This chapter poses a couple of difficulties from the outset for a Bible Study. First, it seems fairly straightforward and possibly even mundane on one level. It is a story of a marriage proposition, and a short one at that. Secondly, it is loaded with sexual tension, and intentionally so. So what are we to make of this plan concocted by Naomi and enacted by Ruth?
I want to address the second issue first so we will be able to give ample attention to the first. Naomi’s plan is an infamous one. Chapter three opens with Naomi deciding that it is time for Ruth to settle down with the man who will not only be able to provide Ruth with a stable home, but will also possibly provide Naomi with a renewed family hope. The implications of a marriage between Boaz and Ruth are not lost on Naomi. In the midst of explaining her plan to Ruth she calls Boaz, “a kinsman of ours” (vs. 2). Recall that the point of the Levarite marriage was to continue a particular family unit, not just the broader family name. When the brother dies and the brother-in-law and the widow give birth to a firstborn, that firstborn belongs to the deceased brother and not the brother-in-law. Naomi is on the verge of having her family restored to her.
So in order to accomplish this goal of a marriage between Ruth and Boaz Naomi suggests a plan of action that contains a few distinct components. First, Ruth should go and find Boaz at the threshing floor. Second, she should remain hidden until she can deal with Boaz one-on-one. Third, she is to uncover his feet while he sleeps in order to gain his attention and make the proposal. There is no getting around the fact that this plan has plenty of sexual innuendo built into it. First, when women and threshing floors are put together, the Old Testament sees that as a common situation for prostitution (e.g. Hosea 9:1). Secondly, the phrase “uncover his feet” is very similar to other euphemisms in the OT which pretty clearly intend to convey genitalia and sexuality. So, did Ruth and Boaz have a sexual encounter that night (and, more to the point, was it intentional)?
I want to make a couple of points about this aspect of the story. Recall that the book of Ruth is best described as a “short story,” and is a well-crafted one at that. I believe the physical tension built into this chapter serves the story by furthering the romance and relationship between Ruth and Boaz. There is more than just a marriage of family honor at stake here. There is real physical and personal chemistry involved. We are to believe that their relationship is the complete package of family ties, legal and cultural code, and intimate love.
As for the direct question itself, I think the text clears up the tension a little later on when Boaz responds to Ruth’s proposal. In verse 11 Boaz refers to her as a woman of “noble character.” Despite the cultural differences between the modern reader and ancient Israel, fornication would have been an ignoble thing in Boaz’s eyes. I am not so sure Boaz would have referred to her as noble if she had played the prostitute that night. Secondly, when he encourages her to stay the night, the text could have used any other phrase laced with sexual overtones, but it uses a rather mundane phrase for “lodge here” for the night. And finally, Boaz encourages Ruth to leave the threshing floor before anyone else wakes up and realizes there is a woman there, thus protecting her noble character from the allegation of prostitution.
After the study, a member of the group brought up an interesting point. It might be possible that Naomi was still thinking more like a Moabite than an upstanding Israelite when she concocted the plan for Ruth. In essence, it is possible that Naomi’s intent was sexual in nature, but Ruth’s execution of the plan was not.
As for the story in chapter three itself I would like to briefly discuss Naomi and Boaz in relation to their prayers for Ruth in chapters one and two, and them Naomi herself and her metamorphosis since the end of chapter one.
When Naomi tells Ruth it is time for her to “try to find a home for [Ruth],” it conjures up images of her prayer for Orpah and Ruth in chapter one. There, on their way back to Bethlehem, Naomi releases them with the prayer, “May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband” (vs. 9). The phrases, “find a home” and “find rest” are similar to each other, and the second is intended to make us recall the first. In Ruth’s request to Boaz we read these words, “spread your garment over me” (vs. 9). Here, Ruth has turned Boaz’s prayer in 2:12, “May the LORD repay you…under whose wings you have come to take refuge."
In both cases, we find that God has begun to use the people who prayed over Ruth as instruments toward the fulfillment of those prayers. In a sense, Naomi and Boaz have become the answers to their own prayers. I think from time to time when we pray for things or for people, we inadvertently imagine that God will accomplish our prayer behind the scenes in some kind of mystical and quiet sort of way. As we see with Naomi and Boaz, though, God will often use us to help bring about the answers to our prayers. Be alert as you pray-God may be at work in you to do what is in your hand to do!
And finally, I want to turn our attention to Naomi one more time. At the end of chapter one, we saw an embittered woman who considered God her enemy. Chapter two opens with her conspicuous silence. She was in a position to help Ruth, but she does not. Then as chapter two closes, we see a glimmer of hope in Naomi. And then with the opening of chapter three, we see a fully-engaged Naomi who sees potential for her family and for Ruth as a result of Boaz’s kindness. She is now ready and willing to get involved with the rest of the world, and ultimately, with God’s plan for her and Ruth. Ruth and Boaz’s kindness and godliness have given Naomi hope, and hope has changed her.
Hope is a Christian virtue we do not talk about often. We discuss faith and love, but we do not tend to ponder hope. Christians are often chided for having a kind of “pie-in-the-sky” view of life because of our need to be hopeful. It is assumed that to hope is to believe that everything will come up roses, or that we will always get the raise, or things will always go our way. I think it is interesting to note that the one book outside of Psalms which deals the most with the idea of hope is Job. In that book, Job and his interlocutors pray for hope, cling to hope, deride hope, and reflect on hope. Although Job’s life is restored to him, it is during the trial that he tries to come to terms with his hope in God.
What is hope from a biblical point of view? I think one way of seeing it is that hope is the deep and abiding hope that God’s plan is always right and good. (Keep in mind how I am not using “good.” “Good” in this context does not mean anything like “easy,” “comfortable,” etc.) It is deep and abiding because it touches every aspect of our lives and is stronger than any trial we endure. For further reflections on hope, I want to refer you to another blog of mine.
To bring this brief reflection on hope back to the book of Ruth, I want to reference Psalm 119:74, “May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word.” People can be changed because of the hope they see in us, as individuals and as a community of believers. Have you lost hope? God, in His unceasing grace and love will work to restore it. Are you a touchstone for other’s hope? Are they able to see you and rejoice because you have put your hope in God’s word?