Ancient History, History, King of Hopelessness: A Study of Ruth

King of Hopelessness, pt 10 (3:1-5)

וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי חֲמוֹתָהּ בִּתִּי הֲלֹא אֲבַקֶּשׁ־לָךְ מָנוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב־לָךְ׃
וְעַתָּה הֲלֹא בֹעַז מֹדַעְתָּנוּ אֲשֶׁר הָיִית אֶת־נַעֲרוֹתָיו הִנֵּה־הוּא זֹרֶה אֶת־גֹּרֶן הַשְּׂעֹרִים הַלָּיְלָה׃
וְרָחַצְתְּ וָסַכְתְּ וְשַׂמְתְּ שִׂמְלֹתַיִךְ עָלַיִךְ וְיָרַדְתְּ הַגֹּרֶן אַל־תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת׃
וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב־שָׁם וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וְשָׁכָבְתְּ וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂין׃
וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאמְרִי ֵ ַ אֶעֱשֶׂה׃

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.

Wash 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. But 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.” And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”  (3:1-5)

Rest for you. Earlier, Naomi had encouraged Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s houses so they could find a new husband and rest. (1:9) The idea is a place of comfort, implying the healthy relationship of a man and woman resting together in completeness. It does not in any way indicate an end of work because the work of a wife was often much harder than that of a young woman, but rather the sense of a “right place”.

Naomi recognizes that Ruth’s “right place” is with a husband and she judges that the time is right for Ruth to declare this to Boaz. As I’ve already noted, Ruth and Boaz clearly fancy one another, but they have restrained from acting on the relationship – or Ruth has anyway.

The Threshing Floor. Because the grain harvest were so important in the Late Bronze Age, we actually know quite a bit about threshing floors and the like. The barley harvest was an important celebration, and the threshing floor was essentially the place where everyone made public the relationships that had been formed during the harvest. Young men and women would pair off as they had in the fields and, we assume, contracts would be made for their official marriages.

A threshing floor usually was a hill with flat land around it. On the flat land, the men would winnow the grain with whip-like sticks, breaking the stalks and loosening the husks around the grain. Then the women would gather the winnowed grain in baskets, take it to the top of the hill and carefully throw it up into the wind. The husks and stalks would blow away and the kernels of barley would fall back into the baskets.

After the daylight waned, the gathered group would celebrate, drinking the dregs of the previous seasons beer and the first bits of the current seasons. After eating and drinking, people would lie down on the threshing floor to sleep because they would be doing the same thing the following day.

Wash therefore and anoint yourself. A lot of commentators make it sound as if Naomi has some kind of nefarious plan to seduce Boaz here. I don’t think that is the case at all, and I think it demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the context. Clearly the views of sexuality and marriage in this context are different from our own modern views, which are often tainted by Puritanical and Victorian prudishness to a fault.

Naomi is instructing Ruth to prepare herself Boaz. Since Boaz was flirting with her in the fields while she was working, dirty and nasty, I doubt seriously that it mattered to him whether she was washed or not. The preparations Ruth needs to take are more to announce that she is now ready to accept him as her husband and she has cleansed herself for exactly that purpose.

Even the way that Naomi instructs Ruth to put on her cloak (שִׂמְלָה, sēmlah) implies something of a signal that Ruth is ready for Boaz. Of course, the language is poetic and somewhat obscure but this might have been some kind of special garment, meant to conceal the clean and perfumed body beneath.

Uncover his feet. The phrase uncover his feet is a sexual metaphor. This is difficult for most Christian readers to accept, but Naomi is instructing Ruth to uncover her own body, wrap herself in Boaz’s robe against his own naked body and then wait for him to notice. This is a totally sexual act, and as a result it makes a lot of us uncomfortable because we have an unhealthy separation of sexual contact and marriage.

As pointed out earlier, there is nothing immoral or even immodest in what Naomi tells Ruth to do. This is simply how marriage worked in this context, and in many ways it is far more moral than the way we do things today. The Hebrews would have had no understanding of the distinctions of “living together” and “common law” marriage that we have today.

Thus, we have Ruth clean and anointed with perfumed oils, wrapped in her cloak and waiting for Boaz to finally rest on the ground. Her willingness to do this can be understood as duty to Naomi, but it also seems that Ruth is more than willing to take this step. She has now labored in Boaz’s fields, eaten at his table and accepted his hospitality. She is a woman of child-bearing years, clearly active and vigorous and ready to be married again.

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