Ruth is part of the royal line, the genealogy of king David. This is an important fact for Matthew’s Gospel—in the very first chapter of the story of Jesus, there’s Ruth, the mother of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, the father of David, the king of Israel. There is no David without Ruth, there’s no Jesus without Ruth. She’s important to the Jewish and Christian story. She is respected, honored, in synagogues and churches. And here she is, in our passage today, perhaps exposing our biases about personal morality, as she uncovers a man and sleeps with him.
Here’s the back-story. At the beginning of the book of Ruth, all the men die mysteriously—maybe there was a war, or some kind of plague that wipes our men, only. We don’t know, really. But the important thing, for our story, is that Naomi and Ruth are without husbands and sons—and that’s not a good situation to be in, in their world, because their world is run by men for men. Without men in their lives, Naomi and Ruth have no status, no protections, no safety net. They have to fend for themselves—two women in a man’s world, just trying to survive, to make a life in a world of death.
Ruth is from Moab. Naomi is from Judah. They are foreigners to each other. Yet Ruth binds herself to Naomi, she makes a vow, something like a marriage vow. “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people.”
When the two women settle together in Judah, Ruth makes a living for their household by gleaning. It’s an ancient practice, where the poor are allowed to wander the fields after the harvest, to pick up the leftovers, to gather what was left behind after the laborers have finished their work.
Naomi begins to worry that gleaning isn’t going to be enough, not enough to sustain their lives. They can’t keep on doing this forever. So she comes up with a plan, a scheme that sounds like seduction.
She tells Ruth to sneak into Boaz’s workplace—he’s the wealthy landowner in their area, the man who owns the fields they have been gleaning. Naomi tells Ruth to sneak in after dark, after everyone is asleep, all the workers tired after a long day of threshing the grain, and to find where Boaz was sleeping,… and, well, at this point the story is a perfect balance of suggestive ambiguity—saying enough for us to know what’s going on, without saying too much to come across as disrespectful to the great great great great grandmother of king David. There’s a wink in the story—a shared knowingness between storyteller and us, the readers.
“When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down… Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down” (Ruth 3:7).
Let’s assume that Ruth cuddles up to him, around his feet, and that’s all—there’s still a lot going on with that, in terms of intimacy. But it’s all the more intimate once we learn that the Hebrew word here for feat means “the lower parts of the body,” and it’s usually used as a euphemism for genitalia. So let me read the verse again, with the wink: “Then Ruth came stealthily and uncovered his lower part, and lay down.”
That’s all I’ll say, because that’s all the text says, with a wink. There’s a playfulness in these verses, a playfulness in the storytelling, as if this is a romantic comedy—but a romantic comedy about your grandmother, so you’re supposed to squirm a little and close your eyes, or peek at the scene through your fingers as you cover your eyes.
Earlier, when Naomi hatched this plan, she told Ruth that at this point—at the point when she uncovered Boaz and lay with him, that Boaz would take over, as men tend to do, masculine control. “Go,” Naomi said, when she was instructing Ruth on what to do, “Go and uncover his lower part and lie down; and he will tell you want to do” (3:4). Naomi assumes that Boaz will be like all the other men in her life, all the other men in their world.
But that’s not what happens that night. Ruth tells him what to do, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, startled to find himself uncovered, exposed, with her at his lower part. Ruth tells him, “I am Ruth, spread your cloak over your servant” (3:9).
Boaz makes promises, extolling her, praising her—verse after verse of words, gushing words. “I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman” (3:11). It sounds like he is convincing himself just as much as he’s trying to convince her that this will work out, that people won’t be too judgmental about their relationship, that he will maintain his righteousness in the eyes of his religious community. She’s a Moabite. He should know better.
As they lay there, on the threshing floor, he says that before he can commit to a relationship, he has to check with her next of kin—and he can do that tomorrow, first thing in the morning. But, before all of that, for now, he says, “Remain the night,” “Lie down until the morning” (3:13).
And she does. But Boaz makes sure she leaves before everyone else wakes up—so no one will see her, so he won’t be compromised. The striking part, to me, is how Boaz shifts his tone in the morning. Instead of speaking with her and to her, as he did in the night, he all of a sudden talks about her to himself, as if she’s not even in the room, lying there beside him. He says to himself or to her or to the wall, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor” (3:14). She is no longer “Ruth,” someone with a name. She is now “the woman,” he calls her, as if she’s a stranger, as if she’s a foreigner again, as if she’s far away. “The woman”—it’s such an impersonal way to talk about someone who is lying there next to you.
But the point is that it works. Naomi’s plan works. Ruth makes it happen, she gets what they need to survive in their oppressive world—they get Boaz. In a world where they have nothing, they make life happen, they strive to make a place for themselves. They eke out a way out of no way. This is a story of two industrious and creative women, doing what needs to be done to wrestle their way out of desperation. Their story begins with famine and death, and they refuse that fate for themselves. So they struggle, they hustle.
This story—of Ruth and Naomi, of Ruth and Boaz—confuses any clarity we thought we had about biblical morality, as if there were a single model for biblical morality when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to relationships.
This interweaving of lives, of partnerships and power, of intrigue and intimacies, is who we are. This is our faith story, with all the knots—jumbling as part of our story as God’s people, as siblings of Jesus, the great great great great grandson of Ruth.
There’s a realism to this story, to this world of Naomi and Ruth. It’s about the hardness of life. The bitterness of this world. The structures of oppression that make life impossible. We find our world in these Scriptures, the world of our neighbors, maybe our world too, ourselves in the story—people with complicated lives, doing what needs to be done, eking out a life, some kind of life, despite it all.
Our world in the scriptures. Our world full of people with complicated lives, complicated love. Our world full of tangles and beauty, entangled beauty. That’s the gospel—this tangled wonder of our lives full of God, people making a home however they can, building shelters for grace—the mercy of companionship in a world starved of love.
My exegesis relies on the work of Phyllis Trible’s essay, “Human Comedy,” chapter six in her God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Augsburg Fortress Press, 1986)