Friday, November 1, 2013

Ruth: Totally Straight

Welcome back. This is going to be a first: we’ll complete an entire book of the Bible in only a single post. Of course, the book is only four chapters long, but still.

I’m referring, of course, to the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, who had gone to Moab with her husband Elemelech as refugees during a famine in Judah. They had taken their sons with them, both of whom married Moabite women. Over the course of time, Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died, leaving her with her two daughters-in-law.

Word came to Naomi that the famine in Judah had ended, so she resolved to go home. Her daughters-in-law intended to go with her, but she pleaded with them to stay behind and find husbands among their own people since she had no more sons for them to marry and no husband to give her more sons (and at any rate they shouldn’t have to wait for any new sons to be grown before they could marry). One of the women, Orpah, was eventually persuaded, but Ruth adamantly refused to be left behind.

Ruth 1:16 But Ruth said ‘Do not urge me t 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May Yahweh do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.’”

Dude, is it just me, or does that totally sound like a marriage vow? If the authors aren’t trying to convince us that Ruth is head-over-heels in love with Naomi, then they way oversold that scene.

Anyhow, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in Judah, where their arrival creates quite a stir. The people recognize Naomi, but she tells them to call her Mara (which means “bitter”) instead because she says God has dealt bitterly with her.

Now you may recall that part of the law is that landowners are supposed to leave any gleanings dropped in the field so that widows, orphans, and the poor can gather food for themselves from what’s left over. And since the ladies had arrived in Bethlehem around the start of the barley harvest, Ruth went out and started gleaning. One of the fields she came to belonged to Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s dead husband.

Boaz had come out that day to check with the supervisor of his reapers, and he noticed Ruth moving along behind them gleaning from what they dropped. He asked the supervisor who she was, and was told that she was the young Moabite woman who had come back to Bethlehem with Naomi. So he took Ruth aside and told her to continue gleaning in his field, where he would instruct his men to make sure she was safe and to allow her to drink from their water supplies as well. When she asked why he was being so kind to her, he responded that it was because he’d heard how wonderful she’d been to his relative’s widow.

He even did a little better than what he’d said, sharing bread with her at mealtime and instructing his reapers to leave extra food for her to collect.

When Ruth went home with all that food, Naomi asked where she had been gleaning. Ruth told her about Boaz, and Naomi informed her that Boaz was a relative of her husband’s and one of their redeemers (if you recall, some of the statutes in Moses’ law aimed at keeping land inheritances in the same family require that close relatives of someone who has lost or sold their land must be allowed to buy back, or “redeem,” the property – Boaz is therefore a close enough relative that he is allowed to redeem the property of Naomi’s deceased husband). She advises that Ruth would do well to keep by him. So Ruth spends the rest of the harvest season gleaning on Boaz’s fields.

At the end of harvest time, things get a little odd. I mean, the idea seems straightforward enough, but the text goes to such extremes to avoid coming right out and saying it that it gets hard to know for sure exactly what is going on.

Naomi has a conversation with Ruth heavy with implication and short on detail. She seems to be suggesting that she wants Ruth to have a husband so she won’t have to go gleaning in the fields for food all the time, and advising her on how best to arrange to seduce Boaz. She tells Ruth that Boaz will be late at the threshing floor, and she should go down there and spy on him until he’s done eating and goes to lie down for the night.

Ruth 3:4 ‘But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go down and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.’”

Now, I suppose it’s possible that her instructions were meant to be taken literally. It seems a bit more likely to me, however, that it’s some kind of euphemism for a sexual act (“uncover his feet” could easily be interpreted to describe lifting his robe), since it hardly seems productive toward catching a husband to slip up on a sleeping man and remove his shoes.

Anyhow, Ruth agrees to this plan. She goes down to the threshing floor and watches until Boaz has eaten and drunk some wine, and goes off to the end of a heap of grain to lay down and sleep. When he does, she slips up beside him, “uncovers his feet” and lays down with him. Around midnight he wakes up and is surprised to find her next to him (I guess he slept through whatever she was doing, or was only half-awake thinking it a dream, or something). At first he doesn’t know who she is in the dark, but she identifies herself and asks him to “spread his wings (or his garment, depending on translation)” over her as her redeemer.

I think this is supposed to be an expression of desire to marry him. This is part of what’s makes this section hard to understand – I mixes double entendre with legal points from the rather alien (from our modern perspective) Mosaic law. But I did a little digging around, and this is what I think is going on.

Boaz is eligible to redeem the property of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelech. But with that comes the responsibility to continue Elimelech’s household by fathering children who will be considered the offspring of Elimielech’s line. Ruth, as the widow of one of Elimlelech’s sons, is the one that would have to bear those children. So by redeeming Elimelech’s house, Boaz would be getting Ruth into the deal. Boaz is evidently quite flattered by the request.

Ruth 3:10 And he said ‘May you be blessed by Yahweh, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.’”

So here we have the implication that Boaz is a good bit older than Ruth, as he seems to feel that she could easily have gone after a younger man. Also… if the kindness of asking him to be her redeemer is greater than “the first,” what was her first kindness? Whatever she did in “uncovering his feet?” Again, the implication that something more than the literal uncovering of feet is present.

And I should point out that I’m not speculating about this in order to cast aspersions on their behavior. I’m just trying to understand the story. Even if something sexual had just gone on between them, I’m not at all convinced it’s a bad thing. Hell, this midnight seduction may possibly be the most mutually healthy sexual encounter described in the Bible thus far. I’d also argue that even from a Biblical perspective there’s nothing wrong with this since, for all the highly specific proscriptions on who can have sex with who, I don’t recall reading anywhere that an unmarried widow was prohibited from sleeping with an unmarried man.

But to get back to the story, Boaz is amenable to Ruth’s request, but he points out that Elimelech has another relation who is ahead of him in terms of having the right to redeem his property (interestingly, this is the first implication in the Bible that there’s a hierarchy of who can be a redeemer). So he’ll have to check with that guy to make sure he doesn’t want to do so. He then asked her to stay the night there with him.

In the morning Ruth gets up to go before it’s light enough for people to be recognized, and Boaz gives her six measures of barley to take back to Naomi. She heads home, where she tells Naomi how the night went. Naomi is confident that Boaz will be quite eager to seal the deal, and in fact he sets about resolving the matter that very morning.

Boaz waits outside the gate of the city until he sees the other potential redeemer heading into town. He takes that guy aside, and tells him the Naomi is planning to sell Elimelech’s property and he’d like to know if the other guy intends to redeem it. At first, the other fellow says that he will. But then Boaz points out that if he does so, he’d be responsible for propagating Elimilech’s line through Ruth.

Ruth 4:6 Then the redeemer said ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’”

So again, just expressing my understanding of what’s going on here, as I’m not a legal scholar. I believe he’s saying that he doesn’t want to spend any of his own family’s inheritance to purchase property that would be inherited by any kids he has with Ruth (and he’d be obligated to father children), since those children would be legally considered to be of Elimelech’s line and not his own. So he tells Boaz that he’ll step aside and let Boaz act as redeemer.

So Boaz buys Elimelech’s property from Naomi, marries Ruth, and together they have a son named Jesse, who would then be father to David. Naomi stays on as nurse to the baby, end of Book of Ruth, and everyone lives happily ever after.

As confusingly vague and legalistic as the details of this book were, it was certainly a welcome respite from the unremittingly horrible nature of the Book of Judges. I think it’s the first actually pleasant book of the Bible. It’s also the only one so far in which 1) God doesn’t make any personal appearances, and 2) no mass killings occur. I think those two circumstances are related.

Hope you’re enjoying yourself, and that all will be well with you until the next installment when we start tackling the First Book of Samuel. That one’s thirty-one chapters long, so it’ll probably take a few posts to get through.


  1. In the ot, feet are often a euphamism for the penis. They definitely got it on.

    1. Well, I kinda figured that, and it's how I'd interpret the story. But I encountered a lot of objections to that idea in looking up some background, and since it's not explicitly stated in the story it seemed only fair to hold it open as a possibility.

      Though it seems to me that using local cultural euphemisms to convey plot elements is an inherently flawed way to tell a story.