Last night we had a very interesting discussion, my husband & I. It began with a normal exchange of information – he had gone to Chapters. A trip to Chapters is a luxury and an indulgence, even without any purchases. While browsing the shelves in one of his favorite sections, Theology & Religion, he came upon a book entitled “God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says” by Michael Coogan. And being of red-blooded human nature, he picked it up and began to skim (because it’s hard to resist a book with that title!). The section that he read and that initiated our discussion was about the Biblical account of Ruth and Boaz.*
The story of Boaz and Ruth is fairly well-known and passages from it are often used at weddings. You can read it here. (It’s not a wonderful version, but it was the only one I could find online.) It’s generally viewed as a touching love story and an example of how husband and wife are to bond with each other. But after doing some thinking about Mr. Coogan’s views, we decided that the pretty story of Ruth is spiritually deeper, very political, and more interesting than at first reading.
Coogan is a Biblical scholar with a good understanding of Biblical Hebrew, necessary for reading the original texts (or what passes for original texts in Biblical scholarship!). His premise is that the Bible is full of euphemisms for sexual/genital organs and the act of sex. Two very common ones are feet and hands to refer to male and female sexual organs. When it says, for example, that “his feet were uncovered”, you can often assume that his genitals were exposed. I am going to discuss the Book of Ruth chapters 3 and 4. Here’s a quick summary:
Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, tells Ruth to beautify herself and go to Boaz at the threshing floor after he has finished eating and drinking and lies down for the night. I believe a man and his servants would sleep on his threshing floor during the harvest to guard what had been threshed that day to prevent robbers from gaining an easy harvest. There Ruth crawls under Boaz’s blanket and “uncovers his feet”. He is awakened in the night and startled to find a woman in bed with him. She identifies herself and Boaz agrees to look after her, which is to say, marry her. She “lays at his feet until morning” before getting up and going home before anyone could be recognized. Boaz then goes to the town gate where he and another man, a closer relative with more right to marry Ruth and gain her dead husband’s property, where it is agreed that Ruth will marry Boaz instead. The story ends in a happily-ever-after manner with all parties getting the best of all worlds.
The conclusions my husband and I came to were these: Naomi and Ruth were living in a tiny village bound together by family ties. Everyone would have known everyone else’s business and family relationships because a person’s security (especially a woman’s) was bound up in their family ties. Naomi knew full well – even if Ruth, as a foreigner, didn’t – that there was a relative closer to them than Boaz. That relative (kinsman-redeemer) had more legal right to marriage & property than did Boaz, but Naomi decided that Boaz would be better security for them than the kinsman-redeemer. Was that kinsman-redeemer an unsavoury character? Would he have taken advantage of Ruth’s situation to gain her property and then reject any claim to his protection? We don’t know. We can only guess about that part of the story. Regardless, Naomi commands Ruth to make herself as beautiful as she can and then go to the threshing floor to seduce Boaz. Judging from all the use of euphemism in Ruth 3:7-9, 13-14, they enjoyed each other’s company thoroughly all night long.
From the reading I’ve done, and from the records of Old Testament Jewish law in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a woman’s sexual status was extremely important. It appears to me that a woman’s virginity was worth as much as her dowry. Also, Boaz would not have been sleeping in isolation. It’s extremely likely that some of the men helping him with the threshing (servants, slaves, neighbors) would have been sleeping there as well. Therefore the likelihood that Boaz and Ruth went all night undiscovered would have been very slim. Naomi knew that. Ruth’s seduction of Boaz tied him to her.When one understands the circumstances surrounding the story, it suddenly takes on a very political tone. It likely didn’t take long before the entire village would have figured out who the mysterious woman in Boaz’s bed was, and there would (and I’m making inferences here) have been tremendous societal and cultural pressure to “make an honest woman” of Ruth. The kinsman-redeemer would have taken on a great deal of humiliation if he had gone ahead and married Ruth despite knowing what had passed between Boaz and Ruth in the night because, culturally speaking, the act of sex had cemented the two of them together. According to the end of the story, Boaz then marries Ruth and God blesses their union by making them (and Naomi) the direct ancestors of King David, and therefore also of Jesus Christ.
What I find so inspiring in this reading of the Book of Ruth is the women’s place in it all. The story is about two women at the bottom of Jewish society (widow and foreigner) at that time who love and serve God but also use their wits. Naomi uses her knowledge of village life to carve out a better place for themselves, and Ruth’s willingness to listen to her mother-in-law’s wisdom ensures their security and a place in history. Boaz plays an almost equal part by being the right sort of person to begin with – honorable, upright, God-fearing, compassionate. They each took great risk in following through with their plans, but they were rewarded for it. We often read the Bible through eyes that see women as receiving a secondary place, as being less important, less equal, less than the pinnacle of creation. But my husband and I think a better understanding of sex in the Bible could help change that. What the story of Ruth has shown the two of us is that what we need in the church is a better, more complete understanding about what the Bible has to say about sex and sexuality.
For example, my understanding of premarital sex is now different. As a teen, premarital sex was billed as ugly, bad, and biblically wrong. And my goodness! I spent our dating & engagement period wracked with guilt because I wondered where we should draw the line. When I think about it, however, nowhere is premarital sex dealt with in the Bible. In the Bible, sex is more often seen as something spiritual as well as physical and very good – think about the place Song of Songs has in our Canon. A better understanding of sex in our society is that it is better saved for after marriage because there is not the cultural pressure behind it for both parties to form a lasting mental, spiritual, and emotional bond. The role of sex in Western society is self-gratification and supremely physical. The role of sex in the Bible is to cause two different people, male and female, to become “one flesh”, and present the Divine Image. Would I have understood that before marriage anyway? Perhaps not. But I understand it now. What I mean to say is that I have a better understanding of it all now. And that’s as much as I can ask!
* Please note that the views and ponderings in this post, although stimulated by Coogan’s book, do not claim to be his views or even to be based upon a thorough and accurate representation of his views. He skimmed it and then discussed it with me later. This post is the fruit of that discussion about the small portion of the book that he read very quickly while standing in the middle of the “Theology and Religion” section of Chapters. More thoughts about sex and spirituality may follow later…