1 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.” – Ruth 3:1-5 ESV
Back in chapter one, we have the record of Naomi’s words to her two distraught daughters-in-law, spoken not long after they had lost their husbands. She expressed her heartfelt desire that they find rest. And she knew that this would only be possible when each of them found a new husband. There would be no rest for them as long as they remained widows.
“The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” – Judges 1:9 ESV
The Hebrew word she used is mĕnuwchah, and it conveys the idea of repose or comfort. It was often used in reference to matrimony because it was only in this state that a woman could find the safety and security she needed in a society where women were sometimes treated as second-class citizens and were afforded few individual rights. It was within the context of marriage that a woman could find a home to live in and a husband to provide for her needs. As a widow herself, Naomi was well-acquainted with the insecurities and insufficiencies that would accompany the unmarried state of her daughters.
Now, in chapter 3, we see Naomi repeating her desire that Ruth find rest, but this time she seems to take upon herself the responsibility for making it happen.
“My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” – Ruth 3:1 ESV
It seems that Naomi had become the self-appointed matchmaker for Ruth, driven in part by her feelings of responsibility for her daughter-in-law’s current predicament. Naomi hoped to find her a suitable husband so that Ruth wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in a constant state of distress and deprivation. It also seems clear that Naomi sensed there might be something more “intimate” between Ruth and Boaz than even her daughter-in-law realized. She recognized that Boaz’s displays of kindness to Ruth were driven by more than an obligation to fulfill his responsibilities as the kindred-redeemer.
It seems quite apparent that Naomi had developed a plan to bring about the “rest” that she longed for Ruth to experience. Knowing that Boaz was her kinsman-redeemer and that Boaz seemed to be attracted to her widowed daughter-in-law, Naomi shared her plan with Ruth.
“So bathe yourself, rub on some perfumed oil, and get dressed up. Then go down to the threshing floor. But don’t let the man know you’re there until he finishes his meal.” – Ruth 3:3 NLT
In essence, Naomi told Ruth to “paint the barn.” No doubt, Ruth was accustomed to wearing the kind of clothes that made sense for working in the fields. Chapter 2 makes it clear that Naomi was returning to the fields of Boaz on a regular basis. She began during the barley harvest but continued to glean when the wheat harvest came in.
So Ruth worked beside Boaz’s female servants, gathering grain until the end of the barley harvest as well as the wheat harvest. – Ruth 2:23 NLT
There would have been few reasons for Ruth to clean up, let alone dress up. She was a common laborer whose long days were filled with back-breaking labor. But on this occasion, Naomi told Ruth to dress like she was going out on a date. She was to bathe, put on her best outfit, and splash on her best-smelling perfume. It seems clear that Naomi was not sending Ruth on a job interview. And the next set of instructions reveals that Naomi had ulterior motives in mind.
“When he gets ready to go to sleep, take careful notice of the place where he lies down. Then go, uncover his legs, and lie down beside him.” – Ruth 3:4 NLT
There is a lot going on here. While it appears that Naomi’s actions are totally focused on Ruth’s well-being, her actions are not purely selfless. It is important to remember that Ruth was the widow of Naomi’s son, Chilion. And the story makes it clear that neither Chilion or his brother, Mahlon, had lived long enough to sire any male heirs. That means there was no one to carry on Elimelech’s lineage. It would have died with his two sons. But if a brother or other family member were to marry Ruth, any son she bore would bear Elimelech’s name and keep the line alive. So, Naomi had a vested interest in this opportunity with Boaz developing into something long-term and with more intimate ramifications.
This entire scene is strange to our modern-day sensibilities. We are not exactly sure what is going on and why Naomi is giving these bizarre instructions to her daughter-in-law. Amazingly, Ruth never bats an eye or expresses any concerns or reluctance. She simply conveys her determination to do whatever her mother-in-law’s told her to do.
“All that you say I will do.” – Ruth 3:5 ESV
But look closely at the content of Naomi’s instructions. Ruth as to wait until Boaz fell asleep, then she was to “uncover his legs, and lie down beside him” (Ruth 3:4 NLT). What in the world is going on here? This strange-sounding counsel must have even left Ruth scratching her head in wonder. What possible good could come out of this?
The matter is somewhat complicated by the input of various commentators who suggest that the phrase, “uncover his legs” is actually a euphemism for the male reproductive organ. But this seems unlikely. For Ruth to do so would have been an act of immorality. But it could mean that Naomi was asking Ruth to pull back Boaz’s blanket, exposing his feet and torso, thus exposing his mid-section to the cold night air. This unexpected “wake-up call” would have roused Boaz from his sleep, only to find Ruth curled up next to him, uncovered and unprotected from the elements.
As an act of chivalry, Boaz would have taken his blanket and covered the woman lying by his side. And this action would have been in keeping with God’s covenant relationship with Israel as portrayed by the prophet Ezekiel.
“‘Then I passed by you and watched you, noticing that you had reached the age for love. I spread my cloak over you and covered your nakedness. I swore a solemn oath to you and entered into a marriage covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.’” – Ezekiel 16:8 NLT
Naomi told Ruth that after carrying out all she had told her to do, Ruth was to wait for Boaz’s response.
“…he will tell you what to do…” – Ruth 3:4 ESV
At this point in the story, we have no way of knowing what that even means. But neither did Ruth. But she must have questioned the wisdom of Naomi’s plan. Would Boaz become angry? Would he react in confusion? Was there a possibility that he saw her actions as insubordinate or somehow presumptuous? Ruth had no way of knowing the answers to any of those questions, but she indicated her willingness to obey Naomi’s instructions. She placed her trust in her mother-in-law by doing the illogical and unimaginable.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.