A reader writes:
Hi, I hope you are doing fine today. I have a question regarding the book of Ruth. [Naomi says to Ruth regarding Boaz:] “But when he lies down, take note of the place where he does so. Then go, uncover a place at his feet, and lie down. He will tell you what to do." What is the meaning of uncovering his feet? Why is that Noemi told Ruth to uncover his feet?
Okay, there are two theories here. The first takes the expression literally and assumes that Naomi was telling Ruth to take the blanket off Boaz’s feet and then snuggle up to his feet and wait there for him to wake up, find her lying at his feet, and then propose marriage to her (to be signified by him spreading his garment over her and symbolically claiming her as his own).
And that’s what the text describes as happening.
Problem is, this is a really weird way to catch a man (not that I’d be opposed to it myself; I’m not criticizing).
Now, it’s possible that this is based on some cultural practice in ancient Israel and that by snuggling up to Boaz’s feet, Ruth was making her intentions clear, but we don’t have any independent evidence of such a cultural practice as far as I’m aware. The text is still just weird. That suggests that there may be something else going on here.
What that something else could be is suggested by a bit of knowlege of the Hebrew language.
Hebrew, like every language, has certain terms that are considered indelicate to use in polite society and so, whenever people needed to use one of these words, they’d say a better sounding word instead. Kind of the way in English we sometimes say that someone has "passed on" when we mean that they died.
Hebrew had euphemisms like this, too, and in biblical Hebrew the word for "foot" (regel) was used as a euphemism for . . . er . . . well . . . uh . . . er . . . (ahem) . . . for a certain piece of the male anatomy, y’see. In order to keep matters delicate, the Old Testament elsewhere uses "foot" when it really means . . . y’know. It also uses the word in the plural–"feet"–when it means the same thing.
And so some interpreters (including some very respectable ones) think that in this passage Naomi is directing Ruth to sneak up on Boaz in the night and uncover his . . . anatomy . . . and then seduce him–which is a well-known method in many cultures of trying to obtain a spouse (though it is immoral and does not usually yield quality results).
If that’s what’s going on in this text then Ruth is behaving very ruthlessly in pursuit of her goals (sorry, couldn’t resist) and the biblical author is reporting what happened (he certainly portrays her as One Determined Woman in the book), but he’s cloaking the story to make the telling more delicate.
He thus speaks (both in the passage you cite and later on) as if Ruth was just snuggling up to Boaz’s feet but expects the Hebrew-speaking audience to recognize his use of euphemism.
From what I can tell, this is a possible interpretation, and it certainly would explain an otherwise weird text.
Notice also that in verses 13 and 14, Boaz first invites Ruth to stay the night but then hustles her off before it gets light enough for people to recognize each other, because he doesn’t want it known that a woman came to the threshing floor. Ruth also waited until everyone was asleep before she came, suggesting secretiveness on both their parts.