The Story of Boaz and Ruth in the Bible
Did Ruth Seduce Boaz?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Boaz and Ruth’s Love Story
How are we meant to understand the meaning of Ruth and Boaz's scandalous love story?
The Book of Ruth is a charming tale, with its likeable protagonist and themes of devotion and kindness woven throughout — and who isn’t moved by that powerful scene, early in the book, when Ruth tells her mother-in-law: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God”?
But then… you get to the part with the love story between Ruth and Boaz. Ruth and Boaz's story starts off nicely, slowly… but did you catch that whole weird scene in Chapter 3? During the climax of the story, per Naomi’s instruction, Ruth anoints herself in oils, gets all dressed up, and goes down to Boaz in the middle of the night after he's been drinking. What are we supposed to learn from that? What did your kids think about that part? When you read the story of Ruth and Boaz in shul on Shavuot, did all of those ‘seduction’ themes enhance the spirituality of your Shavuot experience?
This love story between Ruth and Boaz can seem peculiar at best and uncomfortable at worst. So why do we read it on Shavuot, and why is it in God’s Holy Bible? Did Ruth seduce Boaz? What's the Bible lesson behind that part of Ruth and Boaz's story?
So it turns out that there’s a good reason that we read this story on Shavuot, there’s a good reason that Ruth and Boaz and their whole affair are included in the Bible — and no, we wouldn’t have been better off if the censors had clipped out Chapter 3 altogether (God forbid!). If they had, we’d have been much worse off, because we’d be completely missing one of the central lessons of the Book of Ruth - a lesson that can only be glimpsed when you read this story alongside the other stories of seduction in Ruth’s family. “Which stories of seduction?” you are wondering? You only knew about Chapter 3?
In this course, originally created for Shavuot, Rabbi Fohrman revisits the incidences of scandal that have plagued Ruth’s family for generations — and what he finds are, in fact, deep lessons about human relationships, about kindness, and about the ways that we can choose to manipulate one another or truly help one another. It’s a story that redeems the love shared between Ruth and Boaz.
Discover other great Shavuot videos at Aleph Beta, including ‘The Hidden Structure of the Ten Commandments’, ‘The Origin Of Shavuot’, and ‘Our Guide To Celebrating Shavuot’.
Outline: The ‘Scandalous’ Backstory of Boaz and Ruth
Teacher Guide: The ‘Scandalous’ Backstory of Boaz and Ruth
The Love Story of Boaz and Ruth: Did Boaz Love Ruth?
Hi folks it is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Aleph Beta. We are going to be looking at the Book of Ruth in this course. The Book of Ruth is traditionally read on Shavuot, our upcoming Holiday, and I think one of the things we might want to start with is why is this Book read?
Why Do We Read the Story of Ruth and Boaz?Could be as something as trivial as the wheat harvest. I mean it's a book about the wheat harvest, Shavuot comes around the time of the wheat harvest, so that could be it, that seems like a pretty tangential reason to read the Book. But it could be if we want to get maybe a little bit more spiritual about it, we might say something like we have a book about a really nice lady named Ruth who is actually from Mo'av, she converts and maybe it's about embracing G-d. Maybe that's what we all do on Shavuot, we embrace G-d, we accepted the Torah and that's certainly one possibility.
But there are some problems with that approach as nice as it may sound. Problem number 1, the great speech of Ruth where she clings to Naomi, she says, where you sleep I sleep and your people is my people and your G-d is my G-d, you cannot keep me from you, that speech happens towards the end of Chapter 1. The Book should have sort of ended there; I mean everything else is just sort of anti-climactic after that. I mean what happens?
The "Love" Story of Ruth and Boaz in the BibleNaomi heads back with her daughter-in-law Ruth, they're in Bet Lechem, sort of poor and Ruth is just taking some of the leftover sheaves in the field and there's this fellow there, Boaz, gives her a blessing, says, G-d should be nice to you too. Naomi tries to stir up some romance between Boaz and Ruth and then there's this strange thing that happens in the middle of the night, it seems kind of risqué actually, and Boaz marries Ruth, and they have children, they live happily ever after.
It actually takes a while to get there because in the middle Boaz convenes these people and there's this other guy Ploni Almoni, he sort of kind of wants to marry her, and he sort of says he'd rather not and then Boaz comes to the fore. I mean all of that seems completely irrelevant really. If the point of the Book is about what Ruth does in Chapter 1, then by golly it should be a much shorter book. It just should have ended in Chapter 1. I mean, why do we keep on hearing about the extended story of Ruth? Why does this Book not end in Chapter 1?
It must be that this Book is not really just about Ruth the convert, it's about what Ruth the convert does, what she's committed to, and that brings us actually to last year's course. I recommend you take a look at what we did on Shavuot last year, but if you have seen it you know that an important part of the Ruth story is the Yibum elements of this Book.
Why Did Boaz Marry Ruth?The law of Yibum as given in Deuteronomy, in Sefer Devarim, is the following. If a man and woman are married and the man dies and the couple are childless, there's a Mitzvah on the brother of the deceased to marry the widow in an act we call Yibum. The idea here is that children that they have will perpetuate the name and the legacy of the deceased brother. Loh yimocheh shemo mi'Yisrael – let his name not be blotted out from among Israel. It's a great gift that the brother is giving, because the child in some sort of fundamental way isn't really his; biologically it's his, spiritually it belongs to his dead brother, and so Yibum is a great act of Chesed, it's a great act of kindness. It's almost like surrogate parenthood in a way.
And, once we see that Yibum is here in Ruth, so that would sort of make sense as to why the Book is as long as it is, it's not just that Ruth is virtuous because she was a convert to the People of Israel, but of course it's what she does afterwards. Here she is committed to perpetuate the legacy for her dead husband Machlon and by extension Machlon's father Elimelech. Because remember Elimelech comes to the land and he dies, and Machlon and Kilyon, these two children die, and Ruth sees it as her mission to keep the legacy of her dead husband alive. It's a great act of Chesed.
So at this point we're thinking, wow that's really something, she's very committed to G-d, she's very committed to the legacy of her dead husband, she seems like a wonderful role model. But then the question is, you know, you get to the end of the Book you're not so sure if you want Ruth to be your role model.
Why Did Ruth Uncover and Lay At Boaz's Feet?I mean, if we think about our great sort of feminine values, so what do we always talk about? Commitment to Torah, commitment to G-d, kindness. I mean, you can just give Ruth a five stars out of five stars in all of these things. But then there's this seduction story at the end of this.
Ruth is told to go lie down next to this man in the middle of the night and to uncover his legs – it's very suggestive, and this is like planned out. Naomi says, I want you to get dressed nicely, and I want you to anoint yourself with oil and to wash yourself and then to go down in the middle of the night, don't tell anyone you're there, after he's been drinking. It seems to completely ruin our vision of our really virtuous Ruth, or does it? Or how are we supposed to understand this? What is this story even doing here?
Okay so we've got these two overarching questions over here:
- Why is it that we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, what does it really have to do with the holiday?
- And, how do we understand this whole seduction story? Doesn't it really ruin everything?
The Lesson Behind Ruth and Boaz's Love StorySo going back to that second question, what I'd like to suggest to you is it doesn't ruin everything, it really is the story. To understand why it's the story we have to understand where this story is coming from, because this sort of seductive entrance into a Yibum-like thing is not the first time it's happened in Tanach. There's two other stories that Ruth kind of reminds of.
In Genesis, there are two great stories that occupy almost all of the Book of Genesis, one is the Abraham story, the other is the Joseph saga, but both of these sagas get interrupted for a chapter, and in that interruption we meet some sort of strange Yibum story that actually seems to involve seduction, seems to sort of have this fingerprint of the Ruth-like story.
The story I'm thinking about that interrupts the Abraham story is the story of Lot and his daughters. The story I'm thinking of that interrupts the Joseph saga is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. When I say interrupt I mean really interrupt. I mean Abraham and Sarah they're the main characters in the Abraham saga, however, right in the middle of the Abraham and Sarah story the spotlight falls off of Abraham and Sarah and focuses on Lot.
Lot is in Sodom and Sodom is destroyed and Lot manages to escape and at the very end of that story there's this seduction narrative. The daughters of Lot seem to feel that the world has been destroyed and it is up to them to perpetuate not just the legacy of a dead husband but the legacy of mankind itself, and the only possibility, the only man left alive in their view is in fact their father Lot. So they set about giving him drink and seducing him unknowingly.
Now whether or not Lot really doesn't know is a question that the Rabbis attacked. It turns out that the words in the Torah that suggest that Lot was not aware of what was going on have dots above them in the Torah scroll, leading the Sages to suggest that he knew and he didn't know. He sort of allowed himself not to know. So Lot is sort of aware that his daughters don't really know what's going on – Lot at least knows that the entire world hasn't been destroyed so his viewpoint on what's happening here is not as virtuous as his daughters, but his daughters are really just trying to do the right thing. It's a mistaken act of Yibum, but it's the same sort of seductive thing, a Yibum that comes about through seductive means.
Then if you go to the story of Joseph; Joseph is the main character all the way through with the exception of Chapter 38. Right after the sale of Joseph we have this strange digression into a relative of Joseph – just like Abraham had a relative by the name of Lot, Joseph has a relative, a brother by the name of Yehuda.
All of a sudden the focus is on him and his children. Er the oldest one takes a wife, a woman by the name of Tamar, but shortly afterwards Er dies. That leads to a Yibum-like situation; indeed Yehuda himself goes to Onan, the next child in line and says, you should really perform Yibum with Tamar. Again Yibum has not been given as a law until the Torah has been given at Sinai, and this is pre-Sinai, but as the Ramban explains, the idea of Yibum seems to have pre-existed Sinai. Sinai kind of took the idea and then molded it into law, but the idea was there.
Yehuda says perform Yibum, try to perpetuate the legacy of your dead brother and Onan then consorts with Tamar, but does so in a way so as not to impregnate her. He seems to be aware that the child is not going to be his. As the text says; Vayeida Onan ki loh lo yihiyeh hazarah – Onan knew that the child wouldn't be his, in some sort of deep, spiritual way and therefore he made sure she didn't become pregnant and G-d did not like that, so Onan dies too.
So now we have two children down, leading Tamar to wait around for the very last child, hoping to do Yibum, to keep the legacy of her dead husband alive with Shelah. However, Yehuda is not so excited about letting Tamar marry Shelah, but instead of telling her that, he just sort of has her wait. He says; Ad [asher] yigdal – until Shelah grows up and then you can have him. But then finally Shelah does grow up and Tamar sees that she is not going to marry him either.
Meanwhile, Tamar has been in limbo, she's still wearing clothes of mourning because she can't really close the book on her dead husband, there's always the possibility of marrying someone who is going to keep that marriage alive and having a child to perpetuate his name. So then she takes matters into her own hands and brings seduction into it.
She dresses up like a harlot, taking off her clothes of mourning, dressing up as someone that she can't be recognized and stands at the crossroads and waits around for Yehuda to come along, and then gets involved in this seduction scheme. It's a scheme that the Torah details almost the same way it details what's going on with Ruth. We hear about the bargain between her and him and it's very strange. She wants payment for her services and asks what he can give her? He says, well I would give you a goat but I don't have the goat. She says, well I guess I'll take your staff and your signet ring and your cloak, I'll just have that, keep them as safekeeping until you give me the goat. I mean, just this really strange story.
But whatever the larger meaning of that story is, these two digressions in Genesis somehow seem to almost foreshadow some of what it is we're seeing here in Ruth.
Understanding What the Story of Ruth and Boaz MeansIt's like this isn't the first time we've had a Yibum brought about through seductive means. I want to suggest to you that there is no understanding Ruth without understanding those two stories, they are the foundational building blocks for the Book of Ruth in marvelous and wondrous ways. What I'd like to do in our next videos is to take you back into those stories to try to understand what those stories were about and once we really understand what those stories were about we will come back to the Book of Ruth and it will be an entirely different Book.
We will understand the seeming seduction narrative that takes place in Chapter 3. We'll understand the overall message of the Book of Ruth in an entirely new way and we may even understand what this Book really has to do with Shavuot after all.
Subscribe today to join the conversation.
Already a subscriber? Log in here!