Despite his kindness toward Ruth, Boaz does not seem inclined to move their relationship forward. As an outside observer, it is clear to Naomi that the two would make a good couple, yet neither of them seems inclined to take the first step toward that end. Naomi decides to move things along.
My daughter, shall I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Now isn’t Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? Behold, he will be winnowing barley tonight on the threshing floor.
There are several things to take note of in this seemingly simple passage. Israel in those days was an agricultural society. The book of Ruth repeats the themes of fruitfulness and harvest throughout. The events in the narrative move with the rhythms of threshing and harvesting, of sowing seed and cultivating crops. And here we see it again. Ruth met Boaz during the barley harvest. We have been told that the wheat harvest has concluded, and now he is ready to thresh and winnow the barley. Threshing time, like shearing time, was a time of celebration, feasting and drinking. In ancient times, every successful crop was cause for celebration. And in a society where there were few means for preserving food long-term, feasting generally accompanied successful harvests.
Threshing floors, in particular, were known for their celebrations—often rather wild ones. So much so that the term “threshing floor” came to be used as a euphemism for—using a euphemism of our own—what used to be called “red light districts.” So the ancient reader wonders just what Naomi has up her sleeve.
Therefore wash yourself, anoint yourself, get dressed, and go down to the threshing floor, but don’t make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.
Having Ruth bathe, apply perfume—that’s what “anointing” means in this context—and go down to the threshing floor (there’s that term again!) only heightens the tension.
It shall be, when he lies down, that you shall note the place where he is lying. Then you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lay down. Then he will tell you what to do.
If ever an action was calculated to force the issue, this is it. In “uncovering his feet” and lying down next to Boaz, Ruth is essentially offering herself in marriage. There can be no mistaking the meaning of this bold tactic, as Boaz will quickly make clear. Should Boaz accept her offer, their union might be consummated on the spot. Ruth would have found the rest that Naomi sought for her. That’s the unspoken message behind the words “he will tell you what to do.” Of course he might refuse, and if so, Ruth would be told to leave, and spared embarrassment by having gone to him secretly. There is some risk for Ruth if she follows Naomi’s instructions and decides to go to the threshing floor. But Ruth trusts Naomi, and Naomi trusts Boaz—and events will show each woman’s trust to be well justified.
When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain.
The most vulnerable time for the harvest, and when thieves and outlaws loved to strike, was the short time after the grain had been threshed and winnowed, but before it had been stored away. To safeguard his grain, Boaz places himself right next to it, so that any attempt at theft will waken him. So Ruth runs some risk, should he waken suddenly at her approach. And the symbolism of Boaz sleeping on the fruits of an abundant harvest cannot be lost on the reader. Clearly, Boaz’ fields have been fruitful, which bodes well for his own fertility. It is in this highly suggestive context that Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions to the letter.
At midnight, the man was startled and turned himself; and behold, a woman lay at his feet. He said, “Who are you?”
She answered, “I am Ruth your servant. Therefore spread the corner of your garment over your servant; for you are a near kinsman.”
The word here translated “corner” here can also be translated “hem,” but in chapter 2 was rendered “wing.” Remember when Boaz said, “May Yahweh repay your work, and a full reward be given to you from Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge?” The word “wings” comes from the same Hebrew word. Boaz invoked this blessing on Ruth. She now asks that he take her under his protection, as “near kinsman,” which also has the connotation “redeemer,” since the near kinsman had the right and responsibility to care for a widow. Asking him to “spread the corner of [his] garment over [her]” amounts to a request to become his wife.
So we have a woman, a foreigner–from Moab, no less–proposing marriage to a wealthy Israelite. A bold move on her part, certainly, almost shocking in the context of the times. The stunned but gratified Boaz replies in admiration:
You have shown more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, because you didn’t follow young men, whether poor or rich.
He considers her young and beautiful, and himself to be old and not desirable, and wonders aloud that she should offer herself to him. He deeply admires the way she has devoted herself to Naomi, her mother-in-law, the “former kindness,” but finds this offer even more astounding. But there is a problem.
Now it is true that I am a near kinsman. However, there is a kinsman nearer than I. Stay this night, and in the morning, if he will perform for you the part of a kinsman, good. Let him do the kinsman’s duty. But if he will not do the duty of a kinsman for you, then I will do the duty of a kinsman for you, as Yahweh lives.
Ever meticulous and honorable, Boaz acts to protect Ruth three separate ways. First, he informs her that another, more closely related kinsman exists, and that he has right of first refusal. Second, he bids here stay the night with him, rather than risk returning home alone in the dark. Finally, he tells her to leave before the other workers awake, so no scandal will attach to her name. Anyone seeing her lying with him would come to an obvious conclusion. A Moabite—and we know how promiscuous they are—found sleeping with Boaz! Even should they later marry, people would say she had “flung herself at him,” a charge which would have more than a little validity, so bold was the move Naomi had instigated Ruth into committing.
She lay at his feet until the morning, then she rose up before one could discern another. For he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
He said, “Bring the mantle that is on you, and hold it.” She held it; and he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on her; then he went into the city.
Exactly how much six measures of barley amounted to cannot be clearly determined from the text. Six “ephahs” would be about four bushels (nearly 200 pounds) of barley–clearly too much for Ruth to have lifted, much less carried any distance. And the word used here is a verb, as in “to measure,” rather than a noun “a measure.” Whatever the actual weight, it represents a significant amount of grain. Boaz wants Ruth, and by extension Naomi, to understand that he recognizes and values the offer made to him. That’s why Naomi, after hearing Ruth’s comprehensive account of what had taken place at the threshing floor, including the detail that Boaz had gone “into the city,” could say with such assurance, “the man will not rest until he has settled this today.”