The Seduction of Boaz – Ruth 3:7-10

When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth secretly came and uncovered his feet and laid down.

Later, in the middle of the night, the man was startled, he sat up and found a woman lying at his feet.

“Who are you?” he said, and she answered “I am Ruth, your handmaid. Spread your blankets over your maidservant, for we are close kin.”

“God bless you, my daughter.” he said, “You have shown even more kindness, by not chasing after young men, whether rich or poor.”
–tr mine

This passage in Ruth is one of my favourites in the Hebrew Bible. I also find it interesting how the story is sanitized and asexualized in countless studies and commentaries.

  • Boaz is represented as an honorable and upstanding man.
  • He gets drunk, and sleeps in a grain pile.
  • Ruth goes and uncovers him and lays down under the blankets.
  • He wakes up, sees her sleeping with him and decides he better marry her.

I find it hard to understand how an original audience would have heard the story, except as a tale of sexual manipulation.

I love Ruth. The whole book is short, and has one of the most perfectly repetitious and parallel structures, even among Hebrew writings that are typified by structures and parallels. This suggests Ruth was an oral story: the same kind of repetition is used by modern storytellers. It is memorable and gives the audience a sense of context in the story.

The thought is that this oral story was brought into Tanakh as an ancestors tale through the addition of the genealogy (which conspicuously breaks the structure). If so, then the original oral tale seems even more likely to be racy. The word I translated ‘feet’ (“margeloth”) seems to be deliberately ambiguous: elsewhere the sex organs are euphemistically called ‘feet’[1].

So is this romance, as James asked today? Quite the opposite, I think. A rather successful, if sly, engineering of a marriage proposal.

The pious retellings of the tale to make Ruth and Naomi somehow into moral exemplars I just cannot fathom from the text. And the notion that uncovering and laying at someone’s feet is a quite unsexual way of indicating affection seems dubious.

So not romance, no. Something far more interesting.

[1] I should be explicit and say that I am not suggesting that ‘margeloth’ should be translated ‘crotch’ here. Those who want Ruth to be pious rightly point out that this is overstepping the text. But the nuance wouldn’t have been lost, surely. Knowing it could be used that way, it seems a stretch to suggest it isn’t used with at least a nod and a wink.



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10 responses to “The Seduction of Boaz – Ruth 3:7-10

  1. auroramere

    Once they reach Israel, Ruth and Naomi aren’t held up as moral exemplars; they’re just trying to provide for themselves in the least immoral way possible. Ruth’s husband apparently having no living brothers who would be obligated to marry her, she needs to appeal to his desire as well as their kinship. But kinship is her explanation. She doesn’t tell him she’s overwhelmed with desire for him. She tells him the truth.
    The moral exemplar bit is Ruth’s willingness to venture into a strange land to stay with her mother-in-law. That’s the bit that goes on the embroidered marriage canopy. Still, wanting to stay alive is no sin.

  2. Ian

    Thanks for the comment, and welcome to the blog!

    I’d go a bit further and say Ruth and Naomi are nowhere moral exemplars.

    “The moral exemplar bit is Ruth’s willingness to venture into a strange land to stay with her mother-in-law. ”

    There is no moral obligation there. It is turned into a moral lesson by preachers, by seeing it as a conversion story. Ruth is to be respected because she was choosing the true God, rather than returning to her pagan lands.

    Seems more likely that we are to read Ruth as a completely ineffectual and weak character: she clings to Naomi, she relies on Naomi to tell her everything she needs to do. As has often been noted, Ruth is barely more than Naomi’s puppet.

    “She doesn’t tell him she’s overwhelmed with desire for him.” There’s no indication of that, at all. Quite the opposite, the whole process is portrayed in very calculated terms.

    “But kinship is her explanation.” This certainly strengthens the claim, but this isn’t primary. She doesn’t mention this until after tricking him into thinking he slept with her.

  3. auroramere

    I don’t know what Christian preachers say about Ruth and Naomi, but Jewish interpretations are far more respectful. Ruth’s declaration of loyalty to Naomi appears, as I said, on wedding canopies and in commitment ceremonies. Their relationship is mutually strengthening: Naomi has lost the support of two adult sons and is too old to start over; Ruth is a young, attractive widow but is unfamiliar with the customs of Israel. Together they achieve security and contentment.

    Boaz himself, well before the harvest festivities, explains why he has singled out Ruth from the other impoverished gleaners, and been especially generous to her:

    Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said to him: “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, seeing I am a stranger?” And Boaz answered and said to her: “It has been fully related to me all that you have done for your mother in law since the death of your husband; and how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom you knew not before. May G-d recompense your deed, and may a full reward be given you by the L-rd, the G-d of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

    I mostly read the social justice interpretations of the Torah portions from the American Jewish World Service these days, but this translation and interpretation are from a more traditional resource, the Chabad pages:

    We can agree to disagree about Ruth and Naomi, but you should be aware that most Jewish opinion treats them as heroines.

  4. Ian

    Thanks for this, I really appreciate it, and the links.

    Your observations on the order and on Boaz and Ruth’s first meeting, don’t contradict what I was saying, I don’t think. I think the threshing floor incident is set up nicely by the gleaning encounter. These two chapters follow each other in form and vocab so closely that it is clear they are meant as direct parallels. In the first Boaz is the powerful party w.r.t. the relationship, and the setup to the second uses a great way to render Boaz impassive so that Ruth can be given a degree of power. Both episodes are bookended with Naomi giving instructions to Ruth and Ruth reporting back, again reinforcing that Ruth is acting as her proxy in the matter.

    “you should be aware that most Jewish opinion treats them as heroines.” – yes, and most Christian opinion is the same. I’m not claiming that my ideas are how it should be received in a religious context. Clearly the function that any part of Tanakh or the Bible has can be quite different from the function of the text when it was created.

    So I do disagree, to some extent, though not as strongly as my opinion on the narrative force of this particular passage might suggest. Does that make sense?

  5. auroramere

    Yes, that makes sense. I was going to ask what your religious background was, but I’m sure it’s covered elsewhere in your blog. (I like the name!)

  6. Pingback: Feet, Navels and Other Naughty Things

  7. Your blog is great, whether you know it or not. So, I have nominated you for a Sunshine Blog Award leaving you with two options: 1) bask in the glow; or 2) bask in the glow and spread it further as described on my blog (the post titled “A Sunny Friday”).

  8. Thanx for the Ruth tour — enjoyed auroramere and your exchange.
    ‘Tis fun to see how folk texts make their way into scripture — much like folk festivals make their way into the orthodoxies that supplant their pagan origins. Sanitizing (sex neutered) and trojan-horse implantations (genealogies, or as in the gospel of Matt, OT prophesy additions) are great techniques.

  9. Ian

    Thanks, yes unpicking those layers is one of the most fun bits of studying scripture, I think.

  10. Ian

    @orange – thanks for commenting, and welcome to the blog. Its great you enjoy some of the posts, feel free to comment and make your views known.

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