When talking about the story of Ruth, you have a choice to make about the motives and morals of the main characters. I grew up hearing about a bitter old widow (Naomi) and a kind young woman (Ruth) who experience God’s providence in God’s good timing. Everything is aboveboard, even the part where Ruth lies down at the feet of sleeping Boaz on the threshing floor in a bid for him to become her family’s kinsman-redeemer.
That’s the way I know (and am currently preaching) the book of Ruth. But not everyone reads it that way.
Some people see Naomi not as helpless, but as shrewd and manipulative: Her instructions to Ruth to sneak up on Boaz in the middle of the night on the threshing floor is a sly way to arouse the rich relative of Ruth’s late husband. Naomi’s instructions to Ruth include this line: “Don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking.” The verb to know often has sexual connotations in Scripture, such as in Genesis 4 where “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived” (KJV). When Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet, the original Hebrew can alternately be read to mean that Ruth uncovers Boaz all the way up to his waist, exposing his private parts. Finally, historical evidence suggests that the only women who visit a threshing floor at night are prostitutes offering their services to the workers there. Is Naomi hoping that Boaz and Ruth will have sex, which Naomi could possibly use to pressure Boaz to marry and then provide for Ruth?
Personally, I still go with the reading I grew up with. Naomi seems too despondent to be devious. Boaz sounds like a righteous man beginning with the first words we hear out of his mouth (“The LORD be with you!”). Ruth is characterized as “a woman of noble character;” her words consistently echo of loyalty and humility. With the whole threshing floor incident, I see a Godly woman taking a bold initiative with a man who is righteous. I myself do not question the integrity or purity of any of the characters.
But even if one day I am proven wrong – that Naomi and Ruth indeed acted scandalously, even immorally – I don’t think I’ll be overly distraught. Regardless of Naomi and Ruth’s motives and morals, Ruth is still the great-grandmother of David and the ancestor of the Christ child laying in the manger on Christmas morn. That is to say, God will use and bless us when we’re at our best; however, God will also work in and through us when we’re at our worst. It’s not that Spirit-filled people strive for it, but scandal does not frighten God. Regardless of whether Ruth is at her best or at her worst on the threshing floor, God graciously wove her story into His larger tapestry of redemption.
And it’s into that redemptive tapestry our stories are woven, too. Even the embarrassing and scandalous parts.
Two resources I have on Ruth that reflect the “alternate” way of reading Ruth and the way I grew up with are Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer’s commentary on Ruth in the New Interpreter’s Bible series and Restored! God’s Salvage Plan for Broken Lives by Daniel Schaeffer, respectively.
Artwork found here. Original artist unknown.