I feel very uncomfortable when people blame problems on immigrants, especially as almost everyone in the UK has foreign ancestors ? with the possible exception of my wife. She is a tall redhead like Queen Boadicea whose tribe, the Iceni, fought the Romans and won. They were eventually defeated, and were later diluted into obscurity by incoming Celts, Vikings, Saxons and Normans. The modern influx into the UK from other nations merely continues a long trend which has made London a city where more than 200 languages are spoken.
The population of Palestine was a similarly blended one in the days of Ruth. The Israelites had settled in a land among people of many other nationalities. This continuing mixture is evident from the various foreigners named among King David’s closest comrades (1 Chronicles 11:10-47). Nevertheless, new arrivals are always suspect, especially when they are poor. So Ruth, a Moabite, would not have received a warm welcome if she hadn’t been accompanying her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi’shusband and two sons had died in Moab so she was returning to her home country in destitution. Ruth demonstrated her love by staying with her mother-in-law to share her poverty.
She did the only work available ? picking up grains of corn dropped by harvesters.
Boaz the protector
Boaz, who owned the field she happened to work in, was impressed by her hard toil and he heard how she looked after Naomi. He told his men not to molest her and to let her drink from their water jars; he also invited her to eat with him. Naomi was overjoyed that Ruth had found someone to protect her, and when she heard it was Boaz, her relative, she immediately started matchmaking.
Relatives had responsibilities: they had a legal duty to marry a brother’s childless widow (if she wished), and they had a moral duty to care similarly for more distant relatives. They also had rights ? they had first refusal on any land which lacked legal heirs. As an immigrant foreigner, Ruth couldn’t inherit the family land ? she needed to marry a local, like many potentialimmigrants today. So Naomi was looking for a nice Jewish husband for her, and Boaz was perfect. He was a rich upstanding citizen and closely enough related to be a ‘redeemer’ ? ie he had the moral duty to marry her.
Unfortunately, women couldn’t pop the question ? Leap Year wasn’t invented yet. But Naomi had a plan: she would send Ruth to offer herself to Boaz with no strings attached. She told Ruth to wash, put on her most alluring clothes and perfume, then sneak down to the threshing floor and hide so that she could see where Boaz lay down when he’d finished drinking. After that she should go and lie down with him and ‘he will tell you what you should do’ (Ruth 3:4).
The plan could go disastrously wrong; Ruth was risking her reputation in a bid to marry an older man at the request of her mother-in-law. A final instruction added spice to the story: Ruth had to ‘uncover his feet’ and lie down.
Ancient Jews used the word ‘feet’ as a euphemism similar to ‘organ’ or ‘member’ which can be perfectly innocent in English (as in 1 Corinthians 12:15). Urine, for example, was called ‘foot water’ (Judges 3:24; 1 Samuel 24:3; 2 Kings 18:27; Isaiah 36:12) and Isaiah warned the Israelites that enemies would humiliate them by shaving ‘your head, your chin and your feet’ (Isaiah 7:20). Hint: they weren’t Hobbits. Also, the word for ‘uncover’ (Hebrew gaklah) usually refers to exposing secrets or genitals (eg Genesis 9:21; Exodus 20:26; Leviticus 18:6). So although strictly speaking this phrase was ambiguous, it was as suggestive as: ‘You shall expose his member and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.’
The morning after
Some commentators interpret Naomi’s scheme as merely a ruse to allow Ruth to talk to Boaz because the wording in Ruth 3:7 can be read entirely innocently ? there’s nothing embarrassing for adults when it is read in the presence of children. Butthat doesn’t mean that adult readers won’t wink at each other. We are told that Boaz ‘had eaten and drunk, and his heart was happy’ (3:7) ? in fact, he was so drunk that he didn’t wake up when Ruth joined him. She tiptoed past the others ‘secretly’ and ‘lay down’ with him ? which in Hebrew, like English, can be used generally but also sexually (eg Genesis 19:32; 26:10; 34:2). And, just in case we missed it, the verse repeats that ‘she exposed his feet’
Ruth had to ‘uncover Boaz’s feet’ and lie down
When he woke during the night (perhaps he was cold!), he was shocked to find a woman with him, and he realised the implications. To save her reputation, he made sure that she left before it was light (3:14). Clearly she did spend the night with him, but we are still left with the question, ‘Did they just talk?’ Scripture doesn’t tell us, but my guess is that Boaz was honourable because he had great respect for Ruth (3:11) and, as Naomi had predicted, he promised her marriage. But we don’t know for certain.
There was a legal impediment
To Boaz marrying Ruth: he wasn’t the closest relative and there was valuable land involved. But he used some clever psychology to get his way. Calling his rival to a public meeting, he offered him first refusal on buying the family land. Boaz was appealing to the other guy’s greed, and he took the bait. But then Boaz presented the catch: if this man bought the land, he would get another wife along with it. Since any son by this new wife would inherit a share of his whole estate, he had to calculate the pros and cons quickly. By marrying Ruth he would gain some cut-price fields, but any sons they produced would inherit thosefields and more, and his other sons would get less. As Boaz hoped, he turned the offer down.
The deal was exactly the same for Boaz, but his calculations weren’t merely about profit and loss. He added Ruth to the equation and she tipped the balance far more than any financial considerations. Naomi’s plan worked. Boaz saw that Ruthwas an intriguing mixture of virtue and spice; he was madly in love with her.
If anyone is tempted to look down on Ruth as an immigrant who trapped a local husband for personal gain, the final paragraphs of the book prevent that conclusion, because she turned out to be the great-grandmother of King David. Disparaging her would insult the royal family and the history of God’s dealings with his people.
Perhaps we should tell a censored version of this story to younger children because they are already imbibing the message of our culture that ‘trying out’ marriage is both normal and preferable. But whether or not we tell them a sanitised account, we do need to tell Ruth’s story to counter prejudices against immigrants.