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gay-friendly texts: Ruth and Naomi

August 2, 2015

RuthRuth 1:16-17 is often read out during either opposite-sex and same-sex marriage and union ceremonies:

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (NIV)

Ruth 1:14 “Ruth clave (דָּבַק) onto her.” (KJV) The Hebrew word translated here as “clave” is identical to that used in the description of a heterosexual marriage in Genesis 2:24:

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” (KJV)

Background:

Ruth has been an object of contention for many feminist scholars of the Bible. While recognizing the great strides the book makes on behalf of women, scholars also recognize how far the work on a whole has fallen short of some feminist ideals.

Ruth is one of only two books in the Hebrew canon that bears the name of a woman. It is the only book in which the main characters are women, strong women who take some control of their own destiny and situation. The text is filled with instances in which the female protagonists seek out solutions to their tribulations, which, in the end, they succeed in overcoming.

The text does, however, continue to operate within the patriarchal structure of ancient Israelite culture. In this context, these women have limited social standing and power. They persevere through acts of manipulation not only of the societal norms and the men in power but also of each other. This manipulation may include the physical subjugation of Ruth on the threshing-room floor in chapter 3.

“A man of Bethlehem in Judah and his wife and two sons” (1:1). Right away Naomi is defined by the men in her life. She is the man’s wife and is not even listed as any relation to the sons. It’s as if they were not even her children. And the situation gets only slightly better as we move on when she is actually named as Naomi, but still in terms of Elimelech as her husband (1:2).

From the beginning Boaz sees himself in a position of power over her. He inquires as “to whom she might belong” (2:5), as if she might be some other man’s possession. Then he calls her “daughter” (2:8), and she throws herself at his feet like one of his slaves (2:10). I’m guessing this is what the author wanted her to do, just prostrate herself and eat dirt. And do you remember what he says to her? “I have told my men not to molest you” (2:9)! What are these men doing to all the other women in the fields? The women who gleaned were women who had no social standing, because they didn’t have a man to speak for them. They were widows and orphans. The workers could have done whatever they wanted with these women, and those who survived the victimization would have had no recourse. In my mind this is a very disturbing part of the story that we often overlook. The all-benevolent Boaz even knows it is happening and obviously does nothing to stop it in the case of the other women.

Ruth has to act in the capacity that demeans her completely, that of a prostitute. Why else put on her best clothes and perfumed oil (3:3) in advance of cuddling up to him in the dark? (3:7) Boaz doesn’t know her from any other woman in the fields. To him she is just a body (3:8-9a).

Ruth and Boaz marry. The two women have succeeded in gaining a new life for themselves. They have redeemed the property that belonged to them and have found a means of survival in the marriage of Ruth to Boaz.

So, once again, Ruth is defined by the man she is married to. In the end, things are no better than when they started. Maybe they’re even worse. To get where they are, Naomi manipulated Ruth, and Ruth played the whore for a dominating kinsman.

Ruth and Boaz have a son, whom the women of the neighborhood name Obed. The narrator emphasizes that this son is a divine gift: “the Lord made her to conceive and she bore a son” (4:13).

the genealogy that closes the book of Ruth (4:18-22) is Boaz’s genealogy, not Ruth’s. Even if the book bears her name, at the end she is erased from the family history. That says a lot about what the authors really thought about these women’s contribution to the future of Israel.

Ruth 2The plot:

chapter 1, Elimelech and Naomi, with sons Mahlon and Chilion, journey from famine-stricken Bethlehem (meaning “house of food”) to Moab for survival. After Elimelech’s unexplained death, the two sons marry Orpah and Ruth (both Moabite). Ten years pass. Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving the three women alone. Naomi begins a journey back to Bethlehem and instructs her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers’ houses. Orpah departs with a kiss, but Ruth clings to Naomi with a pledge. The two arrive in Bethlehem at harvest. Naomi publicly laments her emptiness.

chapter 2, at her own initiative, Ruth obtains food and protection by gleaning in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. Boaz, an upstanding citizen, is generous with the women, and Naomi blesses him in her words to Ruth.

chapter 3, Ruth seeks out a satiated, sleeping Boaz on the threshing floor one night. Adapting Naomi’s scheme, Ruth uncovers his “legs” and lies beside him. When Boaz awakes, Ruth asks him to claim her and to act as redeemer of Naomi and Elimelech’s land. Boaz praises Ruth’s character and agrees to her requests, but acknowledges the existence of a closer relative/redeemer. Ruth returns secretly with food to Naomi.

chapter 4, Boaz publicly approaches the closer relative and manipulates him into waiving his right of redemption. Boaz receives a blessing from the elders and claims Ruth as his wife. Together, they produce an heir to Elimelech’s estate. Neighbor women bless the Lord, praise the boy’s mother, and ascribe him to Naomi. They name the child Obed, the future grandfather of King David.

The Book of Ruth concludes with a genealogy that may be read either as integral to the story or as an external addition. The genealogy makes Ruth an ancestress of David and, therefore, of a Davidic messiah. The Christian Gospel of Matthew includes Ruth in a genealogy of Jesus (Mt. 1:5).

Compare: with Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar is also a strong woman who obtains justice and security from her father-in-law (Judah) through extraordinary means

Ruth 3Commentators:

Robert Wood first suggested that Ruth and Naomi were involved in a lesbian relationship with one another, in “Homosexual Behavior in the Bible.” Few would press the text to yield evidence of physical sexual intercourse between the two women. Nevertheless, lesbians treasure this story and sometimes use these words of Ruth in a ritual in which two lesbians promise life-long love and devotion to one another.

The very real possibility that the relationship between Ruth and Naomi did not include sexual intercourse can serve as a reminder that sex in the narrow sense is not necessarily the heart and centre of a lesbian relationship, just as it is not necessarily the heart and centre of a heterosexual relationship. The essence of any marriage covenant is love, companionship, emotional support, and life-long commitment to one another’s welfare.

John Boswell: “There is little in the Book of Ruth to suggest that anything other than loyalty bound Ruth to Naomi (who had, in fact, suggested that Ruth depart, along with her other daughters-in-law; but Ruth refused to do so.)”

He also points out that the obvious devotion of Ruth to Naomi is instrumental in securing the attention of Boaz. What would be the point of remembering a lesbian relationship that serves to attract a husband for one of the women?

Paul Halsall
asks, Is this a story about Lesbianism, which was not forbidden at all in the Law? Whatever the answer, it is a story of love and loyalty between two women.

However, he does point to another aspect of the story which is less commonly remarked on, that it is a story of the outsider, and how outsiders can become insiders. As a Moabite woman, Ruth is very much an outsider in Israeli society. Yet she accepts this in her loyalty to Naomi, and is ultimately rewarded by becoming the mother of Obed, the grandmother of King David, and ultimately an ancestor of Jesus himself. ‘This is a book of the inclusivity of God’s call, and another Biblical illustration of the limits of the Law.’

Paul Glaser: also sees this as a story of devotion, but reads it as a “coming out” story:

All of us who grow to accept and affirm our sexuality have in some sense heard this call to come out. In grief and regret, some of us may feel forced to leave a family, a congregation, or a community (much as Ruth did) to make our commitments. Following Ruth and Naomi’s strategy, we may use whatever is available to us in the church and society to survive. Yet, alongside Ruth and Naomi, we use our commitment to lovers, our fresh understandings of God, and our new communities of faith – maybe a support group, a network, an organization, a congregation – to survive.

Other Occurrences of Dabaq in the Book of Ruth

Besides its use in Ruth 1:14, dabaq is used three other times in Ruth:

  1. Boaz asks Ruth to “stay” with his servant girls while gleaning during the harvest (2:8).
  2. Ruth tells Naomi that Boaz asked her to “stay” with his workers until the harvest was finished (2:21).
  3. Ruth followed Boaz’s advice and “stayed close” to the other women until the harvesting was finished (2:23).

How Dabaq is Used in the Old Testament

According to James Strong’s Hebrew lexicon, dabaq is used in over 50 Old Testament verses and is defined as “to cling, stick, cleave, stay close, keep close, follow closely, join to, overtake, catch.” Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius’ lexicon defines dabaq as “to adhere or be glued, to attach oneself, or to follow hard or come upon.”

A review of how dabaq is used throughout the Old Testament does not appear to indicate a sexual definition. For example:

  • Four times in Deuteronomy (13:14 – 30:20) and twice in Joshua (23:8, 12) Israel is told to “hold fast” to God.
  • Israel is warned three times in Deuteronomy 13 and 28 and again in Joshua 23 that God’s anger will “cling” to them in the form of plagues and diseases if they reject him.
  • Multiple verses in Genesis, Judges and the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles tell how opposing armies were “pressing hard” upon or were able to “overtake” their enemies.
  • 2 Samuel 20 states that the men of Judah “stayed by” King David after Israel deserted him and 2 Samuel 23 tells how Eleazer’s sword “clung” (KJV) or “froze” (NIV) to his hand during battle.
  • Passages in Job, Psalms, Lamentations and Ezekiel tell how a tongue “sticks” to the roof of the mouth.
  • Proverbs 18:24 states that a man with many companions may come to ruin but there is a friend “who sticks closer than a brother.”

Ezek 3:26, And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be mute and unable to reprove them, nfor they are a rebellious house.

Deut 28:21 The Lord will make rthe pestilence stick to you until he has consumed you off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

Jer 13:11 For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.

Psalm 22:15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my xtongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Deut 11:22  For if jyou will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and kholding fast to him,

Deut 30:20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

2 Kings 5:27 Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper, like snow.

the most likely usage of “dabaq” here is to indicate that Ruth is clinging onto Naomi in maintenance of the mother / daughter relationship that was established when she married her son. At that point, she became part of Naomi’s (and Elimelech’s) family and took on their identity. Though Orpah agrees to sever that bond and return to her birth family in Moab, Ruth is saying at this point, “Though my husband has died I remain your daughter”. And this makes sense of her covenant in verses 16 and 17:

CrosbyFanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”, To God Be the Glory”)

Entreat me not to leave thee,
My heart goes with thee now;
Why turn my footsteps homeward?
No friend so dear as thou!
Thy heart has borne my sorrow,
And I have wept for thine;
And now how can I leave thee?
Oh, let thy lot be mine.

Refrain
Entreat me not to leave thee,
Entreat me not to leave thee,
Or to return from following after thee;
For where thou goest I will go,
And where thou lodgest I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people,
And thy God my God,
Thy people shall be my people,
And thy God my God.

I’ll follow where thou leadest;
My love will cling to thee;
And where thy head is pillowed,
My nightly rest shall be;
Thy birthplace and thy kindred
I’ll cherish like my own;
Thy God shall be my refuge,
I’ll worship at God’s throne.
Refrain

Where death’s cold hand shall find thee,
There let my eyelids close,
And, in the grave beside thee,
This mortal frame repose:
Oh, do not now entreat me;
No friend so dear as thou;
My heart would break in anguish
If I should leave thee now.
Refrain

Background:

To understand the full impact of what happened, we need to put ourselves in the mindset of the time. When this story was written, women had only two acceptable places in society: They could be a daughter in their father’s household or a wife in their husband’s household. A woman without a man had no social standing. There are several stories in the Old Testament about widows who almost starved to death, because they had no man to take care of them. (See note 1.) The constant biblical command to “look after widows and orphans” stems from the understanding that widows were among the most vulnerable people in society.

Companionship?

In Our Tribe, Nancy Wilson states, “‘Boston marriage’ is a term from the Victorian era, used for women who lived together in lifelong committed friendships that were, it was assumed, devoid of sex.” (page 291.) The video Out of the Past (Unapix Entertainment, Inc., New York, 1998) documents how these marriages were accepted in the upper classes of most East coast cities (like Boston), until the women’s suffrage movement made them too threatening to the male political structure.

It is therefore highly significant, if unsettling, that after this declaration of love, Naomi says nothing to Ruth. The narrator simply notes that when Naomi sees “how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her.”   Soon after, they arrive in Bethlehem and the women meet them at the gates and buzz in excitement over them.  “’Can this be Naomi,’” the women ask—perhaps not only surprised to see her again, as if this were miraculous, but also awestruck by the transformation of her appearance.  At this juncture, Naomi gives vent to her feelings in the third and final instance of poetic verse in the Book of Ruth: Do not call me Naomi/pleasantness, Call me Mara/bitterness, For Shaddai has made my lot very bitter. I went away full, And the LORD has brought me back empty. How can you call me Naomi/pleasantness, When the LORD has dealt harshly with me, When Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me!

In these words, we see the reasons why Naomi does not respond to Ruth after her wondrous speech.  Naomi, once pleasant, has become, as she has expressed previously, a “bitter” woman who should be called bitter, as if her tragic experiences of loss have transformed her very conception of her identity, which used to mean pleasantness.  Naomi does not quite express the facts when she claims she went away full (although she speaks truth in reference to her husband and sons), for she went away in the context of a famine—without food—and neither does she express the truth when she claims the LORD has “brought her back empty,” for she returns with Ruth, who stands as the greatest treasure in her entire life.  Ruth’s very existence contradicts Naomi’s conviction, her once again expressed, that “Shaddai has brought misfortune upon me.”  In brief, Naomi’s poetic speeches express her convictions that, without her men and past childbearing age, she lacks value.  She is so melancholic, in fact, that she does not and, it appears, cannot acknowledge the presence or the signification of Ruth and her love for her.  This would appear to make this a tale of one-sided and therefore tragic love, except for the fact that there is no indication that Ruth herself is perturbed, unsettled, or disconsolate because Naomi does not return the love Ruth feels for her.  Rather, just as Ruth exemplifies hesed (or loving-kindness) in this story, so too does she express and experience her love as what the French critic Helene Cixous calls une donnee—an autonomous gift or offering (what the Hebrew Bible in another context calls a “free will offering”) that does not need to be reciprocated and that has and holds complete faith and steadfastness.

When seen in the context of Ruth’s speech to Naomi, the remaining events of the narrative acquire altered meanings.  Rather than seeming to ignore what she has said to Naomi and turning toward heterosexual and familial love with Boaz, the prosperous kinsman of Naomi in Bethlehem, Boaz becomes, rather, the vehicle whereby Ruth, particularly after she becomes married, establishes a secure queer household with the genuine object of her abundant love, Naomi.

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From → Biblical, Sexuality

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