz and Ruth sleep until morning (still together!), she returns home with further provision that seals his good intentions, and we await the outcome of the story.
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Robert Hubbard summarizes this intimate encounter by saying, “…thrown together in the crucible of temptation, the two proved themselves righteous.” Nevertheless, the deliberately ambiguous language of the text, the author’s portrayal of the couple in darkness, lying together, Ruth dressed for action and Boaz with his bare legs, still leaves us wondering, “Did they? or didn’t they?” How far did Ruth need to go to convince Boaz to marry her?
Naomi’s strange and risky plan succeeded because Ruth and Boaz showed themselves to be people of extraordinary love, who, regardless of what happened that night, ultimately respected and honored one another and sought above all to seek God’s blessing in Naomi’s family for generations to come.