Ruth and Naomi: Dec 20th

The story of Ruth and Naomi is widely quoted by queer writers as an example from Scripture of possible lesbian love:  but how relevant is it?  Superficially at least, it is just a simple story of exceptionally strong family affection and loyalty, between mother- and daughter- in-law. Whether in any way “lesbian” or not, the story is relevant, but not perhaps in the way usually told.  To unravel  the lessons it may hold for us, let’s begin with the simple story.

Naomi was an Israelite widow, living for a while (on account of famine) in Moab, where she married her two sons to Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. The sons later died, leaving Naomi “all alone, without husband or sons” ,

She did have two daughters-in-law, and when she heard that conditions back in Israel had improved, she returned, initially taking her two daughters-in-law with her. She then had a change of heart, and encourages the two women to return to their own home in Moab. After some persuasion, Orpah did so, but Ruth refused.

Do not press me to leave you
Or turn back from following you!
Where you go I will go,
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
There  will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you
(Ruth 1: 16-17)

After their arrival in Bethlehem, Naomi arranged a second husband for Ruth, to Boaz. She then bore a grandson for Naomi, a grandson who would support them both in old age, and who would in time be part of the lineage linking Naomi to David, and hence to Jesus. (Ruth becomes King David’s great-grandmother: Ruth is the mother of Obed, who is father of Jesse and grandfather of David.)

It is obvious from the above that Naomi was mother-in-law to Ruth –twice over.  It is equally obviously a story of great affection and loyalty between two women.  Is it more?

John Boswell doesn’t think so:

“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, but does not answer, the question,

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.

A comment placed on this site  by a Baptist pastor ( “ hinbww ”) responding to an earlier article on the Bible (Is the Bible Anti-gay?”), stated unequivocally:

Ruth & Naomi were married.

He later elaborated:

Ruth 1:14, referring to the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, mentions that “Ruth clave 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)
This book was probably included in the Hebrew Scriptures because King David was one of the descendents of Ruth. Although this same-sex friendship appears to have been very close, there is no proof that it was a sexually active relationship.

How valid this interpretation is, I have no idea.  I have no knowledge of Hebrew, but if the word used in Ruth 1:14 is the same as that in Genesis 2:24, as stated, then the suggestion is an important one which needs to be taken seriously. It is also worth pointing out though, that Naomi’s arrangement of a marriage to Boaz does not eliminate the possibility of a lesbian relationship between the two women; and that a lesbian relationship does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship.  (We recognise a number of gay clergy as saints who clearly demonstrate a homosexual orientation, and who had deeply intimate emotional relationships with men, who are nevertheless accepted as having remained celibate).

What do I think?

I don’t see the need for just a single, “correct” interpretation.  I think the reading of “cleave” suggested above is worth taking seriously and one which I will try to explore further.  I also think it is worthwhile to use the passage as a reflection on female loyalty, or on inclusion and outsiders, or on coming out. But I also see this passage in another light, which is instructive but not inspirational.

When I read Ruth as a gay man, I am struck by another theme entirely how totally dependent women of that time were on men, for their very survival.  When Naomi’s sons died, she is described as being left all alone.  She was not – she had two daughters in law, but they didn’t count.  Much later, during the negations leading up to the marriage of Ruth to Boaz, there is a complicated bit about the sale of a piece of land.  The critical point is that the purchaser of the property is obliged to take the woman with it – women are sold as property along with the land,  The joyful climax of the story is the birth of a son, who can take care of both women in their old age,

This reminder of the total dependence of women on men goes to the heart of the problems of the church on matters of gender and sexuality.  Women continue to be seen as inferior to men, and are treated accordingly. The inferior status is also why the Leviticus prohibition is on men who lie with men “as with women”, and why so many societies, then and now, see it as shameful for a man to take the “female” part in male intercourse, but to take the “masculine”, active, role, is not regarded as gay at all.  These attitudes , coupled with some bizarre ides about animal behaviour,  were behind the condemnation of same sex relationships by some (not all) early church fathers.

The social attitudes of Jewish society revealed by the story of Ruth and Naomi are at the heart of the modern oppression by the church of women and gay men. Ruth and Naomi found a way to survive and flourish working within the system.  For us today, in a world where the attitudes outside the church (informed by science and reason) are very different, should not have to work within an unjust system  to flourish ourselves. Instead, we should work to subvert and destroy those elements that are unloving and unjust.

Kittredge Cherry has also written on these two: see Jesus in Love blog


John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, (Harper-Collins)

Chris Glaser, Coming out as Sacrament (Westminster John Knox Press)

Paul Halsall, Calendar of LGBT Saints (on-line)

11 Responses to “Ruth and Naomi: Dec 20th”

  1. transect Says:

    I don’t really think the marriage with Boaz undermines a potential lesbian relationship between Ruth and Naomi. Since, as you note, women at that time lacked many options without men, it’s entirely possible that the marriage to Boaz was an attempt to preserve both Ruth and Naomi in the society of the time – despite their own relationship. I’m not sure yet whether we can know for sure the nature of their relationship, but I do find the story of Ruth and Naomi, particularly in Ruth 1, very emotionally resonant for my own (queer) relationship.

    • woollythinker Says:

      Right. I’m more and more of the view that the precise physical characterization of these relationships is not what is important. What matters is that there is a close relationship of some kind, and what it means for us, personally, in our own relationships.

      This approach will be even more important when we consider the supposed love relationship between Jesus and the “beloved disciple”, which I will be doing later this week.

      Thanks for the contribution.

  2. Mark from PA Says:

    This was an excellent article but the last 2 sentences were awkward and left a sour note.

  3. KittKatt Says:

    Thanks for summarizing so many different viewpoints on Ruth and Naomi today. Whatever the historical truth, they are definitely an inspiration to lesbian Christians today — and many heterosexuals seem to find their connection to be “more than just friendship” because Ruth’s vow is often read at heterosexual weddings.

    I will include a link to this post on the Jesus in Love Blog ,where I also posted about Ruth and Naomi today. My post focuses more on artistic and musical representations of the women whose love for each other has become an ideal of married love. You can view my post here:

  4. MarkF Says:

    (Mark has provided a lengthy and detailed analysis in response to this post – which deserves much more space than is possible in a comment thread. Read the full response at “A Reader Responds: MarkF on Ruth & Naomi” which is also where I will reply to Mark. (I have left here just the opening and closing of his writing.

    “The critical point is that the purchaser of the property is obliged to take the woman with it – women are sold as property along with the land.”

    Um, no. It was a package deal, the land and the women, but the women are still not bought.

    The man in the story was the closest relative of the late Elimelech………..

    Men were clearly in charge of this world, make no doubt about that. But the Israelites were fighting for their very survival. And they had proved themselves to be totally unfit for any sort of morality higher than that found in the Law. Heck, they didn’t even keep to the Law. They were constantly worshipping false gods, fighting, stealing and cheating on the wives and husbands. When you criticize the Laws of Israel you’re doing so from a safe, warm place. You’re doing It from a world that already has received Christ and has learned Christian morality. Things were different back then, but the difference is not how bad Israel was, but how bad the rest of the world was. The real oppression of women was under every other culture but Israel. The odd thing is that the very morality that you’re using to attack the Law only came into the world through Christianity, (made in the image of God, there is no male or female in Christ, etc.) which never would have been here if Israel had not survived through the Law.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Hi Mark, Thanks for dropping by at QTC.

      Have a look around – I’m sure you’ll find a lot you will want to respond to.

      • MarkF Says:

        Thank you very much for the solution of leaving a section here but also referencing the full response which is at another location. Thanks! Good solution.

      • Terence@queerchurch Says:

        Good. I’m glad you like it. You and I will often disagree, but I would hate to censor you – something I object to strongly, especially when you obviously put so much work into your responses.

        I hope we can have a courteous interchange as we continue to disagree.

  5. Paul Robert Says:

    On the discussion about Ruth and Naomi the thought that this provoked in me was that I had hardly noticed before that Matthew’s introducing Ruth into Jesus’ genealogy, by name and nationality, must signify a message that Jesus was not simply and exclusively of Jewish blood and descent. The international and the INCLUSIVE are built into Jesus’ very nature. This has to be in important consideration for our Gay world.

  6. Terence Says:

    Thanks for this observation, Paul. This is an insight that has never occurred to me, and that I will want to investigate further. As you say, it has profound implications.

  7. When is a Foot Really a Penis? And Other Things the Bible Taught Me. | anniegirl1138 Says:

    […] Ruth and Naomi: Dec 20th ( […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: