The book of Ruth begins by explaining how two women, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, had become widows—and unconnected to any male—in a rough-and-tumble patriarchal world. It tells how Naomi devises a plan to avoid the subsistence-level poverty that unattached women would ordinarily endure.
The setting is harvest season, the time when men leave their villages to camp beside piles of grain as they reap and thresh them. They worked all day and relaxed with wine and prostitutes at night (Hos 9:1). Naomi tells Ruth to wash, put on her best clothes, and wait for nightfall. Ruth is to seek Boaz, the field’s owner, uncover his “feet” in his intoxicated slumber, and then do whatever he tells her. In essence, Naomi tells Ruth to put her physical safety and reputation on the line in an attempt to sexually entrap an inebriated man. The logic was that if Ruth became pregnant with Boaz’s baby, he would then be forced to take them both in. Against all expectations, Ruth agrees.
Yet once Ruth reaches the threshing floor, she veers from Naomi’s plan. Perhaps she felt the pull of two competing interests: obeying her mother-in-law and acting faithfully toward Boaz. Naomi has designed a scheme to manipulate Boaz through trickery, but at the last minute Ruth opts for transparency. Ruth goes to the threshing floor, uncovers Boaz, and lies down. Boaz wakes and sees “a woman lying at his ‘feet’” (Ruth 3:8). He asks who she is and Ruth identifies herself. Rather than follow Naomi’s script, Ruth reveals the end goal of Naomi’s stratagem. She tells—she doesn’t ask—Boaz what he will do: “You will marry your servant girl” (Ruth 3:9; the phrase “spread your garment over your servant girl” likely referred to an event within marriage rituals)
In response, Boaz blesses Ruth for her faithfulness (Hebrew, hesed). In Ruth 3:10, Boaz links this faithfulness to the fact that Ruth propositioned him, an older man, instead of someone younger and more virile. Boaz voices uncertainty that he could fulfill his societal obligations of providing offspring to their marriage and implies that Ruth’s selection of him over the younger men put her at risk of never producing children—one of the ultimate purposes of a woman’s life in the ancient world.
Ruth subverts societal conventions governing female propriety by going to the threshing floor and, once there, taking the lead and telling a man what he should do. Ruth does not accept her situation as a given. Instead, she tries to shape her circumstances for the good of those around her, even though her actions present dangers to her safety and reputation and undercut social expectations. Through all of this the narrator of Ruth and the shapers of the Hebrew canon present her, and her actions at the threshing floor, as an example of what faithfulness (Hebrew, hesed) entails: putting one’s self at risk for a greater good.