Chapter 3 is the turning point of the story —
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? 2 Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”
This is surely a strange custom! The goal was not to seduce Boaz but to encourage him to become her redeemer and marry her. This appears to be a Bronze Age marriage proposal.
I mean, why would Naomi insist that Ruth to wash and anoint herself (kind of the ancient equivalent of a bath plus perfume) except to appear as attractive as possible?
Some commentators suggest that “uncover his feet” is a euphemism for having sexual intercourse — but the scriptures are usually frank to the point of bluntness when it comes to sex. And the story doesn’t unfold in a way that suggests that they’d had intercourse. In fact, one of the major points of the books is the righteousness of Boaz and Ruth, especially their strict adherence to the Law.
6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7 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. 8 At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! 9 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”
“Spread your wings” is not a sexual reference. Rather, it’s a reference to the corners of his cloak, and so a reference to coming under Boaz’s protection, an indirect reference to marriage.
More importantly, it’s a reference to this earlier event from chapter 2 —
(Ruth 2:11-12 ESV) 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
And so, Ruth is asking Boaz to answer his own prayer, to provide the protection and care that Boaz prayed for God to provide.
(Ruth 3:10-13 ESV) 10 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. 11 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. 12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. 13 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.”
Boaz accepts the marriage proposal, flattered because of he is evidently much older than Ruth.
(Rut 4:1-6 ESV) Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. 2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.
In an age when paper was rare and expensive, legal contracts were made orally but before witnesses, to assure that no one could go back on his word. Boaz chose 10 elders as witnesses.
3 Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.
The translation is controversial, because it doesn’t really fit the plot or the Law of Moses to say that Naomi “is selling” the land. If Naomi were selling the land, then she owned the land all this time and so shouldn’t be poor. Why was Ruth gleaning if Naomi had an inheritance?
Moreover, Jewish women rarely owned land. They did not inherit from their husbands. They might inherit from their father if he died with no son. Therefore, I’m inclined to figure that “is selling” is a textual corruption.
It’s possible that the Hebrew text is corrupt or that there are other elements of Mosaic land law that we just don’t understand.
4 So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.”
The unnamed nearest male relative was willing to redeem the land — returning it to the family or clan, and expanding his own estate.
5 Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.”
Evidently, the practice was that you could not buy the land and leave the widow without a husband. To buy the land you must marry Ruth!
6 Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”
Again, it’s not entirely clear why marriage to Ruth would impair the man’s inheritance, except that would appear to reduce that inheritance of any sons he had by an existing wife.
The kinsman redeemer was unwilling to reduce the inheritance of his son or sons. After all, land was precious, there had just been a famine, and if the land were divided too many ways, there would not be enough for each son to support his own family.
Boaz buys Ruth
(Rut 4:7-8 ESV) 7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal.
I’m sure that some of our own legal practices will seem odd to future generations, but this is truly a strange way to demonstrate an unwillingness to buy a tract of land.
It could be that removal of the sandal was a sign of rejection. In the Middle East today, it’s a great insult to show someone the sole of your shoe.
(Rut 4:9-10 ESV) 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”
Thus, Boaz again proves his generosity. He likely had other sons but he was willing to honor the Law of Moses and his duties to Naomi and Ruth.
He refers to having “bought” Ruth, as though she were an inheritable piece of property, because the redemption of the land was evidently tied to the obligation of Levirate marriage.
The Law of Moses says nothing of combining these two laws, and so this was apparently the tradition in Judah at the time.