The book of Ruth contains what is probably the most famous romance in the Bible. The selfless love of Boaz and Ruth overcomes challenges posed by famine, death, bitterness, and ethnic division to produce the line that will one day give rise to King David and, eventually, Jesus Christ. It is in that sense both encouraging and historically consequential.
But the book also contains one of the strangest incidents in the Bible. In Ruth chapter 3, Ruth seeks out Boaz while he’s sleeping on the floor where he’s been threshing his grain, and lays down at his feet. When he awakes, she asks him to serve as a “redeemer,” marrying her to provide a child that will continue the family line. And he agrees (as long as no other closer family member will serve in the redeemer role).
But the details of this incident have raised many questions for readers of scripture. Most pressingly, why does Ruth go to Boaz at night? Why not simply talk to him in the fields during the day, which is where they’ve already been interacting?
The most common answer to these questions (at least in my experience) is that Ruth’s actions represent some sort of ancient Israelite betrothal custom, the details of which have been lost to the sands of time. And while this is certainly plausible, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that we can say more about what’s going on in Ruth chapter 3.
In fact, in order to do justice to the text, I believe we need to see that the threat of sexual scandal is lurking in the shadows of the chapter. And then we need to see Ruth and Boaz as upstanding figures who want nothing to do with it.
Naomi’s Plan and the Possibility of Scandal
The first clue we have that the threshing floor incident is fraught with scandalous possibilities is the instructions that Naomi gives to Ruth at the beginning of the chapter. Here’s what she says.
My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.
Naomi essentially tells Ruth to bathe, get dressed up, wait until Boaz has had his fill of food and wine (the passage later adds “and his heart was merry”), and then go lay down at his feet. And then Naomi more or less says “Boaz will take it from there.”
Whatever Naomi’s intentions may have been, it certainly sounds like she’s sending Ruth to seduce Boaz. So even before Ruth begins to put the plan into motion, we should start feeling the dramatic tension the narrator is building. What exactly is Naomi suggesting? Is this headed for scandal? Will Ruth and Boaz go through with it?
But Naomi’s instructions are not the only clue in the passage which suggests the possibility of sexual misconduct…
The sexual tension in Ruth 3 is further heightened by the repeated use of Hebrew terms with sexual overtones. For example, the word “lie” is repeated six times in the chapter—three in Naomi’s instructions (above) and three as Ruth actually goes to visit Boaz. To “lie” with someone is, of course, a common euphemism for sex. The same applies to “knowing,” another Biblical sexual euphemism that appears several times in the chapter.
But the biggest double meaning in the text comes in verse 9, when Boaz first wakes up.
He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
It’s impossible to render fully in English, but as many Bibles point out in the footnotes, the phrase translated “spread your wings” is very ambiguous in the original language. It can certainly mean “spread your wings,” a common Biblical metaphor for taking someone or something under your protection, the way a mother bird protects its young (see, e.g., Ruth 2:12, Psalm 91:4, Matt. 23:37).
But one could also translate the phrase as something like “spread the corners of your garment” or “spread your cloak.” Given the context (Ruth at the foot of Boaz’ bed on a cold night on the outskirts of town), it certainly sounds like Ruth could be asking Boaz to welcome her into his bed.
That’s not what’s going on, of course, and we’ll come to that in a minute. But there’s still one more aspect to this story that we need to appreciate in order to understand it fully.
The final thing that should make us see a possibility of sexual scandal in Ruth 3 is the relationship between this scene and several other incidents from Jewish history.
For example, in Genesis 19, Lot’s daughters desire children but worry that they won’t find husbands. So they conspire to get Lot drunk, then sneak in to him at night and lie with him. And both conceive. And, as if the parallels weren’t obvious enough already, Lot’s eldest daughter gives birth to Moab, who was of course the ancestor of Ruth.
But the incest of Lot and his daughters is not the only similar story. In Genesis 38, a woman named Tamar has been widowed, but she also desires children. Her brothers-in-law are supposed to father children for her, but they fail to follow through. So she takes matters into her own hands. She dresses herself as a prostitute, seduces her father-in-law Judah, and conceives a son by him. That son was Perez, the ancestor of Boaz. And, in case we didn’t notice the parallels on our own, the author of Ruth brings up Judah, Tamar, and Perez in Ruth Chapter 4, prompting us to make the connection.
To a Jewish reader, Naomi’s scheme to continue the family line by sending Ruth to Boaz under cover of darkness would seem awfully similar to the schemes of Tamar and Lot’s daughters. And they’d be worried this story was headed in the same direction.
A Crisis Averted
In the end, all of these factors (Naomi’s instructions, the wordplay, and the historical parallels) serve to heighten the drama of Ruth 3, building up the will-they-or-won’t-they suspense of the famous threshing floor incident. As readers, we know that this incident could go very wrong very quickly.
And yet, in the end, we know that it doesn’t. Instead, the looming possibility of scandal serves to highlight the unimpeachable character of Ruth and Boaz. After all, neither of them seems to want anything to do with a sinful plot. When Boaz wakes up, Ruth immediately requests he take on the role of “redeemer” to give her a child—in other words, she asks him to go about things the right way. And, despite being presented with a woman in an extremely vulnerable position, Boaz demonstrates no interest in taking advantage of the situation. He’d rather do things the honorable way as well.
Practicing Redemptive Love
But that’s not all we can say about the character of Ruth and Boaz. I’ve argued in the past that the redemptive love of God for his people as his bride should set the standard for human relationships. The story of Ruth shows us two people who not only avoid temptation, but who go over the top in showing that kind of godly, self-sacrificial, redemptive love for those around them.
In next week’s article, I plan to break these ideas down more. I think there’s good reason to believe that the author of the book of Ruth wants us to see parallels between the love that Ruth and Boaz show, and the love that God shows for his people. But we’ll have to wait to get into it!
For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: it is only by seeing how Ruth 3 could have gone so wrong that we can fully appreciate how it goes so right. Ruth and Boaz avoid the pitfalls of temptation, and instead embark on a romance that changes the fortunes of them and those around them for the better. May we follow in their footsteps as we show the love of God to those he places in our path!
Questions or comments about something I’ve written today? Do you agree with my assessment that the possibility of sexual scandal is lurking in the background of Ruth 3? Anything else you want to share? Please leave a comment below! I love interacting with my readers.
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