Chapter 3: The Final Turning Point
In chapter 2 Samuel gives the account of Boaz and Ruth’s first meeting. In chapter 3 the reader discovers the couple’s second meeting, the most pivotal circumstance of the whole story. Like the meeting in chapter 2, this is not a mere chance encounter; this meeting is divinely arranged. The tension of this encounter is heightened because Ruth takes an extreme risk in approaching Boaz the way she does. One author notes,
Boaz could have taken advantage of Ruth’s offer without risking any consequences even if she became pregnant by him. In short, Ruth places herself in extreme danger, so that if there was a trap on her part, as several commentators indicate, it will snap shut more surely on her than on Boaz. 1
This is definitely the turning point of the story, and we draw this conclusion because of the structure Samuel uses. As in chapter 2, the central dialogue between Ruth and Boaz is set between two other dialogues between Ruth and Naomi. The author consciously structures the story in a way to deepen what we are learning.
One scholar notes, “The Bible’s value as a religious document is intimately and inseparably related to its value as literature.”2 Thus, we need to pay attention to such things as structure, style, and word use. As we have seen already, Samuel uses a symmetrical, funnel-like structure that guides us to the central encounter between Boaz and Ruth. Everything is prearranged to converge at this point. The same kind of structure occurs in Ruth 2, except in Ruth 3 the stakes are quite high, and the drama brings the whole story to a point of climax and decision.
In chapter 2, for instance, in their first encounter, Boaz and Ruth meet in the field. The description of that meeting is flanked by two dialogues between Ruth and Naomi. Chapter 3 becomes the decisive encounter whereby God reverses Ruth’s destiny. A series of ironic reversals occur in the story between our hero and heroine. These incidents reveal a definite connection between what happened at the beginning of the story and what God is doing to reverse the story. We see, for instance, that the chapters contain parallels that have necessary significant developments. Notice the following parallel developments:
from the fields to the threshing floor
from public to private
from day to night
from chance to choice
from Boaz active to Boaz passive
from Ruth passive to Ruth active
These significant parallels and developments lead us inexorably to the redemption that is at the heart of the story. Indeed, the apex of this pattern is found in chapter 3 when Ruth approaches Boaz in the middle of the night. Ruth has set her path toward Boaz, and the reader is uncertain what will happen. Ruth willingly lays herself down at Boaz’s feet, whereby she faithfully follows the Lord in seeking a redeemer. But what will happen? The tension is elevated because Boaz is startled and awakened abruptly. How will he respond, and what will he do?
Boaz tells Ruth not to be afraid, and he assures her that he will care for her and care for his duty as her kinsman redeemer. Boaz most certainly could have taken advantage of this vulnerable young woman. Instead, he is moved with love and compassion for her. Instead of taking advantage of her, he protects her. What a man! Ruth’s initiative evokes a selfless tenderness in Boaz as he responds to her request. He compliments our heroine in the name of the Lord and recognizes the hand of God upon her.
Ruth 3:1—Naomi’s Request
“Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?’” (Ruth 3:1).
Samuel describes Naomi as Ruth’s mother-in-law, which seems to reflect her growing love for Ruth. Of course we know already that Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law, but here she is finally treating Ruth as if she were her own daughter. Naomi reveals her affection and love for Ruth as she begins to plan for her security and interests. If you have paid careful attention to the story, you have witnessed an ever-so-gentle change in Naomi. The Lord has softened her, and she is now doing for her daughter-in-law what she should have done when they were in Moab. Remember, this is the same Naomi who was at first urging both her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families. At that point in the story Naomi, whose name means “pleasant,” was bitter; now Naomi has become pleasant again.
In fact, Naomi’s request to provide security for Ruth indicates that she is acting by faith. Some may suggest that Naomi is acting with selfish regard for her own welfare, especially because of the potential danger in which she puts Ruth. I don’t think this is the case. To the contrary, Naomi reveals faith that the goel, the kinsman redeemer Boaz, will provide for Ruth. Though this was not the case at the beginning of the story, Naomi is now speaking on behalf of Ruth; she has Ruth’s best interests at heart; she points her to the plan of God for precisely this kind of need.
Rest and Well-Being
Naomi believes that her daughter-in-law will find two things with Boaz—rest and well-being. Rest is something that is very holistic in the Bible, and the concept of rest has richer and deeper meaning in the Old Testament than it does today. When someone says that he could use some rest, he generally is speaking of something physical. The Old Testament concept of rest is more pervasive and comprehensive than mere physical respite.
Rest in the Old Testament includes the idea of peace, security, and blessings. This is why we see Naomi saying that she will seek rest for Ruth. Notice that Naomi does believe that Ruth can find both rest and well-being in Boaz. For a woman in that culture, the concept of rest often included marriage and the security of a home. This notion annoys the feminist critics who read this story. Nevertheless, this idea accords with creation design. The Bible speaks of marriage as including rest and well-being in covenant with God. The beautiful theme that keeps popping up in our story is of being covered with protection and security.
Naomi is definitely playing matchmaker for her daughter-in-law. However, the reader soon discovers that there is risk involved in this encounter with Boaz, and not merely the risk of meeting someone and being rejected. There is a much greater risk for Ruth, and the secrecy Naomi encourages Ruth to use demonstrates the nature of the risk.
This accounts for Ruth’s approaching Boaz at night. Naomi tells Ruth not to show herself early. Rather, she is to wait until later when everyone is asleep; she is to sneak in at dark. If she were caught in the area, she may have been required to leave, and she would have lost an opportunity. She was to observe the scene and then quietly uncover Boaz’s feet. Here the reader is helped if he understands that the biblical phrase “uncovering the feet” means much more than merely taking off his sandals. It appears to be a euphemism for physical intimacy. Thus, Naomi told Ruth, “Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor” (3:3).
Naomi told Ruth to clean herself, put on her best clothes, and perfume herself—as a bride—for Boaz. She was to look as beautiful as possible.
So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law instructed her. And after Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was cheerful, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came softly, uncovered his feet, and lay down (3:6–7).
The text literally says that it was well with him. This corresponds to Ruth 3:1: “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you?” (emphasis added). The phrase seems to be connected with this particular scene. In other words, if Ruth can join herself with Boaz, then it will be well with her also. It is well with Boaz, and he is the one who is able to provide well-being for Ruth. God makes it clear that she needs a husband. Ruth has followed the will of God in approaching Boaz as her kinsman redeemer rather than other men she could have approached. She is faithful here in so many ways commendable to women of faith.
Please note that Ruth is not modeling for us any kind of an approach to courtship or dating. For those of you who are always looking to the Bible for examples of how this or that practice should be followed, you might be surprised. I have found that many proponents of specific “models” of marriage and courtship look to the Bible to provide evidence for their specific practice. However, we should be cautious about using ancient practices as “the model” for our present activities. This is especially true when the ancient practice is descriptive—not prescriptive. We have to be careful about using biblical narratives as the basis for our own actions, lest we conclude that a woman should be like Ruth and pursue a man she believes is good for her.
The Threshing Floor
“Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor” (3:2).
Everything will be played out on the threshing floor, which plays a role in the setting of redemption and restoration. It presents a dramatic setting for the ultimate turning point of our story. Why would this be the setting? Does it have significance? We need to remember, “The Bible’s value as a religious document is intimately and inseparably related to its value as literature.”3
Consequently, it is natural for the reader to look for literary clues in the story and to understand that the threshing floor is a metaphor with definite theological connotations. It is the place of judgment; it is the place of ultimate separation. Here is where the wheat is beaten from the chaff. Here is where the good is separated from the bad. Thus, this is no insignificant scene in the story. This is the moment of truth. LaCoque observes,
Naomi was possibly sending her daughter-in-law to her destruction—or at least to the confirmation for witnesses that one can expect nothing more than promiscuity from Moab. Ruth was perhaps going to be mistaken for a prostitute. Boaz was perhaps going to commit irreparable harm.
Thus, the setting of the threshing floor is quite powerful as a theological symbol.
Boaz and his men are enjoying a celebration on the threshing floor at the end of harvest. This could have been some kind of a threshing party for all the men. The place where the gathering was held could have been a threshing station of some sort. Different harvesting groups would use the floor at different times. This must have been Boaz’s night at the threshing floor. At any rate, Boaz was not alone. We know this because Naomi told Ruth to mark which spot was Boaz’s when he lay down.
Perhaps this was the combination of a massive work day and then, as the day closed, a huge party to match the work. There was feasting and drinking. It appears that this Israelite celebration was unique among ancient Near East harvest festivals, in that it did not include women. The pagan harvest festivals commonly celebrated the gods of fertility, and orgies and perversions of all sorts occurred. Indeed, temple prostitutes were commonplace during these festivals. The reader should already know that harvesting and sheep shearing were used as opportunities for celebrations of excess. It is no small coincidence that the story harkens back to a fateful moment in Genesis 38 when Judah thought the presence of a temple prostitute a rather unremarkable reality for such celebrations. Women are not a part of Boaz’s celebration.
So she lay at his feet until morning, and she arose before one could recognize another. Then he said, “Do not let it be known that the woman came to the threshing floor” (3:14).
In considering the setting, the reader finds yet another seemingly insignificant detail that points to the gravity of what happens at the threshing floor. Ruth’s dramatic awakening of Boaz comes at midnight. Like the threshing floor, the time setting of midnight points to a dramatic time of judgment and decision. It marks a turning point.
Midnight is the time of life and death in many narratives. From the earliest stages of redemptive history, midnight marks a time of dramatic decision. In the Scriptures as well, midnight marks the decisive moment of reckoning and redemption. Exodus 12:29–30 describes the most dramatic of these moments:
And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead (emphasis added).
Midnight became a fixed time of reckoning for the Old Testament saints, and it even became a time of prayer that marked the very pattern of their lives, as indicated in Psalm 119:62: “At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You, because of Your righteous judgments” (emphasis added).
Midnight came to be so commonly associated with judgment and reckoning that Jesus’ New Testament parables often include this theme. For instance, the parable of the foolish virgins who run out of oil while they are waiting for the coming of the groom includes the midnight theme: “But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’” (Matthew 25:5–6, emphasis added).
Of course, in our story, midnight was the decisive moment as well. Rabbi Ginsburg notes:
Its importance lies in the fact that it is linked to the future. Even though the night is the time of Hashem’s strict justice and the morning is the time of mercy, from midnight on the time is influenced by the morning and its considered within the realm of mercy. . . . Boaz arose that midnight to withstand the test of Ruth’s presence, and this worked out in the best manner as it was a time of mercy. 4
Boaz lies down at the end of a heap of grain, sleeping next to his harvest. The whole harvest belongs to Boaz and it looks like this great man can have whatever he wants. As he is sleeping, Ruth uncovers his feet, and he awakens: “Now it happened at midnight that the man was startled, and turned himself; and there, a woman was lying at his feet” (3:8)
Boaz was startled by the presence and activity of Ruth. Some scholars argue that she merely or literally uncovered his feet. However, it seems that more was going on here than this. “Uncovering his feet” appears to be a euphemism for attempting to take off his clothes. He was warm, and as he was uncovered, he awoke in surprise. Some commentators argue that Ruth did have relations with Boaz because of the use of this euphemism. This simply does not accord with Boaz’s response of refusal. It is important to note that Boaz stops whatever potential relationship that could have occurred as a result of Ruth’s activity.
Question of Identity
Because of the utter darkness, Boaz knew that the “intruder” was a woman but was startled at her presence and asked who she was.
So she answered, “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative” (3:9).
This is the question that dominates the scene: Who are you? Boaz responds that he is in fact a close relative, and this is the word goel. The goel is the close relative obliged to redeem things on behalf of the family. Ruth appeals to Boaz, essentially asking him to respond to her needs, claiming him as her kinsman redeemer. She begs Boaz to claim her as his wife.
The imagery of spreading a garment or skirt over someone is used to indicate marriage, and this is exemplified in Ezekiel 16:7–9:
“I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and [clothed] your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord GOD.
The symbolism in this passage points to the covenant made at Sinai. However, the analogy here is to the marriage covenant. The marriage covenant is said to occur when the husband covers his wife with his clothing. It is as if they are now clothed with one cloth instead of two; they become one. Since clothing relates to the glory and honor of external appearance, they have one covering of glory and honor. So in this incident, Ruth is inviting Boaz to marry her.
It seems most likely that the earlier reference to Ruth’s uncovering Boaz’s feet, a gesture of intimacy, is most likely a reference to her marriage invitation. Boaz was not being invited to agree to some future ceremony; he was invited to marry her on the spot. While In many cases in the ancient world there were extravagant wedding celebrations, there was no ceremony that matches the common Western notion of a wedding. Rather, there was simply the consummation, and this began the marriage. It appears that Ruth and Boaz would not have needed any formal ceremony. The only reason there is a legal exchange at the gate later in the story is because there was another kinsman who had prior claims.
As there was no ceremony required, Boaz could easily have taken advantage of Ruth’s offering. Instead, he refused to sin, and he resolved to love her. This was no easy thing, my friends! Surely his heart raced and pounded as much as any other man’s would have as he saw and felt this beautiful young woman lying at his feet, offering herself to him.
Boaz expresses his deepest affection for Ruth as he shows restraint and properly refuses to consummate their love. He was a man of godly honor, and God had touched his heart with deeply rooted integrity. Here is the man who walks in the path of the Lord.
Then he said, “Blessed are you of the LORD, my daughter! For you have shown more kindness at the end than at the beginning, in that you did not go after young men, whether poor or rich (3:10).
Boaz is not expressing some kind of a romantic notion of love; his words are clear and covenantal. Boaz is referring to Ruth’s actions in regard to Naomi. He remained completely in control of himself and focused the entire event on God and his covenant.
Boaz says, “For you have shown more kindness at the end than at the beginning.” Boaz was referring to another act of kindness in keeping with Ruth’s covenant obligations. The first act of covenant kindness was her choice to follow Naomi and become a member of God’s covenant people. This included Ruth’s hard work in gleaning for Naomi. Ruth did for Naomi what she could not do for herself, taking the place of an older widow. The second kindness is her offering herself as a substitute for Naomi. She did not have to do this. She was legally free to find herself another husband and did not have to perform the duty of a levirate. Instead, she acted on behalf of Naomi. Samuel presents us with two outstanding examples in Ruth and Boaz as they act on behalf of others.
Their covenant kindness is rewarded greatly. We often think that acting for others will yield endless toil with no reward. However, our heavenly rewards are greater than anything that could be compared to the earthly rewards we forsake. There is so much in this beautiful story about sacrifice and service for others. Ruth could have found a man she wanted because he was young and handsome. She could have sought a husband who was young, energetic, and rich. Yet she served her family without regard to her own well-being. This is ironic, because in doing so she found the true source of well-being in Boaz.
Boaz, likewise, is not attracted to Ruth necessarily because of her youth or outward beauty; he is attracted to her covenant faithfulness. As a true husband and as a true king in Israel, Boaz responds with covenant faithfulness and points us to Ruth’s interest in the covenant. She was not interested in young men either for emotional love or for money; she was a woman of the covenant. Because of this, Boaz agreed to marry her. However, he shows amazing self-restraint and refrains from acting until he has notified another man who has a closer claim than he has. Boaz acts as a true and faithful husband.
He tells Ruth that he will do all that she asks of him. He will marry her, and he will take care of her. He will raise up a seed for Naomi and Elimelech. He will do everything in his power to love Ruth and care for her. This man Boaz was simply outstanding. Boaz is an admirable man. Every dad wants a man like Boaz to marry or at least to date his daughter. Every godly woman should be looking for this man! Boaz is a type of Christ, like his predecessor Joseph. Both are men who love when others would take advantage.
When we learn about men like Joseph and Boaz at their best, we learn of our Savior. Notice what Boaz does. He tells Ruth that he will follow the law because he knows of another man whose covenantal/legal position is closer than his. Therefore, he tells her to lie down at his feet until morning. This phrase seems most certainly to be literal rather than euphemistic. Ruth is to remain there and then leave quietly at dawn. Boaz also restrains himself in regard to loving her until he has fulfilled his obligations to God.
Boaz even protected Ruth from potential criticism. He made sure that nobody thought improperly of her. Boaz knew of the potential danger to her reputation as a foreigner from the land of Moab, where there were temple prostitutes who were commonly promiscuous during harvest celebrations. Boaz sought to protect her. He encouraged her to leave and gave her six measures of barley. It appears that Boaz gives her something that will provide an explanation if she is questioned. But certainly also it is a gift and token of his love.
Question of Identity
And she came in unto her mother-in-law, and she said, ‘Who [are] you, my daughter?’ and she declared to her all that the man had done to her (3:16, emphasis added).
Naomi asks Ruth who she is. This reminds of us Boaz’s earlier question, but Naomi was essentially asking if Ruth if she had gotten married. In other words, Naomi is asking Ruth if she now is Mrs. Boaz. In this scene, Ruth now has the identity of an Israelite, and there is also the obvious and uncontrollable excitement that Naomi would have experienced as Ruth returned from such an adventure. We can only imagine the two of them jumping up and down and hugging as Ruth shared with Naomi what had happened. Imagine these two women as they laughed, cried, and talked about the night’s amazing encounter with a genuine man of God.
Chapter 3 includes the themes of rest, security, peace, and comfort. Boaz is going to provide all of these things for Ruth through his legal work as the true husband. As Boaz performs his legal duty, he provides rest for his bride. Ruth depends entirely on Boaz for any hope of rest, and this is certainly a picture of what Christ does for us.
The Reversal and Beauty of Grace:
There is much in the Bible about the love between a husband and a wife. Our story of Ruth and Boaz moves us emotionally to imagine the tenderness, the gentleness, and the passion of Boaz and Ruth. Yet this grand love story isn’t merely about a man and a woman but also about Christ and his bride, the church.
The more we meditate on Boaz’s love for Ruth, the more overwhelmed we should become. This is the love of a faithful kinsman redeemer. He is not looking for what he can get from this young woman; on the contrary, he covers her in ways that are not selfish. His love is unselfish and deep. This is the kind of love that provokes a wife to an incomparable warm responsiveness.
This is godly, marital love. This is not mere romance, but it is a love deeply rooted in the vows and commitments that comprise a wedding ceremony. I vow to love you for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, for richer or poorer. As these vows are tested and tried in the midst of the hardships of life, a deep love develops—a love that is so profound that only the word mystery can capture something of its character. This is true love. This is not the frothy romantic love we hear about in pop songs on our radios; this is true, sacrificial love that points us to Jesus. This is the love that drives us to our knees in wonder before our compassionate God.
1. Andre LaCocque, Ruth, p. 83.
2. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981), p. 19.
4. Rabbi Eliezer Ginsburg, Mother of Kings: Commentary and Insights on the Book of Ruth (Mesorah Publications, ltd., 2002), p. 111.
Questions for Consideration
1. Describe the ironic reversals so far in the story.
2. What was Naomi’s request, and how does it point to a change in her heart?
3. What is the significance of the threshing floor and midnight?
4. Why was Ruth’s request essentially a proposal of marriage?
5. Explain the symbolism in this part of the story.
6. Describe Boaz’s response to Ruth’s request for marriage.
7. Why does Naomi’s question of identity further prove that marriage was the focus?
8. How is Boaz a type of Christ?
9. When you think of Boaz’s love, is this the way you think of God’s love and grace to you?