In an early draft of my sermon yesterday, I compared the Book of Ruth to a romantic comedy. It wasn’t my original thought: it came from John Goldingay. But true enough, the book does have the hallmarks of one: the meet-cute of chapter 2, the falling in love of chapter 3, the threat to the couple’s love in chapter 4, along with a happy ending.
Does it also have Hollywood’s obligatory pre-martital sex scene in Ruth 3?
Scholarly opinion on the question of whether the couple have sex on the threshing floor is mixed. It is, without question, an erotically charged scene. After all, Ruth’s mother-in-law tells her to bathe, put on make-up, wear her finest clothes, wait until Boaz has eaten and drunk (alcohol) and “his heart was merry,” and then “uncover his feet.” Then, when morning comes, Boaz acts to protect Ruth from scandal, sending her away “before one could recognize another.”
We know for sure that “uncovering one’s nakedness” is a biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse. This was likely Ham’s sin against his father, Noah, in Genesis 9:20-28—that he humiliated him by penetrating him anally—not merely that his son saw his father naked.
Doesn’t Noah’s curse make much more sense in this context?
We also know for sure that a man’s “foot” is often a biblical euphemism for genitalia.
Additionally, the scene in Ruth 3 likely alludes to Genesis 19, when Lot’s daughters ply their father with wine in order to become pregnant by him. While this may seem like a stretch to us contemporary readers, ancient Israelites would already have Genesis 19 in mind: Ruth was a Moabite, and Moabites are descendants of the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter. The story is likely playing on the ancient stereotype that Moabite women are morally loose.
So does all this mean that Ruth and Boaz had premarital sex?
While I’m aware that many progressive Christians would have us believe that the Bible’s witness against sex outside of marriage isn’t as airtight as we uptight conservatives think, I say no—an emphatic no.
First, Ruth’s purpose in going to Boaz isn’t to sleep with him simply because she’s attracted to him, which would be the case in a romantic comedy, but to propose marriage to him. This is what she means when she says, “Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
Second, if they did have sex that night, the act itself would be an act of consummation of marriage, not inconsequential premarital sex as our culture understands it today. Both Boaz and Ruth understood that the act itself implied marriage. As Goldingay writes in his For Everyone commentary, getting married in ancient Israel didn’t require the blessing of civil or ecclesial authorities. In which case, as many commentators point out, Ruth wasn’t making herself up and wearing her finest clothes in order to seduce Boaz, but to marry him.
There are lots of ambiguities about the way the story is told that reflect the ambiguity in what Ruth was to do. Dressing yourself up the way Ruth does could mean making it look as if you are a bride on her wedding day, but it could mean trying to look seductive. Uncovering someone’s feet could mean what it says, but “uncovering someone’s nakedness” is a euphemism for having sex with them, and “feet” can be a euphemism for genitals. If a man wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a woman lying next to him, he could hardly be blamed for thinking she is offering herself to him, though he would be wise also to remember that accepting the offer might mean he will have a hard time avoiding marrying her. To put it another way, sleeping with an unattached woman might imply a marriage commitment. As far as we know, in Israel there is no such thing as a marriage service or a registrar of marriages. Such things belong in urbanized and mobile cultures. So even if Ruth is offering herself to Boaz sexually, she might seem by that act to be proposing and not merely propositioning. Simply offering him a one-night stand would be prejudicing her future with any other man. And what we know about both Ruth and Boaz would make it unlikely that either of them would just be interested in a one-night stand with someone.[†]
† Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 179-80.