Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?

Q.  In the Bible, sex before marriage is considered immoral. It’s called the sin of “fornication.”  But the Bible gives no explanation (that I have seen) of why it’s wrong to have sex before marriage. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul calls those who do this “sexually immoral.”  But why, why is it wrong? How could having sex, something that all married couples do regularly, be unclean and immoral before two people are married?

This is an excellent question, because we don’t usually consider the morality of an action to depend on its setting or context.  If something is a good thing to do, such as telling the truth, it should be good for everyone, everywhere to do it.  And if something is wrong, such as striking another person in anger and causing them bodily harm, then it should be wrong for everyone, in every context.  Husbands and wives certainly don’t get an exemption that permits them to engage in domestic violence.

So why does the Bible allow and encourage sex within marriage but say it’s wrong outside of marriage?  Why shouldn’t two people who love each other be able to express it in this way even if they aren’t married?

The Bible actually does give the reason why, in places like the book of Hebrews, where it says, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”  But in order to recognize the reason that’s being given here, we need to understand what the Bible means when it uses specific terminology like this.

In the first part of the Bible, in the law of Moses, things are generally considered “common” and “clean.”  But if something is set apart for a special purpose, it becomes “holy” rather than “common.”  And if a person or thing becomes exposed and vulnerable through some breach in its creaturely integrity, that person or thing becomes “unclean.”

“Unclean” doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.”  It means that special care and protection is needed, usually involving temporary separation from the community until the breach is repaired.  In the law of Moses things like a skin disease, which breached the integrity of the body’s outer layer, created this kind of ceremonial “uncleanness.”  The example I like to use from modern life is a person who has lost their hair because of chemotherapy treatments.  We usually allow and encourage such a person to stay home or wear a wig until their hair has grown back.  We protect their dignity and preserve a proper sense of who they are by not making them engage others when most of their hair has visibly fallen out.  (Alternatively, I’ve heard of friends and family shaving off their own hair as a gesture of solidarity and identification, so that the person will know that they are loved and unconditionally accepted.  The family and friends are saying, “We know the real you and that’s not affected by superficial considerations.”)

There are two other important biblical terms for us to appreciate.  To treat something holy as if it were common is to “profane” that holy thing.  Jesus spoke of the way the priests “profaned” the sabbath (that is, they treated it as if it were an ordinary working day) because their shifts were scheduled on every day of the week.  (In this case, maintaining continual worship took precedence over sabbath observance for priests whose shifts fell on that day; no individual priests worked seven days a week.)

And to treat something holy as if it were unclean is to “defile” that holy thing.  This is a more serious matter, because in the Bible anything that is made holy—set apart for a special divine purpose—has to be uncompromised in its creaturely integrity.

And this is what the Bible is saying in the book of Hebrews about keeping sex within marriage so that it will be undefiled.  It’s saying that God has made sex “holy,” that is, God has set sex apart for a special reason, and to that end God has limited sex to within marriage.

So what is that reason, and why the limitation?

Is it so that a desire for the pleasure of sex will serve as an incentive for people to commit to marriage?  Well, the pleasure certainly isn’t a disincentive, but pleasure is not the ultimate purpose of sex, and so that’s not the reason why it’s limited to marriage.

Is it so that children who are conceived through sex will be raised in a stable home?  This is another additional benefit of God’s plan, since marriage is meant to provide a stable, loving environment for children, but since procreation is not the ultimate purpose of sex, this is not the real reason, either.

The ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy.  The Bible explains this at its very beginning, in the book of Genesis, when it says that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  It’s sometimes hard for us to appreciate today how revolutionary this statement was in its day.  In ancient cultures (as in some modern ones) blood relations were supreme.  Primary loyalty was owed to one’s family and clan of origin. When a man married, his wife was simply added to the clan as a junior member, and both had to be careful to obey his parents and the other senior members of the clan.

But God’s plan was that husband and wife would create a whole new family of their own, with their primary loyalty being to one another.  They would be “one flesh”—they would belong to one another more than they belonged to their blood relatives.  And this would be established, affirmed, and celebrated through the act of sex, in which the two, for a time, would literally join their bodies together.  The Bible is describing this ideal situation of intimacy when it says that the first couple “were both naked, and they felt no shame.”

So sex was something that already existed (in the animal kingdom, for example), but among humans God made it holy, that is, God set it apart for a special purpose, as the joyful and triumphant expression of the new oneness between husband and wife.

So how does having sex outside of marriage make this holy thing “unclean,” that is, something that makes a person exposed and vulnerable?  Since the ultimate purpose of sex is intimacy, when you make love with someone, you don’t just reveal your body to them.  You inevitably expose your soul—your hopes, dreams, fears, your deepest and most powerful thoughts and emotions.  And God wants this kind of exposure to happen within the protection of an unconditionally committed lifelong relationship, because only within the safety and security of such a relationship can two people help each other explore and work out all the powerful, complicated, and potentially beautiful things they have inside.

In other words, sex for people is actually something that is intrinsically holy.  In other cases God chose things that could just as easily be common to serve holy purposes, and in those cases there could be exceptions to their exclusive use for holy purposes.  Jesus cited the example of David and his men eating the bread that was reserved for the priests to justify his work of healing on the Sabbath.  Bread is just bread, and Saturday is just Saturday, until God chooses to set them apart for other purposes, and sometimes even higher considerations can intervene.

But sex is never just sex.  It always involves the exposure of heart, soul, and body to another person, and God means for that to happen in a context of safety, security, and lifetime commitment—within marriage.  That’s why Paul says in another of his letters, 1 Thessalonians, that if we have sex with another person not in this “holy and honorable” way, but in the “passion of lust,” we sin against and defraud that other person.  In other words, we take something from them that we’re not entitled to:  we take their intimate self-disclosure without providing the security and protection they deserve and require.

These are the reasons that the Bible gives for why sex is to be reserved for marriage.  Now I realize that someone who doesn’t believe in God or in the teachings of the Bible, at least to the extent of believing that God considers some things common and has set other things apart as holy, may not agree with these reasons.  They may feel, in fact, that there are times when sex is just sex and they may believe that there’s nothing wrong with that.  I can’t convince someone otherwise if they don’t share this biblical view of God’s creative purposes.  But for those who do share it, I hope that I have been able to explain here why the Bible teaches what it does about God setting aside sex for a special purpose within marriage.

Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?

Q.  I’m about to be married and I want to follow the Bible’s instructions for wives, including submitting to my husband.  I’ve heard this means that if we can’t agree, I need to let him have his way.  Is that right?

Actually, as I understand the implications of the Bible’s full counsel to husbands and wives, the concept of submission does not apply primarily to decision-making, and it does not mean that the wife must always defer to the husband.

Here’s why I say that.  In the Genesis creation account, God makes one thing after another and declares each one “good.”  At the end, God declares the whole creation “very good.”  But then God finds something that is “not good”:  the man is alone, without the kind of “helper” he needs.  The Hebrew word often translated as “helper” in English Bibles actually refers to a strong ally who comes to someone’s side in times of crisis or need.  It most often refers to God, as in the psalm that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

So if it had really been all right for a man to do whatever he wanted, no matter what his wife thought, there would have been no reason for God to create woman in the first place.  But it is “not good” for a man to be “alone” in this sense.

Other Scriptures support this understanding.  For example, when Paul wanted Philemon to make the important decision about whether to grant freedom to his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote not just to Philemon, but also to his wife Apphia.  Paul wanted Apphia to help influence Philemon to do the right thing, as a full participant in the decision.

What, then, does submission mean?  Here’s how I explain it in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, as I’m discussing Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Colossians:

* * * * *

Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians, just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other; rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation described in 1 Timothy illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare.

In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task.

* * * * *

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I wish you every happiness in your marriage!

How can a man “commit adultery in his heart” with a woman if they’re both single?

Q. Jesus said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  But what if neither one is married?  How could that be adultery?  And I don’t think many married couples would be together if there weren’t some lust involved.

The saying of Jesus that you’re asking about comes from the part of the Sermon on the Mount where he’s showing that legalistic interpretations of the law of Moses are contrary to its true spirit and intentions.  The Pharisees taught that so long as you didn’t literally break a commandment, you were still law-abiding if you did anything just short of it.  For example, you could lose your temper and beat somebody up terribly, but so long as you didn’t kill them, you wouldn’t have broken the commandment that says, “You shall not murder.”

Jesus teaches, by contrast, that the desire, intention, and attempt to commit an action are all of one piece with the action itself.  The commandment against murder is actually meant to warn us away from hatred, bitterness, and assault, not just actual murder.  Jesus taught an inward righteousness whose goal was to be “perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect,” in thought, word, and deed.

The first two examples that Jesus chooses to illustrate this teaching come from the Ten Commandments:  “You shall not murder” and “you shall not commit adultery.”  The Ten Commandments themselves were not meant to be interpreted legalistically.  That is, their meaning was not supposed to be limited to a strict literal reading, as if they were forbidding only the specific named practices.  Rather, they were all provided as examples of the kinds of things that God does and doesn’t want us to do.  We are supposed to determine from them, by inference and analogy, many other kinds of things that we should and shouldn’t do.

This principle is illustrated right within the Ten Commandments themselves, when the last one says not to covet your neighbor’s wife, or his house or land, or any of his servants, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  In other words, specific examples are given to illustrate a principle that is meant to be applied generally.  As I write in my Deuteronomy-Hebrews study guide, “The Ten Commandments are a brief but powerful moral code because they teach general principles through specific rules that can be applied to a wide range of contexts. The literal application of these rules is narrow, but they all provoke reflection on their underlying principles, and these can speak to a broad variety of situations.”

The commandment against adultery, therefore, is not meant to show  just  that a person who is married shouldn’t have sexual relations with someone else they’re not married to.  Rather, it shows more generally that sexual relations should take place only between a husband and wife within marriage.  This general application would also rule out sexual activity between two people who aren’t married.  And Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount shows that there should also not be the desire, intention, or attempt on their part to have sexual relations—even through that long, lingering look.  This teaching also shows that any use of pornography is not in keeping with God’s intentions.

But how, then, would anyone get married “if there weren’t some lust involved”?  I think it’s important to distinguish between sexual attraction and lust. I believe that people can experience a pure sexual attraction for another person that is actually expressing a deep admiration for everything about them—their body, yes, but also their character, personality, passions, abilities, and even the depth of their Christian commitment.  Feeling this kind of attraction can be a sign that perhaps you should think and pray carefully about marrying this person.

Lust, on the other hand, is a shallow, self-indulgent desire.  It wants simply to consume something of another person based on their most superficial characteristics.  Someone who’s attracted to you in that way isn’t paying you much of a compliment (they hardly know you) and it’s not time to think about marrying them.

Put simply, without that sexual spark in a marriage, it’s going to be a long 50 years.  But that spark is supposed to be ignited when everything about one person finds companionship, challenge, help, and mystery in everything about another person.  If it’s simply a mating instinct, there’s a whole lot more both people could discover about themselves, each other, and God’s purposes for their lives by waiting before mating.

Did Boaz already have another wife when he married Ruth?

Q. I see that you are posting about Ruth on your blog.  I have two questions for your, a little more in depth.  Here goes:

1) Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

2) I have also heard the theory that Boaz was already married when this story happened, and that he probably took Ruth as a second wife (or perhaps more).  I think this view is based on the fact that Boaz seems to be a wealthy and presumably middle-aged man.  What are your thoughts about this?

That’s all.  I am enjoying your blog!

Thanks for your kind words and for following up on my recent posts with these questions.  Let me begin with the one about Boaz.

While it’s possible that Boaz did have another wife (in this culture, this wouldn’t have kept him from marrying Ruth), it doesn’t say anywhere in the book that he did, so we shouldn’t assume this.  What we do know about Boaz, as we’re told when we first meet him, is that he’s a “man of standing,” prosperous and influential.  As I explain in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide:

“To get enough money to live on, Naomi is selling the portion of the fields around Bethlehem that belonged to her late husband Elimelek. The hope is that, as the law intends, a goel (family guardian) will ‘redeem’ this property, buying it from Naomi, but also on her behalf, so that she has both the money from the sale and the field’s produce year by year. The other family guardian is initially willing to make this sacrifice. But when he learns he must also marry Ruth and give her children in her late husband’s name, he backs out, explaining, ‘I might endanger my own estate.’ (He can’t afford to part with the money for the property and then divide his remaining worth among his current children and those Ruth will have in the future.) But Boaz is a ‘man of standing’ who’s in an adequate position to help out financially in this way.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, "Ruth in Boaz's Field," 1828
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” 1828

This explains why Boaz is the right husband for Ruth.  If he did have another wife, which is possible (although again, not mentioned in the book, so we should not assume it), this would raise the further question of polygamy.  We need to appreciate that in this culture, women were dependent on male relatives for provision and protection. So the commandment in the law of Moses for a close relative to marry a widow, even if he was already married himself, was a compassionate provision for her needs and those of her current and future children and dependents.  (Naomi, an older widow herself, is one of Ruth’s dependents, and so Ruth’s proposal to Boaz, as I noted in this post, is also an act of compassion to her.) 

I’ll answer your question about Ruth’s poetic promise to Naomi in my next post.

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

Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 2)

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?

In my first post in response to this question, I answered the claim most commonly advanced in support of this interpretation.  I showed that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is not a euphemism for sexual activity.  Rather, this action, which occurred literally, was a prelude to her request to Boaz, “Spread the corner of your garment over me,” a symbolic action promising that he would care for her as her husband.

Let me now address another claim that is made in favor of a sexual interpretation of this episode. Boaz speaks of a “kindness” that Ruth has done by showing attention to him rather than “running after the younger men.”  It is sometimes argued that he is referring to a sexual favor that Ruth has just granted.  However, to know what Boaz really means by this, we need to consider his entire statement.

Boaz says, “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier.”  Since he clearly expects Ruth to know what he means, he must be referring to something that the two of them have talked about before.  And since readers are expected to understand as well, this conversation must have been recorded in the book. They have only had limited dialogue to this point, so the reference is not hard to identify.  When they first meet, Boaz explains why he is showing her such favor.  He says, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”

"Landscape with Ruth and Boaz" (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823
“Landscape with Ruth and Boaz” (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823

In other words, when Ruth and Boaz meet again on the threshing floor, he’s not speaking at all about a “kindness” that she has just done for him, sexual or otherwise.  Rather, he’s speaking about second and greater kindness that Ruth is now doing for Naomi.  By being willing to marry an older, well-established man, she is ensuring that Naomi will be provided for into the future.  But this also means that as young widow, Ruth is sacrificing the opportunity for a new love match with a man closer to her own age.  This, Boaz recognizes, is a “greater kindness,” an even more significant personal sacrifice than the one she’s already made by leaving her homeland.

So Ruth is not using sex to catch a new husband. Far from it. If anything, she’s making other values and commitments a priority as she approaches a new marriage.

In my next post I’ll consider some further claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode in the book of Ruth.

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.