Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?

Q. 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.

This question was asked in a comment on the last post in my earlier series entitled “Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her?

I am aware that one possible interpretation of what was going on that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor is that she was inviting him to contract a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.  There is some biblical evidence that marriages were contracted that way in ancient Israel.

Specifically in the case of Levirate marriage, i.e. the closest male relative marrying a widow to carry on the dead husband’s name and line (what Ruth would have been asking Boaz to do), a law in Deuteronomy says, “Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.”  While, as I have argued, the biblical Hebrew phrase “uncover the feet” does not unambiguously refer to sexual relations, the phrase “go in to (a woman)” certainly does.  In this case a widow’s closest male relative is contracting a marriage with her by consummating that marriage.

However, even if this custom does provide the background we need in order to understand what Ruth may have had in mind when she approached Boaz on the threshing floor–if this is how, as I put it, she was “proposing marriage to him . . . honorably, within the customs of this culture”–it is still not the case that the two of them had sex that night.  Rather, Boaz explains to Ruth very clearly that he doesn’t know yet whether he is in a position to marry her, though he will marry her if he can:  “It is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you.” (Redeem in this case means to take on the role of the goel or “guardian-redeemer,” which would include marrying Ruth.)

So 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.

And all that said, I still question whether this is what was actually going on.  When we consider the full context of the law in Deuteronomy about a widow’s closest male relative “going in to her” to “take her to himself as wife,” we recognize that this happens within the context of extended-family and community sanction. The widow, we are told, “Shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.” In other words, the family is arranging the marriage–the woman is not deciding whom she wants to marry and going off on her own to “propose” to him. This law says further, “If the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders,” who “shall call him and speak to him” to try to get him to fulfill his responsibility. The community oversees the whole process.  Such marriages, in other words, however contracted, were not arranged privately between individuals.

We see precisely this same community dimension in the book of Ruth.  Boaz goes to the city gate, where civil matters are settled, and negotiates with the closer relative, who finally relinquishes his claim to act as guardian-redeemer for Ruth.  Only then, the book tells us explicitly, “Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.”

So I doubt that Ruth, acting alone (or even with Naomi’s prodding), would really have invited Boaz to enter into a marriage with her on the spot. Instead, as I argue in my earlier series of posts, she was lying down at his feet not “to rest,” but to put herself in a position (literally) where he could symbolically “spread his garment over her,” indicating his willingness to become her guardian-redeemer to the fullest extent he legally could.  Further matters such consummating the marriage would have to wait–as anyone in this culture would have known–until all legal matters were settled.  And then this would have taken place in the home the woman would share with her new husband–never casually one night on a threshing floor.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is writer and biblical scholar who was a also pastor for nearly twenty 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. He is the author of After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations and of the volumes in the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series. He has a B.A. in literature from Harvard, a master's degree in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought from Boston College.

9 thoughts on “Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?”

  1. Plausible? I concede that. Air tight? By no means. It is still unlikely that if Boaz were crossing all the legal t’s and dotting all the i’s as you propose, that he would have invited Ruth to stay the night with him without having sex. Since neither of us was actually there, we cannot be sure. I think you have done well to raise the scenario as you see it but wrong to conclude so categorically–as if there were no room for doubt–that sex did not occur.

    1. Boaz uses the Hebrew verb lîn when he tells Ruth to “stay here for the night.” This verb means simply “to lodge overnight in a place” (typically used in biblical narratives to describe travelers finding lodging in a place along their journey). It does not mean what it would mean today if a man asked a woman to “spend the night” with him. I can think of good reasons why Boaz would ask Ruth to do this. It was the middle of the night and she might have been in danger if she tried to go home alone. Boaz was extending what shelter he could offer her at threshing time as an earnest on the provision and shelter he would offer if he became her husband. We do not need to see a sexual connotation to this invitation to remain in a place of safety and protection. I agree that because neither of us was there, we don’t know with absolute certainty what happened, but I feel that an appreciation for the mores of the ancient Israelite culture makes it far more likely than not that Ruth and Boaz did not have sex on that threshing floor before marriage. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement of this passage that is the subject of so much interest and discussion these days.

    2. Even if one granted (for the sake of argument) that Ruth did sleep with Boaz, that still wouldn’t therefore mean that God condones cohabitation or premarital sex. In many instances the Bible describes events that took place without directly saying they were immoral but that doesn’t mean that God is ok with it. For example God certainly isn’t ok with incest on the basis of the story of Lot and his daughters nor is he ok with drunkenness on the basis of the story of Noah getting drunk. The rest of the Bible helps illuminate what God’s moral decrees are in general, which in turn clears up those places in the Bible where nothing is said outright one way or the other. And on this matter, the Bible is abundantly clear elsewhere as to what God’s wishes are for what ultimately leads to the truest of human flourishing and fulfillment.

      1. I agree with what you say; the Bible often does report actions without any explanatory comment from the narrator or characters about whether these actions were right or wrong. However, sometimes there is an indication about the moral quality of an action. Consider this classic narrative comment by Luke: “Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by [John the Baptist] for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” We don’t have to figure out whether that was right or wrong by reference to other parts of the Bible! Similarly, if Ruth really did sleep with Boaz, we might be led to think from the narrative of the book of Ruth itself that this was morally acceptable, since Boaz says to her, after she has “uncovered his feet,” “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” So I think it’s good for us to be as clear as possible about what Ruth did or didn’t do.

  2. Two cannot work together unless they agree. But to love does not mean to have sex. Bible does not cover sexual immorality. And when Boaz went into her the Bible stated it at the time the marriage was finally contracted. Why then should people question the Holy Bible when they were not the eye witnessess.

  3. We can only go by what the bible says. There is a word “theodicy” which means a vindication of justice in the face of the existence of evil. It would seem in the instance of Tamar; Lot and his daughters, this would seem to be the case. Tamar, (Gen.38:11-26) seduced her father-in-law, Judah, to have sex with her, so she could have a child. Lots daughters, (Gen.20:30-36) got him drunk for the same reason. Yet Tamar, is listed in the genealogy of Jesus and 2 Peter 2:7 says Lot was a righteous man. Also, Rahab, (Jos. 2:1) who was a prostitute, who are usually stoned, but she was an ancestress of Jesus?

    1. Actually, “theodicy” means “justifying the ways of God,” but I see what you’re getting at. There must be a similar concept for justifying the ways of people who do “bad” things for good reasons. (Judah says of Tamar, “She is more righteous than I,” because he was supposed to give her his surviving son as a husband to provide for her and protect her. Denying her these things, Judah acknowledges, was worse than what she did in pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with him.) According to Matthew, Rahab was an ancestress of Jesus and in fact the mother of Boaz. Though she was a prostitute and a “foreigner,” she was accepted within the Israelite community because she recognized the true God and took His side. This, we may speculate, was how Boaz himself recognized that true faith could reside in the heart of someone who came from outside of Israel—like his eventual wife Ruth.

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