Subverting Commands and Expectations: Racism and Womanhood in Ruth 3

Antiquity was super racist. Or, as I’ve talked about before, antiquity was super “proto-racist.” Geography was destiny and where you were from told everyone everything they wanted to know about who you were and what your character was like. As horrible as that is—and let’s be clear, whether we want to call this proto-racism, racism, or something else, it is horrible—it allows some talented authors to do some pretty cool, pretty subversive things. Let\’s look at one of those things:

Then Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 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. 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.” And she replied, “All that you say I will do” (Ruth 3.1–6).

If you haven’t read the set-up I did in the last post, go ahead and do that now because I’m going to assume you have (also, apparently it’s been 6 months since I wrote that?!). But, as a reminder Naomi has sent her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to act like a Moabitess—she sent Ruth to seduce Boaz. Naomi’s expectation and the readers’ for how Ruth should and will act is based on cultural assumptions since seduction is what Moabitesses do! But the author heightens the suspense even further by telling the story in such a way as to force readers to connect Ruth’s predicament to that of the “first Moabitess” in Genesis 19.

So when we get to the end of this text and Ruth says “All that you say I will do” we are supposed to be worried. This woman who has seemed so impressive throughout the story, will she—like Naomi\’s ancestress, Tamar—lay aside her widow’s garment and act the whore in order to gain a descendant?

Ruth went down to the threshing floor and did exactly was her mother-in-law had commanded her to do. After Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. She came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and—what do you know?—there was a woman laying at his feet! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” He replied, “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. And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask (Ruth 3.6–11).

The suspense is killing us and that suspense is carried out as long as possible in the narrative. Ruth does just what her mother-in-law commanded her to do: she waits until Boaz had eaten and drunk, she goes and uncovers his feet and lays down, and she has made sure that no one knows who she is. But although Ruth will do what her mother-in-law has commanded, she does not do what Naomi implied. This subversion of Naomi’s desires comes with Ruth’s first words. When Boaz asks who she is, she doesn’t say—as she has every other time—“Ruth, the Moabitess” but instead “Ruth, your servant.” Nor does she wait for him (like Naomi wanted) to tell her what to do (which it seems clear Naomi thought would be, how should we put this?, compromising), instead she takes initiative and she tells him what to do. “Spread your wings overs over me.”

This statement is loaded with meaning. Although the phrase can imply sexual union (e.g, Ezk 16.8), it is also a metaphor for establishing a covenant (e.g., Dtr 23.11; Jer 48.40; Ezk 16.8) and Boaz understands. Ruth hasn’t “gone after” (e.g., Hos 2.5; Prv 7.22) the first person she could cling to (Gen 2.24) but instead clung to Naomi (Ruth 1.14).

\”I\’m definitely not your daughter-in-law,
look at my hat. Totally different.\” -Tamar

Ruth the Moabitess is not like her ancestors and she is not what others have thought of her. She is not Lot’s oldest daughter he got her father drunk and seduced him to gain an heir (Gen 19.30–38). She is not one of those Balaam sent into the Israelite camp to bring about their destruction (Num 25.1). She is a Moabitess whose descendants should be particularly heinous (Dtr 23.3). But she is righteous. In fact, Ruth is far more righteous than most of the Israelites around her. The pagan knows faith better than the Israelite; the daughter shows greater faith than the mother.

There’s a lot of talk going around in today’s conversations about what true “biblical womanhood” is. There are two main camps (complementarian and egalitarians) and I have no desire to get in the middle of that discussion right now. But–in spite of my better judgment–I do want to suggest is that Ruth is a model for how that might look (after all, in the Jewish canonical order, Ruth the \”worthy woman\” is placed just after Proverbs 31!).

Ruth had two choices when Naomi told her to seduce Boaz: she could submit to Naomi\’s wishes and compromise herself. There\’s an attractiveness to this in its simplicity: since she is being submissive she\’s not really in control of her own actions; certainly this is what society would have expected. Or she could refuse to act as a daughter-in-law, storm out of the house, and throw off the bonds and demands that Naomi has on her (after all, Naomi certainly hasn\’t given her anything!). There\’s a freedom in this sort of actions. Like total submission, it too has consequences but also has an attractive simplicity. But Ruth choices a third way: She is submissive to her mother-in-law as is required and she does just as she commanded but she is also subversive. She defies the wishes of her mother and seeks to accomplish Naomi\’s good through another way. She disobeys what her mother told her to do, and ends up telling Boaz what to do. That seems significant (it may also be a model for us all and not just women, too!).

Next time, though, I want to talk about why Naomi. What\’s her role in the story, what does she want, and does she ever actually get it?

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

2 thoughts on “Subverting Commands and Expectations: Racism and Womanhood in Ruth 3

  1. Thanks for the good insight into Biblical racism – and subversion! You know, if we had known the fuller characterization of Naomi back in '05, we would have hesitated before naming our third daughter as we did. But I will continue to encourage her to rise up to be our Delight!

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