Now that Naomi has really experienced her daughter-in-law’s loyalty and been reminded of the kindness and justice among her own people, her bitterness seems to be thawing a little. Ruth has been working in Boaz’ fields, and his extraordinary kindness to her gave rise to Naomi’s matriarchal instincts. The possibility of restored honor and position pulled her right out of her melancholy and into the role of an excited, albeit somewhat manipulative, matchmaker.
Verses 1-3: Naomi Hatches a Plot
In verse 1, Naomi tells Ruth it’s high time she got a new husband, and Boaz is to be the man. Not willing to wait and see if Boaz would slowly come around on his own, Naomi encourages Ruth to be bold. She gives Ruth a very specific set of instructions for approaching Boaz, and these instructions were designed to tell him in very certain and unmistakeable terms that Ruth wanted to marry him. In short, Naomi teaches Ruth how to propose to Boaz in a way that would obligate his duty and honor without publicly humiliating him or absolutely forcing his hand. It’s diplomatic genius, really. We’ll get into it further down.
I sort of grinned during this part of the story. How many scenes like this have we seen play out in movies or novels? Older women with nothing else to do have a stereotypical habit of trying to marry off the young women in their sphere. It’s a potentially ridiculous and comedic scenario, but marriage for a foreign widow (Ruth) living with an elderly widow (Naomi) without money or property or men of their own was no laughing matter. This was not an issue of life or death for our two women, but it was most definitely an issue of family honor, social standing, and deliverance from their hand-to-mouth level of absolute dependence on the charity of others.
A Close Relative, But Not a Brother
The way Naomi saw it, Boaz owed his dead male cousins a marriage and an heir. In her mind, he owed this marriage to Elimelech, to Elimelech’s dead sons, to Ruth, and to Naomi, herself. But despite Naomi’s declaration that Boaz was one of their redeemers, it’s important to keep in mind that Boaz didn’t legally have to redeem Ruth. He could…but he didn’t have to.
Redeemer laws applied only to brothers from the same household, but the practice of redeeming widows of extended family members was clearly in place and considered honorable (an idea that gets reinforced in chapter 4). There were no brothers left who could be legally forced into redeeming Ruth, and no man from the extended family had come to Naomi with an offer. Ruth was a foreigner, after all, and redeeming a Moabite widow had no financial or social upside.
From the text, we see that Naomi didn’t expect a redeemer when they first returned to Judah. She didn’t insist that her two daughters-in-law come to Judah with her to claim a redeemer cousin. No. She told them to go home to their pagan parents and find Moabite husbands. In Chapter 2, she didn’t seek out Boaz personally and demand a redemption marriage for Ruth. I feel pretty safe, therefore, in saying that Naomi didn’t have a redeemer in mind until Boaz went above and beyond in his attention to Ruth. It sparked Naomi’s hope, and she jumped at the possibility. They would have to move quickly, while Boaz was still interested and feeling generous. If he wasn’t going to offer marriage, then Ruth would just have to go down there and make it clear that she was asking to be redeemed, and she would have to do it in a way that engaged Boaz’ sense of honor.
Naomi has Ruth fix herself up in the best clothing she has. We can imagine the scene. Ruth summons for herself the only real power women had in her era: feminine appeal. She bathes, does up her hair to best advantage, fusses with her clothing, and dabs on some perfume. I can imagine Naomi drilling her with instructions and advice throughout the process, buzzing with anxiety to get it all right. Ruth is from Moab, after all, and the rituals and social landmines of Judah were foreign to her.
For a woman to propose marriage to a man in that time and place would be, without question, a very delicate situation. One faux pas or one wrong word, and Ruth could potentially lose not just the chance at marriage with Boaz, but also her honor. Naomi wanted to get Ruth a husband, not have her publicly branded a harlot. The line there was razor thin. Naomi’s guidance wasn’t simple nagging. It was crucial.
As an interesting, aside, I found the addition of perfume in v. 3:3 rather informative. Fragrance oils were an expensive extravagance. In chapter 14 of the Gospel of Mark (the story actually appears in all four Gospels), a woman comes to Jesus and pours expensive nard perfume on Jesus’ head. Several of the men gathered are scandalized by the waste of money–a year’s wage or more–and they rebuke her so harshly that Jesus has to silence them. The point is: perfume was a luxury, and Naomi and Ruth still had some. It may not have been pure nard, but it was a luxury nonetheless. The mention of perfume shows a nuance that is easy to forget in this story, an image of how far these two women have fallen. Boaz, a very rich man, is their near relative. These two women enjoyed a life before their husbands died that included excesses like perfume and owning more than one dress. By all contextual evidence, Naomi and Ruth were a well-to-do pair of ladies before they lost their family’s future. There is something compelling about witnessing these women who have lived in luxury reduced to begging and picking up grain left behind on the ground for survival. It just adds to the picture, don’t you think?
vv 4-9: Ruth Proposes to Boaz
Prepared for womanly conquest, and probably so consumed by nerves that she could hardly breathe, Ruth heads out to spread her fate quite literally on the ground at Boaz’ feet. And this is where things get interesting…and weird. In Scripture study, the weird stuff is always important, so we’re going to examine the weird.
Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth waits until Boaz has a full belly from supper and has had his fill of wine for the evening. He goes to the threshing floor in a good mood to lie down and have a good sleep. Ruth waits until it’s quiet and no one will see her, and she follows him in. She then uncovers his feet and lies down on the floor below his now naked feet.
And then she waits.
Here in a minute, Boaz is going to wake up, and we’ll go over what he says to her and what it all meant, but first, we need to address a rather large elephant in the room.
No, They Didn’t Have Sex on the Threshing Floor
There is a lot of animated discussion and snickering over what it meant for Ruth to “uncover” Boaz’ “feet.” Here’s the thing, y’all: you can spend a lot of time in word studies over this if you want to, and you can turn this into a gossip story about inappropriate sex, but I am not convinced that Ruth got Boaz to marry her through midnight fornication on a pile of barley, and I’ll tell you why:
1.) The Old Testament never shies away from talking about sex plainly. Whether the sex in question was virtuous or sinful, the Bible freely tells us about sex and calls it sex when it happens. Whether it’s Lot getting roofie’d and raped twice by his daughters, Jacob being “Single White Female’d” by Leah, Tamar’s not-really-a-prostitute deception of Judah (which I will mention again in Chapter 4), David’s adultery-and-murder sex with Bathsheba, or the simple and often-repeated line, “He slept with his wife and she became pregnant,” the Bible calls sex, “sex.” It tells us about violent sex, sinful sex, and perfectly average marital sex, and it does it all the time. Sex is happening all over the Bible, and Scripture doesn’t have any qualms about showing it to us. If Ruth went in there to trick a drunk, sleepy man into having sex with her, I’m pretty sure the Bible would have told us that.
2.) Boaz was not shocked, upset, or angry the next morning, and the Bible makes clear that Boaz was a moral and upright man. This was high stakes, you guys. His honor was at stake. The entire family’s honor was at stake. If she’d gone in there to take advantage of him after all of his kindness to her, he wouldn’t have spent the morning praising her virtue and honor. He might have married her anyway, but he wouldn’t be talking about how moral she was.
3.) Threshing floors were open to the public. There’s no roof. There are no doors to speak of. The whole point was directing wind over the grain to remove chaff. This uncovering of his feet took place publicly. It was a risk because Ruth was making a public declaration of intent, but in a world where she could have been instantly and forever labeled a harlot for any inappropriate behavior, do you honestly think these two people had a nice shag out in the open where any of his employees could have seen them? It makes absolutely no sense.
4.) The foot thing has to do with the redeemer law. When asking a man for redemption marriage, the woman uncovered the man’s foot. If he refused to give her the redemption marriage, she could demand his sandal be removed publicly, uncovering his foot in front of the entire tribe. So…let’s get into that for further context and refrain from turning this into some kind of temptress story that sullies Ruth’s character. The Bible doesn’t shy away from calling out loose women, but the Bible calls Ruth a woman of exceptional virtue and loyalty. The Bible doesn’t shy away from showing us men who are weak-willed with immoral sex, but the Bible calls Boaz a kind and honorable man.
Sometimes, a “foot” is just a foot, and when we’re talking about redeemer law and redeemer marriages, feet–actual feet–are heavily involved. From this point onward, the feet of the men in the story take a starring role.
In verse 9, Boaz wakes up, and–my goodness–there is a woman lying at his feet.
“Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she replied. “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer.”
“The Lord bless you, my daughter!” Boaz exclaimed. “You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before.” Ruth 3:9-10, NLT
Boaz is happy with Ruth. She didn’t go after a handsome, young man. She went after an appropriate family member and showed courage and loyalty in the process. In vv.11-13, Boaz explains to Ruth that whereas he is capable and willing to redeem her, there is another male relative who is more closely related and must be consulted before Boaz can marry her. Again, this is all about redeemer laws and the finer points of who inherits what from a dead male relative without heirs. The dead man’s property, land, and name will all go to the first son born to a redeemed wife, and control of that wife, property, land, and son…will go to the man who redeems her.
So Boaz can’t just “take Ruth” without first consulting the man who has a greater legal claim.
Example: Let’s say that a widowed woman dies without leaving a will in our modern society. Who will care for her surviving minor children? Who will inherit her debt, her real estate, her belongings, and her money? We would naturally think that her other children, her siblings, and any grandchildren should be “entitled” to inherit or take something from her estate. It makes sense that her worldly possessions and responsibilities would pass to her immediate family before we would start ringing up cousins, right?
It would be rude for a cousin to come in and snatch up the good jewelry without first asking the daughters. It would be presumptuous and creepy for a distant relative from out of state to move in with custody lawyers and try to take custody of the kids…or the land…or the house without first speaking to the closer relatives.
Well, that’s the kind of thing we’re looking at here in the redemption of Ruth.
Boaz knew there was a male relative in town with a greater claim to the name and property of Ruth’s dead husband/Naomi & Elimelech’s dead son. Before Boaz could claim Ruth, he had to go and find out what that other man’s intentions were.
From the tone of verse 13, it seems clear that Boaz is pleased by the thought of marrying Ruth, but it is also clear that his honor will not allow for Ruth to be compromised…nor would it allow Boaz to take something that isn’t rightfully his. He’s a smart, respected man in Bethlehem, and he does this whole thing gracefully and correctly.
He gives Ruth more grain to take home for Naomi, and he escorts her safely home as fast as possible so that no one will gossip about where she spent the night. With that, he goes off to conduct the business of legally redeeming a wife, and we’ll see the entire process play out in chapter 4.