In Ruth 3, a young widow heads to the threshing floor. If you were an ancient reader of this story, if you heard it recited by your friends around a campfire, if you listened to it whispered to you by the young women of the town, your eyes would get a little wider as you approached this part of the story.
Threshing floors were not the places associated with good, upright living. These were work sites located just outside the city wall, out of the way and at higher point than the rest of the town so that chaff, the stuff left over from threshing, could blow away.
Beyond prying eyes, this was a place where men would gather after a long day of work for an even longer night of drinking. It was a place where sexual morals were lax.
Naomi has devised a plot to get her and Ruth out of the dangerous situation of being unmarried women in ancient Judea. The plan involves Ruth seeking out Boaz, a “kinsman redeemer” of perfect marriage pedigree, after everyone has passed out from drinking too much. And there Ruth is to uncover “the place of his feet,” his regalim. Our pious translations do not reveal that this word is probably better translated “lower parts,” and is often a reference to male anatomy in the Hebrew Bible.
After Ruth does this, she is to “lie down. And he will tell you what you should do.” The verb for “lying down” appears often in this chapter. It isn’t too far off a euphemism we use in English —“sleep with.” Ruth 3 is a challenge to piety, to say the least.
There’s a lot of hinting at what might happen, much left to mystery and imagination, but I suspect what details are provided remind us that Naomi’s plan required risqué forwardness on the part of Ruth — a substantial risk that depended upon belief in the integrity of Boaz for it to work. Never was the phrase “desperate times call for desperate measures” more accurately applied.
Ruth goes for it. “Everything you say, I will do.” Stealthily and quickly, she executes the plan.
“And here,” we read in the understated Hebrew of Ruth, “is a woman lying at the place of his feet.” That would be surprising.
And this is where Ruth goes off script. She’s supposed to wait for him, for his initiative. But that’s not what Ruth does. He asks who is there. Then Ruth says her name. And asks for something.
This is the first time in the book that Ruth’s name has been said by any character. She’s been called many things — a worker-girl, a Moabite, “my daughter,” servant-girl. Just as something has changed in Naomi, something now changes for Ruth. She calls herself by a household name. She says her name, and she says what she wants.
“Spread your wing over me,” she tells him, “for you are a redeemer.” Literally, she means for him to throw his cloak over her, to cover them both up for the night with his clothing as a blanket. But it means more than that. It’s a marriage proposal, the social and economic protection afforded by marriage. It’s the same metaphor Boaz used when he asked God’s protection on Ruth, praying God would cover Ruth with God’s wings.
In this moment Ruth risks everything she has left: her reputation and her dignity. I don’t like to think of what would have happened if Boaz decided to tell the crowds Ruth showed up to uncover his lower parts while he was passed out on a threshing floor. This was courage in the most vulnerable and powerful way I can imagine.
It works out. Boaz lives up to his reputation as a man of covenant love for God. He praises Ruth, promises to work out the details in the morning, gives her food and sends her back before anyone can see her there.
I love what happens next. Ruth shows up at Naomi’s tent with 100 pounds of barley, and in the new morning light her mother-in-law says to her, “Who are you, my daughter?” It’s not that Naomi doesn’t know this is Ruth. But something about the young Moabite woman is changed.
Ruth didn’t wait for good luck to befall her. Outside of respectability, outside of piety, outside of social expectation, Ruth pursues goodness and stability for herself and Naomi. These acts are called hesed, loving-kindness. It is the same word used for the covenantal love God offers to Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible.
To be remade by courage, to lift one’s self out from the deep well of loss, to push the boundaries of morality to their limits for justice, to say your own name — that is the story of covenant love in the Book of Ruth.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church and the author of Fire By Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament (Herald Press, 2019).