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.