This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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1Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? 2Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” 5And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”
6So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! 9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings1 over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
1Compare 2:12; the word for wings can also mean corners of a garment
Four Old Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
Risks at the Threshing Floor
A number of weeks likely separate Ruth and Boaz’s initial encounter in Ruth chapter 2 and their threshing-floor encounter in Ruth chapter 3. Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem “at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22), and Ruth keeps gleaning in Boaz’s field “until the end of the barley and wheat harvests” (Ruth 2:23). The two harvests together probably involve about two months from beginning to end. The scene in question transpires when the harvested barley brought to the threshing floor is winnowed. Winnowing barley involves tossing it into the evening breeze with a winnowing fork to separate the stalk from the chaff and straw, which the wind blows away (Ruth 3:2; cf. Isa. 41:15–16).
Naomi’s plan initiates this scene’s events, though Ruth will play the lead role in executing that plan. Naomi first asks a rhetorical question articulating her intent to “seek rest” and good for her “daughter.” Naomi aims to help bring about the very blessing she prayed for on behalf of her daughters-in-law (cf. Ruth 1:8–9). Naomi’s second rhetorical question specifies the means by which she envisions the procuring of Ruth’s security: through Boaz, “our relative” (not “my relative”; cf. Ruth 2:20), who has enabled Ruth to glean alongside his female workers. That Boaz is a relative means he might exercise the redemption right and buy Naomi’s land. For reasons not explained, exercising this right also entails marrying Ruth.
Naomi then clarifies her plan, which involves a number of risks for Ruth. Having made herself attractive to signal her marital availability,1 Ruth must brave the darkness by going stealthily down to the threshing floor and remain hidden until the opportune time. Once Boaz enjoys a good harvest-time meal and falls asleep guarding the grain, Ruth must approach him quietly, lift the blanket at his feet to expose them to the evening breeze, lie down at the place of his feet, and wait for the cold air to awaken him.2 When Boaz awakens, Ruth should follow his instructions, which Naomi expects him to give.
Several priorities converge in Naomi’s strategy. In line with her maternal role (cf. Ruth 1:8), she seeks marital security and stability for Ruth. She therefore designs a private encounter between Ruth and Boaz, hoping it will prompt Boaz to marry Ruth. Even though Naomi’s plan is fraught with risk, however, it avoids moral and public disgrace. She devises, for example, for Ruth to engage Boaz in intimate, candid dialogue about marriage but without improperly touching him (only his blanket) or initiating open, public discourse with him. Because Naomi is confident in Boaz’s righteous character (cf. Ruth 2:1), her plan, though decidedly risky, is neither reckless nor risqué.3
Not all agree about how to interpret the characterization of Naomi in 3:1–4. Does Naomi’s plan negatively illustrate maternal manipulation and ungodly pragmatism (cf. Gen. 16:1–6)? Or does Naomi’s plan positively illustrate godly shrewdness, that is, her bold initiative showing the compatibility of faithful human initiative/agency and divine providence? The latter view seems better in the whole-book context. Naomi’s plotting expresses a growing hopefulness in her outlook (cf. progression from Ruth 1:20–21 to 2:19–20 and to 3:1–4).
Ruth complies with Naomi’s instructions. While Ruth undoubtedly desires “rest” for herself, she could pursue a different man, which Boaz plainly acknowledges (Ruth 3:10). Ruth’s love for and desire to provide for her bereft mother-in-law motivates her pursuit of Boaz. By willingly risking her own reputation and safety to propose to him, this young Moabitess continues epitomizing self-sacrificial, covenant loyalty. In meekness, she counts Naomi’s interests as more significant than her own.
Carrying Out the Plan
Having verbally complied with her mother-in-law’s commands, Ruth now diligently follows them. She goes down to the threshing floor and waits, shrouded in secrecy. Just as Naomi envisaged, Boaz lies down with a contented heart after enjoying his harvest.4 Ruth then comes softly to Boaz, pulls the blanket back to expose his feet to the evening breeze, and lies down. The stage is now set for a dramatic turning point. Under the cover of darkness, Ruth awaits Boaz’s awakening.
Darkness, hiddenness, and seclusion obscure recognition and heighten dramatic suspense. At midnight, evening’s darkest point, Boaz awakens disconcerted, presumably wincing at the cold breeze blowing over his feet. When he repositions himself, likely to adjust his blanket for warmth, he is further disconcerted by discovering “a woman” lying at his feet. He calls the woman to disclose her identity.
Ruth takes full advantage of this critical moment of disclosure. More than merely presenting herself as eligible for marriage, she intimates that he ought to marry her. She states her name (“I am Ruth”), rank (“your servant”), request (“spread your wings [or “corners/edges,” i.e., of his garment] over your servant”), and rationale (“for you are a redeemer”). Ruth is summoning Boaz to provide protection and security through marriage.5 By alluding to Boaz’s prior blessing (cf. Ruth 2:12), Ruth petitions Boaz to become the Lord’s human instrument of fulfilling that previous blessing. That is, having taken refuge under the Lord’s “wings,” Ruth now entreats Boaz to spread his “wings” over her in marriage as the Lord’s agent. Undoubtedly influenced by Naomi (cf. Ruth 2:20; Ruth 3:2), Ruth appeals to the kinship principles underlying the institutions of redemption (cf. Lev. 25:24–55) and levirate marriage (cf. Deut. 25:5–10).
A Pledge of Redemption
Boaz recognizes Ruth’s speech as a marriage proposal and responds with affectionate blessing (“my daughter.”)6 He discerns her righteous resolve to assist her mother-in-law and realizes that she is seeking marriage with him largely for her mother-in-law’s sake. In Boaz’s estimation, Ruth’s “last kindness” (i.e., seeking to marry a redeemer for Naomi’s sake) demonstrates even greater covenant loyalty to Naomi than “the first” kindness (i.e., clinging to Naomi; Ruth 1:14b–18). The word for “kindness” (Ruth 3:10) is that rich covenantal term often translated “steadfast love.” Consonant with Boaz’s strong character, Ruth’s selfless love only intensifies his admiration for her. It takes character to see character and admire it.
After blessing and commending Ruth, Boaz responds to her specific request (Ruth 3:11). He comforts Ruth and immediately alleviates tension by promising to honor her petition (cf. Ruth 2:13). Boaz casts his decision as a response to Ruth’s righteous character (cf. Ruth 2:11), about which all Bethlehem knows. Specifically, the whole town knows that Ruth is a “worthy woman.” And so, while the threshing-floor setup entails Ruth’s hiddenness and secrecy, once she steps into Boaz’s view he praises the broad recognition of her noble character.37 Significantly, in one major Hebrew canonical tradition, the book of Ruth immediately follows Proverbs, which concludes with an acrostic portraying an archetypal worthy woman (Prov. 31:10; cf. Prov. 12:4). Whereas the book of Proverbs envisions an idealized worthy woman, the book of Ruth narrates the history of an actual worthy woman. And who is this woman who embodies covenant righteousness? An impoverished Moabite widow!
Love Shines in the Darkness
At the outset of this chapter, no positive outcome is guaranteed for Naomi or Ruth. Similarly, life in this broken and sinful world unfolds amid many unknowns, some involving breathtaking suspense. Sometimes even the best laid plans do not materialize (Prov. 19:21). In such a context, we believers face a panoply of tests, including the temptation to relate to people according to our own self-interest. But amid life’s twists and turns we must continue entrusting ourselves to God’s sovereign care and choose to lead lives marked by love. Such righteous resolve suffuses this scene in Ruth 3. Indeed, against a backdrop of darkness and suspense, bold acts of love shine, including in the following three ways.
First, rather than mainly seeking to advance their own interests, Naomi and Ruth seek to advance one another’s (Ruth 3:1–9). While both widows would benefit from a marriage between Ruth and Boaz, neither widow prioritizes her own welfare. Each takes righteous initiative for the other’s sake, which in Ruth’s case involves meaningful personal risk. But despite Ruth’s precarious situation, she displays the same character in broad daylight (Ruth 1–2) as in the secrecy of night (Ruth 3). She even courageously calls Boaz to embody self-sacrificial love when she proposes marriage to him. In doing so she avails herself of God’s gracious provision in the law’s institutions of redemption and levirate marriage. Likewise, amid intrigue and dicey circumstances we believers must rely on the Lord Jesus to help us persevere in self-sacrificial love by his grace and after his pattern (John 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:21–25).
Second, rather than shirking responsibility toward Ruth and Naomi or usurping the nearer kinsman’s responsibility, Boaz embraces these two widows’ cause in a manner that honors every interested party (Ruth 3:10–13). He acts neither self-protectively (i.e., by absolving himself of all responsibility because of the nearer kinsman) nor autonomously (i.e., by contravening Israel’s laws or customs to claim rights that are not his). Rather than seeking to avoid discomfort or exalt himself, Boaz seeks to comfort Ruth and exalt her ultimate benefactor, the Lord. With tender-hearted affection Boaz articulates his admiration for Ruth and assures her that he will support her according to proper protocol. He exhibits the sort of wise gentleness that comes to its fullest expression in the Lord Jesus Christ, who refuses to break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick until he accomplishes justice (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).
Third, Boaz seals his oath of loving kindness to Ruth and Naomi with a guarantee, the barley gift, to assure them of his sincerity (Ruth 3:14–18). He seems to recognize that in the widows’ circumstance they might be tempted to indulge unwarranted skepticism, perhaps out of self-defensive fear. Boaz thus encourages them with a barley gift, partly to confirm his word’s trustworthiness. Boaz’s proven character and demonstrable love inspire Naomi (and Ruth) to wait confidently and patiently. So, in the aftermath of this scene’s climactic action, the widows await the fulfillment of Boaz’s promise.
A Pledge from Our Redeemer
In certain respects the widows’ situation as the scene ends resembles believers’ situation here and now, in the aftermath of the biblical storyline’s climactic (but not culminating) action. That is, on account of the life, death, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ, believers presently enjoy salvation’s firstfruits but must await salvation’s full outworking (1 John 3:1–3). We live in the already and not yet and look to the Lord’s second coming, when God will resolve all remaining tension and consummate his every promise. In the meantime, our redeemer encourages us by giving us a pledge. Boaz graciously guarantees his oath with six measures of barley, but the Lord Jesus guarantees his oath by giving us the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:20–22). God’s gift of the Spirit demonstrates his trustworthiness and serves as the down payment of our inheritance until we obtain full possession of it (Eph. 1:13–14).
Moreover, Jesus grants his church the sacraments as tangible seals of his grace (cf. Rom. 4:11). These demonstrable confirmations of Christ’s loving kindness strengthen us amid life’s murky ambiguities to keep entrusting ourselves to God’s sovereign care and choose to lead lives of love. We can take him at his word and wait for the morning, when he will resolve all complications (Ruth 3:18; cf. Ps. 37:7). As the saying attributed to Corrie ten Boom urges, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
- Perhaps Naomi wants Ruth to indicate the completion of her mourning for Mahlon (cf. David’s changing garments and applying lotions to signal the end of his mourning in 2 Sam. 12:20). Cf. Block, Ruth, 169–170.
- Cf. Hubbard, Book of Ruth, 203–204. Scholars debate why the narrator employs terminology that can connote sexual activity, such as “know” (i.e., sexual intercourse), “uncover” (which can be used in sexually illicit contexts), “his feet” (“feet” may in some contexts refer to genitalia), and “lie down” (i.e., sexual intercourse). Moreover, the harvest season in general and the threshing floor in particular can be associated with fertility/fruitfulness. While the narrator may deliberately use evocative language to heighten suspense, this in no way suggests that Ruth and Boaz engage in any illicit sexual activity. The opposite is the case. In fact, this scene features Ruth and Boaz’s commitment to righteous propriety, even in a secluded, romantically charged context.
- Naomi knows that Boaz will not exploit Ruth. Sending Ruth to the threshing floor at night involves certain risks at the hands of other men, but not Boaz.
- The narrator portrays Boaz’s eating and drinking not as excessive but simply to the point of satisfaction after having enjoyed a harvest feast. A full stomach will help him sleep, which is critical to the plan’s success.
- That Ruth is proposing marriage is supported by other passages in which this sort of language is used in the context of establishing a covenant (Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11), including a marriage covenant (Ezek. 16:8). The image of coming under one’s “wings” connotes receiving that person’s provision and protection (cf. Pss. 57:1; 61:4; Matt. 23:37).
- Cf. Ruth 4:9-12. Similar to the places named in Ruth 1:2, the witnesses mention Ephrathah, Bethlehem, and Judah, although here “Judah” refers to the man rather than the ancestral territory. Judah had refused to apply the levirate provision for Tamar’s advantage following the deaths of Tamar’s husbands, his sons (Genesis 38; cf. Matt. 1:3). But whereas Judah failed to deal righteously with widowed Tamar (Gen. 38:26), Boaz succeeds in dealing righteously with widowed Ruth and Naomi.
This article is by Mary Willson Hannah and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Deuteronomy–Ruth (Volume 2) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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