In the Book of Ruth, the heroine’s mother-in-law, Naomi, tells the widowed Ruth:
“My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:1-4).
This may sound like strange advice, and it is a part of the story that often troubles readers – especially because even some Bible commentaries have attempted to see sexual innuendos in what is said. But, as we will see, there is really nothing in the language used or in our knowledge of Hebrew culture of the time to suggest anything sexual was involved. Ruth’s distant relative Boaz is shown to be an honorable man throughout the book, just as Ruth herself is shown to be honorable at every point. According to the law of Moses (as Naomi doubtless explained to Ruth), when a man died leaving his wife without children, the man’s nearest relative was bound to take her as a wife and provide a child for her (Deuteronomy 5:5-10). This situation helps us understand what happened next.
The story continues by telling us that when Ruth went to the threshing floor where Boaz had been working and had gone to sleep: “Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family” (Ruth 3:7-9).
To understand this part of the story we need to realize that in the Ancient Near East servants often slept crossways at the feet of their master when working outdoors and were allowed to pull any available blanket over themselves in order to keep warm. That is why Ruth told Boaz that she was his servant – and thus eligible to lie at his feet – and that he was her guardian-redeemer (Hebrew goel) who bore a responsibility to marry her to provide a son to perpetuate the name of her deceased husband – so he should “cover her with his garment” or marry her (Ezekiel 16:8, etc.).
But why uncover his feet? Certainly this caused him to eventually awaken in the dark, but Ruth could simply have woken Boaz to talk. The “uncovering” of Boaz’s feet was necessary because it relates to what she tells him – and in the culture of that time a shoe would be removed to signal a responsibility or to seal a contract. We see this signaling in Deuteronomy in exactly this situation when a man would not fulfil his responsibility to his brother’s wife: “his brother’s widow shall go up to him …. take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line’”(Deuteronomy 5:9).
We see the same act of uncovering the foot to seal an agreement later in the story of Ruth when Boaz cleverly persuades Ruth’s actual nearest of kin to forgo his responsibility and allow Boaz to marry her: “(Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.)” (Ruth 4:7).
So Ruth’s uncovering of Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor has nothing to do with the uncovering of any other part of the anatomy (the Hebrew is literally “uncover the place of his feet,” which is never used euphemistically). Rather, it fits into what we see specifically in this part of the story – the signaling of a responsibility on the part of Boaz to marry Ruth and provide children for her. This was a responsibility that this ancient story shows Boaz was more than happy to fulfill – without ever experiencing “cold feet” again!