Background of Ruth and Boaz
Ancient Hebrew is one of those languages which was prone to being filled with idioms. It’s not the fault of the language itself but of the time period and people that used it. The Hebrew people were traditional and modest which means their language adopted a number of ways to discuss the “dirty” topics without outright saying it. For example, the Bible often describes the act of sex as “knowing” one another (Gen 4:1, 19:5, Num 31:17, etc.). The idiom is used to imply that he knew her sexually but it would be a bit of a faux pas to just out right say they had sex. A similar situation arises in Gen 31:35 when the writer describes menstruation as “the way of the women”. With that in mind, many wonder if Ruth 3:4, 7, 8, 14 contains a similar Hebrew idiom when Ruth is described as “uncovering” Boaz’s feet. It certainly does sound like a cloaked way of saying something unmentionable. But it could also be taken literally and we just don’t understand the custom. We will explore these options below.
One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”
5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. 6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.
7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!
9 “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”
For many, there are 4 possible ways to understand the events that took place.
- Ruth did exactly as described but the meaning is lost to history
- Ruth made some form of sexual contact with Boaz
- Ruth did something to show she was available but nothing more
- Ruth was seducing her way to bridedom
It is possible that alternatives exist but these are the most common.
Option #1 No Idiom Exists. Ruth Did exactly as Described in the text.
The first option isn’t popular but deserves some thought. The theory is that Ruth was engaging in some kind of ritual or behavior that was customary for the time period but are perhaps lost to time or just unfamiliar to modern readers. This theory rests on the fact that the threshing floor was a site of great romantic significance. It was quite common for weddings to occur at a community shared threshing floor. Threshing floors were also places of legal judgements which is accommodated by it’s location very near to the city gates. The location of such threshing floors is reflected in the book of Jeremiah.Irit Ziffer, The Threshing Floor in Reality and Metaphor, pp. 5-7
I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land;
Given Ruth’s condition, she was in need of both legal and relational assistance, so the threshing floor would have certainly been the place where she could gain both.
Based on the text of Ruth there are a number of reasons to believe that Ruth was practicing an ancient custom and literally uncovered Boaz’s feet as described. This option eliminates the need to interpret the phrase as a metaphor. It also removes the notion that Ruth committed some type of sexual deviance. The difficulty, however, is that if this is some kind of ritual then Boaz’s surprise at her behavior seems out of place. Although, his surprise could be explained by the fact that he appears to not recognize her and had to call out her to identify herself. Then again, his ability to not recognize Ruth could be a consequence of his drunken state or how she positioned herself at his feet. Nevertheless, once Boaz fully awoke he appeared to understand what was happening. Ruth’s request was not met with utter shock.
On the other hand, if Ruth was enacting or even alluding to a known custom then it is strange that Ruth was described as approaching quietly. This seems to indicate she desired to not wake him up. If she intended Boaz to understand what was going on then it is odd that she would sneak in during the night. The fact that she was sneaking in and that she was eventually snuck out (3:14), seems to indicate that what she was doing was not an approved behavior. Even more, she is told by Boaz that nobody must know a woman was on the threshing floor (presumably with him). Was he afraid people might take her for a lady of the night?
Option #2 Ruth Performed Some Kind of Sexual Act
There are two lines of thought on this option. Either the phrase “uncover the feet” is referring to some kind of sexual act or it’s a euphemism for sex. Proponents of the idea that Ruth performed a sexual act point to a similar phrase that shows up in the writings of the 1t century author, Gaius Petronius. His work of fiction, Satyricon, depicts a scene where sex workers appear to perform some sexual act but the specifics are difficult to make out.
I am ashamed to tell you what followed: in defiance of all convention, some long-haired boys brought ointment in a silver basin, and anointed our feet as we lay, after winding little garlands round our feet and ankles. A quantity of the same ointment was then poured into the mixing-bowl and the lamp.
(Petronius, Satyricon 70)
Like the passage in Ruth, the reference to feet appears to be sexual in nature but without a direct mention of any sexual act. The difficulty here is that it was rather common for a wealthy person in ancient Rome to have a slave, concubine, or hired worker anoint and massage their feet. There appears to be quite a history in the Greco-Roman world with foot massaging and sometimes it appeared to be sensual. The 2nd century Greek rhetorician, Athenaeus, collated a number of instances where nobles speak of such things.
But it was the fashion at Athens to anoint even the feet of those men who were very luxurious with ointment, a custom which Cephisodorus alludes to in his Trophonius—Then to anoint my body go and buy
Essence of lilies, and of roses too,
I beg you, Xanthias; and also buy
For my poor feet some baccaris.
And Eubulus, in his Sphingocarion, says—. . . . Lying full softly in a bed-chamber;
Around him were most delicate cloaks, well suited
For tender maidens, soft, voluptuous;
Such as those are, who well perfumed and fragrant
With amaracine oils, do rub my feet.
But the author of the Procris gives an account of what care ought to be taken of Procris’s dog, speaking of a dog as if he were a man—A. Strew, then, soft carpets underneath the dog,
And place beneath cloths of Milesian wool;
And put above them all a purple rug.
B. Phœbus Apollo!
A. Then in goose’s milk
Soak him some groats.
B. O mighty Hercules!
A. And with Megallian oils anoint his feet.
[p. 886] And Antiphanes, in his Alcestis, represents some one as anointing his feet with oil; but in his Mendicant Priest of Cybele, he says—He bade the damsel take some choice perfumes
From the altar of the goddess, and then, first,
Anoint his feet with it, and then his knees:
But the first moment that the girl did touch
His feet, he leaped up.
And in his Zacynthus he says—Have I not, then, a right to be fond of women,
And to regard them all with tender love,
For is it not a sweet and noble thing
To be treated just as you are; and to have
One’s feet anointed by fair delicate hands?
And in his Thoricians he says—He bathes completely-but what is’t he does?
He bathes his hands and feet, and well anoints them
With perfume from a gold and ample ewer.
And with a purple dye he smears his jaws
And bosom; and his arms with oil of thyme;
His eyebrows and his hair with marjoram;
His knees and neck with essence of wild ivy.
And Anaxandrides, in his Protesilaus, says—Ointment from Peron, which this fellow sold
But yesterday to Melanopus here,
A costly bargain fresh from Egypt, which
Anoints to day Callistratus’s feet.
And Teleclides, in his Prytanes, alludes to the lives of the citizens, even in the time of Themistocles, as having been very much devoted to luxury. And Cratinus in his Chirones, speaking of the luxury of the former generations, says—There was a scent of delicate thyme besides,
And roses too, and lilies by my ear;
And in my hands I held an apple, and.
A staff, and thus I did harangue the people.
(Athenaeus Deipnosophists 12.553)
Based on some of the above quotations, it would seem that the act of massaging the feet was possibly sensual but not sexual. Ruth, never went as far as to massage his feet. She merely uncovered them. This does not seem to fit with the idea that she did something sensual with Boaz. Moreover, the textual evidence for such massages are from hundreds of years after the book of Ruth was written and about Greco-Roman culture, not Hebrew culture. However, many still support the idea that Ruth did something sexual because “feet” can also refer to a man’s genitals. There are a number of instances in the Hebrew scripture where the word “margelotav/מַרְגְלָה” could be used to refer to genitals but it usually means feet.
One possible example comes from the story of David and Bathsheba. While David was attempting to cover up the fact that he impregnated Uriah’s wife, he instructed Uriah to return to his home and wash his feet. The suggestion is that washing his feet was a euphemism for having sex, which was required to cover up the unwanted pregnancy while Uriah was away at war. However, David’s instructions to go home and wash his feet might not have been a direct reference. Perhaps he was just suggesting David return home after a long time away at war, assuming he would clean up and have relations with his wife. In other words, David knew one thing would lead to the other. Another supposed example comes from
The problem with assuming the word “feet” is a veiled reference to genital is that the story of Ruth would be hard to read if that were true. For example, Ruth not only uncovered his feet but she also “lay at his feet until morning”. Are we to assume she performed sexual acts on him all night even after he told her that he would have to check with her nearest of kin before redeeming her? That sounds like an incoherent plotline.
Option #3 Ruth was Making Herself Available.
Most people tend to believe that Ruth was coloring outside the lines a bit and attempting to both make herself available and also seduce Boaz. On the matter of decorum it seems possible that what Ruth was doing was somehow inappropriate. If not inappropriate, at least frowned upon. As stated previously, her sketchy behavior is evidenced by verse 3:14:
So she lay at his feet until morning and rose before one could recognize another; and he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.
Given this passage, it seems that two options exist. The first is that something slightly taboo was going on. The second is that nothing was going on but they wanted make sure they did not give anyone a reason to gossip. The latter of these two possibilities seems plausible because Boaz’s reasoning was related to a woman being on the threshing floor, not about a woman interacting with a man inappropriately. However, it is also possible that a woman being on the threshing floor was inherently sexual, with or without involvement with Boaz. Threshing floors were places of celebration, drinking, and sometimes debauchery. Perhaps, this is why Naomi told Ruth to bathe, put on ointment, and dress her best. The expectation for threshing floor sexual encounters seems to mentioned by the prophet Hosea.
Do not rejoice, Israel;
do not be jubilant like the other nations.
For you have been unfaithful to your God;
you love the wages of a prostitute
at every threshing floor.
2 Threshing floors and winepresses will not feed the people;
the new wine will fail them.
Hosea’s mention of such things makes it sound as this these threshing floor sex workers were commonplace. This would make a lot of sense in ancient Israel as the harvest time was accompanied by celebrations. As a shared space it was also a location of worship and cultic prostitution. 1 Chronicles 21 an altar was built on a large privately owned threshing floor. In ancient Near Eastern texts and in the Bible it seems clear that threshing floors doubled as places of worship. It’s use as a cultic site is a practical one. Threshing floors were located on high elevations due to better wind to help winnow. Thus, the threshing floor doubled as a “high place” for ancient Israelite worship (Judges 6:11, 2 Samuel 6:6, 2 Samuel 24).Herbert Gordon May, Ruth’s Visit to the High Place at Bethlehem: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1 (Jan., 1939), pp. 75-78 Therefore, it would appear that Boaz wanted Ruth to not be associated with cultic prostitution.
In addition to the sexual nature of the threshing floor, Ruth added her own sexual appeal. For starters, just lying down anywhere near a male would have been problematic. Laying down with a man, under the same garment, in the dead of night, would have been scandalous from any angle. This is even more true of the request she made of him to “spread the corner of his garment” over her. Modern readers might assume that this garment is on his body and that he just needs to move closer to Ruth so she can touch the corner. However, Boaz was not wearing the garment; he was using his outer garment as a blanket. Her request for the corner is humility speaking but the garment would have been given enough of to cover the requestor entirely. A similar example is seen in Ezekiel 16:8.
Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body.
The idiom of spreading the corner of the garment must has implied the garment was not presently being word by the owner. If that is true of Boaz, that means he was either naked or in his undergarments while sleeping under his outer garment. Ruth’s uncovering of Boaz’s feet means she was risking exposing him to her own gaze and it also meant she was laying with an undressed man. This is perhaps why she stayed at his feet. It would appear from the events that she might have offered a proposal and offered herself as well.
Option #4 Ruth was trying to become an instant bride
Based on the facts of the story thus far, it is quite possible that Ruth was expecting a sexual encounter with Boaz and his hand in marriage. Unlike modern times, a man could sleep with his wife before they were married as long as he did his duty afterword and married her. This is described in Exodus 22.
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.
A similar law exists in Deuteronomy but might not be as applicable to Ruth.
If a man comes upon a virgin who is not engaged and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife. Because he has violated her, he can never have the right to divorce her.
Some have right pointed out that Ruth was not Jewish which is important to recall since the point of the book is that a Moabite woman played an important role in the lineage of King David. However, such marriage customs were wide spread in the ancient Near East. Two Middle Assyrian laws also deal with such things.
A55 If a man has taken and raped another man’s virgin daughter, dishonoring her (she was living in her father’s house, was not engaged, and her hymen had not been penetrated—since she had not been married), and no one had a claim on the father’s house, the father is to take the rapist’s wife and allow her to be raped, and keep her, not returning her to her husband. It does not matter if the (original) rape was in the city, the open country, at night in the street, in a granary, or at a city festival. The father may give his raped daughter to her rapist. If the rapist has no wife, his to give ‘the third’ in silver (the virgin-price) to her father.  Then her rapist is to marry her, and will not be allowed to divorce her. If the father does not approve <of the marriage> he is to be given ‘the third’ in silver for her virginity, and give her to whomever he wants.
A56 If the virgin has given herself to the man (voluntarily), he is to swear to this effect and his wife is to be left alone. The seducer is to give ‘the third’ (the virgin-price) in silver and the father is to treat his daughter as he wants.
(Middle Assyrian Law Codes A55-A56)James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern texts: Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
In the case of Ruth, there would be no bride price since she was not a virgin and had already been married once. The method of seducing a bride before marriage was not uncommon, however. Perhaps this accounts for the mysterious parts of Ruth’s behavior. She bathes, perfumes, and dresses herself as only a bride would do on her wedding night. She approaches Boaz in the middle of the night like a prostitute on the threshing floor. She does all this knowing he would be intoxicated. She then proceeds to not just ask Boaz to cover her in marriage but essentially acts out her request while laying under the garment with a presumably naked Boaz underneath. All of this seems to point towards a woman who is trying to become a one-night-stand bride.
Nevertheless, Ruth crosses no real red lines morally and Boaz is even more of a gentleman by not advancing the whole thing. By showing restraint and respect for her and her nearest of kin Boaz really comes out of the story looking like a man of integrity. This is especially true considering the times drunk men were unable to refuse sleeping with women inappropriately (I.E. Lot sleeping with his daughters).
Based on the evidence supplied it seems best to conclude that option #4 makes the most sense. Ruth was pushing the boundaries but also following the customs of the time. She knew that Boaz could sleep with her and since he was a righteous man he would redeem her according to the law. There is no need to assume she performed a sexual act or that the meaning of her behavior has been lost to history.
|↑1||Irit Ziffer, The Threshing Floor in Reality and Metaphor, pp. 5-7|
|↑2||Herbert Gordon May, Ruth’s Visit to the High Place at Bethlehem: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1 (Jan., 1939), pp. 75-78|
|↑3||James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern texts: Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.|