Biblical Commentary

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17



Understanding the context is critical to understanding this lectionary reading. The book of Ruth is a story. To understand our text, you must know the story. The book of Ruth is short, so you should read it. I will, however, give a brief synopsis:

There was a famine in Israel, so Elimelech and his family (Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion) went to Moab. Elimelech died. The two sons married women from Moab (Orpah and Ruth), but then the two sons died. Naomi was left with no husband or sons, and Orpah and Ruth were left with no husbands or children (1:1-5).

Naomi decided to return to Israel, and Orpah and Ruth decided to go with her. Naomi, concerned for the well-being of her daughters-in-law, told them to stay in Moab and find husbands. Orpah complied with that advice, but Ruth insisted on going with Naomi, pledging absolute fealty (1:6-22).

Ruth was reduced to gleaning fields for food. However, Boaz, a well-to-do kinsman of Naomi, noticed Ruth (who apparently was quite attractive). He encouraged her to continue reaping in his fields, and instructed his workers to make gleaning easy for her. He also invited her to his table at mealtime. Because Boaz had instructed his workers to make gleaning easy for her, Ruth was able to bring home a generous supply of grain. Naomi was impressed—and then learned that Ruth had been gleaning in Boaz’s fields (chapter 2).


3:1Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest(Hebrew: ma·noah—a resting place)for you, that it may be well with you? 2Now isn’t Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? Behold, he winnows barley tonight in the threshing floor. 3Therefore wash yourself, anoint yourself, get dressed (Hebrew: sim·la·tek), and go down to the threshing floor, but don’t make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4It shall be, when he lies down, that you shall mark the place where he shall lie, and you shall go in, and uncover his feet (Hebrew: mar·gelo·tayw), and lay down; then he will tell you what you shall do.” 5She said to her, “All that you say I will do.”

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek rest (ma·noah—a resting place) for you, that it may be well with you?‘” (v. 3.1). Note Naomi’s concern for Ruth. She could have had as her primary concern an heir for her deceased son, Mahlon—Ruth’s husband (4:10), but she never raises that issue and there is no reason to assume that she is concerned with anything but wanting to help Ruth. There appears not to be a selfish bone in either of these women’s bodies.

In that patriarchal society, life was difficult for unmarried women—especially widows. There were very few ways for widows to make a living, so they tended to be dependent on family and charity.

The best security for a widow, if she could manage it, was to find a husband.

In this instance, Ruth is childless, which raises the issue of levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 prescribes that if a man dies without a son, that man’s brother has an obligation to take the deceased man’s wife as his own wife. The firstborn male produced by that marriage is to prevent the deceased man’s name from being blotted out (Deuteronomy 25:6).

Now isn’t Boaz our kinsman, with whose maidens you were? Behold, he winnows barley tonight in the threshing floor (v. 2). Naomi appears to believe that Boaz will not only be working at the threshing floor, but will also be sleeping there—probably guarding the newly harvested grain.

While Naomi does not mention levirate marriage here, the fact that Boaz is Naomi’s kinsman raises the possibility of such marriage. In fact, Naomi has earlier described Boaz as a go·el—a redeemer (2:20), which suggests that he is a candidate for levirate marriage with Ruth. The instructions that she gives Ruth in verses 3-5 make it clear that Naomi is determined to help Ruth to obtain Boaz as a husband.

Therefore wash yourself, anoint yourself (v. 3a). Naomi tells Ruth to wash and to anoint herself. This would not be a ritualistic anointing in the religious sense that we usually use that word today. It would involve using perfumed oil to make Ruth more appealing and to send a signal to Boaz that Ruth is available as a wife-candidate.

get dressed (sim·la·tek), and go down to the threshing floor” (v. 3b). The sim·la·tek would be an outer garment—probably an ordinary garment rather than something recognizably dressy. To wear a frilly garment to a threshing floor would be so suggestive that it would be counter-productive for a woman seeking a husband.

The purpose, apparently, was for Ruth to announce to Boaz her return to a normal status by replacing her mourning garb with ordinary clothing. A man would consider it inappropriate to approach a woman romantically if the woman were wearing mourning clothes. By wearing ordinary clothing, Ruth would be signaling that she has put her mourning behind her—that she is available for marriage.

but don’t make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking (v. 3c). Wise people everywhere know that they have a better chance of influencing a person if they approach that person when he/she is in a good mood. Naomi advises Ruth not to approach Boaz when he comes in, keyed up from work, but to wait until he has had a chance to eat and drink and relax. Plain, common-sense wisdom!

There is no suggestion here that Boaz will get drunk and that Ruth should take advantage of his drunkenness.

However, Naomi’s advice includes a great deal of sexually suggestive language, to include the word “known” in this verse. In Biblical language, “to know” someone is often used to mean sexual intercourse (Genesis 4:1, 17, 25; 1 Samuel 1:19).

The author probably used this suggestive language to maintain tension in the story. This is a very interesting story, in part, because of that sexual tension—and it comes to a satisfactory conclusion, because that tension was resolved when Boaz and Ruth married.

It shall be, when he lies down, that you shall mark the place where he shall lie, and you shall go in, and uncover his feet (mar·gelo·tayw), and lay down (v. 4a). This is highly suggestive and subject to misinterpretation. It sounds as if Ruth is to make herself available sexually when Boaz awakens—and that she is to facilitate his awakening by uncovering his feet (and, perhaps, his legs)—causing him to awaken due to the cold.

Furthermore, mar·gelo·tayw is sometimes used as a euphemism for genitals, and some scholars suggest that it should be so interpreted here. If that were the case, Naomi would be suggesting that Ruth uncover Boaz from the waist down to expose his genitals.

However, the context argues strongly against such highly-charged sexual interpretations. This book unfailingly presents Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz as people of the highest integrity. It presents Boaz as a pillar-of-the-community solid citizen. Even men of that high quality are subject to temptation, but when such a man falls for a temptress, he seldom signs on for marriage. A temptress would more likely repel Boaz than attract him. It is impossible to imagine Boaz wanting to marry such a woman.

So Ruth needs to signal Boaz that she is available, but she must not take it further. It is a fine line to walk, and Naomi shows great confidence in Ruth to suggest that she walk it.

then he will tell you what you shall do (v. 4b). This is risky advice, but Naomi shows great confidence in Boaz to suggest that Ruth should do whatever he tells her to do.

She said to her, ‘All that you say I will do‘” (v. 5). Ruth agrees to comply with Naomi’s instructions.


These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but are essential to understanding it. Ruth followed Naomi’s instructions. When Boaz awoke, he interpreted her gesture as meaning that she was available for marriage. Boaz praised Ruth for not going after young men (3:10), which suggests that he was older than Ruth. It might be that Ruth’s explicit invitation was necessary, in part, because Boaz would not have considered himself a candidate for marriage to such a young, beautiful woman.

However, another kinsman was first in line to redeem the land of Ruth’s husband (see Leviticus 25:23-28 for the Jewish law regarding the redemption of land) and to claim her hand. Boaz let Ruth know that he would go to the man and determine the man’s intentions. If the man wanted to marry Ruth, that would be his privilege. If not, Boaz was next in line and would claim the privilege (3:6-18).

Boaz carried on a skillful negotiation with the other man, and that the other man declined to redeem the land and to claim Ruth’s hand. The man stated this formally in front of witnesses, which freed Boaz to marry Ruth. Boaz then stated publicly his intention to do so (4:1-12).


4:13So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh—Yahweh) gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14The women said to Naomi, “Blessed be Yahweh, who has not left you this day without a near kinsman (Hebrew: go·’el); and let his name be famous in Israel. 15He shall be to you a restorer of life, and sustain you in your old age, for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse to it. 17The women, her neighbors, gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi;” and they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

“So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and Yahweh (YHWH—Yahweh) gave her conception, and she bore a son (v. 4.13). Ruth was married to Mahlon for some time, perhaps as long as ten years (1:4), but they remained childless. While their barrenness is not explicitly stated, the fact that no children are mentioned until the end of the book leads us to that conclusion.

But now Yahweh makes possible what did not take place earlier. Ruth conceives and bears a son. The barren woman is barren no more. Neither is she alone and helpless.

The women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be Yahweh, who has not left you this day without a near kinsman (go·’el); and let his name be famous in Israel’ (v. 14). Earlier, following the death of her husband and her two sons, Naomi cried, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara (which means bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and Yahweh has brought me home again empty” (1:20-21).

But now the women tell Naomi, whose earlier circumstances were bitter indeed, that she no longer has reason to be bitter. Yahweh, who allowed Naomi and Ruth to suffer the loss of their men, has provided a go·’el for Naomi and Ruth.

At first reading, it would appear that Boaz is the go·’el—the redeemer—the kinsman. That would be in keeping with the idea of a levirate marriage, where a go·’el would typically be the new husband.

However, in this instance, go·’el refers to the baby. There are several reasons for believing this. “First, the women’s pronouncement follows directly on the birth of the child, not on the marriage. Second, the (reference) to the redeemer (the go·’el) continues without interruption to the end of v. 15, where he is described as born of Ruth. Third, the women hope that his name will be famous in Israel, thus expanding the horizon of the previous blessing at the gate that looked for a child to ‘bestow a name in Bethlehem'” (Sakenfeld).

He shall be to you a restorer of life, and sustain you in your old age, for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him (v. 15). This son is a restorer of life, because he will carry on the family name. He is a nourisher of Naomi’s old age, because he will bring joy to her declining years.

for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him(v. 15). This is a remarkable statement. These Israelite women speak of this foreigner, Ruth, as “more to (Naomi) than seven sons.” Seven, as used in the Bible, is an ideal number, and seven sons would constitute an ideal family. But Naomi, who now has no sons, has a daughter-in-law who, though she is a foreigner, is better than seven sons. We can imagine Naomi speaking thusly of Ruth, but for these Israelite women to speak so highly of a foreigner is truly remarkable.

Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse to it (v. 16). Naomi, who not much earlier, faced a life bereft of family, can now enjoy her place in the home of Boaz and Ruth. She can hold Ruth’s baby in her arms and be a grandmother—a role denied her earlier by the childlessness of her son, Mahlon.

If this verse means that Naomi breast-fed the baby, that would be another grace-of-Yahweh miracle.

The women, her neighbors, gave him a name (v. 17a). It would be highly unusual for neighborhood women to name a baby. Typically, mothers or fathers name their children. What probably happened is that the neighborhood women, in their enthusiasm, proposed names, and Boaz and Ruth chose the name.

In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s identity.

There is a son born to Naomi (v. 17b). This child was not born to Naomi, but to Ruth. However, it appears that the marriage of Boaz and Ruth was considered a levirate marriage, so that this baby becomes the son of the deceased Mahlon (Ruth’s first husband) and the grandson of Naomi and her husband, the deceased Elimelech (Lai, 314).

This verse also expresses the joy of neighborhood women that Naomi, who was left with nothing when her husband and sons died, now has a baby in her life—a grandson who will carry on the family heritage—but, more than that, a child to hold close to her heart.

and they named him Obed (v. 17c). What does “Obed” mean? Scholars give various answers. It means guardian or provider (Bush). It means worshiper (Bromiley, 576, Chapin, 502, and Fowler). It means one who serves, and is an abbreviated version of Obadiah, which means “Servant of Yahweh” (Moore, 370, Block).

He is the father of Jesse, the father of David (v. 17d). This is the point of the story. This baby, Obed, whose birth took place by the grace of Yahweh (v. 13), will become the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king.

Also, note these verses from the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Salmon became the father of Boaz by Rahab (the harlot). Boaz became the father of Obed by Ruth (the foreigner). Obed became the father of Jesse. Jesse became the father of King David. … Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:5-6, 16).

The incorporation of this foreigner into the lineage of David (and Jesus) reminds us of God’s original covenant with Abram, where God said, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3b). The reality went beyond that promise. Not only were the Moabites and other foreigners blessed by the birth of Jesus, this Moabite woman, Ruth, became one of those through whom the promise came. “Where Abraham became the father of a nation, Ruth will be the mother of its line of kings” (Farris, 162).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Bush, Frederic W., Word Biblical Commentary: Ruth, Esther, Vol. 9 (Dallas: Word Books, 1996)

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Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)

Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan