Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 2

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

In Part 1, I discussed the overarching perspective on the threshing floor scene I am arguing: that it is actually a redemptive scene. On the threshing floor, Boaz and Ruth model a path of behavior which eschews using sexual manipulation to get what they want. At the same time, the scene does not deny the reality that humans are sexual beings. In the last post, we looked at Naomi’s plan. She sends Ruth to the threshing floor with the apparent intention that Ruth use her sexuality to secure a better future for herself—to whatever extent that be necessary. We also examined the odd part about the feet in the whole plan. In this post, it remains to look at what Ruth and Boaz did. After examining the text and the canonical background, we will move to some application of this narrative. What stands to the fore here, I believe, is that sexual manipulation is not the only way.

Ruth and Boaz: getting things done at the threshing floor

Ruth goes down to the threshing floor and follows Naomi’s instructions to the “t.” As we read through the narrative, it is not immediately clear what she did when she “uncovered his feet and lay down” (3.7). That requires some close attention to what the text says.

Where Ruth lays

Verse 8 is important here. Boaz wakes up and rolls over, and only then is he aware that there is another person there—which he recognizes is a woman.

Note that it is not until Boaz moves that he is aware of Ruth’s presence, suggesting that Ruth is not touching him (at the least, Ruth is not actively attempting to seduce him). This shows that Ruth interprets “(place of the) feet” as laying on the ground somewhere other than on Boaz with the point of having sex. We can assume that she resumes this same position again after they talk, and that that is what Boaz means for her to do (3.13).

What Ruth does there

Beyond merely not trying to seduce Boaz before he wakes up, Ruth continues along this same course of action. Rather than trying to engage in sex, she talks to Boaz. Namely, she identifies herself and proposes marriage. Intriguingly, we are never told anything about what Ruth looks like. Other women in the OT are described by appearance—such as Rachel (Gen 29.17)—so there may be significance in this omission.

Ruth is known only through what she does; she is not reducible to a body. Her moment to shine is when she claims the identity of Ruth, your servant, but your servant who wishes to become your wife.

For readers with a strong sense of the Bible, Ruth’s actions are exactly opposite of what happened when Ruth’s great-foremother, Lot’s daughter, seduced her father in the cave (Gen 19.30-38). Ruth has the opportunity to get what she wants and needs by seducing Boaz, but instead she talks with him.

What Boaz does

Pulling on the hints in the text and the canonical background shows that Ruth performs marvelously. But what about Boaz? Here we see more of the same.

Boaz notices that a woman is lying there. His response is one of surprise. The real key, though, is what Boaz says. He asks, “Who are you?” When faced with an unknown woman in the dark, rather than assuming she is a prostitute rendering her services, he asks the all-important question. This question allows the two of them to figure out the right way to treat each other.

Again, for readers sensitive to the bigger story of the Bible, compare this to the way Boaz’s ancestor, Judah, acts in Gen 38. There, on seeing his daughter-in-law Tamar dressed as a prostitute at the side of the road, the first thing he says is, “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen 38.16), which is a euphemism for having sex. This sets up a discussion about the price for the tryst. By contrast, Boaz’s question indicates he does not presume to have a right to sexual access to the woman laying at his feet. Rather, he seeks to find out who she is so he knows the right way to treat her. How differently the life of Judah and Tamar would have gone if Judah had asked that same question in Genesis 38!

The “heated” discussion

Finally, the sexual tension largely fades away as Ruth and Boaz move into a discussion about the technicalities of marriage law. The depth of Boaz’s honesty in this passage is significant. He does not hide from Ruth—who apparently doesn’t know—that according to their laws there is another relative who has the first opportunity to marry her.

If it were Boaz’s main intention to have sex with Ruth on the threshing floor, this seems like an odd piece of information to share. In effect, Boaz both acknowledges Ruth’s proposal for marriage and at the same time distances himself from the ability to carry out the marriage at this instance. In terms of the “rights of sexual access,” Boaz is not the first one in line.

In making this point, Boaz effectively guards himself against any intentions Ruth may have had to try to have sex with him that night (whether she did or not is a moot point). Boaz tells her, “I will marry you, provided the other relative does not do so first.” This puts a tryst off the table for the evening.

Technical aside 

While it may sound odd to our ears, scholars of the Bible—and other cultures with similar practices—often talk about who has “sexual access” to a woman within the legal system of the culture. The default view of modern Western culture is that a woman can have sex with whoever she wants—though it is generally looked down upon for someone in an active relationship to have sex with someone other than their partner without consent. The default view of many non-Western cultures today (and of Western culture throughout most of its history), by contrast, is that there are clear limits on who a woman’s prospective sexual partners could be. Boaz alludes in this passage to the system called Levirate marriage (or to something like that system). The main point of relevance here is that, once a woman married into a particular family, the potential pool of future mates, in the event her husband died, was limited to specified kinsman of her husband. Who has “sexual access” to a woman is spelled out in the laws and customs of the culture. 

This whole way of thinking is rather foreign to us, but it is important in this text. By pointing to the other kinsman, Boaz is effectively saying that regardless of his or Ruth’s intentions, he does not have the right to sexual access at this point. For that to happen, he must first develop the clever legal scheme at the gate in chapter 4.


While the text itself does not come out and answer the question whether Ruth and Boaz “did” anything at the threshing floor, the hints in the text point to them sharing a chaste night. Both are cast as responding differently from their ancestors in Genesis. Rather than turning to sexual manipulation to get what they desire, they turn to talking, sharing dignity, and concern for what is proper under the law. In other words, both Ruth and Boaz reject sexual manipulation as the path to follow and engage in redemption. They redeem humanity one little bit from the well-trodden path of sexual trickery.

Against this backdrop, we can make some sense of why Boaz tells Ruth to lay back down rather than go home for the night. Now that they have worked out an appropriate way to relate to each other, the threat of something going wrong is much reduced. However, if Ruth is seen or caught making the journey back home in the dark, there could be major problems. At least if she is traveling home in the morning with grain, she can plausibly pass herself off as an industrious worker out and about early.

The threshing floor and today

Following this line of thinking, we are in position to let this text speak an appropriate word of judgment into our current life. Sexual manipulation and trickery are rampant today.

One thinks immediately of the #MeToo movement. #MeToo has brought to public light how pervasive sexual abuse. In answering the question, “who has sexual access to a woman,” many people answer “anyone with the power to take it.” The prevailing message in porn says the same thing: sex is about men taking what they want from women. By contrast, Boaz stands up in this story with a word of rebuke to our culture. Boaz’s question “who is it?” proves the noble and necessary response to the world of #MeToo and rampant pornography. This question, set within the bigger story of Scripture, shows awareness that the power and ability to take sexual access is different from the right to do so.

Ruth’s approach to the situation is admirable as well. The image of a woman using her sexuality to get what she wants is deeply engrained in Western popular culture: movies, TV, music, etc. Sexuality is considered a form of power to use in securing a desired end. Whether that end is the personal attention which the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy of life seeks, or other goals, it makes no matter. Rather than try to manipulate Boaz with her sexuality, Ruth is open about her identity and her aims, trusting Boaz to act.

In the historical particulars, it would be foolish to try to reenact a Ruth and Boaz at the threshing floor kind of evening. However, read within the bigger story of Scripture, it sounds a welcome message for us today: sexual manipulation need not be the way to get what we want. The virtuous and upright choices of Ruth and Boaz lead to blessings and provision from God. By contrast, the stories of sexual manipulation—both in the Bible and again and again ever sense—are shot through and through with destruction and heart ache. There is a better way to walk. Ruth and Boaz model it.

Revisiting the threshing floor: how an odd passage in Ruth speaks today, part 1

ruth and boaz at threshing floor

The threshing floor passage in Ruth 3 is one of the oddest parts of the book.

For sermons on it, see here and here.

It is a story foreign to us and it seems like it is modeling all the wrong things. In this and the next post, I will make the case that the threshing floor scene is actually relevant to us today because it models a way of living together as men and women that is sexual but not sexually manipulative. In our cultural context where focus on human sexuality is a premium, this is a good message to hear. Revisiting the threshing floor allows us to consider how humanity as sexual beings can relate to one another in redemptive rather than selfish and destructive ways.

To see this, we will walk through a few points:

  1. Naomi’s intentions
  2. Ruth’s actions and Boaz’s actions
  3. The biblical background which the scene plays out against

Let’s begin with the Naomi, the architect of this questionable plan.

Naomi’s intention for the threshing floor

I assume that Naomi’s plan involves a sort of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, ya’ know what I mean, ya’ know what I mean” element. Said differently, Naomi tells Ruth to “take care of business” without spelling it out in so many words. There is wiggle room in her plan, depending on how Ruth interprets it and how Boaz responds. But the general suggestiveness implies Naomi sees the solution to their problems in a seductive evening. Of course, this is a long and storied solution to all sorts of problems in the Bible—and a solution which brings more problems than solution in its wake. Sexual trickery and manipulation are woven throughout the story of humanity. It would be nothing exceptional if Ruth were to join the club.

As we read Ruth, we should also be attentive to the way that it interacts with the backdrop of the rest of the OT before it. According to the accounts in Scripture, sexual trickery is nothing new. In many ways, Ruth mirrors the patriarchal narratives from Genesis where we see sexual manipulation on display in the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (that is all the main characters of Genesis). Sexual manipulation appears again and again as a normal strategy for how men and women relate to each other to get what they want.

That’s the background against which to read what is happening. Naomi is saying, without clearly saying, that Ruth should go and use her sexuality to take care of business.

And one more point. Naomi’s instructions that Ruth “take a bath and get dressed and put on perfume” (3.3) probably means that she should prepare herself like a bride.[1] Assuming this is correct—and it makes reasonable sense—Naomi aims to present Ruth as a bride to Boaz and “force” a marriage (without forcing a marriage, because she doesn’t have the power to do that). Does Naomi intend for Ruth to treat this night at the threshing floor as the wedding night and act accordingly, or merely just propose marriage?

The meaning of “feet” here

A brief side note is in order on the meaning of “feet” in the passage. The whole “uncover his feet” is odd, but there is more to it that requires some thought. “Feet” occurs in 3.4, 7, and 14.

The word here in the Hebrew, מַרְגְּלֹת margelot, is not the usual Hebrew word for feet. That would be רַגְלַיִם raglayim. Margelot is used only 5 times in the OT. Four of those are here in Ruth: 3.4, 3.7, and 3.14. The other one is in Daniel: Dan 10.6. The way this rare word is formed suggests that it means “(place of the) feet.” Which is the definition given in various scholarly Hebrew dictionaries.[2]

The Septuagint gives some insight into the word. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT from before the time of the NT. In each occurrence in Ruth, the Septuagint translates margelot as “the things before his feet” τὰ πρὸς ποδῶν αὐτοῦ (3.4, 7) and “before his feet” πρὸς ποδῶν αὐτοῦ (3.14). In the occurrence in Daniel, the Septuagint translates margelot simply as “the feet” οἱ πόδες. The Greek word used in all these translations most basically means foot, but can also refer to the leg + foot, which may be more the point in the passage in Daniel.

Some scholars argue based on this Daniel passage that margelot should be understood as “leg” rather than “(place of the) feet” in Ruth.

So how does talk of “feet” fit here? As one commentator succinctly puts it:

As is well known, the term “feet” could be used as a euphemism for sexual organs (male: Exod. 4:25; Judg. 3:24; 1 Sam. 24:4 [Eng. 3]; female: Deut. 28:57; Ezek. 16:25; etc.) though not demonstrable as a euphemism here, it may have been chosen to add to the scene’s sexual overtones.

Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 202.

Hebrew uses lots of colorful idioms, and one is that “feet” can refer to genitals. While the word “feet” here most likely means “place of the feet” as opposed to “feet/leg,” the context of Ruth 3 is charged with sexual overtones: the threshing floor is associated with activities of prostitutes elsewhere in the OT and several of the words in close context here—uncover, lay down—can mean having sex.

The picture which emerges is that Naomi encourages Ruth to use her sexuality to get things done. What exactly Ruth would do is dependent on Boaz’s response, but the logical implications of what could happen are clear.

Summary and next steps: what will happen at the threshing floor?

Summarizing up to this point.

  1. Naomi intends to propose Ruth in marriage to Boaz in an intimate setting.
  2. The wording and action throughout this passage is rife with sexual ambiguity. It is unclear what Naomi intends and what Ruth will do.
  3. In Hebrew idiom “feet” can refer to “genitals.” Within the context of heightened sexual ambiguity, it is possible to understand Naomi intending the meaning of genitals. At the least, this contributes to the sexual tension of the scene.

This is the backdrop for what happens at the threshing floor. In the next post, I will argue that Ruth and Boaz’s actions in this situation should be seen as redemptive. They act nobly in the sexually charged atmosphere, opening up the possibility of men and women relating to each other as sexual beings but not through means of sexual trickery to get what they want and need. This message is one that is sorely needed today, and worthwhile to take the time to think through in the text here.

That is the argument to be made in the next post.

[1] So Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 202.

[2] For example, David Clines The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, volume 5, Hollady’s A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, and The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. These are three standard reference works, with Clines’ being one of the best Hebrew lexicons in existence.

A Strange Ride: LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Redemption

Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) wrote a variety of poems and humorous fables. Here I share one with you, called “A Strange Ride.”[1]

A man was riding home on his donkey. He had his son run along beside. A traveler came by and said, “It is not right, sir, that you ride and have your son run. You are stronger than he is.” So, the father dismounted and let his son ride. Another traveler came and said, “Young fellow, it is not right that you ride and let your father go by foot. You have younger legs.” So, both mounted together and rode for a while. A third traveler came and said, “What sort of nonsense is this! Two blokes sitting on one weak animal? Someone oughta’ take a stick and chase the two of ya’ off the poor beast.” So, both climbed off the donkey and the three walked abreast along the road, with the donkey in the middle. A fourth traveler came and said, “You are three curious companions. Isn’t it sufficient for two to go on foot? Doesn’t the trip go easier when one of you rides?” So, the father tied the donkey’s front legs together and the son tied his back legs together. Then they ran a strong pole through and carried the donkey on their shoulders.

This is how far things can go if you try to please everybody.

Humorous, yes? And yet also touching a central nerve in life: you can’t please everybody. Trying to please everyone ends up doing ridiculous things that don’t necessarily help anyone involved. Or, read a little differently, the parable illustrates that not everyone can be right.

This message is especially relevant for our culture right now where we have decided that everyone gets to be right.

June is—if you’ve missed it—considered LGBTQ+ Pride month. As a culture, trying to follow everybody’s different demands leads to inconsistent nonsense winning the day. In the recent past we have seen the increasing complexity and oddity of living in a culture where sex and gender are viewed as endlessly plastic, subject only to the whims of the sovereign self.

Here are just two areas of tragic irony in the move to “carry the donkey” instead of ride it like usual.

When a man is a “woman” is a “something”

As usual in American culture, sports have led the way in grabbing headlines.

Recently, one headline brought to a head something which pundits have long been talking about. A former-male now transgendered swimmer—who had competed for 3 years in collegiate swimming as a male—started breaking women’s swimming records in collegiate swimming, even winning the 500-meter freestyle at nationals. Naturally, this athlete is competing against biological females

The athlete in question, Lia Thomas, has said this about their relationship to swimming:

“(Swimming) is a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ve been a swimmer since I was 5 years old,” Thomas said. “The process of coming out as being trans and continuing to swim was a lot of uncertainty and unknown around an area that’s usually really solid. Realizing I was trans threw that into question. Was I going to keep swimming? What did that look like?

“Being trans has not affected my ability to do this sport and being able to continue is very rewarding.”

I have no doubt that personally wrestling with issues of uncertainty about sex/gender is immensely complicated. That being said, consider how Lia Thomas frames the issue as one of personal identity and personal reward: I am someone who likes to swim (competitively at college) and so I should be able to keep doing that because that is my identity; the rest of the world needs to make space for me to do this as trans, because that is my identity. While this is picking one line from one news article, it is telling that there is no wrestling with the question of whether this former man turned woman competing against women is a fair way to treat the biological women whose identity has also centered on competitive swimming, but who don’t have the advantages of having a biological male body.[2]

Women’s sports has turned out to be a galvanizing issue. Having biological males participating in women’s sports kind of goes against the point of women’s sports to begin with. International swimming has banned people like Lia Thomas from competing in international events. We’ll see how long that common-sense approach holds up.

The prominence of “pregnant people”

On a related front, if you listen to political debates and talking points, you may have caught something recently. National politicians have largely stopped talking about “pregnant women.” They talk about “pregnant people” instead. This goes hand in hand with the highly publicized confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson where she pleaded unable to answer the question, “What is a woman?” As has been pointed out, this inability to define “woman” has not stopped her from using the word in her legal rulings, leading one to wonder what exactly she is ruling about. And the necessity of ruling about cases of sexual discrimination raises problems with this lack of certainty of what exactly makes a woman a woman, but I digress.

Back to “pregnant people.” A simple biological fact is that only human females can become pregnant. Until scientists develop artificial wombs, this will continue to be true. That is a bridge we will probably have to cross at some point, but not yet. In the meantime, consider this statement from Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, about why we should talk about “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”:

First of all, if we’re talking about “pregnant people,” that language says to people—to transgender men and to nonbinary people—“we see you.” It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination.

The question which emerges in my mind is this: why should we efface the identity of the vast majority of “pregnant people” (cough, cough, “pregnant women”) in an effort to assuage the difficult feelings of a minute minority of biological women who have decided—for whatever array of personal reasons—to live as a man yet keep their uterus and female hormones largely intact?

Again, I don’t in anyway want to minimize the personal difficulties of individuals who are struggling with their sex/gender identity. I want us to learn how to be compassionate in helping people as best as able. But I question the wisdom of trying to reshape the experience and labels—the identities, really—of the majority (the vast majority, at that) of people to help a few people whose experience is biologically aberrant. One wonders, why should we efface the identity of most women in order to give a few people a sense that their identity as a “pregnant-former-woman-now-living-as-a-man-but-not-really-because-men-can’t-get-pregnant” is right?

The category of redemption

These are just two of many points where the advancing LGBTQ+ agenda is creating a strange situation in our culture—the travelers are carrying the donkey, as it were. In insisting that each individual’s felt identity is sacrosanct (so long as that identity is LGBTQ+), we have created a situation where the majority must be effaced to protect the fragile feelings of the minority.

As Christians, we have something to offer to this strange situation. Namely, an important concept lacking in our culture’s vocabulary and view of self: redemption. Redemption insists two things at the same time: (1) each person is broken and (2) each person is redeemable. When the LGBTQ+ movement declares certain identities as inherently right, they have removed the need for redemption. In fact, they find the idea that LGBTQ+ people need redemption (like anybody else) as offensive.

But one of the beautiful advantages of redemption is it helps us hold together the ability to be loving to other people who are different from us (since we need redemption to) and to insist that not everything is right, good, and desirable. Rather than trying to please everyone and ending up in chaos, redemption insists that we all have aspects of our identities which need to be redeemed by God.

Insisting on LGBTQ+ identities as the standard for the good life leads a culture along the strange ride of the opening parable. Something wrong can be found with every version of the ride. Insisting on redemption as the baseline for human identity and society allows space for people to be different while always insisting that each one of our identities needs some amount of overhaul.

And God is able and willing to redeem any identity through Jesus.

[1] This is a mix between a personal translation of the original German and a bit of retelling on my part.

[2] And lest any consider this point sexist, I merely note that at every level of advanced sports with athletes of comparative skill and experience, the issues is with men going to compete in women’s sports, not vice-versa. There are very few sports where female athletes of comparable level can competitively participate against male athletes in a consistent manner.