A few years ago, the History Channel produced and aired a series called “Bible Secrets Revealed,” which ended with an installment titled “Sex and the Scriptures.”
The episode description set the tone: “Millions of people around the world look to the Bible for moral guidance about marriage, faith and family. But could the Bible contain contradictions, or hidden meanings, that challenge our beliefs about what is right – and what is wrong – when it comes to human sexuality?”
The show retells the story of the book of Ruth and makes the assertion that when Ruth uncovered the feet of Boaz, it was an attempt to have sex with him.
While it is not surprising to see a secular, non-Jewish, non-Christian TV production company draw such a conveniently exploitative conclusion about the well-known story of Ruth, I’ve been surprised lately to see some Christian and Jewish commentators making the same claim – one that is unequivocally refuted by the text itself.
This hit me recently as I have been researching my next book – a follow-up to “The Restitution of All Things: Israel, Christians and the End of the Age.” I spent some serious time in the absolutely amazing book of Ruth – more study in the short, four-chapter story than ever before. In addition to studying the text itself, I read a multitude of commentaries and was struck by how many of the modern ones fall into this trap of interpreting an ancient story in a different culture through the eyes of modernity.
One professor of theology at a Baptist college summarized what happened on the threshing floor this way: “In essence, Naomi tells Ruth to put her physical safety and reputation on the line in an attempt to sexually entrap an inebriated man.”
I saw another commentator make this suggestion: “Ruth approached Boaz during the night, at the threshing floor, and the text obliquely suggests that there may have been some sexual hanky-panky.”
My intent is not to embarrass anyone, but I have to wonder if some folks are reading the Cliffs Notes of the Bible rather than the actual Scriptures.
Why does Ruth find favor in the eyes of Boaz, who is the quintessential, Jesus-like “kinsman-redeemer” type in all the Bible? Boaz explains: “It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”
Note that this is more than an act of charity by Boaz; it’s an act of evangelism and encouragement of Moabite Ruth’s decision to join the people of promise.
Seldom do we find a more unimpeachable and morally upright figure in Scripture than Boaz, the great grandfather of King David and a direct ancestor in the lineage of Jesus.
And never does the Bible pull any punches when it comes to examples of illicit sexual activity. When it happens, it flat-out tells the reader. In the case of Boaz and Ruth, it plainly says the opposite.
Yet, chapter 3 of Ruth has obviously been challenging for some Christians who view it through the lens of their own worldly culture and without the benefit of diligent study of the rest of the Old Testament, especially the books of Moses.
I’ve read and heard many recent teachings on the book of Ruth that have suggested that Naomi was “scheming” to get Boaz and Ruth together, perhaps even inappropriately. Many suggested Ruth’s intent was seducing Boaz into a sinful moral compromise or, perhaps, actually did so successfully. So, it’s important to look at what comes next in light of the law and the actual text of Ruth.
In chapter 3, Naomi begins by telling Ruth: “My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast?”
Naomi is expressing love and compassion for her daughter-in-law, explaining that Boaz has, by his actions, accepted her as one of his own kindred. (He not only referred to her as daughter, but treated her like one.) She goes on to give her clear instructions about what she is to do next.
“Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshing floor,” she continues. “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. 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.”
Ruth does what is told and goes further – explaining that she is offering Boaz her hand in a marriage that will lift her and Naomi out of poverty.
There are a few key Torah verses you need to familiarize yourself with before fully appreciating these instructions and what follows:
Exodus 22:22-24: “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.”
Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 24:17-18: “Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge: But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.”
Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.”
Review Leviticus 25:25-55 for more details on the law pertaining to the role of kinsman-redeemers – or, in Hebrew, “go-els.”
By his actions, we see that Boaz was keenly aware of all these commandments and took them to heart.
In Boaz we see a righteous, God-fearing man familiar with the law of Moses – a man who seeks not only to obey the letter of the law but the spirit of it. This is demonstrable through his treatment, compassion and respect for Naomi and Ruth. He was eager to do these things as a relative to them – even the Moabite “stranger” who had been adopted into the congregation of the House of Israel. We also see a son of Israel who practices what is called in Hebrew “chesed,” most commonly translated as “loving-kindness.”
There’s another key Torah verse I need to introduce at this point – Deuteronomy 25:5-6: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.”
How important was this commandment in ancient Israel’s culture? So, important that it includes public humiliation for those unwilling to exercise it, as stated in Deuteronomy 25:7-10: “And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him: and if he stand to it, and say, I like not to take her; Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.”
Now, let the next phase of Ruth’s story unfold. It would be best, at this point, to review the actual text, which, too often today, is misunderstood by pastors and teachers who see behavior that is not in evidence. Following Naomi’s instructions, let’s pick up the story in Ruth 3:6-18:
“And she went down unto the floor, and did according to all that her mother in law bade her. 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: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down. And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. 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. And he said, Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich. 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. And now it is true that I am thy near kinsman: howbeit there is a kinsman nearer than I. 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. And she lay at his feet until the morning: and she rose up before one could know another. And he said, Let it not be known that a woman came into the floor. 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: and she went into the city. And when she came to her mother in law, she said, Who art thou, my daughter? And she told her all that the man had done to her. And she said, These six measures of barley gave he me; for he said to me, Go not empty unto thy mother in law. 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.”
Let’s review exactly what happened that night:
- She waited until Boaz was asleep, uncovered his feet and lay down there.
- When Boaz awoke and asked who was there, she said: “I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for though art a near kinsman.”
- Boaz graciously and eagerly accepts her request to be her husband and kinsman-redeemer or, in Hebrew, go-el, but explains there is one kinsman closer than he who must first be offered the opportunity.
- She is told to lie down until the morning.
- Ruth lies at his feet and arises early before anyone else arrived.
The details are plain and precise. Yet, many modern commentators suggest a sexual liaison actually took place. It clearly did not.
The book of Ruth is a story of charity, faith, love, redemption – not deceptive scheming and law-breaking.
It’s no wonder so much of the church is lost and confused.
It’s no wonder the church is not meeting its charge of being salt and light in the world.
It’s no wonder the faithless world is mired in doubt and can’t discern between truth and lie.
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