Naomi and Ruth have been living fairly well, thanks to Ruth's perseverance and the generosity of Boaz. He has allowed Ruth to glean in his fields, made sure that she has grain to take home and seen to it that she isn't harassed by his workers. The harvest is coming to a close now and Naomi is thinking about Ruth's future. She tells Ruth to make herself pretty and go down to the threshing floor, where Boaz will be supervising the winnowing. And here’s where things start to get steamy.
During the threshing season it was customary for the landowner to spend the night near the threshing floor to protect his grain from theft. Ruth is to wait until Boaz is asleep, then uncover his feet and lie down. "He will tell you what to do," Naomi advises.
I think one reason why Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz at night was so that she could make her request in private. If she had approached him during the day, she'd be publicly accusing him of failing to live up to his family responsibilities and demanding her rights. He'd be under a lot of pressure and no matter how Boaz answered the request, he would be publicly embarrassed. This way, Boaz could make a decision without the whole town watching him.
Then again, perhaps Naomi was trying to set up a romantic situation. Some commenters have said that the Hebrew word translated as “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for a different, more private part of the body. They suggest that Naomi’s plan is to have Ruth wait until Boaz passes out drunk from partying and then crawl into bed with him.
I don’t think I agree with this interpretation, though. The wording of the text, “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits,” (Ruth 3:7); or “…his heart was merry” as the King James Version puts it; to me suggests happy and mellow, rather than staggering drunk. Then again, maybe I’m reading into the story what I want to see.
But when I try to envision how the scene might have taken place, I just can’t picture it. Ruth pulling back Boaz’s robe enough to expose his toes, and then backing off to wait and hope is subtle. Ruth hitching up his garment to expose his feet, legs and dangly bits is less so. It makes you wonder how Boaz managed to sleep through that. Maybe he was passed out after all.
No, I prefer to interpret Boaz’s feet as feet. I don’t doubt that Naomi hoped the intimate setting would give Boaz ideas; but a one-night stand with Boaz would not have helped Ruth’s or Naomi’s situation any. Yes, she might have been able to shame him into marrying her. Or she might have prompted him to denounce her as a fornicator and slut. And if Naomi really wanted the two of them to have sex, she might have done better advising Ruth to uncover her own “feet”. Instead, Ruth does something different.
Ruth is careful to maintain deference to Boaz. She does not lie by Boaz's side, the way a wife would or a lover. She lies at his feet, like a servant, or even a dog. Our egalitarian society finds this repellant, or at least strange. Maybe that’s why we’d rather have the feet mean something else and have Ruth act in a more sexually aggressive manner.
I don't think her behavior is due solely to the position of women in the culture of the time; part of it is a matter of class. Boaz is a wealthy landowner, and Ruth is a poor relation and a foreigner at that. She's aware that she has a lower status.
In one of his parables, Jesus advises not to grab the seat of honor next to the host when you go to a party, because if a more important guest shows up, you'll get bumped and look like a dork. (Luke 14:7-11) My translation does not actually use the word "dork", but I’m sure that’s what Jesus meant. How much better, Jesus says, it is to choose a lower, humbler seat for yourself and have the host urge you to move to a better place.
This is what Ruth does. Instead of presuming upon her family connection, she assumes a servant's place and waits for Boaz to make the next move. We might find her attitude submissive, but she's not too humble to make a fairly brazen request, nor to remind Boaz of his duty to honor that request.
Boaz wakes up in the middle of the night (probably his feet were cold) and finds a girl, lying at his feet! "Who are you? he asked. "I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer." (Ruth 3:9, NIV)
The word translated as "corner" and in the RSV as "skirt" literally means "wings", so in a sense she is asking him to "spread his wings over her," and become her protector. She is asking him to marry her. That’s how the phrase is used in Ezekiel 16:8, in which the relationship between God and his People is compared to a Bad Romance.
Or, as has been suggested, Ruth might have been saying, “Open your robe so that we can Get Jiggy.” Sexual intimacy is indeed implicit in the garment metaphor, but Ruth is asking for more than just sex.
She reminds him that he is next-of-kin, or the "kinsman-redeemer" as the NIV puts it. Boaz has a family responsibility to look after his relatives. This goes back to the Levirite Law mentioned a while back. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). If a man dies without a son, his brother is obligated to marry the man's widow to provide him with an heir to carry on the family line and to take care of the widow.
Boaz is pleased and flattered by her request. He has been impressed by her character and is more than willing to take her as his wife. There's just one obstacle: another kinsman who is more closely related to the family than he is, whose rights and obligations take precedence over Boaz's. But the wheels are turning in his mind, and he's probably already working on a plan.
Why does Boaz send Ruth away early before anyone else can see her? My guess is that he did it to protect her reputation -- and his own as well. If people knew the two of them had spent the night together... well, some people might think they were, ahem, playing footsie.
The next morning, Naomi hears Ruth story with satisfaction. Boaz is clearly interested in the girl. "Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today."