What More Can We Say? Reflections on Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

Lectionary Reflections
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
November 11, 2012

After we have read that amazing speech of Ruth in chapter one, a speech that has become the only part of the book that anyone appears to know or use, why should we read on in the story? Is there anything more to learn from Ruth's tale? I think the answer is a resounding "yes," and more careful attention to the story's end can be most revealing for a preacher who wants to account for the whole of the biblical text.

After the speech, Boaz, a near kinsman of Naomi's (though she has tried to ditch Orpah and Ruth in chapter 1 by claiming that she had no near kinsmen at all) is introduced to us. And if we are still alert, we immediately hope that this man can be a possible match for Ruth, thus serving as her go'el, her 'redeemer" in a legal sense. But Naomi has apparently given up all hope, so Ruth has to continue her risky behavior by telling Naomi, "I am going (NRSV reads, "Let me go," which is possible but hardly in Ruth's character) to a field to glean, a place in which I might find a favorable reception" (Ruth 2:2). A foreign widow, venturing into an unknown man's field, runs all sorts of risks: assault by lusty field hands, rejection by a greedy owner, abuse from fellow gleaners who have long identified this field as their own place of "business."

"Gleaning" is a technical term in Israel. By some laws, found again in Deuteronomy, this time in 24:21 (the levirate marriage law that drove Naomi's Bethlehem road fantasy was also found in that book), reaping a field in Israel always had to take account of the poor and disadvantaged in the land. Hired hands were to harvest the field of the owner, but any grain that they missed in the first pass through the field must be left in the field for the strangers, the orphans, the foreigners, and the widows. It was a meager and difficult way to survive, but at least it offered a tiny meal for those who had nothing.

That supposedly was the law, but it takes little imagination to expect that this law was often handily forgotten by field owners who became heartily sick of "deadbeats" entering their fields to "steal" the grain that they had planted and paid for. In short, Ruth was risking her reputation, and possibly her life, by going to work in a foreigner's field.

In a lovely bit of serendipity, fortunately, "she happened to come to a part of the field that belonged to Boaz" (2:3). And soon the foreign widow, asking only to glean a meager pile of grain, is not only eating with the well-respected field owner (2:14), but has been favored by him to such an extent that she gleans an entire ephah of barley, by some accounts as much as five gallons, a very significant glean. When Ruth presents this harvest to Naomi, of whom she has been thinking during her entire interchange with Boaz, Naomi exclaims that she has never seen a glean quite like that one (2:19)! And upon hearing that Ruth has in fact worked in a field that belongs to Boaz, a light bulb (finally!) goes off above Naomi's head. Well, what do you know? Boaz is a very near kin of mine! Stay close by him, Ruth, she counsels; who knows what the man may do?

But Ruth continued to glean in Boaz' field right up to "the end of the barley and the wheat harvests," as long as six or seven weeks, and nothing happens. Boaz may have appeared very anxious to have some sort of relationship with Ruth in chapter 2, but he retreats into silence at the beginning of chapter 3. There are no chocolates, no phone calls, no e-mails, no texts, no Facebook entries. And Naomi, whose brain is now snapping with possibilities, is tired of waiting. "My daughter, I need to seek some security ("rest" more literally; see 1:9 for the same word) for you so that it may go well with you (and perhaps she silently adds, "not to mention with me"). She proceeds to outline a plot in order to entrap the suddenly and mysteriously reluctant Boaz. She urges Ruth to put on her best gown, accessorize with some pearls and a subtle spray of her finest perfume (my holy imagination at work here), and go down to the threshing floor where Boaz and the rest of the farmers are celebrating the harvest.

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!