Question: "What did it mean to spread the corner of your garment over someone?"
Answer: In Ruth 3:4, Naomi encouraged Ruth to go to Boaz at night, saying, “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 obeys, and in verse 9 she tells Boaz, “I am your servant Ruth. . . . Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” The ESV uses “spread your wings.” What did this mean?
The Hebrew term can be translated either way, but the context makes the translation of “garment” more likely. The same idea is conveyed in Ezekiel 16:8 where God speaks metaphorically regarding Israel: “Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.” The context here notes God’s role as a husband for Israel.
The idea of matrimony appears in the context of Ruth’s story as well, both in the phrase itself and in the response of Boaz. He answers Ruth’s request by stating, “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor” (Ruth 3:10). Boaz understood that Ruth was asking him to take her as his wife. He blessed her for doing so, thankful she had pursued him rather than someone younger. He conveyed his attitude toward her through giving her barley as a gift and promising to get an answer to her request as soon as possible.
Some interpreters have sought to exaggerate the idea of “spreading your garment” as Ruth’s request for Boaz to have sexual relations with her. However, several reasons make this unlikely. First, her request includes the statement that Boaz is “a guardian-redeemer.” She did not want to have sexual relations with him because he was a redeemer; she was asking for marriage.
Second, it is clear she was following the plan given to her by her mother-in-law, Naomi. What was her plan? She was trying to encourage a marriage that would secure Ruth a better future.
Third, Boaz thanked Ruth for her request and said he would deal with it in the morning. He certainly could not have meant he would talk with the townspeople about her request for sexual relations! Rather, Boaz said he needed to discuss the necessary arrangements for marriage with those in his community because it dealt with a widow of an Israelite relative (Ruth 4).
Upon closer evaluation, to “spread your garment over me” in Ruth 3 was not merely a symbolic gesture or a request for sexual relations, but was rather Ruth’s way of asking Boaz to marry her, in obedience to Naomi’s directions. Boaz’s response ultimately resulted in a God-honoring marriage.