Monday, October 04, 2010

Did Ruth sleep with Boaz before their marriage to each other?

To find out the answer, we have to go back to where it all started: Naomi's proposal to secure Ruth's future,
"Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.

Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do." (v.1-4)
Frederic Bush commented that Naomi's suggestion for Ruth to wash, anoint and dress up is a symbolic gesture to start anew her life and move on; to end the mourning season for her deceased husband, Mahlon, as parallel David's ending his mourning for his dead son in 2 Samuel 12-14. (Frederic Bush, Ruth/Esther [USA: Word, 1996], p.152).

And that was exactly what Ruth did in the story. She moved on.

Next, this happened:
"So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.

Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!

He said, "Who are you?"

And she answered, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a kinsman-redeemer."

And he said, "May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a kinsman-redeemer. Yet there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the LORD lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning." (v.6-13)
Commentators agree that this account is sexually charged:
"That sexual overtones are present in the action of a woman uncovering a man's legs in the dark of the night and lying down, there can be no doubt."
(Frederic Bush, Ruth/Esther [USA: Word, 1996], p.153)

"The Narrator emphasizes the sexual nature of the midnight encounter by speaking only of "the man" and "a woman" without use of names (Ruth 3.8), evoking thoughts of the first pair in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.23)."
(E. John Hamlin, Surely There Is A Future: A Commentary on the Book of Ruth [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996], p.43)
There is no question over the explicit sexual connotation in these passages. However that does not mean Ruth and Boaz had an intercourse.

One ambiguity is whether did Ruth uncover Boaz's legs which includes his genitals? Frederic Bush thinks only the legs, not the genitals. Another commentator, Kirsten Nielsen, thinks that it was Ruth who undressed herself instead of she undressed Boaz. (Kirsten Nielsen, Ruth [UK: SCM Press, 1997], p.69-72) The debate is still unsettled though the philology makes more sense with Boaz being the one uncovered. What we are certain is that one of them was partial, if not fully, naked that night.

Some commentators say that there was no exposure of sexual organs in the story and Boaz did not have sex with Ruth because both of them were "worthy" individuals (Ruth 2.1, 3.11). The assumption is that having pre-marital sex in all circumstances is unworthy for "worthy" people.

I think to read certain moral code (i.e. pre-marital sex is unworthy) into the passages does not help us to understand the text simply because the text does not address the specific issue on the legitimacy of pre-marital sex. The question we bring to the text is not necessarily the question the text is meant to deal with.

My suggestion to understanding Ruth 3 is therefore to start with the main concern of the book: The theologico-political legitimacy of David, the southern king in the line of Judah, to be the ruler over all Israel. That means I think the canonical nature of the Book of Ruth lies in its function to legitimize the political authority of the southern kingdom over the northern kingdom. (Ruth 4.11-22)

The book of Ruth was designed to show us David's royal lineage. If lineage is the main theme, then the role of kinsman-redeemer in the story is the main feature as it ensures the continuity of the lineage (Ruth 4.5: "to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance").

The author specifically mentioned the incestuous relationship between Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, in 4.12 in tracing the lineage. This mentioning is carefully deliberated by the author in order to emphasize the significance of providing justice in the community as the sexual relationship with Judah was Tamar's demand of justice for herself when Judah deprived Tamar her lot when he did not give her his son, Shelah, as a kinman-redeemer as he has promised (Gen. 38.26).

(Strictly speaking, Judah's sexual relation with Tamar is not identical with the prohibition on incest stated in Leviticus 18.15. I am not aware of any law in the Old Testament that prohibit the widowed father-in-law from having sex with his widowed daughter-in-law for the sake of progeny. Neither there is a law that requires the father-in-law to carry out Levirate marriage. So technically, Judah's sexual relationship with Tamar is not under any incestuous category. In fact, there is no category for their act. There is a law on sexual relationship with a virgin woman [Deut. 22.28-29] but none on sexual relationship between widows. The statement "And Judah did not know Tamar again" [Gen. 38.26] seems to suggest that there was an expectation that Judah would continue to have sex with Tamar as if it was a norm in that culture for widowed father-in-law to have sex with his widowed daughter-in-law.)

Here we have an explicit and an implicit connections between the story of Boaz-Ruth and that of Judah-Tamar. The explicit connection is the theme on kinsman-redeemer to perpetuate the lineage of the deceased. The implicit connection that the author wants the readers to know is that Boaz was, like Judah, a widow.

Now, could the author of Ruth also raised up Judah's ignorance of his sexual encounter with Tamar as a parallel to tell the readers that Boaz was similarly ignorant of his sexual encounter with Ruth as he was drunk?

Did Ruth sleep with Boaz before marriage? We know that they did after marriage (Ruth 4.13).

Well, it seems to me that the low-self-esteemed statement made by Boaz "You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich" (Ruth 3.10) is his appreciative remark to Ruth for her choice to have sex with him rather than with others and for her desire to have him as the kinsman-redeemer. If this is the case, then 'first kindness' would be the reference to the sex they had when Boaz was unconscious, while the "last kindness" was referring to Ruth's invitation to Boaz to be her redeemer.

I do not claim this to be the case but that's the sense that I get from reading the passages. What about you?


Israel Lee said...

not to sure either of the case, but i think we should also consider the immediate context of Boaz asking the kinsmen redeemer of his decision to marry Ruth the next day or a few days later. not sure about the cultural views of that time, but i still think that it would be difficult for Boaz to ask the other kinsmen redeemer to marry Ruth if he knew that she has slept with Boaz the previous night. not sure whether Boaz asking her to stay for the night was a way for her to leave discreetly in the morning without anyone knowing or whether it something honourable folks of that time do to show the community that though they were in close proximity during the night, it was meant for a purpose such as Boaz declaring his intention to marry Ruth. it could also be that the very reason the other kinsmen was not interested was because he knew Boaz and Ruth have already sealed the agreement with a sexual encounter.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

You wrote, "i still think that it would be difficult for Boaz to ask the other kinsmen redeemer to marry Ruth if he knew that she has slept with Boaz the previous night."

This got me thinking.

I think as there was no law against sexual relationship between widows, then Boaz's act with Ruth will not be a hinder to her being redeemed by other kinsman. It was not an issue at that time.

The other kinsman was not interested with Ruth because he has other obligation: "I cannot redeem [the land & hence Ruth] for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance." (Ruth 4.6)

scruffy said...

Bro, I think you didn't get the point. Might I suggest you read the whole Bible to get the point. :) if you still don't get it, read again until you get the point I'm trying to make...

Think you know where I'm coming from...

Sze Zeng said...



pearlie said...

Oh! I love the book of Ruth, the grace and tenderness and significance, but it is this very portion that is still not sitting very well with me.

It all began when I was told during an OT class that "leg" in OT times could be an euphemism for the male genitalia.

You are right in saying that "to read certain moral code (i.e. pre-marital sex is unworthy) into the passages does not help us to understand the text simply because the text does not address the specific issue on the legitimacy of pre-marital sex" but two wrongs does not make a right though, the first being the "wrongness" of being a widow and the second, an actual moral wrong of having premarital sex. But then again, polygamy was a norm in those days, and though God's purposes still got carried out but with consequences on the part of the people. Can we view premarital in the same light?

But I am still not comfortable about it in Ruth, though nowhere it is mentioned that it happened, but I cannot discount the loaded "sexual overtones".

Israel's comment on the first kinsmen redeemer knowledge of a possible sexual encounter is very interesting but I do think too it is more of the inheritance reason that he declined. But word got out?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi pearlie,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

On "two wrongs does not make a right".

I definitely agree with you. However, what I am more interested is not whether was Boaz' premarital intercourse with Ruth (assuming they did) and Judah with Tamar were right or not, but what did they ancient Israelites thought about these relationships? Did they dwell over such question with the concern was more on the progeny of their relationship or simply the act of premarital sex?

Even if it were premarital, but was there a category that prohibit widows sleeping with each other without getting married? It seems to me that there were none.

So there seems to me that there are certain sexual activities in the ancient times which we do not identify with with our contemporary culture.

rman said...

If there was no law against sexual intercourse before marriage, then why was Tamar going to be killed (burned) for being pregnant without a husband?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi rman,

Tamar was to carry Er's bloodline. She was pledged by Judah to be married to Shelah, Er's leftover brother, to continue the bloodline of the family. Hence she was to be punished not because she got pregnant without a husband. Rather she was to be punished for carrying other family's bloodline and not the designated one, that is the bloodline of her deceased husband, Er, and hence that of Judah.

In fact it was this duty to carry the bloodline of the family that got Judah worried for Shelah's life in Gen. 38.11.

Deverix said...

Thank you for this thoughtful commentary on this subject. Just heard a woman on the radio say this was an example "of the many contradictions in the Bible". Is it a contradiction (premarital sex OK here, but condemned elsewhere)? Did Ruth have sex with Boaz, or did she show her willingness to have sex with him by laying at his feet? Perhaps this was an offering, not a giving of intimacy?

Impeasa said...

Judah was not willing to give his son to Tamar, the issues of Judah and Tamar have no linkage with Ruth's story. There was no sex, or do we now assume that the Biblical account was too prude to use the phrase 'knew her'? Come on, no matter how we argue the case, Boaz was an honorable man and Ruth more so.

Isaac Hanna said...

there was a strong attraction between them and they could have had sex encounter that day, even when we are Christian we might have done that before marriage , God understands and we should make things go right by marriage or we separate .. be simple and see the human nature with mercy and compassionate ..

Jeffrey River Niles said...

I certainly agree that there are sexual undertones in the passage. It's loaded with ambiguous double entendre. The narrator intends for us to understand Ruth's offer of marriage, particularly that she was offering herself, a younger woman to Boaz, an older man, who wouldn't have considered himself .

However, I think a few things have been left out of your argument:

1) A different word for "feet" is used as the normal euphemism. The sexual tension is there which the narrator uses, but the choice of wording prevents the reader from going that extra step. She uncovered his feet, not his genitals. To note the latter, the narrator would have used the more obvious Hebrew regal.

2) The first act of kindness was not a ... ahem "act of kindness" .... It was was her act of kindness to Naomi in forsaking her home and family and caring for this poor widow. The second act of kindness is found again in the vocabulary. Ruth did not ask to be Boaz's "free" wife. She overstepped Naomi's instructions and offered to be his "concubine" wife. Her terminology is clear. The act of kindness was in sacrificing her happiness/freedom and putting Boaz in a position in which he would have to purchase Ruth from Naomi. Thus Ruth was still looking out for her mother-in-law's best interest by providing her a financial source of caring for herself. Not only had she forsaken her homeland. She now forsook her own freedom for the care of another. The kindness are not "acts of servicing" Boaz, but true acts of showing loyal-love to Naomi.

3) I'm open to some honest criticism especially on this one. I'd like some other's thoughts on this. Might the passage contain those sexual undertones because Ruth was truly offering herself to Boaz -- not for premarital sex or an immoral night on the threshing floor -- but rather might she have been offering to consummate the relationship that night? Ancient marriages did not always include the ceremony first. Often, the couple went and got married and then came and told everyone, "Hey guess what! We got married last night."

So in other words, Ruth was offering herself; but she was offering marriage ... right there! right then! Sexual innuendo is there not because she was being promiscuous, but because the first act of marriage was being offered.

Nothing sexual took place which we gather by the care he took in preserving her integrity. Also note that the text demonstrates in the morning that she was wearing her clothing. The only reference to her taking anything off was to put the shawl full of barley on her shoulder.

Your discussion is a good one, but I think we often read our own cultural ideas of what marriage ceremonies and premarital sex may have looked like.


Luke said...

Jeffrey River Niles,

Just throwing this in on the first point you made as you state that the word used here is not the common word for feet (which is the Hebrew word regel), and you're partially correct.

The word used here is מַרְגְּלֹתָ֖י (margelot), which has the root word regel in it, with a prefix and a suffix. The prefix M comes from the word Min which means "from" or "out of," and can also mean the location of something (we do this in English as well, like "this drink comes from Napa Valley"). The ending looks weird, but I believe it's an old form of the "ah" ending which means ward, as in, desert-ward or homeward.

So, it has the word Regel in it, with two modifiers to indicate location from and location to. Frankly, this makes it difficult to translate as there are only a few places in the Bible where this word occurs in this form (4 times in Ruth 3, and 1 time in Daniel 10:6 where it is often translated as the legs).

Overall, this seems to be extremely suggestive in terms of sexuality as a better translation might be "legs," or that Ruth uncovered his clothing all the way up to his hips at the least. Seeing that this was a man lying down on a threshing floor and this woman is uncovering so much of his lower body, the sexual undertones are incredibly strong, even stronger than if just Regel was used.

Ashley Smith said...

I think the unbelievers love to find ways to pick and choose and then say the Bible contradicts itself. Bottom line in all argument. Man is in a fallen state and makes mistakes. What does God say about premarital sex. It is wrong and He does not approve of it. PERIOD. So from this minute forward is premarital sex okay to God. NO Next quesion

Ashley Smith said...

I think the unbelievers love to find ways to pick and choose and then say the Bible contradicts itself. Bottom line in all argument. Man is in a fallen state and makes mistakes. What does God say about premarital sex. It is wrong and He does not approve of it. PERIOD. So from this minute forward is premarital sex okay to God. NO Next quesion

Joseph Löbb said...

Ashley Smith,

I would recommend to you a short essay written by an acquaintance of mine named Daniel Koughnett. The short essay may be found here. NOTE: He is talking about premarital sex according to the bible, not promiscuity. There is a difference. While premarital sex may be promiscuity, not all premarital sex is promiscuity.

Here's the document: