Back yonder in Judah in the good old days lived a man named Elim’elech. He and his wife, Naomi, had two fine boys by the name of Chil’ion and Mahlon. Well, the good times they were enjoying came to a crashing halt when all the crops dried up, got eaten by locusts and it flat just didn’t rain for a while. Ol’ Elim decided to take his family down to Moab where he could find work and wait out the famine.
Elim died while they were there, leaving his wife and two sons to fend for themselves. Good thing that he waited until his two boys were grown men to go ahead and pass on. Chil married a Moabite woman named Orpah and, more importantly to our story, Mahlon married a woman named Ruth. Both these women were gorgeous and had, at least to the Judean boys, an exotic look about them.
Life was good for a while, but the two young men died without leaving any children to their wives. This put the two Moabite women in a bad spot, and was especially taxing for their mother-in-law Naomi. Now, Elim’elech had some land back in Judah which rightfully belonged to his sons. The three women had no real way to lay claim to that land themselves, so this put them in a tight spot.
Since Naomi was a Judean widow in Moab, she had it worse. Her husband never bought any property there and her daughter-in-laws didn’t bring in much of a dowry to live on. She decided to go back to Judah and hopefully one of her kinfolk would take her in. At very least she could live pretty good picking extra grain in the fields and from the proceeds of selling her husband’s land. Besides all that, she’d heard from a merchant that God had blessed His people and allowed the crops to grow again. So she started out for home and her two daughter-in-laws followed her.
Naomi decided this just wouldn’t do and sat her daughters down just outside town.
“Ladies, I think ya’ll should really go back home to your mamas. You’re both still young, good looking and God willing you’ll have a long fruitful life ahead of you. It won’t be hard for you girls to find new husbands, especially since ya’ll ain’t got no kids. God bless you and yours,” she said kissing them.
“No! We’ll go back with you and live with your people,” they said, weeping.
Naomi rolled her eyes at the crying women, “Why? Why follow this old woman around? You think I’ll pop out a couple kids so you can marry them? Ya’ll going to wait a couple decades until they’re grown to marry them? You gonna wait to get married between now and then? I am thirty six years old, I quit turning heads eighteen years ago. Ain’t no one going to marry me. I ain’t a cruel woman and it’d be wrong for me to take two pretty girls like you back to Judah, widow that I am. Better that you live among your kin and have a good life here.”
Orpah kept crying and kissed Naomi good-bye. Ruth decided to keep following the old lady. Naomi figured she’d see the light and turn back.
Sighing heavily she turned to Ruth, “Honey child, you don’t owe me a damn thing. Your sister-in-law done went back to her people and her gods, why don’t you run along after her,” she said waving her hands at Ruth, “Now shoo, God has a better life for you with your kin.”
“Please don’t make me leave, Naomi. Wherever it is you are going, wherever it is you live, I’ll go with you and live with you. The Lord God, your God is my God. If you die, I will die with you and be buried in the land of your ancestors. If you die I pray the Lord God does the same and more for me if He takes you before me,” Ruth replied.
Naomi saw there wasn’t any sense arguing with Ruth once she’d made up her mind. She shook her head, “Well come on then.” They arrived in Bethlehem some time later and just in time for the barley harvest, right around spring time. Their arrival caused a huge commotion in Bethlehem and many of the old folk gathered around them.
“Is this our Naomi?” some of the women asked, “We ain’t seen you in years! Where’s Elim? I don’t see little Chil or that darling Mahlo? Did something happen? Who is this young lady with you?”
“Do not call me Naomi anymore you old bats. I’m going by Mara now because God Almighty done did me wrong. I left with a husband and some means, now God has seen fit to bring me home with nothin’.”
Ruth introduced herself to the townsfolk, “My name Ruth, it is very nice to meet you all. Mahlon was my husband. He and his brother died over the winter.”
“Oh darlin’, that’s so sad,” one of the older women said, hugging the Moabitess.
“It is, I loved him very much,” she replied, embracing the woman.
“You ain’t bring none of your foreign gods and shit here to our little town, is ya? We don’t like that ‘round here,” one of the elderly men asked.
“Oh not at all, the Lord God is the only God. I do not intend to bring any of my people’s idols and statues here,” she said, much to everyone’s delight, “The only keepsake I have from my people is this little silver necklace my grandfather gave me, it’s just a little bird on a string. I think you call them ravens,” she said showing off a necklace around her neck, “It’s not a problem is it?”
One of the old men took a closer look, “Nah, that ain’t a big deal. I think we’d all hate to part a young girl from somethin’ her grandpappy gave her. Welcome to Bethlehem young lady, we ain’t got much but ain’t no finer lamb between here and Jerusalem.”
“I am very happy to be here,” she said, tucking her necklace in her robes.
Ruth and Mara settled down in a little house that one of the townsfolk said they could use. It wasn’t much, but there wasn’t any rent as long as they kept it good shape. The next morning Ruth got up early and decided to head out.
“Where are you going, honey?” Mara asked.
“I thought I would go out and gather some extra grain from the fields. I know your people leave the corners of their fields untouched so the poor can pick the extra. Gleaning, I think you call it. Hopefully one of the farmers will be alright with me gleaning his fields,” Ruth replied.
Mara raised an eyebrow, “Well, I think that’s a fine idea. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back.”
Ruth grinned and went out to the fields. She looked them over for a good long time that morning, trying to find the best one. After about an hour she came across a huge set of fields with a lot of workers in them harvesting barley from the sheaves they’d tied up a few days before. Next to the barley fields she saw one of the biggest wheat fields she’d seen in her life.
“This guy must be extremely rich,” she said to herself, “He probably won’t mind me following after his harvestmen. It won’t take me long at all to gather what we need for a few days, just from what they miss.”
So she tied up her sleeves, cinched her belt, and pulled her hood up over her head to keep off the sun. She gathered up her skirt and approached one of the harvestmen.
“Well good mornin to ya, miss,” the harvestman said, looking her up and down, “You’re that Moabite woman that came back with Naomi ain’t ya? My dad told me about you when I got home last night. What brings a fine young thing like yourself out here?”
“Good morning, sir. I am indeed. Mara and I do not have any food and I was wondering if I could follow behind you and glean from the sheaves once you’re done,” Ruth asked.
The harvestman scratched his head, “Well I think you’re ‘sposed to glean the corners, but I ain’t seein’ a problem with gleaning these sheaves,” he said, “Joaquim! It alright if this here girl gleans the sheaves behind us?” he yelled at middle-aged man a few yards away.
Joaquim looked at her and shrugged, “Go ahead, anythin’ we miss is gonna go to waste anyway!” he yelled back.
“Boss man says it’s fine,” the harvestman said, “You can call me Tam.”
“Nice to meet you Tam. I’m Ruth.”
“It is a pleasure to meet ya Ruth. I just finished a couple sheaves over there if you wanna take a look at ‘em.”
Ruth smiled and nodded, “Thank you.”
Later that morning the land-owner arrived from town and greeted his harvestmen as he made his way to Joaqim. “The Lord be with ya’ll!” he called out. “God bless ya, Boaz,” his men yelled back.
“Fine mornin’ ain’t it Joaqim,” Boaz said, looking his fields over, “Got the men’s pay right here,” he said handing Joaqim a pouch of silver, “Damn! Who is that?” he asked, staring at Ruth, who was picking over a sheaf across the field.
“Oh that’s the Moabite that followed Naomi back from, ya know, Moab. She negotiated with us to glean from the field after we were done. Didn’t figure you’d mind. Woman works like a mule. She’s been at it since just before sun-up and ain’t stopped to rest even for a minute. You want me to get her out of here?”
“Nah, let me go talk to her,” Boaz replied, heading off toward Ruth, “Word is Naomi is going by Mara now, so you know.”
Ruth stood up and put a stoic look on her face as Boaz approached.
“Darlin’ it’s alright. I just came over here to tell you not to leave my fields. It ain’t safe. I just want you to follow the womenfolk over there, that one’s mine too. I told my men not to be molestin’ you, but you know how things get when no one’s watchin’. Oh, and if’n you’re thirsty there’s plenty of water for the men, just go ahead and drink from theirs, much as you want,” Boaz said, “It’s the very least I can be doin’ for ya.”
Ruth bowed on the ground before Boaz, placing her forehead to the ground, “Thank you my lord! But why are you doing such nice things for me, a foreigner?”
“Look I know who you are. I know you followed your mother-in-law back here after your husband died. You’re doing right by her, even around all these people you ain’t never been around. It must be real scary being here, away from your parents. Yet yer out here doing your best to provide for you and yours. I hope God blesses you and gives back to you for everything you’ve done for the old lady,” Boaz replied.
“You are too kind, my lord. I am most grateful. You have treated me more than well, even though I am not one of your maidservants,” she said, standing back up and smiling at him. Quickly she ran off to where the other women were gathering and began gleaning those fields.
The sun rose in the sky and meal time approached. Boaz walked back out to the women’s field and tapped Ruth on the shoulder.
“Yes, my lord?” she said.
He put his hand behind his head, “Listen, uh, it’s about time to eat. Why don’t you come eat with me and my men. We have some bread and wine. Also have a whole bunch of parched grain. Ain’t much but, I see you ain’t got nothin’ of your own.”
Ruth readily accepted and ate with the men that day, eating mostly the parched grain Boaz provided, but also some of the wine and bread. She was pretty full by the end of the meal and Boaz let her keep the extra food to take home to Naomi. After the meal Boaz took his harvestmen aside.
“Guys, I want you to purposefully leave some grain unharvested for Ruth. Just let some fall behind and be kind of sloppy with it,” he said quietly,
Ruth finished her day gleaning behind the women. At the end of the day she went to one of the threshing floors and beat the grain away from the chaff. She ended up with about twenty five pounds of barley, plus the extra food she’d kept from the meal.
When she arrived home that night, Ruth showed Mara all the grain she’d managed to glean. Naomi was shocked by the sheer quantity of it all.
“There’s almost two months of grain there! Just need about that much more to get us through the winter,” Mara said excitedly, “Who’s field were you gleaning in? Someone must’ve really takin’ a shine to you.”
“The man’s name was Boaz. He was very nice, he told me not to work in anyone else’s field. Oh! He also let me keep this from our lunch,” Ruth said, showing Mara her leftovers.
“God be praised!” Mara said, “Boaz is our kin! Close kin, a nephew of my late husband. I’m sure you saw that he’s a very rich man.”
“I did not know he was a relative,” Ruth said, pouring the grain into jugs, “I just picked the best looking fields. I did assume whoever owned them was a man of wealth.”
Mara grinned, “Well, honey child, you just do what the man said, stick close to the womenfolk and make sure he sees you working. Don’t let nobody catch you in another field.”
Ruth did as she was told over the next few weeks. She worked in Boaz field until the barley harvest was over, and then began gleaning the wheat fields until that harvest was over as well. Every day she brought home a jug or two worth of grain and ate with the harvestmen as often as she was allowed, which was every day. When she returned home after the wheat harvest was over, Mara sat her down.
“Darlin’, you know I love you and want the best for you right?” Mara asked.
“Yes ma’am,” Ruth replied.
“Good, now the word around town is that Boaz is going to be threshing his grain tonight. Now, he’s kin as you know. I’m knowin’ customs are different in Moab, but here we are ‘sposed to take care of our own. It seems to me Boaz likes you a lot,” Mara said.
“I like him too, he’s very kind,” Ruth said, nodding.
“Alright, now around here a man has a certain duty to his kin. I know a way to get him to take care of you forever,” Mara said.
“Really?” Ruth asked.
“Yes, child. Now, I’m not goin’ to get into specifics of our laws and customs, but hear me out,” the older woman said slowly, “I want you to bathe, oil your hair, and put on some perfume if you have any. Then I want you to sneak onto his fields this evening, don’t let no one see you.”
“Where are you going with this?” Ruth asked with rising suspicion.
“Just hear me out, honey. I hear Boaz likes to drink a skin or two of wine after a hard day’s work. I want you to wait for him to finish his wine, and watch for where he lays down. Once he’s laid down go up to him and uncover his feet.”
“Wait what? Uncover his feet?” Ruth asked, “Why would his feet be covered?”
“I ‘spose you ain’t got no idea what that means,” Mara replied, stroking her chin, “I’m goin’ to be direct here. I want you to wait until his good and drunk, and well there’s no other way to say this. Fuck him. Fuck him good. Whatever he wants, just screw him good, when he wakes up he’ll pretty much hafta marry you if he’s an honorable man.”
“I er, well I can do that,” Ruth said, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I wouldn’t tell you to do this if I wasn’t sure it would work. He just needs a little encouragement to make the decision he’s probably considering anyway. Just make sure no one but him sees you comin’ or goin’.”
So Ruth hurriedly bathed herself, worked oil into her hair and put on her best clothing. She snuck out to the fields where Boaz was working and hid in the bushes, watching him work. The man was working shirtless on the threshing floor, beating the grain and throwing it up in the air, letting the wind carry away the chaff. After a few hours he decided to stop, sat down and opened a skin of wine, downed it in one long swig and popped open another. He seemed pretty pleased with himself and drank quite a bit more than he should have. Once he was good and liquored up he just fell asleep on a pile of grain.
Seeing her chance, Ruth slowly walked over to him, picked up one of the wine skins that Boaz hadn’t completely emptied and drained it. He groggily acknowledged her presence and when she shrugged out of her clothes his whole attention was on her. They drunkenly rubbed their feet together for about half an hour before they both passed out.
The alcoholic dawn hit Boaz sometime around midnight. He was startled to see a naked and pleased Ruth sleeping next to him. Prodding her shoulder she rolled over and smiled at him.
“Who are you?”, he almost shouted, not remembering the earlier frivolities, “Oh Ruth, it’s you, thank God,” he sighed. He looked around for a moment, “Ruth did we?” He asked, “You know,” he said, looking down at his feet.
“Oh yes, twice almost but I think all the wine took some of the swing out of your step, so to speak,” Ruth replied, “I am not complaining though, it was very good and I’m not sure my p… er, feet as you say here, could take another pounding so quickly.”
“Oh this isn’t good,” he said, rubbing his head.
“It’s alright,” Ruth said, sitting up and putting her hand on his shoulder, “You’re my next of kin, I think you’re supposed to do this. I don’t quite understand why, but Mara said so.”
“It’s a great kindness what you just did. I would have thought you’d be chasing after younger men. You’re wrong about the next of kin thing though, there’s someone closer than I am, it’s his right, not mine.”
Ruth looked dejected and started to gather her clothes up.
“No, no, look you’re a fine, virtuous woman. I will do what you want. Stay here with me tonight, and tomorrow I’ll go take care of him. If he wants to claim his right, there’s not much I can do about it, but if he doesn’t I’ll claim it and take you in.”
Ruth smiled and laid back down. The two gave their feet a vigorous and sweaty workout that night on the grain and slept until early morning.
“I don’t think anyone saw you, here give me your shawl,” He said, walking over to the pile of finished grain. Boaz spread her shawl on the grown and placed over a hundred pounds of barley in it and tied it up. She thanked him and hauled it back into town. When she arrived home her mother-in-law was sitting on the porch smirking.
“So, how’d it go?”
“Great!” Ruth said, “My feet are killing me. That might be from the hundred and fifty pounds of barley I am carrying though. Please help.”
“That is a lot of barley,” Mara said, helping to lower the laden shawl off of Ruth’s shoulders, “Fool of a man could’ve at least sent a donkey back with ya.”
“He said not to come back home to you empty handed,” Ruth said, working her shoulders.
“Well, you just wait here and see how this turns out. That man won’t rest until the whole thing is settled.”
Boaz went out to the town gates and sat down, knowing full well his kinsman would be passing by.
“Chaz, my friend, have a seat, I have some business to discuss with you,” Boaz said, waving a skin of wine at him. So they sat down.
“You start on this and I’ll go grab some elders,” Boaz said, handing the skin to his cousin. After ten of the town elders were gathered up, sat down and properly wined up, Chaz looked to Boaz.
“So what’s this about? I’m not buying your busted ass ass,” Chaz said, punching Boaz in the arm.
“Well, you see you got an opportunity I don’t think you’re aware of. See Mara is selling her late husband’s field, you know the one, Elim’s place. You’re the next of kin so you gots first dibs. Thought you could take care of that right here in front of the elders if you’re wanting the property.”
Chaz rubbed his chin, “It is a pretty nice field, right next to mine. Sure, I’ll buy it.”
Boaz grinned, “Good choice, but so you know the field comes with Ruth, you know, the Moabitess from Moab. She needs to restore her dead husband Mahlon’s inheritance. If you catch my meaning.”
Chaz looked shocked, “Oh I can’t do that, that’ll mess my kids out of their inheritance, won’t have nothin’ to pass down,” he said, his head turned to the ground, “Wait, you’re the next of kin after me! Why don’t you take it?”
“Well, if I must,” Boaz replied, barely managing to keep a straight face. So Chaz took off one of his sandals and handed it to a now grinning Boaz.
“Old men, by this sandle you see that I have purchased the land of Chilion and Mahlon. Oh and, you know Ruth the Moabitess from Moab, Mahlon’s widow and intend to perpetuate the name of the dead.”
The elders nodded, not missing the fact that Boaz was far more interested in Ruth than adding to his already sizable property, “We see and agree. May you and yours have long life and prosperity, may your house be like that of Perez, son of Tamar and Judah. May the Moabitess be like Rachel and Leah who built up the house of Israel.”
“Oh I hope she’s not like those women at all,” Boaz said without thinking, “I mean I hope she’s even better than them.”
And so it was that Boaz and Ruth were married, before nightfall even. In nine months Ruth gave birth to a baby boy who they named Obed. Mara took care of him like he was her own son, which legally he was.
Obed grew to be a fine young man and had many children with his own wife. His son Jesse was of note as his youngest was named David, but that is a story for another day.
This was a long post, I couldn’t see a good way to break it up into multiple parts. As always I used the RSV, and Young’s Literal Translation as my primary sources. The story above is the book of Ruth in its entirety.
The book of Ruth is particularly important to a lot of women, especially in the Baptist faith I grew up in. She’s seen as a role-model for young women to aspire to. Beautiful, hard working and most importantly submissive and obedient to the older women in her life. Honestly, while she’s not my favorite Biblical character, she’s in the top ten, but not because of any of those traits.
One thing that seems odd about the Book of Ruth is that basically all of the important characters have names, even the women. In Genesis the women are hardly named at all unless they’re married to a patriarch. Here we have Naomi, Orpah, and of course Ruth. Orpah has very little to do with the story, and doesn’t even get any dialog, but the author decided to name her anyway.
The book was written long after after the time the story suggests. It is almost certainly completely fictional and written about either a known ancestor of King David, or Boaz was inserted into the family tree sometime later. It was written sometime between the 6th and 4th century BC. Ruth would have been alive some four to six hundred years prior to the book being written.
On Levirate Marriage
Deuteronomy 25:5-10 describes the version of Levirate marriage, called yibbum, as described in Judaism. To boil this down, if a man dies with no son, his brother is to marry his widow. Their eldest son would be the heir to the dead man, not his biological father. There is a fairly simple way out of such an obligation that involves public shaming and the widow removing the man’s sandal and spitting in his face. I think this is what is being referred to when the kinsman removes his sandal and hands it to Boaz, though there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of public shaming as the ritual requires.
In Deuteronomy 25:5 it specifies, “If brothers dwell together”. I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation if this means “in the same house” or “in close geographical vicinity, i.e. the same town”. Some of the commentary I found said this means the dead man’s oldest brother, but unless something is lost in translation, I don’t see that being the case in that verse. Just brothers that ‘dwell together’.
This is one of the most idiotic laws in Torah. The only other stories in the Bible that relate to it are about how badly it can go wrong. It’s so bad that the public shaming ritual you had to do to get out of it was used more often than the law was actually followed. The intent must have been to protect the dead man’s legacy. Since it does nothing to protect the legacy of the living brother or widow, and in fact harms that legacy, it’s easy to see why it was despised so much.
Gradually it was phased out and ultimately forbidden in many Jewish communities due to how boneheaded it is.
The main event of the story centers around Ruth going to Boaz and ‘uncovering his feet’. Every kind of explanation is given for this phrase. The one I heard the most was that laying at someone’s feet was an ancient Jewish custom that meant one wanted to become part of another’s household. Usually these kinds of things are relatively public. Ruth was asked to do this in the dead of night with no one watching after she bathed and dressed up in her best clothing. It doesn’t make sense that’s what it was.
The simpler explanation is that it’s exactly what it sounds like. Noami is telling Ruth to go seduce Boaz and have sex with him. ‘Uncovering his feet’ is certainly a euphemism for ‘have sex with him’, much like we’d say ‘go sleep with him’ today. Other passages in the Old Testament use ‘feet’ as a euphemism for ‘genitals’. If something makes more sense by replacing ‘feet’ with ‘penis’ in a particular passage, that’s probably what it means.
When Boaz asks Ruth to stay the night with him on the grain pile, this further reinforces the idea that it means they had sex. If it was simply a weird custom that required her not to be seen, it would have been much safer just to send her home right then.
Moab is a nation that used to be located in what is now the country of Jordan. Bethlehem is about 50 miles from the town of Karak in Jordan. If you walked from Karak to Bethlehem it might take three or four days (if that) following the Dead Sea up to the Jordan River and crossing wherever there was some means to cross. It isn’t a terribly long trip and there were likely roads of some sort even back then. This is not to say they went to where Karak is now. I just looked up a town in what probably used to be Moab and had Google tell me how far it was.
The Moabites were enemies of Israel at various points in history. Genesis contains an incestuous story that explains where they came from, and why the people of Israel thought there was something wrong with them.
One of the better descriptions of why this story was penned is that it’s a response to a changing political and cultural dynamic when Israel was under the Persian Empire. Mixed marriages were becoming more common, and this book was explaining how this was not a problem and actually a good thing. After all, King David’s own grandmother was a foreign woman from an enemy kingdom. Personally, I like that explanation.
Something I did not realize until I compiled my outline for this post was that Naomi tells the people in town to call her “Mara”. I wasn’t totally sure if she was changing her name, as she’s not called that later, or she’s saying something like, “Call me an old grouch.”
It is a real name in Hebrew that means “bitter”, however sometimes in translation words that aren’t actually names get mistaken for such. This is most obvious with “Lucifer” which somehow got mistaken for a name from a Latin translation and is now what English speaking people call the devil. Even though Jesus himself is called “lucifer” on at least one occasion.
I decided to call her Mara after that just because I thought it was kind of funny.
On Ruth, Boaz, and Other Details
Another thing that stood out to me was that Naomi and Boaz refer to Ruth as ‘young’. I suspect Naomi was probably in her thirties and Ruth was a young girl of maybe fifteen or sixteen. Naomi doesn’t say she’s past childbearing age, just too old to get another husband. Boaz is thankful to Ruth for not ‘chasing after young men’, implying he’s not young. He was probably thought to be of the same generation of Elim’elech, so probably in his thirties or possibly forties as well. There are a lot of other possibilities. Somewhere between twenty five and forty five seems to be a good guess.
It also surprised me that it was implied Boaz was single. There’s no mention of a wife or children. I don’t know when men at that time typically got married, but you don’t have too many stories of single, wealthy older men in the Bible.
There are a couple of times in the book where Ruth has, or is given some measure of grain. The basic research I did on the ‘ephah’ shows that it’s equivalent to about 5.82 US gallons, so a little bigger than a five gallon bucket (20 liter). I suspect it wasn’t an exact measurement as I found multiple definitions for the term. I went with it equalling approximately five gallons. Five gallons of barley by volume weighs just a hair over twenty five pounds (11.4 kg) so six of them would weigh about one hundred and fifty pounds (68kg).
US Marines apparently have to be able to carry about this much over nine miles as of 2016. This is seen as excessive as best I can tell. I highly doubt one Moabite woman was able to carry that volume of grain by herself back to town, much less it all pile up on one shawl. I think the translations over the years got something wrong or an “ephah” just meant a “big container full” when the story was penned.
As noted, this is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s more interesting as an adult who has some knowledge of the source material.
Like all the books of the Bible, Ruth reflects the values of the person who wrote it, which may not have been the same values the subjects of the story might have held. Copyists may have sanitized the part where Ruth seduces Boaz so not to shock the people of their time. Now most people would be aghast at the very idea of changing the words in a book, even if they didn’t agree with what it said. That value is then retroactively applied to those ancient copyists, even though they might not have held such a belief.