Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 1)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating "He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet."
Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating “He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet.”

The interpretation you describe, that Ruth seduced Boaz, has been making the rounds for years.  I’ve encountered it before, and that’s why in my study guide to Joshua-Judges-Ruth I explain that “by lying down next to Boaz at night,” Ruth is only “symbolically proposing marriage to him,” and that “all of this is done honorably, within the customs of this culture.” 

The sexual interpretation of this episode reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs.  In the next several posts I’ll respond to this interpretation by addressing the various claims it’s based on.

Let me begin in this post with the claim that the statement that Ruth “uncovered his feet” is a euphemism meaning that she had sexual relations with Boaz.  There is an idiom in Hebrew using the verb “uncover” that describes sexual relations, but it’s to uncover a person’s “nakedness,” not their “feet.”  For example, the general law against incest in Leviticus, which the NIV translates “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations,” says more literally, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness” (ESV; the NRSV is similar).  The specific incest laws that follow use this same idiom.

It’s a disputed point whether “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism for the male sexual organs.  Some see this in contexts such as Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, who covered their faces with two of their wings and their “feet” with two other wings.  Does this mean that they were naked and covering up modestly in the presence of God?  Or were they clothed and covering their actual feet, in a sign of reverence?  Scholars are divided over this question.

But whether or not “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism this way, we need to understand the meaning of term in this passage in Ruth based on the context there.  It’s significant, for one thing, that Naomi tells Ruth to “uncover his feet and lie down,” and that the narrator then reports that she “uncovered his feet and lay down.”  If this really were a euphemism for sexual relations, she would instead lie down first and then “uncover his feet.”

The passage also says that some significant time later (“in the middle of the night”), Boaz woke up and discovered Ruth “lying at his feet.”  This clearly refers to a location, and it suggests strongly that “feet” means literally feet throughout the passage.  Ruth “uncovered” Boaz’s feet, pulling back his garment, specifically so that she then could ask him to “spread his garment” over her, meaning to assume the responsibility for her care, as her husband.  In other words, this is a symbolic act.  Similar symbolism is used, in a different context, when Jonathan makes a covenant of friendship with David:  he gives him his robe to show that he will provide for him (along with his weapons to show that he will protect him).

Some might argue that this passage in Ezekiel is a “smoking gun” that proves the expression “spread the corner of one’s garment,” for its part, is a euphemism for sexual activity:  “When I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body.”  But we need to understand this statement in the context of Ezekiel’s parable, in which the woman is represented as naked because she was abandoned as a baby and has never been cared for or provided for.  That the phrase is actually describing marriage is clear from the parallel statement that immediately follows: “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you . . .  and you became mine.”

A better understanding of Hebrew idiom and Israelite customs shows that Ruth is not having sexual relations with Boaz when she “uncovers his feet.”  I’ll continue to address the claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of this passage in the book of Ruth in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

16 thoughts on “Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 1)”

  1. I think Ruth is a story steeped in ancient ways of doing things, including the telling of the story itself. Feet or hands is a Hebrew euphemism for genitals, so it is open to interpretation exactly what Ruth did. Here is what I think is going on.

    Naomi is postured in the earlier part of the story as giving bad counsel (for possibly overall good reasons). No one suggests one should attend the Naomi school of evangelism or the Naomi school of dating or even the Naomi school of names (Mara).

    It does not take much reading between the lines to see that Naomi wants Ruth to trap Boaz. Ruth goes along with the plan, but only up to a point and seeing when she breaks from the plan is critical. This happens in Ruth 3:9 where she asks for what she wants instead of doing what Naomi asked her to do. I see Boaz’s response including her being a woman of valor, which he would not have said if she had tricked and trapped him per Naomi’s plan.

    1. This is the first time I’ve heard the interpretation that Naomi wanted Ruth to seduce Boaz to get him to marry her, and that Ruth pretended to go along with the plan but changed it at the last minute and appealed to Boaz to become her guardian-redeemer instead of seducing him. I don’t think this interpretation works in terms of the text of the book of Ruth. If “feet . . . is a Hebrew euphemism for genitals,” as you say, then when Naomi tells Ruth, “go and uncover his feet and lie down,” she’s telling him to seduce him. But then, when the narrator says that Ruth in fact “uncovered his feet and lay down,” this would mean that she actually seduced him. She didn’t change the plan at the last minute. I also have a slightly different take on the character of Naomi in the book. I don’t think her counsel to her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab and remarry there is meant to be seen as bad; it’s the only reasonable thing to recommend. Ruth does something unreasonable, demonstrating daring faith, when she insists on staying with Naomi. I see Naomi as someone who passes through a crisis of faith into renewed faith. When she first returns to Bethlehem, she tells the other women there, “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant); call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” But after Naomi sees how God has protected and blessed Ruth in her gleaning endeavors, she says, “May [Boaz] be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Her faith is returning. And at the end of the book, when Ruth bears a son who will be Naomi’s guardian-redeemer in her old age, the women of Bethlehem, answering Naomi’s charge when she first returned to the city, tell her, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!” I see Naomi as far enough along this trajectory when she sends Ruth to the threshing floor that I doubt she would have taken matters into her own hands and suggested an immoral plot rather than trusting God to work things out according to His own ways and means.

      1. One aspect of the use of euphemisms is that the phrases end up being somewhat ambiguous, they can be understood in two or more ways. So I see the author of Ruth deliberately being ambiguous here and elsewhere in the story. There is a range of possible interpretation on the details so one needs to look at the immediate context for more clues, but even then I do not see how one can be definitive, one way or the other. When something is ambiguous in Scripture, I think it is best to admit that and not try to claim more than the text supports. That is, we are supposed to recognize that some details are fuzzy.

        I see it as important to see that Naomi hit bottom and has no hope, so the story shows us how her hope is restored. But it is restored at the end of the story, not before. And it is important to see that while she is recovering she gives counsel that is not the best.

        I see the critical turning point of the story when Ruth does not do what Naomi told her to do, which is “uncover his feet (possibly meaning genitals), lie down, and do what he tells you”. What she does is uncover his feet (possibly meaning genitals), lie down and later when he wakes she asks for what she wants, which is marriage.

        Boaz then says she is a woman of valor, so I do not see this scene as a consummated seduction by the uncovering of feet (genitals). But it is because Ruth did not do all that Naomi told her to do.

  2. Don J. has said that feet or hands is a Hebrew euphemism for genitals. He needs to cite the scripture for us. John Collier.

    1. Strong’s H7272 regel
      reh’-gel
      From H7270; a foot (as used in walking); by implication a step; by euphemism the pudenda: – X be able to endure, X according as, X after, X coming, X follow, ([broken-]) foot ([-ed, -stool]), X great toe, X haunt, X journey, leg, + piss, + possession, time.

      Deu 28:57 is an example of this euphmism.

  3. The Hebrew word regel is listed over 200 times in Strong’s, (247). The four times feet are listed in Ruth, it is the Hebrew word margelah, (feet), Strong’s 4772. The 200 plus words referring to regel pertain to the word pu-den-dah. The word pu-den-dah has more to do with the female plumbing, (euphemism). than that of a man (dictionary.com). In Genesis 8:9, it says – and the dove could not find a place of rest for the sole of her foot. The question is, ‘how do you interpret this little lady’s foot (rag-lah) 7272. Surely, not pu-den-da.
    As for the incident with Ruth and Boaz, I think Rev. Smith has given an outstanding explanation through his three on-line posts, ie, the first post stays within the context of the subject, feet.

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