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.