A tale of the relationship of two women, Ruth and Naomi, is tucked within those books in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”) that are called historical because they portray a legendary history of a people from its beginnings as a tribe to its days as a monarchy.
Scholars can argue about what is historically accurate in them. Theologians and religious thinkers can work hard to make them fit into some coherent systems of belief.
But a historical look shows that the clear purpose of such tales isn’t just to recite past dead history. They’re told for those who hear and read them with the purpose of teaching how Israel should see itself through what adds up to a legendary collection that takes on epic proportions.
Various law codes and rules break up this extended history to help the people define themselves as a special “chosen” group. But much of the story from Genesis to Nehemiah sounds less like what might be called the fine literature of a culture’s literati and more like collections of folk tales that cultures all over pass on not only to entertain but to solidify a people’s identity generation after generation.
To the historian with the perspective of many religions, these tales sound like those in other cultures’ collections, such as the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki that have the same self-definitional purpose for the Japanese people. They are R and X rated and full of emotional deities, violence, rape, sex, floods, famine, family feuds, war, dismemberment, and death as well as moments of humor, beauty, soap-opera-style romance, and even some not-so-dysfunctional relationships.
The little book of Ruth is only four chapters that stand out in its current biblical location. Its story situates itself in the chaotic, violent period that’s portrayed throughout Judges, the book preceding it in the collection.
That “Book of Judges” reminds us regularly that it speaks of a period that was one of extreme, ubiquitous, and savage lawlessness: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25) and “the descendants of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (2:11; 3:7; 4:1; 6:1)
The story in Ruth is included in the canon, it tells us, because it fills in the lineage of the legendary and paradigmatic Israeli King, David. Obed, the son to whom Ruth gives birth, but whom neighbors notably say is “born to Naomi,” becomes the father of Jesse, who is the father of David himself (4:17-22). The fact that King David is mentioned means the book of Ruth was written much later than the time it portrays.
This was also a time, remember, of strict patriarchy. With the notable exception of Deborah, the one woman who would lead ancient Israel as one of the “judges” of the period and who is sort of a Xena, Warrior Princess – though she’s more like a military Queen, Judges (4:4-5:31) – women are considered the property of men and are without standing unless it’s given them by their relationship to a man.
The famous Ten Commandments included such a reminder. “Adultery” meant sex with another man’s property, and the tenth commandment listed a man’s property explicitly: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
In such societies, women had to work around these gender codes, and often did, as they do today. Not surprisingly, we see that work-around in the tale of Naomi and Ruth and their loving commitment to each other.
In Ruth, the two major characters are women, Naomi and Ruth, and central to the plot is their same-sex relationship. Husbands come and go as minor characters in the script, but the mutual commitment and actions of these two women hold center stage from the opening act to the finale.
Naomi is the wife of a man name Elimelech who dies as early as the third verse of the book. Naomi’s two sons die in the fifth verse. The book dispenses with them without telling us anything more, and promptly moves on.
Its focus immediately returns to Naomi’s two daughters-in-law. The three of them are women alone and without standing in an area of Palestine where hunger was rife.
Naomi has no options where she is and decides to return to her homeland in Judah where she hears there is plenty. She sees that her options of remarriage and giving birth to sons – her legal salvation – aren’t open to her.
The daughters-in-law have an option. So Naomi tells the two woman to save themselves and return to “their mother’s house” and “to their gods.”
Both women weep openly, the text says (1:14), but while Orpah kisses Naomi and leaves, Ruth is distinguished from her sister-in-law when the text tells us that “Ruth clung to” Naomi.
Interestingly, the word “clung to” is the Hebrew word dabaq. It’s a common word describing closeness that’s also used of Adam and Eve in Genesis (2:24): “For this cause, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cling (dabaq) to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”
So Ruth begs Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from following you” and the author chooses to impress us without apology or embarrassment with words of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi that are the closest to those used since in wedding vows that end with “till death us do part:”
”For where you go, I will go,
And where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people,
And your god, my god.
Where you die, I will die,
And there I will be buried.
Thus may the Lord do to me,
If anything but death parts you and me. (2:16-17)
So, after expressing this eternal commitment, they return together to Judah, and the book tells us about their life seeking security together with Ruth caring for Naomi.
Gleaning wheat in the fields might provide immediate sustenance, but not long-range security for this couple. Only a male child will do that.
Thus, another man enters the tale who would be a supporting actor in the story. He’s Boaz, the owner of the field in which Ruth works and a distant relative of Naomi who takes a shine to Ruth.
We’re told then in chapter 3 how Naomi instructs Ruth to seduce Boaz in the hope of seeking “security.” (3:1) Ruth follows Naomi’s advice, and when Boaz is filled with “food and drink” (“until his heart is merry”) (3:7), she joins him in bed. For Ruth and Naomi, it’s a successful night.
In Chapter 4, the author moves the story forward by saying without explanation that Naomi must sell her deceased husband’s property. Boaz agrees to buy it only if he can purchase Ruth in a package deal as his wife. He needs this, he says “to guarantee his own inheritance.” (4:5-6).
The marriage is portrayed as purely a business transaction. There’s no “clinging” in it.
Immediately, and within the same verse as the one that mentions the marriage, the conception takes place, a child is born, and we hear of Boaz no more (4:13). The story’s finale is focused only on Ruth and Naomi.
It’s the women of the town, actually, who are given the role of providing a final chorus in the last verses of the tale. The writer wants us to know that these women, not the father, Boaz, named the child Obed (“serving, worshipping”), while they also speak of the child being Naomi’s, not Boaz’s “savior.”
“Then the women said to Naomi: ‘blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today…May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age…’ And the neighbor women gave him a name, saying ‘A son has been born to Naomi….’” (4:14-17)
When the curtain falls, we have the story of two women who love each other and are coping with the society in which they find themselves. The teller of the story cares about nothing more than telling us what a loving same-sex relationship of two women would, and should, look like.
So we are left now with what we feel we must say about this relationship as we think of it through the lens of our day and age. And a question we might ask is: Was the clearly loving same-sex relationship celebrated here between two women, one in which their love included expressing themselves sexually with each other?
The text doesn’t say, and scholars fall all along a spectrum of interpretations on that issue. Among others, Professor Theodore Jennings in his 2005 Jacob’s Wound, Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel puts it this way: “It is difficult to imagine how any tale from antiquity could have been more explicit in dealing with ‘women loving women’ or with what is more prosaically termed a lesbian relationship.”
But would a text from that era even find it important enough to mention Naomi and Ruth expressing their love sexually? Would it even be of interest to the readers and hearers of the story? Would they care enough to deny or discuss it?
A further question is: Would the way two women might perform sexual acts with each other be understood as sex in such a patriarchal culture? Three thoughts about such a traditional patriarchy:
- To be thought of as a sexual act, the act required a penis being inserted in something or someone. Thus, it’s no surprise that nothing in the whole Hebrew Bible is about what we would today call lesbian sex. Note that the Leviticus prohibitions are all about men having sex.
- The attitude toward women was guided by whether or not they performed their expected gender roles. If they married, if they had children, they had done that. So what they then did in same-sex relationships beyond that wasn’t considered disruptive of those roles or society and almost trivial.
- There was no concept of sexual orientation, much less female sexual orientation, to disrupt male-centered marriage and family ideals. So women’s sexual activity would have been just something these women did with no further thought.
The tellers, writers, hearers, and readers throughout the history of the retelling of the story of Ruth and Naomi, then, were unlikely to care whether these two women were experiencing what today we might call lesbian sex. It just didn’t matter to them if they were because they weren’t that homophobic.
But they sure cared to preserve a love story between two women, one that said women could love each other this deeply and work together to protect and care for each other in a culture where women had to negotiate in terms of what their culture enforced as a lesser gender status.
And the story of Ruth and Naomi as told in this interlude between the hate, war, and rivalries of its surrounding Biblical books does serve clearly to model for its hearers through a picture of two women’s love for each other what it means for any couple to have steadfast love and to “cling to one another.”
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.