It is fair to say that the Book of Ruth contains the most explicit love scene in the Hebrew Bible. In chapter three, Ruth approaches the sleeping Boaz, uncovers him and embraces him. Why was this recorded, and what is the context? Or more generally, why was the Book of Ruth written at all? In the third century, the sage Rabbi Zeira asks that question and gives us his answer. He says, “the Scroll [of Ruth] tells us nothing of ritual purity or impurity, neither of prohibition nor of permission; for what purpose then was it written? To teach how great is the reward of those who do deeds of kindness” (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 2:14).
Quite so: Ruth sustained her impecunious mother-in-law Naomi, and Naomi procured a husband for Ruth the Moabitess, thus securing her future. Ruth provided for Naomi by gleaning the barley harvest in the field of Boaz – but how did Naomi secure Boaz for her as a husband? Boaz is a rich man, owner of several fields and employer of many workers. He sees Ruth gleaning in one of his fields, and asks her not to go elsewhere but to continue in his fields, and he allows her to eat with him and his workers (2:8 ff).
He knows she is helping his relative Naomi, that Ruth is a foreign widow with no means of support, but he does nothing to propose a closer liaison. Naomi sees that the marriage of Ruth to her relative Boaz would be the best answer to their problems and she devises a direct approach.
Ruth is to make herself beautiful, approach Boaz as he sleeps after a good harvest and a good meal, “uncover his feet,” and lie down by him (3:4). Ruth goes along with this bold idea. That night she approaches the sleeping Boaz in the granary, uncovers his feet, and lies down.
Boaz awakes and finds himself “embraced” (3:8). The Hebrew word is “vayilapet,” which is usually sanitized in translation as “startled,” but means nothing of the sort.
The word has the same root as that used for Samson seizing – in Hebrew “vayilpot” – the two pillars just prior to destroying the Philistine temple (Judges 16:29). Samson did not “startle” the pillars, he took fast hold of them.
As he wakes up, Boaz is surprised but not disappointed to see Ruth, and when she says to him, “spread your cloak over your handmaid, for you are the redeeming kinsman” (3:9), that is, you are the one to marry me, he agrees and asks her to stay the night (3:13). It’s all very direct and straightforward. Girl takes the initiative and boy seizes his opportunity.
However, there is a small problem. There is another relative, closer than Boaz, who has first claim to marry the widow, and Boaz has to clear that up before his union with Ruth can be made public. He asks her to stay the night, to go back before dawn so she will not be seen, and he will clear up the matter with the Elders that morning at the city gate (3:13).
Ruth goes home with a bride-price of six measures of barley and Boaz goes to the gate to consult the Elders.
The other relative, the closer one, passes by and Boaz asks him if he wants to take Naomi’s field and her daughter-in-law Ruth. The relative, who is not named, agrees at first (4:4), but when he is told by Boaz that he, Boaz, has just spent the last night with Ruth, he refuses the girl; he is afraid to blot his copybook, and the way is clear for Boaz to marry Ruth.
There must have been other cases of pre-marital sex that are not recorded in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. In this case the overnight stay has settled the issue, but even then, why did it have to be spelled out and used to form the core of one of the most graceful books of the Hebrew Bible? There is a serious reason, but Rabbi Zeira, avoiding both the sexual issue and also the political one, chose not to mention it.
Ruth was a Moabitess and, on the face of it, her union with Boaz was a forbidden one. The Torah is quite explicit, “the Ammonite and the Moabite shall not come into the congregation of God, even [not] the 10th generation” (Deuteronomy 23:4).
The sages of the Talmud gave this a twist: they said that ruling refers to a Moabite and not a Moabitess (B.Yebamot 69a) so Boaz’s union with Ruth was permissible. But this is a twist, a “drei,” for we find the full law is exercised by Ezra, who does not allow union with an Ammonitess or a Moabitess (Ezra 9:1-2).
Thus, on the face of it, the ancestry of David, a greatgrandson of Boaz, is suspect. All one can say is, well, it happened and the outcome, the long dynasty of David, was glorious. It lasted for 425 years, much longer than the great dynasties of the Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt.
RUTH AND Boaz were not the only case of a forbidden marriage. It happened again in the royal line four generations later, when Solomon married Na’amah the Ammonitess. She is the only one of his many wives that is named, she was presumably Solomon’s first wife, and her son Rehoboam became king (I Kings 14:21 and 31) and maintained the long dynasty of David.
Thus the whole glorious dynasty of our greatest king, the dynasty of David, evolved from two marriages prohibited by Torah Law. This is difficult to explain, and all one can say is, well, it happened. No doubt the people at the time of Solomon were surprised that Rehoboam, son of an Ammonite princess, was crowned king, but an explanation was soon forthcoming. The Book of Ruth explained the decision and made it “kosher.”
It explained that such a union was not unique, it had happened before to an ancestor of David, and that gave it historical legitimacy. It had in fact happened again quite recently, as Solomon was the son of Bathsheba, and she had been married to Uriah the Hittite. She was unlikely to have been a Jewish girl, more likely a Jebusite, and anyway David lay with her in adultery, and here was her son, the wise Solomon, mounting the throne. And now Rehoboam, son of an Ammonitess, was to be crowned king, after Solomon.
It was at best controversial, but Solomon had anticipated that. He publicized the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and the sexual advances that led up to it, in a forerunner to the Book of Ruth. The people saw that there had been previous skeletons in the cupboard, and that they had led to great things, to the great kingship of Judah. Thus there had been the marriage of Ruth to Boaz, and even the birth of Solomon himself to Bathsheba, and the Book itself refers to the much earlier incestuous union of Judah and Tamar (4:12), which led to the birth of Peretz (Gen.38:29), the great-grandfather of the great-grandfather of Boaz (4:18). All three of these liaisons had been preceeded by the lady taking the initiative.
Tamar had disguised herself as a prostitute to Judah, and Bathsheba bathing on the roof within eyesight of the royal palace was, one has to admit, provocative at the least. So the case of Ruth in the granary “embracing” Boaz, and that leading to his marriage with the Moabite girl was an important precedent.
Whatever Rabbi Zeira said, the Book of Ruth is not so pure and simple, rather, its frank and open description of the courtship of Ruth and Boaz in Bethlehem is an apologia for the glorious dynasty of David, that included sexual liaisons, not quite in line with Torah law.
The writer is a senior fellow, W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.