One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”
“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered.
Naomi! Really? What are you thinking?
How could you put Ruth in this position after she has been so loyal to you? For that matter, how can you put Boaz in this position? Seriously??
Well, that’s my knee-jerk reaction anyway…
Over the years, there have been commentators who have suggested that Naomi was interested in trapping Boaz into marriage, but to be quite fair, there is no evidence in the text to support that. Others suggest that this is how the Law says a claim should be made by a dead brother’s wife to a kinsman-redeemer and they cite Deuteronomy 25:7-9, but that isn’t quite what it says there, for the Law was quite a bit more conventional. However, we can infer from the Deuteronomy passage that a claim was to be made by the widow… but Ruth was not the wife of Boaz’ brother, he was a relation, and as we will see soon, Boaz was not the closest relation.
It might be that the custom of the time was that a claim be made in this way, with a widow throwing herself at the kinsman’s feet, but if that were so then the evidence of this would seem to be lost. Yes, there is some theological significance to this act of humble submission, but neither Naomi nor Ruth could have known it at the time, and we will discuss the theological significance of this story in due course, but they certainly do not involve any literal reenactments of this scene.
To be sure, I do not know what Naomi was thinking. We can all have our theories, but as always in cases like this, my best advice to you, dear reader, is to beware of a preacher, teacher or commentator who claims to know for certain.
In any case, it is valuable to note Ruth’s reaction to this unusual motherly advice. Bearing in mind that Ruth was not likely to have been fully acquainted with Jewish Law or custom, all of her actions up to this point would seem to indicate that she was neither immoral nor stupid, yet she submitted herself willingly and with the utmost humility; she was willing to trust both Naomi and Boaz.
The question we are left with is this: How will Boaz react? Will he succumb to temptation and take advantage of the situation, will he be angry, or will he be honorable?
Naomi gave Ruth some unconventional advice, now Ruth takes her advice and acts upon it. After the harvest is complete, it is winnowing time, and after the winnowing is complete, a dinner is held. During all of this, Ruth stays out of sight, but when all is said and done, and Boaz retires for the night, Ruth creeps up on him, uncovers his feet and lies down at his feet (vv. 6-8). At some point during the night, Boaz awakens and says, “Who are you?”
Before we go further in the story, please note that Ruth is “at his feet.” It seems to me that when two people sleep together, they are side-by-side, aren’t they? Yet in this case, she is “at his feet.” It would appear to me that Ruth has not placed herself in the position of a seductress, but instead has positioned herself in a posture of subservience to Boaz, being “at his feet.” It is as though she is placing herself at his mercy, not so much at his pleasure. Of course, he can still take advantage of the situation and then send her packing, should he choose to do so. Now, notice her reply to his question:
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” (3:9)
In these words, she makes her claim for his redemption as a kinsman-redeemer. It is made with complete humility and meekness, with submission and perfect trust. When she says “spread the corner of your garment over me” she is not saying something like, “take me I’m yours,” she is asking for his redemptive protection; quite a difference. Yet, even now, she is entirely at his pleasure, trusting in his integrity.
In verses 10-14, Boaz responds by saying that she has shown him a kindness!
At this point, we know that Boaz is older than Ruth, but we don’t know how much older. We can surmise that Ruth is probably in her late teens at the most, and we know that the life expectancy was probably 30-35. If this sounds way too young to you, please bear in mind that in the US and many other countries, the age of consent to be married was 10 (not a typo) until the late 19th century, when it rose to 14! My point is that we shouldn’t think Boaz considered this a kindness because he was getting a 22-year-old wife when he was 72!
She hadn’t been chasing “younger men,” (children from our perspective) instead she had come to him; a kinsman-redeemer and given him an opportunity to do his duty to the family. Let’s also recognize that a kinsman-redeemer who takes on Ruth also takes on responsibility for Naomi who is past her productive working life, and thus no economic bargain.
There is also a complication, for Boaz is not first in line to redeem Ruth, so this must be worked out as well, and Boaz assures Ruth that he will sort things out for her. He allows her to remain unmolested through the night, and sends her home early the next day with a gift for Naomi, who is beyond delighted with the result of the evening’s work.
Before I end for now, there is one other element that we should consider in all of this: I have referred to the redemption being offered here as being that of Ruth, the young widow, but in truth it is much more than that. The real redemption from the Hebrew point of view is the redemption of Ruth’s dead husband. Mahlon and Kilion died childless, and in the Old Covenant, there is no promise of eternal life as there is in the New. People lived forever through their children, and to die childless was a great tragedy, for that was the end. When a brother or kinsman-redeemer married the widow and offspring resulted, the deceased man was “redeemed” because he was able to live on in those children. To give this life to the dead was the duty that Boaz considered to be such a kindness. But that isn’t all: since both of the sons of Elimelech had died childless, he was done for, and likely so was his father and his father’s father… All were, in this sense, to be redeemed by Boaz.