The same Hebrew word that is used in Genesis 2:24 to describe how Adam felt about Eve (and how spouses are supposed to feel toward each other) is used in Ruth 1:14 to describe how Ruth felt about Naomi. Her feelings are celebrated, not condemned.
And throughout Christian history, Ruth's vow to Naomi has been used to illustrate the nature of the marriage covenant. These words are often read at Christian wedding ceremonies and used in sermons to illustrate the ideal love that spouses should have for one another. The fact that these words were originally spoken by one woman to another tells us a lot about how God feels about same-gender relationships.
This text is an excerpt from The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships. It’s available from Amazon.com and directly from the publisher.
In the entire Bible, there are only two books named after women. One is Esther, which tells the story of a Jewish woman who becomes Queen of Persia and saves her people from destruction by “coming out” as Jewish to her husband, the king. The other is Ruth, which tells the story of two women who love and support one another through difficult times. Both books contain powerful messages for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but it is the story of Ruth that addresses the question we raised in chapter one: Can two people of the same sex live in committed, loving relationship with the blessing of God?
At the beginning of the book of Ruth, we’re introduced to Naomi and her husband Elimelech. They are from Bethlehem, where a terrible famine has made it impossible to find food. So, they take their two sons and move to Moab, a foreign land where they believe they’ll be able to survive. Unfortunately, Elimelech dies shortly after arriving in Moab. Several years pass, and Naomi’s sons marry Ruth and Orpah, two women from the surrounding country. But before they can have children, the sons also die. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are left alone with no husbands and no sons.
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.)
Note 1. For examples, see the stories of widows who came to Elijah and Elisha for help (1 Kings 17:10-24 and 2 Kings 4:1-37), and the story of the woman from Tekoa who confronted David (2 Samuel 14:4-12). Also, in Genesis 38, Judah tells his daughter-in-law Tamar to return to her father’s house, because her husband has died, illustrating the two possibilities available to a woman.
The constant biblical command to “look after widows and orphans” stems from the understanding that widows were among the most vulnerable people in society.
This context makes the next scene almost unbelievable. Naomi, grieving and recognizing her fate as a widow, decides to return to Bethlehem where her father’s family is, and where she hopes to find food. She counsels her daughters-in-law to do the same — to return to their own families. She knows she can’t offer them any support as a woman, and she fears she’ll only be a burden. Orpah, sensibly, returns home.
But Ruth cannot bear to do so. Her feelings run too deep. The Hebrew word used in Ruth 1:14 to describe those feelings is quite telling. The text says, “Ruth clung to [Naomi].” The Hebrew word for “clung” is “dabaq.” This is precisely the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe how Adam felt toward Eve.
You probably remember the story of Adam and Eve, as recorded in Genesis 2. After God creates Adam, he is terribly lonely. None of the animals God has created -- magnificent as they are -- can meet Adam’s deep need for companionship. So God puts Adam into a deep sleep, takes a rib from his side, and creates Eve. When Eve is presented to Adam, he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . !” Finally, Adam had a human companion.
The next verse in the text then draws an important theological conclusion from Adam’s experience. It says that, for this reason (i.e., the need for companionship), a man should leave his father and mother when he grows up and “cling” (“dabaq”) to his wife. (Genesis 2:24) And, of course, for the vast majority of human beings, that is God’s will for them -- for a man and woman to leave their parents home and form a relationship with each other that is so close, so intimate, that they can be described as “clinging” to one another.
But what about people who aren’t heterosexual? Is it possible for them, with God’s blessing, to form that type of intimate relationship with someone of their own gender?
The Holy Spirit answers that question definitively in Ruth 1:14. There the Scriptures say -- without apology, embarrassment, or qualification -- that Ruth felt the same way toward Naomi as spouses are supposed to feel toward each other. Far from being condemned, Ruth’s feelings are celebrated.
In fact, so as to remove any doubt about how Ruth felt toward Naomi, the Scriptures go on to record the details of the vow that Ruth made to Naomi. Here are her words:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall 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)
When Ruth spoke those haunting words, “Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried,” she wasn’t talking about some theoretical distant future. She was giving voice to the very real possibility that her decision to place her life in the hands of another woman could result in death. The sensible thing would have been to allow Naomi to return to her family and for Ruth to return to hers. But Ruth didn’t do the sensible thing. She threw caution to the wind and went against every survival instinct. Only one word could explain her actions — love.
After this speech, spoken in the first chapter, the story moves on to tell of Ruth and Naomi’s life together. The focus is on the quality of their relationship. The biblical storyteller chronicles how Ruth cared for Naomi by taking the only job available to a husbandless woman, gleaning. When the author tells of Ruth’s eventual marriage to a much older man, the marriage is portrayed as one of convenience, contrived to help Ruth and Naomi survive the harsh conditions of widowhood. No mention is made of Ruth’s love for her husband. And, when Ruth finally bears a son from her marriage, the text focuses on Naomi and her reaction to the great news, not on the father. In fact, the women of the village (and the author) ignore the father entirely, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” (Ruth 4:17) They remind her that Ruth “who loves you, is more to you than seven sons.” (Ruth 4:15) Everyone seems to understand that, for Ruth and Naomi, their most important relationship is the one they share.
Here then is the story the Bible tells: Ruth felt toward Naomi as Adam felt toward Eve; she gave up everything so she could be with Naomi; she put her own life at risk, so she could spend it caring for Naomi; and, even after she married a man, her most important relationship remained the one she shared with Naomi. These actions and emotions are difficult, almost impossible, to explain as mere friendship. If we set aside our preconceptions of what is possible in the Bible, the book of Ruth reads like the story of two women in love.
Instinctively, and perhaps unwittingly, Christians throughout the centuries have acknowledged the validity of this interpretation. The vow Ruth makes to Naomi (quoted above) has been read at Christian weddings for centuries because it so perfectly captures the essence of the love that should exist between spouses. It seems more than a little inconsistent to use these words to define and celebrate spousal love, but then adamantly insist that those who originally spoke the words did not love each other like spouses.
In the first edition of her book Our Tribe, Rev. Nancy Wilson, herself a lesbian, tells of a time when she performed in a play that included the story of Ruth and Naomi:
“After the first or second performance, a young heterosexual couple came up to me shyly, saying how much they loved the play, especially the part about Ruth and Naomi — which I had explained in the talk-back with the audience afterward. They liked the passage from Ruth so much that they wanted my permission to use it in their wedding ceremony! I was so touched I almost started laughing, but I quite seriously gave them permission, but only if somehow they could indicate that these words were originally spoken from one woman to another. They cheerfully agreed to my ‘terms,’ thanked me and left. I [now] have fantasies of interrupting poor, unsuspecting heterosexuals at their wedding with “STOP, in the name of Ruth and Naomi. . . ! Stop stealing our stories while making our relationships illegal or characterizing them as immoral!” (See note 2.)
Note 2. Rev. Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus and the Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), page 157.
That is precisely what many in the Church have done, roundly condemning any women who dare to share the same vow as Ruth made to Naomi. Yet, how can it be wrong for two women to make these vows when we have the biblical example of Ruth and Naomi doing exactly that?
Some may object, saying, “But the Bible doesn’t come right out and say Ruth and Naomi were lovers. It’s fine for women to live together and care for each other . . . just nothing else.” These people seem to think the main difference between modern lesbian relationships (which they condemn) and the biblical portrayal of Ruth and Naomi (which they accept) is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention that Ruth and Naomi were sexually intimate. But we challenge that notion. Whether or not Ruth and Naomi were physically intimate, we believe it is the mere idea of two women living in loving, covenantal relationship that many Christians object to.
Imagine a conservative televangelist counseling two women from his congregation. The women say to him, “We want to live together and pledge our love to each other in the sight of God and this congregation. We want our church family to celebrate our relationship. And, for the words of our vows, we want to use Ruth 1:16-17.”
He says, “I can’t allow that. Our church is against homosexuality.” “Oh,” the women say, “that’s okay, we’ll remain celibate. Think of it as a ‘Boston marriage’.” (See note 3.)
Note 3. 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.
Do you think the televangelist would say, “Well in that case, let’s schedule a date! What about June 5th?” Of course not! The very notion that two women would make such vows to each other is socially repugnant to him. His prejudices tell him this kind of love between members of the same sex is “disgusting.” But the Bible is in direct opposition to the televangelist’s prejudice.
The Bible is clear. Here we have two women who made vows, lived together for life, loved each other deeply, adopted each other’s extended families as their own, and relied on each other for sustenance — as do many lesbian women today. Instead of condemning these relationships, the Bible celebrates them, giving them their own book in Scripture.