I grew up in a tradition that treats anything to do with sex as perverse and unholy, so I am always pleasantly surprised to find passages in Scripture that challenge this perspective. I imagine that the sexual undertones of Ruth 3 would make those at my childhood congregation very uncomfortable. It is, after all, difficult to ignore the scandal of this passage, especially in the opening paragraph when Naomi directs her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to “take a bath and put on perfume and dress in [her] nicest clothes” (Ruth 3:3 NLT) before presenting herself to an intoxicated older man by lying down next to him while he’s asleep!
At this point in the story, Ruth and her close relative, Boaz, have formed a friendship, and he has been kind enough to let her gather grain from his fields alongside his servants to provide for her and her mother-in-law. Naomi, deciding that it was time to take control of her living situation, instructs Ruth to go to the threshing floor where Boaz would be eating and drinking in celebration of the harvest:
“Then go to the threshing floor, but don’t let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:3-4).
Naomi’s hope is that Boaz would understand this to be a proposal of marriage and that he would redeem Naomi’s land by marrying Ruth. Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions and lies at Boaz’s feet until he wakes to find her there. She tells him why she is there and he agrees to redeem her. They both sleep through the night, and in the morning Boaz sends Ruth home with an armful of grain, making sure to see her off early enough so that no one else would catch her there.
There is much to be gleaned from this short passage. That Ruth agreed to Naomi’s unusual instructions is evidence of her trust and commitment to obedience. Though I say Naomi’s instructions were unusual, it is possible that this was some kind of tradition or cultural practice that Boaz would have known to interpret as a request for marriage. However, Boaz’s initial shock at Ruth’s presence and his attempt to hide her from the public eye as she leaves suggest that regardless of tradition or practice, it was scandalous for Ruth to be at the threshing floor that night. Ruth was willing to make herself completely vulnerable, risking her reputation as well as her friendship with Boaz to follow Naomi’s direction.
Once at the threshing floor, however, Ruth does not relinquish her agency. Her desire to obey Naomi does not undermine her own voice. Rather than waiting for Boaz to tell her what to do, she boldly exclaims, “Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer” (Ruth 3:9). She assertively makes her wishes known. She does not ask him but tells him directly what she wants from him.
Ruth’s actions here exemplify the importance of balancing humility and obedience with confidence and independence. In an age when many churches still consider women to be less capable than men, there is extensive rhetoric among female church leaders encouraging women to embrace confidence and power, and encouraging men to create space for women to exercise that power. Equally important and much less widely discussed is the importance for both men and women to embrace humility and submission. The word, “submission,” incites fear and anger in many women because it has come to connote the historically oppressive patriarchal structures within the church and society. Although a traditionally “feminine” quality, submissiveness is valuable to men and women alike, and just as we encourage women to practice leadership, we should also encourage men to practice humility and obedience. Ruth’s obedience to her mother-in-law and her boldness toward Boaz reveal the value of balancing these two natures and avoiding one or the other extreme.
Even in asserting herself confidently toward Boaz, Ruth is gracious and respectful, honoring him with her request by calling him her “family redeemer.” Finding a balance between humility and confidence invites us to lead by lifting others up, rather than simply elevating ourselves.
“Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer” (Ruth 3:9).
Mallorie L. Urban
Pepperdine University Church of Christ