Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 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.’ She said to her, ‘All that you tell me I will do.’ So she went down to the threshing-floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid; I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do so. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.’
Well this is an odd tale that makes little sense until we do some digging and remembering.
First we should remember the custom of Levirate marriage where a widow could expect the brother, or other near kinsman, to marry her if her husband died. It was a way of ensuring the widow had security. In English history this became a key argument when Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon. Disputed texts about brothers marrying their sisters-in-law became key in the arguments over Henry’s desire for a divorce. Secondly, we should remember that often when the Bible says feet were uncovered it is a euphemism for sex.
The whole story is about these two women’s poverty after famine and a search for salvation from starvation. Naomi sends Ruth to find Boaz, at night, perfumed and dressed in her finest clothes. Ruth lies with Boaz after he had eaten and drunk – “he was in a contented mood.”
We are, I’m sure, meant to think of the Tamar story where Judah refuses to let his son marry her – as was her right after the death of her husband. So Tamar tricks Judah, through fine clothes and perfume, into sex to secure her rights. In effect Ruth asks Boaz to marry her and gives him a foretaste of the pleasures of the marital bed. Boaz seems to agree – though he wants to know if there’s a better candidate – and takes care that Ruth’s reputation is not tarnished “remain this night” so presumably she’d not be seen skulking away in the dark.
Then, as now, sex and security are linked for women. In the absence of a welfare state Ruth and Naomi had few choices. Ancient law – oppressive to us – gave a way for women to find security and men to take responsibility. Pray today for women who still have to use sex to find security.
O God of sex and security, help us to use your gifts wisely and joyfully; to ensure our world is safe where women and men no longer trade their bodies for shelter and safety. Help us, O God, to live to the values of your Kingdom, not the values of our world. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Minister for Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk in Orkney.