The Trouble with Boaz by Katey Zeh

The Trouble with Boaz (1)

I’ve always been troubled by the story of Boaz found in the Book of Ruth. While there are plenty of biblical narratives that horrify me–Hagar, Tamar, and other “texts of terror” as Phyllis Trible called them–the story of Boaz is uniquely problematic in how it has been interpreted and applied by some Christian traditions, particularly among evangelicals. What is so insidious about this biblical re-telling is how the relationship between Boaz, a wealthy landowner, and Ruth, a foreign widow, is idealized as some kind of romantic love story.

Ruth and Boaz social media meme

Waiting for your Boaz is a popular blogging platform among single white evangelical women who desire a husband. Their Facebook page alone has nearly 300,000 likes. For purchase on the main site is a book entitled 31 Days of Prayer for your Future Husband: Becoming a Wife Before the Wedding Day. The premise of Waiting for your Boaz is that if single women quit searching for a husband (i.e. dating) and pray for one instead, God will “write your love story” and like a matchmaker, will bring them one eventually.

While there are many troubling theological issues at play in this framework, for this particular piece I will focus on the cooption of the biblical narrative to uphold a worldview in which the fate of women is left to the whims of men and a male God.

In the biblical narrative Boaz is the distant relative of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law.  When the women are widowed suddenly and thus left destitute, they return to Naomi’s homeland in Bethlehem. (Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law who is also a widow, remains in Moab.) With no other known male relatives available to help them, Boaz is the women’s only hope for sustenance. He permits Ruth to glean the leftover crops after his fields have been harvested and instructs the workers not to bother her while she gathers food. While I acknowledge that Boaz acts kindly–or at least neutrally–toward Ruth, we ought not forget the immense power dynamics at play: Boaz is a native, wealthy, land-owning man while Ruth is a foreign, widowed woman with no rights.

At no other point in the narrative is this difference in power more evident than when Naomi insists that Ruth put herself at even greater risk–again for their collective well-being–by offering herself sexually to a drunk Boaz in the hopes that doing so might result in their continued protection.

This is not a fairytale. This is a story of survival.

In the end Boaz does offer Ruth and thus Naomi his protection through marriage. For two widows with no rights whatsoever, this is the best possible outcome, but it comes at great cost: namely Ruth’s bodily safety and autonomy which are threatened not only by her being a foreign woman working in the field, but also by her own mother-in-law’s admonition that Ruth offer herself as sexual collateral.

Single women ought to be praying for this? I think not.

Ruth does not wait. She cannot wait. Like many women, both ancient and contemporary, she uses what little power she has to do what is necessary in order to stay alive at great risk to her personal safety. Instead of admiring Boaz and his benevolent paternalism, our focus ought to be on removing the restrictions and confronting the injustices that leave women like Ruth and Naomi in such desperate circumstances in the first place.

RA82Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer,  and speaker who inspires communities to create a more just, compassionate world.  She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazinethe Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press in March of 2018.  Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website

Categories: Bible, General

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20 replies

  1. Amen. What a sick sick message.

    If as you mention, this group primarily white, then why is their meme written in what seems to be Black speech patterns?

    And you are so right that Ruth and Naomi are not passive but active, even if the action they take is to prostitute Ruth and to sexually manipulate Boaz. And let’s get real. Boaz was drunk. Probably not the greatest sex ever. Moreover, if we now believe that a drunk person cannot consent to sex, then must we not be willing to consider what happened to Boaz to be rape with economic interests as the motivating factor in a conspiracy to rape? Are we meant to believe that afterwards the couple lived happily ever after? Or was their marriage always a form of sexual slavery or prostitution for Ruth? Did Boaz forgive her for cheating him into marriage or punish her continually for what she did to him? Ruth and Naomi had their “reasons” in a patriarchal society and as you suggest we might consider condoning what they did under the rubric of “survival ethics.” Still, no matter how you look at it, this is not a “nice” story!!!!

    Thanks for pointing all of this out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Ruth’s bodily safety and autonomy which are threatened not only by her being a foreign woman working in the field, but also by her own mother-in-law’s admonition that Ruth offer herself as sexual collateral.”

    One more story of a desperate woman without rights… it terrifies me that this dynamic is still being played out with models like Cinderella aka Elsa/ Barbie etc. for young girls to emulate – is it any wonder that women have such a hard time claiming authentic power when this collective mantle of MALE power looms over their heads – AND that power is SUPPORTED by other male -identified women like the 53 percent of American women that voted for Trump????

    Survival does have it’s own set of rules and I think we must respect them, however let’s not make the mistake of silencing or condoning the horrors that accompany this state.


  3. It would be salutary if all Christians remembered that Jesus comes from a line of refugees, enslaved people, and young girls (like his mother) in trouble through no fault of their own. Thanks for this succinct, powerful post!


  4. I grew up Calvinist and Republican in St. Louis in the 1950, so as a teenager I was surrounded by Ruths. At the time, the idea of power dynamics never occurred to me. The story was in the Bible, I saw it all around me (well, not the gleaning, but the men’s condescending attitudes) and it was just the way the world was. Today I’m wondering how many of the women who like that website are married to the men who invaded Charlottesville. Instead of good ol’ Victorian progress, we seem to be going through biblical regression. Alas.

    Do any “good Christians” like all these Ruths and Boazes read and believe and follow the Sermon on the Mount?


  5. Something that struck me after reading your essay is that the only real agency given to Ruth is to manipulate and deceive by seducing Boaz. Outside of this type of behavior, she’s at his mercy. This leaves me with the impression that there is a straight line from Eve’s temptation to her narrative.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And even then, she is being manipulated by Naomi, who is older and is not a foreigner, and who yields power over her. In that way I don’t see Ruth having any real agency at all. One could argue her decision to remain with Naomi was a free act, but I’ve often wondered if Ruth’s home of origin was violent or abusive in some way, and that she couldn’t return to her family.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Boaz real identity is a Pharaoh of Egypt named B-uasorken. B-uas- Boaz. Ruth was probably a temple prostitute which was one of the highest positions for anyone in Egypt male or female. See Ralph Ellis’ work on this. It is why they call Mary Magdalen a prostitute, no one knows how powerful a position this was in Egypt. They just look down upon them. Which is what patriarch religions want. In truth, Ruth was probably one of bloodline wives. The story has been manipulated so people would not know the truth.


  7. Thank you for this excellent post. Could not agree more heartily with its premise.


  8. Katey thanks for your insightful post. I’ll be sure to share that with my Bible study group the next time we read the story, although the last time we read it someone took me to task for pointing out that feet was a euphemism for genitals, so that was what Ruth was uncovering. I’m working on the group, slowly, but surely.
    :) It is all too easy to read this story as a fairytale and not think about the true reality, especially for poor women. My Bible study group was recently studying the story of Jacob and his wives and I pointed out to the group that women were just seen as possessions then. After all, scripture says that Jacob loved Rachel, but nowhere does it say that she loved him. Her feelings were not considered at all.


    • Thank you, Linda. The Jacob storyline is extremely disturbing! You’ll also recall that both Rachel and Leah forced their handmaids (slaves) to marry Jacob and become their surrogates. I’m so glad that you’re a prophetic voice in your bible study. I’m coming out with a book next March called Women Rise Up on biblical women resisting oppression. It might be a great conversation starter for your group!



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