November 24, 2017

Some Enchanted Evening

Boaz Awakes and Finds Ruth at his Feet, Chagall

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?

• • •

Sex!

Sex!!

Sex!!!

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.

Ruth at the Feet of Boaz, Chagall

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.

• • •

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.

Comments

  1. Indeed, in light of the spat over John Piper’s recommendations about Beth Moore earlier this week in this space, it would seem that God is throwing us a curve-ball here, which He is. How do you jive commands for women to “learn in silence” and ‘not usurp authority over men” with the scandalous story of Ruth?

    I personally have no issue with strong and capable women. Wendell Berry does an excellent job of presenting such a feminine ideal in his novels, particularly Hannah Coulter. I also don’t have a problem with the (occasional) woman who serves in a preaching/teaching role in the church. My view is that this is not the norm, but an exception to the order of Creation that God has chosen to establish, in part through Natural Revelation and through the written Bible (by insisting on us calling Him Father, not Mother, and calling Jesus His Son, not His Daughter, and also through explicit commands like those found in two of Paul’s letters).

    In order to have a norm, you have to have norms but also deviations from the norm. Some cognitive dissonance is to be welcomed.

    Ruth was using all she had as a woman to arouse what Boaz had as a man. She was not competing with Boaz, usurping his authority or henpecking him to bits. She was being seductive. She was being (gasp!) a woman! The story is a healthy reminder that it is OK, despite what the modern culture tells us, for women to be women and men to be men. It isn’t patriarchy or oppression, it’s just the way it is. It’s a beautiful thing, but (apparently) extremely offensive to certain kinds of people. Too bad for them.

  2. Well said.

  3. Quixotequest says:

    What’s beautiful is how scandalous this story appears to be, and our frequent desire as believers to tame it. Ruth was a Moabite and had much more cultural leniency in sexuality norms (from what I know; I’m not a deep scholar on the matter) and the “uncovering the legs” was probably much more action than what many believers would think acceptable for her to be “virtuous”. Boaz was plastered, and he gets “startled” to wake up at midnight because his legs are chilly? She gets all dressed up and seductive just to fall asleep at his feet?

    Ruth is not a naïve schoolgirl – she’s a formerly married woman, now a widow and social outcast, doing the daily equivalent dirty work of dumpster diving, yet apparently still desirable enough under the filth of poverty that Boaz is flattered she’s not been macking on the local studs (an easier way to pay the bills) — and she still asserts herself sexually to pursue Boaz. We think the only honorable motive in this story is family preservation? God accomplished His will even by the likely way of Ruth’s desire for sex, love and protection for her family. And God accomplished the Story with a Gentile who likely didn’t have the background in sexuality norms of her fellow Hebrews and American sexual mores. Doesn’t make for a tidy morality play to model for our sons and daughters. I don’t think that’s the intent.

    I find its sexiness part of its power. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Capon. 😉

  4. I wonder if it is an example of the scandalousness of grace meeting the audacity of faith.

  5. I saw this on another site and couldn’t resist copying it here. The writer’s mom told her this story when she went off to college:

    “In the Bible, Ruth patiently waited for her mate BOAZ. While waiting on your Boaz, don’t settle for ANY of his relatives. Brokeaz, Poaz, Lyinaz, Cheatinaz, Dumbaz, Downlowaz, Fakeaz, Cheapaz, Lockedupaz, Goodfornothinaz, Lazyaz, Drunkaz, or Marriedaz and especially his third cousin Beatinyoaz.

  6. I think it rather obvious that they DID have sex, and that the biblical writer condones this. And why not? Surely we all behave similarly, and that is as it should be (our moralistic traditions to the contrary notwithstanding).

    In the gospel genealogies, Ruth and several other “scandalous” women are named (whereas most of the names are male). This is apparently because Christ, too, was the son of a scandalous union (at least in the eyes of his society, however one interprets it).

    • Wilfred, I think it is deliberately ambiguous, and therefore your guess is as good as mine. It makes for great storytelling and great audience debate after hearing the story. Did she or didn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure! (old tv commercial reference)

      • I agree that it is ambiguous, and it may well have been Ruth’s intention to seduce Boaz that very night, but my opinion is that Boaz, being the honorable man that he was, remembering the closer relative who might be able to redeem her (have a greater right to her), was able to restrain himself. 😉

  7. Surely, Ruth’s local church had a “True Love Waits” program which she would, no doubt, have gone through and gotten her “purity ring,” right?

  8. CM, this has been a wonderful series, one I plan on heavily plagiarizing at some point. You should seriously consider putting this series together and offering it in print.

  9. In my opinion, the “busybodies reader” loses sight of the delicacy and tenderness of the story.
    Think of all the hopes, all trembling, all the fears of the young Moabite. It was her whole life at stake. And her reputation, without which she had no future. She had left everything. But it all. And now she could only trust in the God of Naomi, the God of Israel.
    That night Naomi has had the “Yes” from the Beloved.

    It is not the same as we want?