Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?

Q. 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?

Pieter Lastman, "Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi"
Pieter Lastman,
“Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi”

To respond to this second question of yours, you’re right, Ruth’s words to Naomi really do stand out as Hebrew poetry, in parallel couplets.  It’s surprising that Bibles don’t format them this way:

Entreat me not to leave you
or to return from following you;

for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;

where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.

After elegantly concluding her poem by varying the you-I progression with a solemn final statement, Ruth swears an oath that she asks God to enforce:  “May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you!”

I don’t think this language is actually taken from an ancient Israelite marriage ceremony.  (The opposite is true: people have taken Ruth’s words and turned them into marriage vows.)  Rather, it’s characteristic of Hebrew narrative that when someone has something crucial to say, on which the story line turns, they say it in poetry. In the ancient oral culture, this would make the saying memorable and repeatable (kind of like an advertizing slogan today).

For example, when Sheba son of Bikri foments a rebellion against David, he shouts in poetry:

We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!

To give another example, David’s promise to Bathsheba about who will succeed him is also spoken in poetry, and it’s quoted several times at crucial points in the succession narrative:

Solomon your son shall reign after me,
he shall sit upon my throne in my stead.

Samuel speaks similarly in poetry when he announces God’s rejection of Saul as king and when he pronounces judgment on Agag.  The Israelites proclaim their refusal of Rehoboam as their king in poetry as well.

Examples like these show that poetry was used for important pronouncements in Hebrew narrative, probably reflecting the actual customs of the culture.  And we have to admit that among her many other qualities as a “woman of noble character,” Ruth was a fine poet.

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.

Do not “quench the Spirit” or “put out the Spirit’s fire”?

In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters (session 2), you ask us which of the instructions at the end of 1 Thessalonians we’d most like to see put into practice in our community of Jesus’ followers.  Our small group has a couple of questions about one of those instructions.  It’s the one that the TNIV translates “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire,” but which other versions such as the ESV translate “Do not quench the Spirit.”  

First of all, which is it, the Spirit or the Spirit’s fire?  Why the difference in translation?  

And then, if it is fire, how are we to understand what that means within the context of the letter?  There are numerous references throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s presence/Spirit coming in the form of fire, so it’s easy for a reader to project this kind of imagery here.  I suppose this is a specific case of a more general question: To what extent is it appropriate/accurate/permissible to project extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context?  It seems to me that the answer cannot be “never” nor “always,” which means that it’s somewhere in between.

In this instruction Paul uses the Greek verb sbennúo, which means “to put out a fire.” (This root is found in our word asbestos, which originally referred to a substance, quicklime, that couldn’t be put out when it was on fire; pouring water on it only made it flame higher. Ironically, the word was then erroneously applied to a substance that couldn’t catch on fire, and the name, even though opposite in meaning, stuck!)


In Paul’s sentence the Spirit is the simple object of this verb; the word “fire” as an attribute or possession of the Spirit does not appear.  So “do not quench the Spirit” is the more literal translation.  The reading “do not put out the Spirit’s fire” appears in the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV as well as in the TNIV, but in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the reading is now “do not quench the Spirit.” So leading translations are converging in their understanding of what the object in the sentence should be.

I’m not sure they’ve gotten the verb translated right yet, however.  Sbennúo can be used in a more literal sense of putting out a fire (e.g. as in Ephesians, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”), but it can also be used in a more figurative sense, to describe doing to something what you would do to a fire to put it out.  And so I think an even better translation of Paul’s instruction would be, “Do not stifle the Spirit,” particularly since the very next phrase (not necessarily a separate sentence) is, “do not treat prophecies with contempt.”  In other words, if the Spirit wants to speak to you in your gatherings, let the Spirit speak, and listen.  So the notion of fire, certainly associated with God’s Spirit in many places in the Bible, is not necessarily present here.

This means that this instruction may be an even better example than you perhaps realized of readers projecting extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context!  I agree with you that we must expect readers to do this kind of thing sometimes, because words are full of meaning and they are bound to have associations for readers beyond what those who first used them intended.  I’d say that we need to recognize that reading is a creative act, but that at the same time, like any creative act, it should be constrained by considerations that keep it from becoming so wild that it’s meaningless.  I’d argue that these considerations include the author’s overall perspectives and social and historical context.  These must exert some control over the meanings we bring in to an author’s words.

So while Paul probably meant “do not stifle the Spirit,” he was using a word figuratively that means more literally “put out a fire,” and in that word the rich biblical associations of the Spirit-as-fire can be heard echoing. This is particularly true since Paul was writing self-consciously within the biblical literary tradition, as evidenced by his frequent quotations from and allusions to the earlier Scriptures. So when we read the instruction not to “quench” the Spirit, I think we do have the freedom to think about what this means in light of the broader biblical imagery of the Spirit-as-fire, so long as we don’t miss Paul’s main point about allowing the Spirit to speak through individual members to gatherings of Jesus’ followers.