Ruth 3 Commentary: When we open to the 3rd chapter of the book of Ruth we’re coming into the middle of several story lines in the Bible.
Story of Ruth
First – obviously – we’re landing in the middle of the book of Ruth. We studied the first two chapters already. And in those chapters we saw the godly man from Bethlehem named Boaz being very kind and gracious to a Moabite named Ruth. And if that’s all that you knew, you might be a little confused. After all, Israelites weren’t supposed to let Moabites into their assembly. Ah, but Ruth is different. She parted ways with her idols a while ago. She now trusts the true God of Israel.
But how did that happen? How did Ruth hear about this God of Israel? From a family from Bethlehem, actually. There was a famine in the land of Israel and they decided to go to godless Moab. And – whether it was a punishment from God or not –the father of that family died in Moab. Then – without the family leader – the two boys married Moabite women. And again those boys died, leaving their Moabite spouses – Ruth and Orpah – and their mother Naomi. Naomi tells the girls to go home. Orpah does but Ruth refuses. And that’s where we heard of Ruth’s confession of allegiance to the Lord.
Days of the Judges
Now, all of these events happened when? In the days of…? In the days of the Judges. So, secondly, when we enter Ruth 3 we enter into the midst of the days during which the form of Israelite government was this system of tribal rulers whom we know as “judges”. And how was the spiritual atmosphere overall in the days of the judges? Not good. Things were going from bad to worse. Israel was supposed to drive out the idolatrous foreigners from the land that the Lord gave them. Instead, the people intermarried with the idolaters and even worshiped their false deities. So, in light of the very dark days in which the book of Ruth takes place – what we see of Boaz’s righteousness and of Ruth’s loyalty – these things are very encouraging to us. God was preserving righteous people even in the dark days of the judges.
Looking for a King
But the book of Judges not only left us with real concern for the spiritual state of the nation of Israel – it also left us with a good deal of anticipation for a king. A king who would lead the people to do right – not in their own eyes – but in the eyes of the Lord. So, we enter the book of Ruth and the 3rd chapter looking for a king.
And this expectation of a king over Israel wasn’t new to the book of Judges or the book of Ruth. The Hebrews had reason to believe that they would have a king all the way back in the Law. Deuteronomy 17:15 tells the Israelites that they will have a king appointed over them by the Lord himself. But the promise of a king goes even farther back than that. Balaam – when he was trying to curse Israel – actually prophesied that they would have a king. And even before that – in Genesis 17 God tells Abraham that kings will come forth from him and his wife Sarah. So – by the time we reach Ruth 3 from all the way back in the book of Genesis – Israel is waiting for and expecting its king.
Ruth 3 Commentary: Verses 1 – 5
So with that background in mind, let’s start reading Ruth 3:1.
KJV Ruth 3:1 ¶ Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? 2 And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor. 3 Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. 4 And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do. 5 And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.
Now, what is Naomi instructing Ruth to do here? Naomi tells her to put on some perfume, put on some clothing and go to the threshing floor and meet Boaz. The reference to putting on clothing might indicate that Ruth had up to this point been wearing clothing typical of one who was mourning. Why would Ruth be mourning? Remember – her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law had all died. And her brother-in-law and husband had died fairly recently. So, Ruth was probably still wearing clothing that indicated her sorrow over these events. Naomi tells her – now’s the time to change those clothes.
Naomi tells Ruth to watch where Boaz goes after he’s full from supper. After he lays down and goes to sleep, Ruth needs to go over there and uncover his feet and lie down. And Naomi is confident that Boaz will have further instructions from that point.
Now, we need to talk about how some people interpret these instructions that Naomi gave to Ruth. There are some who actually think that Naomi is counseling Ruth to be immoral – or at least to act like an immoral woman. They say that this kind of activity was typical of ancient prostitutes. During times of harvest the men would often sleep with their grain. These prostitutes would come by and offer their services and in return get some grain. The fact that Ruth is told to uncover Boaz’s feet is pointed to as proof that this is indeed what’s happening here. The terms “foot” and “feet” in the Old Testament are sometimes used as a euphemism for the reproductive organs. So, according to this view, Naomi is basically counseling Ruth to play the part of an immoral woman.
But if that is indeed what’s happening, it would be astounding. It would fly in the face of what we’ve seen of the characters thus far. Boaz is an extremely godly man. Are we supposed to believe that Naomi would actually think that he’d be the kind to accept an invitation to participate in immorality? Naomi has flaws – and we had reason to wonder about her spirituality especially when her family went to Moab. But the rest of what we see from her seems above-board. And Ruth – she’s done nothing but good. She’s forsaken her false gods, shown flawless loyalty to her mother-in-law – AND SHE DIDN’T NEED TO! She’s been a hard worker in the fields. If Naomi is truly telling Ruth to look for and offer an illicit sexual encounter with Boaz it would be a total shock to all of us. And it should be – because that’s not what the narrator has led us to expect from any of these people. We could expect this kind of behavior in the book of Judges. But not in the book of Ruth. So, the way that the characters are portrayed in this book would make us think that Naomi isn’t telling Ruth to be immoral.
But also – what is Naomi’s motivation? Her stated motivation is that she would seek rest for Ruth, so that it may be well with her. Naomi then has no intention of some kind of romantic fling for Ruth. Naomi wants Ruth taken care of. Naomi has this in her heart for Ruth. Remember back in the first chapter – Naomi desired that each of her daughters-in-law would get married and find REST in the house of their husbands. And that’s the same concern she still has for Ruth. That she’d find rest in the house of – in this case – Boaz. Therefore, Naomi wants Ruth to see if Boaz will marry her.
Well, you might think it’s a little strange that Naomi is advising Ruth to approach Boaz and basically propose to him. In our culture it’s pretty typical that men approach women when proposing marriage – and probably not very often the other way around – the woman proposing to the man.
On top of that – you might also wonder why Naomi would think that Boaz would marry Ruth in the first place. Is there some sort of cultural expectation that would strongly influence Boaz in that direction?
So, let’s talk about the cultural expectations in the days of Boaz and Ruth. We’ve seen before this concern that the Lord had for the individual Israelite tribes to retain their land inheritance. He didn’t want land changing hands permanently. If you’re an Old Testament Hebrew and your family has rights to a piece of land, that piece of land needs to stay in your family. I’ll just remind us of an example of this. Remember wicked king Ahab and Naboth? Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard. It didn’t seem to be a big deal. It was just a little vineyard. The king was prepared to pay Naboth the going rate for land in those days. But Naboth refused to sell his land. And it was because of this concern that land remain in the hands of those families who inherited it back in the days of Joshua.
Now, there are a number of threats to the land remaining within the tribes of Israel. The only one we’ll explore is where all the men in that particular family die. Men would have been the landowners. If all the men in a family die and have no sons to take their place, the land basically ends up belonging to others families within that tribe or it might even fall to others in other tribes as the women marry other men.
Well, God anticipated this issue. And so he commanded back in the Law that if brothers live together and one dies without leaving an heir to the land then the brother needs to marry his brother’s widow and raise up a child to inherit his father’s property. So, then that child will grow and he’ll take charge of that property. And the land will remain with that family.
Now, to whom was Ruth married? Mahlon. What happened to him? He died. So his brother Chilion would be next in line to marry Ruth and raise up a boy to inherit the land. But what happened to Chilion? Yeah, he died, too. What happens then? You’re basically looking for the next of kin. And what is the rhetorical question Naomi asks Ruth? “Is not Boaz our kinsman?” Our next of kin? In other words – “the man who’s next in line legally to marry you and raise up a son to inherit our land?”
OK, so the question is – is there some cultural obligation that Boaz might have to marry Ruth? The answer? Yes. At least someone in Elimelech’s family needs to perform this duty. And to this point we’re led to believe that that someone is Boaz. And let me say this without intending to be too silly – Boaz is quite a catch. Really. He’s a seriously godly man. And there are a lot of men to whom Ruth might be married in the dark days of the Judges that would be really really wicked. Both Naomi and Ruth would have been very glad that he seems to be the next in line to fulfill this obligation.
And Naomi has full confidence in Boaz. She tells Ruth to go to him. And when she does go, he will tell her what to do next.
But why the secrecy? And if Boaz is so godly and would know about this cultural expectation that he’d marry Ruth, why does she need to go to him? Why doesn’t he come to her?
Here’s my reconstruction of what’s happening. Naomi knows – or at least she thinks that she knows – that Boaz is the next in line to marry Ruth. But Boaz hasn’t made any advances in that area. Why? I thought he was godly. He is godly – but I think at least one thing would have been hindering him from making any advance. Do you remember where Naomi tells Ruth to put on clothes in verse 3? It’s not that she didn’t have any on. But rather I think she may have still had her mourning garments on her. It’s not very common for us to express our mourning the loss of our loved ones by the clothing we wear. But it happened in ancient Israel. And I’m supposing that the kind of clothes that Ruth was wearing indicated to all that she was still mourning the loss of her husband. Boaz would have seen that and known to not pursue anything while that was the case.
Ruth 3 Commentary: Verses 6 – 18
And there’s actually another reason Boaz didn’t pursue his obligations to Ruth that we’ll learn in the next scene. So let’s start reading that scene in verse 6.
6 ¶ And she went down unto the floor, and did according to all that her mother in law bade her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn [or grain]: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down. [Now, let’s think about this. She uncovers his feet. And some commentators think that this is a reference to something sexual. I really don’t think that’s the case and I’ve explained why already. So, we’ve explained what this gesture of Ruth’s wasn’t intended to do. But positively, what was it meant to accomplish? Verse 8.] 8 And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, [Or “startled”. And in order to be startled, a man would need to be awake. And what wakes a man from sleep better than uncovering his feet and exposing them to the increasing cool of the surrounding night air? That’s – I believe – why Ruth uncovered his feet. To wake him up eventually, but not right away. Try it at home some time with your spouse – at your own peril.] and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. 9 And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman. [So, basically, there’s the proposal. Boaz should marry Ruth because he’s a near kinsman. How does he respond? Verse 10.] 10 And he said, Blessed be thou of the LORD, my daughter: [Notice that he doesn’t rebuke her for any supposed immoral intentions. Neither do we witness them involved in any form of immorality. He blesses her. This was apparently a good thing that she did. Why? Keep reading.] for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, [How’s that?] inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. [Which indicates that Boaz was likely an older man.] 11 And now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city of my people doth know that thou art a virtuous woman. [So, Boaz encourages Ruth’s boldness. But he has some news for her. And this news explains why he seemed to be slow in acting on his obligation to marry Ruth.] 12 And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman: howbeit there is a kinsman nearer than I. [So, I’m thinking that Boaz was waiting on this other guy to act. But he hasn’t so far.] 13 Tarry this night, and it shall be in the morning, that if he will perform unto thee the part of a kinsman, well; let him do the kinsman’s part: but if he will not do the part of a kinsman to thee, then will I do the part of a kinsman to thee, as the LORD liveth: lie down until the morning. [Again, I’m impressed with Boaz’s selflessness. He’s willing to obey the Lord and marry Ruth. From what he says it sounds like he’d be very happy to do that. But he also knows that there’s someone closer to Ruth and Naomi than he is. So, Boaz plays by the rules and wants to give this other guy an opportunity to marry Ruth and inherit the land of Elimelech.]
14 ¶ And she lay at his feet until the morning: and she rose up before one could know another. [It was still so dark that no one would know who was there or not.] And he said, Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor. 15 Also he said, Bring the vail that thou hast upon thee, and hold it. And when she held it, he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her: [Again, Boaz’s lavish kindness.] and she went into the city. 16 And when she came to her mother in law, she said, Who art thou, my daughter? [Obviously Naomi knows Ruth’s identity. One commentator suggested that Naomi is asking something akin to “Whose wife are you?”] And she told her all that the man had done to her. 17 And she said, These six measures of barley gave he me; for he said to me, Go not empty unto thy mother in law. [So not only would Boaz make a godly husband, he also seems to be a future mother-in-law’s dream come true – being concerned for even her.] 18 Then said she, Sit still, my daughter, until thou know how the matter will fall: for the man will not be in rest, until he have finished the thing this day. [Which is a great segue into the next scene. 4:1.]