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Myth: Ruth was a model of chastity before marriage.

I have received several inquiries regarding this Myth of the Month. I believe people have found it particularly challenging. In order to help, I'm going to clarify a bit more. The original text will remain in black, but I will indicate the additions in red. For the visually impaired, I will add a summary to distinguish the additional text.

In recent years, the story of Ruth has been used to demonstrate the benefits of chastity before marriage. In fact, several books have been written which suggest women in particular have a responsibility to remain sexually pure. "Ruth" has been the primary text used to support this unique obligation for woman. Several text through out the Bible make it plain that ALL Christians are called to chastity. Paul even says that if we "burn", have intense sexual desire, then we should get married rather than be impure. This is a good and positive message which the church should stress. Yet we can not make the Bible say what it does not.

The narrative of Ruth is not about sexual chastity. The words used in the narrative suggest that Ruth and Boaz had sex---before marriage. More, Ruth is portrayed as a active participant in the events, not some passive lady waiting for her man. If we are willing to truly read what the Bible says many of our preconceived notions about Ruth will be challenged.

Many books have indicated Ruth is the story of two young people in love. Far from being the story of chaste young lovers, however, Ruth depicts a woman who sought a wealthy (Ruth 2:1) older man (Ruth 3:10). The narrator tell us in 2:1 that Boaz is a wealthy man, saying "Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband's side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimmech, whose name was Boaz." In addition to telling the reader the name of the man and that he was wealthy, the narrator has explained that as a relative of Naomi's husband, this man has rights and responsibilities toward his relative's widows.

Ruth decides to go out to the field and try to find "favor" with someone. "And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, 'Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.'" This may be taken several ways. First, it could imply the possibility that widows and others may be denied the right to glean offered by the law. This would work well for this chapter. However, it may also imply that Ruth sought more than just gleaning privileges; meaning she sought to find favor in "his" eyes. This works well with the overall story of Ruth.

Interestingly Naomi does not go into the fields with Ruth. While Naomi was older than Ruth, the story does not seem to suggest she was too old to work. Naomi had, after all, walked from Moab to Judah. It could reflect her depression and bitterness, however.

Boaz arrives at the fields and spots Ruth. He asks, "To whom does this young woman belong?" In this society, women belonged either to their father or their husband. This belonging established their place in society. Ruth does not "belong" for she has neither husband nor father (he was in Moab if he was still living) and she does not "belong" with the community for she is a Moabitess. This information would also alert Boaz that Ruth is available, though he may not have been asking directly.

Ruth had asked the overseer for a special privilege. "Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers," she'd said (vs 7). The poor and widows were allowed to gather the left-overs in the field. Ruth wanted to gather in the midst of the harvesters. This was far more than the rights of widows allowed, and far more than a mere overseer could grant. This request is so extreme, many commentators have been tempted to adjust the text in the belief that sweet Ruth would never be so presumptuous.

In verse 10 Ruth speaks to Boaz. She dramatically drops to the ground and bows in gratitude for the normal right to gather "scraps". This type of bowing was usually done before the deity, but occasionally could be done before a person. The action was extreme.

Ruth's request is granted in vs 15, "Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her." Ruth has found favor in Boaz's sight (vs 10) which was she said she wanted in vs 2 ("Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.") She stresses in vs 13 that she has found favor with Boaz, saying, "May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants." She first equates herself to one of Boaz's servants, but then forcefully says she is not one of his servants. The Hebrew goes a bit further to say she will never be like his servants.

"Spoken kindly" had many meanings, including speaking tenderly to a woman (see Gen 34:3, Judges 19:3 and Hosea 2:16). She returns home with the grain for Naomi and to tell Naomi about her day. Naomi concocts a plan.

Naomi, identifies Boaz as a source of security for Ruth, and tells Ruth to seek out Boaz. Naomi's instructions are very detailed.. Ruth 3:1 says, "Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, 'My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.'" In our modern terms this would be the equivalent of going for the money. Our society looks down on women who marry for these reasons as shown by the press coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's marriage and widowhood.

The reason for Ruth seeking Boaz is not a romantic love, but security.

Naomi instructs Ruth to dress up for the evening, to put on her perfume. As Ruth 3:3 records, "Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor." This mirrors the events in Ezekiel 16:8-10. "I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric."

The threshing floor held certain connotations. Boaz himself reveals that a woman's reputation could be threatened by a visit to the threshing floor when he says, "It must not be know that the woman came to the threshing floor". Apparently, the threshing floor was a place of illicit liaisons, much as were the vineyards in the Song of Songs. For instance in Hosea.......""

Ruth was to wait until the men were sated on food and drink before joining Boaz in his temporary bed. Boaz is described as being in a "contented" mood (vs 7). Naomi continued, "But do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 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." Hebrew, like English, uses euphemisms. One such euphemism is the substitution of "feet" for male parts. For instance, David tells Uriah to "Go down to your house, and wash your feet" (2 Sam. 11:8) in hopes of passing off his child as Uriah's.) It has also been suggested that the Ruth uncovered herself. Neither possibility may be dismissed merely because we know what Ruth is or isn't like even when the narrative says differently. Even if we dismiss the euphemism, however, we are left with Ruth uncovering the lower part of Boaz's body for this word does not simply mean "feet" but "his legs".

"Uncover" is also used as a euphemism for intercourse in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 27:20 uncover the Leviticus 18:6-19 uses "uncover nakedness".

Notice also that Naomi instructs Ruth to do whatever Boaz tells her. Picture the events. A group of men have been eating and drinking (whether to excess or socially). They go to sleep on the floor where they have been working. A woman sneaks in, selects one of the men (she does not select a field worker, but the owner of the field). She "uncovers" some part of his body, the lower part at least. She lays down beside him. When he wakes, she is to do whatever he tells her. This is Naomi's instruction to Ruth.

Incidentally, notice that she is to lay down with Boaz, the Bible does not say she is to lay at the foot of his bed (as some commentators have indicated). In the story Boaz doesn't even have a bed, for he's laying on the threshing floor near a "heap of grain" (3:7).

Ruth does as her mother-in-law instructs; she even goes further. "So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down" (Ruth 3:6-7). Boaz, of course, wakes up to discover Ruth. She says to him, "I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin." Ruth first identifies herself using a word to convey that she is eligible for marriage or concubinage, then uses an expression for adult interaction.

Ruth does not wait for Boaz to tell her what to do, instead she asks him to act. Ruth asks Boaz to "spread your cloak over your servant". As we see in Ezekiel 16:8 that this expression conveys the consummation of the relationship, physically. "I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine." Boaz praises Ruth for not choosing one of the younger men (3:10).

Visualize the scene. An older man who is in a "contented" mood, wakes to discover his lower half has been uncovered, and a young woman laying next to him. He asks who she is, and she replies by identifying herself as available for marriage or concubinage. Then she tells him to share the covers. The man is please the woman chose him, and older man instead of some young guy. Even beyond the Hebrew word meanings, if we picture the scene we know what is happening.

Boaz obliges her. Ruth 3:14 continues, "So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, 'It must not be known that the woman can to the threshing floor.'" Boaz worked to protect Ruth's reputation.

Ruth does not immediately leave, as one would expect if this were a mere ritual. Instead, Ruth "lay at his feet until morning" (Ruth 3:14) at Boaz's request (13). She stays even though they are trying to be secretive (14). Moreover, the issue of marriage is not yet decided. Boaz recognizes that another man may have more of a claim to Ruth than he does. He says, "But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the LORD lives, I will act physically as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning" (vs 13).

The entire story echoes that of Tamar and Judah. Tamar was married to Judah's son Er. He died. Judah gave Tamar Onan as a husband. He died. Judah promised Tamar his youngest son Shelah. He renigged on the deal.

Husbandless and sonless, Tamar had to act. She developed a plan. In Genesis 38:14, "she put off her widow's garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage." Tamar dressed for a purpose. "When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, 'Come, let me come in to you,' for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, 'What will you give me, that you may come in to me?'" (vs 16). They complete the transaction, "So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him" (18). Tamar is, of course, discovered. We would expect that she would be condemned for immorality; however, Judah does not condemn her. Judah declares her, "more right than I" in verse 26. In addition to the stylistic and narrative similarities which would remind us of the story, the Book of Ruth references it. "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah" (Ruth 4:12).

Obviously, the story of Ruth does not seek to encourage pre-marital sexual activity. That is simply not the point. At the same time we can't ignore what the text says to create a teaching. Even if we ignore the euphemisms and idioms, the text has heavy overtones which preclude using the story as an example of chastity in the Bible. Most of us would have labelled Ruth a gold-digger, if we met her today. She dressed herself up to meet an inebriated rich older man, for the purpose of gaining security. She crawled into his bed (or rather onto his spot on the floor), uncovered his lower half, then waited, ready to do whatever he said. This woman wasn't a saint, a model of chastity and purity. Instead she was a real woman facing starvation in a society that offered little opportunity for woman without male protectors. The biblical Ruth has more to teach us than the mythical saint.

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