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Naomi advises Ruth as follows, in Ruth 3:

One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home[a] for you, where you will be well provided for. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”

Boaz clearly likes this, saying in verse 10:

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.

Now, it is my understanding that in many cases, the "feet" are actually a euphemism for another part of the male anatomy. Given the situation and the tone, should I infer that Ruth was actually doing a bit more than unlacing Boaz' sandals?

N.B. How does the act of "foot washing" lead to the act of "sexual intercourse"? hinges on the same issue. (Hat Tip to David)

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It's worth connecting up this question with the one about [David instructing Uriah to "wash his feet". There's some overlap of interest. –  Davïd Feb 21 at 19:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Short answer: No. You shouldn't.

And that's basically because, to use the quote that is mis-attributed to Freud: "Sometimes a cigar is simply a cigar."

It is possible that a literal reading will work fine here. She uncovers his actual feet (and lies down there, in a humble position), which eventually wakes him. Despite being startled (v8) (perhaps by this) he finds out what she wants and is very flattered that she has thought more prudently than a young person typically might.

So we can read this literally without any real problems.

We then come back to the use of "feet" as euphemism and also the use of the expression "lie down" (v4) often has the connotation of sexual intercourse. Is there some sexual act going on here? Or is the uncovering the uncovering of something more than just feet?

I'd be very careful about making such assumptions given the moral character attributed to both Boaz and Ruth, especially given Boaz's care to make sure everything is done properly in chapter 4.

In a note in the Expositor's Bible Commentary, Kalland adds:

"In recognition of the sexual innuendos of Ruth’s uncovering Boaz’s feet, the LXX, Vulgate, and Syriac were all careful in their translations to make it clear that only the place of Boaz’s feet was involved."

This interpretation is also consistent with Verse 3:14. Were a sexual encounter to have taken place, it is unlikely that Boaz would be concerned with preserving her honor. Instead, Boaz and Ruth depart before anyone else is awake so that no one would think that they slept together. Boaz wants to ensure that everyone believes that what went on between them that night was above board - because it was.

If we want to study this passage we should probably carefully consider the moral understandings of the period and which actions would be considered appropriate and permissible in that society. I really don't know enough to say.

But inferring that more is going on just on the basis of the word use is clearly not justified.

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+1 gp, I personally think Naomi was hinting that Ruth have intercourse with Boaz (thus preserving the line) but Ruth, being the upright woman she was, rather cleverly interprets Naomi literally to avoid sinning. –  Thomas Shields Mar 29 '12 at 14:09
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@ThomasShields that's a new reading that I've never heard (not that I'm some sort of OT scholar). I am going to mull that one over. –  swasheck Mar 29 '12 at 17:11
    
@swasheck it was an interesting theory mentioned to me by our "youth pastor" (I put it in quotes because the youth at our church are 5 teenage guys :)) ...I'm inclined to believe it myself, but it's obviously not "orthodox" or anything ;) –  Thomas Shields Mar 29 '12 at 17:22
    
The question isn't weather or not the text could be read one way or the other and "work". Secondly it definitely seems weird to uncover someones feet - why didn't she just wake him up, or talk to him in front of others? Thirdly, you make the assumption that if she were to do something sexual with Boaz, it would be immoral. In my opinion, and respectfully, you didn't say anything to support anything, how 13 up votes for this answer is beyond me. We need to be careful we don't read our churchianity into this OT Hebrew text! –  JLB Feb 22 at 2:16
    
Wow, that reads as a little harsh. While you're correct that the question "should I infer?" doesn't entirely ground on 'does it work' (and my answer doesn't base on that either), establishing that it is possible to read literally is important because it's easy to let your "seems weird" attitude influence your reading too early. –  Dave Alger Feb 28 at 8:14

You can if you want, because the Hebrew word for "foot" and "leg" coincide. So she could have been exposing as much of the leg as you desire, including up to the waist. But the connotation of sex is subtle.

A similar construction occurs in Judges 5 regarding Ya'el, Chever's wife, Wikisource translation here

Between her legs he crouched, fell, lay.(S) Between her legs, crouched, (R) fell(S). In that he crouched, there he fell, plundered.(S)

The translation in KJ and other places is "At her feet", again using the ambiguity of leg/foot. But the context is "Between her legs", and the connotation that it is inbetween the legs makes it more natural to interpret it as "legs". In this sense, offering "milk" vs. "water" also becomes a natural euphamism for sex (although it doesn't have to be read this way).

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Ruth instigates her right to remarriage to Boaz as the next of kin by uncovering his feet. This imagery of foot uncovering (in the context of the kinsman-redeemer) comes from the Law of Moses -

Deuteronomy 25:9 (NASB)
9 Then shall his brother's wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother's house.

The removal of the shoe was the consequence of not fulfilling the role of kinsman-redeemer. In other words, Ruth met him with no one looking, and asked him through this non-verbal behavior to marry her "or else."

Ruth 3:10 (NASB)
10 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.”

Spread your covering = marry me (in respect to Ezekiel 16:8, which is to share the covers and become one flesh). In accordance with the Law of Moses (in tandem with the guidance of Naomi who was familiar with the Law of Moses), Ruth had popped the marriage proposal with Boaz.

The response of Boaz indicates that he was already familiar with his obligation as the kinsman redeemer to Ruth. He indicates her nobleness because she did not confront him in public, where the removal of his shoe by her would have been disgraceful (in accordance with the Law of Moses). In other words, Ruth did not assume that she would have found favor in the eyes of Boaz, especially since she was a Moabite, and perhaps there was perception by Boaz that she was a woman of loose morals. For example,

Ruth 3:10-12 (NASB)
10 Then he said, “May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence. 12 Now it is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I.

He did not think she was loose. In fact, Ruth was magnanimous because she was confronting Boaz in private; that is, she did not confront him in public, which he understood and appreciated. She was a Moabite, of which no male was permitted access to becoming part of Israel (Deut 23:3). That is, he understood that Ruth had wished to invoke the kinsman-redeemer obligation with him, but with discretion since she was a Moabite widow (and perhaps would have found no favor in the eyes of Boaz).

In summary, the foot-uncovering was the gesture by Ruth to invoke her kinsman-redeemer right to marriage to next of kin. As a Moabite widow, she confronted Boaz in such a way, that if he had no favor for her, the confrontation would have been unknown and undiscovered: Ruth had no intent of shaming him in public in accordance with the stipulations and allowances permitted by the Mosaic Law. However, Boaz's response indicates that he understood the gesture (of uncovering the foot). Also his immediate response was that another relative stood in the way, and so he understood the gesture as relating to that relative. That is, at the end of the story, Boaz got his closer relative to uncover his foot (removed his shoe) in order to forfeit his right to Ruth.

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While I think you may be right about some of the imagery as it pertains to Deut 25:9, It is important to temper this passage by remembering that it's not Boaz' responsibility to marry Ruth, it was the responsibility of another Guardian-Redeemer. It was well within Boaz' rights to say "No" both publicly or privately and without incurring shame boath because she was not a Hebrew and because there was another Guardian-Redeemer who had first dibs. –  James Shewey Aug 11 at 15:32

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