RUTH AS SEDUCTRESS
“Boaz ate and drank, and in a cheerful mood went to lie down beside the grain pile. Then she went over stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down.” (Ruth 3:7)
On the festival of Shavuot, we read the Biblical book of Ruth. We teach our children the sweet story of a Moabite woman, widowed from an Israelite man, who so loves her mother-in-law Naomi that she says, “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16). She follows Naomi to the Promised Land, eventually marries Boaz a distant kinsman of her late husband, and becomes the great grandmother of King David.
However, there is a part of the story less beautiful, that we do not teach in Sunday school. Boaz was reluctant to commit to the young woman. Naomi tells Ruth to dress in beautiful clothes, go to the threshing room during the barley harvest, wait until Boaz falls asleep drunk, and then “uncover his feet.” Boaz awakes with a start to find the young woman lying at his feet. What does “uncover his feet” mean? King David uses similar language when he tells Uriah to go to his wife Bathsheba, trying to cover up the fact that David had impregnated her. (See II Samuel 11:8). Some Rabbinic commentators claim that it is a euphemism for sexual seduction. Through this act, Ruth convinces Boaz to marry her.
This scene echoes an earlier scene of sexual seduction in the book of Genesis. Tamar, angry that her father-in-law Judah has not given her in marriage to his youngest son as the law of Levirate requires, dresses as a harlot and sells her services to Judah. She becomes pregnant and at first Judah is furious. But then he realizes that his daughter-in-law was correct and he was wrong. Twins were born to Tamar including Perez, who became a progenitor of Boaz and of course, King David.
These are not the only stories of women who use seduction to get their way with important men. The book of Judges tells the story of Yael who brought Sisera into her tent. Sisera was the general of the enemy king who had attacked Israel. Yael lures the general into her tent, seduces him with milk, and when he is asleep, drives a stake through his head. (The Bible is not always gentle about these matters.) Israel wins the war and Yael is considered a great heroine. The prophet Deborah sings, “Most blessed of women be Yael, Wife of Heber the Kenite, Most blessed of women in tents” (Judges 5:24),
Ruth, Tamar, and Yael are praised by Scripture for using the power of seduction to do the right thing. Of course, we have another story in Genesis of a woman who gives us the first case of sexual harassment in the workplace. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when Joseph refuses, he is thrown into jail. In this day of #metoo and concerns about men of power taking advantage of women, there is a deep irony that the first perpetrator of sexual harassment was a woman.
In my new novel on sexual ethics, The Rabbi’s Sex Class, I criticize people who use their positions of power to achieve sexual favors. When I wrote the book, I had in mind the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault who wrote that sex is often about power. What is fascinating is that in the Bible, women had very little power. They were often at the mercy of men. Ruth and Naomi had food to eat only because Boaz allowed them to glean in his fields.
Therefore, one can understand how some women were able to use their seductive power to get men to do what was necessary. In a sense, the same idea appears in the ancient Greek play by Aristophanes Lysistrata. In the play, the heroine gets the men to abandon war and negotiate peace by withholding sex. In the ancient world, this is where the women had power over men.
Fortunately, we live in a different time and place, where women have power they never had in Biblical times. Seduction is no longer an appropriate tool for a woman to achieve her desires. But the book of Ruth hearkens to an earlier time, where relations between men and women were quite different. We can learn from these ancient stories about the relationships between the sexes.