Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 3)

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?

This interpretation has spread farther and wider than I’d ever imagined.  In response to my first two posts about it, someone contacted me to say that they’d recently heard it in Christian circles over on the other side of the world!

But since this interpretation, as I said in my first post, reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs, I think it’s important to set the record straight.  Arguments have continued to be added to the original claim that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is a euphemism for sexual activity, so let me address two more of those arguments in this final post.

First, I’ve heard it said that since the threshing floor, where a successful harvest was celebrated, was notorious in ancient times as a place of drunkenness and immorality, we should only expect sexual activity there between Boaz and Ruth.  This was true generally of the threshing floor after harvest in the pagan world, and perhaps even in much of Israel during the period of the judges, in which the book of Ruth is set, when “everyone did as they saw fit.”

But we should not expect this of Boaz’s threshing floor.  The book of Ruth ominously warns us of the dangers an unprotected young woman faced during the period of the judges, but it also introduces Boaz as a God-fearing man who respects and protects women.  When we first meet him, he greets his harvesters in the name of the Lord.  He later assures Ruth that he’s ordered his men not to lay a hand on her.

So while the wine is indeed flowing freely at this harvest celebration (the book tells us that when Boaz went to sleep, his “heart was merry,” and this was no doubt true of the others), this deep sleep only makes it possible for Ruth to slip in unobserved and enact the symbolic proposal ritual.  Boaz praises Ruth as a “woman of noble character” and ensures that she leaves before dawn so that no one will get the wrong impression.  This is in keeping with his characterization in the book as a godly and honorable protector, and so it is quite unfair to him to assert that he took advantage of Ruth when no one was looking.

A second argument I’ve heard in favor of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode is that Ruth was in desperate circumstances but powerless, so we can’t blame her for using sex, the only tool at her disposal, to ensure her survival.

The fact is that by this point in the book, Ruth is no longer desperate.  She has courageously gone out to glean and has seen God go ahead of her providentially to lead her to the fields of Boaz, where she has been safe and favored.  Boaz has allowed her to glean on such generous terms, in fact, that Naomi has been amazed by how much grain she has brought home.  The two women were destitute when they arrived back in Bethlehem, but now, after the barley and wheat harvests, they have plenty of food to make it through the winter.

It’s actually with a view towards Ruth’s long-term marriage prospects, not towards their own short-term survival, that Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor.  So there is no need for Ruth to resort to desperate tactics.  And there is no reason to believe that she would, not after seeing God provide for her when she stepped out into the unknown, first leaving her home country, and then bravely gleaning in the fields.

When we understand her whole story, we recognize that Ruth is an inspiring example to us of loyalty, love, faith, and courage.  If we argue instead that out of desperation she adopted expedients and compromised herself–but, we hasten to add, “we understand, because of her situation”–we are condescending to a woman whose trust in God may well be greater than our own.

In a follow-up post, “Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?” I address a variation on the modern sexual interpretations of the threshing floor episode. This interpretation is proposed in a comment (below) on this post.

RUTH

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.

29 thoughts on “Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 3)”

  1. Thiese comments concerning Ruth uncovering Boaz’s feet are very helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to blog about the scripture!

    1. I’m glad these posts about Ruth and Boaz were helpful to you. I hope they are clearing up what I consider to be an incorrect interpretation of the threshing floor episode in the book of Ruth. Thanks for your appreciative comments!

      1. I am not at all certain that uncovering the feet in this instance does not refer to a sexual connection.

      2. Well, all I can do is repeat the arguments I already make: Ruth “uncovers” Boaz’s feet so that she can symbolically say, “Spread your garment over your handmaiden”; Boaz praises Ruth’s virtue, which would be unbelievably hypocritical if he had just taken advantage of her sexually (instead he says specifically that he’s going to wait to pursue the relationship until the closer relative renounces his rights); the phrase for sexual activity in Hebrew is “uncover nakedness,” not “uncover the feet”; the word “feet” has a literal meaning in the rest of the passage; Ruth is not desperate and there’s no need for her to resort to extreme measures to survive. But if you are aware of other arguments that would suggest a sexual connection, I’d be interested in hearing them.

  2. I appreciate your explanation on why you believe there was no sexual activity in this story, however my thought process is, how could this not be a sexual encounter? . . . On the threshing floor we have a scene where a woman who is clearly interested in a relationship beyond platonic sneaks into the room of a man who is sleeping at night, uncovers a part of his body, and then lies down with him. To simply dismiss this act as completely non-sexual is naïve. . . . By simply entering Boaz’s chamber in the fashion that she does implies something that could potentially be inappropriate . . . If not, then why was Boaz concerned with making sure no one knew she was there in the morning? In other words, where is the line that determines sin took place? You could make the case that that line was already crossed, if you were being legalistic. Trust me, whether they engaged in actual intercourse or just sat there lying with each other through the night, it was sexual. I think that your assertion that no sexual activity took place is not necessarily supported by the text, just as others who assert that sex acts did take place are not supported necessarily as well. Bottom line is, we don’t know because the text doesn’t say.

    1. I think the problem we have understanding this passage these days comes from the fact that we live in such a highly sexualized society that we are inclined to see just about any encounter between a man and a woman as implicitly sexual. What we’re missing is an appreciation for ritual. To repeat what I say in my post, Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet (literally) so that she can then say to him, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” This is ritual. As I explain further in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide, “By lying down next to Boaz at night, Ruth is symbolically proposing marriage to him. She puts on perfume and her best clothes to show that the mourning period for her late husband is over and she’s available to be married. All of this is done honorably, within the customs of the culture. But Ruth still has to trust Boaz not to take unfair advantage of the situation.” I think we can certainly imagine that the atmosphere that night on the threshing floor (out in the open, not in a private room) was sexually charged, but that’s part of the point: neither Ruth nor Boaz acted on that impulse, and so he was careful to make sure that no one got the wrong impression that they had. Unless we want to get into the kind of discussions we had in this country a few years back about the “definition of sex” and “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” I think we can rely on the many evidences in the text, such as Boaz’s praise for Ruth as a “woman of noble character,” to conclude that nothing that would have been inappropriate outside of marriage occurred on the threshing floor that night.

      1. No, Chris, the problem is that you cannot recognize that initiating sexual content was not a salacious act, but the act of a righteous woman proposing to an eligible man. By welcoming her Boaz accepts the proposal.
        Feet are often a biblical euphemism for genitalia, and your forced efforts to protect Ruth’s virtue according to 1950’s sexual mores do not convince many of us who love and revere biblical stories but are loath to impose 20th c. Values on an ancient society.

      2. I am aware of the possibility that Ruth was “proposing to an eligible man” by initiating sexual contact with Boaz. (This is something known from other cultures as well; there’s a prominent example in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which many of us will have read in school.) I discuss this possibility in my post entitled “Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?” And in that post I point this out: “Even if the invitation was to contract the marriage by consummating it, Boaz honorably declines to do both that night until he determines his legal standing. Boaz would not have had sexual relations with Ruth simply on the basis of an intention to marry her if possible. And for that matter, Ruth would not have actually “cohabited” with him merely as a proposal of marriage for him to consider. That is certainly not how the ancient Israelite culture functioned; this is rather something we imagine from the vantage point of our own culture. The offer was first of herself as a wife, with all the responsibilities that would entail for Boaz; only if he could assume all those responsibilities was he entitled to the privileges that came with them.” I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “1950s mores,” but the context in the book of Ruth is still one in which the sexual relationship is reserved for marriage.

  3. Thanks for these very helpful reflections on a confusing passage. I think you have done a good job of explaining that the phrase does not refer to sexual activity. To further support your argument, the normal Hebrew word for “feet” (regel) is not even the one used here – and any alleged idiom betraying sexual activity uses the word “regel.” Instead, the word that is used in Ruth that is translated “feet” is “margelot,” a word that is used only one other place in Scripture besides Ruth 3 (and the other time, in Daniel 10:6, it may have the broader sense of “legs”).

    The one question that needs to be clarified for me, however, is this idea you presented. You assert that Ruth was working “within the customs of the culture” to essentially propose to Boaz. But what customs do you speak of? Are you implying that the way a person proposed to another in that culture was to go and lie down next to him/her at night? Or are you simply speaking about the spreading of the garment as the custom? If so, why couldn’t Ruth have invited him to do this through other means, other than approaching him at night?

    1. You make a good point about the Hebrew term here being margelot rather than regel. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon suggests that margelot means “place of the feet,” that is, Ruth uncovered the place where Boaz’s feet were resting on the ground. This would support my contention that the term “feet” refers to a location, it is not a sexual euphemism.

      I don’t think it was a typical cultural practice of the time for a woman to propose marriage to a man by lying down next to him at night. In fact, marriages were typically arranged by the senior male members of each household. Note, for example, how Abraham’s servant speaks to Rebekah’s father about her becoming Isaac’s wife. Similarly Samson has to say to his parents, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” So it would not have been typical for one person to propose marriage directly to another in any fashion.

      But it was a cultural practice for an extended family member who had means to become a goel or guardian-redeemer (as the NIV translates the term) for someone in dire straits the way Naomi and Ruth were. “Spreading the garment” was a symbolic expression of this (similar to the way Jonathan gave David his robe, as I note in the post) and Ruth was making sure she was in the right place and time to ask Boaz to do that literally, as a tangible expression of his commitment to assume the role of goel.

      Marrying Ruth would be an intrinsic aspect of this role and that’s why, I think, Ruth asked for the expression within the context of a symbolically enacted marriage. We read about this today and assume that something sexual had to be going on. But I’m convinced that’s because, as I say in response to an earlier comment on these posts, “we live in such a highly sexualized society that we are inclined to see just about any encounter between a man and a woman as implicitly sexual.” Rather, in this case the encounter is symbolic and draws on cultural forms and meanings.

      It should be acknowledged that since marrying Ruth would be an intrinsic part of Boaz agreeing to become a goel for her and Naomi, Ruth no doubt wanted Boaz to see that part of the role as something attractive and desirable. That is why, on Naomi’s advice, she “washed, put on perfume, and got dressed in her best clothes.” In other words, Ruth is using what used to be called “sex appeal” to show Boaz that marriage to her would be one of the best parts of becoming a goel. We can admit that. But I still don’t think this means that any sexual activity took place that night on the threshing floor.

  4. Thank you for leading an excellent discussion!

    May I add that, in that culture, if a man died without children, the man’s nearest male relative was to marry the widow and “raise up” a child to carry on his name. (Deut 25:5-6) In this case, there were two men, Naomi’s sons, who were childless.

    Naomi was acting as the elder family member in arranging a marriage for Ruth. She sent her to Boaz to propose by lying at his feet….a sign of trust and submission.

    The Book of Ruth is of interest also as it explores the custom of the “redemption” of property. Naomi’s husband evidently transferred his land when they left Bethlehem. Land was not transferred “fee simple” as is normal in our culture, but rather, all land was owned by God and leased to a family for their use.

    A lot of land was described by its natural and man-made boundary markers (metes and bounds) and then the scroll was rolled and sealed. The terms that must be met for its redemption were written on the outside of the sealed scroll. Only then could the seals be broken and the scroll be opened. This helps us understand the scroll in Revelation chapter 5 that is “written within and without.”

    The use of the sandal to seal a legal transfer is also worthy of note. Sandal prints were also used as a way to mark the boundaries of lots. Sandal shapes are scratched on stones all over the Holy Land!

    There is a lot of symbolism in this book relating to God’s plan of redemption and it is worthy of deep study. You have done much to encourage your readers to do just that. Thank you!

    1. Thanks very much for your appreciative words and for your contribution to the discussion here. I don’t have much to add to the excellent points you make, except to observe that the ceremony with the sandal also seems to echo the law you cited from Deuteronomy, which says that if a man refused to “raise up” children for a deceased male relative, that relative’s widow was to pull off one of his sandals as a mark of shame (and for that matter spit in his face!). But here there is another man ready to “raise up” children for “Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon” (as Boaz puts it), so the sandal is surrendered amicably, presumably with no shame attaching. Thanks again for your valuable observations here.

  5. The Bible is not shy about sexual activity. Sex is described as “knowing”, “going into”, “lying with”, but I never seen “uncovering feet” as sex. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that Ruth and Boaz’s first sexual encounter was not until after they married. Ruth 4: 13 says, “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.” The Bible is clear about when someone has been sexual. The Bible is also clear about when someone is drunk! See the account when Lot’s daughters made him drunk and lie with him. Noah got drunk. I get upset with commentaries that speak where God has not!

    1. I think you make a very good point here. When Boaz and Ruth actually did have sex (after they were married), the book of Ruth is not at all shy to say so specifically. So we shouldn’t suspect it of hiding behind a euphemism (“uncover the feet”) to describe sex before marriage. That simply didn’t happen.

      1. a friend texted me about this story and she thought Ruth would have felt dirty going in and laying at Boaz’s feet. I knew that could not be right because Ruth was called a virtuous women and I just needed to read this to understand some details.
        Thanks

  6. The notion that Ruth cohabited with Boaz as a way of offering herself in marriage to him does NOT suggest immorality except by 1950’s USA standards–a different culture from that of Ruth or Boaz. If you want to think she just lay down next to him to rest, you are entitled, but my suggestion is that she offered himself to her and he accepted with intentions of consummating a marital contract.

  7. Thanks very much for these enlightening posts. As a Filipino who lived in Taiwan and Singapore, I am fascinated by the story of Ruth. I am exploring the idea, “unity in diversity.”

  8. “I think the problem we have understanding this passage these days comes from the fact that we live in such a highly sexualized society that we are inclined to see just about any encounter between a man and a woman as implicitly sexual. ” quoting you sir.
    very insightful, gives light to the threshing floor episode in Ruth. beautiful love story.
    praying that the women would choose somebody with the virtues of Boaz. 🙂

  9. Since Ruth clave to Naomi as Adam was instructed to cleave to Eve, it makes you wonder about Ruth and Naomi’s relationship? But, what ever happened on the threshing floor, does not seem to speak too highly of Ruth’s behavior, crawling under the covers with a man. But I can see why some folks might want to return to bible values.

    1. (1) If you’re suggesting that there was some kind of sexual relationship between Ruth and Naomi, you’re misunderstanding the use and meaning of the word “cleave” in Biblical Hebrew. It means “adhere to” and has literal meanings such as skin sticking to bones or a hand grasping a sword so tightly for so long that it can’t let go. The figurative meaning applied to relationships indicates a primary loyalty and allegiance. When it says in Genesis, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” the first phrase refers to the transfer of primary loyalty from family of origin to marriage; the second, “one flesh” phrase refers to the sexual component. We should conclude from the use of the word “cleave” in the book of Ruth that Ruth transferred her primary loyalty from her family in Moab to Naomi, her clan, and her nation, not that the two of them had a sexual relationship. The same term is used to express how the Israelites should give their primary loyalty to the Lord their God.
      (2) Ruth did not “crawl under the covers” with Boaz; she removed the covers, from his feet (yes, his actual feet), so that she could then invite him to “spread the corner of his garment” (he was probably using his cloak as a blanket) over her symbolically, to show that he was bringing her under his care. Our culture tends to sexualize everything and so we miss the point of these rituals.

      1. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, and you may be right. However these rituals often included sex. Hosea 9:1-2 “Rejoice not, O Israel, for joy as other people: for thou hast gone a whoring from thy God: thou hast loved a reward upon every corn floor. The floor and the winepress shall not feed them, and the new wine shall fail in her.”

        It seems the Moabites were cursed for two reasons, Moab’s mother was not married. plus Moabs father was his grandad. And they did not come to Israels aid with bread and water when they came from Egypt. Some may say Ruth was not a Moabite, however she is said to be a Moabite in Ruth 1:4, The bible is a very diversified book, you can often find pros and cons on several situations, but I think you know that.
        Neh. 13:1 does not speak highly of Moabites, “On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God forever.” Deut. 23:4&6 “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD forever: Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all the days for ever.” Israel often followed the ways and customs of other cultures and their sexual ceremonies. Therefore the laws forbidding Israel to marry outside their tribe is indicated in Nehemiah and and Ezra. I believe Eze. 23 explains some of the sexual rituals that were common, they are pretty lewd so, I won’t list them. Thank you for your comments and your courtesy.

      2. (1) It is true that by the time of Hosea, the “threshing floor,” under pagan influences, had become synonymous with drunkenness and immorality at harvest time. But that was much later in Israel’s history. The book of Ruth, which relates events that took place during the time of the judges, is careful to portray Boaz as a God-fearer who is careful to protect Ruth’s virtue. He warns his workers not to touch her, for example. Just because something happens somewhere sometimes, that doesn’t mean it happens there all the time. Not every threshing floor was the scene of immorality just because some of them were.
        (2) You’re right that Moabites were not generally acceptable to Israelites, as spouses or even as fellow citizens. That’s the essential problem the book of Ruth is addressing. While it’s set in the period of the judges, it’s speaking to an audience in the monarchy period, several generations later. It appears that some people were then contesting whether David, who would ordinarily be excluded from Israelite civic life as the descendant of a Moabite woman, could sit on the throne. The book shows how Ruth was a woman of faith in the true God who “found refuge under His wings,” as Boaz puts it. The book thus speaks incontestably of her acceptance as one of God’s own people. In this way it anticipates the gospel, when people of all nations are welcomed on the basis of their faith, not their ethnicity.

  10. I agree, it would be a better world if all people were accepted on the basis of their faith instead of the ethnicity. Yet, mankind thrives on the “us and them” theory, and it is very evident today. And if the book of Ruth makes this statement, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah certainly seem to disagree. It seems everyone is willing to fight for what they believe, but few seem to want to live by what it teaches.It would be wonderful if mankind lived by the words, that Micah spoke: Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree. and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods. we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

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