What Did Ruth and Boaz Do on the Threshing Floor?

The following is a chapter from my rather popular book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.”

 

                                                 What Did Ruth and Boaz Do on the Threshing Floor?

The two widows, Naomi of Judea and Ruth the Moabite, return from Moab to Judea some ten years after Naomi left Bethlehem in Judea. They are penniless. To secure food Ruth gleans barley stalks in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi. Boaz is fascinated by Ruth from the moment he sees her, even before he knows who she is, and his interest in her increases upon acquaintance. However, after the barley harvest ends, after around three months, Boaz made Ruth no offer of marriage. Naomi suggests to Ruth that they need to take matters into their own hands.

Rabbinic sources agree that there was no premarital sex between Ruth and Boaz. Ruth Rabba, for example, states that Boaz showed greater restraint than Jacob’s son Joseph when Joseph was propositioned by his master’s wife. Yet, many Bible interpreters disagree with the rabbis on this point, including Josephus.[1] Also evidence seems to indicate the “possibility” that a sexual encounter occurred. Let’s examine the evidence.

  • Naomi tells Ruth that they need to find “rest” for her, meaning “security,” and security at that time was achieved for women by marriage.
  • She tells Ruth to go to Boaz at night when he is sleeping on the threshing floor. If the purpose was simply to talk, why was she told to go at night and why while he was sleeping?
  • She instructs her to “wash herself, anoint herself [put on perfume], and dress [in her best clothes].” This is usually not needed for a conversation. The only other time that the three instructions are used in Scripture is in Ezekiel 16:9–10, in regard to preparation for marriage.
  • Although Rashidid not think that Ruth and Boaz had a sexual encounter, he interprets the text to mean that Naomi suggested that Ruth wear her best Sabbath clothing; although Naomi told Ruth to clothe herself before going to the threshing floor, Ruth put on the special clothes after she arrived because “if I go all decorated, whoever meets me and sees me will say I am a prostitute.”
  • Naomisuggests that Ruth should not make herself known to Boaz until after he has “finished eating and drinking.” Is she suggesting that Ruth wait until Boaz is intoxicated? Gersonides interprets “do not make yourself known to the man” as “do not let anyone see you going to the field tonight.”
  • Ruth should then see where Boaz lies down, and then “go in and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what you should do.” Is the uncovering of his feet a euphemism? The word used here and translated as “feet” is margelotav, bearing the root r-g-l, “foot.” However, the term only appears in the Bible in regard to the unique feet (or lower extremity) of an angel in Daniel 10:6, where Daniel describes a vision he had of an angel that did not look like a human. Isaiah 6:2 uses the usual word for feet and states that he saw a vision in which an angel covered his face and feet with wings. Why did the angel need to cover his “feet”? Is it possible that Naomi (or the author of the tale) is using this form of “feet” as a euphemism for penis? If not, why does Naomi instruct her to uncover his feet? If the purpose was to alert Boaz that she was present, wouldn’t it make more sense to uncover the upper part of his body?[2]
  • Ruth agrees to the plan. The narrator states that after eating and drinking, Boaz’s “heart was merry” (inebriated?), Ruth “came softly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.”
  • It isn’t until around midnight that Boaz awakens and is startled to find a woman lying at his feet. Why didn’t he awaken when Ruth lay beside him? If one overindulges in alcohol, one frequently awakens in the middle of the night when much of the effects of the drink wears off.
  • Ruth identifies herself to Boaz and adds, “Spread your coat over your handmaid, for you are a near kinsman.” This reminds us of the Joseph story, in which Joseph escapes the clutches of his master’s wife, but she grabs his coat and holds onto it since he avoided having sex with her.[3] Here, Ruth is saying the opposite: “Spread your coat over your handmaid.” Does the narrator want us to understand that contrary to Joseph, Ruth is asking for sex? Or, is she asking for protection?
  • Besides reminding readers of the Joseph story, it is likely that the narrator wants readers to recall the story of Tamar and Judah. The patriarch Judah did not allow Tamar to fulfill the levirate marriage with his third son, because his first two sons had died after being married to her.[4] Like Ruth, Tamar clothed herself and resorted to sex: “She discarded her garments of widowhood, covered herself with a veil, and wrapped herself [like Ruth, in clothing].” She sat by the road and enticed Judah to have sex with her. He did so without knowing who she was (similar to Ruth meeting Boaz in the dark) and the levirate procedure was fulfilled, resulting in twins – one of whom, according to Ruth 4, was the ancestor of Boaz.
  • Boaz tells Ruth that he will do what she wants and says, “Tarry here tonight.” Why did he want Ruth to remain? Should we understand that he was not concerned with her returning home at night, given that she left hours later while it was still dark, “before one could recognize another person”?
  • Why did Boaz warn her to “let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor”?
  • Boaz gave Ruth a gift when she left the threshing floor to return home, and this reminds readers of the gift that Judah gave to Tamar after he had sex with her.[5]
  • When Ruth returned home, Naomi asked her, “Who are you, my daughter?” Was Naomi inquiring whether Ruth was now engaged to Boaz as a result of the encounter?
  • Ruth did not tell Naomi what Boaz “said,” she told her “all that the man had done to her.”
  • Needless to say, every one of these facts can be interpreted in an innocuous way.[6]

 

[1] Antiquities 5:9:3.

[2] Other examples where “feet” seem to be a euphemism for genitals are: II Samuel 11:8, where King David instructs Uriah to go home and have sex with his wife: “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” In Isaiah 7:20, the prophet predicts that God will have Assyria shave the Israelites’ beards and “the head and hair of the feet.” Deuteronomy 28:57 speaks of an afterbirth that came “out from between her feet.”

Why does Deuteronomy 25 rule that a man who refuses to perform the Levirate marriage has to have his shoe pulled off his foot? In the Ancient Near East, a shoe was a euphemism for the female genital. Pulling a shoe from a man’s foot may be a symbolic way to acknowledge his refusal to have sex with his brother’s widow in the Levirate ceremony (Richard Gist, You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian [Friesen Press, 2014]). F. Campbell in Anchor Bible lists other citations where foot may be a euphemism: Exodus 4:25; Judges 3:24; I Samuel 24:3; II Kings 18:27; Isaiah 6:3, 36:12; and Ezekiel 16:25.

Ibn Ezra and Gersonides, avoiding any suggestion of intimacy, define margelotav as the feet and foot of the bed, respectively. Saadiah Gaon understands that Naomi was saying “lie by his feet.”

[3] Boaz is compared to Joseph in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b, and in the Targum to verse 8.

[4] Genesis 38.

[5] Genesis 38.

[6] An argument can be made that the feet of many men get cold before the rest of their body and uncovering Boaz’s feet was a means to awaken him. The Targum states that Boaz acted toward Ruth “according to the prophecy that was revealed to him.”

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