Did a man in ancient Israel have to marry his brother’s widow if he were already married?

Q. You state in one of your posts that Levirate marriage applied to brothers who were married (as well as those who were single). Do you have an example or statement of that fact in the Bible? If not, where does this idea come from, as I am not able to confirm it one way or the other?

A good example can be found in the book of Ruth. Boaz is willing to marry Ruth so that she can have a son who will carry on the name of her late husband, a son who can also care for Naomi, who would be his grandmother, in her old age. But Boaz knows that there is someone more closely related to Naomi who needs to be asked about this first. He approaches this man at the town gate, and he replies that he can’t marry Ruth “or I will ruin my own inheritance.” What does that mean? One translation puts it this way, which I think is quite accurate: “I might harm what I can pass on to my own sons.”

In other words, this man must already be married with a family. But he can’t afford to have additional children in a Levirate second marriage because he doesn’t have enough land and other resources to pass on to Ruth’s children in addition to the ones he already has. On this basis he is released from the obligation and Boaz, who seems to have sufficient means, marries Ruth and helps her start a new family.

We can see a direct connection to Levirate marriage here by the way the other relative removes his sandal and gives it to Boaz. While the book of Ruth explains that this was “the method of legalizing transactions in Israel,” there’s some further background. The book of Deuteronomy also connects sandal removal with a man declining or refusing to marry his brother’s widow. It says: “If a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.’ Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.’ That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

However, in the case of Ruth, it’s recognized that the other relative is a man of good will but limited means. So Ruth doesn’t remove his sandal (or spit in his face!). Rather, he removes it himself, and it is graciously accepted.

If men who were already married were not expected to fulfill the duties of Levirate marriage, Boaz would never have brought this man up or dealt with him in the first place.

Does a person married to a divorcée need to divorce her if he becomes a believer?

Q. I have a question on marriage and divorce. I am married to a divorcée and I understand that we are both adulterers because of this situation. I also understand that we should repent and legally separate. After separating, would I then, having never been married before, be biblically free to marry another believer as my covenant wife? Thank you in advance for your kind help and I would appreciate any guidance and supporting verses in in order to bring clarity.

I have to read between the lines a bit in order to understand your situation, but it sounds to me as if you have now become a believer after already being married to a woman who was previously married and then divorced, and that she has not yet become a believer herself. You would like to be married to a fellow believer as a “covenant wife.” It also sounds to me as if you are reflecting on biblical statements such as, “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

My guidance would be that you shouldn’t make any decision, let alone such an important decision, based on a single verse of Scripture. Instead, you should seek to know the “whole counsel of God” by looking at all of the places in the Bible that might address your situation, and you should compare what they say, in order to find a wise way forward.

I think the Scripture passage that applies most directly to your situation, if I’ve understood it correctly, is Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians to people who have become believers after already being married, whose spouses are not yet believers. Here’s what Paul writes:

If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

What this means, basically, is that you should not seek a divorce from your wife, because your influence on her as her husband may well lead her to become a believer herself. If you have children, this will benefit them as well. However, if she wants to be divorced from you, particularly if that’s because she doesn’t want to be married to you any more now that you are a Christian, then you should consent to the divorce.

The fact that your wife was divorced before you married her does not require you to divorce her now. In this same place in 1 Corinthians, Paul generalizes his counsel about divorce to apply to all situations in life. He says, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” In effect, the clock re-starts when you become a believer. God calls you to live out your new faith starting right in the situation you were in when you came to faith. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” So not only don’t you need to be governed by your own past life, you and your wife don’t need to be governed by her past life either. A new start for you can be a new start for her as well.

It’s clear from Scripture that God does not like divorce, and so the Bible says many things to discourage divorce, such as the warning that marrying a divorced person can amount to adultery. (This is especially true if someone gets divorced in order to  marry someone else.) But the reason God doesn’t like divorce is that God wants to support and sustain healthy marriages. Though I don’t know your situation first-hand, I’d encourage you to envision how your present marriage can be transformed by the grace of God into a healthy, life-giving relationship for you and your wife. I can’t think of anything that would commend Christ to her more.

One final thought is that if you did divorce your wife, then any woman who married you would be marrying a man who was divorced and, to follow the narrow logic of the single verse we started with, she would be committing adultery and need to divorce you. On the other hand, if the clock could re-start for you if you divorced your current wife, then why couldn’t the clock actually re-start for you, and for her, at the point where you became a believer? So think about your present situation as one in which “the new has come” and you have the freedom to invest in your marriage as one that may ultimately become the covenant partnership you’re hoping for.

Was the apostle Paul married or single?

Q. Was the apostle Paul married or single?

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it very clear that he is single. He writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” (Paul’s specific point is that being single provides the advantages of freedom and flexibility for Christian service. However, he recognizes that whether to stay single or get married is a matter of following God’s calling: “Each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” So while Paul praises the advantages of singleness for his type of ministry, he also sees marriage as a gift from God.)

So why do people sometimes say that Paul was married? For one thing, it’s held that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and (the argument goes) a man had to be married in order to be on the Sanhedrin. William Barclay writes in his commentary on the Corinthian letters, for example, “It was a requirement that members of the Sanhedrin must be married men, because it was held that married men were more merciful.”

I find the first half of this argument convincing, that is, that Paul belonged to the Sanhedrin. During one of his trials in Acts, Paul recounts, “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” So Paul was part of some decision-making body, and since it was one that had the power to enforce a death penalty, it was most likely the Sanhedrin.

However, I find the second half of the argument unconvincing. The statement that Sanhedrin members should be married men, because they are more merciful, comes from the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah that makes up the second half of the Talmud. It comes from many centuries after Paul lived. The Mishnah itself dates in its written form to about A.D. 200. It is a collection of teachings about the Torah passed down orally from rabbis who lived in the Second Temple period (through A.D. 70), and it makes no reference to a marriage requirement for Sanhedrin membership. It makes more sense to accept Paul’s first-person testimony, in his own letter to the Corinthians, that he was single than it does to assume that he had to be married if he belonged to the Sanhedrin based on requirements that seem only to have been adopted many centuries later.

Another argument that’s sometimes made for Paul being married is his question, also found in 1 Corinthians, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” The argument goes like this: Why would Paul insist that he had the right to bring a believing wife along with him if he didn’t even have a wife?

However, since Paul has just said, only a little earlier in this same letter, that he is single, it makes sense to understand him to mean that this is one of the many rights that apostles have (he lists several more); he is actually on his way to saying that he hasn’t used any such rights so that he can bring the gospel to the Corinthians free of charge. In other words, he’s most likely saying, “As an apostle, not only do I have the right to depend on you for my food and drink and for my support, if I had a wife, I’d have the right to bring her along—also at your expense. But I have not made use of any of the rights of an apostle.”

So I feel that we can conclude quite confidently that Paul was not married. He saw his singleness as something that permitted him to have a ministry that required much travel and involved much personal risk. Just as he recognized marriage to be a gift from God, he also saw singleness as a gift. “One has this gift, another has that.

Did God decree that a wife’s desires would be “contrary” to her husband’s?

Crossway recently announced that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions . . . to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.”  That way “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

Update: The next month, Crossway issued a statement saying, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Crossway said it would “allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”

This so-called “permanent text” of 2016 represents a third revision of the translation, which was first published in 2001 and then revised in 2007 and 2011.  This last text incorporates what the publisher calls “a very limited number of final changes” (“52 words . . . found in 29 verses”) that are designed to make “a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding” of the text at these places.

One of these changes has already become very controversial. In the account of the fall, in previous editions of the ESV, God says to Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

The permanent text now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  I am not aware of any statement that Crossway or the ESV Translation Oversight Committee may have offered explaining the rationale for this change.  But it appears to me that the concern was that the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” would be misunderstand to mean that Eve would still want to be emotionally and relationally close to Adam, and that to accomplish this she would accept to live in a household in which he was in authority.

These phrases actually do mean something different.  They appear again, in word-for-word parallel, shortly afterwards in Genesis when God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  Sin is represented metaphorically as a wild animal poised to pounce on Cain, and this makes clear the meaning of “its desire is for you”: Sin wants to have Cain in its power, but Cain must not succumb to that power; he must remain in control of his own actions.

So it is important to correct the misimpression that Eve has a “desire for” closeness and affection with Adam.  No, she wants to have him in her power.  But he will resist and dominate her instead. In other words, after the fall, marriage is no longer a cooperative enterprise but a struggle between husband and wife for dominance.

However, I don’t think that the ESV has gone about correcting this misimpression the right way.  The expression “your desire will be for your husband” (= “its desire is for you”) is an idiom.  (Like Muhammad Ali famously saying “I want Joe Frazier,” emphasis his, before one of their fights.)  It is not describing an actual desire or longing that a person feels.  Instead, it means, as the New English Translation puts it, “You will want to control your husband.”  The New Living Translation says similarly, “You will desire to control your husband”—desire in the sense of wanting to do something.

But the ESV now uses, for the first time in any English translation, a qualifying adjective, “contrary,” instead a preposition (“for” or “against”) as in Hebrew.  The presence of this adjective requires us to understand this literally as an actual wish, desire, or longing, and one that is necessarily opposed to the husband’s wishes.  Now “he shall rule over you” means not “you won’t be able to control him,” but he will get his way, you won’t get yours!

Still, does this really matter that much, since in any event it portrays a formerly cooperative relationship dissolving into conflict?  I believe it does.  The essential issue here is interpretation rather than translation, but a given translation can serve to advance one interpretation and hinder or prevent another.

The interpretive question is whether redemption restores God’s original intention for marriage, so that within the kingdom of God couples can live out a cooperative enterprise once again, or whether male authority needs to be insisted upon even among regenerate people.

I’d observe that we do everything we can to mitigate all the other effects of the fall as described in Genesis.  We use every technique and medication available to make sure that women have as little pain as possible in childbirth.  I don’t know one man who doesn’t try to make his work as efficient and labor-saving as possible.  (Another effect of the fall was painstaking toil to earn a living.)  So shouldn’t we also believe that we’re supposed to mitigate the distortions in husband-wife relationships, and in male-female relationships generally, that resulted from the fall?

The mandate to do this is clear if the consequences of the fall are that husband and wife will both try to be in control.  Once they become regenerate people, they will treat one another the way the New Testament says all followers of Jesus should treat each other: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Taking this attitude makes marriage a cooperative enterprise once again.

However, if the consequences of the fall are that husbands and wives will want “contrary” (opposing) things, and the solution is that the husband gets his way, and the wife has to “submit” to that—what’s there to fix?  There’s no conflict when everybody knows who’s in charge.

But leaving things this way is dismal.  How much better it is for both husband and wife to bring all of their increasingly sanctified hopes and wishes and desires to the table, and if some of them differ, for the two of them to seek God earnestly to find a greater plan, more comprehensive and far-reaching than either of them could imagine, that will catch up everything they could hope or dream for into an enterprise that calls for all of their gifts to be used to the fullest, interactively, to bless far more people than they ever could have anticipated.

We should not continue to see a husband’s and a wife’s desires, if they differ, as contrary, in light of provisional arrangements made after the fall.  Instead, we should recognize them as complementary, just awaiting the hand of the Creator to weave them together into something unified and glorious.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” Benjamin West (1791). How many of the effects of the Fall are mitigated by God’s redemption?

Is it a sin for a man to be married to more than one woman?

Q. Is polygyny [a man having more than one woman] a sin? Is it adultery or lust if you marry the woman and she is not married?

Let me begin by telling a story.  When I was the pastor of a church near a university, we’d often have graduate students from Africa attending.  These were accomplished young adults from good Christian families and strong home churches.  As we got to know them, we’d ask questions like, “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”  Quite often, a student would tell us how many brothers and sisters they had “from my own mother,” and then how many more they had “from my father’s other wives.”

So a man having multiple wives didn’t seem to be a big issue for many even in the contemporary generation of African Christians.  But they were horrified, on the other hand, by the prevalence of divorce among American Christians, and our apparent easy tolerance of it.  “We’d never divorce our wives,” they insisted.  “Any of them.”

The covenant people, including their most exemplary leaders, did not shy away from polygamy, at least in Old Testament times.  Abraham had a wife and a concubine, and took another concubine after his wife died.  Jacob had two wives and two concubines.  David had six wives.  The most extreme case, by far, was Solomon, who had “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” (Most of these wives, however, were from marriage alliances with other kingdoms.)

Polygamy is not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, as it would be if it were always a sin, in and of itself.  Instead, it is regulated to prevent abuses.  In Exodus, Moses commands that if a man marries a second wife, “he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.”  In Deuteronomy, he commands that a man must always give the customary double portion of his inheritance to his firstborn son, even if he has more than one wife and favors another wife above the mother of that son.

Lust—treating another person as an object to gratify our sexual desires, whether in thought or deed—is always a sin.  But there can be polygamy without lust, and lust without polygamy, so the two are not intrinsically connected.

Adultery—a single person having sexual relations with a person who’s married to someone else, or a married person having sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse—is always a sin.  But a man who marries more than one woman is not committing adultery, in this sense, when he has sexual relations with any of his wives.

So I think we have to conclude that polygamy is not inherently sinful, in one sense of the idea of sin.  Nevertheless, just because something isn’t sinful in that sense, this doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing we can do.  Jesus called us to live out the fullest and deepest meaning of the law, and not conform simply to its outward requirements.

I think divorce provides a good analogy.  It, too, was not forbidden outright in the law of Moses, but instead similarly regulated to prevent abuses.  A man who divorced his wife was expected to give her a certificate establishing that she was legally free to remarry, so that she would not be left destitute without the support that women had to depend on from men in that cultural context.

The Pharisees asked Jesus whether divorce should be permitted for any reason a husband might give.  He replied that it should not be allowed at all (except under strictly limited circumstances, at least according to Matthew.)  His argument was, “That was not what God originally intended.”  I’ve discussed in a recent post the exceptional circumstances that I believe regrettably but necessarily justify divorce in some cases (the safety of an abused wife and her children, when a chronic abuser shows no signs of changing).  Apart from such circumstances, however, I believe that God’s intentions are for husbands and wives to be committed to their marriages for life, and to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they become happy and thriving.

The same understanding applies to polygamy.  It is “not what God originally intended.”  At the very beginning of the Bible, God institutes marriage between the first man and the first woman and ordains that “the two be united into one.”  As the Bible continues, polygamy enters human history during the inexorable course of its drift away from God after the fall.  Polygamy starts with Lamech, a descendant of Cain.  He takes double wives as part of his overall program of arrogant self-assertion, which also includes his family forging the first weapons of iron and bronze, and his defiant boasting about killing someone who had merely injured him.

I think we should also find it significant that marriage—specifically monogamy—provides a central metaphor for God’s redemptive work throughout the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the nation of ancient Israel is often spoken of as Yahweh’s “wife” (in Hosea, for example: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ . . . I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion”).  In the New Testament, Paul says that marriage is a picture of the relationship between “Christ and the church,” and in Revelation, the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with redeemed humanity, descends from heaven “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

So polygamy, while permitted and regulated in the Bible, and not explicitly forbidden anywhere in it, does not appear to me to express “what God originally intended.”  And in that sense, if we invite or bring another person into a polygamous relationship, we may well be sinning against them in a different sense, by keeping them from the best God has for them.

When Christian missionaries first went to Africa, they required their converts who had multiple wives to divorce all but one of them.  Later on, it was considered wiser to encourage converts to care faithfully for all of their wives instead, as Exodus commands, but not to allow believers in the future to marry more than one person.

I’m not well acquainted with the contemporary situation in Africa and I would not presume to speak to it.  But I do feel that we here in America, by practicing monogamy by consensus, have been expressing “what God originally intended” at least in that regard.  It would not surprise me, however, if our culture began to accept polygamy.  That seems to be the inevitable next step in our progression away from the ideal for marriage presented at the beginning of the Bible.  But I certainly hope, for all the reasons I’ve given here, that American Christian churches, at least Bible-believing ones, will not start performing marriages of men who already have wives to other women.

William Blake, “Lamech and His Two Wives,” 1795 (Tate Britain). In Blake’s image, Lamech seems distressed that he has killed the “young man” who injured him. The Bible portrays Lamech as arrogantly defiant instead.

Biblically, can an abused wife divorce her husband?

Q. I have a friend who feels that the Bible does not give specific instructions on spousal abuse as grounds for divorce or separation, and so a pastor would be going beyond Scripture if they addressed that. I wonder whether Mosaic law includes something applicable, or whether church tradition might provide some guidance. I believe the Bible would permit divorce if the abuser refused to change. Can you please help us? We both want to know. Would any aspects of the marriage covenant be broken in an abusive relationship? How would you address the Scripture, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” in this regard? (I believe that submission does not equal tolerating or accepting abuse.)

I think there’s a biblical teaching that’s applicable to this issue in 1 Corinthians, in Paul’s discussion of marriage. There he says:

“If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

I take “willing to live with her” to mean far more than just agreeing to reside under the same roof. It certainly means being willing to create together a decent, respectful, honorable life. Not necessarily one built entirely on Christian principles, unfortunately, if the husband is not a believer, but at least one that would be recognizable to the wider society as a marriage that fulfilled its essential purpose of creating flourishing in the lives of both spouses and their children.

Spousal abuse, by contrast, is something that “even pagans do not tolerate,” as Paul says about another issue earlier in the letter. It would be a real shame if the Christian church were the only community in the world that encouraged abused wives to stay with their husbands, whether they changed or not, literally at the risk of being killed. I think we can do a lot better than that, and that the Bible indeed shows us the way.

I would argue that an unrepentant serial abuser has effectively “left” his wife, because he is no longer “willing to live with her” in the most basic sense of a decent and honorable marriage. That being the case, since God has “called us to live in peace,” the believing wife is not bound. She may separate or even divorce for her own safety and protection, and that of her children.

When I was a pastor, in such situations where these measures seemed regretfully necessary, I used to counsel the wife to see the separation as a “loyal protest,” a measure for her own safety first of all, but also a dramatization of the urgency and severity of the problem and its need for immediate redress. Happily in some cases, the separation got through to the husband and he recognized his need to get help. Unfortunately, in other cases the husband never responded and a divorce seemed to be the only way the wife could protect herself and her children from physical harm. I would argue that in these situations the divorce was biblically sanctioned. God has truly called us to live in peace. I would argue that this situation is included, even if not specifically envisioned, in the advice Paul originally gave the Corinthians.

We need to be very careful about this, however. A man or woman in a marriage that is not abusive, but which still has plenty of room for growth, shouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not ‘flourishing’ at this point, so I’m going to conclude that my spouse isn’t doing his or her part to make this the kind of marriage God intended. Since they’ve effectively ‘left’ me, I’m going to call the marriage off.” My advice here is intended specifically for cases where a spouse’s health and even life, and those of any children, are in danger. Short of that, I would encourage spouses to recommit to their marriages and trust God to heal them and help them grow to maturity.

A case can be made from Scripture, for example, that a husband or wife may divorce their spouse if there has been unfaithfulness. But this does not mean that they must do so. (We have in the Bible the example of Hosea, whose wife was unfaithful, but who didn’t say “she has effectively ended the marriage” and divorce her.) I’ve seen some amazing recoveries of marriages from this kind of problem and many others. Four out of five unhappy marriages become happy ones within five years if the couples will stay together.

This being the case, I don’t think the argument for separation/divorce for the safety of a wife (and children) in an abusive situation should be made on the basis that the husband has “already broken the covenant relationship” through his abuse, so that the marriage is effectively over anyway. I say this because, as just noted, husbands may do other things that arguably break the relationship, such as being unfaithful, but in these cases there may still be hope for the marriage (thought it is certainly in trouble).

I’d rather pursue the lines I sketched out earlier: the wife has a responsibility before God to protect her own life and certainly that of any children, so she must go to a place of safety, and this should be seen as a “loyal protest” whose goal is to wake the husband up to the seriousness of the situation and the immediate need for change.

Finally, I would argue that the biblical admonition “wives submit to your husbands” is not intended to create a power differential in marriage. It does not give the husband “veto power” over any decisions the couple needs to make together, and it does not require a wife to go along with any situation a husband might create, certainly not an abusive one. Paul quite distinctly tells children to obey their parents and servants to obey their masters, but wives to submit to their husbands, so submission definitely means something different from unprotesting compliance.

I would argue that submission means a wife using all of her powers to help her husband become the man God intends him to be, even if this means challenging his plans and actions as a way of pursuing that overall goal. Tolerating abuse is just the opposite of this, and so I don’t see how it can be considered submission.

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.