At His Feet Until Morning


On the BOOK of RUTH

by Ronald L. Ecker



In the Book of Ruth, set in the time of the judges, a rich man of Bethlehem named Boaz, full of food and drink after barley harvest, lies down to sleep by the heap of grain on his threshing floor. At midnight he awakes with a start, and finds a woman lying at his "feet" (a euphemism for his sexual organs), which the woman has uncovered.

"Who art thou?" Boaz asks, not recognizing the woman in the dark.

"I am Ruth thine handmaid," she replies.

Ruth is a young Moabite widow, related to Boaz by marriage. She has recently come from Moab with her Judahite mother-in-law Naomi. Naomi and her husband Elimelech and sons Mahlon and Chilion had gone from Bethlehem to sojourn in Moab during a famine. Now Naomi's husband (a relative of Boaz) and both sons are dead, prompting Naomi's return to Judah, with her daughter-in-law Ruth accompanying her.

Ruth and Boaz first meet when Ruth is gleaning grain (as the poor are allowed to do) left behind by harvesters, in what happens to be Boaz's field. On learning who she is, Boaz instructs his men to see that some grain is left for her, and to allow Ruth to glean "even among the sheaves" without reproach.



Gustave Doré
Boaz and Ruth


Now her mother-in-law Naomi has put Ruth up to coming by night to the threshing floor--"uncover his feet, and lay thee down"--as a bold way for Ruth to propose.

"Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid," Ruth tells Boaz, "for thou art a near kinsman." To spread his skirt or cloak over her would signify taking possession (cf. Ezek. 16:8), and the term "near kinsman" translates the Hebrew word go'el ("redeemer")--a man who protects the heritage of a deceased relative by buying his property, and perhaps by marrying his widow, as in levirate marriage (marrying the wife of a deceased brother who was childless).

Whether sexual intercourse takes place on the threshing floor is not stated, though Amy-Jill Levine notes that threshing floors were associated with sexual activity, and that the Hebrew word for skirt (kanap) can also connote genitals, reinforcing the sexual subtext. Boaz in any case has Ruth stay all night; she lies "at his feet until morning," though she leaves before it's light enough for people to recognize each other.

Wenzel Bible (1389)
Ruth Asleep at the Feet of Boaz


Apparently eager to accept her proposal, Boaz must first see if a nearer kinsman, whom the book does not name, will waive his right to redeem the property involved, Ruth included.

Boaz and this fellow meet before witnesses at the city gate. The nearer kinsman, not wishing to complicate his family's inheritance through fathering a child by Ruth, removes his shoe and hands it to Boaz, a ritual act signifying waiver of the right to redeem. Boaz then publicly announces himself as the redeemer, buying the property. He accordingly takes Ruth as his wife.

Johann Christoph Weigel
Boaz Marries Ruth
Woodcut, 1695


Ruth bears a son by Boaz named Obed. "Blessed be the Lord," Ruth tells Naomi, for God has given Naomi a kinsman: "Thy daughter-in-law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him."

Ruth is admired as one of the Bible's most resourceful women. She also shows exemplary loyalty. "Whither thou goest, I will go," she tells Naomi, who, returning from Moab to Judah after the deaths of her spouse and sons, urges her Moabite daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to turn back. Orpah does so, but Ruth tells Naomi, "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."



Ruth overcomes the fact that she is a Moabite female in Hebrew patriarchal society. ("No Ammonite or Moabite," says Deuteronomy 23:3, "shall enter the assembly of God.") The rich Boaz may also have beaten the odds in life, his mother Rahab being a former Canaanite prostitute, though his father Salmon may have been well-to-do (Joshua 2:1-21 and 6:17,21-25; Matthew 1:5).

The Book of Ruth, set in the time of the judges but composed probably after the Babylonian exile, can also be seen as a reaction to the post-exilic efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to prohibit Jewish men from marrying non-Jewish women. Boaz and Ruth the Moabite are King David's great-grandparents.


To hear the song "Ruth," click here.



Sources:

Ecker, Ronald L. "Ruth" in And Adam Knew Eve: A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock, 1995, pp. 137-138.

Kates, Judith A., and Reimer, Gail Twersky, ed. Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., ed. "The Book of Ruth" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 333-337.

Levine, Amy-Jill. "Ruth" in The Women's Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition with Apocrypha ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998., pp. 78-84.

_____. Personal communication, 1998.


Links


For the biblical text of the Book of Ruth (King James Version), click here.

See the articles in the Jewish Encyclopedia, Catholic Encyclopedia, and the Wikipedia on the Book of Ruth.

For the divine commandment that the poor be allowed to glean fields, see Leviticus 19:9-10.

On the biblical law of levirate marriage, to which Ruth and Boaz's marriage is similar, see Deuteronomy 25:5-10.



Who were the Moabites?


Holy Land
(detail, showing Moab)
from Hand Book of Bible Geography
Hodder and Stoughton, London
Courtesy of Hipkiss' Scanned Old Maps


According to the Bible, Moab and Benammi, the progenitors of the countries called Moab and Ammon, were the offspring of incest between Lot (nephew of Abraham) and his daughters, after fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (See Gen. 19:29-38.)

The Moabites lived east of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan, and appear or are mentioned several times in the Bible (e.g., in the stories about Balaam [Numbers 22:1-24:25], the assassination of Moab's King Eglon [Judges ch. 3], and the children of Israel, encamped in Moab under Moses, committing "whoredom with the daughters of Moab" [Numbers 25:1]).

The nation of Moab disappeared from history in the wake of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. Before then, about 830 B.C., King Mesha of Moab boasted in a stone inscription of victory over Israel. (Israel would fall over a century later to the Assyrians. On Mesha, see 2 Kings 1:1 and 3:4-27.) The language of the Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone, now in the Louvre Museum, is very similar to biblical Hebrew.


I am Mesha, son of (the god) Chemosh, . . .
king of Moab . . . As for Omri, king of Israel,
he humbled Moab many years, for Chemosh
was angry at his land. And his son followed
him and he also said, "I will humble Moab."
. . . But I have triumphed over him and his
house, while Israel hath perished forever! . . .
And Chemosh said to me, "Go, take Nebo
from Israel!" So I went by night and fought
against it from the break of dawn until noon,
taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men,
boys, women, girls and maid-servants, for I
had devoted them to destruction for Ashtar-
Chemosh . . . (from translation by W.F.
Albright)


See the articles on Moab in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Jewish Encyclopedia, Smith's Bible Dictionary, Unger's Bible Dictionary, and the Wikipedia.


The land of Moab (now part of Jordan)



Copyright 1995, 2012 by Ronald L. Ecker


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