This next chapter is extremely interesting, both because of how risqué it is, and in how far many readers will twist themselves to keep Ruth a chaste and modest paragon of “womanly virtue.”

Naomi, who assumed responsibility for her daughter-in-law when Ruth chose to follow her instead of returning to her family, bemoans Ruth’s situation. She decides that, as Ruth’s substitute parent, it falls to her to find a home and family for Ruth. Like many mothers, she latches on to that nice boy Ruth was talking about the other day and immediately hears wedding bells.

But rather than, say, approaching Boaz as some marital mediator, Naomi instead proposes something a little more RomCom. She tells Ruth to wash and anoint herself, put on her best clothes, and go to the threshing floor where Boaz is working late. She should hide until Boaz has finished working and lies down for a nap, then “uncover his feet and lie down” (Ruth 3:4). I think it should be rather clear that “uncover his feet” is a euphemism, yet for some reason a whole lot of people insist on imagining that Ruth is really just to go in, lift his blanket off his feet a little, and… I don’t even know what the purpose of that is supposed to be.

The fact that it all takes place on the threshing floor may make the implied action a little clearer. According to Collins:

The threshing floor was not only a workplace but also a place of celebration, where men relaxed at the end of the harvest. Hosea accuses Israel of acting like a prostitute on all the threshing floors (Hos. 9:1). These were apparently places where prostitutes might expect to find customers. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.269)

So Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions and heads over to the threshing floor. She waits while Boaz eats and drinks, and we are told that “his heart was merry” (Ruth 3:7). I think that the implication here is that he’s drunk. If so, it’s an interesting possibly literary reference. The only other time that I can think of where a sexual encounter was initiated by a woman was in Genesis 19:30-38, where Lot’s daughters have sex with him. Like Boaz, Lot was also described as drunk during the encounter. Even more interesting, one of the children born from Lot and his daughters is Moab, forefather of Ruth’s people.

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor, by Ben-Zion

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor, by Ben-Zion

At midnight, Boaz is startled awake by the woman at his feet, and he asks her who she is. Ruth gives her name, identifying herself as his maidservant, and asking him to “spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin” (Ruth 3:9).

As a reader of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, this grabbed my attention. In the series, part of the Westeros wedding ceremony involves the groom removing the bride’s cloak (which bear her natal family’s colours), and placing his own cloak (with his family’s colours) over her shoulders. The symbolism is rather obvious, switching her allegiance from her natal family to her married family. It also signifies protection – by placing his bride under his cloak, the groom is signifying that she is now under his protection.

That appears to be exactly what is going on in Ruth.

Denise Dick Herr adds another level of detail:

In Hebrew, the word for skirt, kanap, is the same one that Boaz used when he first met her: “A full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [kanap] you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). To Ruth, the blessing of God that Boaz gave her is not enough. To receive the blessing, she needs a human agent, and she calls upon Boaz to be that agent.

Notice, also, that Ruth justifies her request by calling Boaz her “next of kin” (Ruth 3:9). While Boaz is not legally bound by the rules of the Levirate marriage, Ruth is invoking the spirit of the law to sway him.

The next of kin

Is it just me, or is Boaz’s answer to Ruth’s request in Ruth 3:10-13 rather bumbling? When I played the scene out in my head, he seemed to be gushing with words, clearly flustered by Ruth’s presence, her forwardness, or perhaps shame that he did not think to do more for the beggar who is his kinswoman.

He also seems concerned with his reputation – he wants to make sure that it is not known “that the woman came to the threshing floor” (Ruth 3:14). It seems that he is willing to comply with Ruth’s request because she has a good reputation (Ruth 3:11), but that reputation may not last if it is known that she came to the threshing floor like a prostitute, as Collins suggested above.

Unfortunately, while he is willing to marry Ruth, there is a nearer kinsman than himself. Before Boaz can marry Ruth, she has to be offered to the nearest kin. If he refuses her, Boaz agrees to take her.

In the morning, they rise while it’s still too dark for them to be seen or recognized. Boaz instructs Ruth to spread out her cloak, and he fills it with barley.

When Ruth returns to Naomi, she tells her mother-in-law what happened.