On 26 April 2005, 32-year-old Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared from her home in Duluth, Georgia, just four days before her wedding. The disappearance sparked a nationwide search and a great deal of speculation as to what had happened, including suspicions that her fiancé had murdered her. On 29 April, the eve of her wedding day, she called her fiancé from Albuquerque, New Mexico, claiming that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic male and Caucasian female.
Authorities were immediately suspicious of her story—especially when they learned that the wedding was to involve six hundred guests and 28 bridesmaids—and while she maintained the ruse for a short while, her false allegations eventually fell apart under FBI investigation. She was charged with a felony, eventually admitted her guilt, and was sentenced to two years of probation and 120 hours of community service, and ordered to refund the sheriff’s department for expenses incurred during the investigation.
In March 2008, her ex-fiancé eventually married another woman in a decidedly smaller ceremony at his parents’ home.
If you read the Wikipedia page detailing the story, one of the related links is to the 1999 Julia Roberts film Runaway Bride! Humorous as that might seem, Jennifer Wilbanks was not the first bride, nor will she be the last, to experience cold feet as her wedding day loomed. To have “cold feet” is to experience apprehension or doubt so strong that it proves sufficient to prevent a planned course of action.
The text before us today is a story of an individual getting cold feet. In this instance, however, the cold feet were quite literal, and instead of moving him to inaction, it moved him to action. The story before us is the story of Ruth and Boaz as recorded in Ruth 3. At its core, it is a story of redemption.
The Context of Redemption: Setting Scenes
You will remember that Ruth was a Moabite woman who, following the death of her husband, had returned with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Bethlehem after an extended time of famine in the Promised Land. In chapter 1, the embittered Naomi complained that the Lord had brought her home empty.
In chapter 2, Ruth set out with a plan to find food for her and Naomi. That day, she met Boaz, a wealthy but godly (and, therefore, kind) man who took great pity on her and provided her with barley sufficient (and more than sufficient) for the two women. When Naomi heard the name of the man who had been so kind, she rejoiced that he was “a close relative” of theirs (2:20). We can almost hear the cogs turning in her head as she began planning a more permanent solution to their predicament, and it is with that background that we approach chapter 3.
The Hope of Redemption: Daring Plans
In vv. 1–5, we read of Naomi’s daring plan as she proposed a way forward in hope of redemption.
Then Naomi her 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.”
The book of Ruth is the Bible’s book of barley. Chapter 1 closed with reference to “the beginning of barley harvest” (1:22), and chapter 2 with mention of “the end of barley and wheat harvests” (2:23). (Chapter 3 will also end with reference to Barley [v. 17]!) Chapter 3 opens with “then,” but these time indicators help us see the bigger picture.
It was at the beginning of barley harvest that Ruth first went into Boaz’s field. Boaz told her to remain with him until the end of barley harvest, and the mention in chapter 3 of the threshing floor (vv. 2, 6) suggests that the events of this chapter occurred at the end of barley harvest. This was a period of about seven weeks (Deuteronomy 16:9). Seven weeks had passed since the close of chapter 2. Seven weeks had passed since Ruth’s incredible first encounter with Boaz. Seven weeks had passed since Naomi had first exulted that the Yahweh “not forsaken the living or the dead” (2:20). Seven weeks had passed since Naomi had first started concocting her grand vision of Boaz redeeming her and Ruth (2:20). What further steps had Boaz taken in that time? None!
Imagine dinnertime conversations between Naomi and Ruth for seven weeks. “How was harvesting today?” “Fine.” “How’s Boaz?” “He’s good.” “What did he say to you today?” “Nothing.” Nothing! For seven weeks, nothing! No suggestion of Boaz of a second “date.” No suggestion that he might want to pursue things further. No change of his relationship status on social media from “single” to “in a relationship.” (By now, Ruth’s probably read, “It’s complicated.”) What was going on here?
We should remember that, for all her earlier bitterness, Naomi was a woman who understood the sovereignty and providence of God. She had publicly expressed her faith that Yahweh would care for Ruth and Orpah, and possibly lead them to other husbands (1:8–9). She publicly testified that Yahweh had providentially brought her back to Bethlehem empty (1:20–21). She publicly professed that Ruth’s impressive haul after her first meeting with Boaz was Yahweh’s doing (2:20). She had no doubt that the opportunity for Boaz to redeem her and Ruth was safely in the arms of God’s providence. She would heartily have affirmed the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, which speaks of providence in these terms:
God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, arranges, and governs all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by his perfectly wise and holy providence, to the purpose for which they were created. He governs according to his infallible foreknowledge and the free and unchangeable counsel of his own will. His providence leads to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.
But notice that her confidence in God’s providence did not paralyse her. It did not leave her inactive. Knowing that all hope of redemption lay within God’s sovereignty, she was moved to action. She made a plan to (re)ignite the spark between Boaz and Ruth. Her plan, to be sure, was a daring one—unwise, we might even say—but she nonetheless took steps to move things forward.
There is an important principle here for us. To quote Dale Ralph Davis, “Belief in divine providence does not stifle, but stimulates, human initiative.” If you really believe that God is absolutely sovereign—that he “in his infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, arranges, and governs all creation and things, from the greatest to the least”—you will be moved to action. Faith is acting upon God’s word because of confidence in his character, and those who trust divine providence will be moved to action.
Perhaps you are burdened about the salvation of a loved one. If you are confident that salvation is of the Lord, and that your loved one will never be brought to Christ apart from God’s providence, it will move you to action. You will pray for your loved one. You will share the gospel with her. You will adorn the gospel in her sight with your life.
Perhaps you are a student and exams are looming. As a good Calvinist, you know that your exam results are safely in God’s hands. You will only achieve the results that he desires you to achieve. If you really trust God’s providence, it will move you to study hard for your upcoming exams, trusting that God will bless your efforts with appropriate marks.
Perhaps you are a young man who is trusting God for a wife. “Trusting God” does not mean sitting around playing video games while you wait for God to magically materialise the woman of your dreams in your very presence. It means you are actively looking. You are meeting people, getting to know others, and preparing yourself to be the husband you should be, all the while praying for God to help you meet the right person. And then, when you meet her, you are committed to doing something to forward the relationship.
Perhaps you are wondering what career to pursue, or degree to study, or university to attend. You can’t just sit back and wait for God to providentially push you in the right direction. You have to be proactive and do something. Choose a career. Select a degree. Send in your university applications. If you are stifled into inaction, it’s not because you believe in divine providence, but because you doubt it.
Naomi believed in divine providence, and so she was moved to action—though it is probably helpful to observe that her suggested course of action was very risky. As one commentator has observed, if this story was faithfully represented on the big screen, it would definitely carry a PG13 rating. Let’s take apart her plan.
First, she suggested that Ruth “wash therefore and anoint” herself. Good idea, you might think. If you’re going to get his attention, start with a shower! Naomi’s suggestion, however, was not primarily for Ruth to make herself smell nice for the sake of attracting Boaz’s attention. Ruth had just returned from a hard day’s labour in the field. Washing and anointing were pretty much necessary. It’s something that she would have done even if she was going straight to bed! This was a very practical suggestion.
Second, Naomi told Ruth to “put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor.” The NIV renders Naomi’s advice in a way that suggests Ruth must dress to kill: “Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes.” Actually, a “cloak” was nothing more than an outer garment that provided warmth in the cool evening air. She was being a mother: “Do you have a jersey?”
Third, Ruth must “not make [her]self known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.” One preacher suggested that this is just plain good advice when a young woman is pursuing a man: Let him finish his burger and fries before you run in there screaming, “Why haven’t you called me?” Actually, the motivation here is not that Boaz would more reasonably discuss marriage on a full stomach, but that she should be careful of being seen when approaching Boaz. “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.” Naomi knew that Boaz was an honourable man (2:1), and that he probably would not have wanted to publicly embarrass Ruth. If Ruth put him on the spot in front of his friends, and he did not want to marry her, it could have been a very awkward encounter for both parties. Not wanting either to be embarrassed, she suggested that Ruth just follow Boaz and approach him in private.
Remember, though Boaz was a redeemer, it is not the case that he was obligated to marry Ruth. If he had been a brother to Ruth’s late husband, there would have been upon him the obligation to marry her (see Deuteronomy 25:5–10), but since he was a somewhat more distant relative, he had the right, but not the responsibility, to marry her. Naomi realised that he might refuse marriage, and so she didn’t want Ruth to confront him in the open, so as not to create an awkward encounter between the two. Rather do it in private. There was nothing sinister about the counsel to follow him to a private spot to start the conversation.
Still, we must question the wisdom of the counsel. Who among us would counsel our single daughter to follow a man home, after a night out with his friends, where alcohol was consumed, and just lie at the man’s feet until he awakes?
Furthermore, the use of Hebrew idioms here has left some wondering exactly what Naomi was proposing. In Hebrew idiom, the words translated “uncover” and “feet” and “lie down” all have sexual overtones. “Uncover” often means to undress someone (see Leviticus 18:6; Ezekiel 16:37; 23:10). The word translated “feet” is sometimes used euphemistically of the sex organs (see 1 Samuel 24:3, where “relieve himself” literally reads “cover his feet”; Isaiah 7:20, where “the hair of the feet” is actually a reference to pubic hair; and Ezekiel 16:25, where “offering yourself” literally reads “opening your feet”). And “lie,” as we well know, often connotes sexual intercourse (see Genesis 19:34; Deuteronomy 22:25). Dean Ulrich concludes, “The appearance of these three terms—‘uncover,’ ‘feet’ and ‘lie’—in the context of a nocturnal meeting of a man and woman charges this encounter with sexual innuendo.” In fact, some interpreters have gone so far as to suggest that Ruth and Boaz committed fornication that night.
Now, I am not persuaded that an actual sexual indiscretion is in view here. Boaz was “a worthy man” (2:1) and Ruth “a worthy woman” (v. 11). It is difficult to imagine that “a worthy man,” having just committed sexual immorality with a woman, would describe her as “a worthy woman.” As Ulrich concludes, “an honorable man and an honorable woman who are not married to each other do not have sexual intercourse in an out-of-the way location and then tell each other how honorable they are.” Still, the use of sexually charged words here serves to highlight that this was a dicey plan. Had Boaz been anything less than “a worthy man”—or had he been overly intoxicated—he could easily have seized the opportunity to sexually assault Ruth and then proclaim innocence if she accused him. Who would have believed a Moabite widow’s word over the testimony of a well-respected citizen like Boaz? Even Naomi might have been tempted to be too embarrassed to defend her daughter in law in the face of such charges! Anything could have happened.
We don’t know how much thought Ruth gave to the proposal, but, according to the text, she simply assented: “All that you say I will do.” Happily, despite everything that could have gone wrong, God overruled a messy situation, and all worked out well in the end. And how often do we have cause to thank God that, despite our sometimes-foolish decisions, he works things for our good.
The Appeal for Redemption: Cold Feet
Ruth, having agreed to do as Naomi suggested, carried out the plan—much to Boaz’s shock.
So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay 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.” And he said, “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, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the LORD lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”
We like to think of the story of Ruth as an inspired romance. It would make a great chick flick, we imagine. Here, a godly, well-to-do man falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful, widowed foreigner. Sparks fly, and they live happily ever after. This is Hallmark stuff. Except the text doesn’t necessarily support such interpretations.
For example, the text tells us nothing about Ruth’s physical appearance—unlike Esther, which specifically describes the title character as having “a beautiful figure” and being “lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7). We assume that she was a fair bit younger than Boaz, and that she was at least attractive enough to draw the attention of younger men (see v. 10), but little other information is given. Boaz is likewise not described as “raggedly handsome.” There is no description of Ruth’s heart “all aflutter” or of Boaz being “smitten” by the overwhelming beauty of the young Moabitess. In fact, the marriage seems to have proceeded more out of adherence to covenant realities than “love.” I’m not entirely prepared to say that there were no sparks between the two, only that the text doesn’t draw attention to that. Let’s briefly consider what the text does speak about.
In agreement with Naomi, Ruth moved to carry out the plan. The text tells us that Boaz’s “heart was merry.” When this phrase is used in conjunction with wine, it usually describes some degree of intoxication (see 1 Samuel 25:36; 2 Samuel 13:28; Esther 1:10), though it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was drunk beyond rational thought. Indeed, as you read the encounter that unfolded between the two, he seems to have been quite clear-headed. It is probably safe to assume, then, that the wine had begun to have an effect, but that he stopped short of full-blown drunkenness.
Having eaten his fill, Boaz “went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain,” where he promptly fell asleep. Ruth crept in “and uncovered his feet and lay down.” Given what we have observed above regarding the idiomatic use of “uncover” for nudity and “feet” for the sex organs, some have wondered what exactly Ruth “uncovered” at this point. However, given the fact that she was an “honourable” woman, I am inclined to think that she did nothing more than expose his feet and perhaps the lower parts of his legs. And she did so simply so that his cold feet would awaken him.
It was only “at midnight” that Boaz realised that he feet had been uncovered, likely when the cold air started affecting the exposed skin. As he “turned over” to cover his feet again, he “was startled,” for, “behold, a woman lay at his feet!” You can imagine his shock. Despite the fact that “his heart was merry” when he went to bed earlier, it was not so merry that he had failed to notice a woman lying at his feet. But now, here she was. Perhaps if, as a parent, you’ve ever awoken in the middle of the night to find one of your children standing next to your bed, you can sympathise with Boaz’s shock here.
If he had been a little groggy when he turned over to cover his feet, he was certainly wide awake now. “Who are you?” he asked. Ruth’s answer—“I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer”—reveals two things about her choice of approach.
First, there is significance in Ruth describing herself as Boaz’s “servant.” The word translated “wings” was used of the corner of a garment. In the ancient Middle East, servants often slept at the feet of their masters, and if they were cold, they were permitted to use the master’s long outer cloak as a covering.
Second, there is an ancient marriage practice being referenced here. According to James Freeman, “When marriages are solemnized among the Jews the man throws the skirt of his talith or robe over his wife and covers her head with it.”
On the one hand, therefore, she was signalling her continued allegiance to him as her master. On the other hand, she was proposing marriage. In fact, the marriage proposal takes centre stage here, for she adds, “You are a redeemer.” The mention of “redeemer” here is a clear allusion to marriage.
Boaz seems to have been flattered by Ruth’s proposal. She was evidently younger than he and could easily have attracted the attention of younger men. Though he was not obliged to do so, he was willing to act as redeemer and take her as his wife. We will consider more of what was entailed in the redeemer’s responsibility when we have opportunity to study chapter 4, but for now we must note that part of the redemption was the obligation to marry Ruth and provide for her and Naomi.
Things were not that simple, however. There can never be a good love story without a plot twist, and that is what we find here. A closer relative than Boaz lived nearby. Boaz could only fulfil the redeemer’s responsibility if the unnamed closer relative refused to do so. But that was a challenge for another day; for now, he simply promised to do what she asked.
It is important to note, once again, that the focus here is the covenantal significance of the proposed marriage, rather than the feelings that Boaz and Ruth had for one another. As I have said, I am not prepared to wholeheartedly abandon the narrative of sparks flying between these two. Ruth, after all, could have pursued younger men, but she chose not to do so. Boaz could likewise have just given her the name and address of the closer relative. Both seemed committed to making this relationship work.
Still, the frequent mention of “redeemer” draws attention not to feelings but to covenant expectations. The redeemer law was a part of God’s covenant with his people. Boaz was moved (at least as far as the text goes) primarily by obedience to God’s law, not by feelings of love. Ruth, likewise, kept referencing him as a potential “redeemer” (rather than as her “bae”), thinking no doubt of the need of provision for her and her mother-in-law. The proposal was made and accepted, at least as far as the text goes, more on a covenantal and practical basis than on a head-over-heels-in-love basis.
But there is one note that I want to make here before moving on to the closing verses. Ruth’s appeal to Boaz was, “Spread your wings over your servant.” Perhaps you remember Boaz’s prayer for Ruth in 2:12: “The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” It is almost as if Ruth is saying, “You prayed for God to spread his wings over me and to meet my needs; now you spread your wings over me in answer to that prayer. Why don’t you be the answer to your own prayer?”
This raises an intriguing question for us: Are you willing to be used of God as the answer to your own prayers? Do you pray that your lost loved ones will hear the gospel and be brought to faith? Then be willing to be a part of that prayer being answered. Share the gospel with your loved ones. Do you pray that the gospel will reach the unreached? Have you ever considered being the answer to your own prayer and actually going to the unreached? We often pray that God would give us righteous leaders in government. Are there those among us who are willing to be an answer to that prayer and become righteous politicians?
Shane Clairborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggest, “Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.” Marva J. Dawn adds, “God is calling each and all of us to be eager agents fulfilling his purposes in the world.” John Perkins puts it bluntly, “When you see someone who needs a handicap ramp, don’t pray for a ramp! Build them a ramp!” There is truth to these assertions. When we pray for God to do something great, we should do so with an attitude of willingness to be the answer to those prayers.
The Promise of Redemption: Small Mercies
Finally, we read of Boaz’s promise (and token) of redemption:
So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognise another. And he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” And he said, “Bring the garment you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley and put it on her. Then she went into the city. And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did you fare, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, “These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said to me, ‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’” She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”
Boaz was honourable enough to not send a woman out on her own in the middle of the night, and Ruth was honourable enough to leave before she could be recognised and before tongues could start wagging about what might have happened that night. But, having promised her that he would do what he needed to do to serve as her redeemer, he first gave her a small token of what he promised to do. The promise of redemption was a promise of provision. When he redeemed her, he would become her provider. The barley he gave here was simply a small token of what he was promising to do for a lifetime of marriage.
As observed briefly above, this book is the Bible’s book of barley. There is lots of mention of barley and barley harvests. The overriding story is of a young woman and her mother-in-law seeking long-term provision and protection from one who is a near relative, but the story is punctuated with references to small provisions of barley. In the grand scheme of things, these small provisions may have seemed insignificant, but they were enough to get Ruth and Naomi through each day.
God’s grace tends to work that way. Sometimes, we want to see God working on a massive scale to resolve all our problems in one fell swoop, and instead he gives us just enough barley for the day—just enough grace to make it through another day. And that’s all we need! God gives us today what we need for today, and he will give us tomorrow what we need for tomorrow.
Ruth returned home and reported to Naomi everything that had unfolded the previous night. She showed to her mother-in-law the token provision that Boaz had given. Immediately, Naomi knew that the matter was under control. “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.” Boaz had made the commitment, and he was a man of his word. He would not wait until the next time he bumped into the nearer relative but would proactively move to ensure that the matter was settled quickly and decisively.
The Fulfilment of Redemption: Calvary’s Price
The thread that runs through this story is the thread of redemption. There are six explicit references to redemption (or a redeemer) in vv. 9–13. We see in this story a need for a redeemer, the hope of a redeemer, the promise of a redeemer, and the provision of a redeemer. What biblically-informed person can read this story without seeing in it a beautiful picture of the Lord Jesus Christ?
The New Testament explicitly tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13) and that he was sent “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5). Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). “He is the mediator of a new covenant” through his “death,” which “redeems … from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). Jesus Christ is the perfect fulfilment of the picture before us.
The Bible teaches that, because of the transgressions we have committed, we need a redeemer (Hebrews 9:15). We need someone to save us from sin and from the penalty of sin, which is death. From the very first time that sin entered the world, promised hope of a redeemer was given: The eventual offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, even though his heel would be bruised in the process (Genesis 3:15). Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people looked forward in faith to the promised Redeemer. They did not know who he was, but they believed that he would come. We today know who the Redeemer was: Jesus of Nazareth, born of a virgin, who lived a perfect life and died a substitutionary death on behalf of those he came to save. It was by his death that Jesus paid the price to redeem a people to himself, and his resurrection was the proof that his payment had been accepted. God provided the Redeemer that he promised from the foundation of the world.
A “redeemer,” as Ruth understood it, was a close relative who, in a time of utter destitution, took the destitute under his wings with a promise of protection and provision. That is precisely what Jesus accomplished for us in his life and death. He became a close relative by taking upon himself human flesh. Because we were destitute in our sin, he promised to take our destitution on himself and place us under his providing and protecting wings. Thank God for our Redeemer!
Perhaps you are one who has yet to believe God’s promise of redemption through his Son. Perhaps you are still living in spiritual destitution, wallowing in your sin on the certain road to eternal death. If so, will you believe that God has provided Jesus Christ as your Redeemer? Will you repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation?
If you are one who has been redeemed, rejoice in the truth that, while we still live under the effects of sin, God daily gives us small tokens of redemption, which are simply a foreshadowing of the truth that there is a day of ultimate redemption coming, in which these mortal bodies will be transformed into immortal bodies, death will be no more, and we will enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Lamb.
Praise God for our Redeemer!