a painting of feet

Study Notes – Ruth 3

We are studying Ruth 3 for Sunday, August 18. This is the part of the book of Ruth where Naomi devises a plan for Ruth’s future, and Ruth and Boaz go along with it. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: After the opening of the story, which we looked at last week, Ruth goes to glean barley in a field that, as it happens, belongs to a prominent and wealthy man—Boaz—who has some kinship responsibilities vis-à-vis Naomi. Not exactly a coincidence, we will likely think, but rather the unseen hand of God setting things up to work out.

The name Boaz seems to mean something like “in him is strength.” One of the massive bronze pillars of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:21) is later given the same name. But Ruth’s Boaz is kind and righteous as well as strong and well-to-do. He shares food with Ruth on the first day of the harvest, and he sees to it that his reapers treat her with generosity and respect throughout the harvest time. Boaz seems to take an interest in Ruth, although the midrash assures us this interest springs from his appreciation of her pious character and her loyalty to Naomi, not from any personal motives, especially not romantic ones.

Gleaning means picking up the stray bits and pieces of the crop that have been missed or overlooked by the harvesters. The Torah commands making provision for gleaners in Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 23:22, and Deuteronomy 24:19-22, where the Israelites are instructed not to reap the corners of their fields or to go over the harvest twice, but to leave something for the widows and orphans and aliens. Ruth, in chapter 2, gleans right up among the newly-harvested grain, with the permission of the harvesters.

[Personal aside: when I was a little girl, my grandmother taught a Sunday school class at our church called “The Gleaners.” Since most of the members were, in fact, widows, the name must have seemed appropriate.]

Naomi’s plan—which she doesn’t describe, but which we don’t have much difficulty figuring out as the chapter unfolds—depends on the institutions of “family redeemer” or “kinsman-redeemer” and of “yibbum” or “levirate marriage”

Torah also prescribes the practice of redemption, which Naomi alludes to at the beginning of our passage, in Leviticus 25. A next-of-kin can redeem land that someone has had to sell because of financial difficulties, to make sure that it stays “in the family.”

The practice of yibbum or levirate marriage comes up in our passage as well, and that, too, has its roots in Torah, this time Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a man dies without offspring, the man’s brother should marry the man’s widow and beget a child with her. The reason for the practice given in Deuteronomy is to keep the man’s name alive; but in effect, it also provides for the widow in the context of Israelite patriarchal society: it provides her with a husband and a husband’s support now, and with another opportunity to have a child or children who will support her in future. Technically, it seems, Naomi ought to be the beneficiary of this particular bit of social legislation, but we’ve already heard from Naomi herself that she’s too old to have children. If anyone is going to have children, so that the name of the deceased is not blotted out in Israel, it will have to be Ruth.

After the events of chapter 3, Boaz will make the necessary administrative arrangements to follow through on acting as Naomi and Ruth’s redeemer (Hebrew goel), Ruth will give birth to Obed, and king David’s ability to be born will be secured.

We won’t say “everyone will live happily ever after” because of the rabbinic tradition that Boaz dies the day after his marriage to Ruth. This strikes me as unnecessarily austere, though it’s not my place to question the rabbis.

CLOSER READING: Throughout this story, there are three main characters, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and the plot concerns their relationship with one another.

This episode in the story begins with Naomi’s announcement of her concern for Ruth’s “rest”—which NRSV translates “security.” Naomi may especially express this concern now because the harvest season is ending, and there won’t be anything more for Ruth to glean. On the other hand, because the harvest season is ending and Boaz is “on the threshing floor” winnowing barley, the stage is set for Naomi’s plan.

That Reba McEntire song, “Fancy,” seems to have taken a leaf from Naomi’s playbook. Maybe a little too far.

Naomi’s instructions to Ruth are to, as we might say, “clean up”. As in “You clean up all right.” Then, to go to the threshing floor and not “make yourself known” to Boaz until … he’s eaten and drunk. Maybe a lot, since they may be feeling good about bringing in this harvest. Then notice—in Hebrew, it’s know again—the place Boaz lies down; and then go over and “uncover his feet” and lie down and “he’ll tell you what to do”.

When we talk about “knowing—in the Biblical sense”, we are talking about the verb that Naomi uses twice in these instructions, even though she doesn’t use it that way. She certainly seems to mean it that way, however. Especially because she tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet, which sounds innocent enough until we recall that “feet” is at least sometimes a Biblical euphemism for male genitalia. And why not? Our culture uses “down there” for that purpose, don’t forget.

It’s a knowing plan, devised by a knowing woman, we might say. Ruth, also knowledgeable, and we might reckon, willing to do anything for Naomi’s sake, agrees.

Concealment comes into play in this text, as well as unconcealment: Ruth in verse 7 comes in “secretly”, a Bible word that we otherwise know from the “secret arts” of Pharaoh’s magicians. After her conversation with Boaz, after he recovers from his surprise at finding a woman in his bed, and they work out the administrative arrangements of this plan, she leaves “before one could recognize another”.

On the other hand … I wonder whether this plan is a lot less sexy than we think. Despite the repetitive use of the verbs “to know” (which we noted above), “to lie down,” and “to come/go into,” which is an ordinary verb, but which also gets a lot of use in Biblical sexual contexts. Ruth does all the going into in this text, interestingly.

I wonder for two reasons. One, I long ago read somewhere an article by someone on what you can learn about social history from old French county records, and one of the things you can learn is that a lot fewer people are born in the months of February—May than in other months, which means that people must not have had a lot of sex in the months of May—August, which the author(s) hypothesized meant that people were too exhausted from doing farm work to do anything but sleep at the end of the day. If this was also the pattern in ancient Israel, everyone telling and hearing this story would have known it, and would have thought “yeah, nothing’s going on tonight.”

Two, the text itself has consistently stressed the righteous character of Ruth and of Boaz, and in v11 Boaz emphasizes Ruth’s reputation as an eshet chayil, a worthy woman.

So surely we contemporary readers ought not expect anything improper to occur, despite the highly suggestive circumstances and despite the fact that in our culture’s stories people plop into bed together at the first opportunity all the time, so that Boaz and Ruth seem to be taking a long time already.

Both Naomi and Boaz refer to Ruth as “my daughter.” (See vv1, 10, 11, 16, 19.) Maybe that’s their only conversational alternative, but I doubt it. I think there’s at least a hint of bringing Ruth into the family of Israel, in contrast to her other repeated epithet, “the woman from Moab,” which is never used in this part of the story.

In v9, in keeping with the story’s play of covering and uncovering, Ruth literally asks Boaz to “spread your wing over your maidservant”, or “take me under your wing,” although in some contexts a “wing” can be a corner of a garment. It may not be a coincidence that God, on occasion, has been known to shelter Israel under God’s wings, as in Psalm 91.

We might want to notice that both Boaz (v9) and Naomi (v16) ask Ruth “Who are you?” at key points in the text. Boaz’s question seems natural; Naomi’s use of the same question might tell us that her eyesight is failing, but more likely suggests something potentially deeper, a question about identity-shaping events.

Why does Boaz give Ruth six ephahs of barley? Why not seven, for instance, which would be a number of completion? Perhaps because all is not yet complete. Completion has to wait at least for the next chapter.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ruth and Boaz
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Ruth and Boaz,” in which Boaz looks a lot younger than 80 and much closer in age to Ruth, who herself looks good for being 40. Or maybe Rossetti hadn’t read the midrash.

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