Against Social Norms - An Excerpt from Ruth (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament)
In a male-dominated culture, as a foreigner among the people of God, living in one of the darkest periods in history, Ruth's story stands out. Crossing social boundaries, she meticulously followed her mother-in-law's plan.
Daniel L. Block explores the story of Ruth's proposal in his recently released Ruth (Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament). Join Block as he unpacks the meaning behind a story so often confusing.
Main Idea of the Passage
Transpiring at the threshing floor, this scene highlights Ruth’s scrupulous implementation of Naomi’s plan and Boaz’ response, which included a blessing for Ruth, but also alerted her to a complication jeopardizing not only their desire to marry, but also ultimately his place in Israel’s royal line. However, declaring on oath his determination to serve as גּאֵֹל for the clan of Elimelech should the opportunity come to him, he sent her home with a generous token of his good will.
This scene represents the heart of Act III. As the curtain fell on Scene 1 we observed Ruth leaving her house and heading for the threshing floor where Boaz was winnowing barley. From vv. 5 – 6 hearers learn that Ruth was determined to implement Naomi’s plan to secure her future, but they do not know if these tactics will work. Would Boaz angrily dismiss Ruth as a brazen and immoral Moabite, or would he look beyond her forwardness and respect her for her courage and loyalty to her deceased husband’s clan? This scene answers the question, not only by recounting Boaz’ sympathetic reaction toward Ruth, but especially by his remarkable verbal responses to the woman.
Structure and Literary Form
This scene opens with the unannounced appearance of Boaz (7a), without a transitional statement, and ends with a topographical reference to his return to Bethlehem (15g), without having noted that he had ever left the town or come to the threshing floor. The awkwardness is intensified by the fact that this scene is actually framed by two topographical notes, one at the end of Scene 1 involving Ruth (“She went down to the threshing floor,” 6a), and the other involving Boaz, “He came into the town” (15g). Between this frame the narrative subdivides into three primary parts identifiable according to time: in the evening (v. 7), at midnight (vv. 8 – 14a), in the morning (vv. 14b – 15). The first consists entirely of narrative; the second is dominated by dialogue; and the third is a mixture of the two.
Explanation of the Text
1. The Evening Activity at the Threshing Floor (v. 7)
Having arrived at the threshing floor (6a), in 7a – e the narrator describes what Ruth would have observed there.
True to Naomi’s earlier prediction Boaz ate and drank (cf. 3f), and after his meal he was in very good spirits.41 He lay down for a good night’s sleep, apparently satisfied with the work he and his workers had accomplished that evening, and probably feeling the pleasant effects of the wine. Unlike the case of Lot in Gen 19, this is not an image of a man in a drunken stupor, but a contented man at peace within himself, in harmony with a world that has yielded its fruit, and favored by YHWH who has blessed his work (cf. 1:6).
As Naomi had anticipated, Ruth watched Boaz leave his meal and go and lie down at the far end of the heap of threshed grain (cf. 4a – d). Hebrew ע רֲֵמהָ , which derives from a root ע רַָם , “to pile up, store,” refers to the pile of grain Boaz and his workers had accumulated from days of threshing and winnowing, and was waiting to be transported into town.42 Describing the scene from Ruth’s perspective, the preposition קְצהֵ , “end,” suggests that Boaz lay down at the opposite end of the pile.
In 7f – h the focus shifts to Ruth’s actions, which involve precise compliance with Naomi’s instructions (cf. 4b – g, 6b – c). How much time elapsed between Boaz’ retirement and Ruth’s entrance is not clear, but since he did not notice when she uncovered his legs he must have fallen asleep before Ruth made her move. Then she snuck up to him, uncovered his legs ( מַרְגְּלוֹת ), and lay down herself. It is doubtful Ruth actually slept. She had not come to the threshing floor for that purpose, but to wait until he awakened and then to see how he would respond to her presence.
2. The Midnight Conversation (vv. 8 – 14a)
The Precipitant of the Conversation
The narrator signals a new stage in the plot by beginning 8a with the chronological note, “and it happened at midnight.” Apparently satisfied with the accomplishments of the day and a good meal, Boaz drifted off into a deep sleep, so that initially in the warm late spring evening he was oblivious to Ruth exposing his legs. However, at midnight he shivered ( ח רַָד ), probably because of the chilled night air. Turning over and groping for his covers, he was shocked to find someone lying by his legs ( מַרְגְּלוֹת ). The telescoped narrative does not reveal how he recognized her as a woman.
The Nature of the Conversation (vv. 9 – 14a).
Given the spiritual climate in Israel in the period of the Judges, an average man might have welcomed the night visit of a woman and accepted her presence as an offer of sexual favors. But not so Boaz. Not recognizing Ruth in the dark, but understandably curious about her identity he bluntly asked, “Who are you?” (9b). This question represents an advance over Boaz’ earlier encounter with Ruth, when he had asked, “To whom does she belong?” (2:5).
Ruth answered the question directly and deferentially, “I am Ruth your handmaid” (9d). Unlike the field supervisor in the previous scene, she did not introduce herself as “the Moabite woman,” nor as the “one who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab” (2:6). Nor did she introduce herself as Ruth, the widow of the deceased Mahlon. Keenly aware of her place in the social structure, she identified herself as “your handmaid” ( .(אמֲתֶָךָ The choice of אָמהָ , “handmaid,” rather than ,שִׁפחְהָ “maidservant,” as in 2:13, and the two-fold repetition of the word in her answer reflect Ruth’s growing self-confidence, and the requirements of the context. After all, she was about to propose marriage to her superior, which would have been ruled out for a שִׁפחְהָ , “maidservant.”
While both the form and content of the first part of Ruth’s answer are conventional, her orders in the second part (9d – f), in effect, “I am Ruth, you must do this . . . ,” are extraordinary. First, she seized the initiative and turned the attention away from herself to Boaz. This is remarkable because, as she has just noted, she was a lowly servant, he was the master, and an uninvited visitor on his turf; she was a woman, he was a man; and she was a foreigner, he was a native. Second, rather than contributing to the question Boaz had asked, her comment raised the question, “Who is Boaz?” Third, with shocking bluntness (chutzpah), but remarkable foresight, Ruth in effect challenged Boaz to marry her. (Pgs 174-180)
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