Hope: The Birthplace of Dreams
As we look at Ruth 3, keep in mind the phrase strategic righteousness. The question this chapter answers is, What do a God-saturated man, a God-dependent young woman, and a God-exalting older woman do when they are filled with hope in the sovereign goodness of God? The answer is that they manifest what I am going to call strategic righteousness.
By righteousness I mean a zeal for doing what is good and right—a zeal for doing what is fitting when God is taken into account as sovereign and merciful. By strategic I mean that there is intention, purposefulness, planning. There is a kind of inactive righteousness that simply avoids evil. But strategic righteousness takes the initiative and dreams of how to make things right.
One of the lessons I have learned from this chapter is that hope helps us dream. Hope helps us think up ways to do good. Hope helps us pursue our ventures with virtue and integrity. It’s hopelessness that makes people think they have to lie and steal and seize illicit pleasures for the moment. But hope, based on the confidence that a sovereign God is for us, gives us a thrilling impulse that I call strategic righteousness. We see it in Naomi in 3:1–5, in Ruth in 3:6–9, and in Boaz in 3:10–15. And the chapter closes again with Naomi full of confidence in the power and goodness of God.
The Offspring of Naomi’s Hope
Two things stand out in Naomi’s strategy in 3:1–5. One is that she has a strategy; and the other is what that strategy is.
The sheer fact that Naomi has a strategy teaches us something. People who are depressed because they are victims rarely make plans. This is true whether they are real victims of wrongdoing or only feel like they are. We live in a time when this distinction is important. Feeling hurt does not necessarily mean someone has wronged us. God certainly disciplines his people with pain, but he never wrongs them (Heb. 12:3–11). In other words, feeling hurt by others, and being a victim are not always the same. Nevertheless, it is possible to be depressed by either—by being victims of real wrong or by only feeling wronged when we are not. Naomi’s response to God’s providence was, at first, hopelessness. As long as Naomi felt only oppressed—as long as she could only say, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me”—she conceived no strategy for the future.
One of the terrible effects of depression is the inability to move purposefully and hopefully into the future. Strategies of righteousness are the overflow of hope. When Naomi awakens in 2:20 to the kindness of God, her hope comes alive, and the overflow is strategic righteousness. She is concerned about finding Ruth a place of provision and protection. She makes a plan.
One of the reasons we must help each other “hope in God” (Ps. 42:5) is that only hopeful people, hopeful families, and hopeful churches plan and strategize. I always felt a special calling to impart hope to the church I served. Churches that feel no hope develop a maintenance mentality and just go through the motions year in and year out. But when a church feels the sovereign kindness of God hovering overhead and moving, hope starts to thrive, and righteousness ceases to be simply the avoidance of evil and becomes active and strategic.
Naomi takes the initiative to find a husband for Ruth. But the strategy she comes up with is odd, to say the least. She says that Boaz is a relative (3:2), and therefore he is the likely candidate for being Ruth’s husband—that way the family name and family inheritance will stay in the family, according to Hebrew custom.
The Incredible Plan
So Naomi’s aim is clear: to win for Ruth a godly husband and a secure future and preserve the family line. So she tells Ruth to make herself as clean and attractive as possible, go to the threshing floor of Boaz, and after he has lain down for the evening, sneak in, lift up his cloak, and lie down at his feet. Everybody, including Ruth, must respond by thinking, “And just where do you suppose that will lead?” To which Naomi gives the extraordinary answer, “He will tell you what to do” (3:4).
One thing is clear here, and one thing is not. It’s clear that this is Naomi’s way of trying to get Boaz to marry Ruth. It is not clear why she should go about it like this. Why not a conversation with Boaz instead of this highly suggestive and risky midnight maneuver? Was Naomi indifferent to the possibility that Boaz might drive Ruth away in moral indignation, or that he might give in to the temptation to have sexual relations with her? Did Naomi want that to happen? Or was Naomi so sure of Boaz and Ruth that she knew they would treat each other with perfect purity—that Boaz would be deeply moved by this outright offer of Ruth in marriage and would avoid sexual relations until all was duly solemnized by the city elders?
The author doesn’t come right out and tell us why Naomi chose this sexually tempting strategy to win Boaz for Ruth. There will be a clue later, but for now the writer seems to want us to feel suspense and ambiguity. Just where did Ruth lie down? “When he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down” (3:4). The Hebrew is just as ambiguous as the English. Perpendicular? Parallel? Overlapping?
“And he will tell you what to do” (3:4). Yes. But what would Boaz tell her to do? Whatever Naomi’s motive was, the situation is one that could lead us into a passionate and illicit scene of sexual intercourse, or into a stunning scene of purity, integrity, and self-control.
Ruth’s Righteous Risk
Next we see Ruth’s strategic righteousness in verses 6–9. Ruth said that she would follow all of Naomi’s instructions. “All that you say I will do” (3:5). But Ruth does more. Naomi had said that Boaz would tell Ruth what to do. Before that happens, Ruth tells Boaz why she has come. She is lying at his feet under his cloak. He awakes and says, “Who are you?” She answers with words unprompted by Naomi, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings1 over your servant, for you are a redeemer” (3:9).
Ruth is not merely Naomi’s pawn. She has gone willingly, and now she takes the initiative to make clear to Boaz why she is there. “You are next of kin.” Or literally, “You are the redeemer: the one who can redeem our inheritance and our family name from being lost. I want you to fill that role for me. I want to be your wife.” She doesn’t say it outright. In fact, she is less direct and more enticing. She says, “Spread your wings over your servant.” Now whether Boaz takes this to be an offer of outright sexual relations or something more subtle and profound will depend on his estimate of Ruth’s character. Fornication was wrong in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:29; Deut. 22:13–21), just as in the New Testament (Matt. 15:19).
Hope helps us think up ways to do good. Hope helps us pursue our ventures with virtue and integrity.
“You Became Mine”
Two things, besides Ruth’s character, suggest something subtle and profound—not immoral—is in fact going on here. One is this: the only other place in the Old Testament where the phrase “spreading the wings” occurs in relation to lovers is found in Ezekiel 16:8. God is describing Israel as a young maiden whom he took for his wife. “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you [literally, “spread my wings over you”] and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine.” If this is any indication of what Ruth wanted from Boaz, the request went far beyond sexual relations. She was saying in effect, “I would like to be the one to whom you pledge your faithfulness and with whom you make a marriage covenant.”
“Spread Your Wings over Me”
But there is more to it than that—and this is the second indication of subtlety and depth here. When Ruth said, “Spread your wings over your servant,” the word for “wings” in Hebrew is the same word that Boaz had used back in Ruth 2:12. This was the key phrase we focused on in the previous chapter. Boaz says to Ruth, “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” What we saw was that Boaz was God’s agent to reward Ruth. He gave her free access to his field and protection from the young men and water from the well. Ruth had said to Boaz, “Why have I found favor in your eyes?” And Boaz answered, “Because you have come to take refuge under the wings of God.”
What then is going on in chapter 3? Here’s my suggestion. Ruth has told Naomi about these words of Boaz. And the more they ponder them, the more they become convinced that they are laden with subtle loving intentions. What Boaz really means is, “Because you take refuge under the wings of God, you are the kind of woman I want to cover with my wings.”
It is not easy for an older man to express love to a younger woman. It would be doubly humiliating if she declined—both because he is a man and because he presumed to think a younger woman would be interested in him. Boaz did it with deeds of kindness and subtle words of admiration. He said he admired her for coming under God’s wings. He acted as though she were under his, and he waited.
A Subtle Way of Saying Yes
In the course of time, Naomi and Ruth hit upon a response just as subtle, just as profound. Ruth will come to him in his sleep, in the grain field where he has taken her under his care, and she will say yes. But she will say it with an action just as subtle as the action and words of Boaz. She puts herself under his wing, so to speak, and when he wakes, everything hangs on one sentence and whether Ruth has interpreted Boaz correctly.
I imagine her pulse racing as Boaz awoke. Then come the all-important words: “I am Ruth. . . . Spread your wing over your maidservant.” I picture an immense silence for a moment while Boaz let himself believe that this magnificent woman had really understood—had so profoundly and sensitively understood. A middle-aged man2 is interested in a young widow whom he discreetly calls “my daughter” (2:8; 3:10–11), uncertain whether her heart might be going after the younger men, communicating with a subtle word picture that he wants to be God’s wings for her. Then a young widow gradually reads between the lines and finally risks an interpretation by coming in the middle of the night to take refuge under the wing of his garment. That’s powerful stuff! Anybody who thinks that a loose woman and a finagling mother-in-law are at work here is missing something beautiful. All is subtle. All is righteous. All is strategic.
- This is a literal and very helpful translation, as we will see. Other versions translate it loosely as “spread the corner of your garment over me” (niv); or “spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid” (kjv); or “spread your covering over your maid” (nasb). The word is literally “wings” and usually, in combination with “spreads,” refers to what birds do with their wings (Deut. 32:11; Jer. 48:40; 49:22; Job 39:26). The reason the word “wings” is so important to preserve is the connection with Ruth 2:12: “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
- We know Boaz is older because he says to Ruth, “You have not gone after young men” (Ruth 3:10).
This article is adapted from Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God: Sweet and Bitter Providence in the Book of Ruth by John Piper.
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