Chapter 2 introduces us to Boaz. He is “a man of wealth” (Ruth 2:1) – though this means only that he’s an upper level farmer – and a kinsman of Noami’s husband, Elimelech. He isn’t closely related enough to be legally responsible for the women, as would be the case in a situation where the Levirate marriage applies.

To feed herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth decides to go out to the fields (it’s harvest time) and do some gleaning. This refers to the charitable structure in which remnants from harvesting are to be left in the fields for the poor to gather (Lev. 19:9-10, Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19-22).

When Ruth gets to the part of the field that belongs to Boaz, he calls out to the reapers: “The Lord be with you!” (Ruth 2:4), and they all respond in kind. Then he notices Ruth and asks his servant, the overseer of the reapers, who she is: “Whose maiden in this?” (Ruth 2:5). The overseer explains that she is a Moabite who returned with Naomi, mentioning that she has been gleaning ” from early morning until now, without resting even for a moment” (Ruth 2:7).

This passage is mentioned in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Seminar Textbook. In his section on the Seven Phases of a Godly Courtship, he uses the story of Ruth to illustrate each phase. In the first step, where the man is to show “the richness of his preparation,” his test is to show a desire to learn about his intended’s family. This makes an assumption about the cultural context of the question – one that really doesn’t seem justified. As Libby Anne puts it:

This is accompanied by the verse where Boaz asks his servant “whose damsel is this?” Contrary to Gothard’s interpretation, this could simply have been the ancient equivalent of asking for a girl’s phone number. More seriously, Boaz asks this when he first arrives on the scene, before being impressed by her. So perhaps this is simply the equivalent of asking “hey, who’s the new girl?”

(Incidentally, her blog post goes through each of the seven phases and is worth reading for anyone who can stomach evangelical patriarchal conceptions of courtship.)

I think that Libby Anne is correct. This is not Boaz initiating courtship by taking an interest in his intended’s family, but rather a way of establishing the identity of a new face on his field. It’s a far less creepy interpretation than the one put forward by Gothard.

Special Favours

Boaz now addresses Ruth directly, telling her to keep gleaning his fields and not move on to another. He positions her among his servants, telling her to follow his female servants, gleaning after them, and to drink from the water that’s been drawn for his working servants if she gets thirsty.

In response, Ruth prostrates herself and asks him why she should be considered special, even though she is a foreigner.

Boaz pouring barley into Ruth's veil, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c.1650

Boaz pouring barley into Ruth’s veil, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c.1650

Boaz responds that he’d heard of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law. To this, Ruth responds that he’s being very kind, “you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).

On the surface, it seems that Boaz is just extending a favour to someone he’s heard good things about, and Ruth is being duly grateful.

In a 5 Minute Bible episode, Tim Bulkeley suggested a slightly different interpretation. Have a listen the episode, but what I took from it is that he presents this story as being something of a culture clash: Boaz, a farmer, comes from a rigid culture in which roles are well-defined. As someone who is reasonably high up in his society’s hierarchy (he is described as a “man of wealth” in Ruth 2:1), he sees himself as a sort of benevolent dictator. He condescends to notice Ruth and her situation, and to help out in a very uninvolved way (he lets her glean his fields, which he must do anyway, and lets her drink the water that has been drawn by the labour of his servants).

Ruth, for her part, comes from a semi-nomadic society where roles are more fluid. She asked Boaz’s taskmaster, out of courtesy, for permission to glean after the workers. Boaz then swoops in acting a bit pompous in his role of saviour. It’s possible, then, that Ruth’s response is a little snarky. Rather than humbly gushing about how kind he’s being even though she isn’t in his household and doesn’t consider herself worthy of being so much as a servant to him, perhaps she is using a little snark to remind him that she isn’t one of his servants.

I’ve followed Bulkeley’s advice and read the book twice, once seeing her character as humble and once as snarky. While I feel that both fit, I like snarky Ruth a whole lot better.

Denise Dick Herr looks at how Ruth and Boaz typify the differences between male and female speech. Her article covers the whole of Ruth and is a very thought-provoking read. In this particular conversation, she notes that Boaz approaches Ruth first, indicating that he knows the problems she faces (though, notably, focusing only on Ruth’s material needs), and lists the solutions he is willing to provide. His speech is written in imperatives – she may follow his reapers, she may drink his servants’ water.

Ruth, on the other hand, shows a focus on establishing her place in her relationship with Boaz. She does not thank him for what he is giving her, but rather asks him why she has found favour with him.

Dick Herr notes, also, that Boaz uses significantly more words than Ruth, pointing to modern research showing that when men and women talk to each other, men tend to dominate the conversation and speak a great deal more than women.

So there are many different ways to approach this text, and many ways to view the characters. It’s a short story, but rich in complexity and realism.

The rest of the day

At mealtime, Boaz calls Ruth over and offers her some bread dipped in wine. When she finishes, Boaz instructs his reapers to let her glean “even among the sheaves” (Ruth 2:15), and even to pull some out from the bundles and leave them for her. As my study Bible puts it, “he authorizes a little generous cheating on her behalf” (p.326).

By evening, she had gleaned a whole ephah of barley!

She returned to Naomi and shared with her what was left from the meal Boaz had given her earlier. Naomi, impressed with Ruth’s gleaning, asks her where she worked and who gave her the food. When Ruth tells her about Boaz, Naomi recognises him as a relative.

In closing, Naomi is pleased that Ruth has been given permission to stick close to Boaz’s female servants, since if she were alone, she might be molested (Ruth 2:22). There’s safety in numbers, apparently.

So until the end of the barley and wheat harvests, Ruth continues to glean from Boaz’s fields.