Ruthlessly Pursuing Your Goals

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

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.

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{ 15 comments }

KristyB August 17, 2005 at 12:49 pm

Interesting stuff, Jimmy.

Veronica August 17, 2005 at 1:52 pm

Ohhh… that is indeed interesting. I would never had imagined something like that in a million years, but I guess that considering the previous examples of other “righteous” women in the Bible (Tamar and Rahab, for example), then that interpretation isn’t TOO surprising…

Maureen August 17, 2005 at 3:30 pm

Well, he was sorta her closest single male in-law in the clan. And with all that Levitical stuff going on and Ruth’s husband dead and yet no son to carry on the line — well, Naomi seems to have felt it was Ruth’s right that Boaz marry her, but that with Ruth being a foreigner, Boaz might perhaps have to be… um… encouraged to do his duty.
And since Ruth was a foreigner, heck, it wasn’t as if she’d necessarily be as worried about these niceties as a normal Jewish girl raised among Hebrews.
So I’d say it’s Naomi who’s being ruthless here…especially since no son meant no carrying on of her son’s line. An adopted son still could do that.
Btw, if any of what I’ve said here is brilliant, it’s not me. My dad’s United Methodist church was in a joint bible study of the book of Ruth with a Reformed Jewish synagogue. So if I’ve actually remembered correctly anything that the lady rabbi said…. :)

Mary August 17, 2005 at 6:42 pm

Note that the Bible did not find weasel around what Tamar did to secure her rights with respect to Judah.
OTOH, if “foot” is a euphemism, you could also use it as a way of beating around the bush: uncover a man’s feet and you told him what you were after.

Kevin Jones August 17, 2005 at 8:57 pm

Not to start an inter-blog debate, but in an off-the-cuff comment, the Old Oligarch ridiculed the sex interpretation here.
But as for the “foot” euphemism, is this what Our Lord meant when He said “f your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”?

Christian Survey Board August 17, 2005 at 9:24 pm

Interesting……I can’t wait to hear a pastor preach on this…..

Jimmy Akin August 17, 2005 at 9:24 pm

Jesus and the apostles spoke Aramaic in daily life, not Hebrew.
I don’t know if the same euphemism existed in first century Aramaic.

Michael August 18, 2005 at 6:38 am

> But as for the “foot” euphemism, is this what Our Lord meant when He said “f your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”?
Doesn’t seem to be the case. I believe in Mark (9:43 ?), Christ says, “it is better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown with both feet into Gehenna.”

Jimmy Akin August 18, 2005 at 8:00 am

The term “foot” also had its normal usage (i.e., the thing on the end of your leg that you walk on). It was only sometimes used as a euphemism. If the euphemism existed in Aramaic, the same would likely be true, so a particular passage showing the normal usage wouldn’t be a disproof, unfortunately.

Old Oligarch August 18, 2005 at 2:51 pm

With all due respect, I think this interpretation, while commonly-encountered, is completely wrong.
I’ve posted my own remarks here: http://old-oligarch.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_old-oligarch_archive.html#112440176059051035.

tz August 19, 2005 at 2:48 pm

I’ve heard – but it might be completely wrong – that it might have been a reference to the levirate duty (Deut 25 has the removal of the sandal). I don’t know of any references where Boaz would have the actual duty, but it might be something culturally suggestive.

Maureen August 20, 2005 at 3:25 pm

Apparently this family duty thing is one of the standard Jewish interpretations of the story, so I didn’t remember wrong after all. But they seem to see this more as a gentle hint than actually Ruth throwing herself on the man.
http://www.torah.org/learning/women/class44.html
“Meanwhile, Naomi already knows of Boaz and is aware of the fact that he is Ruth’s great uncle, forty years her senior. Their family connection is significant to Naomi, in light of the Torah law of ‘yibum’, which obligates one of the male relatives of a man who died before having children to marry his widow. This takes place in order to bring down the soul of the dead man through the life of the new couple’s future child. Ruth’s husband had died and left her childless, so Naomi sees Boaz as a candidate for Ruth, according to the laws of yibum.
“Ruth’s contemplated match, however, might be construed as problematic by the surrounding society, since Torah law states that a Jew cannot marry a Moabite. While the Oral tradition is that this mandate does not include women, most people at the time the story of Ruth takes place are unaware of this fact.
“Naomi suggests that Ruth appear that night on the threshing floor, where all of the workers including Boaz would be sleeping, in order to be as close as possible to the fields at a critical time in the harvest. She instructs Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet so as to wake him and set the process of “yibum” in motion…
“In spite of the obvious obstacles, Ruth consents to Naomi’s plan, doing so not for her own sake, but for the sake of her husband in the hope that she will be able to bring his soul back into the world, through her offspring. This gesture of kindness and the risk she is willing to take for her husband demonstrate the extent of Ruth’s transformation from Moabite to Jew. Ultimately, the plan works. Boaz awakens and Ruth successfully confronts him with her request for marriage. Their union produces a lineage that leads to King David and eventually will bring the Moshiach. Their marriage merits this lineage because of its purity of intentions and the greatness of the two individuals involved.”

Maureen August 20, 2005 at 3:33 pm

Still no comment on the feet, but more detailed comments on Ruth’s behavior….
http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra/5757/bm/Ruth6.html

Maureen August 20, 2005 at 3:57 pm

http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra/5757/bm/Ruth5.html
More stuff on Naomi’s behavior
“Ralbag, in his commentary (quoted in the Iggeret Sh’mu’el, a commentary authored by R. Sh’mu’el Ozida, a student of the Ari, who lived in Tz’fat in the 16th century), suggests that a great lesson can be learned here: When a great gain can be gotten through an action which involves some Azut (inappropriate boldness), that great good should not be forfeited on account of his shame of this Azut – but he should, nevertheless, minimize the Azut as much as possible.
What are we to make of Ralbag’s explanation? What is the great good that was to be gained here – and why could it not have been gotten through less audacious means?
Naomi understood from Ruth’s first day in Bo’az’s field that this was an ideal match for her daughter-in-law on several levels:
1. Bo’az demonstrated admiration and respect for Ruth in spite of – perhaps on account of – her being a foreigner;
2. Bo’az was impressed with Ruth’s character and favored her in ways that indicated a special affection;
3. Bo’az was wealthy, noble (as above) and well-connected in the Beit-Lechem community;
4. Bo’az was a member of Elimelekh’s family – thus able to participate in the redemption of his ancestral land.
Naomi tried to get Ruth to pursue Bo’az throughout the harvest season(s), but to no avail. She understood that it was “now or never” for this match, since there would be no reason for Ruth and Bo’az’s paths to cross after the conclusion of the harvest season.
Since the match was not about to happen “organically” – and since the presence of an “earlier Go’el” prevented Naomi from arranging this match in a formal manner, the only way to set it into motion was through the catalyst of a private encounter in suitable surroundings. Ruth’s future, as well as the renascence of the family (as it were) depended on the successful meeting between Ruth and Bo’az – and Naomi had to engineer that even if, as Ralbag states, it involved behavior that is otherwise unseemly.
The last component of Naomi’s plan – that Bo’az will tell Ruth what to do next – creates a sense of “handing her over” (M’sirah). In other words, until now Ruth has been a ward of Naomi. As of this evening, she is moving into Bo’az’s orbit and will follow him and his directives.”
What’s kinda fascinating to me is all the Marian parallels here. Especially since I found out through Googling that the Book of Ruth (or Megillah of Ruth, anyway) is read on the second day of Shavuot aka Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the Ten Commandments and scripture being given to God’s people.
So one of Mary’s ancestors also becomes famous for her fiat, albeit to her mother-in-law — a Gentile who became part of God’s people and plan, just as the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles and Mary on Pentecost and made us Gentiles part of God’s people and plan.
(And apparently Shavuot was supposed to have been David’s birthday and deathday, too, and thus there are heavy duty Messiah associations.)
There’s also a fascinating comparison of Ruth to the woman whose price is above rubies, which actually claims a Bethlehem reference in that passage.
I realize I’m not getting out of this what the rabbi wanted me to get, but I can surely appreciate it….

Complete Planet February 28, 2006 at 3:25 pm

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