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.