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 (
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’” (
In response, Boaz blesses Ruth for her faithfulness (Hebrew, hesed). In
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.