Opening The Old Testament
What More Can We Say? Reflections on Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Once there, she is to secret herself in a hiding place from which she can determine where Boaz' grain pile is, must observe him fall into a sound sleep, and then sneak over to him quietly, uncover his feet and wait for him to tell her what to do (3:3-4)! The idea is absurd, potentially obscene (after all, "feet" in Hebrew is on occasion a euphemism for genitals—see most famously David's filthy quip to Uriah that he should go down to his house and "wash his feet"—2 Sam. 11:8, which Uriah rightly interprets as a request that he sleep with his wife in v. 11), and quite outlandish!
Ruth agrees with all of it, saying to Naomi, "all that you say I will do" (3:5). She does all the things asked of her—the dress, the hiding, the sneaking, the uncovering. But when Boaz is startled from sleep, sees a woman at his feet, and shouts, "Who are you?" (3:9), Ruth's response is nothing less than we should now expect from this extraordinary woman. "I am Ruth, your handmaid (the word can be a very servile one, or something more like "companion"). Spread your cloak (literally "wing," see 2:12) over your handmaid, because you are the go'el" (3:9). Ruth hardly waits for Boaz to tell her what to do; she clearly tells him what to do! "You are redeemer, so act like one!" A clear proposal of marriage!
And he does. He marries Ruth after he has cleverly dispatched another more closely related kinsperson (my, Naomi seems to have kin pouring from her earlobes!) from having Ruth (4:1-6). Ruth quickly becomes pregnant and bears a son. And at story's end, all the men disappear. The women of the neighborhood turn to Naomi and say, "Blessed be YHWH, who has not left you today without go'el. His name will be proclaimed in Israel! He shall be for you a returner of life, a nourisher in your old age. Surely, your daughter-in-law who loves you has borne him, she who is better for you than seven sons" (4:14-15)! And that, as I have said, is a patriarchal mouthful!
The redoubtable Ruth, ever risky, ever devoted to Naomi, is heroine here. It is she who has moved the empty, famine-haunted world where the story began to a rich, fecund community, full of joy and hope for the future. Only once in the entire story is the word "love" used, only as a description of Ruth's love for Naomi. It is that love that has molded and driven the tale; it is that devoted love that molds and drives the universe of God.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.