Today, we’re focusing entirely on Ruth, and then just on a small section of Ruth. (I’d really like to write a long article for Ruth as I did for Judah and Tamar, but my list of projects is long.) Ruth is a short and masterful novella. If you haven’t read it yet, give it a quick read. It’s four chapters, minimal characters. I’ll assume you know the story for the rest of this post.
I do have a podcast on Ruth as well as Samuel 1! And I discuss the “redeemer” and atonement concepts found in Ruth in depth in my BYU Studies article on The Israelite Roots of Atonement Terminology.
We don’t know when Ruth was written, but it’s probably long long after the period it’s set in. Note the editorial explanation of custom, only necessary if the customs had changed and the author/editor was self-aware.
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. (Rut 4:7 NRSV)
Ruth is set in the period of the Judges, though. This is why in the Christian canon, it’s placed between Judges and Samuel. In the Jewish canon, Ruth follows the Song of Songs, Job, and Proverbs, and has some association with Proverbs 31 in particular because of its presentation of a wifely Israelite ideal.
10 What a rare find is a capable wife! Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
11 Her husband puts his confidence in her, And lacks no good thing.
12 She is good to him, never bad, All the days of her life.
13 She looks for wool and flax, And sets her hand to them with a will.
14 She is like a merchant fleet, Bringing her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night, And supplies provisions for her household, The daily fare of her maids.
16 She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it; She plants a vineyard by her own labors.
17 She girds herself with strength, And performs her tasks with vigor.
18 She sees that her business thrives; Her lamp never goes out at night.
19 She sets her hand to the distaff; Her fingers work the spindle.
20 She gives generously to the poor; Her hands are stretched out to the needy.
21 She is not worried for her household because of snow, For her whole household is dressed in crimson.
22 She makes covers for herself; Her clothing is linen and purple.
23 Her husband is prominent in the gates, As he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes cloth and sells it, And offers a girdle to the merchant.
25 She is clothed with strength and splendor; She looks to the future cheerfully.
26 Her mouth is full of wisdom, Her tongue with kindly teaching.
27 She oversees the activities of her household And never eats the bread of idleness.
28 Her children declare her happy; Her husband praises her,
29 “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”
30 Grace is deceptive, Beauty is illusory; It is for her fear of the LORD That a woman is to be praised.
31 Extol her for the fruit of her hand, And let her works praise her in the gates. (Pro 31:10-31 TNK)
One interesting thing about Ruth is that while God is invoked several times, and omnipresent, He never explicitly does or says anything. The faithful characters do what they think best, and God is just behind the scenes… they hope. Similarly, today we walk by faith, we invoke God, and we make the best decisions we can while hoping that God is working behind the scenes. We rarely see unambiguous divine actions, like striking down enemies, or parting the Red Sea, etc. But we believe he is there, working behind the scenes with some kind of long-term plan, and we act accordingly. In that way, Ruth is a terribly realistic book.
Names, identities and other connections
Names mean things in this story. There is irony of a famine in Bethlehem or “house of bread.” Naomi means “pleasant” which is why when she returns to Bethlehem without husband or sons, she says “call me Mara” or “bitter.” We’ll discuss Boaz’ name in a bit. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law are Ruth and Orpah, whose names are probably not Hebrew, but related enough to generate interesting Hebrew associations. (Hebrew and Moabite are like Spanish and Portuguese.)
Orpah Interpreters associate this name with the noun oreph, back of the neck, for Orpah is the one who eventually turns her back on Naomi and goes back to her parents (albeit at Naomi’s insistence). Frymer-Kensky connects the name also with the [root] ʿrp, a common word in Ugaritic for “cloud,” which is also found in Ps. 68:5 in the divine epithet, “the rider of the clouds.”
Ruth The etymology of this name, which appears only in this book, is difficult. The Moabite Mesha inscription uses the form ryt, “satiation”…. In Hebrew, the name may derive from the root r-w-h, “overflowing with moisture,” as in the “watered garden” in Isa. 58:1 (so, too, B. BB 14b, which refers to saturation with blessings). Thus, the two wives’ names are linked together by the element of water: Orpah is the cloud above that passes without bringing rain; Ruth is the moisture below that brings the desiccated family back to life. –The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth 7.
What exactly happens at night on the threshing floor?
That’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t suggest it to teenagers.
The setting is this. At her Mother-in-law’s suggestion, Ruth has bathed, lotioned (the non-ritual function of anointing with oil was protection of the skin against the heat and harsh weather), and put on her best clothes. And down to the threshing floor she goes in secret.
It’s pitch black at the threshing floor. Boaz has likely had a long day of physical labor winnowing, he has eaten and drunk with the result that lit.”his heart was good.” We could translate as “he was in a good mood” or “he was having a good time.” This state is sometimes achieved by alcohol (e.g. 1Sa 25:36 “Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk.”) but is generally
associated with joy and pleasure, as in Eccl. 7:3 and 11:9. When combined with drinking, the phrase might imply being too drunk to make a good decision (Esther 1:10) or to defend oneself (2 Sam. 13:28). However, the phrase can also indicate joy unrelated to the consumption of wine (Judg. 18:20; 1 Kings 8:66; Prov. 15:15; Eccles. 9:7). One contemporary interpreter describes Boaz here as “relaxed,” a suggestive paraphrase even if not exact. By contrast, Rabbinic traditions, followed by Rashi, contend that Boaz’s heart was made “good” by his study of Torah (Ruth R. 5.15).- The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth
Naomi explicitly tells Ruth to wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking. He falls asleep in the dark, at which point Ruth does… something ambiguous, and lies down beside him. Perhaps some time passes, but Boaz startles awake.
Now, as a newlywed, it took some time to adjust to having someone else there when you wake up in the dark. Boaz has perhaps been drinking, has not (to his knowledge) married anybody, but startles awake and “here’s this woman, lying at his ‘feet’!” (Rut 3:8)
We are not informed as to how Boaz realizes that the nearby presence is female. Is it her scent, the oil with which she has anointed herself? Or her clothes or body pressed against him? Or her general shape? Ibn Ezra speculates that Ruth may have said something or that Boaz could see in the moonlight that the person had no beard or that the figure was dressed in women’s clothing. These explanations keep the encounter chaste. The Targum makes such chasteness explicit. It adds at this point that Boaz’s “flesh” became “like a turnip” but that he restrained himself, as did Joseph (when tempted by Potiphar’s wife) and Palti (the latter, according to Rabbinic tradition, places a sword between himself and his wife Michal to make sure he does not touch her, respecting her prior marriage to David).- The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth
With no memory of anything relevant, Boaz asks the logical question,
“…Who are you?”
She answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Marry me, for you are a redeeming-kinsman (Heb. go’el)”
- It’s hard to capture the sense of “your servant.” It is both elevated (‘amah, not ‘avdah or shiphtah), ingratiating, and submissively recognizes their respective positions, but invites social action. Ruth “is now aware of Boaz’s responsibility as a close relative of her deceased husband and she wants to challenge him to fulfill his obligation.” ( NET Bible)
- “Marry me” is translated from “spread your wing over your servant” which has several potential meanings, any and all of which are possible.
First, when Boaz met Ruth, he was impressed with her loyalty to Naomi, her reputation, and her work ethic. He blessed her. “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (NRS) or ” from whom you have sought protection!” (Rut 2:12 NET) Ruth turns his own words back on him, and invites him both to fulfill his social obligation AND be the means by which God fulfills his blessing and rewards her.
[Ruth] is asking him to spread his wings (kanaf) over her, thus inviting him to become God’s agent. Even if Naomi has designed a sexual strategy for this encounter (3:1–4), Ruth de-sexualizes her plan by calling Boaz to responsibility, not romance.- The JPS Bible Commentary
Second, this is clearly a proposal of marriage; Boaz recognizes it as such in the continuing conversation. This would have been highly unusual then, and still is today, I think.
Third, there may be a more concrete reference here. Ruth had “uncovered his feet,” indicating some kind of adjustment of his robe/clothing. The word translated as “wing” also refers to the edge of a garment or cloth. Is “spread your wing over your servant” equivalent to saying (with various degrees of scandal) “share the blanket/wrap me in your robe/take me into your bed”? The conversation ends with Boaz saying “lie until morning” (instead of “sleep”?) and indeed, Ruth “lay at his feet until morning,” at which point she covertly sneaks out of the threshing floor so no men take note of her presence .there
The Jewish Study Bible summarizes-
The crucial aspect of Naomi’s instructions to Ruth, to uncover Boaz’s feet and lie down, is also the most ambiguous. Naomi may simply mean that Ruth should uncover a place at Boaz’s feet and lie down. The word feet, however, may also be a euphemism for sexual organs (see Isa. 7:20). In this case, Naomi may have a bolder and less respectable act in mind. Similarly, the verb lie down, which appears eight times in this chapter, may be a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The frequent use of the verb “to know” also contributes to the sexual innuendo. Most commentators agree that sexual intercourse did not actually take place, though several suggest that after awakening from a drunken stupor after a long day’s work (3:7), Boaz was unsure whether or not he had intercourse with Ruth. The language conveys the sexual tension that must have been present.- The Jewish Study Bible
Seduction is inconsistent with the depiction of Ruth’s character, and Boaz, I think. But if nothing happened, then why the ambiguity/suggestivity/double-entendre?
Was she trying to give Boaz the impression they had slept together? That seems unnecessary. His reply to her suggests that if he thought marriage with her was a possibility, he would have pursued it; he did not need to be socially cajoled or sexually pressured into it. So it’s an odd sort of crux.
Here’s yet another layer. In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, several women are included: Rahab (the prostitute), Tamar (who dressed up as a prostitute to legally and rightfully obtain children from her father-in-law)… and Ruth! What did NT-period interpreters think of this encounter between Ruth and Boaz? Does Matthew’s inclusion of Ruth among Rahab and Tamar suggest an opinion of some kind of social disapprobation or (apparent) wrong-doing on Ruth’s part? Josephus is more explicit.
Although Josephus is not reluctant to imply that the intention of Naomi was for Ruth to have intercourse with Boaz (Josephus Ant. 5.328), he makes it clear that no intercourse took place, going so far as to state that Obed was born a full ten months after the marriage of Boaz and Ruth (Josephus Ant. 5.330, 335). Further on, Josephus presumably anticipates the sensitivities of his audience when he departs from the biblical text and explains the nearest relative’s reluctance to redeem as being rooted in the fact that he was already married (Josephus Ant. 5.334), thus avoiding a portrayal of polygamy.- Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings, “Ruth 3: History of Interpretation”
The text is explicit that Boaz gives Ruth “seed” or grain from the harvesting, another bit of double-entendre/suggestivity.
There has been much debate over whether or not Naomi’s plan entails overt seduction (the issue largely depends on how one interprets “feet” in Ruth 3:4, 7–8). Most likely, the narrator is being deliberately opaque on the point (or “suggestive,” in the neutral sense of the term). In any event, the early-morning encounter leads quickly enough to a literal gift of seed (Ruth 3:15), to be followed as soon as legally possible by human seed and pregnancy (Ruth 4:13).-Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings: “Marriage and Sex”
In any case, what results from this? Ruth and Boaz marry, and Ruth conceives. The last few lines record that that child was Obed, father of Jesse, father of… King David.
One thing I have not mentioned yet, but talk about much in the podcast is how the Book of Ruth shows both the legal and real meaning of redemption. (What follows is very abbreviated, so really, go listen to my podcast and look for my paper on “redemption” in Dialogue in Fall or Winter.)
“To redeem” is only a “translational equivalent” but is not what the word means per se, but you can’t use the full meaning in translation. (For more on translational equivalents, see my Religious Studies article.) Ga’al means “to perform the duty of a near kinsman” and depending on context, may require the translation of “redeem” or repurchase/buy back (like coupons!); “avenge” or “kill”; perhaps even “marry.” A near kinsman had the legal duty to do these and other things, and translation depends upon whichever of them he is doing in carrying out his duty. The general term is just “redeeming-kinsman” as Boaz is described.
We can expand this legal view of redemption by focusing on a few details. Ruth and Naomi had been in a bad situation. Two widows, one a foreigner, with no husbands, no children, no land providing food (apparently), survivors of a famine, reduced to having one of them glean in the fields. Because of their kin relationship, Boaz raises them out of this low situation, by providing food, marriage, and not just offspring, but a king. He provides the means of continuing life. It is fitting that as type of Christ the redeemer, who provides life everlasting, who “is mighty to save” (2ne 31:19), the name of Boaz the redeemer means “in him is strength.” We enter into a relationship with Christ, who then redeems us out of the bad situation we find ourselves in, and receive eternal life. How is that relationship described that we enter into? Using kinship terms, straight out of the Old Testament. Note Mosiah 5:7
“because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. And under this head ye are made free [bought back out of slavery, redeemed], and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh;”
Ruth, therefore, is a great book for expounding on redemption.
- Note that for King David, his heritage is an issue. According to Deuteronomy 23:3, no “Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (NRS) Well, David is 1/8th Moabite and he’s the king! More evidence that Deuteronomy is late? Or unknown? Or just ignored? Or that an exception was made? Or that no one knew David’s genealogy?
- Boaz’ name and story have given rise to some fun English puns and advice to unmarried women.
“Ruth patiently waited for her mate Boaz.” [I’m not sure that’s true, but it preaches well.] So while you are waiting on YOUR Boaz, don’t settle for any of his relatives: Broke-az, Lyin-az, Cheatin-az, Dumb-az, Drunk-az, Cheap-az, Lockedup-az, Goodfornothingaz, Lazyaz and especially his third cousin Beatinyouaz. Wait on your Boaz and make sure he respects Yoaz!