Machinations: Naomi Schemes While Boaz Dreams (Ruth 3)

Naomi’s Plan (3.1-5)

The structure of chapter 3 is virtually identical to chapter 2. There is a scene between Naomi and Ruth (presumably in their home – 2.2-3; 3.1-5) followed by a scene involving Ruth and Boaz (which takes up the majority of the chapter – 2.4-16; 3.6-15) and ending with a report by Ruth to Naomi concerning how things went for Ruth (2.17-23; 3.16-18). The barley and wheat harvests have passed without Boaz doing anything to move his relationship with Ruth beyond work-place associates. Naomi is concerned with the well-being of Ruth so she presents a plan for her daughter-in-law.

She once more identifies Boaz as their “relative,” though she uses a different than 2.20.[1] She is aware of his daily schedule and knows he will be at the threshing floor winnowing the barley from the harvest. So Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, put on aromatic oils, and put on an outer garment designed for sleeping during cold weather and not her “best clothes” as the NIV translates it. In fact, it seems more likely that Naomi is calling on Ruth to end her time of mourning and prepare for a new phase in life (cf. 2 Sam 12.20 and see Block 1999, 683). She then was to wait in the shadows until Boaz ate, drank, and lay down to sleep.

Noting the place where he lay, Ruth then was to go over and “uncover his feet.” This phrase has been much debated as to its exact meaning. “Nuances in language and style yield a wealth of meanings.”[2] One difficulty is that “feet” could be translated as “feet” or it could be understood as the whole lower part of the body – hips to feet.[3] The latter definition coupled with “uncover” or remove can leave the reader with a titillating narrative. Would Naomi tell Ruth to engage in, at best, such sensual behavior? Given that Boaz is a “worthy” man and, as we will soon find out, Ruth is a “worthy” woman, and given that Ruth is presented in sharp contrast and distinction from her ethnic group (the Moabites, who themselves were the offspring of Lot through the immoral actions of his daughters [see Gen 19.30ff]), it seems very unlikely that Ruth would engage in any kind of sexual escapades with her kinsman-redeemer.

Since this is the case many commentators take a more conservative approach to the meaning of “uncover his feet.” Some take it to mean that Ruth would uncover Boaz’s feet so that in the cool of the night he would be roused from slumber. Others note that slaves and even women were welcome in that culture to take the excess fabric of the master’s garment for their own covering as they lay at the foot of the bed. In such an arrangement, in the night, Boaz’s feet would hit an object in a space usually empty. Still another view sees Ruth’s actions as a quasi-marriage proposal.

One view which no one suggests is that Naomi is actually giving Boaz a subtle, gentle ultimatum. The penalty for not carrying through the levirate law was the man’s family becomes the family of uncovered feet. It may be that this is Naomi through Ruth by way of a vivid midnight object lesson telling Boaz he is missing his sandals. He can rectify the situation with Ruth. Whatever the precise meaning, Ruth understood the command and did what she was instructed to do.

Ruth Implements the Plan (3.6-9)

The plan worked just as Naomi described it. Boaz worked and ate and drank himself into exhaustion. He went and fell asleep in a random location at the pile of grain. Ruth, who has been watching from the shadows, makes her move. She creeps quietly over to him, uncovers his feet, and lay down. At midnight to his surprise, Boaz finds a woman sleeping at his feet. Keeping in mind that this is the period of the judges when spirituality was lacking among many in Israel the reader might expect Boaz to take advantage of a night visit from a woman. However, Boaz is of such character that he does not take advantage of Ruth. In fact, there is a targumic reading which likens Boaz to Joseph when he resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife.

Although Naomi told Ruth that it would be Boaz who tells her what to do (3.5), it is Ruth in a bold move who tells Boaz what she needs. For Boaz to “spread [his] wings” over Ruth means more than just to be responsible for Ruth’s welfare; it was Ruth asking for Boaz to marry her. This idiom is well attested in other Old Testament texts (Deut 23.1; Eze 16.8). As Yahweh had spread his wings over his bride Israel (cf. 2.12), so Ruth is seeking Boaz to do his duty as kinsman-redeemer and marry her. In a masterful stroke, Ruth has not only answered Boaz’s question of “Who are you?” (“I am Ruth, your servant”), she has also answered the unspoken question of “Who is Boaz?” (“You are a redeemer”).

Ruth’s speech is short yet compelling. Block summarizes just how stunning Ruth’s statement is: “Here is a servant demanding that the boss marry her, a Moabite making the demand of an Israelite, a woman making the demand of a man, a poor person making the demand of a rich man.”[4] This plan should have been doomed from the start, and yet it works.

Boaz’s Reply (3.10-15)

Boaz’s reply to Ruth’s proposition is noble. He invokes a blessing from Yahweh upon her (10a). The language is virtually identical to that which Naomi used to bless him (2.20). While one might expect a rebuke or even a curse, Boaz blesses. Also, he commends her conduct (10b). He calls this her “kindness” or “loyalty” (NRSV).[5] No doubt Boaz has in mind Ruth’s choosing solidarity with Naomi which he commended her for earlier in the season (2.11). Next, he assuages her fears (11a). Perhaps Ruth was afraid that her actions might cause Boaz to curse her or denounce her as an immoral woman. Boaz stills Ruth’s heart with the phrase “do not fear.” Further, he promises her that he will do what she has asked him (11b). Earlier in the evening, Naomi told Ruth to do whatever Boaz tells her to do (4). In a surprising twist it is now Boaz agreeing to do for Ruth all that she has asked. In addition, he gently informs her of a potential complication (12). It is true that Boaz is a kinsman-redeemer and he states as much. At the same time as a “worthy man” (2.1) Boaz must inform this worthy woman that there is a kinsman-redeemer who is a closer relative than he is.  Finally, he reassures her that redemption is coming in the morning (13). Either the closer kinsman-redeemer or Boaz will redeem Ruth. While Boaz is willing to perform the duty of kinsman-redeemer, his integrity requires him to defer first to the closer kinsman. He even uses typical oath language to show his willingness (“as Yahweh lives”).  To close out this scene he bids her to lie down until morning (13b). One wonders if after the midnight conversation Ruth and Boaz got much sleep. He perhaps planned how he might redeem Ruth and she perhaps wondered if it would be Boaz or the other nearer kinsman. Additionally, he sends her out in the morning before daylight so no one can recognize her to maintain her integrity (14). Boaz may have been concerned that if he sent her out while it was still midnight she might get hurt wandering around in the dark or by some nave in the night. At the same time, if it is too bright outside and Ruth is recognized there is no telling how much suspicion the rumor mills around town might produce. As a final act of kindness and goodwill he also supplies her with even more grain (15). Boaz had taken care of Ruth when she first came to his field and he commanded his young men to leave some of what they reaped behind to ensure Ruth got plenty (2.15-16). Once again he is providing for Ruth with six measures of barley, a generous amount. Everything Boaz does for Ruth is to her benefit.

Verse 15 ends with a textual variant. Is it Ruth or Boaz – she or he – who went into the city? Modern English translations are pretty well split between either option.[6] The Syriac and Vulgate have the feminine. The Masoretic Text has the masculine. So too does the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint likewise can be and is translated in the masculine.[7] The masculine perhaps has the better explanatory power in that Boaz left work on the threshing floor in order to fulfill his promise to Ruth to ensure she is redeemed. He leaves straightway to go up to the gate (4.1). Given this textual confusion, a definitive conclusion is difficult to attain.

Ruth’s Report to Naomi (3.16-18)

Ruth returns home early in the morning to report to Naomi how things went. No sooner is she through the door then Naomi is asking, “How did it go?” (NIV) Ruth faithfully reports all that Boaz did with a further addendum that Boaz’s generosity was likewise intended for Naomi (17). While this statement is conspicuously absent on Boaz’s lips in the previous scene, there is no reason to doubt Ruth’s report. At the same time, this may also have been a diversionary tactic by shrewd Boaz: Ruth, laden with so much he had to “put it on her,” would have been less suspicious than dolled up unburdened Ruth. Nevertheless, Ruth tells Naomi everything that transpired. Having heard the report, Naomi replies that Boaz will not rest until he has done what he said he will do.

[1] מֹדַעְתָּ (mōdaʿtānû) rather than גָּאַל (gōʾēl).

[2] Trible, 844.

[3] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[4] Block, 692.

[5] The Hebrew word is hesed, a word typically translated “steadfast love” in the ESV.

[6] For “she” – KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, RSV, HCSB. For “he” – ASV, NIV, NET, NCV, NRSV.

[7] So reads the Lexham English Septuagint.

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